Ekphrasis and the Vintage Photograph


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.

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