In review

Loplop in a Red City by Kenneth Pobo

Circling Rivers,

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

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