Sorting through my mother’s belongings, I uncovered a perplexing life. She was an artist and a connoisseur of the absurd. As a child, I admired her paintings, but tiptoed past the stranger ones. In nightmares, my mother stood in a dark closet behind a portrait of a gnarled crone. Glowering from the canvas, the old woman clutched a terrified goose.
Disturbing questions followed me as I traveled to the vacation condo my mother shared with my stepfather, who was also deceased. I needed to clear out the place, but wanted to leave time for writing and contemplation. I scrubbed years of grime from tile grout, pulled down mildewed curtains, and gazed out at the ocean. Words shimmered on the horizon and dissolved. To write about my mother, I had to look--really look--at her paintings. And so, during a solidary stay in Florida, I took a deep dive into ekphrastic poetry.
Ekphrastic poetry responds to art. The term ekphrastic comes from a Greek expression for description. Using a rhetorical device known as ekphrasis, the epic poets of ancient Greece described objects and scenes in lavish detail. The idea was to turn the visual into the verbal so that audiences could see mental images of the narratives.
When contemporary poets write about a creative work, they usually do much more than describe. Many step inside the frame and engage with the art. In “Edward Hopper Study: Hotel Room,” Victoria Chang imagines the private thoughts of Hopper’s subject, a woman with a face painted the “shade of golden meringue.” In "Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies," Sylvia Plath speaks directly to the reclining nude from Rousseau’s jungle scene, “The Dream.” May Swenson lets sculptures do the talking in “The Tall Figures Giacometti.”: “We move by means of our mud bumps. / We bubble as do the dead but more slowly.”
Poets like Anne Carson capture the spirit of visual art through lyrical language and innovative arrangements of words on the page. Monologues, dialogues, and dramatic scenes can also add dimensions, breathing life into static images. A playful ekphrastic poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti has artist Marc Chagall galloping away from his mother who shouts, “Don't let that horse / eat that violin.”
Turning Pictures into Poetry
Excited by the possibilities, I explored ways to interpret, confront, question, and hear my mother through her art. For the first time, I studied the angry abstract she displayed by the door to the kitchen. Orange and black slashed across the tall canvas. The colors, applied in slabs, shrieked for attention. The shapes were incomprehensible. Even more puzzling: On the back of the frame, the carefully printed words, “Lahey 10 A.M.”
A Google search for “Lahey” unleashed a string of associations. A person named Lahey declared, “I am Alcohol in the Flesh.” Another Lahey “turned to art late in life.” My poem about the abstract painting segued into a meditation on wild departures from lifelong patterns. The incomprehensible shapes, I suddenly realized, were crows in flight.
Ekphrastic poetry invites non sequiturs, digressions, and surprises. The disturbing image of the old woman and the goose, painted several months before I was born, transported me to a mother I didn’t remember and had never considered: an ambitious and frustrated painter who “must’ve felt queasy / perched on her artist stool, // swooping her palette knife / side to side while I swam / inside her.”
Discovering the Narrator
During a career that spanned more than sixty years, my mother experimented with abstract expressionism, cubism, impressionism, and trompe l’oeil realism. Inspired by Frida Kahlo, she eventually found her calling in magic realism. Sofas floated over clouds. Skeletons dangled from telephone poles. Monkeys appeared. Perched on rooftops or crouching in corners, they gazed at painted scenes, their dark eyes bored or amused.
The monkey image gave my ekphrastic poems a new voice. Mischievous and sardonic, he (or she?) helped explain incongruous images, odd juxtapositions, and baffling symbols. Needling me the way my mother would, the monkey also introduced a grandiose idea: With the help of a simian muse, perhaps I could turn my ekphrastic poems into a full-length book.
I had in mind something like What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo by Pascale Petit or a Barbara Crooker collection, radiant with descriptions of light, color, and painterly technique. Problem was, my own poems--like the artworks they examined--did not represent a consistent tone or style. To add to the muddle, I hoped to include a series of pieces having nothing to do with ekphrasis. To compile a cohesive manuscript would require heavy-duty narrative glue.
Gorilla Glue, whispered an irrepressible monkey.
During the 1950s, when popular tastes veered toward abstract impressionism, a group of rebel artists promoted the trompe l’oeil realism of European Old Masters. Their teacher, Jacques Maroger, claimed to have rediscovered nearly magical paint mediums used centuries ago.
My mother brewed the long-lost mediums on our kitchen stove and recited passages from Maroger’s book,The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters. The art world questioned Maroger’s claims, but I was drawn to his descriptions of light and opacity. Maroger’s ideas about reality and illusion became my own magic formula, the glue my ekphrastic collection required.
I wrote an introductory poem about Maroger, quoted him at the beginning of each section, and named my book after his: Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters. Meanwhile, the prankster monkey contributed pivotal lines: “Listen: The formula / is made with Silly Putty. Nothing holds // its shape.”
And, how to uncover hidden meanings? “Pinch a corner,” the monkey says. “Peel.”
Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters is available from the publisher and other booksellers
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Jackie Craven is the author of Secret Formulas & Techniques of the Masters (Brick Road Poetry Press) and a chapbook, Our Lives Became Unmanageable (Omnidawn), winner of the publisher's Fabulist Fiction Award. Her poems have appeared in New Ohio Review, River Styx, Salamander, Spillway, and elsewhere. She writes about art, architecture, and literature for ThoughtCo.com. Find her at https://jackiecraven.com/