Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, Helena Nelson and Tom Michie
‘Minimal’ describes not only the poetry but everything about this pamphlet from KFS, or The Knives Forks and Spoons Press (which even dispenses with a comma between Knives and Forks in the publisher’s name). Drawn in by my first read through of the poems and wanting to know more about the poet, I drew a blank on the publisher’s website—in fact two blanks, the boxes for About the Author and Author Bibliography being interesting only for their pristine white space. So I turned to Google which offered up a New Jersey based poet, whose credits list various other chapbooks with ‘ekphrastic’ in the title. I assume he’s our man.
‘Ekphrastic’ is a term for artwork that describes or refers to other artwork, in this case 15 poems about 15 paintings or other visual artworks, which are acknowledged but not reproduced. Most of the titles of the artworks (which are the same as the titles of the poems) were unfamiliar to me, though after reading the poems a few times, a further quick Google search suggests they’re mostly or even all abstract. It’s not surprising then that the poems might also be described as abstract, employing as they do no capital letters, spacing substituting for punctuation, minimal use of conventional punctuation, and unusual use of keyboard symbols, such as in ‘Dozen and Short Dozen’ where between two blank lines we find:
// so many twisted strings //
These are not poems which you read expecting an obvious narrative meaning, but rather for the way the poet uses language and image and the white space of the page and, despite one serious reservation, I’d say he succeeds.
Here’s the opening of ‘K.51’, which the acknowledgement explains is “After the sculpture by Frank Stella based on the music of Domenico Scarlatti”:
as if an insect
crawling on the skin
........scrawls of wire
.....struggling to be heard
Another poem, ‘The End of Everything’ (“After the painting by Roberto Sebastián Antonia Matta Echaurren”) reaches a conclusion in this credible and low-key whimper:
the tires went flat—
.....on the radio
crackles growls: snap
no way to call for help
I didn’t come across a single redundant or ill-chosen word anywhere in this bitingly sharp collection but sometimes the lack of punctuation annoyed me when it interfered with how I read the poem. In ‘Neither Legends Nor Shapes’, surely the lack of a colon or dash after “what” reduces the impact of these four lines:
(compared to what
..........the depth of reason
Even a blank line would help. But my main criticism of the pamphlet is that the font sizes throughout are too small for comfortable reading, especially the acknowledgements beneath each title can’t be more than font size 6 or 7 and—to make it even trickier to read them—pale grey in colour. If I’m straining my eyes, I lose the impact of the poetry and the inclination to keep reading. I daresay there’s some kind of statement to be inferred from the font size, but if I picked up this pamphlet in a shop, I’d put it down again as soon as I saw the small print. And that would be a great pity, because these poems should be read. Here’s the last one in full, ‘White Flag’:
oh say can you see
the shape of things to come
colour of things
state of the union
in a flag
hanging in a windless
by dawn’s early light
I have never been keen on ekphrastic poems and here is a whole pamphlet of them to test me to the full. Why have I never liked them? Originally, it was the word ekphrastic that offended me. Merriam Webster tells me its first known use was in 1715 but its first known use to me was about 12-15 years ago when it started popping up in poetry magazines. From memory, that’s about when ‘ekphrastic’ poems started to be ‘in’ in the UK.
Not knowing the Greek term, my reaction was to find the whole idea pretentious twaddle. Calling it ‘ekphrastic’ seemed to me to suggest something particularly superior. I no longer think that, because I’ve got used to the word. In fact, I’m so used to it that I dread more ekphrastic poems. It’s my impression that poets only go to art galleries in order to get material for writing.
But when did ‘after’ first come into its own? At least it is ordinary English, but I don’t favour that little preposition under a poem’s title either, and it’s under every single one in this pamphlet. ‘After’ seems to me to suggest that one needs to know the original artwork in order to ‘get’ the poem. When the ‘before’ artwork is the Mona Lisa or Michael Angelo’s ‘David’, it’s all right: the visual image is iconic so the mental reference is already inplace. But ‘Year After Year’ (painting by Arshile Gorky)?
The internet is a wonderful thing. I could never normally have found all these images. In fact, most of the titles in this pamphlet are easily tracked down, from David Smith’s Cubi X to Kasimir Malevich’s White on White.
I like to think that if a poem works, it does so divorced from its original inspiration, whatever that may be. What would I have thought of these poems without their ‘after’ thoughts? I would have liked some of the titles very much—‘Ciphers and Constellations, in Love with a Woman’—terrific! But this is the title of a gouache by Joan Miro—a great painting, by the way, I looked it up. And that’s another thing about ekphrastic poetry. If it has pictures—if the pamphlet is illustrated—there’s another way it might make sense to me. But then that gets away from the whole idea of pamphlet as a simple, straightforward publication offering just a few pages of text.
But to go back to Joan Miro. Seeing the painting itself did not improve my acquaintance with the poem. In fact, it makes me want to argue with the poem as interpretation, though it is not my business to argue with poems here. I like this little poem on its own. It’s shaped, for a start, with the lines broken in such a way that there’s a kind of zigzag in the middle. And it’s very simple, and it could well be personal. A small personal love poem.
All the poems in this pamphlet, in fact, are shaped in one way or another, and generally their language is unpretentious and direct. They do quite interesting things, their effects linger. Their visual effect is massively less than a painting or sculpture, but they provoke thought and that’s quite something. I don’t dislike them half as much as I expected to, because they have got me thinking. One of them is even a double ekphrasis—‘K 51’ is ‘after’ a sculpture by Frank Stella based on the music of Scarlatti. Thanks, once again, to the net, you can listen to some of Scarlatti on harpsichord while contemplating the sculpture and reading Ellman speaking: “as if an insect / crawling on the skin / scarlatti notes / scrawls of wire”. By now, I’m thinking the publication form should be an ebook, where all these links could be incorporated effortlessly.
Is a review an ekphrastic form? Am I—in the act of writing about Ellman’s ‘K 51’— being triply ekphrastic? Surely these lines are written in response to a sculpture in response to a work of music and couldn’t have been written without those two predecessors. But a review doesn’t attempt to be an artwork in itself, does it?
What a great idea—appropriating the titles and spirits of a whole set of artworks and collecting the responses in the pamphlet. Things do converge here, as the collection’s title suggests, and are converted into something else. The cover shows a textured surface. It could be leather; it could be human skin. Inside, we find a modest assemblage of 15 poems, just enough for an average commuter’s train journey.
The collection is unassuming. The feel of the pamphlet is somehow disposable—very slender, stapling a bit iffy, print on the small side for average eyes. But that in itself lends attraction. This poetry response to art is almost throwaway in feel, and yet that is what lends it character. It is slightly off the wall but not so far off that the reader feels unnerved by the extreme or wildly experimental. It establishes its own conventions and follows them, each poem taking the title of an artwork, which is named underneath the title before the poet sets to work on it.
The poems are prettily interesting. They do not seem to be attempting profundity—they are more naturalistic than that. There is very little punctuation; the shapes of the lines make meaning plain; nothing obscurely ’poetic’ to create a barrier.; nothing especially avant about the garderobe. I liked ‘Fagus Silvatica – Natural History Part II: Some Trees of Italy’ (after a print by Cy Twombly), so I will conclude this review by quoting it in full:
some make scratching sounds
.....(the forest for the trees)
some assault reality
by the way they walk
the way they think
the meaning of wood—
score the surface of the moon
and trees will grow
or so they think