An Ekphrastic Essay
“The anxiety of influence” —Harold Bloom
Photo One: Lung II:
Two men, one accordion, and a pall (palliative!?) of shining electric blue ocean’s strip in motion, splitting a clouded teal-grey sky, above a new-mold-green underworld that is both water and not water. Air and water breathed. The man in shorts below, suspended on his side, plays the chords; the shirted man above, floating in a tiny dome-like architectural object torn from its origin to be a tiny boat…that man, holds the other end of the accordion. Three alight empty wine bottles float between the three environments and there is a heavy sense of ill health, held breath, of suspension, the kind we experience before the exhale of loss. There’s a disconnect between three things said to you. You know there is music though you cannot hear it. The music is between them, between above and below. The integrity of the spaces has been combined and compromised by opposition. There is asking-in-action. It is the unconscious will. It is aftermath still happening. It is mythical foreboding. It is estranged beauty.
Charles Baudelaire, 1861 : “Listening to this impassioned, despotic music, painted upon the depths of darkness, riven by dreams, it seems like the vertiginous imaginings of opium.”
Artist Boyd Webb’s photos of his fabricated environments hallucinate and fill entire walls of the museum. They seem to be the disengaged cosmos of disconcerting dream, of the ocean, of the hurting planet, of our inoperable history, our subversive universe… and they play with paradox. Using absurd realism, humor’s artifice, and one could say, the necessary indirection of more than one genre spoken, they fondly subvert the allegory of the self in an architectural moment of disarmament and disordering. There’s place and then there’s emotional geography, relative arrangement and human activity.
At times some truly diverse images that one had considered to be quite opposed, incongruous, and non-cohesive, will come together and fuse into one charming image. The strangest mosaics of Surrealism will suddenly reveal a continuity of meaning; a shimmering will reveal profound light; a glance that sparkles with irony has suddenly a flow of tenderness––the drop of a tear in the fire of a confession. Such is, then, the decisive action of the imagination: of a monster it makes a newborn babe!
––Gaston Bachelard, Psychoanalysis of Fire
In a Los Angeles Times multi-page ad insert for the Dutch company’s G-Star Raw clothing line, the introduction boasts: “G-Star’s known for its unexpected combinations, but they’re rarely as surprising as the juxtaposition of Hollywood Beauty with chess Grandmaster brains in the new advertising campaign….” Drawing further attention to this surprising juxtaposition was the description of the denim clothing line: “G-Star’s new designs are the culmination of 15 years of 3D denim architecture. Clothing… [and here, I want to add, poetry] should not be two dimensional…taking its design cue from leather motocross trousers, crossing them with painters’ work-wear, and finishing it all with and ultramodern edge…powerful combinations.” Combinations, fusions, fusion culture, the mating game: fusion food, actors who are rock stars, rock stars and actors who play politicians in real life as real life plays its part on the vicarious stage of the wishful imagination.
And one man in his time plays many parts. Shakespeare
These combinations, this juxtaposition gets our attention within a Shakespearean domain of characters, playing the hierarchal infinite jest between genius and beauty; with commercial strategy of the old desire (for jeans, let’s say) becoming the new desire (for new jeans, lets say) we are told we need to belong. Belonging, by way of advertisement language and image, we forgo a little of our own “common sense” in the process (common =ordinary=loss of awareness=time’s purgatory). When poetry overlaps with prose, with plays, with non-fiction, and with art, the process of disruption and logic’s interruption seems
In the vibrant cello urging them to remonstrate more forcefully with the neighbors whose cattle had devoured their winter barely crop they heard cadences of the voice that had proclaimed the excellence of mercy to Shylock, denied the coming of dawn to the fugitive Romeo, raved with Lady Macbeth’s guilty dream and Phaedra’s lustful longing for her stepson.
–Susan Sontag, In America
to create a more vibrant, three-dimensional view of what is being presented (though not necessarily something “new”…remember the past’s “fore-guard” avant-garde?).
The political climate is self-destruction, a storm-strategy of advertising our universal ambivalence of want.
Virginia Woolf wanted something new, perhaps to slip genres in her “little work,” as named in her book of notes called The Waves (her intended novel once called The Moths):
1. 139 Saturday 18 June, 1927 Slowly ideas begin trickling in; & then suddenly I rhapsodized (the night L. dined with the apostles) & told over the story of the Moths, which I think I will write very quickly, perhaps in between chapters of that long impending book on fiction. Now the moths will I think fill out the skeleton which I dashed in here: the play-poem idea: the idea of some continuous stream, not solely of human thought, but of the ship, the night & etc, all flowing together: intersected by the arrival of the bright moths.
The continuous stream of consciousness, as an active play between ideas and images in poems is also the process that provides a converging intersection where the unexpected small (but winged) thing arrives. Walt Whitman originally counter-sings his own interaction between poetry and prose while mediating a causal distance between the two genres and between precipice-persuasions of emotional order and intellectual order in the ubiquitous Song of Myself:
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is
“[N]ow,” Coupling becomes exactly “the value of one and exactly the value of two” less familiar than our every day acceptance of the mundane. Text and context can perform ritualistic rites of disengagement in order to get to the true madness of perception and feeling, but they can’t accomplish this alone. There “will never be any more perfection than there is now,” or so we want to imagine/believe, so now, we make and remake anew. After all, the mind itself makes a messy batch of concoction, not unlike the bowl of scary mixtures between food/liquid and non-foods my 11 year-old best friend and I stirred up just to make ourselves laugh. Primitive as beauty and brains, falling adrift in our own internal space, we say, I am animal, I am mind, I am an animal with a mind.
“I am feeling through the flesh and not through the intellect…I am an animal with a mind.” ––Nijinsky’s Diary
Photo 2: Harvest II
I am interrupting my thought. I am waking, again. I am in shadow, barely seen… A naked woman half-kneels beneath a liquid-like suspended tarp of camel-colored mock desert earth stretched out across a space that has no beginning or end. One arm reaches to root a cash of plant cluster, the other breaks through this dry environment, with huge scissors, carefully, to cut the flay of green. Boyd Webb’s background is split between blanched pistachio yellow green and a Japanese painting ocean-storm-green. The hungry woman and her action is desire gone awry, the vulnerable naked self subsumed, yet taking charge. I am unfixed in verbs, clouds gathering behind me. I am cutting with Dickinson’s “bland uncertainty,” dry in the mouth. Our green lifeline is in danger. The psyche is in danger. Desire (hunger) is always in danger…
These constructed and photographed images make us start over in our intellectual orientation and in our emotional thinking, and the tableaux vivant images operate within the same world as poetry. Expectation shares the emotional stage with desire. In the court of expectation (the future on a leash) where no absolute monarchy reigns, surprise restores the kingdom. But, like the movement in writing towards disassociation, any clear identification with one single emotion is, by necessity, lost. But new color begins in the body, travels the nervous system, bringing up treasures from the shipwreck desire.
The political climate is self-destruction, a storm-strategy of advertising our universal ambivalence of want.
Want is a transitive verb telling us we have the wish for, the desire to do and possess something; want, with a present participle as the British so fondly use, requires something to be attended to in a specific way; want, with the informal infinitive, claims our conscience of should and ought, and need to… and moving to the transitive, want, the word, finds its relationship to time. It implies the quantum forever present participle. Want is desire, active and specific. Want is the appropriation of pleasure. It asks of many, if not all, our senses. Want is personal, cultural,
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
–– “Stop All The Clocks” W. H. Auden
indecent and moral. Like desire, it finds a target, an object, an image. It re-assembles the senses to dismantle the sun, sweep up the wood of language from the mind’s floor, because desire begins in image, moves to language, ends in image. But there is no end in desire, no closed door to what it sees ahead…want is free-fall.
…man’s desire for freedom. The moment men say we are free, we want self- determination, the capitalist principle is finished.
–– Joseph Beuys in an interview with Achille Bonito Oliva
WE WANT a spirit of this age: we want freedom, money, health, happiness, youth, yes, that body, this food, those clothes, that life… materialized trademark addictions. We want to be that person, that song, that sentiment. We want to be influenced by that language, that image, and that idea that eventually, we want to recognize as our own. We want to belong to the language of objects. When we want, we often conform, then we perform a social osmosis so we can gain access. Despite the fact that the end result is a vulgar duping of the culture into thinking it wants
At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale.
–– David Foster Wallace, from Consider The Lobster
and needs these expensive items of clothing, the impulse is not “dumbing down,” but rather a trend toward advertisers’ supposed upward innovation which they can claim requires both brains and beauty. By nature of
(Zeitgeist (German pronunciation: [ˈtsaɪtɡaɪst] ( listen) ) is “the spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age.”  Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and/or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambience, morals, sociocultural direction or mood of an era. The term zeitgeist is from German Zeit- ‘time’ (cognate with English tide and “time”) and Geist- ‘spirit’ (cognate with English ghost, without being really translatable into English – this is why the German term is used). ––Wikipedia
the extremes of beauty and brains (a Vivaldi’s winter and summer) in their sexy associations presented, we can belong, and there, the ordinary suddenly becomes extraordinary. That simply makes us feel good.
Thomas Campion’s famous line belongs both to Immortal Love Poems and MAD magazine: ‘There is a garden in her face.’
–– Eliot Weinberger, Similes of Beauty, Journal Article; New England Review, Vol.20, 1999
Photo 3: Blessed
A dusty blue grey planet orb, covered in wallpaper-like Italian leaves, floats amidst the random geometry of stars, their scattershot light against the background’s great black carrier. A pair of arms, two pale gloved hands, relaxed, emerge below, from its southern hemisphere. No one knows you are there. You are trapped, suspended. A still life with hands. An enormous man-made planet. No one quite knows what the small black beetle-like dot against the planet is, solitary and menacing. God (man) is the unreal planet. No one is allowed to speak, no language, yet the picture is full of singing. See how the past breaks out in our hearts? Excess foliated. The skin sings. There’s a fiction in every moment to moment.
It was an archeology of the present… a kind of controlled incongruity verging on mannerism, with the flowers of rhetoric, the tone rising and falling…
–– artist Sophie Calle
The beautiful unconscious always floats beneath the conscious, is always tethered by a kind of uninhibited fusion of ideas and images. Both conjoined minds are kinetic––however, that kinetic motion appears differently. I believe the unconscious rescues the conscious mind, and like a glass blower, provides the air in the object of desire––gives it form, form from the vantage-unknown, the unseen, from the unpredictable, and from the “real” yet volatile-aware place in the mind
So few people understand what melodrama is. It’s not real life exaggerated, as so many people feel. It’s not the truth exaggerated. Exaggerating the truth would deform it, make the art dishonest. Really good melodrama is the truth uninhibited.
–– Guy Maddin in an interview with Isabella Rossellini
of the maker. The unconscious allows the writer to exaggerate (exacerbate, extricate) the world that matters to her. Poetry is what is significant, arising out of the sweet consequence of insignificance. Perhaps visa versa, depending on who wants to see. The planet (the universe, man, the environment ) is limitless in its possibility of changing terrain. The mind’s terrain too, limitless.
The hurting planet defines us. It has always mixed metaphors for us, seduced and beguiled. Its demise as our demise belongs to every cruel generation. Walt speaks to us here: You shall possess the good of the earth and / sun, (there are / millions of suns left,) so that we may reply. We know Mother Earth (grandmother earth lifting her enormous skirt to hide the boy in the novelist, poet, essayist, graphic artist, playwright, sculptor Gunter Grass film adaptation of his dark allegory The Tin Drum) as a constant known. Rachel Carson knew. Theodore Roethke knew. Derek Walcott knows:
I/ shall dominate my future like a fiction
in which there is a real river and real sky…
The “real” rivers and skies unwind in front of us but there’s a distance created in this hyper age of consumption, a time-foreshortened lack of belonging created just long enough to make us forget our responsibility to survival–– survival of the planet, hence ourselves. In her poets.org interview Jorie Graham speaks of this peril:
Deidre Wengen: Your collection seems incredibly relevant to the environmental problems that we are facing today—problems that we finally seem to be coming to terms with. It almost feels prophetic.
Jorie Graham: Well, that comment makes me feel very grateful to have been able to write this book, as far as the art is concerned, as well as filled with the renewed sadness that occasions its having to be written with its particular “climate change” background. As for the sensation of “bringing news”—although I am not bringing any news that isn’t already everywhere to be had on the climate peril front—it is still one of the aspects of the poetry which most alarms people. And although these poems engage many other aspects of human life—abiding love—of a person (some of my very first love poems!), of the world (what I think of as a love poem or a hymn to water)—and much attempt to describe the daily astonishments of being human at all—
Astonishment engages the imagination, is part of its functioning purpose. It seeks and seeks out again what is happening to us, what happens around us; particularly in poetry, “It is hidden but always present.” [Lao Tzu, Tao Teaching] There’s a intersubjective consequence of freedom at work. The seductive over-refinement of culture-driven technology, the primitivism of nature, the will of both having their way with us even without our direct involvement, becomes desire’s reckless blessing, becomes our barbaric will.
If there is a God in Shakespeare, He hides in the human will, which finds itself free to evade all ideas of order, and proves not to be free at all.
–– Harold Bloom
Photo 4: Scott’s Tent, 1984
Purple and blue hue has me here drifting as dawn inebriates. Memory’s contused sum of forgetting: the sky is archival and upside down, an extended farewell. Weather is sex brewing. Look at the man upward-dragging the crumpled tent, from beneath dream, with him…like bedding, like boat tarp, like death shroud, like misstep. He is all preposition, betwixt and between, floating. Tilt-interim. All vowel, rallying to stay. Where will you go when you let go? There is a divide, shelves of soap and polar ice and sound-proofing in the unreadable room. Ixnay amscray, nix and scram. The only rule of thumb is to hold on.
These mysterious rules are with regard to the old rules of versification what ten games of chess played at once are with regard to dominoes. –– Jean Cocteau
But we can’t hold on, can we? Dawn inebriates and we are drifting, with dizzying descent, back toward our daily mournful desires… Bemused designation, assignation, public abyss. Can
––Charles Baudelaire, translated by Louis Simpson
“You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
advertising and poetry conquer the ills of pollution, racism, sexism, ageism, time?
Metaphysical dialectic adorns the implausible. Everything “that is flying” free toward the hand that chooses and covets this utopian seduction is already gone. We are trapped within the three bones of the middle ear waiting for a future sound of desire. Martyred slaves of ourselves, we look for revitalized reason in joy. We still want to believe we can escape with our beauty and brains and we want to believe we are free, following desire in making our own choices.
Realism and artifice co-mingle in Boyd Webb’s fresh physics, in his fabricated mindscape environments. He works like a poet with the visual art of indirection and re-direction. Desire is discontiguous, but hey, I too want to live there continually, for a moment. It’s retrieve and reprieve. It’s an open playing field of trope. This allegory tableau begins in such playful fantasy of beauty, and ends in one deadly brain game of seriousness: checkmate.
Former Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America and and Executive Director of AVK Arts, Elena Karina Byrne is an editor, Poetry Consultant / Moderator for The Los Angeles Times
Festival of Books, Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club and one of the final judges for the Kate/Kingsley Tufts Prizes in Poetry.
A Pushcart Prize winner, her publications include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Verse, Kenyon Review, Volt, The Dublin Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly and Denver Quarterly. Her books include: The Flammable Bird (Zoo Press / Tupelo Press), MASQUE (Tupelo Press), and the forthcoming Squander (Omnidawn 2016); she’s just completed Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry, Art and Desire.