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“The Trick of Art” in The Last Mosaic

Structured as secular epiphanies, each set apart by the tilde, the text of The Last Mosaic reads, indeed, like a “circus,” as the authors write. This hybrid poem/essay is a high-flying act of daring interrupted by weird clowns with inappropriate smiles before lions and tigers leap out.

If you have ever been to Rome, Italy, you will open the pages and inhabit Elizabeth Cooperman’s and Thomas Walton’s small book in your bathrobe, carrying around a cup of coffee before your first cigarette is stamped out, nodding and smiling, laughing out loud occasionally before looking off into the distance dreamily. The conceit of life as mosaic we never fully understand or appreciate resonates throughout this book. We even have a fragmented exploration of the word mosaic, we are told, which has linguistic connections to “muse” but also “monster,” this etymology an abbreviated version of Melville’s treatise on whales in the opening pages of Moby Dick.

Everything in The Last Mosaic is fragmented. The narrator/persona reveals, “if you hold a microscope up to an oil painting, it too is a kind of mosaic.” This rich little book not only conjures up the Italian city of Rome but its violent and voluminous history, emperors, writers and artists who lived, created, bled, and died there: “I suppose we all have a painting somewhere beneath us.” Operating metaphorically and literally in portraying this ancient city built upon her own ruins, Cooperman’s and Walton’s language is at once poetry and the anti-poem. Readers breathe in their lines, “I say Italy but this is what I mean: all that I can hold and then put here” as we move in and out of antiquity and the lush “long dream…hanging bits of history on a clothesline” before the next break, a puncture wound into the mundane, litter between stones, the argument “over who’s responsible for leaving the oranges back at the hotel.”

If readers have never been to Rome, The Last Mosaic will take them there, offering sights, sounds, and smells of Piazza Navona, causing their eyes to look up at obelisks “stolen proudly from Egyptian kings,” then distract readers from those lofty visions with incessantly noisy cicadas and “hooded crows terrorizing a diseased pigeon.”

We follow the narrator/persona through the baths of Caracalla before exiting laughing at the comparison to “an ancient Roman YMCA.” Our navigators through Rome, history, the written and spoken word tell us, “I find it difficult to find profound” before revealing that “construction workers found an ancient city under the new one.”

In their acknowledgments, Cooperman and Walton thank Washington Creative Writing program instructors Richard Kenney and Carol Light for “weaving us into the fold of that conversation” while in Rome. The Last Mosaic feels very much like their description of a woven fold of conversations begun and interrupted, leaving readers disconcerted but disquisitive. This beautiful text is at once paradoxically fragmented and flowing, like language itself. We are assured, “the brain will make up a coherent story instantly from seemingly disparate information,” yet The Last Mosaic’s disparate epiphanies are juxtaposed in such a way that we feel their creator’s hands and minds at work. Interjections—communication fighting against itself—become our experience of life that is both lofty and vulgar.

Getting lost is the motif that follows a description of the scene of Julius Caesar’s assassination to open the book. In fact, the narrator confesses to “vowing to get lost” immediately as we “turn a dark corner, duck beneath a low arch, and find a terrific field opening out in front of us: littered with ruins and dazzling with lupines.” We start our journey with getting lost and end with, “It’s best not to find the thing you’re looking for.” Readers might just be surprised, however, to find just what they were looking for in this dense, yet airy, mosaic of a book.

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