Along with two other faculty members, I help to advise XANADU, the literary club at the community college where I teach. We usually produce a literary journal each semester. This semester, the students requested something different: They wanted to spend this semester workshopping their writings and works of visual art, then produce just one issue of the magazine in the spring. Of course, we were delighted! This new approach has opened up our schedule considerable and enabled us to pursue other adventures.
For the past month or so, we have been exploring EKPHRASIS: the tradition of writing about the visual arts. We had a guest poet, Lisa Alexander Baron, share six Ekphrastic poems and ideas for techniques to use when writing in response to paintings. I shared some Ekphrastic poems by the masters, along with images of the paintings that inspired them. An art teacher, Corinne Lalin, shared lots of prints. Then the next week, the students had a mini writing workshop, looking at paintings and writing pieces inspired by them. (Students! Share those pieces here if you will!)
Then today was the big event. Four students, two teachers, my husband, and my mom all went to the Allentown Art Museum this afternoon. Corinne took me around and gave me an amazing talk about modern art; she explained more to me about 20th-century painting than I have learned in my whole life. Here are some pictures of the works we discussed, followed by the poem I wrote in response.
“Untitled,” about 1974, by Flora Natapoff
& “Moon Theater,” 1986, by Joan Snyder
Four feet stop in a gallery-space.
They point at a corner, two right and two left.
One voice asks a question, dwindles out flat.
“What makes a work like that, or like that, a work that’s a work that’s worth looking at?”
The other voice answers on an ascending scale,
picking out pieces of facts from her brain,
and fitting them into a musical frame.
Her own inspiration inspires her more,
and each idea strikes out another to sound.
Picking a fact, then working a theme,
she talks up a tune from the visual scene.
“The first thing we see is industrial space”—
“Then notice perspectives that clash in your mind”—
that’s intervals building.
“And see the confusion, our chaotic times”—
that’s the melody marching, a dissonant row.
And thus the first instrument plays out its theme.
She riffs upon balance and triangulation, masses and edges, and ateliers.
She plucks out the color wheel, strums about lines,
and sets something humming in her neighbor’s mind.
The other voice cannot stay silent for long.
When just the right resonance catches her up,
she offers as counterpoint differing notes.
“It’s myth and tradition, this massing of gold”—
that’s dominant pitch.
“The shape evokes presence and absences at once”—
that’s harmonic hints.
“Both sorrow and cyclical meaning are here”—
and the voices dance pas de deux
all through the air.
After that, I went and sat in front of another painting that Corinne recommended, one about which she said, “If I were a writing, that is the one I would write about!” Here is the result:
The Glass Casts Back the Slanted Light
“Mary and the Studio,” 1924
by Sidney Edward Dickinson
In nightmares sometimes I have seen a room
where doppelgänger mirrors flank the space
and cast each other’s pictures back and forth
in endless iteration. Into this scene,
the painter painted other works of art:
sketches, postcards, prints, and portraiture.
His repetition fools us into depth.
But Mary is not fooled. She knows the nude
(whose full-length figure points the artist’s elbow)
is no more prop than she—no, nor no less—
and ladder, light, and skylight (all arranged)
are backdrop and reflection (both at once)
to magnify reception. Reputation.
Yes. She is amused. And she is bruised,
a little, delicate, and cool, and coldly used.
She knows her image was an afterthought.
She knows about the palette knife, the tools
for taking off the color from her face.
She knows about the angels and the beam.
And she has seen it, seen it all, has seen
why he would feign to hover in the back
when anybody knows—or ought to know—
the artists always takes the center stage.
Call all self-portraits false humility.
And so her gaze (the one thing she can will)
refuses him, amuses her, and chooses where
the viewer’s gaze will linger. There,
beyond the structure of the mismatched frame,
her eyes’ suggestion blanks the artist’s name.
And “Mary and”—not “Mary in”—and Mary
heads the title. Not a little fame.