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Redeeming my faith in Ekphrasis

Eileen Tabios reviews

Serious Pink, by Sharon Dolin

Marsh Hawk Press, 2003

This piece is 2,500 words or about six printed pages long.

I’ve been practicing ekphrasis — writing about or attempting to represent the visual arts — since I began writing poems years ago. Ekphrasis goes back as far as Homer’s Iliad — a reference picked up centuries later in W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’. Despite reservations about it, ekphrasis stubbornly continues and thrives. Its numerous practitioners straddle a wide variety of periods and styles — ranging over Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Ann Lauterbach and many others.
      Ekphrasis also evolves — while writing this essay I received a freshly-written version of Auden’s poem by Michael James Bogue which restructured the poem based on the Oulipian practice of ‘N+7,’replacing a substantive noun with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. Moreover, certain poets and artists who collaborate (e.g. John Yau and Archie Rand) do so partly from an understanding that collaborations avoid some of the pitfalls of ekphrasis where one of the parts (the visual art) is usually finished, while the other is made in another time.
      Reservations on ekphrasis can be explained in part by referencing the following terms:

  1. ‘ekphrasis indifference’ is the comprehension that no description can adequately recreate the image in the reader’s mind;
  2. ‘ekphrastic hope’ is the attempt to overcome ekphrasis’ impossibility through imagination and metaphor; and
  3. ‘ekphrastic fear’ relates to when a reader conjures up a visual image that’s totally different from the initial picture seen.

I didn’t, however, know until relatively recently of the long history of ekphrasis — and how it’s fueled much debate among rhetoricians and critics. I began writing poems about paintings (and later sculptures and art in other media) simply because I’d been following contemporary art developments for over two decades (much longer than my poetry-writing). Thus, I came to prefer — through my own direct experience rather than through theory — writing poems that, while inspired by and perhaps even seeking to mirror a visual image, actually came to embody something different.
      If my preference was for facilitating what theorists call ‘ekphrasis fear,’ I didn’t think it something to be viewed with dismay (or any emotion one might have towards something fear-ful). I consider the ekphrastic poem’s path of transcending its original impetus to be not that different from how a poem often leaves the poet’s initial intention. Indeed, it seems appropriate that Homer devoted a long passage to Achilles’ shield and yet, in the Iliad, no one really ever saw the shield (the Myrnidos were scared to look at it and Homer was blind).
      By the time, therefore, that I read of ‘ekphrasis indifference,’ I was past the hand-wringing such failure might elicit. If ekphrasis fails, it’s not just because one medium (words) can’t be synonymous with another medium (visual art). It seems to me that ekphrasis must fail its intention in the way that a poem becomes its own entity without necessarily adhering to the poet’s original thought. Part of poetry-making, to me, is allowing oneself the freedom to free-associate during the process itself, because a poem is not necessarily pre-determined at the outset of its creation.
      Consequently, I would come to read Sharon Dolin’s recently-released book, Serious Pink, not just with delight but, with much relief. Serious Pink is a collection of poems on, about and/ or inspired by the works of three abstract painters: Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell and Howard Hodgkin. But it was a good idea to place the notes to the poems in a separate section in the back of the book; the placement helps open up Dolin’s poems to readers who may never see — and need not see — the referenced paintings in order to enjoy the poems. For instance, you don’t need to know of, say, Diebenkorn’s 1957 painting ‘Sea Wall’ to enjoy the poem with the same title, that begins with

Randomness is the opposite of being adored.

Where there is minute definition color concentrates.

Gash of green before the slip
down to sea..................where a couple embraces.

There are obvious references to the painting — ‘Gash of green’ — but the ‘green’ also could be a word chosen for rhyming with ‘sea.’ In addition, whatever significance the reader finds in ‘Randomness is the opposite of being adored’ or ‘Where there is minute definition color concentrates’ can be elicited in terms of what exists in these lines’ thoughts, separate from the referenced painting.
      Naturally, I wondered, wandering through these poems, whether some of the indentations and caesuras were as much a visual as well as literary technique. For example, from my eye and read, the way the alternating stanzas (all couplets except for the last line) indent and don’t indent in the poem ‘Objects’ serves nicely to emphasize the ‘object’-ness of what the text describes. In this middle section where the three couplets refer to the same scene (unlike for other couplets that offer one object per couplet), the indentations help prevent a type of smooth flow across the three stanzas; by doing so, attention is focused singly on each couplet’s thought:

            poppies may be as orange
            as the line

down the table’s center
which does not go

            with the shadow
            is blue.

Much of what I enjoy about ekphrasis is how the underlying inspiration to the work enables one to transcend one’s limits of imagination. This seems to me to be part of what is happening in ‘Ochre’ which refers to Diebenkorn’s 1983 woodblock print of the same name that was reproduced in Richard Diebenkorn Prints: 1948-1992 (Susan Sheehan Gallery, N.Y., 1993). Here’s an excerpt, from which you also might glimpse what I saw: an incandescent music which made me think of notes glinting silver like sunrays spearing against stones:

                              I’ve given you two ideas:
                  forethought and afterthought
overlaid by a Venetian-green door.

You are mistaken if you think I planned it this way

only by being mistaken
                  about diagonal rose
                              beside powder blue

could I hope to swathe almost all in honey

live life not as one grand mistake
                  but as shards of thousands
                                     with time to cover the bruise

This poem’s luminosity and message of openness to life’s multiplicities, including the random, recall for me the wise and radiant words of Arthur Sze. For instance, as when Sze writes in his poem ‘Slanting Light’ such lines flickering from one narrative reference to another before a pleasingly unexpected conclusion as:

I have to sift this

quirky and lashing stillness of form to see myself,
even as I see laid out on a table for Death

an assortment of pomegranates and gourds.
And what if Death eats a few pomegranate seeds?

Does it insure a few years of pungent spring?
I see one gourd, yellow from midsection to top

and zucchini-green lower down, but
already the big orange gourd is gnawed black.

I have no idea why the one survives the killing nights.

Ekphrasis, as Dolin exemplifies, is not about verbalizing an intention (including an image). It’s about letting something else begin an experience or revelation that the poet might not otherwise experience or know. But Dolin doesn’t keep the experiences solipsistic — her poems use a lot of ‘you’ for a reason. ‘Ochre,’ for one, ends with the lines

let the shapes — once removed —
move you.

Ultimately, Dolin doesn’t make the mistake made by other poets writing from the inspiration of paintings — the inevitably doomed task of attempting to textually mimic another art work. Her ekphrastic process begins with the paintings, but the paintings appropriately are left behind in order to allow the poems to become their own entities: poems. Significantly because I think it a source of strength for these poems (and is an integral part of how they become poems), Dolin incorporates an epistemological perspective that you might glean from some of the excerpts, including these lines from ‘Looking Again’ (that’s informed by Diebenkorn’s 1961 painting ‘Seated Nude — Black Background’):

                        Shoes left on a patterned tile —
It’s not true you never have to travel;
her knee’s been cooked so long in his
attention it’s burnt red as is the spot
between her breasts so fiercely shadowed
we look away to look back.

‘And what is seeing?’ I had asked in my poem ‘The Color of A Scratch In Metal’ (inspired by abstract expressionist paintings and a poem by Rick Barot entitled ‘Some Remarks on Color’ which asks the same question). To the extent that the reader is or will be moved by Dolin’s poems, it’s because Dolin did her job as a poet: she saw and then was moved by what she saw before she would write the words that would come to affect her reader(s). This means Dolin had to see proactively. As she puts it in her poem ‘Black Painting #1: “No Black”,’ (from a series inspired by Joan Mitchell’s 1964 series of the same name), ‘if you look/ if you insist.’
      Nor is such insistence the end of the ‘looking’ experience. As Dolin articulates it in ‘Black Painting #2: The Dead,’ ‘Blue winter rain / that’s what you’ve become.’ These lines remind me of something I had learned as an occasional art reviewer: I could write about the visual arts in at least two different ways — by looking at the paint or by being in the paint. Sometimes, I’ve called the latter being the paint. Basically I’m talking about feeling — a passionate and passionately radicalizing feeling — in addition to thinking about the art you’re perusing. To allow and urge one’s self to see ‘blue winter rain’ and then be -come ‘blue winter rain’ due to empathy.
      Moreover, having just seen the Philip Guston Retrospective at SFMoma, Dolin’s approach reminds me of Guston when he painted his 1950s abstract works. Whereas many of his abstract expressionist peers had enlarged their scale to facilitate drawing in the viewer into the paint(ing), Guston took another path. He made more intimate his proximity to his work, making small brushstrokes close up at the canvas without necessarily stepping back every so often to look at the overall canvas.
      In turn, the viewer confronted with Guston’s large paintings rarely remains at a distance looking at the paintings; the viewer is compelled to move physically close to Guston’s canvasses, nose an inch or so away, as the viewer intently looks at Guston’s brushstrokes. While looking at Guston, I was reminded of Dolin’s poems partly because she very much inserted intimate narrative details (‘a couple embraces’) even as she veers off into larger abstractions (‘Randomness is the opposite of being adored’).
      Thus, Dolin’s deftness in incorporating art-related text by other writers is not surprising, Her ‘Ode to Color’ retains an internal logic (thus, becomes a poem) despite having been collaged from seventeen different sources — from Mark Rothko: A Biography to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour to a New York Times article referring to ‘two signing chimpanzees’ to Paul Eluard’s ‘L’Amour, la Poesie’ to Goethe’s Theory of Colours. I enjoy this type of writing wherein one relies on found text to create a new entity, thus transcending original context.
      As with the referenced paintings, the reader need not know of Dolin’s original sources to appreciate the poem, even though Dolin doesn’t conceal which words are borrowed (the quoted texts are italicized). But by not incorporating the quoted authors’ names into the poem, the reader can focus on the words in the poem rather than the presence of their authors. In this excerpt, the italicized lines are from Tomas Salamun and Czeslaw Milosz:

A color will carry you
around the world immediately

Why this poverty when we deal with colors? Why comparisons?
Birch leaves are like small, pale-yellow coins, sparsely attached to twigs
which are of what hue? Lilac, from the lilacs, and violet, from the violet.

Red as the blonde-bearded face
                  bloodied by another fighting
                  over deposit cans

or as miscarried week-old life
                  draining out a full week
                  between my legs.

In the poem ‘In the Honeymoon Suite,’ Dolin writes

To go so inside
each person had to be mastered:

they scorned,
he and she banished

so that you and I
could reverse

up with down
then vanish.

All conversation is round

A conversation can be a journey. A poet brings what she sees and, by writing a poem about it, draws the attentive reader within its space. The conversation is circular but the line forming the circle is never visible because that line can be a limit, can define inside versus outside, when, in fact, the painting’s and poem’s welcome is infinite. ‘You’ are encouraged to become brushstroke and word, not simply a witness to both. Here, the poet ensures the poems are not about her. She has generously written in the aptly titled ‘Writing Painting: A Ghazal’ (aptly titled because the word ‘Painting’ has a line crossing it out):

Past desert’s edge — plum trees;
off the plain of Sharon — the sea rung blue.

In a ghazal, the poet traditionally inserts his or her name. Her name is ‘Sharon’ but Dolin suggests that you, the reader(s), go beyond her and the specific landscape evoked (‘Sharon’ is also the fertile plain between Haifa and Tel Aviv in Israel) — which is to say, go on your own to voluntarily commit to a deeper reading, and you’ll hear the music of the ‘sea rung blue.’

Dolin’s book takes its title Serious Pink from a question by Howard Hodgkin: ‘Can you imagine a serious pink next to a trivial blue or even a ridiculous black?’
      I like this quote for matter-of-factly breaking two rules of poetry that I try to maintain for my poems (which is not to say, I don’t break them): generally, avoid adjectives and, specifically, avoid color adjectives. Quite logically, Dolin shows a deftness in utilizing color adjectives, as in ‘Ochre’:

                        fugitive pinks and blues
            saved by white

or in the aptly-titled ‘Black Painting #7: Metamorphosis’

                  You’re a green body of notes
sprung from a red-and-blue cocoon.

Actually, Dolin is masterful with words of color, and not just as adjectives. There is the ‘relentless buffoonery / of white’ in ‘Black Painting #6: Clouds’ or ‘Vermilion cannot do everything’ in ‘Ode to Color.’ (The former is actually quoted from Henri Matisse, but Dolin must still deserve credit for choosing to use the phrase.) Dolin creates logic from what should be non-sequiturs and, thus, creates poems — a strategy that also might be described through these lines from ‘Mistake’:

Mistakes are the only thing you can trust
to go wrong and that’s how
they right themselves no matter how
much you knock them over.

Since these poems are inspired by paintings, it only makes sense that color-ful words should have a place. Dolin’s Serious Pink is pleasurable like paintings whose perspectives are at balance: there is harmony in Dolin’s diction. Serious Pink’s poems arise organically from the arbitrariness of their starting points to transcend their initial constraints. By doing so, they are freed into poems capable of offering visual delight to the ears as much as the eyes — yet another proof of how Love defies categories.

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