Ekphrasis: “Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet John Keats speculates on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music, simultaneously frozen in time and in perpetual motion.
The poetry magazine, Rattle, runs a monthly “Ekphrastic Challenge” — the editors provide a photograph or painting or other work of art and asking poets to submit poems responding to that work. The artist and the editor each pick a favorite poem, both of which are then published online.
I was intrigued by June’s image of a blue whale and I wrote a poem and submitted it. I didn’t expect my poem to be selected. And it wasn’t. But it was a fun challenge and it got the ball rolling and since then I’ve written perhaps a dozen ekphrastic poems (though I’ve preferred to call my poems “picture studies”).
So here, at last, is the first of my picture study poems:
The whale has been translated far beyond
the watery depths of his ocean home.
Translated to this pale, dry page whose tear-
spatters of blue paint bear only a faint
resemblance to those vast waters that—
were I able to understand his
untranslated, untranslatable song—
he is possibly singing of just now.
A deep melancholy lament
for the taste of distant currents,
his favorite krill banks, and the
undersea mountains where he and his pod
often vacation in the warmer months—
All untranslatable into the tongues
of men, who, nonetheless, still draw whales
because we are in love with their mystery
and their unfathomable lamentations.
The artist has spattered a few halfhearted
blobs of blue around him as if in drawing him
she wept a blue flood that ran down the page—
Or maybe it’s the whale himself was blubbering
weeping and wailing, moaning and mourning
soaking the page with his spouting brine—
but these jellyfish blots do not satisfy
my longing for blue, having only a hint
of the beauty of the sea’s dark amnion.
The whale’s eye looks accusing, casting about
for a way to escape this papery world,
to get back to the business of swimming
and singing the blues.
This poem was inspired, in part, by Deep Wizardry, the second novel in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. In the novel the protagonists, Kit and Nita, meet a bunch of whales, some of whom are also wizards. Nita and Kit join the whales (and a shark) in performing a piece that is somewhere between a spell and a passion play. When I saw this whale picture I thought of the delightful whale characters in Duane’s book. I suspect Douglas Adams’ sperm whale who appears in mid-air in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also might have been lurking in the back of my mind. But primarily the poem plays with the various problems of translation and art: how an artist– or a poet– tries to capture a perception about one experience in a different medium. It’s sort of about the challenge of ekphrastic poetry itself. I’m also fascinated by the notion of translation as a physical movement, as when a saint’s remains are “translated” from one place to another.
The official Rattle selections are linked below, and you can also click through to either one to see the picture I’m responding too, “Blue Whale” by Nikki Zarate. (I haven’t secured permission from the artist to repost it here and it looks like her Facebook page has been hacked.)
Artist’s Choice: “Ink Blots” by Matt Quinn
Editor’s Choice: “Kenai” by Katherine Fallon