830 Fireplace Road
(Variations on a sentence by Jackson Pollock)
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”
When aware of what I am in my painting, I’m not aware
When I am my painting, I’m not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I’m not painting my I
When painting, I am in what I’m doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I’m not in my painting
When I am of my painting, I’m not aware of when, of what
Of what I’m doing, I am not aware, I’m painting
Of what, when, my, I, painting, in painting
When of, of what, in when, in what, painting
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I’m in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Painting “what” when I am, of when I am, doing, painting.
When painting, I’m not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting.
In Structure & Surprise, Michael Theune has done a tremendous job of assembling reasons why structure—not merely form—should return to a prominent place in our analysis of a poem. But then there is this nagging feeling that something is wrong with the language: the turn is always “in the poem.” There is the vessel of the poem, and the turn is always in the form or in the structure. This rhetoric is presumptive. It asks for the location of the turn but expects that location to reside within the poem. So though we can zoom out on form for the sake of more broadly considering structure, the language we use to discuss this new option remains unchallenged. The rhetoric of poetics that considers the turn is grounded in formalism. It continues to presume that a turn is a feature inherent in a text. This is on page one of the New Criticism playbook: look closely at the structure of the poem and find its meaning self-contained there. This approach to the turn is dismissive of both author’s intention and reader’s response.
The difference between Theune’s position and the typical New Critical position is the idea of surprise. He thinks that surprise is a primary symptom of the turn, and therein lies the seedling of redemption for an otherwise misguided rhetorical move. The turn is located in the poem, but what is the location of the surprise? Surely, the surprise belongs to the reader, and is not self-contained within the poem. So the emphasis on surprise as an indicator of turning points to a reader-response theory of turning. The surprise is in the reader, in the reader’s experience of and feelings about the poem. This doesn’t mean that the turn only exists if the reader feels surprise. Nobody is interested in concluding something as subjective as the notion that all turning is in the eye of beholder of the poem.
But I am interested to slide down this slippery slope a little ways, and there we find ekphrasis. Ekphrastic poems, broadly speaking, are those that engage a specific work of art. I think there is a strong case that all ekphrastic poems constitute a turn because of this engagement with another work. The turn is not in the poem, but the poem is itself representative of the turn that has taken place. The original work of art is the thing toward or upon which the poet turns. So now we are looking over the precipice at the idea that all “responsive” language is a kind of turning, or perhaps worse, all language is a turning because all language is responsive.
Let’s resist this sort of relativity by connecting with a specific example: John Yau’s “830 Fireplace Road.” Yau is a poet and an art critic. This poem engages the painter Jackson Pollock. Specifically, Yau takes a quotation from Pollock’s discussion of his own work and makes a collage out of it, reordering the words a number of times to create a fourteen-lined semi-sonnet. The poem is not a description of a particular painting, nor does it use fresh language—only freshly arranged language—in its treatment of the painter’s quotation. It does not adhere to the strictest definition of ekphrasis, but since we’re interrogating a limit to the turn, it seems advantageous to consider an example that is less traditional.
Yau accepts Pollock’s statement about painting, and then turns it—he tossed the words around to produce fourteen different configurations. This initial moment of acceptance is not something of which all readers are capable. The surprise is Yau’s willingness and ability to be taken in by Pollock’s quotation. The quotation caught Yau; Yau was surprised. So surprise marks not a location in the poem, but a turning of the reader toward the writer. In this case, a turning of the writer toward the artist. It’s not “the author must’ve meant this” or “the reader must’ve found this,” but rather, “the reader looked into the writer this way.” Pollock spoke and Yau was responsive. The gesture of communication from Yau back to Pollock is the turn. The response or the particularity of the poem itself—what is actually communicated in it—is secondary to Yau’s preliminary move of engaging Pollock by means of ekphrasis.
Ekphrasis is, then, a specific chain of responsiveness. The artist made (x); the poet looked into (x); the poet made (y) as a response to (x); the reader looked into (y) and perhaps also went back to look into what (x) was all about. When a reader looks into an ekphrastic poem, there is simply no getting away from the fact that s/he is looking at a poet’s looking. The reader may indeed experience surprise while looking into the poem, but that isn’t the initial moment of surprise. That moment belongs to the poet looking into the artist’s creation. When Yau looks into Pollock’s quotation, it spawns Yau’s poem. The poem is a product of Yau’s ability to find some aspect of his own identity by looking into Pollock’s quotation. Yau’s poem then delivers this identity to the reader, where the reader subsequently finds some aspect of his or her own identity by looking into Yau’s poem. Surprise is the symptom of this moment where one finds some aspect of one’s identity in a work made by someone else.
Product and symptom are used here interchangeably, and with good reason. We can go toward Marx or toward Freud from this point. This chain of responsiveness in ekphrastic poetry, this movement of recognizing oneself by looking into some other thing, goes by many names in the history of philosophy. Hegel called it the master-slave dialectic. Lacan called it the mirror stage. Althusser called it interpellation, or hailing. More recently and perhaps most usefully, Barthes called it the punctum. In Camera Lucida, he treats photography quite the same as I’ve just treated ekphrastic poetry (trans. Richard Howard; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981—what I wouldn’t give to be able to read the original French).
Here is our turn toward engaging the work: “In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation” (20). Here is our surprise at finding some aspect of our identity when looking into the work: “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27). Here is our effort to spawn a poem in response: “What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance” (51). So here is our rather lovely new understanding of ekphrasis: “Henceforth I would have to consent to combine two voices: the voice of banality (to say what everyone sees and knows) and the voice of singularity (to replenish such banality with all the élan of an emotion which belonged only to myself)” (76).
It’s one thing to describe how Yau’s “830 Fireplace Road” asserts a new kind of turn—one that is not located in the ekphrastic poem but instead in its author, who is turning toward the art object. But I haven’t yet said anything about what is indeed in this poem. This is where the Barthesian combination of banal voice and singular voice is most useful. The Pollock quotation is “what everyone sees and knows.” Yau does not even find it worth description. He does not attempt to render it into some other words, or paraphrase it in any fashion. He straightforwardly reports it as the first line of the poem. There’s the banality. Pollock’s little nugget stands alone, but it pierces Yau to the point where he is compelled to generate thirteen more lines on behalf of whatever it revealed to him. There’s the singularity, present in Yau’s meditation via this barely comprehensible rearrangement of Pollock’s words. A bit more Barthes for this moment: “If my efforts are painful, if I am anguished, it is because sometimes I get closer, I am burning: in a certain photograph I believe I perceive the lineaments of truth” (100).
Here’s the really sick part. Yau’s first line is Pollock’s direct quote, but look at Yau’s added emphasis: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.” I began by obsessively italicizing in for a reason. When Pollock is in his painting, he’s not aware. No room for surprise in the painting, or photograph, or poem. When we feel that punctum while reading a poem, that surprise of connection to a writer, we say that we are getting into the writer. The turn is not in the ekphrastic poem; the poem pierces us, and we are leaning into the turn.
Megan Volpert is a poet and critic who lives in Atlanta, where she teaches high school English. She has an MFA from LSU. Her fourth book is Sonics in Warholia (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011). She is currently editing an anthology on queer pedagogy. Predictably, meganvolpert.com is her website.
John Yau, “830 Fireplace Road,” from Borrowed Love Poems. Copyright © by John Yau. Reprinted with permission of the author.