Carolyn Mary Kleefeld
Reviewer: Lynn Levin
Half art book, half poetry collection The Divine Kiss by artist and poet Carolyn Mary Kleefeld combines the erotic and the spiritual in fifteen impressive color-saturated semi-abstract paintings and fifteen poems. The subjects of the paintings are mostly couples in amorous poses, and the poems evoke the voice of an enamored speaker. The book seems to be a catalogue of Kleefeld’s art-and-poetry exhibition at two of the Karpeles Museums, one in Santa Barbara, California, the other in Shreveport, Louisiana. Befitting an art book, The Divine Kiss has high production values. It is printed on heavy, coated stock and the pages are not white, but light screens of pink, tan, blue, and other hues. The volume measures an unusual 7” by 11.” The layout makes use of negative space to showcase the paintings, which come through in sharp, vivid, and beautiful color. Kleefeld is an accomplished colorist. She is more painter than poet, but there are several standouts among the poems.
Born in England, Carolyn Mary Kleefeld grew up in Southern California and is now based in Big Sur. Her paintings have been exhibited widely in galleries and museums both in the US and abroad. This is her twelfth book.
Kleefeld aims to write in the tradition of spiritual poets who seek to express love of the divine in erotic, ecstatic, and intimate terms. One sees this mode of expression in the Bible’s Song of Songs, in Sufi poetry, and in some Christian ecstatic poetry, such as the work of the Spanish poet St. John of the Cross. In this mode, the line between the sexual and the spiritual is intentionally blurred, but the accent is on the religious. Kleefeld’s lyrics can be read as spiritual, but the emphasis is on human love—more Eros than Agape.
Here are some lines from “Sheer Magic”:
Like quintessential chords,
There is a spate of unfortunate titles in the collection, such as “Sheer Magic,” “A Resonance of Glory,” and “Borne of Eros.” Many of the poems have a starry-eyed orgasmic quality that seems to celebrate a lover’s relationship, but say little beyond that. That said, some of the poems are more subtle or tender and lend themselves to broader interpretations. An example of this is “I Long for You,” a poem that sets up a series of analogies to evoke desire:
I long for you
I long for you
The spare use of language and the many inventive comparisons make this one of the best, if not the best poem in the book.
Kleefeld’s paintings mostly depict embracing male (or androgynous) and female figures. Some of the renderings feature off-center or stacked eyes. These remind me of some of Picasso’s techniques. Often the eyes in Kleefeld’s subjects are heavily outlined as if in kohl. They command the viewer’s attention.
The title painting, “Divine Kiss,” which is featured on the cover of the book, and Kleefeld’s companion poem “The Kiss” evoke the sexually charged nature of many of the poems. And as with many of the poems there is a cosmic arc:
Some strange and wondrous magnet
Kleefeld’s painting “Divine Kiss” clearly alludes to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” In the Kleefeld piece, a darker-skinned figure, with gold-highlighted, flower-festooned curls, kisses a light-skinned woman, whose hair is blond, her hair also pinned with flowers. The woman’s eyes are closed in rapture, her face tipped back. She is being taken. Her dress is tipped in red, green, purple, gold, and black, recalling the semifloral circles in the Klimt rendering. The viewer wonders if the dark figure in Kleefeld’s painting is a human being or a divine lover, such as the dark-skinned Hindu Lord Krishna.
The front and back matter of the book carry an array of blurbs that are more enthusiastic and extravagant than your usual enthusiastic and extravagant blurbs, and the book is epigraphed here and there with New Age-type cosmic sayings; for example, “And the phoenix of our love/ rises beyond all thorns/ birthing unforeseen dawns.” I would have preferred a book that allows the art and poetry, in this case particularly the art, to speak for itself without the spiritual-cosmic-orgasmic-ecstatic-primal potpourri. But that’s me, and I am sure that other people will groove to the total package. As for me, I found Kleefeld’s paintings superb in their haunting erotics, their bold use of color and strangely positioned figures, some human, some not. Brava, painter.