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.