Saturday, February 6, 2016

Poet Nancy Scott Travels with Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy" to the Empire of Light

The Sleeping Gypsy
Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas, 1897

The melody of the lute lured the big cat. Fearless, the gypsy
offered him water from her cupped hands. Then, she bid the lion

stay, sang of unrequited love, hardship, the gypsy’s lot, how she’d
roamed thick forest, searing desert, cast out from kumpania, family.

At dusk, she read the lion’s paw and lied to him, as she does to all
not of her kind, whispered, if he stayed by her, she knew a way

from these barren dunes to a great savanna filled with creatures
to sate his appetite. He could kill a fatty ewe, she’d roast it, together

they would eat it to their liking. No misgivings about taking beast
as companion. Lion, she said, we’ll travel like the water. No foot-

prints, no dream of home, just life along the lungo drom, long road.
So it is with survival: one stands guard, one sleeps.

The Empire of Light, II
René Magritte, oil on canvas, 1950

My nightmares are like that—
a single street lamp, not illuminating anything,
the street’s bathed in darkness, and I’m running
and stumble, and there’s a house, maybe two,
maybe three, I lose count as I’m running,
out of breath now, and light from a window, here
and there, but the street is deserted, no people,
no cars, not even a stray cat, and yet behind
one of those closed doors may be what I’m trying
to reach, but I can’t stop to find out, so I keep
on running, and will myself not to look up,
because over the trees, above this desolate street,
there’s a bright blue sky frothy with clouds, and
if I could get a good running start, I could lift off
and soar, leave this endless street where no one
goes out, not for a smoke or to walk their dog,
and if I stay steady, I could float forever
in perpetual day, but I know that’s not what I am
looking for, so if I can reach the corner,
I’ve got a hunch that on the next street, day is
day and night’s night, and with my legs aching,
I’d settle for that, so I keep on running, past
the same windows, same trees, still hopeful
I’ll make it, because as I said at the start,
my nightmares are like that.

Self Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Arnold Böcklin, oil on canvas, 1872

Villa Bellagio*
San Domenica di Fiesole

Herr Böcklin,
I’ve been here six weeks now,
sit under the portico writing.
A small, feisty dog doesn’t approve,
escapes to nip at me,
oblivious to the caretaker’s broom.

I often watch Il Duomo nesting
in low morning mist,
while orange-tiled roofs, cypress and fir
angle down hillsides.
Potted lemon trees ring the courtyard
just as you drew them.

The crumbing Etruscan wall holds,
the path overgrown with lichen
and moss. Perhaps in the shadows,
one, maybe two,
of your ebullient mythical creatures.

A young man brings fresh-killed
chickens, not plucked.
Basta, I say, no more, but he returns
again and again.
How persistent he is, Herr Böcklin,
as I imagine you
in your studio, palette and brush
defying death.
*Böcklin’s home in Italy, late 19th century;

The Absinthe Drinker 
after a painting by Edgar Degas, 1876

He’d run off, left everything behind, me waiting
by the window imagining him dead,
the landlady banging on the door for the rent.
            I was still in love with a pile of bones.

Ah, hot coffee to lift my spirits, when a stranger
sat down across from me without asking,
stared until I said, Do you like what you see?

You have just the expression I’m looking for.
Dressed like a gentlemen, he said he was
was an artist in need of a model. His nose slid
like a banana peel and dark hollow eyes,
not my sort. I liked my men brawny and blue-eyed.
I was flattered but directly I told him,
Mind you, I won’t take my clothes off to which
he replied that I just had to sit at a table

in his studio with that look, as if I had a whole lot
of troubles, and I said, You got that right,
but what’s in it for me? He offered enough money
to pay all my back rent and a month ahead.
How could I refuse? I came to his studio once
for a pencil sketch; another time,
he took out his brushes but wouldn’t show me
what he’d done. When it’s finished, he said.
The last time he poured me a cup of tea, then
pulled the cloth off the easel.

That’s me, all dolled up in a silly hat I’d never wear.
As for the absinthe, he’d added that later.
If he’d asked, I’d have said, Never touched a drop,
 seen what happens to folks who don’t stop.
I had more troubles by then; his money ran out,
and that dirty man with the beard and pipe
sitting next to me? Never laid eyes on him before.
I don’t think this artist has much
of a future. Who’d buy such a gloomy picture?

Poet Nancy Scott is the managing editor of U.S.1 Worksheets, the journal of the U.S.1 Poets' Cooperative in New Jersey, and the author of eight books of poetry. On Location (March Street Press, 2011), a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by 19th and 20th Century Russian artists, is dedicated to her Russian grandfather. Scott is also an artist, working primarily in collage and mixed media. Her collages have been featured as cover images on her books as well as on those of other poets. Read more on her website.  Here is an interview.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Poet Steve Klepetar Reimagines Prosperine, Ophelia, and a Scapegoat

Back by popular demand is poet-professor Steve Klepetar. His work has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, including three in 2014. His most recent collection is an e-chapbook, Return of the Bride of Frankenstein, from Kind of a Hurricane Press. Klepetar teaches English literature at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. Read more on his website here


After the painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

She holds the pomegranate with its bloody
gash, forbidden seeds ripped from flesh.
Fingers drape her painful wrist, as if covering

a racing pulse, or a slash, or a lover’s playful
bite. She is no springtime goddess, snatched
from gathering flowers on some green hill,

but a queen robed in the colors of night,
a crow’s blue-black sheen. Her lips bleed,
her hair floats as a dark cloud, her hooded

eyes betray no hope of return as they stare
down toward the dark rivers flowing to a
nether sea where all boats must come to rest.


After the painting by John Everett Millais, 1851-1852

Springtime, and the Rose of Shannon blooms,
Dragon’s Tongue reeds jab warming air.
They rise from a narrow brook, tangle of brush
and watery moss, a thick and growing tomb.
Her heavy dress pulls her body down
toward river muck. On the surface, her face floats,
another petal torn from a flowering bush.
She has dragged herself to this place of sacrifice.
Naiads weep, all their mournful singing stopped.
Frogs linger in shadows, holding their green tongues.
Flowers perfume humid air, but the birds are still.
The Priests have retreated, with their hoods and flame.
Wade into the stream, bend and kiss her brow.
She will waken, her hands open, to greet you at water’s edge.

The Scapegoat

After the paining by William Holman Hunt, 1854

She stands in a desert of ice by a blue-green
lake, beneath a range of mountains, violet
in the thin light of winter afternoon. When

she moves, her hooves crack through to
water cold enough to make her voice break
in this silent, empty place. She carries the red

sins of a tribe that shivers in the distance, out
of sight, with provisions running low. Their
children have grown thin with want, the hunters

return with nothing. All the bones picked clean
and grim night comes on. The goat’s eyes 
wild with a knowledge torn from dead sky.

painters and poets ekphrastic poems

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Zagajewski on Morandi, Degas, and Seurat

Painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi
studying his subjects

The Center for Italian Modern Art's exhibit on Giorgio Morandi sent me in search of poems that honor his still life paintings. I found a lovely one by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945; as an infant he was relocated with his family to western Poland. He has taught at the universities of Houston and Chicago. Zagajewski writes in Polish and many of his books of poetry and essays have been translated into English. He was considered one of the “Generation of ’68” or “New Wave” writers in Poland. His early work was protest poetry but more recent work is marked by a wit and irony that delivers a more subtle message. The titles of his collections suggest some of his concerns: Tremor (1985), Mysticism for Beginners (1997), and World Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002). 


Even at night, the objects kept vigil,
even as he slept, with African dreams;
a porcelain jug, two watering cans,
Still Life, 1956
empty green wine bottles, a knife.
Even as he slept, deeply, as only creators
can sleep, dead-tired,
the objects were laughing, revolution was near.

The nosy watering can with its beak
feverishly incited the others;
blood pulsed wildly in the cup,
which had never known the thirst of a mouth,
only eyes, gazes, vision.

By day, they grew humble, and even took pride:
the whole coarse existence of the world
Corner of a Factory, ca. 1883
found refuge in them,
abandoning for a time the blossoming cherry,
the sorrowful hearts of the dying.

George Seurat: Factory
(a drawing in the de Menil collection, Houston)
for Jacek Waltos

In the mountains, on the map’s edge, where the grass is brash and
     sharp as deserters’ bayonets, a forgotten factory rises.
We don’t know if it’s dawn or dusk. We only know one thing:
     here, in this glum building, light is being born.
Silent slaves with the narrow, transparent faces of Byzantine
     monks turn an enormous dynamo and ignite the golden
     sparks of dawn in the globe’s farthest reaches. Some cry,
     others smoke stylish cigarettes as light as a sparrow’s breath.         
     They don’t answer questions: their tongues have been cut out.
Right beneath the wall, where the black weeds grow, darkness has
     hidden. It’s absolutely still. The world’s hair grows.

Degas: The Milliner’s Shop
The Milliner's Shop, ca. 1884
The hats are innocent, bathed
in a soft light blurring their forms.
The girl is hard at work.
But where are the brooks? The groves?
Where’s the sensuous laughter of the nymphs?
The world is hungry, and one day
it will invade this peaceful room.
For the time being it’s appeased by ambassadors
announcing: I’m ocher.
And I’m sienna. I’m the color of terror,
like ash. Ships drown in me.
I’m the color blue, I’m cold,
I can be ruthless.
And I’m the color of death,
I’m endlessly patient.
I’m purple (you can barely see me),
triumphs and parades are mine.
I’m green, I’m tender,
I live in wells and birch leaves.
The girl, with her deft fingers,
doesn’t hear voices, since she’s mortal.
She thinks about next Sunday,
and her date with the butcher’s son
who has thick lips
and big hands
stained with blood.