the blue collection 7: collaboration
(Winter 2016 / 15.13)
DeMisty D. Bellinger Sheldon Lee Compton
Cheryl Dodds Rupert Fike Zöe Meager
Susan Terris Bill Yarrow
Ed. note: For blue collection 7, the editors solicited ekphrastic works of poetry, fiction, art, and non-fiction that connected in some way with the creative arts. The collaboration for this was in the connections discovered between writer / artist and other works of art.
DeMisty D. Bellinger
Monk’s goatee pointed somewhere over my shoulder
I turned and looked where it was directing me and saw
floating in the café
half-tones and tritones and seconds bleeding through the air.
I didn’t think they’d look like that.
I had imagined music to look as it is notated
(fat balls with erect tails)
but music is fuller and amorphous and polychromatic.
The word synæsthesia came to mind.
I couldn’t hear the music Monk played anymore,
just the after-tones:
notes not found in a single piano key,
but resounding in the case and against the harp.
I couldn’t concentrate anymore.
I followed the sound to an altar covered in purple and lavender and black.
Knelt on a prayer bench covered in red velvet and, to hear
clearer, took a vow of silence.
— from listening to the song ‘Treaty’ by Leonard Cohen
He is a foreigner, taking his last steps over a land that, pressed to the sole of his foot, knows him as it always has. He pivots now and then, and stares at the road still coughing dust behind him. He cannot recollect ever having come that way. Instead of spooling smoothly, time out here keeps snagging.
He asks nobody what to make of it all, and from the side of the road, grasses reply in a secret whipping tongue. He turns his face to the sky, but the sun only reaches down to keep squeezing him, inescapably, into the shape of a man.
The locals would have a song for this, he thinks. A song for a man alone, dragging his malaria down the road, his head sliced open by a bullet – half an inch from eternity, as they say – and right now he wouldn’t mind hearing it.
With his shirt wrapped around his head he could be back at Maadi camp, in the whisk of Egyptian sands, though now of course, the shirt is there to sop up his blood. Even as it does, a concession of drops fall behind him. Holding his breath he hears them pip, pip, pip he is home again on a Sunday, lawn mown, clippings tidied, leaning over a spade propped upright in the potatoes, sweat dripping from the tip of his nose into soil and pip, pip, pip his ragged breath soon covers every sound.
It is not long before he comes to a church, clinging to a cliff face so as not to throw itself into the sea. Not only war he has seen on this island but churches turned out for mosques turned out for churches. Toys taken from one god and given to another. One in the north he remembers, its domed roof stretched to round capacity, pushing skywards, tight with years of high-walled prayers.
Now he is a figure in the doorway of a small white church. The doorway is almost as wide as the building itself, the emptiness within apparent. For the first time in a long time, he notices his shadow; just the outline of a man, the idea of something that could be. Empty, but it moves. He sees it breathing. It is so hard to believe he is not real.
The shadow at first, and then its man, pass into the church. A collection of dry leaves in one corner and over the walls, icons painted onto the whitewash, faces that could be anyone’s.
He nears the wall, presses the tip of his thumb to his parched tongue and reaches out. A halo of dark hair and gold pigment smudges under his touch. He squints, his head nods close to the wall. He knows that face. Has someone painted him there, or is that his old man? Strange, such a likeness, but to which of them? He has a photo, the whole family in the backyard one summer. Fumbling at his breast pocket, his notebook falls to the floor, spilling its guts: a cigarette card, an ID card, where is the photo? There perhaps, but it is too far, he cannot get to it from all the way up here.
Next thing he is on the floor, lying there in the tumultuous quiet. The photograph forgotten lies just behind his head.
He thinks this position will be quite easy to defend, forgetting that he has no weapon. Forgetting that he has no enemy.
He retches stuff that burns his throat and froths over the beaten earth.
He turns his final face to the doorway, watches as light swells to fill the space, so bright any ghost would burn up on passing through. His eyes water and sting, still he watches the place where a door could be, and he waits expectantly, but no ghost appears.
– from Take Two: Film Studies
Take Two: Tears
I violate self-satisfied
by the perfection of distortion [abstract] her three
breasts round hole in a childless body she is
butchered crying I love the blurred tracks from
eyes too close together yes a nose for an ear
a doormat some women are and the other Dora
thinks I left for Françoise women are machines
for suffering but the real Dora Maar [alternate ending]
my muse is here the woman in tears always
two-dimensionally mine so each day in one way
or another I back her against a wall gaze at those
bank-fish eyes crazed body [angle] and hang her
then boldly slash her with my name Picasso
Take Two: Alley-Time
this writer’s not Kafka his vermin soul fate
types lowercase whotthehell his good friend
she of amber eyes and loose hair [oscar bait]
she who feels transmogrified from a life as
cleopatra [flash forward] lovely this love but
not hot obstacles abound size and fuzz
he’s a kind of minor poet brings her lightness
both share wit and tell yet live for the dark
whotthehell [smash cut] both prowl the night
alley-time she likes vermin and he smarts he does
but size matters and he’s so small [pace] archie
yearns mehitabel burns well then eat me he sez
Take Two: Immortal
call us the lost ones the slain [flip] young bones
and blood cry out beneath this marble tomb
don’t name our mother unless you pause
passerby I am a mute rock but these inscriptions
name our father mother murdered for the fleece
then his new wife-to-be yet not us whom Hera
swore immortal stop our mother howled
tried to shield us but no knife
fierce [flashback] men of Corinth stoned us
battered bloodied left death-in-life
Medea born of Circe mother-sorceress
could not conjure us back no mandrake
or balm while Jason false father fled
must speak so you know who hides within me
we are Mermeris and Pheres [wipe] abandoned
by the Corinth Odeum this our immortality
no chariot race skyward and over Styx no ferry
Take Two: Star-Takers / Paolo & Francesca
for each sin in time (reverse angle) asks of us
asks the we of us breasts brief heedless
night steps on stone floors her chamber mine
yes her uncle’s house Paris servants mum
she girl-woman nominatissima: intellect
renowned and I he philosopher-scholar
my tutor in theory in medicine in company
subtle yet a house can be chill unloving
so in the dark down pillow lolls comforters
his hands beneath my shift bedcreaks cries
then I fell pregnant with his child
our Astrolabe star-taker and marriage (backlit)
too late for us for my Héloïse a nunnery
(wipe) for my Abélard the knife the we
of us severed like his no like my manhood
our letters cold mind ticks shadows the we
now (voice-over) only I and I
Endnotes: The poems in this suite are from Take Two: Film Studies, a book due to be published by Omnidawn in 2017. Each poem is about a pair of subjects (not always lovers or spouses) who are heading toward disaster or death. The two in “Tears” are Picasso and a portrait of Dora Maar. In “Alley-Time,” Archie, the cockroach, and Mehitable, the cat, are the two main characters in newspaper columns & books by Don Marquis. The references in “Immortal” are the dead sons of Medea – Memeris and Pheres. In the suite’s final poem, Paolo and Francesca are historical figures who have been inspiration for numerous works of literature, art, and music.
Sheldon Lee Compton
Draft Notes on Life Eternal
“What will be left of me when I’m dead,/ there was nothing when I lived.”
— from Life Eternal lyrics by Per “Dead” Ohlin
“I belong in the woods and have always done so.”
— from the suicide note of Per “Dead” Ohlin
What I don’t know yet is that my bandmates will take a photograph of my dead body and use it for cover art on their next album.
I’ll never know the details of that photograph, but I can clearly imagine.
There will either be
a) my corpse gashed at the wrists and bled out
b) my corpse gashed at the wrists and neck and bled out
c) my corpse gashed at the wrists and neck and bleeding brain and blood from a large entry wound made by a blast from an over under shotgun.
But none of this matters in the here and now. And maybe only someone like me would care. I’m the kind of guy who sits in the woods with a pen, paper, a shotgun, and a knife writing a song and a suicide note that starts with
Excuse the blood, but I have slit my wrists and neck.
Just when I get the voice of the note down, the new song grabs at me. Jot a line here. Smell moss across bark like animal hide. Hear wind tumbling in folds from the sky. Jot a line there.
How beautiful life is now when my time has come/ A human destiny but nothing human inside.
Watching sparrows chase bluebirds in the treetops, tracing the thin line of the horizon with a dirty fingernail while holding my breath, I write and write and write and wonder which I’ll finish first.
What I don’t know yet is that my death will spark an interest in the true aesthetics of black metal. I’ll never see the hundreds of singers wearing corpse paint on their faces the same as mine or hear how they screamsing in pain for being alive in a world rotting.
But it’s hard to think about music here. This forest is more than my heart can hold. I breathe and breathe and breathe and then there’s the note again.
I didn’t come up with this now, but seventeen years ago.
People will give a lot of reasons why a boy of only twenty-two ended his life, but
No one will understand the reason for this anyway.
I can guess what they’ll say. It’ll be either
a) he was obsessed with death
b) he was on drugs
c) he was obsessed with death and on drugs.
Most can only guess what really happened. What they can’t guess is this did begin seventeen years ago, in the eye of a white hot winter hurricane. The kids chased me, screamed my name again and again, beat me and spit fire and poison and had the singular face of a great, red demon.
What you found was eternal death/ no one will ever miss you.
I was clinically dead for twenty-seven seconds and I remember escaping the heat and the screaming and the demon in red. I remember the release of it all, how it was to not be human in a human world, how it felt to leave behind the dreamlife of that world and settle perfectly in death. I remember the wanting, the aching, the lonesome crying because none of this, for not a single second, has ever left me.
I have waited for and waited for and waited for an end to the dreamlife, the nightmarelife, for all these seventeen years and now I have the knife and the gun and the forest.
I have the means and the magic.
What I don’t have, what I don’t know at this very moment, is that the knife will fail me, at both my wrists and neck, and the shotgun will finish things and start things the same. Black metal, the screamsing and corpse paint and all the bits and parts of that world, I will orphan and gladly.
Because the stage can never make real what the full heart needs to know.
I left all my lyrics by “Let the good times roll” — plus the rest of the money. Whoever finds it gets the fucking thing. As a last salutation may I present Life Eternal.
Margaret, Are You Grieving . . . (2 Takes)
– after Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall
Over-the-top Victorian mourning
with its tight-ass rules and months of black crepe
formed a rampart from which the living keened,
thus all could behold their quarrel with fate.
Widows collapsed with no thought to restraint,
their bond to the dead pure and so selfless
each face expressed the torment of saints
who endure all trials, ace death’s timeless test.
So how could you, a priest, in that atmosphere
proclaim the view we now take as gospel,
that it’s but for ourselves we squeeze out tears
(the more show we make, the more we’re rascals).
You reduced false piety to merest dust –
when we wallow in grief, it’s all about us.
– after Kenneth Lonegren’s film, Margaret
Certainly a reach to cast Ferris Bueller
as the high school teacher who makes a difference
in lives by teaching Hopkins’ Spring and Fall,
but Matthew Broderick and Lonegren had been
teen boys in that class they never forgot,
the one so many of us somehow skipped.
Anna Paquin, so greasy-haired and hormonal
you can scent her flop sweat right off the screen.
She wants to bathe in blood she perhaps caused
Ruffalo to spill (oh poor Allison Janney!),
a three-hour upper East Side tug-of-war
over grief that inert studio suits
kept in the kind of post-production
limbo unseen since the days of Brazil,
“unreleaseable” an obscenity,
Hopkins the cleric still causing trouble,
final scene at the Met, Tales of Hoffman,
Graham and Fleming slaying us,
Elle nuit, ô nuit d’amour.
And once again we weep for ourselves.
Quarter Notes: Essay by Bill Yarrow
LEARNING TO SEE
“I’m learning to see.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Ekphrasis refers to works (usually literary but also musical) that are descriptive of works of visual art.
In that sense, ekphrasis is a subset of description, description circumscribed by its subject—an art work.
As a practice, it’s been around forever (see examples in Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc.) but as a critical term, it hasn’t been.
The earliest discussions of its idea date back to Leo Spitzer’s 1955 essay “The Ode on a Grecian Urn, or Content vs. Metagrammar” and Jean Hagstrum’s 1958 study The Sister Arts: The Tradition of English Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray, but the term itself doesn’t really seem to come into its own until the 1990s. See, among others, Murray Krieger’s Ekphrasis, the Illusion of the Natural Sign (1992), James Heffernan’s Museum of Words, The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry (1993), and Scott Grant’s The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts (1995).
Anyway, since then, a lot of poets have used ekphrasis as a prompt. In other words, not sure of what to write about, they pick a work of art and write about that.
If, in writing an ekphrastic poem, you do nothing more than write down promiscuously and unselectively the details of a painting or photograph you are looking at, what you are attempting seems to me to be less like writing a poem and more like completing an exercise.
If you want to write a meaningful ekphrastic poem, you need to take seriously what Joseph Conrad described as his writing task: “to make you see.”1
Let me digress briefly to talk about description in writing, for what I say here applies also to ekphrasis since ekphrasis is fundamentally description, albeit of a specific kind.
Before photography, there was painting (and sculpture and drawing).2 Paintings of people (portraits). Paintings of nature (landscapes). Paintings of objects (still lives). At the introduction of photography, which could reproduce the real world, first in black and white and later in color, better than painting ever could, painting, to survive, had to do something different. Thus we had the rise of schools of painting which moved beyond realism: Impressionism (painting light), Pointillism (painting dots), Cubism (painting planes), Surrealism (painting dreams), Fauvism (painting color), Expressionism (painting feeling), Abstract Expressionism (painting paint), Pop Art (painting pop culture), Op Art (painting optical effects), and Hyperrealism (painting photography, among others.
In writing, description functioned as did painting before photography or film—as mimesis. Horace in Ars Poetica connected painting and poetry in his phrase ut pictura poesis (“as is painting so is poetry”).
There are many similarities (method, approach, result, response…) between painting and poetry. Subsequent painters agreed. Subsequent poets agreed. Horace had a point.3
Of course, written objective description can never be as good as a painting. If you had never seen a giraffe, would you go to a written description of one or to a painting of one? Or, better still, a photograph of one? Or even better still, movie footage of a giraffe? A picture is worth a thousand words. A photograph, ten thousand words. A film, a million words. On the scale of verisimilitude, writing just can’t compete with any visual medium.
On the other hand, writers can do many things on paper that painters cannot do on canvas: paint (i.e. describe) thoughts, states of mind, ideas, behavior, etc. not to mention presenting talking through soliloquy, monologue, or dialogue.
But even describing people, places, and objects, there are a number of ways in which written descriptions can be superior to visual representations.
Written Description Superior to Visual Representation
1. Subjectivity of written description:
Poems intuit a speaker.4 Description in a poem comes from the point of view of the speaker in the poem. Thus, description coming from a specific speaker in a poem connects the description to the psychological state of the speaker and also to the speaker’s context, experiences, and history.5 In other words, every description in a poem forces us to ask two important questions:
1. Significance: Why is the speaker describing this person, place, thing or idea? How does it connect with his or her experience, with him or her?6
2. Diction: Why is the speaker describing this person, place, thing or idea in this particularly way, with these particular words?7
2. Experience of visual description:
Written description unfolds.8 That is to say, it comes to us sequentially. It comes to us through time. We read the first words in a sentence before we read the last words in a sentence. We see, perceive, and understand bit by bit, one detail at a time. This is especially true in poetry where line breaks can create meaning, suspense, and even surprise as in this line from Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” where “the grandeur of God” “gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” In visual art, on the other hand, we see and grasp the whole image at once.9
1. Selectivity: Why is the speaker focusing on these particular details?
2. Arrangement: Why are the details presented in this particular order?10
All of this also applies to ekphrastic poetry.
But why describe what is salient in a picture or photograph, what everyone already can see? Obvious description is equivalent to dull summary.
Better to describe what has not universally been observed, what perhaps only the alert poet is able to perceive.
In the best ekphrastic poetry
1. there is some connection between the painting or photograph observed and the speaker in the poem.
2. there is often an effect produced by the painting or photograph on the speaker in the poem.
3. there is a meaning discernible in the specific details selected (if there is no selection, the poet is not really seeing; he or she is just cataloging).
4. there is a meaning discernible in the order of the details selected (if the details or order is arbitrary, the poem will likely be trivial or meaningless)
5. a detail (or pattern) in the painting or photograph that no one else has yet noticed or thought significant is brought to reader’s attention.
6. a detail or an aspect of the painting has suggested an idea to the poet, and the poem uses the painting or photograph to present or explore that idea.
In Keats’s ekphrastic “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the figures on the urn suggest to him a suspension of time, a perpetual present tense: the tree boughs will never “shed / …[their] leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu”; the “melodist” will never tire and will forever “pipe” “songs for ever new”; and the “Bold Lover,” will never kiss his eternally young and beautiful beloved but remain in a state of perpetual desire. The urn “shalt remain;” that is to say, art is eternal.
What’s most interesting to me about Keats’s poem is why the speaker sees what he does in the urn and why he associates stasis, impeded time, with satisfaction and happiness rather than frustrated desire. “Ah, happy happy boughs!…More happy love! more happy happy love!”
The unexpected adjective in line one is jolting, even unsettling. The urn (“Thou”) is not just “a bride of quietness” [a lovely phrase, sufficient in itself], but a “still unravish’d” (i.e. yet uncomsummated) bride. Now why did Keats put that image in our heads?
Then the “maidens loth,” i.e. reluctant, unwilling. But they are pursued. Then caught! “What struggle to escape” suggests attempted rape.
Then we learn the bold lover “hast not” his “bliss,” a state not lamented but celebrated in the poem.11 Happiness is not a bluebird or a warm puppy but a pair of blue balls.
There is something peculiar in associating love “for ever warm and still to be enjoy’d”12 with happiness, something perverse in thinking “For ever panting” equals “happy, happy love!”
Then a confession of sorts: “All breathing human passion…leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d.” That seems to me a version of “post coitum omne animal triste.”
The center of the poem (stanza three) suggests not happiness but regret. O, not to be human! Oh, to be a frozen figure on an urn!
Stanza five: O to have a friend in art not life! Let’s substitute abstract truth for human beauty. Life is too messy. Passion (“a burning forehead, and a parching tongue”) is too trying. O to be a “marble” man. O for a frozen portrait rather than a warm maiden “overwrought.”
I think if we consider this evidence, we may conclude that, like Prufrock, the speaker in this poem is afraid. He can’t stand the heat of living, of engagement, of interaction, and chooses instead the “Cold Pastoral” of contemplation.
But maybe I’m being unfair to the speaker in the poem and to Keats. This line of thinking does seem plausible to me, but ultimately it “teases me out of thought.” “Ode on a Grecian Urn” seems to me a personal ekphrastic, enticing, tantalizing, “winning near the goal” but just out of conclusive interpretive reach.
Perception for Instruction’s Sake
Auden’s ekphrastic “Musée des Beaux Artes” is a different story. This poem is an idea (“suffering…takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”) in search of an illustration of that idea. The illustration is found in Breughel’s Icarus and illustrates “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”). Auden brilliantly takes an extreme longshot (‘the splash”) and turns it into an extreme close-up (“the white legs disappearing into the green / Water”). What was not obvious at first glance can never now escape our notice. The speaker in the poem is a person who pays attention, who notices things. But the speaker is also a man of conviction. His concern: suffering, martyrdom, torture, “the forsaken cry.” Unlike “the expensive delicate ship,” he doesn’t calmly sail on, and neither does the poem, and neither should we.
Perception for Perception’s Sake
William Carlos Williams’ statement “no ideas but in things” suggests that his approach to ekphrasis would be to call our attention to the things (particularly the little-noticed details) of the picture. This is his goal and this is what he does. He is trying to make us see rather than think. His series of ekphrastic poems “Pictures from Breughel” illustrates his maxim, but there is so much happening in a Breughel painting that a poem based on one must (one would think) begin in its choice of detail and in the order of its detail, for no one who looks at a Breughel painting could describe it exhaustively nor could one even describe it sequentially—there is neither beginning nor end to it; additionally, there is too much happening in it at once even to agree where to begin.13
I’ll focus on one poem out of the series: “The Peasant Wedding.”
One way to approach this painting would be first to describe the largest figure in the foreground and pick a direction and move through the painting that way, but Williams takes the opposite approach and makes central the smallest figure in the background, the bride sitting by the back wall: “the / bride is enthroned her hair / / loose at her temples…” Williams introduces her through the bridegroom: “Pour the wine bridegroom / where before you the / bride is enthroned…” forcing our attention diagonally across the room to his “awkwardly silent simple” bride. Williams goes on to point out details not immediately apparent to most viewers: the “hound under / the table”; the presence of “the bearded Mayor”; the trestle carrying plates of food “made of an / unhinged barn door”; the food being “clabber and whatnot,” the wooden spoon in the “hatband” of the male server in the red coat. The only other details in the poem are “the / guests seated at long tables,” waiting bagpipers, the “gabbing” women in “starched headgear,” and “a head / of ripe wheat” on the wall beside the bride. The poem has no punctuation and no capitalization except for the first word (“Pour”) and the word “Mayor.”
So why those details and not others? Why is the child licking his right index finger and wearing the oversized red beret with a peacock feather not mentioned? Why is the monk blessing the bearded man with crossed hands not mentioned? Why is the man guzzling wine from a jug not mentioned? Why is the crowd at the door not mentioned? Why is the man in the soft green hat trying to catch the server’s attention not mentioned? What about the bride’s crown? What about the planter hanging on a nail on the wall directly behind her and above her head? What about the fact that amid all the hubbub and festivity, the bride’s eyes are closed and there is a beatific smile on her face?
Why the order of details in the poem—wine poured, bridegroom, bride, ripe wheat on wall, guests, bagpipers, hound, bearded Mayor, gabbing women, folded hands of the bride, dishes served on serving trestle, spoon in server’s hat.
I’m afraid there’s neither justification nor a good answer. Coleridge’s “severe master” the Reverend James Bowyer taught him that “in the truly great poets there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word”14 That lesson doesn’t apply to “The Peasant Wedding” by William Carlos Williams where the random order of the random details is the randomness of excitement, of festivity, of celebration, of life.
Ekphrastic Poetry for Further Consideration:
• “The Man with the Blue Guitar” by Wallace Stevens (from a painting by Pablo Picasso)
• “The Shield of Achilles” by W. H. Auden (from the description in Book 18 of The Iliad by Homer)
• “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton (from a painting by Vincent Van Gogh)
• “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art” by Frank O’Hara
• “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashberry (from a painting by Parmigianino)
• “Seeing All the Vermeers” by Alfred Corn
POSTSCRIPT: Ekphrasis in Novels
Because ekphrasis in a novel15 is only a part of the work, whereas ekphrasis in a poem is the whole poem, it is worth examining the way ekphrasis (description of a work of art) works in novels. Consider these three examples.
1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (chapter 3. The Spouter Inn)
Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Chapter One)
Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
3. Watt by Samuel Beckett (Part II)
The only other object of note in Erskine’s room was a picture, hanging on the wall, from a nail. A circle, obviously described by a compass, and broken at its lowest point, occupied the middle foreground, of this picture….Watt wondered how long it would be before the point and circle entered together upon the same plane. Or had they not done so already, or almost. And was it not rather the circle that was in the background, and the point that was in the foreground?…He wondered if they would eventually pause and converse, and perhaps even mingle, or keep steadfast on their ways, like ships in the night prior to the invention of wireless telegraphy. Who knows, they might even collide. And he wondered what the artist had intended to represent (Watt knew nothing about painting), a circle and its centre in search of each other, or a circle and a centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively… or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively, in boundless space, in endless time…
In fiction, art works generally function as meta-commentary, emblems of the larger work.16 Thus “it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose,” describes Moby Dick, “there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on… I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him” describes the plot of The Big Sleep, and “a circle and its centre in search of each other, or a circle and a centre in search of its centre and a circle respectively… or a circle and a centre not its centre in search of a centre and its circle respectively” suggests the “plot” of Watt, keeping in mind Beckett’s impossible injunction: “no symbols where none intended.”
1. “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897).
2. Hereafter, when I use the word “painting,” I intend it to refer to all three, painting, sculpture, and drawing.
3. But see Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s disagreement with him in “Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry” (1766) and many others after Lessing.
4. Equivalent to first-person narration in a prose work.
5. Film is also capable of subjective images as in its use of POV shots, particularly to show disordered or altered states of consciousness. See The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Sherlock Jr.; Nosferatu; and Murder, My Sweet for examples.
6. Why does Nick Adams, in “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway, spend a paragraph writing about “black grasshoppers”? The black grasshoppers are the result, he says, of a forest fire the year before; “he realized that they had all turned black from living in the burned-over land,” for the earth, being blackened by the fire, made the green grasshoppers vulnerable to predators, and thus only variant black grasshoppers survived and repopulated. We are told, “They were all black.” But why is Nick so interested in these “ordinary hoppers, but all a sooty black in color”?
Nick is a veteran, just back from the horrors of war. He is interested in and even identifies with the black grasshoppers because he himself feels he has “turned black from living in the burned-over land.” That’s why he takes so much time describing them. About the grasshoppers but really thinking about himself, he says, “He wondered how long they would stay that way.”
7. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick writes, “in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic. In the swamp fishing was a tragic adventure.” The fishing would be tragic? “Tragic” is an odd word here, the wrong word to describe fishing, but for Nick it’s exactly the right word because it connects to his recent experience in the war. He wants no more “tragic adventures”—hence his care to make his bed soft, comfortable and mosquito free, his caution not to burn his lips on hot coffee, his preference for canned apricots in sweet syrup rather than fresh tart apricots. Nick doesn’t want anything sharp, anything that could cause him pain, anything remotely “tragic.”
8. A good example of a poem where line breaks incite suspense and delay seeing is William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”: “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water //beside the white / chickens”.
In prose, paragraph endings, section breaks, and chapters function as do line breaks in poetry. Nakobov’s Speak, Memory with its excessive section breaks exhibits a greed for a multiplicity of last and first lines.
9. Film occasionally attempts to direct the viewer’s eye through the use of successive close ups or medium close ups of a fractured image. This is rarely effective.
10. In “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, Montresor says to Fortunato, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was.” Why does Montresor use those particular adjectives to describe Fortunato? Why does he order the adjectives in that particular order? Why, for example, does he begin with “rich” and end with “happy”? For Montresor, wealth is the most important thing in life. Riches lead to respect which leads to admiration which leads to being loved. And that is Montresor’s definition of happiness, which begins by amassing wealth and ends by being beloved. Nothing, neither word choice not word order, is accidental in Poe. The choice of the word “cask” (an old-fashioned word for “butt” or “pipe,” a barrel holding about 160 gallons of wine) in the title of the story, for example, puts readers in mind of “casket” and prepares them emotionally for the story to follow. Thus, even from the title, the denouement of the story is “constantly in view,” which gives the plot “its indispensable air of consequence or causation.” (“The Philosophy of Composition,” 1846).
11. See also Kierkegaard’s “Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.” Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.
12. i.e. to be possessed, to be “ravished”
13. This is not true of many other paintings, some of which direct our eye first to the spot of brightest light or vibrant color and then to spots of lesser light or dimmer color. Others work geometrically. Some work narratively. One can often graph a trajectory of vision, of how most viewers encounter and experience a painting.
14. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter I
15. Or in a work of equivalent length like an epic poem. The description of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of The Iliad is thought to be an early example of ekphrasis, though it is ekphrastic only if you extend the definition of ekphrasis to include detailed descriptions of crafted things.
DEMISTY D. BELLINGER teaches creative writing at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. She has an MFA in creative writing from Southampton College and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her works have appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Driftless Review, Eunoia, Litsnack, Necessary Fiction, Specter Magazine, The Monarch Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Wilderness House Literary Review.
SHELDON LEE COMPTON is the author of the collection The Same Terrible Storm, a 2013 nominee for the Chaffin Award in Appalachian Writing, and the novel Brown Bottle. His work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Still: Journal Award and the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award. He survives in Eastern Kentucky.
CHERYL DODDS was co-editor/publisher for Urban Spaghetti, a literary arts journal. She is an artist whose work has taken the form of mixed media, graphite drawings, photography, painting, woodcuts and multimedia as well as a few conceptual art projects. More of her work is online at AbsoluteArts.
RUPERT FIKE was named the Finalist as Georgia Author of the Year 2011 after the publication of his collection, Lotus Buffet, (Brick Road Poetry Press). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction and poetry with work appearing in Rosebud, The Georgetown Review, A&U America’s AIDS Magazine, Natural Bridge, The Southern Review of Poetry, Alligator Juniper, The Cortland Review and others. He has a poem inscribed in a downtown Atlanta plaza, and his non-fiction book, Voices from The Farm, is now in its second printing with stories of life on a spiritual commune in the 1970s.
ZÖE MEAGER is from Christchurch, New Zealand, and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. In 2013 she won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region, and her work has since been short-listed in a number of contests and appeared in various journals at home and abroad. There are links at zoemeager.com.
SUSAN TERRIS’ most recent book is Ghost of Yesterday: New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press). She’s the author of 6 books of poetry, 15 chapbooks, and 3 artist’s books. Journal publications include The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Field, and Ploughshares. A poem of hers from Field appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI. She’s editor of Spillway Magazine. Her chapbook Memos was published by Omnidawn in 2015. A poem from this book — “Memo to the Former Child Prodigy” — was selected by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. Omnidawn will publish her book Take Two: Film Studies in 2017.
BILL YARROW is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, and Pointed Sentences. He is a a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film.