Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O'Keeffe
by Jennifer Sinor

Univ. New Mexico Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-826-35783-0.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 04/26/2017

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Sinor begins her book—a memoir of her study of Georgia O'Keeffe's lifetime of letters—with a letter to her readers. Her nine essays, she says, are arranged as an interconnecting series, taking as their subject the letters of a pioneering figure of American modernism, "who turned trees upside down and painted ladders to the moon." But while O'Keeffe's letters are the subject of her insightful book, writing—and language itself—is its central focus. And, of course, its medium, but in a way that is as profoundly and ambitiously self-conscious as the subject of her work. In her nine "experimental" essays, Sinor says, she attempts "to push words on the page as O'Keeffe pushed paint on her canvas ... to replicate what it means, for me as a writer, to really look" as the artist herself really looked, past the reality of the form to the connection between the artist and her subject, the distance the heart must cross.

The first essay, "Letters Like the Day," is about the letters O'Keeffe wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz: letters written in her strong italic script, punctuated with dashes and white spaces, "those wild lines coursing like so many waves against the shores of her margins." It is also about Sinor's own correspondence, as a vital record of lived experience, and the importance of letters as "vehicles for vaulting time and space, carrying the 'I' to the 'you'" and binding the "I" to the "I" through the moments and years of life's radical changes. And it is about Sinor's connection to O'Keeffe's letters: they "took up residence inside my body," she writes, "and refused to leave." For the letters are the verbal embodiment of O'Keeffe's visual imagination. They do in words what the artist does in paint: they require us to venture out from what is in the frame and dare to see it while at the same time we see ourselves seeing.

Sinor's essays are as varied as O'Keeffe's body of work. "Hole in the Sky" introduces the artist as a character in Sinor's life and suggests their parallel journey in surreal peripatetic leaps across white spaces on the page, requiring the reader to leap with them. "A Walk into the Night" creates a realistic context for the beginnings of the O'Keeffe-Stieglitz correspondence, framing them in their temporal and physical settings. "More Feeling than Brain" is Sinor's fragmented story, illuminated with briefly juxtaposed passages from O'Keeffe's letters.

"Cleaving, 1929" is a collection of Sinor's letters to O'Keeffe on the occasion of the artist's "threshold moment," her arrival in New Mexico, finding both the desert and the beginnings of her independence from her husband. Both had taken a lover: O'Keeffe the desert, Stieglitz Dorothy Norman. The next essay interleaves Sinor's own similar "threshold moments" with O'Keeffe's painful discoveries, her affair (if that's what it was) with Jean Toomer, the difficult learnings of the opening heart. The last three essays take both Sinor and O'Keeffe on journeys of the heart, to distant places that reveal to us how imperfect language is and how we must struggle—both to speak and to hear—when we use it.

Abstract art never suffers from these limitations; it has the power to convey and create consciousness itself in an expansively wordless, timeless, limitless gesture. For O'Keeffe, her paintings are a way "to express myself—things I feel and want to say—haven't words for." Her letters are a way to tell her story to another while at the same time refusing "the tidy lines of story." Perhaps this is why it is so much more satisfying to read O'Keeffe's letters than to read her autobiographical writing, which reduces the nonlinear experience of her artistic vision to the compact, time-bound linearity of story.

Letters Like the Day resists tidy linearity. Both critical study and memoir, the book employs O'Keeffe's letters as a medium to convey Sinor's story, interleaved, juxtaposed, reflected in, and enclosed by O'Keeffe's story. This is a remarkable book, revealing at once the meaning of a passionate life lived through paintings, and a different life, lived through the powerful art of words—both bridging the distance the heart must cross.

Jennifer Sinor teaches creative writing at Utah State University where she is a professor of English. She is also the author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary, a book about the diary of her great, great, great aunt, a woman who homesteaded the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century; and Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir. Jennifer graduated from the University of Nebraska, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Michigan. She is married to the poet Michael Sowder, and they have two boys as well as a passel of animals. Visit her website.

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