Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Ekphrastic? Search me - I'm just an English student.

Tango by Isabel Hermano

by Sheilagh Dyson

If there’s ever a word calculated to send me blinking and incredulous to the dictionary it’s ‘ekphrastic’. Even the spell check on my laptop throws it up as a spelling mistake. This last year has been a salutary one for me. I thought I knew a thing or two about the English language, oh yes, and had a pretty wide vocabulary. You weren’t going to catch me out with words I didn’t understand – it’s English, for goodness sake. A year on, ashen-faced and gibbering, I find I’ve had to learn a whole new language that I didn’t know existed. It’s as if I left school, fell asleep for half a century and awoke to an alien way of describing features of the language, my language.

My ignorance knew no bounds – I’ve had to learn to trot out synecdoche, metonymy, intertextuality, hyponymy, deixis, homophony, polysemy, neologism, exophoric, anaphoric, cataphoric and the like, as if I knew what I was talking about. And there was me thinking that ‘oxymoron’ would be as complicated as it would get!  We haven’t even ‘done’ ekphrastic yet, hence my rush to the Dictionary of Stylistics, as I so often have to do nowadays.

  But I digress…….so now I know. Ekphrasis, put simply, is the distillation into words of a piece of art or music. It can be in the form of poetry or prose. Is it even possible to accomplish, given that a painting, sculpture or photograph has an obvious immediate visual appeal? How can mere words come close to conveying the visual information, the beauty of an image? Or the emotion of a piece of music?

Judge for yourself. Here are two ekphrastic poems, one inspired by maybe the best known painting in the world, the other by a less well known painting, which was a birthday present from the artist to the poet. I think both beautifully reflect in words and capture the spirit of their respective inspirations.

La Giaconda by Michael Fields is an unusual interpretation of the famous and much speculated upon smile and demeanour of the Mona Lisa. She's mean! Michael Fields is the pseudonym of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, an aunt and niece who lived together as lovers and collaborated in writing poetry. In the preface to their second poetry collection, Sight and Song, their intention was made clear. It was to ‘translate into verse what the lines and colours of certain chosen pictures sing in themselves; to express not so much what these pictures are to the poet, but rather what poetry they objectively incarnate.’


La Gioconda by Leonardo da Vinci
La Gioconda

Historic, side-long, implicating eyes;
A smile of velvet's lustre on the cheek;
Calm lips the smile leads upward; hand that lies
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest
Of cruelty that waits and does not seek
For prey; a dusky forehead and a breast
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously:
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek;
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest
For those vicissitudes by which men die.

Michael Fields

‘Drunken Tango on the Floor’ by Karima Hoisan is an exuberant response to a painting entitled ‘Tango’ given to her by the artist, Isabel Hermano. Isabel's painting was inspired both by seeing a couple dancing a ‘perfect and almost out of control tango that cleared the dance floor until they were the only ones on it’ and by the classical tango music of Astor Piazzolla.

Drunken Tango on the Floor

Inspired by the painting “Tango” by Isabel Hermano
For Isabel Hermano the artist
Their colored inks were spilled not poured
as they danced three long- steps across a tiled floor.
Those tango winds rippled the accordion,
arm dropping
to a dip,
he left teeth marks upon her wrist,
wild eyed,
he grabbed a stolen kiss
Then she was just a drunken ripped tornado
that descended into a deep and purple haze
stirred into fruity caramel and sprinkled with nut glaze.
He danced her heels over headdress
then reeled her in so extra tight,
there was not a doubt she was liquid on love
and would turn into a two-four- one step-puddle
at his feet,
before the clock struck midnight.
It was when the cold and hot of him and her
met across a room,
and tangled in a tango
that melted legs off the piano
incinerating the vinyl table tops.
They became another pair of drunken lovers
scuffing up the floor,
he twirled her and over-wound her,
barred the windows and the doors.
They were free-forming into toffee,
tossing all caution to the whores.
He could have melted that city down,
before their dance was on its second round,
while all the other ladies paled on sight.
She was a supernatural-counter-clockwise-thing,
held only to the ground by perfect timing,
taut arms, and a tightly, tethered lead-string.
They stumbled in and out of grace,
her fast breath gently blowing through his face,
hips matched in perfect sync,
the patrons mute and slack-jawed in silk and lace.
There was not an inch of room for all the rest…
so they cleared out to the bar instead,
like a twister through tornado alley,
her hot spot riding up his leg.
They were frosting on the dance floor,
spreading out to cover more,
if you’d lit a match they’d have lit on fire,
ninety- proof of alcoholic love,
calves and pelvis riding on a two-backed dancing storm
descending from the nimbus clouds above.
Flames of flamboyant dance moves,
she was his bull and he rode her in red,
there was not an inch of room for other couples,
so they cleared the bar and fled.
He snapped his cape, and cracked his whip,
until she full-out bent her knee,
as he pressed her tighter to his will,
for the tango-dancing world to see.
It was when the cold and hot
of him and her
met across a room and tangled in a tango,
that melted legs off the piano,
incinerating the vinyl table tops.
They became another pair of drunken lovers
scuffing up the floor
he twirled her and over-wound her,
barred the windows and the doors.
He danced her heels over headdress
then reeled her in so tight,
there was not a doubt she was drunk on love
and would turn into a two-four-one-step puddle
at his feet,
before the clock struck midnight.
Karima Hoisan

Ektastic!!
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3 comments:

Gopal Yadav said...

fantastic post and Thanks for sharing this info. It's very helpful.
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Ashley R Lister said...

Sheilagh,

I agree with Gopal's comment above.

I too was going to use the Mona Lisa for my take on this week's theme :-) I still might - although I'm not going to come across as sounding as educated as you.

Excellent post with some stunning poetry.

Ash

vicky ellis said...

Yup, terrific post on ekphrasis.

"They were free-forming into toffee,
tossing all caution to the whores."

I can't tell you how much I wish I'd written this line.

Personally, I always remembered cataphoric as a cat jumping forward to a later reference in a book :) I haven't found anyone outside college who cares enough about English to use that word. Thanks for giving it an airing.