Ekphrastic Poem: from Photographs

Ekphrasis is the art of writing about art: one work responds to another, as in poems written in response to films, passages of music, paintings, photographs, and other poems. During the past several decades, many poets have found the impulse toward a poem by meditating on photographs. Choose a photograph that interests you, that compels you and incites your imagination. I find that the less I actually know about the situation of the photograph, the better. I recommend photographs by Josef Koudelka, Gilles Peress, Eugene Richards, Henri Cartier Bresson, Dorothy Lange, and others of the period from 1930 to the present. Magnum Photo has an interesting archive (see link below). I'm guessing that there are many images by these photographers available online.

Read Larry Levis' poem "Sensationalism," and perhaps a few of the photograph poems in Sharon Olds' The Dead and The Living. Find a photograph, and title your poem Photograph of________ to get you going. Write your photograph poem. If possible, post your photograph with the poem.

(This mode is also a way of writing about things you would like to write about but you feel that you lack personal experience or knowledge.)

by Larry Levis

In Josef Koudelka's photograph, untitled & with no date
Given to help us with history, a man wearing
Dark clothes is squatting, his right hand raised slightly,
As if in explanation, & because he is talking,
Seriously now, to a horse that would be white except
For its markings--the darkness around its eyes, muzzle,
Legs & tail, by which it is, technically, a gray, or a dapple gray,
With a streak of pure white like heavy cream on its rump.
There is a wall behind them both, which, like most walls, has
No ideas, & nothing to make us feel comfortable. . . .
After a while, because I know so little, &
Because the muted sunlight on the wall will not change,
I begin to believe that the man's wife and children
Were shot & thrown into a ditch a week before this picture
Was taken, that this is still Czechoslovakia, & that there is
The beginning of spring in the air. That is why
The man is talking, & as clearly as he can, to a horse.
He is trying to explain these things,
While the horse, gray as those days at the end
Of winter, when days seem lost in thought, is, after al,
Only a horse. No doubt the man knows people he could talk to:
The bars are open by now, but he has chosen
To confide in this gelding, as he once did to his own small
Children, who could not, finally, understand him any better.
This afternoon, in the middle of his life & in the middle
Of this war, a man is trying to stay sane.
To stay sane he must keep talking to a horse, its blinders
On & a rough snaffle bit still in its mouth, wearing
Away the corners of its mouth, with one ear cocked forward
    to listen,
While the other ear tilts backward slightly, inattentive,
As if suddenly catching a music behind it. Of course,
I have to admit I have made all of this up, & that
It could be wrong to make up anything. Perhaps the man
    is perfectly
Happy. Perhaps Koudelka arranged all of this
And then took the picture as a way of saying
Good-bye to everyone who saw it, & perhaps Josef Koudelka was
Only two years old when the Nazis invaded Prague.
I do not wish to interfere, Reader, with your solitude--
So different from my own. In fact, I would take back everything
I've said here, if that would make you feel any better,
Unless even that retraction would amount to a milder way
Of interfering; & a way by which you might suspect me
Of some subtlety. Or mistake me for someone else, someone
Not disinterested enough in what you might think
Of this. Of the photograph. Of me.
Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her
My face altered & took on the shape of her face,
Made thin by alcohol, sorrowing, brave. And though
There was a kind of pain in her face, I felt no pain
When this happened to mine, when the bones
Of my own face seemed to change. But even this
Did not do us any good, &, one day,
She went mad, waking in tears she mistook for blood,
And feeling little else except for this concern about bleeding

Without pain. I drove her to the hospital, & then,
After a few days, she told me she had another lover. . . . So,
Walking up the street where it had been raining earlier,
Past the darkening glass of each shop window to the hotel,
I felt a sensation of peace flood my body, as if to cleanse it,
And thought it was because I had been told the truth. . . .
    But, you see,
Even that happiness became a lie, & even that was taken
From me, finally, as all lies are. . . . Later,
I realized that maybe I felt strong that night only
Because she was sick, for other reasons, & in that place.
And so began my long convalescence, & simple adulthood.
I never felt that way again, when I looked at anyone else;
I never felt my face change into any other face.
It is a difficult thing to do, & so maybe
It is just as well. That man, for instance. He was a saboteur.
He ended up talking to a horse, & hearing, on the street
Outside that alley, the Nazis celebrating, singing, even.
If he went mad beside that wall, I think his last question
Was whether they shot his wife and children before they threw him
Into the ditch, or after. For some reason, it mattered once,
If only to him. And before he turned into paper.

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