Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poet Neil Ellman Visits Kandinsky's "Small Worlds"

New Jersey poet Neil Ellman has twice been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. His poems appear in print and online journals, anthologies, and chapbooks worldwide. His ekphrastic poetry includes nine chapbooks devoted individually to the works of Dalí, Miró, and other modern and contemporary artists. Parallels: Selected Ekphrastic Poetry, 2009-2012, is his first full-length collection. 

Ellman based the following poems on Wassily Kandinsky's 
1922 series of lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings called 
"Small Worlds." Kandinsky (1866-1944) was an early champion of abstract painting, known for his lyrical style and innovative theories on nonfigurative art. In his 1910 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he made famous his belief that abstract colors and forms could be used to express the “inner life” of the artist. He taught this and other lessons at the Bauhaus, the historic Weimar institution that brought together artists such as Josef Albers, Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, and Piet Mondrian. In 1911 Kandinsky played a central role in organizing Der Blaue Reiter, named in part after the Russian artist’s favorite color—blue.

Small Worlds I
(after the lithograph by Wassily Kandinsky)

So tiny
their dwarf-star eyes
new worlds
in miniature
firefly sparkles
splintered glass
collect the sun—
when worlds collide
small wonder
at our wonderment
how very small
we are.

Small Worlds V
(after the lithograph by Wassily Kandinsky)

Hold these worlds
in the small of your hand
remember them
the day they were torn
from the ribs of even chance
your children, your own,
remember them
as they were, not now
having come to this
these worlds in disarray
where anarchy makes
a fool of providence
and yesterday’s trust
what future there was
has lost its faith.

Small Worlds VII
(after the woodcut by Wassily Kandinsky)

In a drop of water
infinite worlds
small galaxies walk
on primordial feet

in the silent ooze
of time
they gather in splashes
baptized by rain—

so many worlds
so little space
to swim with the gods
in creation’s wake.

Small Worlds VIII
(after the woodcut by Wassily Kandinsky)
Measure the dimensions
of our worlds
with a caliper
the distance between
the space between
our minds
and through the lens
of a microscope
calculate the beginnings
and the ends
like strangers and friends
the two of us
in our two worlds
separated by our lies—
we know no other worlds
but these.
Small Worlds IX
(after the etching/drypoint by Wassily Kandinsky)

From creation’s muddle
to these small worlds
from original sin
lost innocence
a ship in a bottle
of my own conceit
draw circles in the sky
and watch the universe recede
I circumnavigate these globes
to know my worlds again
mother and father
origin of all I have become.
An interview with Ellman here 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Worlds of Poet Deborah Keenan and Painter Susan Solomon

Deborah Keenan is the author of nine collections of poetry. Her latest from broadcraft press, From Tiger to Prayer, is a book of writing ideas. She's a professor at Hamline University in the Creative Writing Programs and lives in beautiful, mysterious St. Paul. 
Susan Solomon is a freelance poem-painting artist living in the Twin Cities. She is the cartoonist and editor of Sleet Magazine, an online literary journal.

The following poem-painting is from their collaborative chapbook so she had the world, published by Red Bird Chapbooks. It includes 12 poems by Keenan and 12 paintings by Solomon inspired by those poems. Purchase a copy of their chapbook here.

The World As We Know It
by Deborah Keenan

She had the world
The river and the world
Part of the world
A small part of the world

And the river
A small part of the world
And the bend in the river
And the children’s voices
From faraway she had the world
And the road that led to the world
And the memory of the river
And the memory of the whole
World and then the memory
Of part of the world and
The small part of that world
And the bend in the river
The river which sometimes
Dried up
A drought settled
Into her part of the world
But then she had the memory
Of the drought
To go with
The world
The river
The bend in the river
The children’s voices
And the road
That led
To the world
Where the drought
Was real and just
Memory too
So she had the world.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poet Grace Schulman and Painter Edward Hopper Find a Cure for Solitude

For the next several weeks we’ll be posting poems from The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, in which editor Gail Levin has collected poems inspired by Edward Hopper paintings. Our first is Grace Schulman’s "American Solitude."

Poet and editor Grace Schulman was born in 1935 in New York City, studying at Bard College, American University, and New York University, where she earned her PhD. She is distinguished professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, and served as the poetry editor of the Nation from 1972 to 2006. She also directed the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center from 1973 to 1985. She has published six collections of poetry, including Days of Wonder: New and Selected Poems (2002) and The Broken String (2007). When Schulman was a teenager she was introduced to Marianne Moore, who had a profound effect on her poetics. Schulman wrote on the poet in a critical study, Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (1986), and edited The Poems of Marianne Moore (2004).

American Solitude
“The cure for loneliness is solitude.” 
—Marianne Moore

Hopper never painted this, but here
on a snaky path his vision lingers:

three white tombs, robots with glassed-in faces
and meters for eyes, grim mouths, flat noses,

lean forward on a platform, like strangers
with identical frowns scanning a blur,

far off, that might be their train.
Gas tanks broken for decades face Parson’s

smithy, planked shut now. Both relics must stay.
The pumps have roots in gas pools, and the smithy

stores memories of hammers forging scythes
to cut spartina grass for dry salt hay.

The tanks have the remove of local clammers
who sink buckets and stand, never in pairs,

but one and one and one, blank-eyed, alone,
more serene than lonely. Today a woman

rakes in the shallows, then bends to receive
last rays in shimmering water, her long shadow

knifing the bay. She slides into her truck
to watch the sky flame over sand flats, a hawk’s

wind arabesque, an island risen, brown
Atlantis, at low tide; she probes the shoreline

and beyond grassy dunes for where the land
might slope off into night. Hers is no common

emptiness, but a vaster silence filled
with terns’ cries, an abundant solitude.

Nearby, the three dry gas pumps, worn
survivors of clam-digging generations,

are luminous, and have an exile’s grandeur
that says: In perfect solitude, there’s fire.

One day I approached the vessels
and wanted to drive on, the road ablaze

with dogwood in full bloom, but the contraptions
outdazzled the road’s white, even outshone

a bleached shirt flapping alone
on a laundry line, arms pointed down.

High noon. Three urns, ironic in their outcast
dignity—as though, like some pine chests,

they might be prized in disuse—cast rays,
spun leaf—covered numbers, clanked, then wheezed

and stopped again. Shadows cut the road
before I drove off into the dark woods.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Poet Helen Engelhardt's Vermeers

Helen Engelhardt, poet, writer, storyteller and independent audio producer of Midsummer Sound Company, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has appeared in national journals and international anthologies, her audiobooks nominated for "audies", her storytelling performance awarded the Hemingway Days prize. Poems featured here are part of a series inspired by Vermeer's paintings. "I chose Vermeer because his body of work is, with only four exceptions, focused entirely on the intimate, interior life of women. " Visit her at midsummersoundcompany.com.

The Music Lesson
Musica Letitiae Comes Medicina Doloris * 

At the other end of a long room
the lady and the cavalier alone at last
stand in silence, the virginal between them

He is captivated. His hand clasps the edge
of the instrument, declaring his intentions.
His unguarded face awaits her mercy.

She is her own pedestal. Her skirts,
a fluted column, neither resist nor comply.
Her back is to us, her face a blur

in the enigmatic mirror. We will never learn
her reply, nor look upon the face of the master
who shows us his easel reflected above

her head. Others reveal themselves
at work in miniature. He gives us the world
in the mirror, wherein we can lose ourselves.

Nothing intimate is uncovered here
but the nape of her neck, the back of the man
in the painting on the wall: a naked prisoner

who kneels before an unseen lady.
He is receiving Roman Charity. The lesson
is over. The music has not yet begun.

(Roman Charity or The Story of Cimon and Pero was the name of a genre painting favored at the time, depicting a naked man suckling the breast of a clothed lady standing before him. Pero suckled her imprisoned father who had been condemned to die by starvation.)

* Words written on the lid of the virginal, “Music, the companion of joy, the balm of sorrow”

Woman Holding a Balance

At noon a beam of light decides                                 Would that my judge, serene
to witness the judgment in this room                           as this woman burgeoning,
suspends a balance in the air                                     will find at the end

jewels poised upon her palms.                                   both my soul and my songs abiding.

View of Delft

Earth has nothing to show fairer
than Delft adrift between clouds
and their reflections. A faience of russet
walls and tiled roofs, gleams
of gold along the quays, canals
enameled green and blue. All clues
are concealed in the scrubbed cobbles. Tulip
fever once inflamed this citadel
of sobriety, shook Delft to its foundations.
The Thunderclap burst the arch
of heaven, blew away streets
with people, buried Fabritius, his canvas
and the man sitting for his portrait, under
the ruins of his home.  Gliding under
the open mouthed bridges, dark
waters mirror windows.  Did fire
ever devour everything except
the pointed turrets of the East Gate?
All seems so serene.
The most beautiful light in the world peals
through a carillon of leaves, across
the alleys, across the River Schie
to a building overlooking the port, to a window
on the second floor.  The natural light
of the mind.  You can stand today where he stood,
overlooking the natural-gas reservoir,
some new houses. The design remains
and so does the water.

(Vermeer was a pupil of Carel Fabritius, who, when he died in an explosion of gunpowder known as The Thunderclap in 1654, was a young painter of great promise)

in homage to William Wordsworth

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Piero della Francesca's “The Resurrection” (Just in Time for Easter)

Resurrection, c.1460

Inspired by recent interest in Piero della Francesca and two memorable exhibits—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2014) and the Frick (2013)—here are two interpretations of the Renaissance painter’s “The Resurrection.” Each very different, each masterful.

See also Jorie Graham's "San Sepolcro" published here and this essay by Walter Kaiser in The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles

Rowan Williams 
Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulders sags. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg 
The Resurrection (Piero della Francesca)

In the 1550s a lantern-maker, Marco, testified
That as a child he had “led Piero by the hand”
Through the streets of Borgo San Sepolcro.
Piero, blind, and following a child guide along

The chessboard of his native city’s streets
To the Civic Palace, within the tumbled walls
Of the Town of the Holy Sepulchre. Piero, blind—
Who once, with earth imported from the Black Sea,

Had dusted pinhole pricks on tracing sheets,
To trace “The Dream of Constantine” on the wall,
And the serf who leaned against his hovel
Awaiting Helena’s command to dig for the Cross,

And Pilate, impassive, hooded in the Judgment Seat,
And the beautiful Jew who was tortured in a well—
Piero, white-gowned, a cataract prisoner, now
Shuffles with outstretched hands, while far-off bales

Of straw, in fields ignited by sunset,
Smolder behind him, setting a broken wall on fire.
The hem of a mantle of tree roots flames up,
Like a patch of ancient sewing work littered

With those pearls for which Duke Federigo paid
A great price back in the old life, stitched
With silver leaf, in luminous embroiderings,
Lying tossed like a discarded shroud over

Kindling sticks in the hedge of thorns
The goldfinch once inhabited, her nest
A torch’s head fallen from its stick
Beyond the curb of the marbly dream-town,

Where towers, knocked down across the countryside,
Half crumble like sugar-cube constructions
For a wedding, or dissolve like knocked-over
Buckets of sand for children’s battlements,

For a city left behind in the wake of the earthquake
Of 1352, or the quake at Christ’s death,
Since history is behind Piero now, and
The goldfinch is saved, circling ecstatically

Above Piero’s head as he climbs a cement staircase
Step by step. When you were young, you girded
Yourself and walked wherever you would. But
When you are old, you will stretch forth

Your hands, and another will gird you
And carry you where you would not go.
Halting in the streets of Holy Sepulchre,
Grown old in the town of his nativity,

Taken by the hand of the Civic Palace,
He stops at the site of “The Resurrection,”
And lifts his outstretched hand from Marco’s shoulder,
As if he groped for the lip of a stone coffin

From antiquity set only inches away from where
The blind man appears to be staring in fright
Into God’s face. Behind him the pink twinkle
Of twilight is a banner moist with one drop

Of Jewish blood: before him, the distant
Blue mountain of Purgatory. His fingertips touch
Only picture-shadowing earth from the Black Sea.
Once he could squint at “The Resurrection” through

An ever-smaller pinhole of light, like
A pinhole pecked for him by the finch’s beak,
Through which he sifted powder for his drawings—
She whose nest had fallen when the mowers

Burned away the branches, she who had let
Piero approach, but only so far, and then
Warned him off with her gaze of terror,
When he would have bent on his knees in the grass

To stroke her anxious, silky head with
A fingertip, touching the scarlet cap
That stained it like a tiny, bloody drop,
But he’d backed away, not wanting to scare her—

But the pinhole he had peered through closed.
Now his shoes press against the plaster wall
Of blind old age, backed up by the empty place
Brick walls depict, where paint is a scent

That still could conjure the belfrie of papier-mâché
He had painted for an important Duke,
A famous humanist he’d once depicted travelling
At twilight in a straw-wagon with angels

Conversing in seraphic languages
Along the outskirts of a shining thunderstorm
Before the distant prospect of Rome-Jerusalem-Urbino.
Now he stands sightless with his empty hand

Outstretched at the rough edge of the sepulcher
Recently broken open, before which
Jesus has turned to Piero, holding out to him
Death’s unraveled, pitiful bandages.
Madonna and Child with Two Angels (ca. 1464–74?)