Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon
Mary Jo Bang
Grove, $13 (paper)
Penguin, $18 (paper)
The recent profusion of poems about the visual arts, from poets of all persuasions, invites the charge that ekphrasis is attractive because it provides easy access to aesthetic legitimacy. When poets invoke or envoice works of art—whether consecrated or renegade—they participate in a venerable tradition of verbal–visual homage and an exchange of cultural capital. Two recent collections of poems, one exclusively ekphrastic and the other predominantly so, redeem themselves from this charge by reminding us that ekphrasis is fundamentally revisionary—a mode of seeing again. Looking at art and writing about it, Bang and Greger show, can turn you back on your media and your mettle: because ekphrasis entails perception, interpretation, and judgment, it invites scrutiny of its own means and motives. Bang’s and Greger’s ekphrastic poems demonstrate an attentiveness to aesthetic form and response, and a willingness to open and re-open the larger question, as Bang asks it, “What harm is there in art?” In their varied interrogations of art’s intransigently complex relations to war, violence, and catastrophe, they return us to the ethical epicenter of modern ekphrasis, Auden’s opening sally in “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” Both of these books worry over that “never” and that “suffering,” and with insight equal to their sensory relish.
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon makes itsinquiries into catastrophe with insouciance. This is poetry thatcalls up “cluster bombs,” but also gets you to ask what Kim Novakin Vertigo has to do with a tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde.Bang is a master of the quip, each poem offering a lithe sequence ofobservations and red herrings. Her use of ekphrasis is idiosyncraticand far-reaching, addressing works by Odilon Redon (from whom thebook takes its title), Sigmar Polke, Jasper Johns, Jean Dubuffet,Dorothea Tanning, Cindy Sherman, and many others. Perhaps even morestriking is the range of media Bang approaches, including a Samarianarchitectural fragment and a video of a 1992 Gilbert and Georgeperformance piece. Bang turns to artists who work in drywall,Styrofoam, polyester, aluminum chairs, burlap, plaster, lacquer, andphotomontage, and this varied stuff offers a linguistic feast ofwordplay and juxtaposition. The curious will want to look up some ofher visual references—and will discover in them incitingdetails—but familiarity with the artworks is not essential tounderstanding the poems that spring from and confabulate withthem.
Much of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is writtenunder the sign of Polke, whose protean irreverence appeals toBang’s inclusive and mercurial sensibility. Bang addresses 17 ofhis works, including the disturbing “Children’s Games,” inwhich play involves a severed head. Three poems consider paintings inhis 1983 series “Catastrophe Theory,” their canvases offering ablur of suggestive mire and tangled hieroglyphs. Bang’s poem after“Catastrophe Theory III” reads the perceptual lacunae of thepainting and dryly doubts their effect: “The inevitable gap tragic.Sure, tragic.” In “Catastrophe Theory II,” the speaker triesagain to envision the aftermath of tragedy, pointing out theambiguity of the landscape (“it’s urban / it’s pastoral”) andthen asking if its “giant orb” and “pathetic wigglysquiggles” evoke “Inferno or garden”:
. . . one in six
bombs falls in a bushel, a basket,
a two o’clock casket. Do you wish to stay
connected? The seen blurs
into the just heard. A bird outside the
open window. The warm day
of March. It changes. It has
all changed. The world
as a distracting disaster.
MY, what little SENSE you make, said
to Mary Jo. . . .
A statisticalanalysis of casualty risk gives way to a darkly revised nurseryrhyme—casket, not tasket. We are watching (in 2004) the unfoldingcatastrophe, both connected and distracted by the flow oftelecommunications, media, and weather. Bang captures the apathy ofthose who would conceive of the world, global or local, as a“distracting disaster,” then pulls the plug with a humorous,self-referential calling to account.
The matter of “makingsense” in these poems goes hand in hand with the matter of lookingat and understanding suffering. Bang employs the fragmentation anddisjunctiveness characteristic of postmodern poetry but questions its“Endless snipsnip. Ragged fragment.” (Here she is looking atPolke’s “Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters,” where thedaughters disperse scissored “snow” onto the world as an abstractwhite gash.) In “Three Parts of an X,” she manipulates andexamines the effect of fragmentation in relation to acts oflooking:
Of course I’m afraid
You, a great artificial monster.
Me, a state ofnature.
Rules for daily living help
only a little.
. . . Of course we are frightened.
And some succeed, that’s true.
Eachevening they close the curtains
and watch their TVs.
Then someonesays, Time
to get up, and they get.
Time to move, and they move
to place an x in the box next to
What harm is there in art?
As long as an image can never bed
the object it represents.
Sex with an effigy.
How much fun could that be? Tsk. Tsk.
Speaking with Whitmanesque assertiveness to the reader as a “listener up there,” Bang pointsout the instability of any exchange between a posited(“artificial”) reader and the self who gets up in the morning.Together, nonetheless, “we are frightened” by what we see, butalso, Bang reminds us, protected by the commonality and insularity ofthe televised viewpoint. Cutting rapidly from one pronominal positionto another, she enters an ethical cul-de-sac where “naughtiness”is implicit in watching, including the form of watching that offersimages as representations of objects. That is, including ekphrasis.Bang’s admonishment is light-hearted, but it invites the reader toquestion the enterprise at the heart of this poetry as a function ofvolatile subjectivity and prurient curiosity.
In“Allegory,” after Philip Guston, Bang dramatizes this difficultpoetic stance:
The actors are standing
against a wall and watching
it all unfold.Look,
they say, at the minutiae sutured
to the spine of theclimax
when somebody opens the door
on the side ofdespair
and looks out onto death
The passage suggests a brief ars poetica:Bang’s poems “suture” the minutiae of perception to a backboneof intense experience, asking along the way what the directive“Look” entails. Another speaker worries that “Her mind // was acascade of cheap shots,” and then asks three disarmingly largequestions: “Where are you getting your information? Do you have abelief system? How much fear did you experience today?” The EyeLike a Strange Balloon is riddled with such inquiries, often couchedin non sequitur, and often concerning the nature of looking at“death and destruction” and approaching such scenes with verbal“cascades.” The lines just quoted appear in a poem after anotherPolke, “This Is How You Sit Correctly (After Goya),” a paintingin which a woman in a mantilla balances a chair upside down on herhead, surrounded by superimposed nudes and a puppy-print fabric.Writing after Polke after Goya, Bang’s ekphrastic pastiche capturesthis mood of whimsical but menacing misbehavior in the face of “distractingdisaster.”
* * *
In Western Art, Debora Greger alsolooks at death and destruction through Goya’s lens. “The Art ofWar” concludes both the volume and a six-page sequence titled“Musée des Beaux Arts,” an elaboration of the scene of Auden’sclassic ekphrastic lyric:
The man was dead butthe soldiers
Nor was theartist,
who prepared the plate
for the acid bath,stopping out the sky
and then the great coat of thesoldier
who held the dead man
by one bentleg.
But nothing blinded like the paper
Goyaleft blank to make the sword shine . . .
Juxtaposing thegruesome scene of a posthumous castration with the artist’stechnique, Greger highlights the meaningfulness of gaps in Goya’smedium—the significant blank. The ekphrastic task of interpretingthe artwork’s surface invites a self-reflexive meditation on thestance that looking at horror, and looking away, implies:
Nothing dared stand,
not even thelight.
It lay collapsed on the muddy boots.
It crawled up tothe knees. It peered
into the hands,
the facesgone dark.
I looked away. I looked back.
Personifying light in these final lines, Greger onceagain foregrounds the medium that activates her perceptions,provoking the speaker to “look back” in a double sense—to seethe etching again, and to see the history from which itemerged.
Ekphrasis prompts Greger, as it does Bang, toconstruct poems that double back to question their own assumptionsand motives, though they work in very different stylistic registers.Greger reins in her verbal responses to art with strict rhyme andmeter (especially taut quatrains and couplets), a mastery of soundeffects that underscores her analytical insights. One internal rhymelinks “glass gauds” and “gods.” Another line’s briskiambics recreate a tomb: “before, behind, between, above, below /the ants had roved his bones.” Both of these poets are expert atwhat Bang calls “honing the acoustics”—they employ theekphrastic mode to exercise their own verbal resources in pliable andproductive ways. If Bang’s capriciousness suggests the tack of anidiosyncratic collector, Greger’s more traditional prosody suggeststhat of an exacting curator. (As befits her subject, Western Art is atitle of breadth unmatched in recent poetry, except perhaps by herown 2001 collection, God.) Beginning with the cover’s image ofAlbert Bierstadt’s Romantic sublime, the book approaches Westernart primarily in the art-historical sense, with some allusions to thewestern American landscape of Greger’s youth. Her stance toward themuseum world she enters is skeptical without being renunciatory: sheundercuts aesthetic homage with reminders of imperial and economicunderpinnings—of profanations and ulterior motives—but shebypasses postmodern indignance.
One poem’s epigraph setsthe tone of this stance with saving humor: art-school graffiti, 1968,reads “Look back in Ingres.” When she looks back and interrogatesher relation to the art of the past, Greger bluntly dispels thenotion that she calls upon it for cultural elevation or aestheticlegitimation: “Worthless, my degree in art.” The ekphrasticenterprise is subject to delicate self-parody, as here throughhumorous alliteration: “There I stood, reflected in the latestlayer / of lacquer.” Another poem, “On Capital Hill,” asksabout the fruitlessness of cultural pursuits in the face of more-direpolitical circumstances: “In that cold circle / what good was yourFrench, the language // of love and Dien Bien Phu?” Ekphrasticinvocations of the Cluny unicorn tapestries, Rembrandt, Gainsborough,Tiepolo, Vermeer, and others are interposed with the violence of theVietnam era. One reflective poem sees a group of students and asks,“was I among them, / young again and sure / that art history waswasted on me? / The campus cherry trees / had bloomed with tear gasthat spring.” Elsewhere, she remembers “the boys in ROTC:”“Weekly they drilled, down at the far end / of the green, so as notto be sent / to some small war much farther off.” The “OldMasters” may never have been wrong about suffering, Gregersuggests, but looking at them now meant looking away.
In “Self-Portrait with Bittern,” Greger describes a momentary confrontation with art and an act of violence: “Holding the dead bird by the feet, / he seemed to offer it—to me, right there in the museum.” The immediacy of this encounter, the personal breathlessness, occurs in a museum. Bang likewise foregrounds the museum frame of many ekphrastic occasions, noticing the place “where pictures are lashed / and alarmed,” and “Each frame is a frame and a perspective embedded.” Both of these poets are conscious of the artifice and isolation of the museum atmosphere that surrounds their subject matter, and this awareness allows for an interrogative distance, a means to evaluate and measure the implications of their passionate responses to art. Greger stops to insist, “Can’t you see? There’s something wrong with the eyes.” Bang argues that memory “can’t be hung / on a wall or sung to or sent / under a lens. Can it?” Through this relentless questioning of the poetic capacity for seeing and understanding, through this sensitivity to misinterpretation and error, Bang and Greger reveal the potential for poetry about the visual arts to be much more than borrowed thunder. For both, ekphrasis becomes a vehicle of prolific inquiry and doubt.
BK Fischer was poetry editor at Boston Review. She is the author of St. Rage’s Vault, winner of the 2012 Washington Prize; Mutiny Gallery, winner of the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize; and Museum Mediations, a critical study. She teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.