Ekphrastic poetry, a year ago if you had thrown that term at me I would have looked at you with a blank look and probably questioned your sanity. Within the last twelve months I have come across two Australian collections that draw heavily on ekphrasis. According to the Poetry Foundation website “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”
Another collection shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, “The Hazards” by Sarah Holland-Batt used the ekphrastic form vividly to describe Lucien Freud’s “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” (a £17.2 million – US$33.6 million – purchase in 2008) as well as the iconic Australian painting, Emanuel Phillips Fox’s “The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770” (1902).
Simon West frequently using the form in this collection “The Ladder”. A “Google Image” search a useful tool, allowing you to observe the painting in question before, during and after reading the poem. There are quite a few examples in the collection, I’ll highlight two;
“The Perfection of Apollo”, uses the painting ‘Apollo Flaying Marsyas’ by José de Ribera, an image showing Marsyas being punished by Apollo for daring to question the superiority of the melody of the divine lyre over the worldly sensuality of his flute. A graphic paining with exposed flesh, the “ghostly hue” of Apollo in comparison to the worldly shadows tinting Marsyas’ skin, and the mythological tale all vividly portrayed in a single page, twenty six lines (the form being six lines-six lines-six lines-eight lines).
For a book deeply rooted in Roman culture and imagery, I really enjoyed another ekphrastic form describing the painting ‘Burning of the Heretic’ by Sassetta, painted in 1423, a painting held by the National Gallery of Victoria. Vivit the image and the provenance and details here. If you’d like to understand a little more about the ekphratic form, open the link, with the image and read the opening lines:
To one side and aslant an outdoor altar.
A bishop elevates the Host.
Rapt faces fill the middle ground. In the twilight
soldiers sit astride uneasy colts.
Simon West’s collection opens with the poem ‘Roman Bridge’ , the tone set from the first page, as a reader you are crossing over from one side (your current time and place) to another, using a structured approach, arches “holding gravity at bay”, construction is more powerful than the natural world. In West’s eyes, his landscape has room for bridges…spires, as well as the natural world of hills…birds.
The second poem also sets the scene for the upcoming collection of thirty-seven poems. ‘Climbing the Tower of Babel’ an exploration of language and speech, “An avowal of speech itself”. The original tower being built to reach God, his ire manifesting by him confounding their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattering them all around the world. The creation of languages.
An avowal of speech itself. Mouth muscles heaving
in a new element beyond the habit of murmur.
After the guttural sound-weights of home
it felt like always saying enunciation.
Within two short poems we have learned of Simon West’s preoccupation with language and structure.
The title of the book “The Ladder” is not a poem itself, but appears in the poem ‘The Taking Up of Earthly Pursuits’;
…Only now as I climb without rest up and down my ladder do I begin to learn how each of us must be put to the test of likening.
A collection that is full of raw honesty, containing all the elements, irony, metaphor, executed with a wry sarcastic smile.
Outside on a Warm Evening I Consider My Confused Ideas about Poetry. For Now I Offer This Brief Account
The poets of my youth spoke of dwelling
in themselves, as if they meant a secret
cavern of emotions where an essence
might be found purring like a cat.
Too restless to abide, I’ve mostly lingered
round the threshold which the senses keep.
Outside there is so much to contemplate.
Some talk of depth and things as they are. Others
see layered surfaces alive with light.
Is it right to hold a tree up like a mirror a
s if looking out were a way of looking in?
For a few, songs of celebration must
suffice: our home in this realm is reaffirmed.
In the poetry of mountains and waters
a path meanders through vast landscapes. Sometimes
it is hard to distinguish a man from a cloud or a tree.
Here too, I imagine, before crossing a stream
it is wise to wash one’s hands and offer a prayer
while gazing into the flood. And so the earth
echoes with Hesiod – a Greek from long ago.
Have I made progress? For the moment
my lungs billow like curtains. Upstairs a muscle
clasps as tightly as it can a pronoun
it doesn’t want to share. But it must, it must.
A readable, enjoyable, thought provoking collection, crossing between classic Roman themes and Australian bush and homespun elements; who would have thought a poem could be written about the “Hail guns in the Goulburn Valley”? Or the simple pleasure of running around a sports oval? Another strong title from Puncher & Wattmann publishers, quality poetry collections seem to be their forte, appearing on the literary award shortlists all over the country.
I’ll put together my rankings of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist after I have read all titles (I am heading away for a four day weekend away from work this weekend, and have packed two more titles from the shortlist – I could well have an opinion on my contenders for the main gong within a week!)