I will be first to admit that I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve gone into an art museum, looked at a brilliant or famous painting and thought, “I have no idea what to pay attention to.” As much as I wanted to make a connection, my knowledge of the nuances in lighting and space are more than limited. As the name suggests, Ekphrasis features poetry exclusively about other works of art of any genre. These poems attach a personal narrative or wild description to the work in such a way that I was able to get my bearings when I looked at the original piece. During a reading of this journal, it was helpful to have a device with internet access available so I could look at the paintings and sculptures as I read the ekphrastic poem. This journal helped me to slow down and think about art a little differently.
Landscapes, for example, can convey quite a number of things that I continue to miss while wandering the local art institute. They celebrate God, make us wonder about the vast expanse of nature, or slap our human emotions onto the indifferent Earth. The poem “Voyage” by Joseph Stanton describes for the reader an incredible landscape series called The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole. Each painting is a landscape representing a certain phase of life, and this is how Stanton chooses to structure the poem. From start to finish, we move from childhood to old age in four sectioned stanzas. In each description of scenery, the language is carefully chosen to reflect that part of life. In the second stanza, “Youth,” we see “the sky’s cloud castle” and the stream is described as moving “as if nothing could be easier.” Looking back to the painting, suddenly I could see that innocent arrogance of the stream. In the section titled “Manhood,” he writes, “In this unforgiving sky / demons lounge and glower / in lurid light.” Sure enough, looking at the black clouds on my iPhone, I can suddenly see the faces there, looking down at the traveler.
The poems are not all about paintings either. “David Hominidae” by Marjorie Stamm Rosenfeld is a poem about the sculptures of Michelangelo, and “Clearer” by Dan Campion is about a knitted scarf. Campion’s poem reflects on the more practical items we hold, which are still artistically crafted and hold significance. He writes:
I wear the scarf you made, your own
design, to look like wooden pencil. Bone-
chill’s been replaced, that fall calamity,
by warmth that feels hand-knitted into me.
The winner of the 2017 Ekphrasis Prize is the last poem in the issue, “Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson” by Shelley Benaroya. This was a poem that required a little bit of research into the painting, which was a representation of the dissection of executed criminal Aris Kindt done by Dr. Nicolaes Tulp for a number of onlookers. Of the painting, Benaroya writes:
Rembrandt paints us, not unlike you, without
a clue, giddy-eyed as to what matters
most: Doctor Tulp’s cold forceps or is it
Vesalius at Kindt’s cold feet or—over
there—the unseen who sees a work of art.
This poem is a ringing validation of my cluelessness about art. Maybe I’m no more confused than everyone else.
No matter what your relationship to art is, the poems in this Fall/Winter 2017 edition of Ekphrasis will move you in all sorts of ways. They’ll ask you to consider the historical, the surreal, and many other genres from new, fresh perspectives. Maybe they’ll prompt you to write your own ekphrastic poem or two.