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WE BURY THE LANDSCAPE: an exhibition-collection

by Kristine Ong Muslim. Queen's Ferry Press, 2012.

Kristine Ong Muslim’s We Bury the Landscape consists of about a hundred pieces of highly poetic flash fiction, each of which is based on a painting. Each poem gives the artist, title, date, medium, and sometimes the dimensions of each painting. The paintings come from the pantheon of surrealism (e.g., paintings by Dali, Magritte, Chirico, Dorothea Tanning, and Yves Tanguy), their immediate predecessors (symbolists like Edvard Munch and Odilon Redon), and their latter day offspring (Mike Worral, Julie Hefferman, and Heidi Taillefer to name a few). Muslim has provided links to the paintings and a table of contents at her website.

The relationship between painting and literary response creates a dialogue between the two works of art, a somewhat dizzying, hyperlinked experience in which the paintings inform the fictions which then go on to inform the paintings. A fair number of Muslim’s pieces provide a narrative lens through which to view the enigmatic material of surrealist subjects. Sometimes, as in “Landscape with Grenade,” based on a painting with the same name by Cliff McRenolds, Muslim provides relatively realistic back-stories for the events in the paintings. More often, as in “The Collage Artist,” based on Otto Rapp’s Longing, she provides both a back-story and delves into the painting to open up affective images invisible to the viewer, such as “nail clippings and locks of hair still inside the doll’s stomach.”

Although the relationship between painting and prose is certainly essential to fully experiencing this collection, the collection is more than an exhibition or exercise in ekphrasis. Muslim’s writing is often as dreamlike as the surrealists she is responding to. In “Self-Portrait as Sky Scraper,” after Julie Hefferman’s painting with the same title, the world outside the sky scraper is described hauntingly as a “merry carnival of dead ends” and the piece concludes with an exquisite reversal of perspective as at the “bottom of the deepest well, gravity called our name.” Muslim is at her best, for this reader at least, when she both renders the original painting in a new light and provides powerful poetic lines at the same time. Fortunately for us, she achieves this frequently, as in “The Great Architect,” after Dalí’s Surrealist Architecture, where she informs us that on the “only ossified savannah left in the world, rabbits are plastic. They pretend to freeze before headlights. They pretend to fear death.”

As in Muslim’s previous work, such as her “Conrad” poems published in Issue 5 of A cappella Zoo, there is a tone that is both haunting and tender that carries the emotional weight of the collection. It’s a tone of “perilous compassion,” to draw from Muslim’s poem “The Perilous Compassion of the Honey Queen” (after Carrie Ann Baade’s painting of the same title), in which we learn the unsettling lesson that “when you drown someone you love, you have to do it right.” In the end, Muslim’s collection-exhibition chronicles the process in which the things we drown, discard, and bury are exhumed and continue to haunt us even after we have buried them again.

— Hayes Moore, assistant editor, A CAPPELLA ZOO