Ekphrasis as ‘Event’: Poets Paint Words and the ‘Performance’ of Ekphrasis in Australia

By | 1 March 2017

Whereas Adamson’s narrative was intimately linked with the painter’s, Arthur Boyd’s Shoalhaven River, Afternoon II shares no history with the lived experience of the poet Martin Harrison. Yet, Harrison finds a way into the work of Boyd by instantiating the ‘autobiographical focus’ in ekphrastic poetry, of which Alfred Corn in Notes on Ekphrasis writes:

The center of attention in this kind of poem isn’t solely the pre-existing work but instead is dual, sharing the autobiographical focus found in the majority of contemporary lyric poems written in English.

‘Individualising’ the ‘invariants’ contained in Boyd’s painting, Harrison makes use of the shapes and figures on the canvas. But where Whiteley’s lived experience is a conduit for Adamson’s experience, Harrison’s lived experience is uniquely his own in the performance of his viewing of the painting. Referring to the exchange across temporal boundaries that take place in this moment, consider the first section of Harrison’s poem:


A final thought might be 
after sex with you
I want the light to be permanent

some utterly sun-drowned afternoon
where intense, golden drifts
freeze across the ranges

‘utterly’ because
of what is open, airy, so exposed

with a long drift of time and distance
starting in the gap

every gesture’s a response to light
every thought speaks to its change
with a sense of what happens
when dreaming, perhaps inland along a river:

the ripple of a single movement
dissolving a broad hill slope

which just as it
melts in water
stays still enough

to engage us 
in our love.

Harrison accounts for the corporality and intimacy of this exchange in the first stanza, alluding to a shared post-coital moment where the ekphrasis is effected: as the poem inhabits the space ‘after sex with you’, where Harrison’s speaker wishes for ‘the light to be permanent’. This concept of permanence, or the desire for permanence in a fleeting co-emergent moment of beauty, is beset by Harrison’s use of the present tense verb ‘freeze’ in the seventh line of the poem. This is later juxtaposed by the present participle in the twentieth line, ‘melts’, that suggests narrative: the direction of time constantly in motion, much like the ‘river’ of line fifteen that embodies the ekphrastic moment as long enough for the poet and the painter, the ‘us’ of the poem, to remain in ‘love’.

Consider Jones’s poem about the work of Olsen:

This Material Spirit

He made this lying down: reaching up
with close and distance in the origin
bird flame, salamander sun
amoeba and embryo, the artist’s circle
and begins.

As helpless and astounding life begins
with the cell, its own chaos acres.
Then question, the snake, marks a wall
approaches writing though wombs, tentacle
sperm and flume we come from
this matter whose arrow of love can’t be predicted.

Earth bubbles escape into whale call
the fish’s tear, where it’s all going, mouth helix
to a child’s handprint, a tongue (red)
into wormholes, universes, sacs
of blue birth passage.

Perhaps sea felt like this as colours
crawled out and made ochres in the sun.
Within water’s eye is release, tasting
the first connection of salt in motion
and one-ness, then sun’s line, letting it run
as fast as it can flow.

Trails mix trails evolving a dark script
so many stories in high-red waters, winding
seas whose issue bursts on topographies
lines and loops of existence, the way
numbers form then become invisible.

Tangent suns and filaments merge
a fiery dream you might want to escape
whose threads of existence aren’t inevitable
whose parallels don’t hold forever.
Can we look at what is over here, or there?
DNA to infinity, dotted through coral stars.

Some crazy life is running with odd grimaces
and grins, hands in the air, a sting in the tail
as bloodskin feels the air with tongues
and questions are overwritten
to disappear, animal within animal.

As the evidence for an Australian performance of ekphrasis, Jones’s poem embodies this sense of ‘a pattern danced into the ground’. Jones’s process, sitting before Life Burst on a computer chair shifting over and gliding along the surface of the artwork, is inserted diachronically through her interrogation of the painting: ‘Can we look at what is over here, or there?’ Concerning ‘questions’ that are ‘overwritten’, in responding to an existing artefact the poet is asked to engage with the artwork, such that their lived experience, the process of finding an original way to address these questions through affect and interpretation, becomes the content of the poem.

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