New York, USA
On Linda Jeannette Ward's "Portraiture"
With two prose sentences sandwiched between two tanka, Linda Jeannette Ward has created a complexly layered disquisition on the nature of art and imagery. In the first tanka, the persona considers a portrait of herself as a child and, in a kind of reverse Dorian Gray musing, fantasizes about the possibility of changing her future by adding just one brushstroke to the painting. In the second tanka, she observes the branch tips of a willow tree as they brush a pattern into the snow that sits on a frozen pond. Between these two poems, she prosaically mentions the photograph of a dead child in the newspaper with a poem beneath the picture, and then casually confesses using it to shim a loose window.
The first thing we notice about the entire piece is it's treatment of three different media: the stylized, painted portrait owned by the painting's subject; the objective photograph published in the most common of venues; and the random art committed by nature—something not necessarily art at all. The movement throughout is thematically driven: the idea of changing who one is at present by changing a detail in a portrait from the past moves naturally to the publishing of a loved one's memorial photo in the paper, which is, after all, a way of altering a present loss by substituting a portrait of the deceased in place of the living person. And keeping out the wind with a sheet of newspaper leads easily to seeing a portrait of the wind made in the snow by fluttering branches.
Upon a second look, another set of meanings emerges. We notice that the piece is also concerned with private, public, and subjective expression. The painted portrait is owned and kept privately and has special meaning for its owner. It would never be handled carelessly nor would it be disrespectfully used as a mere shim. The photograph in the newspaper, with its memorial poem, is the opposite: it has been indiscriminately displayed for anyone to see. The intensely private has purposely been made public, and having been thus cheapened, it has lost any claim to respectful treatment. The pattern made by wind, tree, and snow is purely subjective; different people will see different images in it, different representations of the wind. It is a public image, available to whoever happens upon it; but it is also deeply private due to its interiority, to the point that the viewer co-creates the image in concert with nature.
It is telling that in the first tanka, the poet considers whether a slight change in the moon's image would be enough to change her current, personal reality. One would expect the imagined brushstroke to have involved the more central element: the subject's face. The author's selection of the moon, something on the periphery of the painting, not only conveys its iconic and symbolic values, but reminds us that a work of art is an organic unit, in which it is impossible to remove one element without altering the whole, and that we are inexorably connected with all that is around us. Remove one small ridge of the texture, and the entire future may change.
The second tanka repeats the word "portrait," linking it with the prior poem, and uses an alliteration of w's to couple the willow tree with the wind it replicates. The metaphor in which snow "blooms" a portrait at first seems strange; but on rereading the prior tanka, we realize it is simply a restatement of the interconnection theme established in that initial poem: the snow, the willow tree, the wind, the pattern are all one.
It is appropriate that the specialized, private images are described by poetry, while the common, newspaper image is mentioned in prose. The literary forms stamp their labels onto the content: lyrical, imaginative poesy for those images and forms that are special and private; blunt, straightforward prose for an image that has already been degraded by its venue. This stylistic contrast adds a third layer that highlights the difference between carefully crafted poetry and the content de jour and literary style normally encountered in the newspaper, a place where images are tossed onto the page one day and forgotten the next, and where poor, doggerel verse often degrades the emotions it expresses.
If I added
one narrow brushstroke
to this hazy moon
in my childhood portrait
would it change who I've become
A girl's photo—she must be about ten—placed in the newspaper on the anniversary of her death, a memorial poem by her mother printed beneath it.
I fold the page into a flat accordion, jimmy it into the cracks between windows to keep out the winter wind.
willow tips brush
across the iced pond
a thin layer of snow
blooms a portrait
of the wavering wind
First published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009).