Before my good friend, Christa Forster, posted the corresponding event at the MFAH on Facebook, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of ekphrastic poetry. I appreciated her footnote at the bottom of the event details that explained what it was. Here’s what the ARTlines website says:
EKPHRASTIC POETRY may include literal descriptions of a work of art, the poet´s mood in response to a work of art, metaphorical associations inspired by a work of art, or personal memories about a work of art.
I rarely write about art in the essay form, except in my journal, and those days are basically a pastime since my son was born. I’d say I do something like this with my essay writing about books I’ve read and connect with, but that’s an easier task since both involve words. This is why I had no idea what to expect when I attended the reading of the five finalists, some of whom came from the other side of the country to attend and be recognized. One of my husband’s closest friends read the adult poems, and the daughter of another friend read the teen poems. How could I not attend? I was connected to someone at every angle of this thing.
The first poem that was read was Christa’s, and I was sort of in awe and shock. For one, it didn’t sound like poetry to me–a good thing for a reader who is rather discerning of it–and it was one of those moments where you realize how little you know and how little you can do, even in something like writing to which I’ve devoted my life’s work. It was almost a perfect piece of literature. The full experience, my friend Amy would say. It was funny, casual, deep, poignant, thought-provoking, quiet, conversational, educational. And above all, literary.
The rest of the poems were amazing, and I found it hard to choose the winner, but I chose Christa’s. With her permission, I share it here:
Four Days After the Viewing
You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then. Not ever.
Tim O’Brien, from The Things They Carried
Four days after viewing Sarcophagus Depicting a Battle between
Soldiers and Amazons (c 140 -170 AD), I’m still depressed. At first,
I figure hormones, but this is not the time for that. Holidays?
Xmas, New Year, all this taxing jazz — but I’m a teacher with weeks
of vacation — why should I be blue? I muse upon a former love
who just revealed his newest lover: I’m not happy for him. I wish
I could be kinder. But he is not it either — my melancholy’s cause.
Doubtful these are Amazons; they’re women, sure, I see their breasts.
Who can’t? The “light, tight-fitting tunics” they wear, called himations,
cast their breasts into relief, which makes them suspect Amazons:
that word is Greek for “without breasts” — “a” (without); “mazos”
(breasts). The fabled warriors maimed themselves for their arrows
to shoot truer. These fully-formed astride, those cornered four abased
before their victors, affirm that men desire women on their knees but not
dismembered. And whose minced words are these? “Their fallen
sisters lie on the ground”? Get real: they’re being trampled! The female
comrades drive their horses over heads of their own dead. Call a double-
headed axe a double-headed axe. For once. The sarcophagus’ base
design resembles the menudo tripe my father used to eat on Sundays
or the fused vertebrae in my husband’s spine. And now, out of the blue,
the gods have sent a mansplainer, a high school boy the age I teach,
wearing a heather-gray Abercrombie & Fitch wife-beater, the words “YES!
#thatswhatshesaid” stamped in black across his chest. A girl beside
him, navy hoodie zipped up tight, hugs her clipboard, listens when he says,
“Theirs was a military culture, the Romans’. Note the style, how it’s like
the arc de triomphe.” She looks, stays silent. They turn and walk away.
The first sentence said everything in such few words. Four days–just four days–after viewing the sarcophagus, the narrator is still depressed. It immediately becomes personal, fast, in a beautiful, honest way that the best personal essays accomplish, the ones that become teaching examples for years to come. We know that she’s down, we know that she chose this piece of art, we know she’s a teacher, we know she’s capable of humanity (“I wish I could be kinder”), we know she’s a good person (reference the same few words). We know her. We like her. Right up front.
The sardonic weight of humor in the second stanza–and may I just interject that I was absolutely taken by the breaking of the lines and stanzas and at first wondered if it was a mistake made by the museum (but knowing their caliber of work, I just sensed this wasn’t possible)–adds texture (this has become a new favorite word, and characteristic, of writing I admire), an immediate polarity to how we first entered her mind and experience. We read the details of the artwork, but not in the way a less qualified observer might push those specificities forward, feeling like he or she had to to describe the piece, to write something that meets the criteria of “ekphrastic.” No, this narrator is really having a conversation with herself and the sarcophagus here. And it’s funny. We might as well be laughing with her at Cafe Express over a cup of cold coffee.
Then comes information, but not too much that we snooze and miss the rest of the story, for there is a narrative here and I want to follow it as long as I can. “The fabled warriors maimed themselves for their arrows to shoot truer. These fully-formed astride, those cornered four abased before their victors, affirm that men desire women on their knees but not dismembered.” Okay, we’re thinking, we’re getting some history. It’s interesting, something we hadn’t thought of before. Then a sense of women power comes through in the frankest of ways, and we smile as we agree. “Call a double-headed axe a double-headed axe.” This line is brilliant.
The penultimate stanza might be my favorite for just this: “The sarcophagus’ base design resembles the menudo tripe my father used to eat on Sundays or the fused vertebrae in my husband’s spine.” She found a way to engage the thing, something so old and traditional, with her own memories, her own down-on-Earth experience of living. This continues with what is a perfectly melded statement of the two eras, “And now, out of the blue, the gods have sent a ‘mansplainer’, a high school boy the age I teach, wearing a heather-gray Abercrombie & Fitch wife-beater, the words ‘YES! #thatswhatshesaid’ stamped in black across his chest.” Perhaps I love this for how it demonstrates what she does with the entire poem. She converses with the art from her own frame of reference, making it something else, something accessible. It’s what most poetry, in my opinion, fails to do. But Christa nails it, and makes us enjoy the process.
*I forgot about the spacing when I did in-line quoting, to make it a little easier to read in blog form. Forgive me.