The Lone Snake

by Lisa Vihos. Water’s Edge Press, 2022.

Review by Thomas J. Erickson

For a poem to be successful, the poet must convince the reader to enter the poet’s consciousness. To write a successful novel, the novelist must create a world that the reader wants to enter without regard to the novelist’s own subjectivities. There is an objectivity and external focus that is the bread and butter of novelists which is, it strikes me, much less often utilized by poets. In other words, poetry and novels are two different kettles of fish and it is not often that good poets write good novels which brings us to the intriguing historical novel The Lone Snake, The Story of Sofonisba Anguissola by Lisa Vihos.

Vihos vividly evokes the life of the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola who is known for her skilled portraits and is considered by many to be the first female artist to achieve fame in her lifetime. In the novel, Vihos, who I have long admired as a poet of deft nuance, assiduously combines the flesh and blood realization of historic and imagined personages with a surprising crown of sonnets integrated into the novel’s themes of the endurance of love and the fleetingness of fame.

Anguissola was born in 1532 in Cremona, Italy. When she showed stunning artistic ability at a young age, her forward-thinking father ensured her artistic training and education in the heretofore all-male profession of painter. Vihos then follows Anguissola through her remarkable and long (she lived to 93) life as she makes her way from studying with Michelangelo to painting instructor at the Court of Phillip II. Then, to her final days in Palermo where she enjoyed her fame into old age with modesty, grace, and an appreciation of her accomplishments in the face of persistent male chauvinism. Throughout the saga, Vihos effectively recreates the friction Anguissola faced as a female painter. For example, because she was a woman, Anguissola was unable to paint religious scenes or have her work even appear in a church. Thus, her primary focus became portraiture.

As her narrative device, Vihos tells the story through the voices of Anguissola herself as well as several of her friends and contemporaries. Among the most memorable is Paola, a young poet who records the aging Anguissola’s story. It is Paola who writes the crown of sonnets including “What Life is This” in which she meditates on her artistic life intertwined with Anguissola’s. It begins:

What life is this in which our stories blend

You the painter and I the humble scribe

I gather up the colors of your life

And stand aside, this gentle arc to bend

This novel is the gentle arc of the story of a trailblazing female artist who inspired women to make arts a profession during the Renaissance. It is an affectionate and finely detailed time capsule written in frictionless prose with a touch of poetry. The poet Vihos succeeds in her first novel, which I highly recommend.

Thomas J. Erickson

Thomas J. Erickson’s fifth book of poetry, Cutting the Dusk in Half, was published by Bent Paddle in 2022.  He is a an attorney in Milwaukee where, more importantly, he is a member of the Hartford Avenue Poets.

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