- The Ekphrastic Moment
We are living in the age of the image, and poets are responding by turning to an ancient mode, ekphrasis—poetry in dialogue with works of art—and reinvigorating it. There has been a proliferation of recent and contemporary books deploying the ekphrastic mode, which has gone from being a marginal activity to becoming a major force in contemporary American poetry. What does ekphrasis do for poets? All poets have their subject matter, and it will out, like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands. Be it love, mortality, family trauma, social injustice, or spiritual doubt, a poet brings her concerns, her passions, her obsessions to her work. With ekphrasis, a poet has the opportunity to enrich her palette: to talk about what preoccupies her by deliberately displacing it onto something external.
Ekphrasis as Elegy
Natasha Trethewey has returned in book after book to issues of race that personally bedevil her (and our culture) by looking at photographs or paintings. It’s no surprise that African-American poets in particular should look at representations of race in paintings and other objets d’art, for that is where the hegemonic culture betrays—even brings into high relief—its conscious or not-so-conscious views of the Other.
In her most recent collection, Thrall, Trethewey meditates on 17th- and 18th-century paintings that represent racial mixtures and reads them as though they were a text in order to help her understand the complexity, even the perplexity, of her relationship to her white father. In a book written as an elegy to him, Trethewey turns to painting to [End Page 339] see what Western culture has thought, through language and images, of the relations between different races and their offspring. “Torna Atrás” (a term that assumes the “tainting” of white blood with black or brown, resulting in a “turn backwards” on a racialist scale), is a poem in dialogue with an 18th-century painting of a mixed union between a colonial Mexican and an indigenous woman. Trethewey puzzles over the white man in the painting who fails at capturing the beauty of his wife who is represented twice on the canvas: as the painter saw her and as her white husband depicted her, and now, in the poem, as the poet sees her through the lens of her own eye:
. . . If you consider the century’s mythology of the body—that a dark spot marked the genitals of anyone with African blood—you might see how the black moon on her white face recalls it: the roseta she passes to her child marking him torna atrás.
Yet it is the poem’s final apostrophe that gives it its poignancy:
. . . And you might see why, to understand my father, I look again and again at this painting: how it is that a man could love—and so diminish what he loves.
As John Berger has written, “We only see what we look at.” And now we see what is at stake for Trethewey. She is trying to parse her white father’s ambivalent love for her and, at one time, for her black mother, an ambivalence she can only begin to construe by looking at paintings that distill the racialist views of the so-called Enlightenment when “such terms were born.”
In her poem called “Enlightenment,” where the word itself takes on racialist overtones, Trethewey deploys the ekphrastic narrative of her visit to Monticello with her father as a means of understanding his complex relationship to race through his fraught identification with Jefferson who “hated slavery, though—out / of necessity, my father [End Page 340] said—had to own slaves.” But her father goes further until she realizes in the moment of writing:
. . . the subtext of our story, that my father could imagine Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—
the improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixturewith the whites—or that my father could believe
he’d made me better.
These ekphrastic poems, in the midst of other, more personal elegies for her father, broaden the scope of the lyric. We all...