Helen Humphreys’ Afterimage and Anne Sexton’s poems, For John, Who begs Me Not to Enquire Further and The Black Art
Woman artists have often been condemned as lesser artists than their male contemporaries, and this critical view appears in Helen Humphreys’ Afterimage and in Anne Sexton’s poems “For John, Who begs Me Not to Enquire Further” and “The Black Art”. The woman artists in these works use their creative talents to escape the mundane and sometimes painful realities of their lives. They are also experimental in their approach to subject matters and are eager to transgress societal beliefs. While their methods and journeys differ, the women in these works emerge as true artists through their distinct outlooks on life, their novel approaches to subject matter, and their transgressions of traditional beliefs.
In Humphreys’ Afterimage, the protagonist Annie Phelan is a budding artist-model who has suffered from a life of loss and pain. To escape from reality, she flees to the imaginary world of Jane Eyre. Annie compares her new employers, the Dashells, to the characters in her favourite novel. She is disappointed, for she is unable to make her imaginary world come alive. This dreamy quality of the female artist resonates in the heart of the female narrator in “The Black Art” who hurts from feeling “too much” (The Black Art 1). Like Annie, this poet senses ennui towards everyday life. She feels “as if mourners and gossips/and vegetables were never enough” (4-5). At the end of the poem, the narrator is still at odds with the real world in which “the children leave in disgust” (23). In Afterimage, however, Annie finds hope in Jane Eyre after she discovers that the Dashells are easygoing employers: “Perhaps it is time to read Jane Eyre again. Perhaps, now, there is a more appropriate phrase for Annie to choose as her own” (30). Jane Eyre is a selfless and bold heroine. Annie, by appropriating Jane’s attitudes towards life, is able to pose selflessly for her employer Isabelle Dashell; later, Annie becomes bold like Jane Eyre and directs the photographic sessions with Isabelle. Therefore, while Annie escapes from reality by posing for Isabelle and by immersing herself in the world of Jane Eyre, she is also able to transform the energy she obtains from Jane Eyre into the real world of art.
Because the female artist often lives in both the real world and the imaginary world of art, she can be lost in both. When Eldon Dashell shows Annie his map of Ireland, Annie must touch it “to make it real, to really see it” (Humphreys 111). Isabelle Dashell, the photographer, is also torn between both worlds. While working on the photograph of “Sappho”, the lover of men and women, Isabelle becomes intoxicated with the notion of becoming Sappho: “To be Sappho is tempting. To love a woman is never to have the product of that love be death” (99). Isabelle, like Annie and the poet from “The Black Art”, wants to escape from reality...