Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Over the years I have repeatedly expressed my interest in ekphrastic poetry. I have assigned ekphrastic exercises for my poetry writing students, have written a number of poems inspired by artworks, have edited an anthology of poems responding to the paintings of Charles Burchfield, and have regularly arranged readings of ekphrastic poetry in the appropriate atmosphere of my university’s art museum.

Literary history has long chronicled the connections between poetry and painting, as well as the close relationships poets and painters have often enjoyed. In a recent post to “One Poet’s Notes,” “The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank Dudley” (April 29, 2007), I spoke of similarities I’ve perceived between particular verbal and visual forms of expression, most notably between lyric poetry and landscape or portrait painting.

Ekphrastic poetry usually presents verbal descriptions and interpretations of visual arts. The poem’s images and observations represent the poet’s personal responses to paintings, photography, or works of sculpture, sometimes informed by scenes or events in the artist’s biography. However, the most interesting examples of ekphrastic poetry often move beyond the strict confines of the original artwork’s physical description to more speculative, meditative, and imaginative impressions that extend into innovative offerings only initiated with the piece under study by the poet. In this manner, the poem sometimes becomes stronger by obtaining a certain sense of independence from the source that has inspired its composition.

Whether Keats or Stevens, Shelley or Ashbery, Williams or Walcott, the poet hopes to open the artwork examined for further consideration, engendering internal investigation of one’s emotions. The poem acts almost as a lyrical homage to the original artist though, out of necessity, frequently freely leaving behind the painting’s primary focus or even the artist’s original intent, translating the visual depiction into vivid language and transferring a graphic illustration onto the page in lyrical lines and stanzas. At the same time, the poet knows his or her verbal excursion could constitute an intrusion upon the actual artwork, perhaps even an act of trespassing that might influence others’ experiences when encountering the source, which was created by an artist with his or her own motives or perceptions and obviously without any intention of issuing inspiration for someone’s poem years, decades, or centuries later.

Indeed, the reader must recognize the differences of knowledge and understanding, the evolution of social standards or moral expectations, that helped shape the poet’s consciousness, particularly if hundreds of years have intervened between compositions of the painting and the poem. A reader also needs to acknowledge the many ways in which contemporary viewers’ perceptions of any artwork consequently may be altered by a poet’s cleverly inventive or extremely fanciful rendition.

One commonly encounters a sample or two of ekphrastic poetry in contemporary collections; however, except in anthologies with examples by multiple authors, rarely does one come across an entire volume devoted to the genre by an individual poet. In fact, the construction of a collection of ekphrastic poems could be considered something suspect or a series of artificial exercises, and certainly such a book would serve to test any reader’s trust in the poet, mostly because of the liberties usually undertaken in dealing with the history of an already well-known artwork or famous artist’s life. At the same time, the poet may feel restrained in his or her imaginative explorations, limited by the constraint of remaining faithful to the original art that inspired the poem.

With this in mind, I opened the pages of Michelangelo’s Seizure, Steve Gehrke’s third book of poetry. The volume contains only ekphrastic poems dealing with renowned works or biographical incidents in the lives of some prominent figures from the great art of Western civilization. Many readers will easily recognize the sources for Gehrke’s poems—something which may aid in visualizing the images described, but also a situation of familiarity that makes the task so much more difficult for Gehrke, whose precise words and imaginative variations will be held up, almost as if in competition, against the mental picture envisioned in the reader’s memory.

Nevertheless, upon completing my reading of Michelangelo’s Seizure I concluded Gehrke has produced a sensational album of passionate poems filled with vivid and evocative imagery, every one leaving an original and lasting imprint that should linger in the mind of each reader. The muscular, lush, and lyrical language in this collection exhibits energy and an elegance befitting its subject matter. The lines in these poems are rich with texture and layered like brush strokes of finely applied paint arranged on a large canvas for greatest effect. The substantial and supple style of the writing in the twenty-one poems, packed into this 62-page book, demonstrates ways a poet’s graceful choice of words so successfully try to depict images that they may at times nearly rival those devised by the trained eye of a painter.

The poet impressively opens his collection with a prefatory poem, “Self-Portrait as the Head of Goliath,” a piece immediately challenged by readers’ awareness of Caravaggio’s powerful and haunting David with the Head of Goliath, in which the painter placed an image of his own face on the severed head of Goliath: “he stared / into the spotlight of his face, his head swinging / in David’s hand, like a lantern, / as if it might guide them, fearless, / through the valley of their myth.” To this visage Gehrke contrasts “David’s face, made tender / by the slaying, resurrection light / all along his skin, so that he / could ask with humility, / and for more than himself: of sins, are all our paintings made?” In this fashion, Gehrke raises an intriguing question to be considered throughout the rest of the volume.

At the beginning of the second in the book’s three main sections, Gehrke again returns to Caravaggio and his dominant themes of death and religion with “Death of the Virgin,” and unites the intensity of an incident in the artist’s biography with the scene on the canvas. Alluding to the historical incident of Caravaggio’s stabbing Ranuccio Tomassoni to death, Gehrke writes: “the artist / pinning a corsage of blood onto his chest, / Ranuccio falling, stung, reaching dumbly / for his breast, like the gesture Caravaggio / will give the Virgin’s hand.”

Even if one may be unfamiliar with the original artwork from which an individual poem’s inspiration arises, such understanding is usually unnecessary since the paintings often seem to serve more as starting points from which Gehrke’s imagination moves forward in one unexpected manner after another, frequently speculating on the artists’ mindset or motives, and even once or twice suggesting personal associations with the poet’s own biography. As suggested earlier, such a sense of independence, relying so heavily on a speaker’s voice, only enhances the poetry’s strength.

In “At the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp” Gehrke supplies distinct details mirroring the image in the famous painting by Rembrandt, but suggests an inner influence on the artist derived from a difficult past: “the cadaver’s skin turning slowly into the frozen, // winter-light of memory, the plagued and anemic / village of his childhood, all ice-floe and broken / arteries, a mud-horse breaking an ankle in the slush, // reared back, the death-cart toppled in its wake, / the dull-eyed, naked bodies spilling through the artist’s / mind, the death-flies, the stench.” Before the end of the poem, however, the speaker appears to peer into his own memory and voice a more confidential attitude toward the picture: “like the one scene / I can’t quite imagine from my life, corpse-like beneath / the surgery lights, the doctors masked, slowly breaking // into me, like outlaws gathered around a safe, the tissue / spreaders, the clamps, the dead man’s kidney coiled / atop the surgeon’s hand.” The poet later affirms the power of art to illuminate: “I can’t see any of it / until I see it in Rembrandt’s scene.”

Gehrke presents a similar situation in “Self-Portrait with Doctor,” apparently inspired by Goya’s Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, where the poet once more speculates on the thought process of the painter, as “Goya glimpses / his own face, / a watery self-portrait / that wrinkles through his mind.” But later in the poem the words return to the speaker’s memory of a particular experience with a doctor: “I saw him that morning, / more than a dozen years ago, strung between / my draining tubes as the machine churned / the blood out of me.”

One of Gehrke’s greatest strengths lies in the use of numerous innovative and connotative metaphors or similes throughout the volume, as in the following few examples: “the bones of his wrists like chalice / stems” (“Self-Portrait with Doctor”); “he holds / the brush, not like a baton / to the music of the shore, / not like a scalpel or a key, / not the way a mother holds / a spoon to the child’s mouth, / but almost, yes, like an arrow / he’s withdrawing, with experience / and love, from the chest / of a dying man, so as to let the wound / bleed out” (“Monet Going Blind”); “the moon winding its turban / across the waves, as his father leans down / to check the wrist for life, his mother’s arm turned / over in his hand, like a water-snake twisting / its belly towards the light” (“Magritte in New York”).

With such chains of connections in poems linking one image to the next, Gehrke moves smoothly through details of meditation and memory, almost resembling the odd way he implies an artist’s ingenuity flows forward: “Is this how inspiration works, / he thinks, one image corrupted by the next?” (“Magritte in New York”). During the course of the twenty-one poems in this collection, like a wise and insightful docent, Gehrke guides his visiting readers through a gallery of art and introduces them to an array of great artists: Caravaggio, Goya, Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Magritte, Turner, Seurat, Pollock, and Mapplethorpe, among others.

And, of course, Gehrke portrays Michelangelo with the title poem. In “Michelangelo’s Seizure” the poet describes what tremendous physical and emotional effort the artist must have exerted to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as the straining painter on the scaffold (“clouds / of plaster in his beard”) required the assistance of a boy, who “huffed up / the footbridge to wedge / the handle of a wooden brush / between the mouse-trap of the teeth, / to keep the master from biting off / his tongue.” All the while he painted, “Michelangelo could still hear / the tortured voices on the ceiling / calling out for completion.” Eventually, the pressure becomes so stressful that readers finally witness how “he lifted his fingers to his lips, / to the wasp’s nest of his mouth, / and withdrew, with the ease of spitting / out an apple stem, a tiny splinter / of wood that had sunk into his tongue.”

In commentary explaining his selection of Michelangelo’s Seizure as a publication in The National Poetry Series, T.R. Hummer begins: “Steve Gehrke has delivered up a masterpiece of masterpieces, a book made up entirely of ekphrastic poems which is altogether unsettling, unfamiliar, uncanny, powerful.” These ekphrastic poems do display a stunning poetic perceptiveness. Though often written in elaborately long and expressive sentences, perhaps almost as “operatic” and “bold” as the sultan’s robes in “The Death of Sardanapalus,” their narratives are compact and compelling. Some—such as “Gassed,” the final poem of the volume, written in response to John Singer Sargent’s magnificent World War I painting of the same title—are among the strongest poems of their kind I’ve read in recent books.

The actual Sargent canvas rises seven feet and stretches twenty feet long, and it shows a line of soldiers blinded by mustard gas as they are helped back from the front, led through numerous fellow combatants lying at their feet, some no doubt mortally wounded men, yet awaiting treatment. I became familiar with this artwork decades ago after my grandfather gave me his Purple Heart adorned with its additional oak leaf cluster, signifying the two separate occasions he was wounded in France, once with a bullet through his leg and the other from painful symptoms incurred during an attack of mustard gas.

Gehrke’s descriptive lines evoke the images of Sargent’s painting, but also of the original war scene: “The dying grasp at their pant-legs / as they pass, as they wobble along the duckboards just above / the mud gasping at their feet, the steaming trash heaps / of the dead, the battlefield sloppy as a butcher’s floor, all blood // and aftermath, the dusk-glint of God turning to put his knives away.” However, Gehrke smartly acknowledges the great separation sometimes seen between a work of art and the grave experience it attempts to replicate: “he edits the horror out, no vomit, no severed limbs, / the faces a touch too bright, each man with his hand / on the shoulder of the one in front of him.”

By the close of the poem, Gehrke again makes an apt connection, not only between the artist and his subject matter, but also between the art and the poet writing about it: “he sutures the men back together / with a pencil tip, as he feels them moving through his thoughts / like a line of text, written nearly a century later by a man // with a book of paintings open on his desk, who sits and watches / the rain fall into the empty flowerpots outside his window, / which he can’t help seeing as the upturned helmets of the dead.” With this imagery Steve Gehrke ends his wonderful collection of ekphrastic poetry; however, like the indelible and inspiring images in the many paintings cited by Gehrke, these memorable and poignant poems should also linger somewhat longer—after the poet turns away from his book of paintings and after each reader shuts this volume’s covers—carried forward by everyone who encounters them.

Gehrke, Steve. Michelangelo’s Seizure. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

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