Upstairs, I had time to think about art:
which should’ve stopped at Baroque. Meaning, an earthy
obsession with entrails.
That dovetails with General Nameless Unease. Because the
puffery was accurate, at least,
and the future had scalloped edges.
—Underneath at All, a little middle of the night
Here are the two dominant models of ekphrasis: pissing contest or wrestling. The former is fashioned after paragone, the Renaissance debate that pitted painting and sculpture as opponents. In our pissing contest, the competitors are poetry and painting. The latter model is less contentious, arguing that ekphrasis is an encounter or exchange. Two wrestling bodies, both changed by their knotting together, the possibility of real fight or real fuck hanging in the air.
That these are the dominant explanations we have for ekphrasis might make sense in light of its first instance: Homer’s rich and intricate description of the shield Achilles uses in his fight with Hector in The Iliad.
Writing about art and especially poetry “about” art, much like writing about anything, has been modelled on this extremely narrow foundation. Which is to say, I came here to tell you about the deep and meaningful ekphrasis that runs throughout Molly’s work, but the theory fails me, and it fails Molly. It fails because ekphrasis is trying to connect two weights of history, two whole canons, which were not made for either of us. And it fails because like so much of Molly’s art, whether in prose or sugar or poetry or watercolour, the theory is too reductive to offer insight.
Her first book was a chapbook of poems titled Instructions for a Painting. In “Vermeer Sounds,” a poem that will later appear in her first full collection, Molly writes:
Things not painted at all:
The actual living blue figure.
Canons being cast
in the Armamentarium.
All their dull circumstance.
We did not even begin with the painting: “Recent X-rays of View of Delft reveal: / compression of the rooftops.” Instead, we are already getting underneath, outside. The poem does not narrate an encounter, provide exegesis or reimagine Vermeer or his subjects. Beauty is an act of interrogation, of moving beyond the frame not to transcend it, but to question what has been left out, which perspective has been shafted, what is left in the shadow of this gorgeous light: “All their dull circumstance.”
The foundation of Molly’s ekphrasis is the laying bare of attention. It is disarming and it is uncomfortable to experience a poem that coolly claims: I pay attention. Here I am, dying on the hill of attention. That attention can baffle me—in “Specter in Glyph” the painting in question is, to my taste, bland. “Portrait of a Greyhound, called Pompon, 1746” by John Wootton. Not much but a fancy dog, dusty brushwork, bulky composition. I don’t see it. But I don’t have to—Molly’s ekphrastic poems are not portraits of paintings or performances of taste. She sees through that:
We like to think we’re the last,
the last, at the end of land, bearing
every dear standard and totem
that’s ever been, bearing it into the void.
It must be a key,
some key to death,
to think this way, as all kin before.
In the sinking
trance of night this song
threads through every separateness,
through the word
at the center.
All ekphrasis is an ars poetica. Inevitable, that a poem reaching to touch another art must look back at its own shape, the hands shaping it. Molly’s ekphrastic poems are also those that crackle the most with the question of what it means to make art, any art at all:
Moses is hidden
in a cleft, behind God’s hand,
and he sees—rushing past him—
God’s back, diminishing.
Moses stops begging.
God’s back is black fog.
I know. He, we guess
means to do it.
To do all of this.
The brute center part
of an iridescent moth.
against the man.
In this poem, from The Cipher, there is no specific work of Dix’s referenced but I thought immediately of “The Triumph of Death,” with the cartoonish grotesque of Death’s flowing red cape echoing Moses parting the Red Sea. And then to the wall of Dix’s charcoal drawings depicting trench warfare I saw once—the black fog. Imagine this steel gaze of this attention looking all the way through the horror and not separating it from the iridescence. (There is a lot of iridescence in Molly’s work—a term derived from the Greek for rainbow, from the goddess and messenger Iris, a personification of that all-encompassing colour spectrum. There is a key, for me, about colour as a means of communication, here.)
Molly once told me she was not “academic enough.” A preposterous claim from the most esoteric reader and least performative thinker. But that’s the narrow foundation, again, making us doubt our footing. I have considered ekphrasis—Molly’s, my own tendency toward it— as a navigation of imposter syndrome. An urge to “prove your working.” It is difficult not to project my own pathology as a first-generation college student, here. But ekphrasis does allow a poet to display their knowledge, flex their mettle—put themselves into the discourses that question whether they are “enough.”
Perhaps a more fitting paradigm for the ekphrastic impulse is speaking to the dead. Or, speaking among them—an opportunity, I think, that might provide more insight or comfort than speaking to those breathing around us. It is not the right time for me to build this model, though I believe it is the encounter at the heart of Molly’s ekphrasis.
In her final manuscript, Folk Physics, there is a stark lack of ekphrastic encounter. There is no reach out to other art, no question in conversation. Except for just one instance: a reference to Rothko, the first painter whose work I felt in my body. In “The Body of Knowledge About the Sun,” Molly writes:
Matter bonded, and
“no one” knows why.
To violently and permanently
separate it, well,
imagine how painters
were once forced to paint the sun!
Rothko said to stand 18 inches
from his paintings in order to see them.
The sun is unviewable.
No menacing spirit.
we paint it.
The sun glaring out all the people. Bleaching out the failure, the searching. Relief, perhaps. Or space. Burning. A totalizing light. Still, we paint it.
This essay first appeared in The Volta.
Molly Brodak published a full length collection of poetry, A Little Middle of the Night (University of Iowa Press, 2010), a memoir, Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir (Grove Atlantic, 2016), and three chapbooks of poetry. Her most recent collection, The Cipher, won the 2019 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Before her death in 2020, she taught writing and literature at numerous institutions, including Emory University, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Georgia College and State University. An accomplished baker and recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Brodak’s poems appeared in such publications as Granta, Guernica, and Poetry Magazine.