Ekphrastic Poems

Eva's Voice:
Poems in the voice of an imaginary poet,
based on the paintings of Chagall.


In 2003, after seeing  Chagall exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,  I began writing a sequence of ekphrastic poems, "Eva's Voice," in the voice of an imaginary poet, Eva Victoria Perera,  a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki, who survives the Holocaust. I was awarded a sabbatical from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (where I taught at the time) and a Senior Fulbright Scholarship for my project. As a result I was able to spend nineteen months in Greece, from June 2005 to January 2007, working on "Eva's Voice." You can read an essay I wrote about Eva and Marc Chagall,  "How Eva Victoria Perera Learned to Fly with Chagall" in The Drunken Boat. If you scroll to the end of the essay, you’ll find Eva’s bio. In the same issue of Boat, you can also read an essay I wrote about the problem of writing about the Holocaust and other such catastrophes,  "In Defense of a Poetics of Witness."  Here are three ekphrastic poems from "Eva's Voice," "The Blue House, "Day Break on Andros, 1944," and "Red Picnic, 1946," all of which appear as a section in my book  Dr. God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems  (the Sheep Meadow Press, 2009), along with some of the paintings that inspired them.
 
 
 
​​Marc Chagall, "The Blue House"

The Blue House

I can see a long way up here
where the blue house is balanced
on a bluff yellow with late summer
fields that extend to the city.

You can see me, for the door
and the windows are open to air.

I sit in a chair and hold a cup
of tea. Or is that you I see inside
and is that me, running downhill,
away from the house, on the path

lined with hip-high wheat.
Looming larger above me

the closer I come is the jumble
of buildings, a white cross atop
each sky-blue dome, the church
enclosed by Byzantine battlements.

Is that figure below the cathedral,
almost too small to see,

raising an arm toward the city
in joy? Or turning back
to wave goodbye to the house?
Why does the modest cottage

seem so isolated from town?
Why is it painted such a radiant blue?

The wood looks like the glass
of the evil eye, and the planes
aren’t square, but ramshackle.
The foundation is shored up

against the hill, on the brink—
I can see the danger now.

And yet the blue house
invites us to look in, enter,
have a seat and drink
a cup of tea that tastes

too beautiful on the tongue
when you exclaim, “Ah, the view!”

The house was not blue.
My memory painted it
the color of the morning sea.
Look, out there, far from shore,

the fisherman is
disappearing in his orange boat

that floats along a gray smear
of light, marring the sapphire depths.
In the impossible pigment
is the day we have to leave

for good, to find other refuge.
No, the blue house was not

a hue in nature, sea or sky
or a precious stone.
It was a color made
by human hands, like a home.

​​
 
 
​​Marc Chagall, Time is a River without Banks , 1930-1939, oil on canvas, 40 ½ x 32 5/8 in. Collection of Kathleen Kapnick, New York. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris



Daybreak on Andros, 1944

When all at once dogs bark from the cobblestone
labyrinth in my nightmare and donkeys clop,
more burdened than ever, and the roosters panic
with church bells, footsteps, a screaming lamb,

I think, they know who I am, and they’ll take me
             away…
at last, they’ve identified me, however narrowly.

Cerberus howls his unwanted welcome;
the doves grunt with the weary souls
in the underworld.

Then just as suddenly I wake, a taste on my tongue


 
 
 
​​
like something spoiled. The red hibiscus flowering
outside the window spins a second among sunrays,
then stops. A gust of wind.

I’m on the island, safe for now.

I reach for my glasses on the nightstand,
put them on, and the room’s colors shift into focus.
Then I turn my head slowly on the pillow,
almost afraid to reassure myself.

My daughter is asleep, there on the small bed
next to mine, her lips moving a little,
her braid coiled along her neck, her hand resting
on the chest of her doll.

I remember it is Easter Sunday and the scream
I heard was the lamb carried off to be slaughtered.
Today I will celebrate, too, posing as a Christian,
and I will call out with the rest, Christos anesti!
Christ has risen.

We’ve been passed over. I allow
sleep to lay its heavy body on mine
and I sink beneath it for a few more hours,
still and dreamless.

 

 
 
​​ "Marc Chagall, "The Blue House,"
1917; Liozna, near Vitebsk, Belarus

Red Picnic, 1946

We spread our picnic on a red blanket on the beach
and our daughter plays in the shallows where Chagall’s
paintbrush mixes ultramarine with sand.

You hold my hand and I feel my body rising
like a kite above us, above you and me
and our Elefthería’s joyous white splash,

and the red tile roofs of the village grouped
across the hills that embrace the beach.
There are no eyes peering out from the eaves.

There are no houses turned upside down.
There’s the carafe of burgundy on the red blanket
And just a little food. A tomato. An end of bread.

So much beauty, to name it feels almost like peace,
like sorrow to name it, too, as if my words
could save the picture of you smiling at us

or the wine warm in my throat, making my hip
curve upward just like your red grin, or my violet dress
fluttering against my skin like many wings,

or our daughter Elefthería in a ruby bathing suit,
her pale fingers waving from the sea,
the deep paint still shining blue and wet.



​​
 
 
​​Marc Chagall, "Double Portrait with Wine Glass"