I read somewhere that the words ‘ekphrasis’ and ‘ekphrastic’ had at one stage a reference only in the Oxford dictionary, but nowadays these words are very much part of poets’ vocabularies and practices and most poets at some stage write poems responding to other art works. Erin Shiel’s poem ‘When the Wind Stopped’ was inspired by a number of works by John Wolseley, but rather than depicting the actual art works, her poem engages with Wolseley’s process of creating the works. He’s out in the landscape which has been burnt by fire and he lets sheets of paper be carried by the wind until they are caught on the charcoal twigs and branches of the mallee trees. As she says ‘The charcoal stipples and/ scrapes a song on the sheets.’ In this dancing, singing poem, in which the page becomes like a landscape and the lines become like blowing paper and the spaces give a sense of the temporal, we have an intimate insight into a creative process in which nature, weather, space and time are all participants. Shiel so beautifully enacts all the physical processes that accumulate to produce these art works. The body is as integral as the charcoal because Wolseley has to chase these sheets of paper as they are blown by the wind: ‘He carries them out of the wind/ on his two outstretched arms back/ to a clearing and lays them tenderly/ on a carpet of red dust.’ I love the way Shiel describes the whole collaborative enterprise.
The enchanting connection between land and voice – (reminiscent of Aboriginal song-lines and the idea of ‘singing up country’) is so poignantly evoked: ‘He sings the song the charcoal/scrawls have composed/ and stills them with his voice.’ The language of the poem is very verb-oriented which creates a strong sense of process, action, movement and this works in tandem with the shape of the poem, but if we notice the first verb in the poem it is ‘stands’, and by the end of the poem the sheets of paper are at rest. There’s resolution, completion, calm. This poem so effectively draws out and highlights the intimate relationship between the body, the environment and the imagination. It reminds us of the deep interconnection between mind and matter.
When the Wind Stopped Wolseley stands on the hill under the scribbly gum looking over the scrub, eyes flickering over burnt bush. The trunks of the eucalypts kneel on a cushion of new green, dead arms extend up in praise, lemon myrtle their incense. He unrolls the paper and cuts as though he’s releasing a chained creature, sliding the scissors through, feeling the smooth incision, wincing at occasional jags as the angle of the blade shifts. Ahead burnt out scrub follows the flow of the terrain, heights of the trees varying, limbs tracing the rise and fall of the land so from above it is a carpet of foliage. He releases the sheets one by one. They flap and fly over the scrub like cumbersome birds unaccustomed to catching the breeze. Feathered ends flay, unfurl power but the wind drops and the flapping settles into a glide until the sheets are caught by the reaching arms of the mallee. The charcoal stipples and scrapes a song on the sheets. They struggle, flapping then wrapping, settling to swaddle low burnt out baby bushes. The pages caress and smooth the hangnails of petrified twigs. They stretch a fraction to scratch their song. The charcoal song pleases Wolseley still standing on the hill. He taps one foot impatiently. Leans to one sheet of paper then another before he dances through the mallee chasing them one by one. He calms their scrimmage, detaching them from snags and twigs. He carries them out of the wind on his two outstretched arms back to a clearing and lays them tenderly on a carpet of red dust. He sings the song the charcoal scrawls have composed and stills them with his voice. While they rest he considers the ring necked parrots screeching above. How will he entice them to land on the scroll that documents the mallee song? Inspired by the art of John Wolseley, various works.