- Against Ekphrasis, or How Naming v. Bridging and Being Lonely Led Me to Gorky’s Ghost’s Mask
Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing.That language is a problem is no news to poets.—charles simic
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? [End Page 451]
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 Vyšší 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 father-riding-away-in-mist.Dear lakeside bath. Dear terrace-weaver,shepherd, genocider.*
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...