(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
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