I’m in a serious relationship with a painting. It’s very one sided. I go to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) at least once a month to visit. My “visit” consists of me riding the escalator up to the third floor, walking past the guest services desk, through the sliding glass doors and cutting a direct path to the Robert H. and Ina M. Mohlman Gallery. In the second room of the gallery, on the far wall hangs my love. I sit down on one of the padded benches (thoughtfully provided by the IMA) and well, I stare. Sometimes I take notes, but most of the time I just look. Visiting time can vary, but today I stayed for about an hour.
The object of my affection? Two Sisters by George Lemmen.
I’ve wanted to write a poem about this painting since the very first time I saw it. I bought a print for my home and I have a postcard version hanging on the wall of my office at school. Yes, I’m a little obsessive. Anyway. The poem. I’ve written several drafts. They’re floating around in my different journals and it was only a few months ago that I felt I could finally sit down and try to commit some sort of structured draft to the page. As is the case with a lot of my poems, I wrote the draft, messed with it for about a week and then left it alone for a month.
Today, a cold, blustery January day, I realized that I didn’t have anywhere I really needed to be, so I took myself over to the museum, pulled out my old draft and started scribbling.
It’s the dark haired girl, Berthe, that I find fascinating. In fact, she trumps everything else in the painting for me. The younger sister, Jenny seems small, inconsequential and not nearly as interesting, which is perhaps odd given that she’s in the forefront of the portrait. The fact that Jenny looks directly toward you while Berthe averts her eyes is especially intriguing because it is because of her looking away that we can’t stop looking at her. Or at least I can’t.
I was first introduced to ekphrastic writing as an undergraduate in my first poetry workshop. I loved the idea immediately and my first subject was this piece by Diego Rivera:
According to the Academy of American poets and the introduction they offer concerning ekphrasis, John Hollander wrote in his book, Gazer’s Spirit, that there are a number of ways to approach this type of poem ““include addressing the image, making it speak, speaking of it interpretively, meditating upon the moment of viewing it, and so forth.” The poem I’m working on regrading Two Sisters is a mix of of address and meditation, which seems to be the approach that gravitate towards. When I introduce ekphrasis to my students, I always start by showing them a variety of examples and I think that’s one of the many reasons I’m drawn to this type of poetry. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
A personal favorite of mine is Starry Night by Anne Sexton. The painting in question is of course, The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and the opening stanza reads:
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how I want to die.
Another favorite is Landscape With the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams after Pieter Bruegel’sLandscape with the Fall of Icarus:
From the poem:
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
I particularly like discussing this poem/painting combination in my creative writing classes because it always takes my students a minute to find Icarus in Bruegel’s landscape and then when they do it’s always like they’ve won the lottery. I suppose this illuminates an added benefit of teaching ekphrasis, which is that in addition to exposure to a new set of poems, you’re also learning about art, which is an area I’ve always been interested in as a writer. I never took an art history course in college (a fact that surprises me more and more as I get older) but I feel like ekphrasis provides a wonderful entry point for newcomers. In fact, a successful poem, whether ekphrastic or otherwise, elevates its subject into a new space, sharing something with the reader that they had not considered before. Going back to Sexton’s “The Starry Night,” many of my students remark that they never thought of the painting as “ominous” or “physical” but Sexton’s poem offers a new perspective.
As an extension of this idea, when I get to the ekphrastic unit in my classes, I usually arrange for a trip to the IMA. They usually love getting into the galleries and writing poems of their own. I’m always amazed at how many of them live in the city but have never been to the museum.
While I was visiting my painting, I became aware, for probably the first time, that I am not the only one fascinated by Berthe. In the time that I sat, perched on my bench watching, several patrons stepped close to the painting. One couple stepped so close that the cord of their earbuds brushed perilously close to the frame. They whispered, they looked, but their eyes always centered on Berthe.
Because, really, where else would you look?