As its name would indicate, the poems in this slender volume of Ekphrasis take another piece of art as their starting point, sometimes providing description or commentary but also pushing it further, igniting something transformative. Though there is no editorial statement to indicate any specific theme or thrust for the issue, the further one reads, the more unnecessary it becomes. The title is enough.
The majority of the poems cite a painting, and although Ekphrasis contains no illustrations, they would be unnecessary, given the lyrical and descriptive power of the poetry. Even so, more than once I found myself inspired to look up the painting in question and then going back to read the poem again—a process I wholeheartedly recommend and a delicious way to spend an afternoon.
The first poem in the collection, “Niobe Repents” by Kristin George, takes on the voice of Niobe, as George figures in Ruin VI by Charles Garabedian. George conveys the suspense, the “upward straining” of the woman cursed by the gods and transformed into stone. “True, my face pulls from its body / like a sail from a mast / as I lean into wind / and trust it will bear me.” And the reader leans in, trusting the following poems will bear her.
“In Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” by H. C. Palmer is every bit as atmospheric as Caravaggio’s painting. The brush strokes are almost visible as Palmer describes the moment of calm; “slant of light, fold of robe, long-shafted reed / and angle of repose – all this weight. Soon, / proclamations, baptisms, the choreographed beheading.” Similarly, “On Viewing The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” by Judy Darke Delogu, based on the nineteenth century oil painting by Paul Delaroche, gives a tender and painful glimpse of the moments before the execution of the nine-days queen.
Not all the poems take a visual art as their starting point, however. Two in particular have literary inspirations. “Re-reading Emerson,” by Alice Friman, prompted by Emerson’s journals, is a panegyric to the career of the nineteenth century poet and essayist. “He was a train pulled by / its own light . . .”; “he flew / by the seat of his rhetoric: / a manta of self-reliance.” Robert Cooperman was inspired by a well-known passage in The Odyssey for his poem, “Licius Remains Among the Lotos Eaters.” It presents what happened to one of Odysseus’s comrades after he had been left behind by Odysseus and his men on their long journey to Ithaca. Without irony, he imagines his shipmates already finding their own homes, but continues hopefully, if a little forgetfully, trying to devise his own way home.
The collection ends on a beautiful, threnodic note with “Irwin Kelly’s Barn” by Sylvia Levinson. Levinson plays with the contrast between colorful paintings and the black and white lithograph after which the poem is titled, “Like people I know, like me, fading from fresh / and supple, pink to sallow, bones thinning, / shuffled gait, frame leaning forward.” With age, everything becomes “diffused . . . / ethereal and milky. Everything now becomes clear.”
Every poem in this collection is a delight. In addition to the poets already mentioned, this issue includes work by Paul Willis, Jane Blue, Lois Marie Harrod, Mitch LesCarbeau, Lawrence N. DiCostanzo, Gayle Elen Harvey, Michael Cadnum, Christine Swint, Judith Sornberger, Valerie Wohlfeld, Crystal Mazur Ockenfuss, Sarah Brown Weitzman, Robert Schuler, and Stephen D. Roberts. They have taken artists from across the style spectrum as inspiration, from Georgia O’Keefe to Vincent Van Gogh, Klimt to Kao Feng-han and transformed their color into vibrant verse.