Sunday, January 13, 2008

Greatest Hits Gallery--Jason A.

Jason A. has a huge range of material in his portfolio, much of it attending to classical music. His poem on Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings takes the form of a questioning the composer. This popular piece, one of my favorites, is often taken as a piece of "accesssible" 20th century music. But Jason weighs it heavily with theological concern, concerns that he explicates in a midrashic way.

(on Adagio for Strings, written to the Crucifixion of Christ, by Samuel Barber)

did you see the weight of despair beyond word set in full
upon sorrowful shoulders, when the sun was hid on a windless day—
or was it Toscanini who seemed hid when without a word
this breath from your mind was returned in full?

when he exhaled his broken words that fell short of heaven,
angels from afar looked down on this son of man
but offered not a sword, not a hand, not a tear.
yet when word returned that your beloved breath, Adagio,
had been committed to such a mind from afar,

did you see the twisted, beaten head that thought on you
while to him not a word descended from above,
though he to his Father is forever close as Sun and Light?
only from beside his bloody, detestable shell
fell the scourge, the hammer, the weight of Adam,

as eminence did upon you, held you immemorial.
when arrives diminuendo and fades from the air,
can you recall this forgotten man of sorrows?

Greatest Hits Gallery--Laura M.

Combining ekphrasis and midrash, some poems focused on art and some on music, made up the heart of Laura M's portfolio. Two of her pieces are sonnets, formally adept yet playful and devout, on panels from the Ghiberti Florentine baptistry doors we viewed earlier in the fall at the Chicago Art Institute.

Meditation I: On Ghiberti’s Creation Panel, Front and Back

I saw Ghiberti form a god-like face,
And on the hidden back imprint his thumb;
His wax seemed bubbled, lumped, crude—all its sum
Could only hint at some forthcoming grace.
And when he broke the bronze from its clay case,
He turned aside to make more tools; before
He purified with heat the lustrous ore,
His Maker’s face the lesser sculptor chased.
That higher Sculptor needed no bronze pools—
No chisel but His breath for chasing tools;
A Word was metal fit for the world’s panels,
And for its sprues—affixed as saving channels
Through which His molten grace could freely run—
He crossed upon its back His only Son.

Meditation II: Adam and Eve on the Creation Panel

He paints the smaragdine new world with gold;
Our vitiated eyes must have a screen
To see the angels’ song-tied gaze—the cold
Bronze shields the loss of Eden’s perfect scene.
The snake is captive, bound in low relief,
So we, imprisoned viewers, may keep free
From memory of fear and sudden grief
That our lives could be strangled, like that tree.
But then—the master sculptor lost control!
His balance tilts—a host of weeping wings
Cascades in flood from heaven’s cut-glass bowl;
And through the downpour Michael’s sad fist swings.
From that deluge no fallen frame can hide,
Though torn leaves show that—goodness knows—we tried.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Bekah T.

A talented artist in her own right, Bekah T. kept the class honest by asking us which was more important in our ekphrastic adventures--the poem or the work to which it responded? Of course the answer to that is complicated, as she demonstrates in her own poems, a series on the various kinds of modern art with which she experimented in her own recent art, especially as they connect to painters and their audiences. Here are two, one on cubism and a second on Pure Abstraction.

Cubist Landscape

I took the mountains into myself,
felt their thick sides pushing out from within,
tasted the dusty purple they turn at dusk,
and tried to find a way to share that with you.

I wan to sculpt a painting
you can’t walk by
without touching.
Trace the rim of a hardened blue brushstroke.
Feel the frozen moment, the frozen movement.
As I pile on more and more paint
I’m building mountain ranges and scraping
away valleys. The canvas is the landscape
Or is trying its best to be.

It is important
to understand the feeling of mountains within you,
to take the landscape and embody it
not just symbolize the volcano by its triangular point
but to feel it erupt within you.

These tectonic movements shatter
a paintbrush.
Its no tool for making mountains,
No more than am I.

Pure Abstraction

It’s the 50’s and time to reduce the world.
In a silent, non-explosive sort of way
the subjects are being blown right out of paintings.
Where there used to be city skylines, office buildings, skyscrapers,
where there used to be people working, driving, and dying
Mondrian’s lozenges now lead the way.
Their silent in a non-human, non-messy sort of way.
The colors stay within their boundaries.
Thick black horizontals and verticals
give us a systematic understanding
of how very nice structure is.

All that is unnecessary is morally wrong.
It’s the universal essence we’re worried about.
Quiet down please
I don’t speak your language.
I’m afraid your perspective just
makes this more complicated.
We want the universal, the silence
where all differences are erased, not so
that we can come together. Unity
Is not what we’re going for.

Yes, it takes rather a lot of violence
to reach silence
but how nice it is
how pure.
Pay no attention to the rubble
(or the people under it)
It’ll be cleared away in due time.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Dayna C.

Dayna C's musical ekphrastics, titled "27," take up the lives, music, and loss of three famous rock and rollers who died at the age of 27--Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin/. She compresses narrative, music, and humor into the poems. Here are two of them. (I would've included youtube cuts, but the site seems to be down at the moment).

I. Hendrix

parks outside
the Samarkand
in a stolen car,
his unsupported
neck and head bent
like a broken guitar
strung like sinews
lolling. Dead
strains evict
the psychedelic
notes squatting
in his brain.

Fourth floor,
his undergrad
rolls with the earth
and space of a place
where they picked
young when God asked.
Real bad, I need
Jimi real bad.

What the wind
doesn’t cry
is any name
she recognizes.
Jimi drives by
in a Cadillac
with no license plates.

III. Joplin

She hit the good minutes
early and all at once. She’d quit
but lunch, milk and apple,
hadn’t fixed the craving
edging at her lungs.
Even a cigarette at this point
or the calculations of a hand
that held the hem above her
knees –the man who dealt
methamphetamines in Memphis,
where the crowd prayed she’d
make it, at least through Summertime.
They didn’t guess her sexy grit
was got by getting too much
before the inner gem could adjust,
facets gleaming back in her throat,
and had rusted over by the time
she went to sing that slinky
parting shot of a note.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Rachel A.

A summer experience in Houston gave Rachel A. the subject(s) of her poems. In the same day, she visited the Rothko Chapel and the nearby Byzantine Fresco Chapel/Museum. The contrasts and connections between the two museums give her poems a wonderful energy. In the first poem, she asks a key question about our response to art. What is it that keeps us from touching the works, the brush strokes so inviting?

at the Rothko Chapel

No velvet roping
restrains us from the brush-strokes.
So why don't we touch?

Many-sided room,
gray sunlight filtering down—
and very quiet.

Diamond-cut faiths
jostle here, come to embrace
a universal.

The walls—paintings—all
fade eventually to black.
Blue-gray at their tops,

or purple (Magist-
erial yet bishop-less),
but below, soft dark.

Nothing for the mind
but itself given itself,
a changeless turning.

The eye finds no rest;
roving sleepiness perhaps—
yes, suspension, but...

(Outside, the Broken
Obelisk remembers, mute:
Christs, big “C”-ed and small.)

In the second poem, a series of five smaller parts, Rachel considers the paradox of a sacred space deconstructed and imported from Cyprus, then turned into a museum, a "relic-box."

in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum

This space is built to be a relic-box:
the fragments of a chapel sleeping here
in a perpetual twilight of gray sun,
benches of silk stone laid for worshipers.
Here, I could sit forever, hour on hour,
but twenty minutes from now it will close.
This chapel, after all, is a museum.

Oh God, where have you been for all these days?
You linger just beyond my whirring brain.
A thousand conversations never cease,
but those are spoken with myself, not you.
And if at last I lose myself in sleep,
your hands don't come to heal me even there.
Only your mother's face, half-turned away.

This summer's been all iconography.
I know what the lean, stern, bronze faces mean;
the strange angular hands; the color scheme.
Hodegetria—“she who shows the way”—
I love, but as a scholar loves a book.
I've never painted anything, and I
have never prayed except with words and words.

In Cyprus, once, the bandits cut Christ down
and packed his body secretly in crates,
and raped his mother while she stood at prayers.
The plaster wounds of both are bandaged now,
and they may calmly rule and intercede.
But only during listed viewing hours.
And no one dares to kiss the face of God.

The janitor—a kind black gentleman—
quietly sweeps the floor. I wonder how
these ancient frescoes touch his inner life.
“Don't y'all step on the altar now,” he says.
“This museum is a chapel, after all.”

Friday, January 4, 2008

Greatest Hits Gallery--Ryan H.

When we went around the classroom asking folks what they might like to write about for their final projects, some folks said, "the painter Chagall" or "Chopin" (or see below and above). Ryan piped up, "I'm thinking taxidermy." Hmmm. Turns out, he was really obsessed by a taxidermist, Carl Akeley (pictured here with a leopard he supposedly killed with his bare hands). And it's not hard to see why. Carl's a fascinating guy.

As a result of taking hunting expeditions to Africa, including accompanying Teddy Roosevelt, Akeley became an artist in his approach as a taxidermist, inventing the notion of natural dioramas as setting for animals, as well as making the preservation of the animals more realistic and anatomically accurate . The Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History owe much of their collection to him. He died in the Congo, where he was buried.

Ryan's preservation and invention of Carl Akeley's persona, a kind of poetic taxidermy, is playful and deeply informed. In fact, he got a bit obsessed with "Carl," speaking of him in the first person, speaking TO him from time to time. Ah, what poetry can do (or, if you believe Ryan, what taxidermy can do). Here's the main poem from that group:

Carl E. Akeley--Ryan H.

“The old conditions, the story of which we want to tell, are now gone, and in another decade the men who knew them will all be gone.”

Save everything that you can, Carl. The new school
is on its way in to redirect your vision and rearrange
your hall.

As if you could be pushed out toward the fringes
any further. You created an anachronism, or proved
it was possible

To give birth to something that immediately so few
cared about—perhaps a most common predicament,
in the end.

But there were the few, the passionate catalogers,
the information starved who followed you into
the Dark Continent.

How did you manage to break it to your parents?
All that talent gone to gutting and stuffing animals,
or subjects, rather.

Maybe they grew suspicious when you were eleven
and the gerbils you were breeding in your bedroom
all disappeared suddenly

Only to reemerge a week later in the family room
as a cast and mounted grand tableaux recreating
Trumbull’s Declaration.

The art of preserving what is already disappearing
before our very eyes: an impossibly practical art
no matter what form.

You put all of your hope in that fact that your art
was a relic before it ever made its way out to
the eager public.

Yours is an art of necessity, an art of record
for the millions who cannot afford to be
adventurers like you.

For those who would not have seen or known
otherwise. So you rage against grievous
anatomical inaccuracy

With a sharp, squinting eye and strong hand
fastidiously crafting muscles and sinews,
reanimating enormities

Opposed to works of art so carelessly stuffed
with straw or sawdust, a formless lump beaten
to crude shape

With a two-by-four and thrown into rooms
void of place and context, in isolation
from other mammals.

Carl, you’ve done it: mocked the photographer,
surpassed the dramatist. You have made matter
out of memory,

The recasting of your days in bright Africa
on the hunt and at the beck and call of science,
that jealous mistress.

They buried you in one of these scenes, the one
where you found all of those mountain gorillas
sitting together.

Maybe you intended some kind of irony there,
although you were a very serious man
at heart,

Refusing to believe the other children that told you
there was only one kind of ant, you made stations of
peanut butter crackers

And placed them at the four corners of your home.
Hypothesizing there must be at least three types,
you got a bonus beetle.

Or was there simply nothing in all of your travels
that so impressed you? This peaceful primate home
captured your imagination

Even more than Jumbo, the seven-ton old paciderm
you mounted for P. T. Barnum to continue showing
at the circus.

The caretaker told you Jumbo was crossing
train tracks when the Trans Canada Express finally
brought him down.

It took damn near two hundred men to clear the tracks
and get the trains moving again. Barnum’s own cars
doubtlessly in that line.

Most folks never hear the background stories,
or otherwise they have become far too
common these days.

The new school is already here, Carl, and they figure
another Jumbo will come along—maybe a digital exhibit on
mammals in captivity—

When, in fact, you simply cannot replace an elephant
like that.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Steve S.

You never know what might result from an exercise. In this case, it was a suggestion to imitate, in whatever way, Frank O'Hara's famous Why I am not a painter. Steve S. does a kind of double imitation, making it a poem about music, and theology, and poetry (and all poetry teachers argue that every poem is about poetry--self-serving dopes, aren't we?). Maybe jazz, and theology, are so complex they can only be done together? Here's a jazz theologian who thinks they fit well. And here's Steve's "Why I am not a theologian."

Why I Am Not a Theologian---Steve S.

Why I am not a saxophonist:
Saxophone is far from safe
you know saxophone is all the blue
in Chicago siphoned out
like with a syringe and shot
up into my veins is what saxophone is.
If it were me I’d collect the blue
in ordered rows, arranging it by size
and shape and typology of blue,
asking the blue, “What
hue?” and “How deep are you?”
and “Can there really be that many different shades
of blue, if God is good?”
And blue doesn’t really have that kind of patience,
so instead I am a theologian.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Rachel H.

Rachel H's poems, as she puts it, have turned sparse this term, as she filters through the over-stimulus that can result from ekphrasis. Or as she navigates the double-distance that can result from writing about an already static image. Her ekphrastics on photographs show both this sparseness and a kind of delicate attention to energy, especially two on dance. The first responds to a photograph of a couple dancing the polka. The second poem is also about dance, though, I'm not certain, from the same image.

Of Polak dancing with his twirling Polka

His still steps stutter now
as she twirls
a motion
never ceasing, always filling
skirts with air—
so fanning
his heart, a flaming polonaise brilliante
into a new allegro
under the pocket
of his blue ironed shirt.

Uyghur Dance

Her hands dance
on twisting wrists
and she
every joint
with a grace of hummingbird
delicacy and murmuring speed.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Greatest Hits Gallery--Alexa A.

That''s an acoustic version of "Yellow," first song played on MTV after the network resumed normal programming following 9/11. It's hard to write about popular music, especially in a fresh way that goes somewhere beyond a description of a song or the memorializing of a moment. Alexa's "Parachutes," inspired by the Coldplay album, starts out as, I think, primarily a memorial poem, but the images and evocative diction take it somewhere else. She refers mostly to the song "Always", a clip of which is below the poem.

Parachutes--Alexa A.

In a haze, a stormy haze,
the saltless smell of soggy
alewife corpses constrained us
to a summer behind glass.
Bright, yellow rafts and sunshiny
towels packed tight into a
too small basement closet
while we sprawled and spread
pages open. I can’t
remember if the hero won
his treasure because my
skimming eyes dove under
and around names and places,
trying to stream over pages
like dad did whole books.

The five of us nested
in our quiet corners
and the echoing slide of
fingers over strings and across
turning pages kept our
forgotten time, while the rain
sang, “I’ll be around,
I’ll be loving you always.”

Alexa also wrote a series of poems on Marc Cagall's "Above the Town," taking each one "deep and deeper contextually." An image of the painting and the third and final poem in the series is below. As earlier pieces move through place and history, this final poem is more intimate, a different kind of deep context.


How many girls did he touch
this way, before one shrouded
kiss with her froze time?—
a still life, like magic, takes form.

Aniouta was the first. He kissed
her as he pleased—once, twice,
today, and tomorrow—on benches
and in front of courtyard gates.

He timidly felt her uneven, pimpled
face and wanted nothing more.
But now her face blurs with
adolescence, obscured by Bella’s
“misty green touched
here and there with red”
tied in bouquet and clutched to her
breast by slender, timid fingers,
and he leaves his widowed church
up on the hill to fade into shadowy
forest and a faintly outlined bird
house he forgot to paint over.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Charis T.

How could I not enjoy poems about an American painter of place? Albert Bierstadt and his landscapes, especially several paintings of the Rocky Mountains, formed the heart of Charis T.'s series of poems in her portfolio. After our group critique session, Charis' bringing together of the idealized place as represented in paintings with its ineveitable change, her language play on terms like "plain" and "lines" and the wistful sense of loss from these landscape poems stuck with me the rest of the day and on my drive home. Here's her meditation on one of Bierstadt's Rocky Mountain paintings, Lander's Peak.

Grassy Graves

Grand lines empower plains,
Swinging across the landscape.
And the only plain thing
That Bierstadt painted
Was the two-hued sky.
But even that is pierced with gold.
Gold pierces the waterfall too.
And the rocks.
Even the horses
Get a glimmer, a ray.

There’s talk of industry
And how every tree
May no longer stand watch
Over the rocky mountains.
Bierstadt will save them—
At least he’ll try
With each of his seamless strokes
Of bright, precise color
Contained on a canvas.
Conserving via paint.

Let’s reminisce and romance
The idea of plains under
A two-hued sky
And sun-absorbing water
And guardian trees
In bright shining armor
Watching over yellow rocks,

While the trees die
And steel survives,
As railroad tracks
Run over and
Cover grassy graves.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Marjorie H.

Marjorie H's portfolio includes a wealth of work that crosses boundaries, combining the personal with the ekphrastic, and in some of the pieces, such as "Anti-Gravitational Carousel," she animates her response to Gino Severini's "Festival in Montmarte (Carousel)" with the skills of musical ekphrasis, a neat combination.

“Anti-Gravitational Carousel” inspired by Gino Severini. Festival in Montmartre (Carousel), 1913. Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler.

Angles of light cut
yellow diamond facets
as a mirror of division reflects
prismatic triangles intersect
the Calliope playing
straining out the spinning
music as children laugh
and the ruby half
orbs twist and dance.
Stairs lead to the expanse
of womanly shapes
with no hope of escape
as the speed increases
every outer piece
blends to darkness of blue
and black hues –
the fifteen stands
as the constant between
the interior
and exterior
with the gold friezes arcing
an umbrella covering
the whirling world
waiting for it to be hurled
into oblivion.

In her extended group of poems on a single subject, Marjorie attends to the work of Winslow Homer, writing poems on several of his portraits of women. Here's the last in the group.


the tiny red coop isn’t large
enough to be useful for keeping
chickens, yet it stands tall
regal against the porch, more
regal than the pink potted blooms
sitting on a fold out table

the black cock oblivious to the needs
of the chick, paying heed
only to the chicken feed of meal
and seeds scattered across
the lawn of which he believes
he is king

and still the tiniest suffering
does not go unnoticed by her!
She gently scoops up
the ailing hatchling prince, inspecting
and caressing his tiny frail body,
with her work scarred hands.

Winslow Homer--The Sick Chicken, 1874,

Greatest Hits Gallery--Blade B.

What happens in the spaces between tunes on a familiar album? Blade's musical ekphrastics sit in the spaces between the melancholy songs of Nick Drake, a singer-songwriter referred to by some as "the patron saint of the depressed." I think, though, and Blade's poems suggest this, that there's more to the music and the singer than that static description. Here are two of the short poems that comprise Blade's project, all working with cuts from "Bryter Layter."

"Bryter Layter: Side A"

Nick was sitting all night with his guitar in his lap
his hair draped
over his shoulders
and his yellow-laced shoes laid
before his feet.
His face has faded
over the last thirty years
within that purpled background

I remove him from that spot and lay him on the table
letting the needle give voice to his now unbreathing lungs

Somehow he steals the sun rise
in the arc of his friend's violin
and his guitar pours
his melancholy in my ear

He's searching for a place to be he says
within his prattle of sailors and signposts
all pointing to that hazey girl
looking out a window
into the crowded morning

"Bryter Layter: Silence"

Where is our depression Drake?
I can't hear it
over the trumpets and drums
they layered on your voice

The needle crackles on the silence sitting between us
Our introspection hangs on the end
edging against the side of the still turning vinyl

I flip you over
and ask the question again
I think our answer
will be different this time

And here's Drake's "Northern Sky," followed by Blade's poem on the singer.

"Nick Drake, on a Monday Morning"
We're asking you to tell us
what went wrong and why
you were found half-naked in bed
next to a drained bottle with some pills
spilled on the shelf that was home to Keats,
Blake, and a copy of Hamlet.

Just three hours ago
your fingers plucked the strings
and turned the knobs.
Relaxing your left hand as you strained
to hear the exact pitch you needed
to cluster every chord on the frets.

You crafted a new poem in your head
heard only by the walls
in your quiet room.
You planned to record
tomorrow morning.
Right after breakfast.

Greatest Hits Gallery--Ian A.

So begins the posting of the Ekphrastic Gallery of Greatest Hits, featuring a piece or two from each writer in this past semester's ENGW 333 class at Wheaton. What an enormous wealth of material I had before me to read over the first weeks of our break. To pick a representative sample from each writer is a fool's errand, but then maybe I'm the ideal person for the job. Once these are posted, look for a sampler of poetic statements as well.

The first entry comes from Ian A.'s final project, a set of jazz poems combined with photographs taken by photographer Amy Dykstra. Ian and Amy both attended a jazz session with this batch of musicians:

The result is a synthetic work, bringing together music, poetry, and photographs in a way that truly catches the spirit of the course. How much richer are all three arts for being purposefully and intimately connected? And yet, as the poem here suggests, is something lost, as when one translates?

Translation--Ian A.

Bad lighting makes better jazz,

but worse photography,
making it weird to disappear
into jazz under the camera lens.

But creation is the non-player
like me, when I listen and even
when I write

like those writers and the photographers
who try
always to include themselves into jazz

and it forgetfully won’t work,
because no matter how hard
I look or read, interpretation and my

eyes never really let me hear the music

Each poem is mounted with a set of photographs. See below and above. The only thing that could be added, I suspect is a live jazz combo playing while I sat in my office and read the poems. Next time, Ian, I expect you to add that element. I have room in my garage.