In the ekphrastic tradition, painting and poetry are considered as parallel disciplines: incorporating imagery and metaphor while combining imagination and transformation. Differing in the use of line and color in one and words and rhythms in the other. Each begins with the mimetic element and usually moves into the semiotic. Literal descriptions of the world around us are then used to create a new meaning or vision.
When I first heard Patricia Clark’s poem, inspired by a Claude Monet painting, it was while attending her reading sponsored by the Kellogg Writers Series at the University of Indianapolis in September 2013. She also mentioned to the students there, that there were artists in the audience and that she wanted to put in a word or two regarding the ekphrastic tradition. Although an ancient tradition, it is also an obscure one to the average reader. Students in the audience may have been hearing about this for the first time.
Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil
“Two banks, one golden, one green,
and in the center, the town
ahead, with a spire needling up,
a puncture into clouds,
and vague suggestions
of industry—buildings, smoke, and noise.
What I love along the bank are the skiffs
drawn up, five or more
at the golden side, the first boat
a bright russet like a horizontal flame
the next two mauve, one a sailboat,
The ochre-gold spills down from the cottonwoods,
pouring under the hulls,
entering the river with the same
intensity of burning
we see in life at its peak,
or life with the flame
threatening to go out.
In a month the trees will be masts
bare as the boats,
the man we know, ill with a fatal brain tumor,
will be gone—the Grand River
burnished with ochre and red
as the Seine is,
cooling air hinting at winter’s knives.
One bank green in the painting,
green going away,
and the river placid, calm—
in the center of it—
the flowing never ceasing, rhythm of moon,
sun, the turning earth, pulling it outward,
eternal, restless, to the maw of the sea.”[i]
One important element in Patricia Clark’s work is that she starts with a description or a reflection on the painting, but then goes beyond into our current time and place, commenting upon her own life events and keeping the imagery relevant and alive.
In many poems Clark has used certain relationships as an extension of the original idea. A color or texture will often spark an image of a loved one: the death of her mother, a remembering of her sister and the friends who travel along the Grand River in the state of Michigan.
In a recent conversation, I asked her specifically about the Monet painting and a second one by Wolf Kahn, and the general process that she uses. This was her response:
“What I usually do is surround myself in my little studio hut with some images I feel drawn to. I’m not really looking for something — it’s a combination for me of color, image, atmosphere, who knows? I also don’t put too much pressure on, like ‘you must write about this painting!’ I wait & see if it speaks to me. Often that has happened. The Monet one, ‘Autumn on the Seine’ just grabbed me one day & I started . . . by just describing what I see — but then quickly one’s own concerns get woven in there somehow, inevitably. . . .”
“For awhile . . . after my mother’s passing, I wrote about her and just would let that happen, too, rather than forbidding any more ‘mother’ poems.”[ii]
Frontal View of Trees
(after Wolf Kahn)
“I like it when the trunks
of the birches
take up earth’s
that’s what she would do—
appropriate the ground,
by sinking in.
She troubles me, my mother
who didn’t die
comforted, at home.
Our bodies point to fates
we live but cannot decipher.
The sun offers
its warming touch.
Souls of the dead, thin
presences and pale—
yet their spirits
have turned to light—
glow of cumin, cinnamon ruddy
in the corner
of the canvas.
To misread means to author
your own text—
in truth, the trunks
wear flood marks, mud
floating high in water left
She fell down.
Smack of the ground’s kiss,
her nose. The doctor said,
dead before she hit the ground.
Linked once, she and I severed now
and who will be
at my side when I go?
The birches make a grove
she wore a verve
for living, cloak
of many colors.”[iii]
[i] Clark, Patricia; Sunday rising; Michigan State University Press; East Lansing, Michigan; 2013; pp. 5-6.
[ii] Clark, Patricia; An explanatory statement on process as contained in an e-mail communication with this writer, 24 January 2018.
[iii] Clark, Patricia; The Canopy; Terrapin Books; West Caldwell, New Jersey; 2017; pp. 8-9.