Portraits in Pain: The Psychology of Inspiration in Prose Poems by Lynn Emanuel
Reconstructing notions such as potentiality and inspiration, Emanuel’s prose poems,
whose thematic range spans from involvement with the paintings of her renowned father
Akiba Emanuel (a model and ‘pupil’ of Matisse) to the ‘portraits’ of Gertrude Stein,
illuminate the interrelationship between language and world, and the psychology of inhabiting
both through inspiration. This paper will address the question of what fuels creativity when it
is put to work through the involvement of other voices which are represented (in Emanuel’s
case) as suffering from having their genius interrupted either by death, by lack of recognition,
or by amnesia.
In all Emanuel’s three collections of poems, and a couple of other chap books, inspiration
plays an important role, yet Emanuel is not interested in inspiration in the traditional sense to
mean divine connection with a higher power or a muse, and romantic transcendence.
Inspiration for Emanuel is always triggered by an attempt at understanding what pain is. The
pain of creation and composition, and the pain of reading and writing promote two different
types of understanding: first, that there is something to create out of nothing, and second, that
‘nothing’ is always a beginning. Inspiration for Emanuel is therefore the beginning of nothing.
But how does one begin nothing, a created nothing, that is, a nothing which can be rendered
and read and which can explain both the pain of understanding such relations and the
inspiration that befalls them? One of Emanuel’s answers seems to be given through her use of
amnesia. It is through the theme of forgetfulness that a connection between the writer and the
reader is established. Emanuel is particularly a poet who writes for an audience for whom
poetry means the objectification of subjects. In spite of Emanuel’s attempt at going beyond the
poetics of modernism and its concern with inspiration as a relationship between the act of
writing and death, she is close to some of the questions that concerned writers such as James
Joyce. Joyce’s question in Ulysses: “What idiosyncrasies of the narrator were concomitant
products of amnesia?”1, can be traced in some of Emanuel’s poems which research the ground
covered by forgetfulness. For Emanuel, how to construe a narrative out of nothing, how to
objectify the nothing and then tell a story about it is an endeavor which involves the creative
minds of others.
Emanuel, like her father before her, draws inspiration from the human figure as it is
capable of experience. In an interview she recalls her father’s imperatives as she grew up in an
environment where art meant the practice of either painting or poetry writing: “Lynn, draw
that vase, make it your mother. Turn the green curtain into the woods she’s walking into”2.
Emanuel’s father, whose paintings only now are getting their deserved recognition and