from The Southern Review, Summer 2014
Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.
Years ago I remember being asked why I wrote poems about paintings and answering spontaneously, "Because I'm lonely." I was at lunch with an acquaintance, the first lunch I'd allowed myself "out" since the birth of my first child a month earlier. We were at a neighborhood restaurant, its patio full of doctors from the medical university nearby, the dessert board listing "homemade chocolate pudding," and to be adventurous I'd ordered the hominy, thinking it would be some less tame variation on old-fashioned grits. Now I sat in front of a plate of milky, alien, beanish things with no idea how to eat them or what to say to explain what I had just said.
My companion was nice enough, faced with a silly answer to her reasonable question. An artist herself—she was a doctor and a painter; she'd organized her life well enough to paint half time and work half time—she volunteered how lonely art-making was, and what followed was the usual talk about how isolating it can be to create, et cetera. I saw it dwindling before my eyes—the possibility of our being friends, sure, but also the possibility of my explaining what I meant; put more fairly, I saw dwindling the possibility of my knowing what I had meant. Yes, writing is solitary work, and so is painting. Theoreticians of a higher pay grade than she and I have discussed such matters in terms far more elevated than I might hope to with my plate of hominy and my dream of a lunch that extended into a pudding course, but there it was: I'd said something a little bit alarming about my relationship to art. There was something particular to this brand of loneliness. What was my artist-acquaintance to do with that level of vaguely Romantic candor?
I'm not certain if she cut things short or I did, but we didn't make it to the pudding, and we didn't have lunch again. I was on my own to figure out what I meant by being lonely, or how looking at paintings by dead people—some long dead and anonymous (like the Master of the Vyssi Brod Altarpiece, ca. 1350, Prague) and others dead in my century by their own hands (like Arshile Gorky)—made me feel any less so. In truth, I would write hundreds of poems without figuring it out, and finally, I would start writing this essay in which I confess that I dislike the term ekphrasis, a general term for any piece of art composed to describe or respond to any other piece of art. Perhaps that's unfair, since I no more know why I dislike the term than I do how to begin to explain my relationship to art or how it informs my solitary creative life. The name may be ekphrasis, but what is the thing? And what might bridging the abyss between the two mean?
Dear onion with seven feathers.
Dear lakeside bath. Dear terrace-weaver,
For certain periods of my life I have felt as if I've lived fullest when I've allowed myself to think deeply about visual art, and art, in some extravagant, pesky way, has made it into my everyday life, so that I live somewhat according to its terms, rather than the other way around. I should mention the main "aim" of this living with art is not the writing of poems; it's living. I read books, travel places, and generally think overmuch about it. In one legendary example, my husband and I carried our seven- and three-year-old sons up a mountain and across what our guidebooks called a scree—we were dismayed to realize we did not know the meaning of this word until we were compelled to cross one on foot—to see some thirteenth century devotional paintings that were reputed to exist behind a church in a hermit's cave above the village of Pale, in eastern Umbria. Finding the door to the church locked and our way to the paintings blocked: that was one experience that did not end up with an ekphrastic poem in its honor. However, I've not ever been as grateful for a cold-water tap as I was for the one we found in that high church courtyard, and there was something in the devotion of the climb that appealed to us, even hot and tired as we were. For similar reasons I will one day walk the pilgrimage to Compostela, but there the goal is more obviously spiritual.
But isn't "the goal" (of writing) always obviously spiritual? Simic's talk of bridge and abyss speaks to me in the way of spirit. If I were writing a grant or museum-catalog copy, I'd say I am seeking some sort of communion—naïve as it may be—with these pieces of art and with the fact of their making. It can't be an accident that half the artwork I fixate on is devotional in nature; that the other half is abstract is interesting and not, I suspect, unrelated. Just as language is sometimes the medium by which I work and sometimes its subject, these two types of art-making feel, to me, both medium and subject. Or perhaps it's that the spirit is always both subject and medium. I have trouble thinking of visual art that is not in some way devotional, just as I have trouble finding poetic language that is not on some level communicative.
Dear apricots drying. Dear embroidered apron,
child of the deep stable.
Dear dark angel in the book.
Dear my own green sun.
As you are probably gathering, some sort of elaborate fantasy life has begun inside me, such that I have begun to live in two places at once (three, if you count language as a place as well); some of my poems, with titles like "Walking My Neighborhood and Thinking of Düsseldorf Untitled" testify to that, as does "Seeing Rothko and Thinking of Crusoe," a poem in which I think about a late triptych by Rothko in terms of the character in an Elizabeth Bishop poem (a second-generation ekphrasis, I suppose, since the Bishop poem refers to a character in a novel). As long ago I began to think of poets, I now think of these artists by their first names; I steal their words as if they were mine; give them nicknames; name my children with their, rather than family, names; wish better choices for their lives; will on them some imaginary future.
As one does with close family, occasionally I rebuke them or sympathize. Who would want a domestic situation like Vermeer's? How could anyone live a normal life after his own mother died in his arms, following a long march toward the Russian border, as Arshile Gorky's had? I'm still haunted by something I read about his suicide, which was by hanging in a shed on his Connecticut property, a place Gorky called the Glass House. Afterward, walking the grounds, friends found ropes at several other locations, as if he'd tried and failed on many occasions, or left rope for a later attempt. I can't stop thinking about those ropes, yet something in me understands his leaving them in all those beautiful spots: copses and hilltops. Was he thinking of Khorkom, his childhood village on the Van, a lake in Armenia? Was he recalling some deeply imprinted, natal view?
Dear baby by lakeside. Thief of ornament.
Survivor of fire. Dear self-portrait
employing the golden mean. Flock of birds
quickly rising. Dear poplar grove.
Later, when I heard that the woman who now owns the Glass House believes Gorky's ghost still lives there, and that one of the things her guests had heard was something being dragged on the roof, I thought again of the child Gorky was in the village on the lake where he lived before he fled the Armenian genocide of 1915. There goats really did get on the roofs of houses, to eat the roof grass; it drove the men crazy having to run them off, hence the expression "Man with goats on the roof." Lent was observed by stringing an onion up near the hearth hole in the ceiling and lodging in its onion heart seven feathers; when the last fell out, Lent was over. Perhaps it was Gorky's restless ghost—like me, an early riser—who had found me in my fanciful, art-writing state? Or he was the goat on my roof some mornings?
So, as you can see, I read their biographies and interviews, yes, but with something other than the zeal of the student. And since I am the last of seven children, perhaps I am not surprised that most of those I love have gone and left me behind on the shore of this contemporary moment.
Have I created this elaborate, and ultimately doomed, dialogue with the dead and the inanimate because my own life (writing or otherwise) is not satisfying? Have I done it simply to trick myself into writing some poems? That seems a long way around a short block to me. I can observe that my mildly obsessive tendencies about art began to ramp up in earnest after I had my first child, and that in the predawn nursing hours, while I lay listening to my son return to sleep, I would often get up and begin writing. But those hours were deeply satisfying—it was more that I was encouraged by my solitude into the greater intimacy of these paintings; there so early in the tiny study off the living room that looked onto the red tin roof of the stoop where I would soon hear the first door opening, who better to accompany me than Vermeer and his milkmaids, or Rothko and his color, or a late Gorky painting? It was the year after my father died, a year in which his absence joined seamlessly with the presence of my first child. It felt natural to write about the death of my father and include a sentence from a letter by Orozco. Actually, it felt as if the letter from Orozco were written to my father, and that I was born to overhear it and pass it on to him in a poem.
Dear laundry drying at noon.
Dear youngest brother. Dear risen Christ.
Dear water-fed beast. Folded codex.
If you were memorizing by touch
your mother's pattern. If you were first
folds-of-apron blessed. Dear palace child.
When I write about these pieces of art or their makers, I often feel I am doing something other than describing the art or even, as the root of ekphrasis suggests, proclaiming or recounting an inanimate object. After all, who's animate here? It's as if I'm the inanimate part and the art lives inside me, in the space behind the eye or as a sudden weight on the chest. And so with language: it's living, a force. I push it and it pushes back; the mind inert, the language active. Such resistance (the pushing back against my own subjectivity) I depend on to release myself—though I'm not sure from what. Even on a grant application I couldn't answer that one—but why do we poets consent to answer such questions? What is it in us that seeks an immediately defensible stance about what we do? Simic tells us only that poetry tries to bridge the abyss; Simic talks about language being a problem.
You can see the distasteful narcissistic possibilities in such defenses are legion, as legion as those who find themselves in the cognitive trap of proclaiming themselves confessional poets, or narrative or lyric or language or surrealist poets (or poets of any school, for that matter): everything is not everything else. Like language, art is not something one can appropriate, moving toward or away from its specificity as needed by one's own aesthetic frame, and really, was that what I was doing? I can tell you I was living. My father had died and my young child had left me awake at four in the morning and ghosts, it turns out, are the only ones up at that hour. So, after the college kids had already headed down my street in their drunken state and before the first, early risers came out to sweep their stoops, I spent my time—intimate time, it felt—in the company of no other "living" things but language and paint. Was it possible that something inside the art was movable and changeable, and that if I looked long and often enough, something in me might shift in response? Poetry has a responsive element, I knew, some kind of bridging. I began to think about such things deeply.
Dear shoe thief. Sweep the churchyard. Steal this,
the tree's first pear. Dear found-without-a-head.
Blown to bits. Skip quickly over the boggy part.
Dear line-traveling-over-paper, here is a path.
After I had been engaged in my own fuguish poetry-making-art fantasy life for years, I found a young artist in a fugue of his own. Himself of Armenian descent, deeply moved by Gorky's story of immigration and exile, Aram Jibilian had taken to staging real and imagined instances from Gorky's life by wearing a mask of Gorky's face in the photographs he takes. The mask is a likeness of Gorky's own self-portrait in the famous painting of Gorky and his mother (The Artist and His Mother, [ca. 1926-36]), itself based on a photograph from before they had to leave Armenia but after his father had already left for America. Jibilian calls his photographic version of this iconic image Go die, come back, I'll love you (2007). This title, more than anything I've read, approaches the loneliness I've tried to describe having felt as I spoke to my artist-friend over lunch or even having sought relief from in the paintings I write about. It is a response, yes, not just to the art but also to whatever remains of the artist, living or dead. And to its core it is a contemporary response. It comments on the past and invites the future, as elegies are meant to do. Jibilian's is a child's wish to an absent parent, but also a poet's to the poem: come back.
One worries there's something (too) confessional in it. One can see that it's a spiritual trap to want to relate something objective and exterior to one's subjective, interior reality, but what if it's something quite the opposite of that: What if the objective otherness of a piece of art moves so close to one's own thinking as to become one's own subjectivity? Or rather, could looking at this art change one's own subjectivity? Here name nears its thing. Certainly, looking alters my concerns; it changes my patterns of thinking; it causes me to seek out not people but the ghosts of their art.
Just as I've found language has a way of pushing back, perhaps of altering subjectivity, Jibilian found his mask changing the intent he had for the photograph, and perhaps changing the wearer (as language changes the wearer). When a contemporary art magazine's interviewer asked about his work with the Gorky mask, here's what Jibilian said about it:
The thing I am most drawn to about this mask is how it seemingly yields little expression, as you said, but when placed in different contexts, the expression changes. We never see the actual person experiencing the ecstasy or banality, but surprisingly enough the mask seems to transform in gesture from one image to the next. The same thing happens with the Gorky mask. When placed in the context of another person, I found that the [mask's] expression responded to the expression on the "real" face.
Jibilian, too, experiences a process of blurring: the art becoming "real" as it responds to the real, just as I had felt these subtle shifts in the paintings as I wrote about them and in the language as I used it. How did I conceptualize this writing as it was happening? I didn't stop and name. I gave myself over to the language and the art together—maybe language and art can be Simic's name and thing, and the bridge the giving-over between them? I was not writing about art alone, but doing something else. But what, exactly? If someone asked, would I mention ekphrasis? Jibilian again: "When I began the Gorky work, I was actually the one who was also wearing the mask.... It was very liberating to finally pass on the mask to someone else, and be able to stand back and see the mask in the space, seeing how the light would catch it ... "
Dear sunlight, dear lake's black edge, river mouth.
Dear caravan carrying guns. Dear blue curve.
Dear agora in kilim. Dear fingertip and nail.
Glassless window. Egg wash. Swaddle.
Let me be clear: My quarrel is not with the definition of ekphrasis, nor with its use by third parties after the fact of a poem's writing. It's in the way poets think about ekphrasis while writing, naming in order to skip over Simic's abyss without bridging it or bothering with the essentiality of the thing (art-looking). In some way, such naming masks. And what better time to pass the mask to someone else than when one is looking at art? I find such viewing unburdening, its own kind of bridge. This is why I don't name, for myself or anyone else. If I did, the self-conscious act of choosing a type of poem to write while looking at a piece of art would begin, in some crucial way, to prevent my feeling it (not naming but feeling). Instead, when I experience art, when I live with it, I accept that how I react to it is, in some way, uncategorizable. As soon as I seek out the piece of art for any other purpose than to experience it and therefore better experience my own life, I have ceased preparing myself for the art to become animate. Would I listen to music the better to learn mathematics? Would I read another's poem to hone my own critical-thinking skills? Why would I stand in front of a painting hoping to make a poem? I wouldn't.
I listen to music because I can't swim in anything the way I can in the tonal color of a song; I read poems because doing so is like free-floating in the language-mind of something I might otherwise never feel. But all of that is extremely private, undertaken entirely for its own sake. Looking at a painting, I might make a poem because I can do nothing else as an extension of my feeling for it. Or I might walk up the mountain and find a locked church door and be grateful not for a poem but for a cold-water tap. The poem or the world—put like that it's a false choice, a trade-off, but one that poets make all the time in the name of self-consciousness, in the name of making something.
Like poetic movement itself, like the shifting way in which subjects appear and disappear in a poem, the naming of a thing can be a private, even mysterious, matter. Often in poems there are private moments—perhaps I love paintings because, like poems, they turn private suddenly and with very little explanation—and these private moments pass into a realm of knowing (in the reader, as in the poet) that resists simple nomenclature. I think this is the abyss Simic refers to. If the reader can stand the difficulty, the moment of abandonment, the poem edges back, eventually, bridging toward inclusion; however, after such a moment the terms of reading have changed: one comes to expect, even want, a certain privacy. With the problem of language exposed, the reader becomes aware of the space between name and thing. It's in this spirit that one reads the title of Arshile Gorky's painting How My Mother's Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944) and is pleased not to be given that picture, but another entirely, one that speaks to one's own isolation, even loneliness. You recognize it—yourself inside paint, your own longing inside Gorky's. Your bridging work has begun without your asking after it, and certainly without your being pressed to name or defend it.
Perhaps I worry that if I am quick to name what I'm doing as a poet I'm unlikely to get close enough to that process. I might stop short of engaging and instead comfortably repose in the realm of making; what I should be doing, of course, is feeling. I've begun to suspect there's a trade-off between intellect and emotion not in the act of looking at a painting, but in the act of planning to write about a painting. Perhaps this has increased as poets' metacommentary about their work has increased. I wonder: How self-consciously aestheticizing are we asked to be? Or do we choose to aestheticize to avoid the difficult work of writing the poem?
Which is the mask, and should we shed it? The mask holds—or interrogates—some aspect of trade-off for Jibilian, too. And perhaps not accidentally, Jibilian's mask came about because of a critical-thinking assignment he was given by a muuseum curator. He explains, "I was asked to illustrate an interview in which [Neery] Melkonian mentioned how Gorky masked his personal/subjective experience in exchange for being able to explore progressive aesthetic vocabularies. I found this modernist idea of it being a trade-off fascinating, that one had to be sacrificed for the other."
That one had to be sacrificed for the other. Progressive aesthetic vocabularies versus personal/subjective experience. I see something like this very thing happening inside me, in the impulse to name the kind of work I'm doing ekphrasis. Perhaps I find the term troublesome because its use by poets themselves suggests to me the trading of the doing of what we are doing for the naming of what we are doing. I read Simic as adamant that we are not naming but bridging between name and thing. In his version, the name and the thing predate our coming upon them, and our job is a difficult attempt at something between these.
Of course we are asked, on grant applications, by publishers, even at lunch, why we do what we do. Ekphrasis, like many poetic terms of craft or movement-related manifestos, provides a ready answer. Surely it's a better answer than "Because I am lonely." But mightn't it also narrow the field a little too early? Is it too focused on the naming rather than the bridging? It's possible this is a trade-off we should be less eager to make, and that giving over the mysterious (highly experiential) field of art-viewing—and writing about it—to the self-conscious realm of the articulation of aesthetic value could short-circuit crucial processes inside writing the poem.
Dear piety and prune. Dear first prayer
in the widow's mouth. Later to starve
to darken there. Dear risen one.
Bring us carry our stones.
* * *
I know that when I began writing poems about art, I ended up spending a lot of time happily concerned with formal requirements, and I can assure you I didn't think of names—ekphrastic or otherwise. But I wanted as broad and as personal a space as possible, for the poems and for me, to open. Jibilian again, inventing a life for Gorky, this time blending sweetly with Jibilian's own present day: "In this portrait, my twin brother plays Gorky, seen in his country jacket holding his imaginary son, my real nephew." Gorky and the son he never had (2010).
All during my son's early life I wrote poems on Rothko and Vermeer. Like most children, before my son could speak in sentences, he spoke in phrases. I now recognize in the precise, noun-driven diction of the art poems I wrote at that time the kind of language I used with him: small commands and simple, timely requests. The same intimacy that I shared with him while he exchanged with me his earliest words I find in these poems. It feels as if I was hoping—with a long line and lots of space in it, with the use of clear images and very little punctuation—to create something like Rothko's field of color, the imagistic precision of Vermeer. At least looking at these poems now I see how abstraction washed through my own work from Rothko, and figuration from Vermeer, and language itself from early conversations with my son. I see the halting phrases and I recognize that I was, in some way, hoping to think alongside the artists as well as my son, each moving away from me at a different speed. I was trying to get closer to them rather than make something of my own out of them. And though I know it's not really possible to think like another person, it made me less lonely to try. Perhaps it relieved some of the pressure to make my own art live inside theirs. It relieved me of making/bridging pressure. Sometimes their art acted for me as a little bit of shelter, and sometimes language itself became its own shelter.
Ekphrasis. Writing about Art. Art Poems. Each is a mask poets might do well to take or leave during writing. What I feel, when I'm looking close, is something like Go die, come back, I'll love you.
Taken together, the lines included throughout this essay make up the entirety of my unpublished poem, "In Khorkom (for Arshile Gorky)." Details about Gorky's early life included therein are adapted from the remembrance From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky by Matthew Spender, Gorky's son-in-law.
* * *
About the Author
Carol Ann Davis is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her poetry collections are Psalm and Atlas Hour. Recent work appears in VOLT, AGNI, and The American Poetry Review. In 2012, after editing Crazyhorse and directing the undergraduate program in creative writing at the College of Charleston for a number of years, she joined the faculty of Fairfield University and began teaching in their MFA program.
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