A Game of Patience, by Helen How
A Game of Patience
The door clicks closed behind me.
Julia glances up, poised mid-game, a playing card held aloft in her delicate,
elegant, long, tapered, thin, white fingers.
In that pregnant moment between now and the future, no sound.
My eyes and brain freeze the scene, burning it acid-sharp in memory.
This is a moment to which we can never return.
She sits in her virginal, soft-folded, cornflower dress, cotton-trimmed
with angular severity.
She will make a good nurse.
She has whiled away this sultry afternoon, patiently.
She is faintly puzzled now.
I have left the fields. Left the men to the burning, harvest heat. They will surely slack.
The circle of the green-baize table traps the circle of cards.
On the table, two apples, one rich, ripe and tempting, the other a bitter gall.
From beyond the open window, a hot draught eddies across the room,
Stirs a stem of barley, carelessly abandoned to its fate
A poppy bud, prematurely picked, falls to the floor
Like Janus, I stand at the thresh
But the door to ‘before’, is closed.
Now we can only look forward to
Future or no future.
The die has been cast
The Black King revealed.
Julia’s bare and barren fingers are poised,
Taut, ready to turn the next card
She is expectant,
This woman with burnished, copper hair and stiff spine.
She knows I have not brought a marriage proposal
Thought that may follow,
Sooner than we expected.
With impassive gaze and oblivious expectancy, she waits,
To speak is to sin
To break this moment
The burden of my news weighs heavy on my heart
Still, Julia waits with practised poise.
‘They’ve declared war’
Slowly, she blinks and turns her head
To the scene outside
Where the men toil in the poppy-stained fields
Until their card is called.
Helen How is an award-winning writer living on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. Her family roots are Gaelic-speaking Scots and she enjoys performing and writing to share the culture of both North-East England, where she grew up, and Scotland, her chosen home. A professional writer and teacher, she now devotes her time to creative writing. Much of her work embodies the haunting tone of childhood memories and the stories told to her by her parents and grandparents. She takes her inspiration from folklore, the landscape and art.
(Emily Carr, Canadian artist & writer, 1878-1945)
Stand still. The forest knows
where you are. You must let it find you.
The subject is movement
—and sky: a rising
surge of repetitions,
brush strokes like auras, arcs
through the undergrowth,
across the gravel pit
past loggers’ culls
beyond the vertical
spars of trees.
Today, Vancouver’s children
pay crayon rainbow homage.
To be an Emily, all you need
are bright, vibrating lines,
your vision drawn, as hers was,
onto fields of air.
Then file out
of doors, art in hand, and down
the sunny walk. Never mind
hills, ridge upon ridge
green brown to green black
to green blue--
or the reverse
avalanche of clouds
the upthrust trunks, the roots’
ii. Monkey Puzzle Tree
(Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C., 2002)
Serrated, drooping, with stiff
each branch makes a ristra of knife-
edged, succulent stars.
A cactus in the rain forest?
One of her cubistic dreams?
Its palette spells restriction,
a dark, puritanical green,
but the underwater sea
creature it conjures casts about
in wild contortion.
Snaking branches, Medusa’s
tortured hair. Independent.
Don’t touch! No other
of its kind on the continent.
A loneliness, beloved,
she might have said, of the sky.
(Tsatsinukwomi Village, 1907)
I slept in tents, in roadmakers’ tool sheds, and in Indian houses.
I travelled in anything that floated on water or crawled over land.
No more the timid student, too shy
to view a naked model, you have come
up the coast by boat, alone,
and are not afraid now to sleep alone
in the emptied longhouse. You step gingerly
past banana slugs, dodge famished
cats that swirl underfoot as you tramp
the rotting plank walk out to the edge
of the abandoned Indian village.
There, through clouds of mosquitoes
and stinging nettles higher than your head,
you slip, fall before D’Sonoqua, woman
of the woods, stare stunned into the wild
OO’s of her eyes, the black cavity
of her mouth, its breath filling the air
between the outstretched arms,
the dangling, eagle-headed wooden breasts.
Easy sacrifice—if burning skin is all it takes
to find her, this towering totem, partner
of Raven, figure to warn children against.
Witch Woman, hungry, unappeasable, you
must capture her before moss and rain reclaim
the heavily sculptured torso and the eyes that echo
through you until you hear your own fear
beating inside her body’s hollow drum.
or is it burl? The knot on the trunk,
the condensed whorled pattern
in the wood. Then the unraveling, the out-
reaching. Knot as navel, wrist, magic
spot these ribbons extend from. The witch
in the wood is breathing, extruding a bouquet
of scrawny spruce fingers, a root system
grasping for air twenty feet above the ground.
So this is how forest becomes sea--
a voyage the mind takes, anticipating
boundless waves, new islands
of light, the brush stirring in its wake
the fingers tagging clumsily along.
Emily, old girl, you have us
bouncing through a whirl-
pool you long ago defined.
With what relish you frame
these tumults of cloud, boiling
eddies of sky, thunder
we can almost see
crumpling the canvas surface.
Tempting to ask
why you would have none
of it, not Georgia’s flagrant petals
or Frida’s florid hearts. Why
you favored greens, not reds.
Not flesh but the mind home-
bound Emily knew was “wider than
the sky.” In love with trunks, ferns,
bark, and air, high and fathomless--
abrupt maiden, vagabond sister
how can we know you except for
these coils, spurts, cascades
of writhing growth, a raw sexual
force your forests understand.
viii. Indian Basket
Between its earth-red stripes
a tawny grass wind blows
like currents around a globe
in arrows of circulating light.
She wants to breathe inside
its brittle flexibility,
immerse her face in its darkness,
leave it out in the rain
and inhale the sweetgrass smell.
Recalling Sophie, her basket-
maker friend, Emily strokes
the knobs grass makes crossing
over grass, thinks she might
dissolve at the edges,
the way its curved sides
alter the space around it.
(Victoria, B.C., 2002)
Teatime and the Bengal tiger
in the Kipling Room at the Empress Hotel
still sends its stuffed snarl through sun-
slatted afternoons, potted palms and lace.
Down the street, past the place of your birth,
herons fly from the park where you painted,
soar above your “House of All Sorts”
in their daily departure for the shore.
stands display at the Royal Museum.
Klee Wyck the Haida name you, “Laughing One.”
But by the time you finish your “Potlatch Welcome”
the Crown will already have banned
the dancers, locked up elders, grandmothers--
the gift of feasting forbidden, the art of
gifting abandoned—and all the weave
unraveled until Sophie’s twenty babies
arrive half-starved and so silent the grave-
stone carver, not unkindly, calls her
his best customer, helps keep her tab alive
so she might place another marker
in the village’s overgrown burying ground.
Scrub, rearrange, reorder and resign
yourself to reduced circumstance.
The King’s radio message New Year’s Eve
still makes you cry. Crabby tenants.
Fix the plumbing, and the heat. In the center
of the ceiling paint eagles, still there.
Tlingit design. At last, pack your van. Collect
your menagerie. How many dogs? Add
boxes, sketchpads, your monkey and the rat.
Tighten canvas sides. Put the entire household
on wheels. Now leave. You’re off!
Summer’s woods at last. You’re old enough
to bathe naked in the stream.
Rivers of air fill your later canvases. Above
the Strait of Juan de Fuca, headlands you
climbed to sketch from, your skies unleash
reverberating lines. What did you see
but magnetism, subatomic timbres,
currents you struggled to make visible
until the ethereal became too bright to bear
and you re-entered shadow and wood. Green
drape of cedar. A trunk’s undulating stalk.
Regardless of horizon, all is swirling, fierce,
boring not down into darkness but through
these pulsing trees frame a birth canal
into the deeply scarred, deeply scarved dark--
your hand drawing the shawl of the forest,
coaxing her to lift her hem and let us in.
Terry Bohnhorst Blackhawk
NB: Italicized phrases in the poems are taken from Carr's writings.
These sequences are from the author's book, Escape Artist (BkMk Press, 2003).
Terry Bohnhorst Blackhawk is the founding director (1995-2015) of Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project (www.insideoutdetroit.org) and the author of five full-length volumes of poetry and four chapbooks. Escape Artist (BkMk Press) won the 2003 John Ciardi Poetry Prize, and One Less River (Mayapple Press) was listed as a Top 2019 Indie Poetry Title by Kirkus Reviews. During her years as an educator, Blackhawk enjoyed using ekphrasis with high school and university students through the Detroit Institute of Arts. She writes about ekphrasis here. Teachers & Writers Magazine / Ekphrastic Poetry: Entering and Giving Voice to Works of Art
Bird in Flight
over the tree tops
a boisterous chorus--
even when not
conducting the wind
a raven shapes
the twilight sky
a single blackbird
swallows the day--
The Dreaming Muse
An infinite dream blooms inside the elegant head, at rest
on a pedestal. Her eyes close to the noise of the wakened world.
Cast in white marble, an ageless patina smooths brow and cheek, carved
in the edges of a crescent moon.
The air around her shapes itself into clean, linear features⸺an abstraction
of woman. One you might know at night; an evocation in the morning.
Her mouth is inscrutable. The marble softens at the Cupid’s bow, allowing
only the slightest opening of her lips.
Come closer and you will feel the cool breath of one descending into the deep
end of sleep; into a pool of lassitude.
Her dream is sweet, and so magically elsewhere – lapis skies swirling
with gold stars both day and night.
Exotic forests with sated tigers. Believing this dream will never end,
she cannot help but smile.
Barbara Sabol is a retired speech pathologist attuned to the music and timbre of voices in conversation, and within the lines of a poem. She writes both long-form poetry and haiku. Her fifth collection, core & all: haiku and senryu, was published by Bird Dog Press in 2022. She is the associate editor of Sheila-Na-Gig online, and edited the 2022 anthology, Sharing this Delicate Bread: Selections from Sheila-Na-Gig online. Barbara finds both editing and teaching essential to a sustainable writing life. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two wise old dogs, who listen to every line she writes.
The Art in My Nerves, Not on My Tongue
She turns to face me but has no words
for the question she needs to ask
for me to tell her not what she’s staring at
but why we’re staring. Why is Cy Twombly
the only artist I love whose work I can’t explain?
His scribbles certain as de Kooning’s brute slashes,
more specific than most of Pollock’s gestures,
yet honest as a child’s. My body remembers
slipping into a new pair of small sneakers and
running fast and hard as possible to the horizon.
I can’t explain to a nonbeliever
why I can spot a Twombly across a gallery and
rush to it when the aesthetic atheist says,
“I could do that.” She can’t but how do I know?
I lean into the space in front of a Cezanne
and luxuriate in the way each small moment
on the canvas is complete in itself yet
crucial to the full reach of the surface.
She loves those moments I’m unleashed
by the way paintings look like everything
but their flat plane altered by strokes and whacks.
She loves that when I eat breakfast on the porch
the homes across the modest lake
compose a Monet in the last lingering fog,
the houses vivid angles over their wobbled reflections.
I could ride for hours the sensual curves
and fierce colors of Matisse and try not to jump
up and down because that makes the gallery guards
nervous. I hold none of these higher
than the little worlds completed
in Rembrandt etchings and sketches.
My first time in Montreal, newly off the bus
Into the twilight, hungry, my chest opened
to strangers who refused to recognize my questions
in English. They insisted on incomprehension
and I loved them without sharing their convictions,
their coarse local French a lunar landscape
I fumbled through, being their grateful alien intruder.
My love for craft beyond muscle discipline
has no apparent margins. Yet like Dubuffet,
Twombly revs my nerves into higher gear
the way mere scribbles don’t, the way I,
the least rebellious student, couldn’t bring myself
to do homework even if it was easy
though I dreaded the inevitable punishments.
And I love unthought scrawls for their eloquence
but Twombly writes letters from my home planet,
full of news I can’t interpret
in a script I recognize but forget how to read.
A poet, professor, and editor, Richard Ryal has worked in marketing and higher education. He stops for no obvious reason sometimes and no one can talk him out of that. His recent publications include Notre Dame Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, and The South Florida Poetry Journal.
The Wilton Diptych
What was it about
that small, paneled
painting on wood,
hinged like a box
and kept quiet
Was it the wonder
of its preservation
for six hundred years,
so fresh that the colors
still glow as though molten--
lazuli, gold, vermillion?
What were you seeing
there, mother, now seven
years gone, when you
went to look at it
year after year, so
struck it stayed with you
even when you’d lost yourself?
You guided me through it
as I held the picture
over your hospital bed,
though your mouth
slurred to one side,
and you could not
lift your head. See
that blue, gold so godly
they could make a king kneel?
There he is, Richard II,
on the left inner panel,
his blush still uncracked,
as three saints present him
to the facing heavens.
See how the saints’ hands
incline toward his head,
as a mother might guide
a child new to walking.
For awhile, you could still speak
of craft, innovations
in paint, in proportion.
Respite from thought loops
that troubled you, your pleas
to be walked out of there,
back into a life
once lavish with pigment,
could believe in.
On the right side, the angels
in unfaded blues
crowd around the virgin and child.
They look drugged
with color as they bless
England, hold up
her streaming pennant.
and everything’s still.
The infant Christ, here,
will never grow up, never
Angels’ angular wings
at the back of the scene
curtain off the world
Was it the sense
of a shuttered past swung open,
still vibrant, unveiling itself?
Was it the mystery
of the work’s unknown maker,
like you, now, a closed
There’s a gap in the wings
right above Mary’s head.
Mom, what did you know
about that? Or about
the strange way she holds
the child’s foot,
her fingers encircling it
in a perfect O,
tipping the tiny thing up so its sole
faces us, as if to say:
here it is, always here,
the untouched, in its
might this be
Clara McLean lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area. Earlier poems have appeared in Rattle, Cider Press Review, Terrain.org, Foglifter, West Trestle Review, and Berkeley Poetry Review, among other publications.
Carved on the Lintel: The Temptation of Eve
originally on the Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun, France
Buccaneer of flux, she floats above
a door, a long sine wave—flagship
of goodbye. Her eyes, grapes, are
not yet pressed. Eve’s face shares my
father’s lids and parenthetical brows.
I view her through his quizzical eye.
Modeled in a province of wine, Eve
blooms sober-cheeked. Soft pulp
does not keep. She cradles her chin.
An out-sized hand insinuates, “Seize
the day.” Sighing like her mother, old
enough to know the value of let go,
I disobey idle desires. Where did I
ditch my bad-girl smarts? Goddess,
caught mid pluck, you dare. You bet
your life. Yes, you pay—that itchy
leaf monokini and hard-knock knee--
but still wager Paradise with me.
A Yonkers, NY resident, Marion Brown holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and Ph.D. from Columbia University. Finishing Line Press published her chapbooks Tasted and The Morning After Summer. Her poem “In the Dock, Fagin Reflects” won the Portico Poetry Competition. Other poems have appeared in Guesthouse, the Women’s Review of Books, Kestrel, The Night Heron Barks, and DIAGRAM. She serves on the Advisory Committee of Slapering Hol Press and National Council of Graywolf Press. Her website is at marionbrownpoet.com.
Chez Isabella, ca. 1990
“In March 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts was robbed by two unknown men. The thieves removed works of art whose value has been estimated as high as $500 million.” —FBI website
Sleepless nights are a malady that, for me, meander back in time over fifty years, all the way to my early twenties; but there are advantages to being awake in the long, dark, blue hours when quiet finally descends. Tonight, or rather this morning, with the news of Walter’s unexpected death earlier yesterday, and at this time of year too (late March), I’m grateful to be awake, suddenly recovering and unraveling memories from thirty years ago….
Walter was among the four of us who came together after the robbery, united in our grief. The museum had always felt like a second home to some of us, a home that is actually a palace, but a home nevertheless. The place is not very big as museums go, and so most of us who worked the day shift knew one another.
I was the one of the four of us who had been there the longest; I was twenty-six when I started and forty-seven at the time of the heist, which is still the largest in history: how time passes! Walter was hired the year after me, and so he and I went way back. We used to joke that we were the lifers, since most of the museum’s guards didn’t last long. The pay was so low ($7.35 an hour in 1990), but money was not the main reason we were there.
Walter had become friendly with Jason a few months before the heist; I think Walter had a little crush on Jason, truth be told. It was a bit sad to me though, not only because Walter was about twenty-five years older than Jason, but also because Jason was clearly straight. At first, our meetings consisted of just the two men and me. While all of us knew or had at least met Melissa, none of us liked her initially; we all thought that she was a spoiled brat, and pretentious, too—affecting a British accent the way Madonna used to do. She had been scheduled to work that morning after the robbery, and word got around that when Melissa arrived at the museum and saw the place surrounded by police, FBI, and yards of yellow crime tape, and then heard what had happened, she burst into tears. Eventually, she somehow learned about our get-togethers and asked if she could join us; and because we were so moved by how bereft she still was, we let her into the group.
The heist was all we could talk about for the longest time; we needed to debrief. Though almost immediately, we were instructed not to discuss it while on duty, whether among ourselves or with visitors; but in the early days, the robbery was just about the only thing most visitors wanted to talk about, especially because the spaces where the stolen paintings had been were left empty, a haunting reminder of their absence. We were also discouraged from talking to the media. Some of us watched as we were portrayed by actors on TV’s America’s Most Wanted! It was a heady time.
We couldn’t bear the thought of the thieves having full run of the galleries for over an hour, pillaging, while the two guards sat bound and gagged in the basement. Of course, the four of us speculated about the perpetrators, and just to get this out of the way—none of us knew or had ever even worked with either of the two guards on duty that night, since we had always worked only the day shift. But Walter and I didn’t think it was an inside job. The only one of us who had lived in Boston all his life, Walter was convinced that Whitey Bulger had something to do with it. And though I had seen the names of several infamous art thieves bandied about, I remained uncertain. Jason was mostly interested in ongoing theories involving one or both of the guards on duty that night, and/or the IRA, whereas all Melissa would say was that she “hadn’t a clue.”
We also talked about the stolen art, of course. And about the violence of the steal—paintings cut from their stretchers, stitches of canvas and flakes of paint left on the cold, tile floor. Melissa visibly shivered and said that it was as if she could feel the razor blade pierce her skin as she imagined the canvases being desecrated. But when we asked which of the stolen works meant the most to her, she grew somewhat stony and replied, simply, “All of it.” Whereas Walter, Jason, and I definitely had our favourites.
For Walter, it was the Manet, Chez Tortoni (ca. 1875) which depicts a mustachioed man in a top hat writing in a café; he looks straight out at the viewer with a black, impenetrable gaze, a glass of something amber by his writing hand. When we asked Walter why that one, he said that he had always identified with the man, that he himself often wrote in cafés; Walter fancied himself a writer and, to his credit, he had had pieces published in local periodicals. He added that whenever he walked by Chez Tortoni while on duty, he always experienced a certain frisson of recognition. And there actually was a resemblance: Walter was tall, thin, and somewhat pinched, though he didn’t have a mustache.
Jason couldn’t wait for his turn, he even spoke over the last few words of Walter’s. “The Rembrandt,” Jason announced. “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), his only seascape.” Jason said that he had always liked the “movement and the muscularity” of the painting, and also that it reminded him of a good action movie (I should add that Jason was only twenty-three at the time, just out of college, idealistic and naïve, an art history major taking a year off before starting graduate school.) He also liked, Jason went on, the fact that Rembrandt had included a self-portrait in the painting. And Jason actually had us laughing too, “about the guy in red, just to the right of Rembrandt, who looks like he’s hurling over the side of the boat.”
I was next, and it was easy because I had felt the same way for a long time: “The Concert” (ca. 1664), I said. “One of only thirty-six surviving works by Vermeer.” “Because?” Jason wanted to know. “Because—well, first of all, my husband Philip is the first violinist in a chamber music ensemble.” I focused on Jason and Melissa as I said this, since it was old news to Walter. “But it’s more than that, too.” The three of them were staring at me, waiting. I thought about how often visitors to the museum had told me they heard music when they looked at the painting, whereas I had always only heard silence, and I loved that, so I said it aloud: “The painting is called The Concert, but I think it’s before the concert.” I cleared my throat. “The painting is so calm and balanced, and as always with Vermeer, there’s that extraordinary quality of light.” We were in a café on Beacon Hill at the time, and as I was speaking I suddenly pictured our quartet from afar, gathered around the table in a pool of light—as if in a Vermeer painting.
Of course, the four of us got to know each other somewhat during those meetings, too. Melissa had grown up on the Connecticut coast (primarily New London), the only child of wealthy parents, but when her parents divorced (Melissa was in her teens then), she and her mother had gone through some hard times. “Anne, you actually remind me of my mother,” Melissa said. I assumed this was a compliment, or that was how I took it anyway, and so I thanked her. Three years younger than Jason, I think Melissa was still finding herself, thus the intermittent faux British accent. Whereas Jason was Jason, an outsized personality writ large, and because of that we all felt like we already knew him. We had met his girlfriend Sarah, too, and heard about their dog Vans (a play on Dutch painters and a brand of sneakers Jason favoured), and also about their fights over having children: Jason wanted them, but Sarah didn’t. I’d be very surprised if Jason and Sarah are still together.
Walter, the oldest among us, somewhere in his late forties at the time (he would never say), was also the most circumspect. Perhaps this was because he was gay and of a certain generation? He said that he lived alone in an apartment in Back Bay, that he had a handsome tuxedo cat named Butley who he imagined as his butler, and that he liked to think of himself as a writer; but that was the extent of it. Our friendship, Walter’s and mine, was never personal; our conversations were mostly about the arts.
I told Melissa and Jason what Walter already knew: that Philip and I were childhood sweethearts, that we had been married for almost twenty-five years, that we were childless by choice (Jason glowered upon hearing this), and that in addition to Philip’s involvement with the chamber music ensemble, he worked for the Post Office. “Ours is a miniature life,” I said aloud, surprising myself, “and we like it that way.”
Those get-togethers became more sporadic and began to taper off during that winter, just as the case itself grew cold; and by the following spring we had stopped meeting altogether.
Jason was the one to leave the job first, no surprise; I think it was within a year or so after the heist. Melissa stayed on for several more years, before quitting to follow the man who became her first husband across the country to California. That left Walter and me, the lifers, until both of us retired at around the same time approximately ten years ago.
And now, poor Walter is dead. Philip (no longer the first violinist) had a performance earlier this evening and so, though I’m sad, we had to go. Afterward, we went out for a drink and toasted Walter, and I couldn’t help but think of Chez Tortoni.
Back home, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror applying cold cream to my face, a lifelong ritual, I just happened to see the clock out of the corner of my eye: it was after one in the morning, the time of the robbery. As I slowly wiped the cleanser over my face and examined the crows feet, and the marionette lines around my mouth, I thought about the effects of time, and of the lines as cracks in my façade; and then I thought about the tiny pieces of the paintings as they lay on the museum floor.
Looking back on the moment of the heist from this sleepless night in my seventy-seventh year, I realize that I was still young then. Now Walter’s gone, and I haven’t a clue about Jason or his whereabouts, but I did hear from Melissa not long ago; her mother had died recently, and she said she thought of me. She’s back in Connecticut, divorced, remarried, and she has a daughter. Meanwhile, the stolen art has never been recovered.
Robin Lippincott: "I have published six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. My novel Our Arcadia was likened to a pointillist painting. For ten years I reviewed mostly art and photography books for The New York Times Book Review. I teach in the MFA Program of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, and live in the Boston area."
Pollock’s Dance, by Jennifer Wenn
Up ahead, pulsing on the wall,
lonely, larger than life,
an intricate multi-layered web poised to
ensnare in a fractal labyrinth
vibrating to primeval rhythms;
black, silver and ochre edge splotches
rim a zone where at last a voice
was transiently found away from
addiction’s deadly cacophony;
black striations cast
from the unconscious
dash down and diagonal
interlaced with white filigree
weaving a harmonic balance,
ochre stick figures behind the veil
flash in primal surge and flow
with hidden portraits,
all knit together by
teal and gray webbing,
the quiet foundation for
a dance of drip, pour and fling:
gaze down, genuflect and circle your
once and future monumental canvas,
swirl in sub rosa silhouettes,
sling the foundation splashes,
decant knots of pain and joy,
sweep sidestep, sweep sidestep, sweep sidestep,
gently drizzle and dribble,
slash and lash,
lovingly trickle and trill,
skip round and round,
circle and wheel,
coil and meander,
flick step, flick step, flick step,
drip, fling and pour forth
this eternal moment,
a priceless interlude reaped
from a drunken whirlwind,
consuming death defied
by passionate life.
Jennifer Wenn is a trans-identified writer and speaker from London, Ontario, Canada. Her first poetry chapbook, A Song of Milestones, was published by Harmonia Press (an imprint of Beliveau Books). Her first full-size collection, Hear Through the Silence (from Cyberwit), was recently released. She has also written From Adversity to Accomplishment, a family and social history; and published poetry in numerous journals and anthologies including WordCity Literary Journal, The Ekphrastic Review and Poems in Response to Peril. She is also the proud parent of two adult children. Visit her website at https://jenniferwennpoet.wixsite.com/home
Dan Fliegel, poetry editor for TriQuarterly, asks Dane Hamann ten questions about his second book, Parsing the Echoes, a collection of ekphrastic poems (two of which, “Grain” and “Field,” were first published in The Ekphrastic Review).
Parsing the Echoes
Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2023
Dan Fliegel: Did your process or mindset change when you approached writing about some iconic artists (later in the book) and their works (including sculpture) versus writing about the somewhat lesser-known artists from the 2007 special exhibit (earlier in the book)? You state in the notes that these were done from memory; that already suggests a difference to me.
Dane Hamann: Although I viewed images of the art while drafting the poems, each section of the book--Reflections and Reverberations—was written according to the memory of seeing those works of art in person earlier in my life. Memory and portrait are two of the main themes of the book—reflections and reverberations both being echoes of a sort—and this collection was meant to be an examination (or parsing) of them. I think the section titles provide some insight into my mindset when approaching the different artists and their works. The first section, based on a rare exhibit of Nordic landscape art that visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art when I was an intern there in the summer of 2007, was meant to reflect who I was at the time (a turbulent time, personally). The second section was meant to examine my initial impressions of more iconic artists and their artwork and how they continue to influence me.
DF: Here is a related question: Do you think of the process as different between writing in response to a landscape painting versus something abstract?
DH: I think my mental process, at least, was different when I was writing poems based on landscapes versus those based on abstract artwork. The questions I was asking the landscape poems concerned identity and how it was reflected in the art. On the opposite side, the abstract poems were more concerned with imagination and emotional responses. I think these differences are evident in the tone and style of the different poems.
DF: Ol’ Horace writes that we need to consider the reader when we create a poem. With that in mind, how might you want a reader to approach this book: Should one view the painting first, then the poem? Reverse it? Of course, a reader is free to do what they want, but one can only have the experience once of FIRST reading any poem. How do you imagine a reader approaching this book?
DH: This is an interesting question—one that’s probably relevant mostly because I’ve included QR code links to the art for each poem. Most books that include ekphrastic poems don’t also include the art because of the costs associated with printing reproductions of the art, especially if colour is essential. There are some famous artworks in my book, but many of the poems are based on little-known paintings. When I was building the manuscript for this book, I wanted a way to share the artwork easily and quickly with the readers without providing a messy URL.
I don’t think it really matters how a reader approaches the book—poem first or art first. However, I do think that the QR codes will immediately stoke a reader’s curiosity when they turn to a page in the book, so they may end up pulling the image up on their phone first. Hopefully, with the accessibility of the art, the reader can experience both the poem and the art side by side.
DF: The above question also raises a corollary: How much should any ekphrastic poem depend upon the art object? Do readers need to even see the original for the poem to “work”?
DH: This is something I thought about a lot as I was writing and assembling the poems that make up this book. I’m not sure I’ve come to a conclusion. On one hand, I want to challenge poetic forms because I see the artistic value in it; on the other hand, I adore ekphrasis for commingling visual art and written word. As I previously mentioned, art does not often accompany a printed ekphrastic poem. Obviously, it’s easier for online publications to include the artwork, but it’s usually up to the reader to search for an image of the art that’s the subject of the printed poem.
DF: I wonder about the multi-sensory imagery in, for example, “Paper Birch” (the “sweet rot//of old leaves and peatbog,” “leaves ticking/like inconsequential clocks”) inspired by the painting “Summer Night.” It’s documented with neural imaging that human minds respond instantly (in milli-seconds) to language that includes imagery (as from “bacon frying in the pan”). I’m not sure how this works with visual media. Do you think that your own viewing of “Summer Night” automatically triggers a kind of full-sensory experience (the smell of the bog and sound of the leaves)? Or is this something that requires a kind of conscious immersion—TRYING to imagine yourself in the scene?
DH: For my viewing with the goal of writing, I don’t think I had to try to imagine myself in the scene. However, I believe that it was necessary to open myself to the experience of viewing the painting in order to realize and understand all of the sensory elements that it was eliciting. In other words, the full-sensory experience was automatically triggered, but I suppose I simply needed to concentrate to bring it forth to the page. “Summer Night” is an incredibly detailed painting, so the imagery is easily accessible in my opinion.
DF: Related to the previous question, how might we describe the relationship between viewing any kind of art with language? Is the voice silent in your head until you decide to react to art with language?
DH: I think there’s always some kind of mental processing that occurs when viewing art. Whether this emerges from the fog of your mind as words or language, I think depends on how willing you are to concentrate on the art. I tend to be a fast-moving museum-goer. So, my normal in-person viewing experience is to concentrate on the visual aspects of the art. Observing rather than searching for meaning. Only later do I engage with the memory of what I’ve seen and formulate a response to it.
DF: I really like “Grain.” What do you think might be the relationship between visual art and metaphor? You start with the “Tsunami of grain” and include “the bowl/of possibility,” the teeth/of the tallest/grasses,” and “the window/of my body.” In terms of process, did you have to reach for these metaphors by gazing at the painting, or were they there for the taking in your impression while viewing?
DH: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed that one. Although I think metaphor is inherent to visual art, in terms of ekphrastic poetry, sometimes the artist’s intent differs from the poet’s intent. The metaphors that I work into my poems, such as “Grain,” came from my response to the art rather observation of what the art was depicting. My goal was to write poems that were personal and intimate but also accessible to the reader by still utilizing the visual characteristics of the art.
DF: With regards to diction and phonetic features, I wonder was there a conscious effort to link lines and stanzas through the sounds of language, such as the assonance in “Blue”: “taste” with “escape”; “blue” with “food” and “ballooning”; “starlight,” “pines” and “ice.” Or was this just music that emerged in the lines “naturally”?
DH: I really appreciate your close reading of this poem. Those are wonderful details you’ve noticed—though, I admit to no conscious effort to link the lines and stanzas in such an auditory way. This is, perhaps, simply the result of years of writing and studying poetry (as you know), honing it into a craft.
DF: I looked at the painting, “Paths on the Ice” prior to reading the poem—and even the title—“antennas.” First, I’m struck by the similarity of snow, ice, cold between this painting and the previous one [“Cinders”], though also that the feeling is different—mid-day as opposed to the deathly descent of night? And now, the poem: I’m struck first by the difference in emotional tone, and the inclusion of another for the speaker, “our song” “our first thaw,” “We danced.” These pronouns could be read as including the reader, but they seem more to reference something personal. The question that arises for me here is as follows: Were you open to a kind of first-feeling, first-thought approach when writing this or any other of the poems? Or did you, here or elsewhere, linger with the painting, searching for a kind of subject matter to present itself?
DH: I find myself at a bit of a crossroads here—my process was a “first-feeling, first-thought approach,” but my aim for the book was to ruminate on what these pieces of art meant to me at the time of my first viewing them. Naturally, I had to reacquaint myself with them at times while writing the poems, but I really wanted to channel the impressions they left on me as a younger person. I suppose one of the questions I wanted to answer for myself when writing this collection was whether I recognized the self that was forming in the poems.
DF: Is there a relationship between form (line and stanza lengths) and the individual artworks? How did your forms emerge or develop?
DH: There wasn’t a conscious effort to match form with the art. I let the poems develop naturally, but with an eye toward variation in the collection. I’ve always appreciated books that include poems of many different visual shapes. Perhaps there’s a subconscious relationship between the form of each poem and my memory of how it felt to see the artwork for the first time.
Watch Dane speak about Parsing the Echoes and read some sample poems from the book here:
Dane Hamann edits textbooks for a publisher in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He is the poet-in-residence for derailleur.net, a newsletter/website devoted to professional cycling, as well as author of A Thistle Stuck in the Throat of the Sun (Kelsay Books, 2021) and Parsing the Echoes (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2023).
Dan Fliegel is a longtime public schoolteacher in Chicagoland. Some of his poems can be found in Adirondack Review, African American Review, Cider Press Review, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. He is currently the poetry editor for TriQuarterly.
The Ekphrastic Review is pleased to talk with ekphrastic contributor Nancy Ludmerer about her collection, Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, from Snake Nation Press.
Lorette C. Luzajic, The Ekphrastic Review: Your new book, Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, is an eclectic collection of stories of different lengths, themes, and sources of inspiration. Tell us how the title drives the selected works. What does collateral damage mean to you? How does this theme inform the stories, the characters, and you, as the author?
Nancy Ludmerer: The title is from a microfiction I wrote and published years before I decided to make it the title of the book. In that 100-word piece, a housefly witnesses domestic violence and then becomes “collateral damage” when the man pounces. As I began to put together a collection, I realized that collateral damage, which I think of as unintended consequences visited on a bystander or other third party, was at the core of many stories. Children are often the collateral damage of their elders’ conflicts, misconduct and mistakes, as in “Hide-and-Seek,” “Adventureland,” and “Heirloom.” Relationships suffer collateral damage via a careless action, word or gesture. In one story, “A Bohemian Memoir,” a wineglass (the narrator) suffers collateral damage while recounting the life of her now elderly and ailing mistress. The book is in two roughly equal sections, Part I: “Collateral Damage” and Part II: “In the Repair Shop.” The stories in the second part also deal with loss but end on a note of hope or redemption.
Much of your extensive body of writing work and numerous nominations and awards is for flash fiction. Yet you’ve also written longer stories and nonfiction essays. Tell us what these different forms mean to you. What is it about the short form that inspires you to create? Are there significant differences among them, or are the lines blurred for you?
Nancy Ludmerer: I first wrote flash fiction in a workshop taught by the amazing Pamela Painter. The compression, the intensity, and simply studying with Pamela turned me into a fan of the form. I am also someone who revises endlessly before sending stories out (and sometimes even after sending them out). As a single mom working long hours as a lawyer, I found it easier to revise and “perfect” a 300- or 500- or 1000- word story than a 5000-word one.
Since retiring from the law in 2018, I’ve had more time to write. My longer stories, including “A Simple Case” (Carve); “Matchbox” (Masters Review) and “The Loneliness Cure” (Orison Books), range from 3500 to 7800 words. Each was a prizewinner, with “The Loneliness Cure” selected for Best Spiritual Literature, Vol. 7, published in December 2022 by Orison Books. “The Loneliness Cure” was my first venture into historical fiction; it’s set in Ukraine in the early 19th century. A new work in that genre, a novella-in-flash set in 17th century Venice, will be published later this year by WTAW Press. “The Loneliness Cure” and the novella are each based on the life of a Jewish woman, extraordinary in and for her time. With the novella-in-flash I’ve been able to use a form I’m very comfortable in to craft a longer work.
My essays address specific subjects that didn’t lend themselves to fiction or short forms. “Kritios Boy” (a Literal Latte prizewinner, which was cited in Best American Essays 2014) is a memoir of teenage love and its aftermath; “Mr. Right” (Brain, Child) is about my 94-year-old widowed mother’s stated intention to remarry; and “My Jonah” (Green Mountains Review) is about the name I gave my son, including my exploration of the name’s significance in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions. Using these essays as an anchor, I’ve put together a chapbook (still seeking a publisher) called Some Things Happen Twice made up of these three essays and half-a-dozen flash fictions, along with one somewhat longer piece of metafiction. The people in the essays (mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and lovers) reappear with different names and in somewhat different – i.e., fictionalized -- situations in the flash fictions; hence, the title for the collection (and one of the flash stories). The final story, “The Year of Four” (Chicago Literati) is a metafiction that plays with form and, in its own way, sheds light on everything that has preceded it – memory, motherhood, naming, and the craft of writing fiction based on life.
Your stories are inspired by very specific situations or motifs, but from such a range- horror movies, Jewish culture, musical performances, an autographed baseball, famous paintings, a self-help technique. Tell us a little bit about your process. How do you grow a story out of these details?
Nancy Ludmerer: A story may begin with a name, a prompt, a moment or an incident – sometimes from my own life, sometimes something I’ve read or heard about. For example, as a child, I heard the song “Scarlet Ribbons” and it stayed with me for years until a prompt from Amanda Saint in a flash workshop turned it into a story. That prompt was to write a story in the first-person plural with the opening clause “We wanted to be ____”. The story that resulted, published in Mid-American Review and reprinted in Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, is “Fathers.” A number of the details you mention – the film “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (which makes an appearance in “Fathers”) the autographed baseball (the key object in “Heirloom”), and the Mozart aria “La Ci Darem La Mano,” which is translated as “There I Will Take Your Hand” (the final story in Collateral Damage: 48 Stories) -- connected with stories I was working on. The details were transforming; stories that felt flat took on new life.
You had another life as a lawyer in New York City. What part of this work do you bring to your work as a writer?
Nancy Ludmerer: In litigation, your first job is to learn everything you can about the facts and the law. After that, you distill a case to its essence, so you can present it to a judge or jury. Flash fiction, of course, requires compression: telling a multi-layered story in a page or two, knowing what to leave out, and crafting the ending that’s right for the story. It differs from litigation in that the ending you seek in any short fiction should, at its best, be both inevitable and surprising – not the effect you necessarily want in your advocacy!
Research, revision, deadlines, page and word limits – all these demands on a litigator apply to writing short fiction as well.
I’ve occasionally drawn on my legal experience for subject matter, particularly my pro bono work representing or counseling prisoners, victims of sex trafficking or domestic violence, illegal immigrants and disabled individuals. Two stories in Collateral Damage:48 Stories, “Family Day” and “No Offense” concern the heartbreaking situation of an incarcerated woman whose child is placed in foster care. Another flash (this one not in the book,) “Learning the Trade in Tenancingo” is based on research I did in connection with counseling women who were potential victims of sex trafficking. Of my longer stories, several have legal underpinnings. “Matchbox,” is based in part on my visits with prisoners at a maximum-security women’s prison. “A Simple Case” is loosely based on a personal injury case. I have under submission a collection entitled “In the Shadow of the Law” which includes these and other stories.
Some of your stories, including a few in Collateral Damage, and some others that we have published are ekphrastic. One of them was a finalist in our Ekphrastic Cats contest, and another was nominated by TER for a Best Microfiction award. Tell us about your relationship with visual art. When your stories bloom from a visual art prompt, what is your process like? How do you engage with the artwork? How do you choose the art, or does it choose you?
Nancy Ludmerer: “The Decision,” the microfiction that was a finalist in the Ekphrastic Cats contest, had its origins in the pain of having to put down a beloved cat. When I first conceived of the story, my heart was too broken to send the story out into the world. The Ekphrastic Cats competition, with its wonderful array of artistic felines, some alone in their grandeur, others with their “significant others,” enabled me to complete and submit that story. The micro “At the Pool Party for My Niece’s Graduation from Middle-School” began life as an eight-page story many years ago based on an overheard snippet of conversation. The story languished in a drawer for nearly two decades. It wasn’t until I viewed David Hockney’s brilliant painting Pool with Two Figures and cut the story to its essence that it worked. I was so grateful to TER for publishing and nominating it.
Two of my longer stories were prompted by paintings. “Head of a Dog” (The Hong Kong Review) was based directly on the Edvard Munch painting of that name. As the canine narrator tells us, “The Munch painting, with its muddy greens and oranges for the dog’s fur, the dog’s black eyes like olive pits, made me afraid to look in the mirror. . . [E]veryone reveres Munch’s painting, The Scream. But no one knows Head of a Dog, which is equally striking, where the dog – unlike the Screamer – remains stoic but courageous in the face of disaster.” Another story, “Fall on Your Knees,” published originally in Fiction Southeast and reprinted in TER, was prompted by a Gauguin painting. It’s a story about art and sexual exploitation. Both stories involve the law in some way, too – a police investigation in “Head of a Dog” and a prosecution in “Fall on Your Knees.” Neither story would exist if not for the artists’ gripping work.
The Ekphrastic Review
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