Artist-turned-Poet: Dorothea Tanning's Imaginative Botany
"It's hard to be always the same person," reads the epigraph for A Table of Content, Dorothea Tanning’s first book of poems, published in 2004. After half a century of acclaimed drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, and set and costume design—with pieces in major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Pompidou and the Musée de la Ville de Paris, both in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Chicago Art Institute, among others—Tanning turned her eye (and ear) to poetry, reinventing herself after retiring from visual mediums.
As W. S. Merwin put it: "She goes out of the room, comes back, and she's someone else—and after a few hours I think, Phew, that'll do for a while!" Tanning has long been known as a friend of poets, and her public shift toward poetry may very well have been due to years of private collaborations and intimacies.
Another Language of Flowers, a book published in 1998 documenting Tanning’s last paintings, what she calls her "foray into imaginative botany," can be seen as another of the artist’s points of transformation. Tanning believed that she was finished with painting until she discovered a collection of blank and very valuable Lefebvre-Foinet canvases she'd bought in Paris twenty years earlier. Determined to use the fine canvases, Tanning spent almost a year—between June, 1997 and April, 1998—sketching and completing twelve large paintings of imaginary flowers. Those paintings, and her preperatory sketches, are reproduced in the book, with each image given a fictional name—such as "Victrola floribunda"—and accompanied by a poem. James Merrill, who had been a kind of mentor to Tanning and had died three years before she began the flowers series, provides the lines for the first image: "A wish. Come true? Here's where to learn." John Ashbery, Richard Howard, J. D. McClatchy, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, and others also give voices to the flowers.
Within a year of completing her flowers series, Tanning, at eighty-nine, began publishing her own poems, and within another year was being recognized for poems in Poetry, Parnassus, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Plougshares, and others. Now, with a full collection of startling and perceptive poetry, which C. D. Wright has called "a meal not to be late for," Tanning has fully transformed her career and earned her a place among American poets.