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Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo
Circling Rivers, circlingrivers.com
Ekphrasis. It’s one of those arcane poetry terms that sounds foreboding, like onomatopoeia, caesura, and the catalectic line–terms that could double as medical disorders or the pharmaceuticals meant to treat them. Ekphrasis is a simple concept, once you get past the cryptic name. It comes from two Greek words: “ek” for “out” and “φράσις” for “speak”. It literally means to speak out vividly on a subject (person, place, thing, or experience), and for the Greeks it was a sort of rhetorical exercise in description. The ekphrastic poem in our day has acquired a more focused meaning: a poetic description of a work of art, not so much literal description as a poem inspired by the artwork. The best ekphrastic poems engage in an interactive and stimulating dance with the object. They emphasize, not merely the look but the object’s essence, or, they can focus on what the object inspires inside the writer. One thinks of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” for instance. The poem’s aim is not really trying to describe faithfully the look of the headless, armless, legless statue (although it does describe it in an evocative way). Rilke is more interested in personifying it, investing it with visionary power and illuminating its impact on the observer: “there is no part that does not see you / you must change your life.” Often a good ekphrastic poem does a double service for the reader. It sheds light on the artwork in a new way (the poet acting as creative visionary) and it touches, knocks, and opens up new semantic possibilities that were only tangential to the art, if they were ever there at all. It’s a bit like jazz improvisation. You take an old standard, unpack its chord chart and riff on it, creating something new and unforeseen in the original.
Ken Pobo’s latest poetry collection is a splashy, 90 page deep dive into the world of ekphrasis. His subjects are primarily late 19th through 20th century paintings: Symbolist, Post-impressionist, Expressionist, and Modernist works, and I think Pobo has felt the influence of the modernists in the style his writing takes on here. He’s long been a master of the short line free verse personal poem; in this collection, he’s let the paintings charge his work with experimental verve and at times, a surreal edginess. The poems are exuberant, filled with daring imaginative leaps. It’s a modernistic side of his work that has always been there, perhaps, but here he’s allowed it to come out and play with abandon. Sometimes he will leap directly from the painter’s work to confessional mode, as in the first lines from “Odilon Redon’s World”:
I stank at geometry–why
learn what makes
a triangle a triangle? My teacher said,
“It will make you logical.”
Not logical, I flunked.
In fact, I’m a failure
except I know a good
zinnia when I see one.
That’s not a small thing!
It’s not until halfway through the poem that Redon makes an appearance, his work offering an associative analogue and validation of the poem’s sentiment.
A lot of the time Pobo picks an oblique jumping off point, coming in from an unexpected angle, following a path of intuition until he collides with the artist’s work, and there the sparks fly. Sometimes, the engagement with the work is more immediate, as in “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” on a painting by de Chirico:
For decades I’ve been the little girl
rolling her hoop down a strange street,
a shadow creeping up. I have a name
for it, Death. Maybe it will overlook me
Many of the poems are about Pobo finding a pathway into the painting in order to identify with the painter’s vision. He sees himself in its figures then hauls the painting’s subject matter into his personal world. Some are more anchored in the subject, as in “The Third of May” after the painting by Goya, which empathically enters into the subject position of the condemned man standing before the firing squad. Others are cast in the mold of surrealist romps that blend identification with dream image and intuition. The poems are capable of revelry and revelation, and moving from poem to poem, you never know what you’re going to get next. It’s a playful, upredictable course, and like modernism, the going is not always easy or obvious. But it is in the jump cuts and curious juxtapositions where the work gets most interesting. My favorites here, it’s probably no surprise, are the poems where I am familiar with the artwork he’s writing about, and it’s fascinating to witness how this poet sees and is impacted by those works.
It is a mark of artistic success when an ekphrastic poem makes you want to see the artwork for yourself. These poems will lead you to the search engines looking for his original sources. This is how Ken Pobo sees art, and you can’t help but wonder, will I see the same things he sees? Yes and no. His is an intense, personal vision. But what he does make you realize is that when you look at art, you CAN and SHOULD see for yourself. Loplop in a Red City is a testament to the power of art’s
ability to inspire.
– J. Esch
– Robinson Jeffers
Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark
of the moon; daylight or moonlight
They could not tell where to spread the net,
unable to see the phosphorescence of the
shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting
Santa Cruz; off New Year’s Point or off
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color
light on the sea’s night-purple; he points,
and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the
gleaming shoal and drifts out her seine-net.
They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great
labor haul it in.
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible,
then, when the crowded fish
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall
to the other of their closing destiny the
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body
sheeted with flame, like a live rocket
A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up
to watch, sighing in the dark; the vast walls
Stand erect to the stars.
Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of
how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how
beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all
into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing,
they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
powers–or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls–or
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it
its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere
splintered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always
that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.