An ekphrastic poem responds to a work of art in some way. Often, as in W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” there is a description of the piece (usually a painting) that puts its images into some other context. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes the painting is a jumping off point for the poem, or a point of contention.
A lot of poems in Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes could be called ekphrastic. But Siken is a painter himself (as you can see on his website here) and often his subject seems as much about the creation of an image or painting as it is about our response to viewing it. I know of other poets who were also visual artists (William Blake first and foremost) but Siken is the first poet-painter I’m aware of who delves so deeply into the problems of creation, whether that creation is on paper, canvas, or in the imagination itself.
Before I go too far down this road, here’s the poem:
I erased my legs and forgot to draw in the stilts.
It looks like I’m floating but I’m not floating.
Sometimes I draw you with fangs. I tell you these
things because I love you. Some people paint
with whiskey and call it social drinking. Some people
paint drunk and put dots of color everywhere.
In the morning the dots make them happy. I am
putting dots of color everywhere and you are sleeping.
Something has happened in the paint tonight and
it is worth keeping. It’s nothing like I thought it
would be and closer to what I meant. None of it is
real, darling. I say it to you. Maybe we will wake up
singing. Maybe we will wake up to the silence
of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.
— from War of the Foxes, ©2015 by Richard Siken, published by Copper Canyon Press, used by permission
The first thing I respond to is the unsettling emotional context. Our speaker admits to occasionally imagining his loved one “with fangs.” I imagine the image is probably not one the lover would find flattering. On the other hand, our speaker claims that he’s reporting this vision “because I love you.” I suppose that in some ways honestly divulging one’s nightmares about one’s partner is a good thing? If the poet-artist has also severed his own legs, and wants to tell his partner about that as well, perhaps this sort of dark sharing is a regular part of their relationship?
There’s some fun to be had projecting this couple’s regular dinner-table conversations (“How did you imagine me today, darling?” “With porcupine quills.”), but for me there are important questions about the creative mind that are involved in this exchange. Can our imagination incriminate us somehow, especially as it’s expressed in art? How much of what’s churning in our brains do we need to take responsibility for? Is altering the way we experience reality damaging to the reality we are portraying?
Before a simple answer comes too quickly, the poem proceeds with a clever counter-argument: the speaker reminds us that “Some people paint / with whiskey and call it social drinking.” The deadpan tone sounds like social commentary but is really an idea about perception – that some of us, by applying alcohol to our body chemistry, deliberately alter our perception of the people and situations around us. We think of this as “social drinking,” and it doesn’t seem like such a great sin. So what about changing our perception of others using color, as art often tries to do?
A brief aside about the “dots of color” that are referred to a few times in the next lines, as well in the title. It’s hard not to think of Georges Seurat, the French post-Impressionist painter who developed pointillism and is best known for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Siken’s description of the speaker’s works in progress – with erased legs, people with fangs, etc – makes them much more surreal than anything Seurat conceived. And it’s unlikely Seurat painted much while drunk. So I doubt Siken is referring directly to Seurat here as a subject, but Seurat’s development of pointillism was based on contemporary scientific ideas about color perception. That is, he was very conscious of creating a vivid deception for the eye to enjoy. And whether or not those principles still hold true, the painting still makes most of us happy.
There’s a point, then, in lines 6-11, where the poet-painter-lover seems to be content riding his distorted inspiration, applied while his lover is sleeping, whatever the implications. As he reports it, “Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping. It is nothing like I thought it / would be and closer to what I meant.” These lines will sound familiar to any artist, poet, or musician who has been happily led to new territory by an inspired mistake or tangent. Of course, the line is also somewhat deceptive – how can something happen “in the paint”? And how can the speaker know what he “meant” to accomplish if the painting that fulfills that intention is also “nothing like I thought it / would be”? The misperception of the paint moving the creative process forward – or the alcohol, or the romantic tension, or whatever – is part of how this painter convinces himself to move forward with his art. Misunderstanding seems crucial to the endeavour.
By the time we get to “None of it is / real, darling,” I sense that Siken is talking not only about the painting, and not only about the poem itself, but also about the whole nature of perception. The sentence sounds partly like a Katherine Hepburn quip and partly like Caliban from The Tempest (“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”) The idea seems to be that we can make ourselves crazy trying to discover what is “real,” but we’re much better off being content with the misperceptions that delight us.
Of course, our painter’s creative success won’t necessarily solve the romantic tension in his house. “Maybe we will wake up singing” feels promising, if unlikely. But “Maybe we will wake up to … shoes … not going anywhere” immediately summons the counter-image of the shoes going somewhere, leaving, stomping off, whatever. Maybe, maybe not. Love sits uncomfortably with creative inspiration: on the one hand, the artist’s multi-coloured visions of his lover are partly what fuels his desire and creativity. But his pursuit of those visions, and their occasional brutality, also seem to have widened a gap that the poem struggles to bridge. Embracing the strange and surreal may help in the pursuit of art, but that doesn’t make an artist easy to live with. This poem seems to acknowledge that problem with a wry grin, showing a bit of fang.