Shawna Lemay: Things That Run Through My Head When Writing An Ekphrastic Poem


My approach is in spirals, I walk around in my mind, around the painting. I try to see the supports, the stretcher and the nails, the frame might be important. It might not be. The tooth of the canvas is of particular interest of course.

Ecstatic, elastic, there is often a fragrance that must be absorbed.

I think about the word, ekphrastic. A cough. A quiver, a thrum. A clearing of the throat. I think about tomato soup being poured whole out of a can, adding milk to it. That glory.

I think about ekphrasis as a rhetorical device, how I’m too old for rhetorical devices, and how I’m afraid of heights. And I won’t even get into the competition aspect of the procedure. More than anything else I crave an inner peace and a solitude of the soul. Sometimes what I really want to write about is exhaustion and shyness but this might make matters not worse exactly, but I think it would make me less sympathetic to the spectrum of ineluctable encounters with suburbanites.

Sure I have all the usual sumptuously banal anxieties that anyone writing an ekphrastic poem would have. Embarrassment in advance at the failure of language. There are Beckett lines that arrive unbeckoned. Try again. I can’t go on. Unbeckoned Beckett.

I try to slow it all down at first. Slow down the words, the lines. They start to ricochet off one another at a certain point. Pop Rocks in my mouth. If I need a break I put a menthos candy into a bottle of Coca-Cola.

I don’t mean to brag but when I wrote my first book, hardly anyone was talking about ekphrasis or knew what it meant. I was constantly defining it, talking about how I had attempted to skirt the ekphrastic moment. Subsequently some people said some nice things about books I wrote, and some people said some not so nice things. And once I was compared to one of the characters in the Charlie’s Angels movie. Unrelatedly, you could suppose, there was a long time during which I couldn’t write poetry at all, the muse, who looked a bit like one of Charlie’s original TV series Angels in my mind, left. This happens, poetry abandons a poet, sometimes forever. I remember reading about how Roo Borson gives up poetry, twice, how it returns to her. When it first happened to me I didn’t quite believe poetry had really and truly packed her red Samsonite suitcase and left.

It’s possible to think of ekphrasis as an embellishment, a challenge, an interference. But also a type of thievery or forgery. A case could be made for ekphrasis as dreamish rigor. As a flying too close to the sun with waxen wings.

Ekphrasis can be charming, a connoisseurship of flattery. Of flattening. There is a fluidity, at times mockery.

I calm my qualms, agree with my greed, the deception of my descriptions. I evade, disguise. Shimmering deferrals mirage with a nervous noise. There is an inundation of ornament in this process that turns silence into vixened words. The alembic umbilical usurps the syrup.

It’s complicated, maybe more complicated than you might read in W.J.T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory. It’s certainly one correct possibility, he gets at the heart of it, laying out the struggle – indifference/hope/fear.

I make excuses, it’s such a false process, I can’t. The tranquility of the syntax, the secret indecorous synonyms, draw me back toward them. We don’t need to turn paintings into poems any more you know, there’s the internet, Google images. Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, you can look that up. If you do you might find Auden’s poem and this line which is not in the poem: “In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.”

So I’ve had that wrong all along, too. Believing in intoxication and enchantment. Unraveling a certain spatial ravishment. Imbrications of types of beauty. I will swagger anyway with Baudelaire, and call his call, “Be Drunk!” (It’s the only way).

There are prophecies that must be respected, the high-handed to avoid. Pitfalls. There is the inevitable grief, the distress a curious brocade. That will ring a bell, this will. For thee.

Whatever it is you’ve managed to write, (and writing about anything – it’s been said – is just an excuse, an excuse to say what you wanted to say but couldn’t, not so openly as all that) will be diminished, a diminishment. Textureless. A purgatory, an impatient in-between. Flawed. Problematic. At best, an incandescent glance open to misinterpretation and accusations – hysterical, fancy, beyond your reach, disconnected.

In the end it’s pleasant to think about studio exercises, about the long and steady practice of an art form through a life, about conventions of politeness and the expectations and obligations of inspiration. I’m clearing my throat now, I’m looking forward with curiosity and an openness of spirit.


Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry, a book of essays, and a novel titled, Hive: A Forgery, which is about the possibility of the existence of a woman art forger. She edits the ezine, Canadian Poetries.