Ekphrasis of a Face on a Tree This palette of oak grows with a marbling of pale green lichen to frame its pain. Sculpted on a trunk, two swirling burls, a bulging body and a face with the tough skin of bark. A dappling of color to offset despair. And what of the ivy that twines towards this sight? An Almighty mind- shift against survival of the fittest? The unseen hand scrapes beauty from wounds, injury as medium, near-death the instrument of the master. The features poised uppermost on the tree express wonder broken-free of the soil at her feet, eyes half-closed in reverie, mouth open in an “O”— Oh, I’ve known this sort of wonder, metal staples holding together the skin of life, this scar I wear on my torso. *Published in SWWIM Every Day: https://www.swwim.org/blog/2022/2/9/ekphrasis-of-a-face-on-a-tree
One of my biggest challenges as a poet is staying in the present moment and really seeing (sensing) what is right in front of me. Sometimes, I fall into this misguided notion that a particular subject must inspire me before I start writing. Of course, this way of thinking only stifles creativity. The sensory imagery around us shows us what’s inside. The poet Mark Doty wrote in The Art of Description that “every achieved poem inscribes a perceptual signature on the world…[The] work of seeing offers, ultimately, a precise portrayal of the one who’s doing the looking.” In other words, our unconscious minds reveal themselves in our descriptions of the present moment. There are no secrets. The images we choose and the way we convey these images betray us.
Most of you already know that Ekphrasis means “description” in Greek. On the Poetry Foundation website, the definition of an ekphrastic poem is “a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.” Ekphrasis can stay in the realm of imaginative description —a re-creation in words, if you will—or expand into a more personal musing, its meaning amplified through the artist’s senses. When I’m feeling stuck, creatively, there’s nothing more freeing than a trip to the art museum. When I sit before a sculpture or a painting, the focus is on the piece, not (blessedly) on “what am I going to write about today?” The subject is before me. I’m released from myself.
Or so I believe. The experience of the images comes from the inside. But, the illusion that I’m writing about something outside of myself is what gives me freedom of expression. In essence, I’ve tricked myself into believing that this writing isn’t about me. As seen in the poem above, a natural scene can present as art. In a “stuck” moment, I wrote about a tree. What burls—nature’s way of healing tree trunk wounds—represented appeared in the poem. My unconscious mind drew a parallel between the scar on my torso (my trunk) and the tree’s burls. I noted this evidence of healing. The way we incorporate our scars into a new self-image, but, even more, how they become a different kind of beauty. The expression I saw on the tree’s face seemed to express wonder. But, by now, you know that it’s my wonder I witnessed. My own surprise that I have thus far survived grievous injury and have stayed alive long enough to see the beauty in my scars. Or, at least, write about them.
Ekphrasis allowed me to experience a moment of recognition—and also transcendence. Ekphrasis can also be a lesson in trusting the creative process.