Ekphrasis and the Vintage Photograph

Image

A poem below in the ekphrastic tradition of speaking for the subject in a piece of artwork; in this case a photographic subject. This photo has always intrigued me. Something about the man’s shadow makes it appear as if he’s orchestrating the woman’s movements, her grief.  Is he the photographer? an onlooker? Either way I find him ominous. Also, the heap of flowers in this ragged field hardly looks like a proper cemetery but rather a crude gravesite. Is it a memorial? Then why the full mourning black? So many unanswered questions, which is ideal for initiating poetry. This poem also borders on the persona poem, where the poet inhabits a subject and speaks in monologue; a favorite of mine. My second collection, due out next fall, is filled with persona poems. Actually, my first collection has quite a few as well… For fiction writers it’s all in a day’s work, but for poets writing character is a little less common.

 

Two Ways to See a Photograph

1. Daughter’s Grief

The man’s doffed shadow watches me

place the flowers. Palm fronds

veil the thin earth,
 raw as a stream bank above her.

Blowsy white blossoms accrete like trash

against a fence. Not even my eyes are visible

beneath this wide-brimmed hat and layers
 of mourning

black, my fingers in black like a magician or a thief.

She was blessed and doomed by my coming. Hers’ alone

to bear, not the providence
of this shadow man

who waited out of earshot until both of us were scrubbed of gore

and glowing with the fierce heat of creators.

It’s strange the way his shadow’s not cast down

but risen like a summit. I have no doubt my mother saw

my head crown black as it is today when she squatted

on the unmade bed. Did she touch her fingertips

to my sticky hair 
and cry out, as the small body


dragged her darkness, like a caul, down and out?

 

 2. Where the Earth Opened

Not even my mother would recognize me now. I’ve stumbled

over cracked stones and open urns,

palm fronds piercing the earth like quivers,


to get to the clearing where her body went under.

My memory’s a dead movie screen. Could be 
I’m the one

who abandoned all these flowers, laying armfuls

down each day 
as though I could bank spring 
against the grave,

like closing the barn door. 
A man’s shadow double exposed on me.

When I bend to place a stem our darknesses nearly touch— head

to toe like mating shadows.
I think

I’m mourning
 someone I love, I even cry.

I think I’m marrying someone I love, I even cry.

Vintage Photo Writing Prompt

These vintage photos are from my ever-growing collection. None of the individuals are family and I have no knowledge of their back stories, which makes creating poems and stories around them so much more fun. I use photos quite often as writing prompts. The last of this bunch sparked one for me. In a future post I’ll include a couple photos and their companion poems. For now, enjoy these great images, maybe one of them will inspire a little writing.

Woman with birds in unknown city

Woman with birds in unknown city

Great perspective. That sidewalk into infinity!

Great perspective. That sidewalk into infinity!

Child bride, forced marriage? The possibilities  are endless.

Child bride, forced marriage? The possibilities are endless.

First communion dress handed down in an eccentric family.

First communion dress handed down in an eccentric family.

I think she's in mourning but stylishly so. Reminiscent of Dickens' Bleak House.

I think she’s in mourning but stylishly so. Reminiscent of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Look close, the original boy band. Love the jacket falling off the guitarist's shoulder.

Look close, the original boy band. Love the jacket falling off the guitarist’s shoulder.

Family photo with cemetery.

Family photo with cemetery.

Oh that hat!

Oh that hat!

There's a companion photo to this where they're all facing the camera. Love that sense of humor.

There’s a companion photo to this where they’re all facing the camera. Love that sense of humor.

Lady with two dapper gentleman. Love triangle?

Lady with two dapper gentleman. Love triangle?

And my favorite. I had to write a poem about this one, I'll include it in another post. The woman in mourning laying flowers, the shadowed photographer. I love the second photo where she seems to disappear completely in all that black.

And my favorite. I had to write a poem about this one, I’ll include it in another post. The woman in mourning laying flowers, the shadowed photographer. I love the second photo where she seems to disappear completely in all that black.

Squam Art Workshops Blog Post Interview with Me!

The Squam Art Workshops and retreats are held at a historic retreat center replete with cabins and a playhouse on the shores of Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to read poems from my upcoming book Church of Needles at the spring retreat in June. I’ll be in good company, among knitters, photographers, crafters and other writers. Plus, I get to read in said playhouse. Squam founder and director Elizabeth Duvivier recently asked me some great questions toward a post on the Squam Art Workshops blog which is posted and ready to read.

Thanks Elizabeth!

Writing Prompt

I find writing prompts that give phrases and word lists to be the most rich and productive for me. I compiled the following this morning and set to. To be fair, the resulting poem below is minimally revised. I wrote it and played around with it for a little while. You can use all of the suggestions in the list below or pick and choose. Sometimes words and phrases on the list spark word play or sound play and really grow beyond the confines of the prompt. Take 20 minutes or so for the initial free-write, then if you feel it has potential, revisit. Have fun.

Prompt:

  • it was always something
  • there was always someone
  • stone
  • eyelid
  • white
  • brain
  • dark
  • fur
  • blizzard
  • dressed up
  • tools
  • Reference a children’s book

 

The Long Winter

Cold stone in the brain; one landmark

around which the blizzard swirled.

Wind, slamming into the cabin like an open hand

against bone. Our last winter there

we read the Long Winter.  On the prairie,

girls were wrapped to their eyes in fur muffs,

but still wore dresses. Wind untwines

the layers, hammers the doors to get in.

We slept in snowsuits, our flour stores low.

 

Little Carrie, too thin  to withstand

that kind of cold. In The Long Winter there was always

someone tracking too far to the left, almost lost, almost lost

for good, on the prairie. We got turned around too

between our own barn and outhouse,

ending up at the back door, sealed with plastic for winter.

I practiced the platitude ‘all’s well that ends well’,

like Ma while whimpering like Carrie: ‘I just can’t

get warm’. And if my eyes weren’t bleeding from driven ice

like Laura’s, I was still dull, so dull I never thought

to make an apple pie with green tomatoes, never

equipped the kids with thimbles to etch pictures

on the frosted windows. There was a stone

in my brain around which the ice froze

in pretty patterns like lashes: dark eyelid, dark eyelid

Fun With Erasure Poetry

If you’ve never made an erasure poem, you’re missing out on some addictive fun. More fun than crosswords, Bananagrams or Scrabble for those of us with the compulsion to tinker, shuffle and rearrange words just for the hell of it. An erasure poem can be created from any block of text; a paragraph from a newspaper article, a letter, page of an existing text, another person’s poem, your own poem! Unlike found poetry or list poetry, erasures are created by crossing out the words you don’t want and leaving the ones you do, thus writing a poem through the process of elimination. Some well-known book length examples are ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips which was just on exhibition at MassMOCA, literally every page of the text framed and hung. Then there’s my favorite, Mary Ruefle’s ‘A Little White Shadow’ and Jen Bervin’s “Nets”, erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The ways in which the unwanted text is ‘erased’ and the remaining text highlighted can become quite artistic, with the resulting work bordering on book as art object. You can go that route with your own erasures, or head over to Wave Books and make a few erasures with the passages of texts they’ve uploaded. Once you choose a text, just click the words you don’t want, they’ll disappear. What remains is your poem. You can title and save it under your own name, or a pseudonym (chicken!). All the saved poems are archived, so you can read what others have done. Also, check out the deletionist . I just came across it but haven’t had too much time to explore. In short, you can download a Javascript bookmarklet that allows you to turn any web page into an erasure. Too cool! A great little writing exercise for those days when you can’t get down to business otherwise.

ImageMassMOCA exhibition