Alan Catlin: Aspects of Ekphrastic Poetry
a personal history

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Self Annihilation with Shopping Bag Ladies

Chorus line shopping bag ladies,      
lined up for the underground,

catching subways on the hot
El tracks, humming strange lines

from Ravel, waving goodbye to
la dolce vita, carrying all

they own wrapped in special
sections of the New York Times,

safely tucked under broken arms,
grabbing all the gusto they can,

 as it comes, in a rush, head on

First there is the image.

I looked through the notebook where I keep track of these things and found the first poem I published that could be described as adhering to the ekphrastic model.  That is a poem written to, or responding to, a form of art.  The piece in question was published in the 70’s, long before anyone was writing about ekphrastic poetry as a subject or as a discipline. 

The art in question is a piece you won’t find online, or anywhere else, as it is one from a show by a former co-worker in the restaurant business. As I have long ago lost track of her, I can’t reproduce the image. I think, though,  the poem conveys the sense of it: three, disreputable, haglike characters; a Schiele/Bacon like parody of consumers on a subway platform in the City, laden with bags but looking more like the three witches from Macbeth than something out of a fashion shoot for the New Yorker.

Coincidentally, the second ekphrastic poem I published was “Three Weird Sisters” from the same show.  The subject of the canvas extends the witch like appearances and nature of the subjects, the title is Susan’s, making on overt reference to Macbeth. 

Three Weird Sisters

Are overdressed, wearing
six layers of clothing
one for each season,
all smelling cheap and used
like some back alley cats rut in.....

The setting remains contemporary, as do the woman, in an odd way, but the deeper impression is of something, some ones, out of time or unstuck in time, as Vonnegut might say, propelled into our consciousness as omens.  This is modern life for the artist and the poet sees it.  My response was visceral, tries to convey the motivation of the artist, and produce a response  that renders the subject for the reader as the painting does for the viewer.  Unconsciously, in these poems,  I had articulated my sense of what ekphrastic poetry should be.  In fact, most of the poems in this long out of print chapbook, are in one way or another, ekphrastic (Self Annihilation with Shopping Bag Ladies  from UBP). 

One of the earliest ekphrastic type poems I wrote was a response to an image by Diane Arbus. You know the photo: the one where the geeky kid in Central Park is holding a toy hand grenade, with an indefinable expression on his face that seems at first glance as somewhere between menace and malice of forethought.  Further viewing creates a more precise understanding of the expression as a kind of unrestrained glee: it is a day in the park and the hand grenade is a toy, after all. Still, as Arbus is wont to do, there is an edge of terror to the photo. It is unforgettable but my poem is lost. What remains for me is the image of the child and an attempt to capture the contrast between situation and subject, to provide a context. We are not going to be blown up, not really , but the genius is in the feeling that we could be. 

Looking back I see that framing photographs or objects framed in a painting where the ordering principle behind a long, autobiographical series of poems called Still Life. These poems all had the sense of being photos, frozen in time, when each merely chooses a moment from a larger context and makes it still, then animates the image through the poem.

A Summer Evening Still Life with Hand Grenade,              
Utica, N.Y. 1970                                              

The sun sets on the hunched backs of the men
drinking coffee at the White Tower sandwich
bar, unfiltered cigarettes burn in the gilded
metal ash trays, fried eggs roll over easy on
the hot griddle and the bacon pops, fast
cooking in the still, hot air.  All summer long
days end on the edges of a vinyl stool, chins
leaning on worn hands, elbows tarnishing the speckled
countertops. Through the grimy picture windows,
the watching could see the cars lining up in rows,
parking against the bar and grill wall, the drivers
getting out, stepping inside, where the local favorites
trade ethnic jokes and lies over Utica Club draft beer,
smoking short cigars, chewing cheese fish and pretzel
nubs; the one who leaves early with less than half a
bag on was better off inside, strong arming a client in
the men's room, outside, his car door has been
hotwired, he is an unsolvable murder about to
happen, touching the handle he triggers an explosion
no one sees exactly as it was.  Inside the bar,
the drinkers are lighting new cigars, watching
the game behind the bar, fresh poured beers losing
their heads on the wood.

As we have introduced the image of the hand grenade in the Arbus poem, I extend the image to an actual incident that occurred while I was, living in Utica, NY.  I did not witness, did not “see”, the actual incident, but I heard the explosion not far from where I was sitting on the front steps of the Olbiston on Genesee Street. 

The papers reported it, and a poet friend of mine, who lived nearby also, many years later affirmed my recollection.  Yes, it happened this way, more or less.  I like to think of this as an extension of the ekphrastic poetry, a writing from life, an art work of the mind framed the way a painting or a photo would be.

Power Failure Albany Ramada Inn Silo Still Life, Summer 1973

First the power fails and there is no
air conditioning, no lights, no music for
the wedding squeezed inside the main
dining room, sweating in their tuxedos and
suits, long wilted dresses losing their press
long past high noon in August.  Outside the
hotel kitchen door they are cooking 210 Cornish
hens wrapped in aluminum foil over a makeshift
grill, poking the black mounds of charcoal
turning white with the pointed ends of aluminum
beach umbrella poles.  Inside, lounge patrons
stand, hushed, looking down where he who has
fallen lies, turning blue, outside, on the brick
front steps, others stand, checking their watches,
waiting, watching the late afternoon traffic on
Western Avenue.

I was not a lounge patron, but I was working in the Ramada Inn Silo in the capacity as barman/ night manager, when the man in the poem dropped dead at my feet. It was the first time that happened to me but it wouldn’t be the last. 

None of the phones worked, this was 1973  after all, so I ran across the street to Hannon’s Drug Store and used their pay phone to call the authorities. They took forever to get there, as they always did to that address, as the building lies in a black hole between two emergency response districts: the town of Guilderland and the City of Albany.  Not that it mattered, really.  This is how I remembered the incident, a decade or so later. It remains as vivid to me as a photograph.

One last from a Still Life,

Dead Black Child with a Bicycle Before the Underpass

In the distance, the overweight woman is
running, waving her arms in the air, no one
can hear her desperation, the wailing, the
hysterical cries, up the road, the small ones
are riding their two wheelers as fast as they
can, rumps high in the air, excited eyes, wide,
fearful.  Overhead, cars are crossing the overpass,
are cresting the sloping humps of a Sunrise
Highway, shooting down the Merrick Road spur
where the Sunrise Bowl flashing neon sign is
missing an R, is missing an L.  Down below,
by the side of the road, is the bent frame of
the bicycle and the dead one lying as if asleep,
his white eyes open, staring up into a cloudless sky.

The poem is like an art form. There was no one there to memorialize the event with a photograph or a drawing, so I did with a poem, as best as I could: a title, as still life, an animated snap shot out of time, the stillness as inert and lifeless as the images in the dead child’s eyes.

While I was mining my memory for images from my past, I was simultaneously engaged in an even longer, more complex (emotionally anyway) project that falls under the heading The Haunting. These are poems that depict my relationship with a schizophrenic mother, a  relationship that ranges from fraught to the horrific. The discomfort these poems, many surrealistic,  and outrageously “over the top”, are pretty much accurate recreations of her world view and states of mind.  Trying to recreate that state of mind, to enter into the world with total empathy and involvement, was a tortuous exercise that threatened my own mental health.     

Occasionally repressed memories appeared.  This from the award winning chapbook, Visiting Day on the Psychiatric Ward, once a visitor always a visitor,

Mixed Undifferentiated Schizophrenic Motion Picture Reviews

Sitting by a projector,  endless reels of harmless
movies:  Frances the Talking Mule in a dark
recreation room.  Hidden symbols are revealed:
the mule represents a delegation from other
inner worlds, an individual of the self,
the undead wishing to be heard: the power of speech
must be imparted to sacred birds, domestic pets,
inanimate objects; light bulbs contain filaments
of reason; construct metal cages, traps, truth
restrained and revealed, you can eat celluloid
and be redeemed: it has been written the God
of the Dead is a Mule

This poem appeared, unbidden, exactly as it is on the page, unedited, as most of the original poems in the collection did. Here is a child, who was seven year’s old, visiting his mother on the ward of a mental institution where she was staying. The people inside are watching a Francis the Talking Mule picture and he gradually realizes the people in this closed , darkened room, actually believed the mule could talk.  That this otherworldly being (the mule) was conveying secret messages they alone could hear.  That is the kind of understanding, even as a sense, that could seriously fuck a person up. 

I have questioned the wisdom of family members, especially children visiting an afflicted parent in a place such as this one, but all the people in charge remained convinced it was the proper thing to do.  Even years later, this conviction remained unchanged, when the parent was involuntarily detained for trying to strangle her mother, and a large part of her overall mental condition was an uncontrollable urge to do harm to the people closest to her.  But that’s not ekphrastic, though I feel the poem has a special edge to it something you might see in a Bacon painting of a slaughter house.

One more repressed memory realized, from my book Self-Portrait as the Artist Afraid of His Self-Portrait, one that takes place before the first voluntary detention at Pilgrim State at the Club Comanche in Christiansted, the Virgin Islands,

A Formerly Repressed Self Portrait:
Views from the Deep End

Not a flat Hockney reflective surface
lacking the implication, the prescient
depth, but a dispersing mass, a sunken
polished hole, yellowed by a chlorinated
liquid warmth, that sleep inducing,
body embracing, pooling water perpetually
motioning, kept moving by jetting streams,
forced tides the stinging eyes briefly
apprehend as the body languidly sinks,
slowly dropping down the layered rills,
silence deafening once the stunned open
mouth lets in what cannot be breathed;
O the peace of it, the eggshell painted
shimmering coffin walls, the bent rippling
of far away light, this gentle coasting down,
blacking out, the bliss of the quietus that                  
comes at consciousness end, the swell's
seductive caressing, lulling, final dreams
and afterward, how nothing ever feels
so right again.

After many years of narrative poetry writing about life in bars, seemingly endless sequences of black humor, ordinary madness, and heightened by metaphor realism, these poems gradually tipping over into surrealistic episodes based on fact but mostly completely made up.  One example would be the series of infamous bar recipe poems (poems where the people in them are directly related, in some way, to an alcoholic drink that became more and more toxic, as they were unlikely) a change was needed. The whole bar scene writing process began to feel redundant.

A subject that appealed to me, the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe began to creep into my work.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Hands

Hands resting on
dark fabric

Hands with other

at an easel

Hands with an
animal skull

Hands disembodied
existing only

for themselves

Hands cradling rounded

or cupped for
holding water

A lover's hands
a friend's

an artist's hands

these hands

that hold the light in
that let the darkness go

While, I was still primarily concerned with an expanding sense of the possibilities for making statements about life, society and even politics through the medium of a bar.  The setting may appear mundane but the life lent itself to a larger context and implicit commentary.  Gradually that would evolve into Alien Nation.

Perhaps, it was deaths in the family, personal tragedies that needed explication in a metaphorical way, or maybe just a desire to totally, literally, change the narrative, I began a series of poems on classical Art. Part of the new direction was impelled by following Turner around England. These poems were short, concise, suffused with color and light, more Impressionistic than Expressionistic. The closures were closely related to a Japanese forms of poetry such as the haiku. If there was any drama to them, it was implied, or drawn directly from the Art.  No that Turner is lacking in drama but, I was drawn to his minimal work, the watercolors he did of Venice in the Tate Modern for instance. This lead to Whistler and Manet and their English subjects, which would eventually lead back to Turner on a broader scale.  In order to turn inward, Turner looks outward, the drama of storm, the light in the distance, the fading colors becoming black, all colors present but in darkness.

The Sun of Venice Going to Sea (1843)
after Turner

as radiant

light; a

a merger
of pure white

& sun; a

a cleansing
wash, fluid

as music

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: The Falling Rocket (no 50)
after J. M. Whistler

Nightsky alive
with colored

showering  the white
light and the gold

What was once
propelled  free

falling now;

crowding in

Houses of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog 1904
after Claude Monet

Epileptic light
fits a dark

shaking glove
over the bent

towers of night;
a suffocating waft

of fog envelops
the fading-fast

pied beauty;
the sun's

last engorgement,
heatdeath in

the afternoon

These poems were deliberately meditative. A searching for a poems that lie within the frame the picture is contained by. Add fog and the image deepens and becomes less clear and more uncertain. Except when it doesn’t.  It all depends upon the reader/ the viewer. A trick of the mind.

Still, there comes a point in the composition of new work, where the mediation has reached the stage where a new avenue must be explored. The devil inside the machine cannot resist the temptation to make stuff up,

Thunderstorm with Fireworks
in the manner of Turner

A web of
drifting colors

temporarily exposed
against a drift

of fresh blackened
canvas,   white

jagged bones
slicing hidden

seams, scooping
the heat out

of night;
a frenzy of

wind chimes
the only sound

Still Life with Snowstorm
in the manner of Turner

Carved into
darkness,  as

seen through
a funneling

swirl of wet
snow,  of grey

flake tips & the white;
a fading yellow


Note the poems are no longer after Turner but in the manner of Turner.  There are no Turner’s with these particular subjects as such, to my knowledge, not that I have seen at any rate, but there could have been.  No one noticed the change in the heading so I must assume the technique works. 

Which leads to the ever popular series of poems based on non-existent photos (not to be confused with poems written to titles that should be poems. I like to think these are examples of stretching the imitations of the form.  Why should Any form have limitations?  Why can’t someone write poems based on an art form that exists in your head and make it real by giving it life in a poem? John Yau deserves the lion’s share of the blame for inspiring these poems as he is the one who provided the titles, and the initial idea, in one of his poems.)

Poem Based on a Non-Existent Photograph

The race track crowd remains hushed
at the railing, some leaning over near
the finish line to see what happens next,
others turning away knowing the inevitable
result, not caring to see as the surface is re-graded,
horse hoof divots smoothed away, raked-
over except for the largest ones near where
the carrier van is backing up, where a
temporary white screen is being unfolded,
while the odds on the electric tote board
remain fixed, win, place and show spaces
blank, no monetary value affixed, all in
suspension, all awaiting the single pistol shot
that will not signify the start of another
high stakes race.

Poem Based on a Non-Existent Photograph

The passing by older woman, clutching her handbag
to her chest with both gloved hands seems more
horrified than amazed at the sight of the gaunt
woman who has just gone by, hopping on her left
leg, worn polyester outerwear stained about the cuffs
of the ambulatory leg, the other held straight back behind,
foot encased in a tattered moccasin, unmatched with
the other, encased as it is in a more sensible for hopping, shoe;
winter jacket just below the waist fake fur, formerly
white neck now gray, her hair streaked tri-colorings:
gray, and white and nicotine yellow, all her vital
personal possessions contained within three layers of over-
the-shoulder denim bags in lieu of a purse, oblivious
to any onlookers, dressed for church or shopping, as
the one nearby her is, staring in the wake of mad woman
hopping, unsure whether to speak, cry out, or to run.

Of course, an idea such as this one should not be confined to actual non-existent photos that were conjured up from inside, some based on actual memories, though most, not so. Why not extend the series a step further and create non-existent photographs in the manner of famous photographers?

Non-Existent Photograph in the Manner of Louis Hine

The man of indeterminate age is
dressed in Good Will castoffs,
his lazy right eye rolling about
in the damaged-by-fire socket
The left one is fused in place,
focused on something always just above
or just beyond, a level place.
He is leaning on a rude crutch made
from tree limbs, padded where wood
meets crotch with soiled & tattered rags,
his pant leg rolled up to well above the knee,
knotted, tied off as a tourniquet would be.
His right arm missing as well, shirt
adjusted to accommodate what remains:
a hand painted sign in black that says:
WOUNDED, a bent & dented tarnished
cup before him soliciting pity tips
he needs to live on.

Non-Existent Photograph in the Manner of Brassai

In the gas-lit village, all the faces
are painted white, greasepaint for
unspeakable people, unnatural acts.
Stumbling down slick wet cobblestones
arm in arm, the half-dead and the naked
along with the might-as-well-be dead,
impelled by an inner music provided by
a hopped-up jazz band improvising
never heard before notes. They are
sight reading sheet music for the deaf
and the blind who they lead into dead
ending alleyways, covered storm sewers,
all the night shelter/haunts of the improvident,
those that wish to be and those that are.
All those rented by the hour-bodies
and bed, the above ground and below,
poster people for a village of the damned,
their unnaturally wide eyes effecting
a sinister glow at where the candles
burn down from both ends,  meeting at
the middle. that's where you'll find them,
these night people rising from the ashes,
their lips still on fire.

It is only a few steps beyond to the concept that became the working title behind three and half years of working on poems from art. But first a statement must be made, one based on the work of Don McCullin (If you’ve seen Blow Up you’ll know his work. The photo series David Hemmings shows his publisher are all McCullin’s. And the first guy he shoots coming out of that factory is Julio Cortazar, for those of you who like deep context).

This Is Not Art
: an assemblage

“The Americans call photography an art.  They have
galleries, institutions, exhibitions. But what I’m doing
is not art.”  Don McCullin

Cholera victim. Eyes rolled back into her head.
Cradled in arms of her husband as an offering to

Shabby woman of no particular age.  Standing in
her, three-rungs-below-hell, dwelling.  “Rats the
size of cats,” her son says. Whoring is a way of
life here.  You have to eat.  So do the boy with no-future

An American soldier in Hue city. During the offensive.
Throwing a grenade amid the ruins toward an unseen
enemy.  Seconds before his arm is blown off
by a sniper’s bullet.  Before another soldier takes his
place. Throws a grenade. Is shot. Before another
man is ordered forward.

Three heavily armed, cocky young American soldiers
in South East Asia.  Their captive forced to his
knees, arms trussed behind his back, rope around his
neck like a leash. Eyes blindfolded with a dirty once-
white rag.  The village behind them about to burn.

Three blind black women fast walking in bare
feet past heavily armed guerrilla force on the last
days of the Smith regime in Rhodesia.

American army chaplain lifting an confused, dazed old
woman from bombing raid rubble.

A face only portrait of a starving boy in Biafra.

The ordered and the disordered.


This is ekphrastic poetry as political statement. The content in these poems can make your art burn, all found in a photo essay in a long ago back issue of Granta.  Art, and writing about Art becomes a collage in a very real sense. An interaction between the artist and the writer that eventually engages a third participant, the reader.

What is Extreme Art? Originally, this was title for an exhibit at the Memorial Art gallery in Rochester. All the materials used were what you would call non-traditional objects for creating art. By non-traditional I mean: blood samples, crack baggies, discarded pills, twist ties, garden hose and so on. Nothing was out of bounds. Anything that could be made utilitarian was.  One art exhibit created a whole new way of framing and seeing art.  The challenge because finding the purpose behind the finished product. The crack baggies became a map of neighborhoods in Philadelphian color coded by the area.  The pills were combined with hemp, blood whatever to from a statement about Gravity’s Rainbow, corny statues of Elvis, hula girls and dangling dashboard jesus’ became part of a statement about kitsch, in a mindboggling display of consumer overreach, when attached to a large finned, fifties caddy. Yes, this was real Art and it blew my mind.   No haikus lurking here

Extreme Art

Lampshades made from junk
mail, planters, pots, clock facings
and vases; a neighborhood map
made from multi-colored crack
baggies found in the gutters and
on sidewalks of those same streets;
a gaping yaw, a lair, made of twist
ties and garden hoses; a floor to
ceiling mural made if duck sauce
packets; decorative paisleys fashioned
from blood, gold leaf, resin and clay
on wood; an allergy series made
of contents of vacuum bags and poly-
urethane; a human skull like a death
mask from dried orange peels and
prominently stitched with waxed linen
threads; the world at war, Gravity’s
Rainbow in paper collage, pills, hemp
leaves, acrylic and resin on wood;
chaos revealed, contained, mechanical
as prosthesis, artificial limbs, hooded
ornaments appended to pink Caddy
fins, every available inch taken by:
ceramic Elvii, plastic Jesuses, Marys,
Josephs, God the Holy Father and
The Holy Ghost; images from killing
fields captured in china plates their
shadow images calling to us, calling
from the other side to save them but
we never will.

It was as if I had fallen down a rabbit’s hole and landed on the wrong side of a mirror in through the looking glass (there were  convex mirrors in the exhibit too but that’s another story). And everything you would see after that would be completely altered. It was like checking into the Plaza back in the days before it was trumped and waking up in the Chelsea with one of the girls (alas no Warhol’s here but , in a way, he is responsible for this kind of work given all the barriers he broke down, on purpose or, unintentionally.)

Anxiety, Guilt, Depression in oil 1991
            after Mary Woronov

“Some stumble here by accident, shaking on
adrenaline, but he came here out of curiosity,
and now like a criminal he came back all
the time for kicks.”

                                    This is what couples look like
inside the nearly-darkened rooms
inside Hopper’s mind: couples
making love, coiled about each
other, almost inert with exhaustion
and the heat, even the overhead
fan blades stifled, still as the blinding
yellow heat beyond the bent veranda
or locked against each other,  painfully
struggling against a Tantric sex
positioning; cigarettes burning in
cheap ashtrays, desk lamps angled
over the windup travel alarm clock
emphasizing the time way past
midnight remains for fucking,
their skins tainted by so much rubbing
is off-colored as if diseased, an open
door sprung open by the dark or
maybe they represent the last humans
after some unnamed conflagration
struggling to mate in no man’s land,
their bodies bent beneath barbed wire,
their coupling a desperate hanging on
just this side of a collapsing trench,
just beneath the mustard colored gas
that stains the last remains of savaged

But it was Tomaselli that really affected me because not only were there the wild materials involved, the conception of the work but another dimension entirely, the literary associations involved with the ultimate Post Modern book this side of Infinite Jest:

Gravity’s Rainbow: Paper Collage with Pills, Hemp Leaves,
Acrylic and Resin on Wood”
after red Tomaselli

Gravity’s Rainbow as extreme Art,
a hybrid form combining found objects,
over-the-counter medicinal, antacid wafers,
dissolvable capsules, antihistamines, low
dosage aspirins, the enteric brand and the regular,
all strung as helix amid drooping plastics,
necklaces and furbelows, the ornamental
and the functional, an almost tapestry,
tableau of modern life, of lost and found
Art , affixed on a  field of black, the universal
and the particular, random designing, scars,
the wounded back drop, the sky.

How’s that for sub-context?                    

“I have been thinking about how stories surround artwork,
and how artists work in narrative form, a storyboard, a novel,
a serial novel.  What is a story surrounding the artwork?
Where does the viewer enter the story?  Had the action already
come to pass or is the viewer a character in the story? Have you
ever looked at art and thought why did they make that, or how
in some contemporary art the artist is completely removed from
the artwork as if the hand of the artist doesn’t exist anymore
and that the artwork appeared on its own, willed into existence
by machine? I yearn for narrative and for connection between
art and artist and viewer.”  Mark Housley

I yearn for that connection as well.

Which is how I came to focus on responding to photographs with vivid and particular historic content. Some like the unforgettable “Requiem, which I viewed shortly since 9-11 focused on photographs taken by photographers killed in the Vietnam war.  This is one only two exhibits I have ever attended, that one,  and of  Roman Vishniac’s work chronicling the doomed Jews of Warsaw in the ghetto. Both have profoundly moved me, affected my thinking about art and life.

More recently, I was focused on socially conscious artists such as Mary Ellen Mark whose final book was retrospective study of a street walker named Tiny, twenty years after she a frail, little girl in her middle teens, now a grown women with a multitude of children, after having a multitude of men.  She is now bloated and huge, but, she loves her children. The documentary that explored the neighborhood and the street hustlers of Seattle, was nominated for an Oscar.  It is rude and rough and decidedly not slick, none of the traits good movies are supposed to have, but it too is unforgettable. The poems I wrote about these people can be found in my book American Odyssey, . 

Other influences included the aforementioned Diane Arbus but is not the freaks that interests me now but, the final book, Untitled, about her visit to a home for Down’s Syndrome adults. I believe she must have realized her fascination with freaks was mostly an extension of herself, of whatever inner torments she was suffering, which in itself was kind of freakdom. The innocent, the childlike nature of these people particularly their assembling on the lawn in full Halloween costumes, must have been a revelation for Arbus. She abandoned this project after developing the photos and not too long after, killed herself.

Lately, I have been fascinated by the historical portrait taken by the German photographer August Sander. His ambition was to create a record of the German people in photographs, of all of the people, warts and all. This was a project that was doomed to fail given the political realities that spawned two world wars. He was lucky to survive  himself even if much of his work was destroyed by the Nazis. 

His photographs combine the historical record of the time, have a sociological content of Mark’s work, and commentary on the subjects, all by inference. No other artist in this  field, to my knowledge, has so completely bridged that gap and remained aloof from commentary The photos of burghers, factory owners, middle class gentleman and the like, are the Nazis of the 30’s; only the uniforms have changed.  Here is the narrative that Housley is looking for in his art: it is up to us, the viewers to see it.

Farming Couple-Prosperity and Harmony 1912

Here a portrait that could be
seen as a German Gothic
subtitled: The Unhappy Subservience
of Women.

A Good Lutheran wife and mother
who does her duty by her man
no matter how unpleasant
the task may be.

Seen here, reluctantly dressed
in Sunday best: all in black
as if the photographer
was stealing their souls
and selling them to
Satan for future considerations.

Working Class Country Children 1914

There is something curious,
something not quite right
with these children.

The two boys dressed in
their Sunday best, heads
shaved to the nubs like
junior Kafka’s before
the metamorphosis or
after the kinder-transports.

The girls are not exactly stunted
but have eyes that are too far part
to be normal, seem unusually intense,
are the kind of growing curiosities
that would be out of place
in a Borges bestiary.

There is a kind of native
intelligence in all these
children’s eyes. The kind
that is harmless now
but in adults, unspeakable.

Laboratory Technician 1938

The shooter must have been determined
to pose as a man wearing a lab coat
over an expensive, well-made suit,
intently watching a liquid pour from
one test tube to another, a pose that
is already a cliché long before all those
mad scientist feature films- only the
bubbling, smoking, retorts missing.
We fill in all the necessary missing details:
the Bunsen burner flames, cheesy
electrode lamps emanating electrical
charges/ death rays in dank cellar house
of horrors where the only weather is
a thunderstorm. A scientist uncaged  is
a rare thing in the Third Reich with all
the camp hospital and rocket science
to work on.  Any man with a scalpel is
as recognizable as the Devil, has a multitude
of unwilling subjects and captive audiences
to view what evil he has wrought.
Years later he will be remembered, in open
courts, as special kind of monster,
one where hanging is not enough
of a punishment but will have to do
unless there is another world he can
be tormented in.

On a more ephemeral level, I conceived a whole series of poems that I can safely say were frivolous in nature.  I thought if do we have to confine ourselves to serious art? Must all of our responses be of the “Alas poor Yorick!” school of high minded thinking and deep intent?  I answered with a  resounding “No, it does not.”

One of our sons gave me a few packs of collectible cards as stocking stuffers one Christmas.  These cards (aptly named Super Awesome!)were a series of images, improbably, unrelated, campy, at best, and apparently selected by someone on mind altering drugs or completely at random.  You choose which one.

Themes ranged from a head of Frankenstein’s Monster, smoking monkeys, Roadside attractions, Unicorns, flea circuses, bacon, to gravy ,and just about anything in between.  If you are of certain frame of mind, you can see them as representative of the age you grew up (the 50’s and the 60’s) where tastes were decidedly pedestrian and popular culture plastic , at best. Tupperware anyone?  (No that was not a card  though it should have been, maybe is, I don’t have them all)  Besides the obvious comic nature of these cards as prompts. I saw a possibility that they could be sued for satirical expressions if the proper deadpan delivery was used. Think Buster Keaton in Beckett’s “Film”.

Smoking Monkeys

I wonder if Bonzo, Ronald Reagan’s
trained monkey pal, smoked?  Wouldn’t
be surprised. Old Ronnie used to advertise
cigarettes, Chesterfield shorts, if I’m
not mistaken.  20 Mule Train Borax
too. He made a mint on both the small
screen and the large one. Later, when he
grew up, he became president and confused
history, foreign policy and politics,
with all the Grade B movies he made.
And all those propaganda/training
films he starred in during WWII.
No one could convince him the movies
weren’t the real thing. What a guy!

Flea Circus

If fleas were not part of a sideshow,
as they surely are in any self-respecting
traveling circus sideshow, what else would
they do with their specialized talents?
I mean, work must be at a premium and
the skills difficult to obtain, so we should
respect, and pay homage, to these little critters.
and their handlers. Be sure not to miss them
the next time the circus is in town: follow
the Great Wall  of China to the end,
turn left at the Hunger Artist, cruise past
the Human Cockroach (go ahead sneak a peek,
we know you’re dying to see ), cruise past
the hopping jackalopes and the Before the Law
Biergarten and you’ll find the flea circus there. 
Where else would you expect it to be?

For me, Ekphrastic poetry, like art, is in the eye of the beholder, is what you want it to be.