Children Of Adam From Leaves Of Grass. Poems By Walt Whitman

by Matt Damsker


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Artwork by Paul Cava and edited by Alexander Scholz. 2005, Edition Galerie Vevais, An der Dornbuschmule 7, D-16269 Vevais, Germany. Available in a number of signed, limited editions with numbered prints, also hardback, softcover; ISBN No. 3-936165-44-0 (softcover), 3-936165-36-X (hardcover). ; .

The passionate lyricism of Walt Whitman is not easily matched with erotic photography--Whitman is too sprawling, too encompassing in his poetry, a poetry that celebrates the organic force of humanity and transcends mere sexuality or sentiment. In this beautifully produced volume, Paul Cava makes a noble attempt to celebrate with Whitman, illustrating some of the bard's most sensual passages from "Leaves of Grass" with photo-collages that bring a rough-hewn, tactile force to the project. At their most potent, Cava's split-image conflations--half-male and half-female nudes--evoke the pan-sexuality of Whitman's great, barbaric yawp ("There is something in staying close to men and women/and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them,/that pleases the soul well…"), while Cava's antiqued and pigmented prints suggest the earthy sweat and must of Whitman's 19th century.

Such portraits as "Denise (Map-Red)" don't quite fulfill the concept, due to an overlayed gridwork more in tune with Sol LeWitt than with Whitman, but on their own terms, Cava's posed nudes are exquisitely captured expressions of idealized form. Where Cava is somewhat diffuse--as in "Sexual Nature #11," with its juxtapositions of a female nude, diagrams of ova, and an archaic drawing of a Ferris wheel against a blurry shot of skulls in a catacomb--he is nonetheless intriguing and drenched in a sepia-toned mysteriousness that rewards our attention. His symbolism is also consistent: the Ferris wheel recurs in the hand-colored pictorialism of "Venus/Ember/Ferris/Christ," overlaying a Renaissance appropriation of Jesus on the cross, while an autoerotic "Venus" stands raptly, profanely, at the far left of the work.

At his tenderest, Cava depicts couples in the throes of lovemaking, with a gentle allusiveness that works well in such soft-focus, blurred images as "Bobby and Jackie (Letter)," which double-exposes a vague handwritten love note upon the image of the sprawled couple. Again, the connection to Whitman's wise embrace of all things human may be simplistic, but the right humid grace notes are struck ("A woman waits for me," writes Walt, "she contains all, nothing is lacking,/Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking."). Ultimately, this volume is a unique showcase for Cava and a rich reminder of how powerfully free--and ultimately modern--Whitman's poetry is, lending itself to daring visual expression and challenging our best living artists to strive for something equally timeless.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.