“memoir of the gate”: Candice Wuehle’s Aperture For Francesca Woodman

Books published in 2020 will live, like the films and TV shows we clung to, in a special corner of our collective memory. For bibliophiles, books felt lost in the shutdown shuffle because we couldn’t celebrate launches and readings; we missed browsing at bookshops and socializing at regional poetry festivals. Despite the challenges, books found their way to us at a time when literature expanded audiences across social media platforms. Poetry has possessed new readers and viewers and poets have given us new ways of accessing their work during the pandemic.  We may have sacrificed our shared experiences at bookshops and local libraries, but we read and relished even more books during lockdown. And some of us found a new addiction in the intimacy of poets-on-Zoom, including Candice Wuehle. 

Candice Wuehle’s readings of selected ekphrastic poems from her third collection, Death Industrial Complex are as entranced as the subjects themselves. https://www.candicewuehle.com/blog

Wuehle inhabits, and is inhabited by, the late artist, Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). While Woodman’s photography takes top billing as the primary focus of these ekphrastic poems, the photos are only part of the alchemy that engenders Death Industrial Complex’s rupture of a broken past. The poems refract memory and embody an alternative present in the young voice of Francesca Woodman. 

From “poltergeist i”:

we met as i was climbing out of the mirror,

because you thought I was a glitch in your own

reflection it was easy to convince you to let me live inside you.

Wuehle’s uncapitalized “i” thrusts the reader into the intimacy of Woodman’s 1970’s as she came of age as a photographer. The subjective (dis)embodied voices of Woodman’s subjects and interlocutors, especially “vince,” haunt each piece in the collection. Wuehle’s imagery is animated by the figures and spaces of Woodman’s photos and Wuehle’s own textual overlays and faded text collaborate with Woodman’s black and white photography to capture a prescient restlessness. 

In “waxed,” Wuehle’s Woodman inhabits the photo which inspires it but also guards the contours of the image’s female body: 

.....The gate out of this world

is anywhere. i’m going to make a map 

of it using all the extra 

stuff. The empty bra

cup. The single leg

of hose hanging by a golden hook acting as

a limb of light. 

Wuehle reads selected poems from her collection on her website, including “Waxed.” Hearing Wuehle’s sultry voice read the poem over the crackle and pop soundtrack simultaneously constructs and deconstructs memory. Woodman’s images are there, haunting the interstices of past and present.

.....i’m going to smoke

to prove what isn’t


Smoke and mirrors permeate Wuehle’s work as her speaker gives voice to Woodman’s poetic images. The textual dexterity expands to incorporate a spectrum of grey watermarked texts, reversed texts, sideways and upside-down texts, destabilizing the space on the page reproducing Woodman’s own double exposures and experimental art.

Early in the collection, two poems on facing pages, “self-portrait talking to vince” and “fran c e s c a” work in tandem immersing the reader in the deep interior monologue of the artist’s anti-memoir:

i was charged with conspiring to pervert

the appearance of nature. 

Most of Woodman’s photos were untitled but “self-portrait talking to vince” is one of the rare prints on which Woodman scrawled a title. Vince inhabits several of Wuehle’s poems as interlocutor and subject, “i’m close to you, vince./ when I replace my face with a circular mirror/you’re inside me still.” 

In “francesca,” Wuehle’s speaker reflects:

.....If this is a story

It is a memoir of the gate. A camera clicking

without film is a camera clicking–a mirror

lit entirely with light is limit and opening

for what is outside it. 

Light, as limit and opening, is a central metaphor for both Woodman and Wuehle and generates much of the energy underlying this creative collection. 

Many of Woodman’s prints are faceless and several are self-portraits with heads turned, covered in hair, or cut out of the photo completely, carving out the nude’s double exposed form. Woodman was drawn to the geometry of female sex organs and bodies behind glass on other side of the lens. Wuehle’s speaker declares “a bag over the head is iconic.” Later in the longer prose poem, “on becoming an angel,” the voice of Francesca reminisces “when i was 13 i started writing with both hands at once/so i could make something that touched itself in the middle.” Woodman’s exploration of the visual triangle that forms her sexed middle is articulated by Wuehle’s textual experimentation. 

Woodman craved fame and recognition for her photos and Wuehle delves into the troubled concept of the cult throughout the work:

my main fear was of putting on a blonde wig

and a pair of white gloves and disappearing.

my main fear was that i wouldn’t get my cult

one half hour in front of the camera before the

editrix knew they were dead.

This collection resurrects a voice for Woodman forty years after her suicide at age 22. In “I’m trying my hand at fashion photography,” “Everything/i say is nude/propaganda, is spiritual inseam.” Woodman, as Wuehle reminds the reader, expects us to know she is alive, within the confines of propaganda and beyond it. 

Death Industrial Complex is a multimedia tour de force. Readers/viewers are immersed in Wuehle’s renderings of the poems on her website accompanied by music and sound while Woodman’s photos invite deeper reflection. Lockdown’s foray into new areas of intimacy between readers and writers, between viewers and participants will have lasting effects on the art we watch/read/hear. We have cultivated a new curiosity for other peoples’ living spaces as we watched interviews broadcast from living rooms and kitchens. Watching Candice Wuehle read from this collection on YouTube the week the book launched from Action Books last spring (see  Sublunary Editions Presents #1), inspired me to research both Wuehle’s past catalogue as well as my deep dive into the life and work of Francesca Woodman.

Wuehle returns to the “vince” in “self portrait talking to vince” and to the image of the spiral cellophane-looking cord emanating from Woodman’s mouth in that photo. 

this is why i swallowed a phone and pulled the cord through my throat and mouth.

The “this” in that line from “on becoming an angel” refers to Woodman as light; Woodman as angel; Woodman as “a body in a morgue.” Spending weeks researching Wuehle and Woodman, I initially framed as the proverbial rabbit hole. But “rabbit hole” isn’t as good a fit as the spiral that Death Industrial Complex winds readers into while listening to the readings, watching the interviews, studying the photography, or reviewing the function of a camera’s aperture. Wuehle inhabits the spiral: she births it throughout the work, playing with Woodman’s spirals in “spiralism // lashing” and the facing poem “sprialism // editrix.” 

The spiral, like the mobius strip, doesn’t have beginnings or endings. It’s movement. In her acknowledgements, Wuehle expresses profound gratitude to Woodman; “Without her vision, this book would not see.”

Other videos mentioned in this article:

Amy Penne, PhD, is a writer and Professor of English in the Department of Humanities at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. She teaches courses on women in arts and culture as well as poetry, history and the arts, and myriad versions of college composition. Her poems, essays, and reviews have been featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Minerva Rising, Brain Child, Change Seven, on the Drunken Odyssey podcast and elsewhere. She can be found at www.thepensivepenne.com, and on Twitter @thepensivepenne.