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Throughout the past decade or so, I have been especially interested in exploring the connections between poetry and the (visual) art of painting. Much of my writing during this time has been devoted to this pursuit, looking for both formal and thematic means to evoke the aesthetics of the visual via the medium of written language. While this ekphrastic mode of writing enjoys a lengthy and more or less continuous tradition, the concept of ekphrasis itself, however, has evolved over time in both its scope and its meaning. If the more traditional sense of the word would suggest a poem that specifically addresses or represents a given work of art and which would, furthermore, “imitate the self-sufficiency of [that art] object,” a more contemporary version would be the making of what the critic Michael Davidson calls a “painterly poem,” – one that “activates strategies of composition equivalent to, but not dependent on the painting. Instead of “pausing at a reflective distance from the work of art, the poet [would read] painting as a text rather than as a static object,” or else would write in response to “the larger painterly aesthetic generated by the painting” (Heffernan 299). My work, indeed, hopes to realize this later conception of the poem-painting relationship. Rather than produce what would be called a work of actual ekphrasis, where the poem has a reference to a definitive and extant art object, I have been attempting a series of compositions that would illustrate “a notional ekphrasis, a verbal representation of an imagined work of art” (Tassi 157).
I believe that working in this way allows the ekphrastic poem a capacity to encompass a number of other concepts. The first of these is “Landscape” or the artistic/symbolic rendering of the natural world. As both a subject matter and a set of formal procedures, the landscape already includes both a realistic (objective) and idealized (subjective) engagement with the world, as well as, more broadly, the question of where and how the embodied and perceptive human subject is positioned between the physical world and its representation(s). Within this, and really within painting (and thus ekphrastic poetry) itself, one may, moreover, engage with “Vision,” the capacity of sight in its varied manifestations. What, for example, does it mean to look directly at an object in the world? What does it mean, intentionally or otherwise, to find oneself unable to access the world directly, and instead to see obliquely, indirectly, in and among and through ever increasing intensities of shadow, through ever more densely layered folds in space? In what ways, and to what consequence, might all visible objects have a complementary quality of invisibility? How do all these dimensions in the visible sense ultimately translate to the space(s) in a poem? How might the poet reimagine the line, the break in line, the positions of words and lines upon the page, as analogues to the use of line, shade, color, etc. in painting?
My book A Day of Glass, published by Chax Press in 2020 was also one of my first sustained attempts to realize all of this in poetry. A series of 81 short, fragmentary and interrelated pieces, the book invites a reading whereby each of these pieces may be read individually, as distinct compositions in their own right. It also, however, suggests or gestures towards any number of patterns, sequences or links between them, to the point where the entire book may be read as a single poem, articulated (or folded) across each of the individual pieces. A reading of the book as a single entity, moreover, highlights the particular arrangement of the texts – that is, by giving each piece its own page (as opposed to running them all together continuously, with no page breaks), the blank spaces between each piece, along with the time that it takes the eye and ear to cross these spaces, becomes an essential part of the way the book creates its “meaning.”
As the title indicates, the book uses “glass,” as both a physical substance and (perhaps over-determined) metaphor as its central or controlling image. The question “what does it mean to see?” is thus modified or filtered through the question “what does it mean to see through glass?” This latter question, too, is redoubled in that the sense of “through” is both immediate (insofar as glass is transparent) as well as mediated, where glass serves as a vehicle to conduct, direct, and even obscure our vision.
While the book is not intentionally or overtly personal (in that the speaking subject, the lyric “I,” is not meant as a realistic representation of my own speaking “self”), I’ve come to realize that one of the primary inspirations for the imagery of glass can most likely be traced back to my childhood. I grew up in Queens, New York, in an apartment which had large windows in every room, providing not only a view, but an endlessly changing atmosphere of interior light depending upon the time of day, the weather, or the seasons. I was also fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood which had an abundance of trees, and if I have one abiding and persistent memory from my childhood, it is of the dense and seemingly infinite and fractal patterns of tree branches, either bare or in full leaf, unfolding and entwining themselves against the flat, idealized grid of the window. I have, in no small way, been pursuing this figure in all of my writing. Here, in this book, it takes the form not only in the imagery of glass per se, but also in the imagery of “trees” (branches, leaves, roots, flowers, etc.) and in “water,” as an essential substance that connects both the organicism of the tree and the transparent fluidity of glass. Put another way, the constellations of glass, tree and water serve as figures for both “memory” and “measure,” insofar as each may have linear and non-linear modalities.
Finally, the notion of the linear, or of the “line” itself, is present both as a subject matter of the text and as a guiding principle in its composition. How might we think of the line simultaneously as: a measure in poetry, as the beginning or foundation of drawing, as an element in geometry and as the pure articulation of a boundary, a cut or incision in space. Moreover, if we think of the poetic line as embedded in these other senses of line, can we think the same of the individual letters that compose the words of a poem? If so, does this not imply a sort of alphabet to the act of drawing, of measuring, of existing and moving through space? Each line, and each letter, of A Day of Glass proceeds from the hope that this might the be case, even if such alphabets, such grammars might ultimately be unreadable.
Heffernan, James A. W. “Ekphrasis and Representation.” New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, 1991, pp. 297–316. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/469040.
Tassi, Marguerite A. The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Susquehanna UP, 2005.