Ekphrasis

So the past couple days, I took an ekphrastic poetry workshop at the Farnsworth Art Museum.  It was taught by the poet Arielle Greenberg, whose book someone gave me last year out of the blue.  So when I saw that she was leading it, and miraculously I was free all three afternoons, I figured it was fate.  Okay, not fate.  But a lovely opportunity.

Ekphrasis is fun.  Basically, it means using one artwork as inspiration for another artwork.  In our case, we were using paintings in the museum to inspire us to write poems.  It’s not translating–though I think it would be intriguing to imagine translating from paint to paper.  It’s more like the art is a springboard to think in a way you usually don’t think.

Ekphrasis is also funny, in the sense of being complicated, equivocal in some ways. On the one hand, I think of Elaine Scarry’s wonderful succinct insistence that “beauty begets,” that when we behold something beautiful, it encourages in us the impulse to create. Beauty wants to make more beauty–and sometimes we are the agents of its reproductive urges. On the other hand, I think of Mark Doty’s lovely observations about still lives, his emphasis on their capacity to remind us of the strangeness and singularity of every thing. Which doesn’t mitigate AGAINST being inspired, of course, but does suggest that the thing created might bear very little link, finally, to the thing that did the inspiring.

I wish I could insert a little jpeg here of the painting I was using, but alas, that cannot be.  My springboard painting was by Alex Katz, and is called “Wildflowers #2″ (1956), so if you spot a legal-to-use jpeg of it and want to send it my way, I’d be grateful.

In the meantime, here’s his website so you can get an idea of what it might look like: http://www.alexkatz.com/print_archive

And here’s the poem:

Long Distance

The summer I learned how to swim far,
I followed my mother each morning
across Lake Ellis—she in a gray
rowboat (it had been cornflower blue,
once, way back before we kids were born),
and me in the tannin-pickled pond.
We’d rise at dawn and wriggle into
the black racing suits we reserved for
real swimming. Easing the screen door shut,

creeping free of the squat brown cottage,
we’d sneak away before the others
woke. Even on fog-blankened mornings,
when towels hung limply on the line,
our bare feet were thick with dust before
we reached the beach—the flaking dory
and rough oars always exactly where
we’d left them, tucked behind some gangly
alders in a nest of wild mint.

Wasting no time, we’d head for the far
shore. She faced backward, my mother, and
pulled hard. Her tanned arms drew the oars close.
As she eased them free for each next stroke,
their tips would scar the surface, roiling
everything. I swam for the eddying
rings, cupped fingers straining to reach them
before they faded back to flat. “Pace
yourself,” she’d intone, and drive harder.

One morning, out past Davin’s dock, loud
splashing snapped our tethered attention—
too big for loon, too clumsy for trout.
Soon, the turbulence settled into
the shuh, shuh, shuh of seasoned swimming.
And minutes later, we spied its source:
broad shouldered, black-capped, a lithe stranger
shuttling smoothly toward the dory.
My mother tacked, easing us away;

the man deftly followed suit. Drawing
alongside, he fell in to my pace.
My mother dug her blades deep, deftly
sliced the watery slab, gathering
too much speed. Brusquely torqueing the boat
about, she signaled me to tumble
in. “Your lips are blue,” she muttered and
tossed me her towel, before rowing
us back toward shore, the lesson over.

 

Not too terrible, but so fascinatingly unfamiliar to me, its ostensible maker. We made a poem a day, each with a different piece as a springboard, each with a different poetic flavor. Looking at them together, it’s hard to believe the same writer made them within 72 hours of one another. Ekphrasis unsettles old habits, set me meandering down new paths. Whether I stick with any of them, I don’t know. But it was a blast to wander.

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.

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It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Fireflies Attract

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Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan.   Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.

We had a terrific  time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon.  Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.

Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender.  As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them.  Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan.  Here’s one of them:

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Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies.  In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference.  To her surprise, even lay people attended.  And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.

In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time.    Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail.  Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:

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These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them.  Here is one:

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Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.