Mark di Suvero reads Poetry

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Mark di Suvero: The Poetry of Sculpture.

By Peter Halstead

In these videos, filmed by Matthew McKee of The Red Panel, Mark di Suvero unearths the underlying phrases and philosophies which inform his sculptures and which slyly suggest answers without exactly providing them.

Mark di Suvero smiles at a 2015 visit to Tippet Rise Art Center. Photo by Peter Halstead.

Mark di Suvero reads “All the Fruit” by Friedrich Hölderlin


It is only the initial impulse of shapes which are illuminated by these frozen flashes of steel, not the final shapes themselves – only the moments of inspiration. I-beams flash out like the momentary flares of a lighter - catalysts, causes, but not results.

Di Suvero’s sculptures sway, dreaming on the hills of heaven. There is steadiness, but also the constant risk of disintegration, of deconstruction, of girders and angles and circles flying out of orbit, splicing off to the side, disobeying the old laws of Newton.

Because there are new laws, which di Suvero has pursued as intently as he has the poetry of John Donne or Friedrich Hölderlin.

Di Suvero has immersed himself in anti-gravity, pendulums swinging, rhythms sprung, heat lightning flickering around masts at sea, magnetic curtains coruscating around the flowing sheets of solar storms, echoing Hölderlin’s poem, “Mnemosyne,” which he reads here, but also hinting at his cantilevered girders in Tendresse, Spring Rain, Vivaldi, and L'Allumé, among many others. Angles threaten to pull apart. Things crumble and collapse. Di Suvero’s tensions catch them in the act of impermanence, curling inward on one another.

They are artifacts of the act of creation. Not the past or the future, but the moment of birth, the big bang. They are not finished works; they are inchoate, becoming. They hang, tentative, waiting for the curtain to rise. Like atoms swirling around a center, flailing apart in an atom chamber, their hands fly out like splashes of spring rain (Spring Rain, 1992). Shining from shook foil. They are protons changing energy levels, plunged in fire, in fission. Suspended impossibly over empty voids, or rivers (L'Allumé on the Rhine), they long for cessation, for silence, for the vacuum of space where weight is irrelevant.

They translate into music, like Beethoven’s Quartet, or the Schubert Sonata, or Vivaldi, ripening swirls, elements reluctantly chained to one another in the double helix of human DNA.

In struggling with the impossibilities of belief and of quantum physics, di Suvero has been recreating the quandaries of Planck, of Hölderlin, since his days studying philosophy at UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley. Parallel universes, black holes, pulsars, strange attractors rethought in steel. But also blank verse, poèmes concrètes, ellipses: metaphors for curves, spirals, cold bends, fusions in the construction site of the new world.

Hölderlin felt that the underlying meaning of a poem was created by a tension between its words and its essence. A poem became an “extended metaphor” between what is said and what cannot be expressed, as di Suvero’s sculptures are metaphors for his lifelong philosophical and scientific interests. It is not the artifact, but the connotations of the artifact, the bridge, which is the point.

Hölderlin longs for disintegration, escape from form, escape into the pure essence of the spirit. Freedom from rules. However, many things have to stay on the broad shoulders of the poet, of the sculptor. Artists have to focus on the road, no matter how bad it is. They need to sway between the monsters, between Scylla and Charybdis, between reason and passion, where Tendresse, kindness, beauty lie.

And Tendresse looks a lot like L'Allumé, like the spark, the lit match, the insight at the start of creativity, an atomic reaction at the beginning of the singularity. The gentle swaying of a boat anchored in a dark bay is the stasis, the center, around which monsters spin, encased in iron. The orbits of planets, the music of the spheres, frozen in the present, without the embellishments of the past or the future. Just the still soul anchoring chaos around it, the tendresse at the heart of the dancer’s wild fouetté.

History, art, music, science colliding, di Suvero’s parables are glimmers of the ancient fusion of reason and passion, whose solar prominences flash out from the center of their metal heart, where di Suvero’s figments of the Industrial Revolution add their lilting barcarolles of Vivaldi, Schubert, and Beethoven to Hölderlin’s tortured plea:

Let us learn to live swaying
As in a rocking boat on the sea.

Here is the first stanza of “Mnemosyne,” by Friedrich Hölderlin, in his third version of 1803, translated by the great American poet Robert Bly.


All the fruit is ripe, plunged in fire, cooked,
And they have passed their test on earth, and one law is this:
That everything curls inward, like snakes,
Prophetic, dreaming on
The hills of heaven. And many things
Have to stay on the shoulders like a load
of failure. However the roads
Are bad. For the chained elements,
Like horses, are going off to the side,
And the old
Laws of the earth. And a longing
For disintegration constantly comes. Many things however
Have to stay on the shoulders. Steadiness is essential.
Forwards, however, or backwards we will
Not look. Let us learn to live swaying
As in a rocking boat on the sea.

Mark di Suvero reads “Evening” by Rainer Maria Rilke


We vacillate between stones and stars, between the earth of the Stone Age, and the music of the spheres in the age of Pythagoras. We are star people, made up of chemicals found not on planets, but only in stars. Artists move between both worlds; they broadcast ourselves on the skies, like a star projector in a planetarium.

They have dual identities, as Rilke says, “now hemmed in, now grasping all.” As Tom Stoppard wrote, “I write dialogue because it’s the only socially acceptable form of disagreeing with myself in public.”

Edward Snow mentions Rilke’s “landscapes charged with remoteness and expectancy.” In pairing the emotional landscape of Evening with his 1992 sculpture, Schubert Sonata (no doubt his favorite, the B Flat Posthumous), di Suvero has used Rilke’s poem to describe the sinking and rising musical themes of the first, great movement of the sonata, in which Schubert hasn’t committed the sonata or the listener (or the composer or the sculptor) to any one direction: stones or stars, earth or cosmos, land or sky.

The extraordinary slow second movement could also be said to be bipolar, with the lower melody commented on by a descant above it, played by the left hand crossing over, by turns stone and star, as Rilke says. Earth below, sky above.

The sculpture floats, high up in the air, on a pedestal, where it seesaws around, not yet decided “to make choice of ends,” as the poet Richard Wilbur writes of a seed leaf. The composer, the sculptor, are “full of fears” in their mutual task, to unearth the sky. On one hand they are “hemmed in,” on the other hand they “grasp all.” They are gliding between Scylla and Charybdis, between duple existences, between parallel universes (Mark di Suvero has long been an adept of quantum physics; his studio in Queens is called the “Space Time Country Club”).

Parallel universes allow us to exist simultaneously in dual lives, so that there is no need to fix our identities; we can allow them latitude, the freedom, to go wherever fancy takes them.

Di Suvero’s fish, with its triple tail and its flounder eyes, flounders through the wind and the night, letting nature lead where it might.

But such a metaphor is ultimately false, because the poem is only a metaphor, as is the sculpture. Both of them only hint at the Platonic essences of things, which can never be seen: the ideas that sculptures, poems, and sonatas can only approximate, glance off, hint at, but never really build. As Keats said, by the time he had written a poem about an idea, the idea had morphed into something else. You have to keep writing to capture that elusive fish.

And so the point of the sculpture is its very mutability.

It represents the idea; the body we see is only the shadow of it. It is spirit incarnate, an unformed idea before it can be reduced to a word or a shape or a note. Schubert’s motif leads benignly upwards, but it is not really the motif: it is only the antechamber, the foyer - not the room itself, which remains to be seen. The idea is “ripening,” but not yet ready. As Archibald MacLeish wrote of transience, “They also swim who swerve and vanish in the river.”

By making the fish, the hood ornament, the colophon, outlandish, di Suvero is tweaking any critic who would settle on a definition of it, or even call it a fish. It is “a rim of ancient trees,” it is a nascent unborn idea “which grows to star.” It will eventually become a star, and then, in death, a supernova.

Because, like any life, it is “gigantic.” But it starts as something small, maybe even invisible, like the idea for a sculpture. It is stone which will become stars: Michelangelo’s marble effervesced into the Northern Lights, Stonehenge’s pillars become a solar storm, a rock become a fizzing comet, a small planet become a metaphor for the entire Zodiac. So Schubert Sonata is a star projector in a planetarium, a machine which will project something very different from its own awkward bulk, a modest invention which can create miracles, a light which can take a slide and broadcast it onto our artificial, home-made skies,

So that it, now hemmed in, now grasping all,
Is changed in you by turns to stone and stars.

Here is Evening, by Rainer Maria Rilke:


Slowly now the evening changes his garments
held for him by a rim of ancient trees;
you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you,
one sinking and one rising toward the sky.

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,
not so dark as a silent house, nor quite
so surely pledged unto eternity
as that which grows to star and climbs the night.

To you is left (unspeakably confused)
your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,
so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping all,
is changed in you by turns to stone and stars.

Trans. F. C. MacIntyre

Mark di Suvero reads “All Things” by Hadewijch


An artist to whom the whole world is meditation needs only a patch of ground or a lit match for inspiration. As Donne writes, love “makes one little room an everywhere.” A matchbook contains the world. As Saint Augustine said, “Love, and then what you will, do.”

To accompany his sculpture L'Allumé, translated as Lit Match or Illumination, Mark chose a second poem, Hadewijch’s meditation, “All Things Confine,” for the Gagosian Catalogue of his show, “Open Secret.”

Hadewijch was a poet and mystic about whom we know very little other than her meditations. She lived near the Flemish province of Brabant around 1200, and was for a while head of a Beguine convent, in which women dedicated themselves to the imitation of Christ, but could leave at any time, as Hadewijch did, becoming a nomad. Her writings are influenced by Saint Augustine, the Numidian theologian famous for his Confessions, in which he documents his wild younger days and his renunciation of them for God. Augustine was influenced in turn by Cicero.

“All Things” may invoke Thessalonians 5:21 (“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good,” in the King James version).

But things, objects, mere shadows, as Hölderlin would assert, are only symbols, behind which lurk unshapen, unnamable essences. Things are not only frightening, but a trap.

Mark lived in France for four years starting in 1971, in exile from the United States in protest over the Vietnam War. By the time of L'Allumé in 1989, he was working at the Space Time Country Club near the Steinway Factory on the East River in Queens, but the abstract thought out of which di Suvero’s sculptures are formed was often in French, whose Latinate cognates lend themselves to the pre-cognition of insight, before it is reduced or confined by language.

The matchbook of the sculpture is open, one match sticking up. But the form is also that of a protractor, or a collection of Allen wrenches on a key chain. The form is aggressive, like an aimed cannon. But it is also open to the world, as is the mystic Hadewijch, her soul a tabla rasa waiting to be written on.

After the unshapen
Have I grasped
In everlasting time.

As Augustine chased after hedonistic delights, the devil’s dance of the “unshapen,” so Hadewijch pursued wrong directions, wandering in the desert. Mark di Suvero never wandered; was focused since he was 22 on being a sculptor. He never lost his way. But as a sculptor he sees the world, in all its flaws, its confusing directions, like the other matches in the sculpture, facing down.

After the unshapen
Have I grasped
In everlasting time.

The concept of “everlasting time” touches on di Suvero’s interest in quantum time. Like Hadewijch, he is floating in the space-time continuum where he is the repository of all the “unshapen” sins of man, as Christ was during his dark night of the soul in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I have caught it.
It has cast me
Wider than wide!

He has caught the devil by the tail, and been cast out of Eden into a garden of more earthly delights.

Me is too narrow
All else!

But the world is too much, too wide for the ascetic discipline of art. Artists are served well enough by simple views. As Hamlet said, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, but that I have bad dreams.” Things confine us. Only when we outgrow things, do ideas open up to us. Then we have no need of the world. As Camus’s Meursault says in L'Étranger, one day in the real world is enough for a lifetime in jail.

Other translations exist of Hadewijch’s Middle Dutch. “The world is too narrow for me,” for instance. But the version di Suvero uses says the opposite: “I am too narrow for the world.”

This is the spark, the aperçu, the insight, of L'Allumé. It is the modesty of the mystic who, sensing all things, seeks to see only as much as what a match can illuminate. Only by becoming small do we flare up and outmatch the world.

Di Suvero’s sculptural match is very big: 35 feet long and 35 feet high. So the modesty of this small poem is commented on by the immensity of the Match to which he has matched it. It makes the same comment as di Suvero’s sculpture Proverb, a sixty-foot compass, which, no matter how big, can hardly map our unlimited universe. To this point, my poem, “Slide Rule:”

How can one-dimensional
Compasses apply
To our incalculable

Hadewijch’s small poem is a bildungsroman in a nutshell: an entire life reduced to a few phrases. “I was restless. I traveled. I went in the wrong direction. But then I realized it. I never needed to go anywhere. And you, you know this is true. You have been there, too.”


All things
crowd me in!
I am so wide!

After the unshapen
Have I grasped
In everlasting time.

I have caught it.
It has cast me
Wider than wide!

Me is too narrow
All else!
You know this well
You that have been there too.

Hadewijch of Brabant
- trans. C. C. Willard, New York: Persea

Mark di Suvero reads from “The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane


The Brooklyn Bridge’s cables carry with them the dreambook of Mark di Suvero, the poems, philosophies, carabiners, shackles, slings, hooks, turnbuckles, bolts, blocks, and nuts of his life, darkened with grime and the chiaroscuros of Piranesi’s string cities, cauterized and smelted into the glistening iron dragons, the frozen music, of di Suvero’s bursting monsters, of his pain, anger, and soaring insight.

As di Suvero says in his brief introduction to his reading, “ I lived for some time at a fish market in NY and looked daily at the Brooklyn Bridge…”

Later, he acquired what he called the “Space/Time Country Club” dockyards fabrication site, that became his studio, on the East River, four bridges north of the Brooklyn Bridge. The sense of the Industrial Revolution weighs strongly on that part of Queens. Its bland 1930’s warehouses, its rigid lock on older eras in the city’s identity, are transfigured by the promise of the bridges, which lead to the Oz of Manhattan. But of all the bridges in the United States, the Brooklyn is the most mythic. It is the world’s first steel-cable suspension bridge, and as much the symbol of New York, of any city, really, as the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building are pictures of what impossible density might look like.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a successful folly. Its cat’s cradle of wires make it a throwback and also a hymn to steampunk futurism.

It epitomizes di Suvero’s girders and straight lines, which echo the industrial heart of the bridge. In deifying the bridge, Hart Crane’s poem also provides possibly the most resonant dive into the values which have shaped di Suvero’s sculptures over the years.

“Implicitly thy freedom staying thee” conveys the visual sense of a ship’s rigging swaying with the wind, and yet the bridge’s steel rigging rigidly supports it, courtesy of John Roebling’s controversial design which would seem to be too gossamer to perform the ultimately utilitarian feat of supporting not only the carriages and horses which initially used the bridge, but later on as many semi-trailers, Diamond Reos, and traffic jams as America, the most intensely metallic culture in the world, could produce.

And yet no matter how tough, how mechanistic, how grimy and industrial the cables seem, they are also light, airy, ethereal, dreaming, and artistic. They are metaphors for the soot-covered soul of a machine age, seemingly flexible spires of a modernist cathedral as new as Gaudi’s Sagrada drip-castle, and also a naturalistic spider’s web, a lyre, the piano strings of a poet’s passion. Metaphor and machine, rhyme and rivet, guitar string and galvanized truss, the eight-millimeter Birmingham gauge crucible travelers and Bessemer steel crossbeams combine the Life of Riley, the riveter, the iron demi-god of the working class, with the “harp and altar,” the ironic airs and religious filigrees of Hart Crane.

His metaphors “condense eternity.” They pack progress, globalization, invention, the sum of human achievement, into the industrial equivalent of the pyramids, a lattice radiating impurity, gears, driveshafts, smokestacks, factories, smelters so beguilingly that the bridge endures not because of its sheer might, but because of its poetry.

Its modern beauty lies in its ugliness. More than London Bridge and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Brooklyn Bridge has become the ultimate marriage of grit and grace, of the can-do spirit and Emersonian transcendentalism merged and personified.

The Brooklyn Bridge’s cables carry with them the dreambook of Mark di Suvero, the poems, philosophies, carabiners, shackles, slings, hooks, turnbuckles, bolts, blocks, and nuts of his life, darkened with grime and the chiaroscuros of Piranesi’s string cities, cauterized and smelted into the glistening iron dragons, the frozen music, of di Suvero’s bursting monsters, of his pain, anger, and soaring insight.

“Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.”

Hart Crane spent his brief life (he died at thirty-three) trying to formulate an optimistic reply to T. S. Eliot’s pessimistic and brilliant poem, “The Wasteland”. W. S. Merwin has criticized the capitalist optimism of Whitman, which sees in badlands the manifest destiny, the future hope of farmland waiting for Americans trapped in city tenements. But it is the same dream of frontier, of adventure, of agility, which Hart Crane sought to unearth out of the Moebius strip of industry. White buildings, towers, and the bridge itself illuminated his nightmares, from which the only escape was art.

Di Suvero’s Moebius strips become simpler, workaday swirls, and his girders become cathedral spires of belief, but in the hands of his cranes, vises, and cherrypickers, the decaying failure of the Iron Age is twisted into the eternal braids of cosmic science. Moebius strips merge both their sides into one continuous band, the way the universe is twisted upon itself, creating a space-time continuum, an eternal loop folded in on itself, the way Hart Crane’s language swoops in and out of consciousness, personifying the contradictions in his language, extruding salvation out of smelting furnaces, extracting eternity out of closed loops of steel. No shadow could be brighter than di Suvero’s forging of escapes, centrifugal forces contained in rigid steel, creating velocities out of which to escape the pull of gravity, the despair that threw Hart Crane off the steamship Orizaba into the Gulf of Mexico.

From “The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge”

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day …

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn …
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon … Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year …

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

Hart Crane

Mark di Suvero reads “Kindling” by Peter Halstead


Mark is reading from Fluorescence, a chapbook he did with the Littoral Press, under the imprint of Lisa Rappoport in Richmond, California in 2016. As di Suvero writes in the book, “This chapbook has been created to celebrate the incredible project of Tippet Rise: a dream of Cathy and Peter Halstead that is becoming a reality on land that was once the bottom of the sea. Artists are informed by the spirit of the place and the place, in return, is transformed by the artist’s vision. Then visitors, in turn, are inspired by both.” The book combines sketches in black ink by di Suvero and short poems by Peter Halstead.

The sketch in question has not only ink calligraphic brushstrokes, but crimson slashes through it as well (red being di Suvero’s favorite color).

Di Suvero’s sketches are his way of working out templates for his three-dimensional sculptures; but they are gorgeous works of art in their own right, reminiscent of Katsushika Hokusai’s waves and leaves. In Japan the written alphabet is a poem in itself. Di Suvero’s gestural prints open his sculpture’s dimensions up to a larger world of flowers and mountains, embodying the landscape which surrounds the sculptures themselves. The red calligraphy integrated into the strokes is “slashed and flawed and hurled against the chaos of the cold.” It is the red with which his pieces sometimes explode, such as Esope, Tendresse, Pax Jerusalemme, The Sieve of Eratosthenes, and many others. Even the rust color which his iron becomes is red.

Di Suvero’s girders stack up against one another like kindling in a Boy Scout fire, or lie confused like logs or house beams, charred in the pyres. His red fires reassemble the old, the remnants of the Industrial Revolution, slag heaps of the factory era, and use it as fuel to flourish in the future’s blowing sound, as his angles, trapezoids, rhomboids, and random atom traces expand in the sunset into symbols of a broken past but, simultaneously, windows into the fusion of the universe.

As the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in “Thunderhead,”

Rock and loam must smolder with desire.
Before the haycock of the heart is set on fire.

We use found objects to reassemble the world. But before we can resurrect our summers, we must love them with a passion beyond all controlling.


To catch the fires of the world
We reassemble what is old,
What is slashed and flawed and hurled
Against the chaos of the cold,

And use it, wrecked and lost and burned,
As fuel on the broken ground,
That has all winter learned
To flourish in the summer’s blowing sound.

Peter Halstead

A sketch from Mark di Suvero’s chapbook Fluorescence, which was created to celebrate Tippet Rise. The book combines sketches in black ink by di Suvero and short poems by Peter Halstead.

Mark di Suvero reads “Someone Digging in the Ground” by Rumi


Di Suvero’s 1991 sculpture, Rumi, was installed at Riva degli Schiavone on the Grand Canal of Venice, where it was photographed for di Suvero’s Dreambook (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 2008). It is surrounded by the “barber poles,” the pali da casada where gondolas tie up. Around the sculpture gondoliers pole lovers, vaporetti ferry visitors, and hotel palaces line the far side of the canal.

Like many of di Suvero’s sculptures, Rumi is projected into the sky like fireworks, its explosion at the top of a straight ascending arc. Trees have canopies at the end of their trunks, and palms, Hawaiian loulu, wave their fluttering crownshafts up high, vanishing into the sky, like love in the Rumi poem. Everything we do is reinterpreted, rearranged, transfigured, by love.

Love with any luck is a reality, not a hypothesis. We should not however pursue theories, “schools” of belief, systems of creation, but only the work itself. Seamus Heaney speaks of his father in his poem, “Digging”:

heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
….But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney realized that he didn’t need to be a scholar or a wise man to write; he could write about what he knew, like turf-cutting. This democratized a generation of Irish students, workers, and writers, and freed them from theory and the hierarchy of a formal education.

Rumi, who lived in 13th-century Persia (today Iran), is suffused with Sufi mysticism, not very different from Tibetan Buddhism. Both warn against focusing on things. The work is the point. Rumi’s Ghazal, or ode, is a caution to philosophers, lovers, and artists. As Yeats wrote in “The Choice”:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work….

As at any crossroads, di Suvero’s immense road sign points in contrary directions. But one eccentric beam sidles off at a crazy angle: sometime the least obvious path is the one that we should follow. The Road Less Traveled. Such mysteries exist not to be solved, or to be explained, but to remain hidden.

When an expedition I was on discovered sunken treasure, it vaporized when it was raised into the air: a veritable Japanese koan. As John Donne wrote, “Twere profanation to tell the laiety our love.” Delicate emotions are meant to lead, to indicate, but not to explain. As Oscar Wilde said, “To be understood is to be found out.” To explain a joke is to miss the humor (as I am doing here). Cliff’s Notes tell us the plot, but miss the point. It’s not the trunk; it’s the leaves.

Metaphors are meant to present opposites, polarities. The actual energy exchange between these diverging poles is the point. We must read between the lines.

Di Suvero’s proverbs are Buddhist, or Sufi. They can point you in the direction, without predicting who you are or what you’ll find. Life is never solved. It’s a constant journey.

As quantum mechanics states, you can know either your location or your speed, but not both at the same time. In the physicist’s joke, a cop stops a speeding scientist.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” the cop yells.
“No, but I know where I am,” the scientist replies.

Di Suvero’s Rumi signpost points to anywhere but where it is.

Ironically, the name Rumi is a nisba. It means, “from somewhere around Rome.” It wasn’t his actual name.


An eye is meant to see things.
The soul is here for its own joy.
A head has one use: for loving a true love.
Legs: to run after.

Love is for vanishing into the sky. The mind,
for learning what men have done and tried to do.
Mysteries are not to be solved. The eye goes blind
when it only wants to see why.

A lover is always accused of something.
But when he finds his love, whatever was lost
in the looking comes back completely changed.

On the way to Mecca, many dangers: thieves,
the blowing sand, only camel’s milk to drink.

Still, each pilgrim kisses the black stone there
with pure longing, feeling in the surface
the taste of the lips he wants.

This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up,
while the real work is being done outside
by someone digging in the ground.

Trans. Coleman Barks

Mark di Suvero reads “What Are Years?” by Marianne Moore


I’d like to discuss poems which liberate us, which teach us how to cope with adversity, to escape Freudian double binds where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

How do we escape the inescapable? How do we adapt ourselves to outrageous conditions, as dogs and birds do to their cages? How do we put up with quarantining for our own good? How do we survive in a society over which we have no power? Should we suffer our fates quietly or militantly? As Hamlet says, is it better

….to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them?

He has a list of the outrageous wrongs from which we still suffer, among them the law’s delay and the insolence of office.
Hamlet’s sense of outrage is addressed and solved by Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou, Hamlet, Iphigenia, Marianne Moore, and Mark di Suvero.

Emily Dickinson replaces her own soul with that of a bird. Its humility and its freedom give her the strength to imitate it. It becomes her avatar:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

In the poem, “Caged Bird,” Maya Angelou turns Dickinson’s private, closeted admission of dealing with submission into lyrical oratory, a marching hymn of defiant freedom for all those beaten down. Unlike Dickinson, Angelou means her poem to be recited at rallies, to bring down the house for the “caged bird” that “sings of freedom.”

To this, Moore quotes Hamlet’s (and later, Charles Ives’) unanswered question about how to escape the trap of existence. And the answer is: through art. We paint the bars of our cage.

This is also the Iphigenia perplex.

Iphigenia is condemned to death by father, Agamemnon. Agamemnon in turn has been boxed into a cage by the wily Odysseus, who insists that only by making a personal sacrifice can Agamemnon prove he is worthy to lead the Greeks.

The Iphigenia myth was famously presented by the play, Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, and in Michael Cacoyannis’s gorgeous stark 1977 film of the same name, starring as Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra the great Greek tragedienne, Irene Papas (appearing as a comedienne in Clare Peploe’s equally wonderful 1987 film, High Season).

Iphigenia also loves Greece, and realizes that if she owns her own death it won’t be a victory for Odysseus, but for her father and herself. By her attitude she snatches victory from death. She is going to die anyhow, so she turns her death into a triumph by attitude, by thinking.

For Hamlet,

…the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought….

But later in the play he realizes that

Nothing is either good or bad
But thinking makes it so.

Salvation lies in how we see it. In our mind’s eye.

Marianne Moore takes the rhythms of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech and rewrites it for a modern age. She is more Buddhist about accepting adversity: it is wrong to focus on our own satisfaction, she feels. That is merely mortal.

But to understand true bliss: that, finally, is to understand the values of eternity. By singing inside our cages, we have the freedom that counts: the freedom of our own minds. The freedom to think. The freedom to sing. In looking at things from a sixty-year vantage point, we see beyond the momentary slings and arrows of any particular year.


What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Marianne Moore

Are Years What (For Marianne Moore), 1967, was purchased by the Hirshhorn Museum in 1999. It has been exhibited at Storm King Art Center in 1985, at the Museum of Modern Art on the Mediterranean in Nice in 1991, in Venice in 1995, on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris in 1997, in Chrissy Field under the Golden Gate Bridge by the San Francisco MOMA in 2013. Each time di Suvero and his team have taken it down, tons of girders, 40 feet long and high, designed to be able to be disassembled over many days, loaded onto wide trailers, floated overseas, met, trucked, and reassembled over many days, just one of hundreds of immense pieces invented, exhibited, loaned, sold, kept. And made, sometimes over a period of ten years when the parts remain separate, running through di Suvero’s mental inventory.

The work’s cantilevered span takes a running jump into the future, which it dangles in front of it like a child: improbably secure angled baby girders. Flying buttresses support even larger buttresses, their point the suspension of the final invention, the way a Bach Invention builds structure on structure to support a few fragile notes at the end. Unlike catapults, the extremities of the sculpture don’t shore up the ratios: they contribute to the apparent attempt to knock them down.

Grace under pressure is one definition of wit. Are Years What is gravity under pressure. Only one upright pillar, braced on both sides, can hardly be expected to support the three larger off-kilter spokes, let alone its victorious hanging spawn, almost an afterthought.

Yet gravity has been defeated with wit, with art; Moore’s bird grows taller as he sings. The correspondence between words and angles touches at every turn of phrase and turnbuckle. The steel becomes verbal, words become steely, as the soul grows strong through both sculpture and poem, and the ouroboros is complete.

Mark di Suvero reads Sonnet 94 by William Shakespeare


In his Dreambook of 2008, Di Suvero juxtaposes Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet with his monumental 66-foot sculpture, Grace à toi (Homage to Michel Guy), installed at the time in front of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, now called the François Mitterand Library, named for the great intellectual President of France who planned and opened it. It has 14 million books on 250 miles of shelving, housed in four buildings around Paris, but most visibly in its new, modernist glass headquarters along the Seine.

Michel Guy was Minister of Culture under Jacques Chirac’s government. It was “thanks to him” that di Suvero was invited in 1997 to be the first foreign artist to exhibit nine large-scale works around Paris. (In 1975 Di Suvero had been the first living artist invited to exhibit works in the garden of the Tuileries in Paris. He had moved to France in protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.)

Shakespeare’s sonnet could be interpreted today as a furious indictment of those who have the power to stop war and yet do not, such as governments.

In context it is one a series of sonnets to a young aristocrat. The poem addresses Mr. W. H., the “onlie begetter” of the sonnets, to whom they are dedicated: Henry Wriothesley, a child whom the Queen arranged to plant with the Southampton family, whose title he inherited as the Earl of Southampton. (She had earlier planted Oxford with William Cecil, in whose house he grew up.)

The “Prince Tudor” complex of historical researches holds that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford had a son, Henry Wriothesley. Oxford was also Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, so Wriothesley was a true scandal, hidden away for many years. Had the Queen acknowledged either of her rightful heirs (Oxford or Southampton), they would have been put to death by rival factions. Denied the throne, Oxford wrote. And what he wrote is now called Shakespeare.

A film has been made of this fascinating narrative: Anonymous, starring Rhys Ifans. This is in turn based on the 2010 book by Oxford’s descendant, Charles Beauclerk (the Earl of Burford): Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom. Another version of the theory holds that Elizabeth’s son was given the name William Hughes, (“Mr. W. H.), who became an actor under the stage name of Shakespeare. He took that name because his father, Oxford, was already using it as a pen name.

Oxford wrote the sonnets to his son, the Earl of Southamton; the Dark Lady of the sonnets is Oxford’s mother and lover, Elizabeth the Queen. This Star of England, written in 1952 by the Shakespearean scholar Charlton Ogburn and his wife Dorothy, fleshed out this claim, as did Paul Streitz’s 2001 Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth, Elisabeth Sears’ 2002 Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose, Hank Whittemore’s 2005 The Monument, and Helen H. Gordon’s 2008 The Secret Love Story in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Plausible arguments for Oxford’s being Shakespeare are that Oxford had the greatest library of his time and was widely-traveled, while Shakespeare had no education and no travel. As well, Oxford had first-hand knowledge of the courtly lives the plays portray.

Rather than homosexual love poems to a young man, the sonnets are, in this interpretation, loving advice to the author’s son, and so Sonnet 94 becomes much easier to understand.

On top of Di Suvero’s sculpture is the crown, with the ruffled lace collar ringing it below. The long legs of this surreal Alice-in-Wonderland King seem to be cross-gartered, as was Hamlet when distraught over Ophelia.

Or the sculpture is one of the alien tripod machines from H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a frightening vision of American imperialism as seen from France.


They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

“To Brooklyn Bridge” from The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Marc Simon. Copyright © 1933, 1958, 1966 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Copyright © 1986 by Marc Simon. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing, an division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mark di Suvero visits with Tippet Rise Co-Director Lindsey Hinmon during a 2015 visit to the art center. Photo by Peter Halstead.