Herndon, Virginia, USA
On Steven Carter’s Ekphrasis
Ekphrasis by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, UK: Alba_Publishing, 2012. Pb. 54 pp. ISBN 978-0957526525. Price: US$12.00/UK£8.00/ €10.00.
In this haibun collection inspired by works of visual art, Steven Carter has aimed at “using one medium of art . . . to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form,” according to the Wikipedia definition provided. The result is an adventurous book, full of surprises. On the whole, it succeeds at its double challenge: first, in relating the entire poem to a particular work of art, and then balancing the prose and the haiku so as to meet the requirements of the form, however loosely interpreted.
The art works include painting, sculpture (stabile, mobile and frieze) and architecture, ranging from Hopper, Calder, Klee and Munch through Van Gogh, the Renaissance, Impressionism and points between, in each one seeking the timeless beauty of art that they embody, regardless of the particular context in which they were created. In this context, Carter cites Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as the “greatest single example” of the genre.
Some of the haibun focus primarily on the subject, allowing the reader to “see” them more deeply than previously or, in the case of those that may be unfamiliar, to see them in depth for the first time. In my opinion, these are the most appealing poems. For example, “Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Diner” calls up not only the solitary man and woman, but her possible backstory as well: a farm girl aspiring to romantic city life, doomed to disenchantment. Carter’s empathy for the figures is reflected in the haiku:
somewhere a siren—
windows gaze at windows
Likewise, “Edgar Degas’ The Glass of Absinthe” has a powerful effect:
“Forget ‘life’: If this isn’t a slice of eternity I don’t know what is.” The couple, “what we could call a scumbag” and a ruined “Eurydice” is eternally together and distant:
Among my favourites are “Munch’s The Scream,” which weaves strands of modern life with classical mythology, skillfully avoiding the traps of cliché, “John Constable’s Hampstead Heath” (“No one saw the English sky until Constable painted it”) and “Luca della Robbia’s Singing Angels,” with its humorous treatment of a traditional religious theme.
A few haibun appear to deflect attention from the observed to the observer, who occasionally may go off on a tangent, diluting the creative tension between the object and the poet’s eye. For example, “Alexander Calder’s Lobster Trap and Fish Tail” and “Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine” engage less convincingly with their subjects. Other readers, of course, may appreciate this expansion of style and foiling of expectations.
While the prose experiments with the form, the haiku are more traditional. Often, they resonate wonderfully as in
silence of a white owl
darkness between stars
at the conclusion of “John Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare,” and the ending of “Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Mila Apartment House:”
soft colors in the rain—
for rooms I’ve never known
Ekphrasis a memorable collection and Carter’s intelligent playfulness is a pleasure to encounter on every page.