Poet Before an Open Painting
Boy Returning Water to the Sea: Koans for Kelly Fearing.|
Cockeyed Press, 2009.
40 pages, $15.95 (paperback).
At their best, ekphrastic poems expand upon the works of art they address. They tease out hidden stories, foreground narratives from a piece's background. Andrea Selch's poems in this little book—based on paintings by Kelly Fearing—do that well. They also meditate on the mysterious distance between visual and verbal art. What carries over through the transubstantiation?
Fearing's paintings invite re-telling and expansion. Most of them feature human or animal characters in incongruous landscapes that require a story to explain them. Two giraffes walk forlornly across the red Arizona desert. A ghostly white bird cocks its head to stare intently at the violet ground. They have the atmosphere of Aesop's fables transferred to de Chirico landscapes. Their titles are truncated stories in themselves: "Boy Returning Water to the Sea"; "The Night of the Rhinoceros"; "Holy Shell Waiting for the Return of the Soul."
The tone of Selch's poems captures that of the paintings well. They're deceptively straightforward miniature fables. They evoke mystery by referring to stories the reader may or may not know—that may or may not exist at all. The story of a boy returning water to the sea sounds like a wisdom story from somewhere. The story of Tobias and the angel Rafe must be from the Old Testament, right? But I'm sure the night ramblings of Rhinoceros are original to Fearing and Selch.
One poem stands out as a fable about the ekphrastic poet's work itself. "Poet and Bird Before an Empty Cave" could describe the conversation between poet and painter:
Even though it's a fantasy,
they don't speak
the same language.
The man hears "Squawk, squawk."
The bird wonders what interest
there is in a bush,
albeit a fragrant one
But through the cave
another sky is visible.
They speak different languages; they wonder in different senses. But in this joining of their work, Selch and Fearing share some glimpses of that other sky.