The Best Material for the Artist in the World
by Kenneth Chamlee
Stephen F. Austin State University Press

"I hear the hunters’ quick yips, dream / each groan and lunge of the beasts, / remember my grandmother’s prayer / but when I step out of the frame / the buffalo are gone and I am / still a Lakota in a painted show."

In this poetic reimagining of Albert Bierstadt’s life, readers discover America’s true and untamed "Wild West." They also enter into the artistic realm of a German-American painter whose work transformed how people across America and even the globe viewed the American wilderness. The hardships of emigrating westward into unknown, unexplored expanses unfold. The poems capture an artist’s personal and professional difficulties, including harsh criticism from reviewers and patrons, the fiery destruction of Bierstadt’s mansion, and Bierstadt’s wife’s struggle with chronic illness. These poems solidify, too, Bierstadt’s legacy as an artist who reimagined the West in a way so few could during his time. Poems like “Chief Rocky Bear Views The Last of the Buffalo in Paris, 1889” portray “the stillness of the great picture” and the respectful way in which Bierstadt painted and preserved the dignity and cultures of the Sioux and Shoshone peoples.

Readers who are interested in the art and history of the American West will appreciate this collection. The biographical elements do not overshadow the deep emotion and intimacy with which these poems are written. Each poem is, essentially, its own painting, reinforcing the beautiful ways in which art and literature can intertwine and support one another. While the poems about the American West are quite elegant and beautiful, readers will also find the pieces depicting Bierstadt’s early life in Germany just as important and meaningful. The collection’s first section, titled “A Poised Brush,” houses poems such as “Boats Ashore at Sunset,” a Romantic poem in which fishermen “row the last few waves to shore” and “have pulled the wind ashore too.” With phenomenal detail and grace, this book uplifts the work of an artist whose work ultimately helped shape America’s conservationist movements.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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