There's a photograph by Helmut Newton taken at a German hotel in the 1970s of an unsmiling, unclothed woman standing awkwardly in the middle of her room under a chandelier, a bed-sized framed painting on the wall behind her. The woman, propped up by a cane she holds against the carpeted floor, wears a neck brace and a leg cast that reaches to mid-thigh.
Newton, whose photography has appeared in fashion magazines for decades, seems to have abandoned in this photo the world of models and fashion for something else. What the something else is depends on the sensibilities of the viewer, some of whom find offense in Helmut's models, their falsely staged disabilities held in contrast to the truly physically disabled. Others see the ironic marriage of opulence, sexuality, and infirmity as something inexplicable yet significant.
It might be expected, had Newton's model been fully garbed, for the woman's predicament to yield a sympathetic response, but, contrarily, the woman's apparent beauty, her model-slim figure, the glittering oversized chandelier, blossoming from its anchor in the vault of the unseen ceiling high above, and the gilded frame of the dark Romantic-inspired nude on the wall behind her, disturb rather than satisfy.
The image is unsettling because it draws the viewer into questioning the veracity of the photograph. There is something not right about the picture. If it is high fashion, where's the clothes? If the photo is pornographic, only a fetishistic mind could take pleasure from a naked woman dressed in medical paraphernalia. Or is it art? Could one compare it to Nan Goldin's bruise-eyed self-portraits, documents of spousal abuse elevated to art by color and composition?
Newton's genius lies in his ability to create contradictory views and to confound the eye. In this issue of Oyster Boy Review, several works follow a similar vector, forcing the reader to carry and assimilate seemingly disparate elements at the same time.
Paul Dilsaver's poem "Wheeze my Name" uses imagery of pathology to juxtapose sickness, love, and virility. His poem "Animal Clinic" cloaks within the banality of veterinary medicine a second story, that of invasive love.
Working against the reader, Lucinda Ebersole's story "Vermont: Home of Lousy Sex" switches the expected genders of the abductor and the abducted and endows the female narrator with a violent streak and a vicious humor.
Charlotte Morgan's story "What I Eat" is also marked by a violent abduction, but one which transcends the expected outcomes of similar stories by skewing the violence toward the psychological.
Wily, the young narrator of "Om Pa Pa," a chapter from Ken Wainio's novel Starfuck, is a likable boy whose life is over the top and beyond most readers' childhood experiences. Surprised or disgusted, the reader must contend with—like the image of Newton's nude—the welding of artifice and truth.
There is a recent poem by Frederick Seidel which is revealing of his motives, Newton's, and mine. In "Killing Hitler," Seidel writes, "A Ducati Supermono walks down the aisle / At a hundred and forty-one miles an hour . . . How to keep killing Hitler / Is the point. / How to be a work of art and win."
I like to think I understand why in this poem Seidel weds a German dictator, a fast Italian motorcycle, and art. I like to think I know how these things fit together because I, too, have gone fast. I like to think that I have saddled the fears and the glory that conflict and confound and ridden them hell-bent down the road. That I have picked bugs from my teeth. That I have said, Don't fuck with me, I'm barely under control.
But I don't understand it, that we take from it something which is not at all apparent, a truth whose meaning is obscure and obvious. What I understand is just an approximation. A near-miss.
But I do know one thing: the winning—hitting something dead-on, not caring how it got there or what happens to it when I finally move by with undiminished speed and uncertain trajectory.