19: Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis: “Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. – Poetry Foundation

Perception #1 (muff), Robert Barrett, 1975

It’s an ugly room she stands in,
a bare and cold-looking room
looking out over what might be water
or snow and in the distance a vague skyline.

There is a coat on the chair behind her
but it does nothing to keep her warm.
There is at least a sheet under her feet.

I wonder if I could find
that room from its view and I wonder
if the room would still be there
and whether it would hold any trace of her.

It is an ugly room she stands in
but she is beautiful. That was her job:
to be naked and to be beautiful.

Like those of the chair behind her, her lines
are subtly wrong – her breast
misplaced with medieval indifference
to the realities of anatomy.
She looks bored.

I hope she was paid well. I hope
she bought something selfish
and a little mad – an instrument
whose strings made the river bend shine,
a dress woven with the silver of rain
lit by summer lightning, a ring
whose stone was an eye
with which she contained the world.


I love ekphrasis. It’s something that, for whatever reason, I’ve just always done. It wasn’t until I hit this week that I really thought about it as a specific technique. This particular poem is about a painting that hangs in the art building here at the University of Iowa. You should be able to see it here (nsfw, in an arty sort of a way). It’s a big painting and it hangs right by the doors of the library where you see every time you go in, so I spent a long time sort of thinking about it briefly but regularly and never quite knowing how I felt about it. It’s not, I don’t think, actually very good but I always liked the woman in it anyway.

I asked the head librarian for some information about the painting and apparently it was Robert Barrett’s Master’s thesis work, submitted in 1975. He is now an illustrator, chiefly producing religious illustrations for the Mormon church, which is he is a member of. I guess he probably wasn’t a Mormon in 1975? I have no idea whose decision it was to hang it by the library door.


18: Eclogue


Eclogue: A brief, dramatic pastoral poem, set in an idyllic rural place but discussing urban, legal, political, or social issues. – poetryfoundation.org

A Homecoming Eclogue

A: What brings you back to native countryside,
to these verdant fields that cushioned
your childhood’s feet?

B: With long sojourning in a foreign land,
my heart grew heavy.
Among strangers I was always a stranger
and the skies were not my own,
the stars and winds and rain
unfamiliar to my soul. I have returned
to rest in the shadow of the mountain
that oversaw my birth.

A: And will not you stay, then, having rested?
Why do you leave us again for the city,
for nights loud with sirens and skies dirty
with light that hides these homelike stars
and stains the clean clouds? I wonder,
perhaps, if is love of a pretty face that draws you hence.

B: No, although there are many pretty faces
in the city, it is not love that makes me to abandon
these sheep-tracked hills and this mist-breeding bush.
For what is left here for me now
– how could I earn my living
when here we scrape by with farming and tourists?

Eclogues are weird. I don’t feel like really got a handle on what they do exactly or why, even after reading around. But this is my attempt anyway. The reading around was fun too – beyond Virgil, I found Percy Shelley’s “Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue,” which fit perfectly with the gothic novel kick I’m on, and Louis MacNiece’s wonderfully strange eclogues.



17: Dramatic Monologue

Dramatic monologue in poetry, also known as a persona poem, shares many characteristics with a theatrical monologue: an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice—a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. – poets.org


Not extinguished, not quite,
I burn still here, waiting to discover
what soil might nourish me now.

You and I, we were wolf and lamb
but no little child came to lead us
and the world is a hungry place.

That flaw, that madness in you,
it was a new room, suddenly,
in the house of my heart;
it was as a new colour
or an extra limb, intimately alien.

And you… you were strange again,
as you were when we first met in the garden,
But I chose you in your strangeness
and I preferred the danger
of your open sky to the cage
of my father’s making.

This was another hard one for me. I ended up going with the convention of using an existing fictional character, like in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” because that seemed easier than making up my own character like in Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” I went with Desdemona because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about her of the years as I’ve been teaching Othello.  I would always ask my students to discuss why Desdemona refuses to name Othello as her murderer, instead blaming herself. This poem is a meditation on that moment in the play, picking up threads of imagery from Shakespeare.


16: Dirge

Dirge – A brief hymn or song of lamentation and grief; it was typically composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge tends to be shorter and less meditative than an elegy. – Poetry Foundation

Mourning in Chicago

I lit candles in St Peter’s
or rather I pushed buttons
to activate timed bulbs in plastic candle-shells.

It was the best I could do, not finding
even electric candles in the churches here
but I wish I could have given my dead living flames.

You can cry in a church and no one stares,
a space set aside for our naked selves
as much as for God.

The lights were still up from Christmas
and the manger scene sat dark in the corner.
It was the wrong season for mourning

And my tears were belated anyway, waiting
for this ritual to make real my loss.


This is a poem about mourning for my grandparents and uncles who passed away while I’ve been in the US, so it’s more personal than a lot of what I’ve been writing here so far. The dirge, though, is necessarily a personal form, I think – it’s hard to write about death and mourning in the abstract.

This poem ended up coming as part of one of those odd, unplanned confluences of a theme – here, death. It was Easter, I’d just seen Noah (so good!) and just read Hannah Kent’s amazing Burial Rites, about the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I had also stumbled upon Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), which are musical settings of a selection of five out of a total 428 poems which Friedrich Ruckert, a 19th C German poet, wrote on the deaths of his children.