-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-
Trying to review ekphrastic poetry provides the challenge of either trying to judge the poetry on its own merits, or become an impromptu art critic. Ekphrasis – or the translation of works of art into different media, in this case the visual into the written – is a long standing pursuit, and one which can produce some truly spectacular results, but is one which requires the reader to approach a poem from a different angle to the one they are used to.
Neil Ellman’s Convergence and Conversion, a series of poems drawing their inspiration from abstract art, is a difficult but rewarding collection to explore. At first, the slightly jerking, stuttery quality of the poems, with their frequent line breaks and arrhythmic stanzas, threaten to jolt the reader from being able to derive meaning or hold on to a single idea or thought, but if you look at them, not as poems, but as word-pictures, they have a certain staccato lyricism. In some cases, the jerkiness actually adds to the effect. For example, in the final stanza of “…Whose name Was Writ In Water” (p13) “There is no other/ no other / no other name / other than / my own”, the line breaks convey an echoing quality that has a haunting poignancy.
The question is whether or not it is appropriate to divorce the poem from the artwork which inspired it. There is a worry that without the “map” of the artwork to guide the reader’s imagination, an essential aspect of the art is missing. And yet, even without the context of the art, there is something compelling about phrases like “Whichever way wind blows / imagination / zigzags” (“Dozen and short Dozen”, p10). And poems like “White Flag” (p19) and “The End of Everything” (p8) stand alone very well without the artwork to back them up. “The End of Everything” in particular, for me, conjures up a fascinating image of a rusty car driving off the end of the universe, which isn’t necessarily an image which is borne out by the original artwork, but is intriguing in its own right. Surely, the essence of an ekphrastic poem is that it reproduces the essence of the original art, thus rendering that original superfluous.
Jeremy Balius’ Wherein? He Asks of Memory is, to my mind, a less successful collection. Though based around a single work of art – the oft-repeated For Paul, a sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard – it is not exactly ekphrastic. The sculpture is more akin to a character in the poem, and an influence upon it than its subject. But characters require either a narrative or some kind of development, and that is a much more elusive quality in this collection.
This is the kind of writing that always makes me feel as if I have missed the point, or the poet has. It feels like the poet is trying too hard to be intellectual, or deliberately obtuse, and as a result it is exceedingly difficult to penetrate the meaning of the poem. It doesn’t elucidate in the same way that Ellman’s work does. Each of Ellman’s poems are small snippets that can be viewed easily as a whole, much like a painting on the wall of a gallery can be viewed in its entirety, but Balius’ work is a much bigger chunk and can’t be taken in all at once. While this is in some ways more appropriate, since the For Paul sculpture is a much larger piece of work than any of the paintings Ellman has used, it is still a work that can be seen at a glance, while the poems here representing it are not. As a result, Wherin? He Asks of Memory is a far less accessible collection, if for no other reason than the sculpture which inspired it cannot be used as a guide to meaning in the same way, and the reader is left to puzzle out the meaning of such snippets as “sensory incontinence in a dimensionless existence” (“Of the fourth consideration: memorable”) on their own, which proves something of a difficult task.
Whilst I’m sure that Balius has many deep insights and moving scenes to impart, they are in danger of getting lost in his sesquipedalian loquaciousness and his reluctance to employ one word when he can get away with half a sentence. In a way, this could also be said to be a result of problems in translation. The opening stanzas of each of his “considerations” (Part II, form consonants) are an impenetrable wall of text – quite literally, since they are set out in a justified block, broken up by “/” instead of line breaks. And while this does call to mind the brick-like layering in the For Paul sculpture, it is essentially off-putting to the reader searching for a coherent sentence. In addition, the surrounding stanzas are full of extra spacing – again reminiscent of the textures of the sculpture – but it seems to be a case of style over substance as the effect doesn’t really add anything by way of meaning, and the poem becomes a series of jerky fragments that it is nightmarish to try and link together.
It becomes terribly frustrating, because there are occasional moments of lucidity in the poems which offer tantalising glimpses of what this collection could have been. Snippets like “It is easy to detect an onward from a tradition/ rather than the attempt to preserve it” (“Another fiery ordeal”) could perhaps have done with more focus and elaboration. Likewise, the italicised sections of song in “form consonants” have a lyricism to them that I would have liked to see more of.
In conclusion, the brevity and condensed composition of Ellman’s work is more effective at creating an affecting word-scape than Balius’ wall of text. If we look at the work as a canvas, the minimalism of the former wins out, while the latter’s meaning gets lost in the over-layering of brushstrokes; when painting a picture, less truly is more.