A series of ekphrastic poems by Molly Brodak that diverge from the paintings of Paolo Uccello inaugurates this week's special issue on Word & Image. When describing her approach to these ekphrastic poems, Brodak discussed pursuing an approach of "circuitry through parallel aesthetics" rather than an approach of description or praise. The result of this approach creates a different type of poem, one that is of its own nature rather than secondary to the painting. These poems attempt to recreate the moment of encounter with the painting, and in recreating this moment make a tangible thing: the poem. Brodak's second poem begins: "A painting is whether you can finish it." This statement is the crux of Brodak's approach, where the you refers as much to the viewer of the painting as to the painter. This statement is meant literally: what makes a work of art a work of art is the continuation of the question of whether the work of art continues or ends. Brodak's poems serve to continue the question, ultimately reckoning: "There is no answer / a hundred leaves stand in for a million, in suspense, / in ferocious grids, begun long before you looked."
What does it mean to look at a work of art? In these poems by Jared Randall, the act of considering a work of art converges with the act of prayer. Each poem is a brief meditation in correspondence with one of the Stations of the Cross. What becomes quickly apparent in this initially assumed solitary exercise is that there is no "I" in these poems, only "we." Which is the true circumstance of viewing a work of art, engaging in prayer, or reading a poem. There is always a multiple: the viewer and the artist, the one who prays and the god, the reader and the poet. Even in the act of doing what we think of as solitary, Randall realizes that the act is still one of community, and in these poems the community multiplies further. God, the many writers of the Bible, the artist who created these sculptures, Randall, and us as readers are all joined within the act of reading these poems. When we encounter art, we realize that we are never truly alone, a realization that both supports and haunts Randall's verse: "Unheavenly angel, / never—almost—pull back, / my earth-angel."
Matthew Hittinger's first poem begins with the absence of art: "There Were No Sculptures." This absence does not mean that art disappears or is forgotten. Instead, the void becomes filled, first by "bent steel beams and painted rods / sheet metal cut outs and rusted knots" then, eventually, the people who "posed in their stead" replacing the sculptures. This is the power of art: its insistence on existing. Even in its absence, art forces itself to appear in some form, a new form. Hittinger's second poem begins with Stendhal syndrome, an ecstatic moment that is caused by viewing a work of art. The triggering point that causes this ecstatic moment is, again, the art of the human body. The poem is written as a diptych, and this dual nature speaks to the relationship of viewer to artwork as well as poem to artwork. The reaction to the work of art, whether that reaction is internal thought or an ecstatic moment or the decision to write a poem, is inherently separate from the art itself. The decision to write a poem comes from a similar place as the cause of Stendhal syndrome, the desire to make that internal thought manifest itself outward, to perpetuate itself and spread itself: "for the simple project called form / called awe pleasure and delight / to view, to be viewed."
It is no surprise to say that words and things are not the same. The word "apple" is not the same as the piece of fruit sitting in the fruit bowl. It is tempting when thinking about this to lay blame at the feet of language, to point out its slipperiness and praise the clarity of the visual image. The photograph at the end of the horse race shows us who really won. The portrait painting of a distant ancestor shows us how a family really looked back then. This is the legacy, of course, of Plato and the exile of the poet: we only make word-tables, not real tables on which people can eat real food. The work below from j/j hastain does something different. The pieces utilize formal elements of visual poetry, collage, concrete poetry, and postal art to present an alternative argument: that words are clear, too, at least when we consider them as words and not as referents. Hastain does this in two ways. First, the visual elements of each piece are blurred, magnified, and set as background. The poem-fragments, by contrast, are highlighted, easy to read, and in focus. Second, hastain presents the words not as normal text on a page, but as a cut-out that has been glued on top of the image. The words are very literally things on each of these pieces. So, are these works of art or are these poems? They are neither, instead "becoming the new indigenous / through beckoning ourselves from cyborg to earth."