In hissing flames huge silver bars are roll’d,
And stubborn brass, and tin, and solid gold [. . .]
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d . . .
Going back at least to this description in The Illiad of the shield of Achilles, poets have been writing about art. The practice, called ekphrasis (here’s a short history), is perhaps appealing because it gives writers and readers a tangible physical starting place, a kind of shortcut from the usual challenge of translating a wholly new idea to or from the page. In a recent NYT Magazine profile, Anne Carson describes this challenge as “the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language.”
I’ve been working back through some of Carson’s earlier books, including Men in the Off Hours, which among very many things features a suite of nine poems about eight Edward Hopper paintings juxtaposed with quotes from Saint Augustine’s writings about time. These poems, “Hopper: Confessions,” compare time—the way it defines and gives shape to our lives—to a light entering the rooms and spaces around us. One of my favorites in the suite is “Room in Brooklyn”:
Along the room
A gradual dazzle
Gives me that
Down my afternoon.
Another look at the corresponding painting gets to my first takeaway from this reading experience: reading these poems while clicking through images of the Hopper paintings is a fairly awesome twenty minutes for the imagination! A second takeaway (and here is where things get a little hazy in “the mush of [my] unconscious”): re-conceptualizing time as a kind of light flashing in through the windows of experience comes with a nudge toward an idea difficult to hold long, an idea of life as something more than the moment-to-moment through which we navigate—through which we swim might be a better way to conceive of moving through the weight of lived time and the shadows of every past or passing moment—an idea of a kind of being that transcends the measures of time.
For another take on “Hopper: Confessions,” checkout this Berlin performance that mixes cello and synthesizer (I think) with a video collage of lines from the poem and images from the Hopper painting. If you make it through, listen for the weight and tremor of each slow-strung note and the eventual crescendo of time feeding back on itself.
What about you? Any all-time favorite poems or writing about works of art?
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