Ekphrasis

I was thrilled to be part of  a small cadre of writers asked to write ekphrastic poems or flash fiction about art on display at the Fairfield University Art Museum. Ekphrastic poetry relates to a piece of art — the way it was made, the experience of seeing it, the experience of being in the picture. I had read some and gone to readings by friends, but this was my solo voyage. I chose to write the poem in two parts, the first about the experience of being able to choose a piece about which to write, the second being what happened to me when I saw the sketch.

The exhibit was “Sketching the Landscape: A Plein Air Journal” by artist Michael Gallagher. I was moved by the sketches, and chased down the artist at the opening to ask about his technique. He sketches in charcoal and paints in water color, but he enhances his work with wax — beeswax. candle wax, even crayon — which changes the quality of light in the piece.

In the poem, which I will link to, I describe finding the piece of art that captured me. I wrote about the one that left me breathless. I took a picture, Carey Weber from the Museum took a better picture, and I looked at it, repeatedly. I visited it at the museum a few more times. I looked at the lines and the colors, the strokes of the brush and the pencil and wax, squinting close and standing back, until finally the words bubbled out. I had been torn between writing about the experience of choosing a picture or about what the picture evoked within me, so I decided to do both.

Others wrote poems and stories about different pieces, and the Museum had them all in a binder. Visitors to the exhibit could walk around the gallery with the poems and stories and stand in front of each piece, reading. I enjoyed seeing all the different takes as much as I enjoyed seeing all the different sketches.

Finally came the day when the artist and writers converged. First Michael Gallagher gave a lecture on some of his restoration work. I was fascinated at the amount of detail that goes into analyzing the pigments, stripping the varnish, replacing the damaged section, and insuring that the repairs can be fixed again when time wears away again at the colors. In his restoration work, the artist removes himself, and focuses on keeping the work intact, restored rather than repainted. In his Pleine Air sketches, he does the same, he said, leaving no sign that he had been to the places (temples, seasides, forests) that he depicted.

Later, we had a reading of the pieces. It was a joy to watch the artist actively listen, leaning in toward each of us as we read our pieces in the gallery, surrounded by writer and artist friends who themselves crowded in to see and to hear. As a group, we walked from sketch to sketch, listening to each new response by a writer. Over wine and cheese after, we talked about writing and the museum, art and what it inspires. I went into the experience feeling like a recent grad student. I left the museum feeling like a writer among writers and artists. I am so grateful for the opportunity, for the inspiring art, and for all those who brought together words and images.

Many thanks to Carey Weber from the Museum both for organizing the event and for obtaining for me both such a brilliant copy of the sketch and permission to post it. I also appreciate Elizabeth Hastings and our program leader, Sonya Huber, from Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program for connecting us with the museum and for attending the reading. And special thanks to Michael Gallagher, whose striking images inspired each of us differently.

Here’s the poem. 

The image was provided by the artist himself, for which I thank him.

 

 

 

Maine

Maine

  1. The Exhibit

Not since my uncle gave us a one hundred dollar gift certificate
for Filenes of Boston for our wedding
have I had this sense of being a discerning shopper
choosing among so many quality things.

“Twelve of you may each choose a painting to write about.”
At Filenes. I had ogled the things no one buys any more –
china and silver, mohair and linen – with two thoughts in mind:
“I could buy that!” and
“I don’t have to!”

Downstairs from donors sharing champagne and shrimp,
I could choose what I liked best,
me,
amid the exotic temples and azure skies,
paintings in water color, pencil and wax
of places so much more substantial,
mountains and oceans, sea and sky,
places I never had been.
A dizzying gift.

In a humble corridor, narrow walls were hung
with glimpses of Maine, a different sort of place
that I also had never been to.

Here were no jewel tones, no azure skies, no piercing sun.
The trees defied color and even shape.
Grey and white clouds with ocher shadows
copied the outline of the landscape
above the stony shores
in skies that attempted to be blue,
and fought being brown.

I tried to walk past one painting,
but had to stop.
“That.”
That was the piece I was missing.

2. The Painting

This was the place that my grandmother left.
Mother of twelve, grandmother of forty,
porcelain skin concealing flint,
humble smile disguising brains;
She gave us this without us even knowing.

I thought she had chosen Boston, had left Maine because
it was ugly, or dull, or boring, or poor.
When I saw the painting, I realized she left
because she was ready.
The place had formed and informed her.
And she had infused us, in turn.

This strangely familiar unknown place is mine.
I do not know the name for the colors of the rocks,
but I have seen each of my aunts wear them.
The shaggy trees are the kind that each of us plants,
because they surrounded the house we loved.
You cannot put a blanket on those stones,
nor would we want to. We seek out seas
like these for contemplation, not for sport.
We want our water cold.

Swimming, then, becomes an act of prayer.
We throw ourselves on something big
and trust it to support us as we part it and kick,
part it and kick, until the sand is no more with us.
Then we float, belly to the sky of muted grays and blues.
Our eyes come in these colors. Like into like,
we stare and wait for answers
and the questions they create.

This painting, though, has no one on the shore –
no bird on any tree, no fish, no crab;
a birdless sky, no crafts float in the sea.
It is waiting for the viewer
to come, fill the seascape,
just as the seascape waits
to fill the watcher.

(c) Ann McLellan Lardas
Stratford, CT 2017

 

 

Meet the Author — 9/7/2017

I am excited to be one of eight or so writers reading at the Bellarmine Hall Galleries at the Fairfield University Museum of Art on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 6:15 p.m. This is my first venture into ekphrastic poetry, basically a response to a work of art.

For details, and to make a reservation, please click on the link.

I met and spoke to the artist, Michael Gallagher. He is giving a lecture before the reading, and that should be fascinating.

While there, I will ask about sharing the poem and artwork.

Radishes

April is National Poetry Month.

When my children were younger, I went through a phase where I tried to get them to appreciate poetry by reading it to them at the dinner table. They were, at the time, the opposite of appreciative. It’s not that we didn’t read at the table — my husband had moved bedtime stories to dinnertime as their tastes went from Richard Scarry to “Lord of the Rings.” But they wanted stories, not poems. And especially not the poem that I tried to make them love.

I had chosen a Japanese poem, “The Man Pulling Radishes,” by Kobayashi Issa, who lived around the time America was founded. It’s a simple poem, not even a haiku (at least in English), but it encompasses so much. The translator, Robert Hass, is still alive, and I don’t know enough about copyright law to know if I can post his translation here, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Here’s a link.

I love the poem because in three short lines, Issa (and Hass) accomplish and teach so much:

– The man pulling radishes had nothing to use but the radish, but
– the man seeking his way didn’t know where he should go, but the man pulling radishes did, and yet
– the seeker will continue on his way, and the man with the radishes will keep pulling radishes.
– Sometimes all you have is a radish. God will make it enough.
– Even though all someone has to point the way is a radish, it’s enough to get you started.

Radishes are easy to plant, and are one of the first things to come up. And so this might set the time of the encounter for us — early Spring, and the seeker is out seeking, and the man who planted the radishes is harvesting them. Each of us has a task.

My children’s reaction, though, was horror at the idea of me reading poetry every night during great story time, followed by derision of the poem for its brevity and content. Radishes became a running joke. When they encountered a bad poem at school, they’d shake their heads and say something about it being worse than radishes. When my mother-in-law gifted me with a GPS, a glorious day for everyone I’ve ever driven anyplace, they joked that now I don’t have to ask men pulling radishes. Whenever I served radishes, they quoted the poem, and rolled their eyes. They brought me radishes on a plate when a poem I was working on was not going well. And when they learned that a place called “Radish Magazine” reprinted my Guy Soup recipe but that I had signed away the right to a reprint fee from the place it was first published, their laughter was complete. Mom and her radishes. The irony was that yes, I had been trying to point the way with the radish poem. Instead, I was afraid that I had ruined poetry — and radishes — for them forever.

But then something amazing happened. Their adolescence (April, 1999 – June 2014) ended, and they became lovely adults, some of whom appreciate poetry. And my adult daughter chose this very poem to post on her Facebook page for National Poetry Month. “Today’s poem is beautiful both in its simplicity and in all the years of solid joke material it’s brought us since its Lardas Family debut. This one’s for you, mom!”

Well.

Plant those seeds, whether radishes or love of poetry. When you harvest them, you can point somebody’s way.