neil ellman

Each of the following poems is ekphrastic and based on a work of modern art;
and in each case, the title of the poem is also that of the original image,
available for reference here.

A Flower Performs
(after the gouache by Paul Klee)

A flower performs a miracle
of creation a birth
a simple seed transformed
into a tulip or a rose
hyacinth or peony
from so little
like a star
a universe is born
from a single cell
species and races
multitudes evolve
more numerous
more multiplex
than they could ever be
without the guiding light
of a mothering sun.


Equals infinity
(after the oil painting by Paul Klee)

Infinity = infinity = ∞
nothing more, nothing less
the sum of all possibilities
the division of everything
into its equal parts
the rose into an infinite rose
the blue sky amaranthine blue
the image of a god
to its divinity among the stars
infinite and/of itself
infinity equals what we can’t know
or ever know the shape of it
a gathering storm
now & forever
as a question mark.


Actor’s Mask
(after the oil painting by Paul Klee)

There is nothing written on the actor’s face
only what the playwright wrote
expressionless a mask worn to speak
the director’s will
of how the role should play.

Behind the mask a person unfulfilled
pretending to be a king or slave
like a puppet on a string
a ghost alive somehow something other
than the measure of its life
and the soul that broods beneath.

An actor’s life behind an opaque mask
doing whatever the script demands
guided by invisible gods and hands.


(after the paste painting by Paul Klee)

How I have been
intoxicated with your lips
my bourbon girl so soft
sliding on my tongue
drunk with the taste
of your heart soul
not caring that I will be
limp hung over
in the morning
rid of you.


Order and Chaos II
(after the lithograph by M.C. Escher)

Just as all colors
are contained in white
all of existence
all of every thought
all directions
on an improbable map
the past, the present
and futures too numerous
to count
every syllable
of every word
in every sentence
ever written
spoken or heard
every string
of creation
Is bound in the order
and chaos of a mind.


(after the lithograph by M.C. Escher)

As if the world
the entirety of the universe
were a tessellated house
in a tessellated dream
in a tessellated sleep
in a tessellated life
where the ghosts
of past inhabitants
and future avatars
climb the walls and stairs
like spiders
without a sense
of direction or fate
not knowing
whichever way to go
but up
forever up.


Another World
(after the lithograph by M.C. Escher)

In any other world
but this
one plus one
would always be
the same
and the sky filled
with stars
not the flotsam
and jetsam
of lives once lived
as if alive
and we would be
but never here.


(after the lithograph by M.C. Escher)

No murmuration of our kind
without the freedom to fly
wherever we will
no charm of finches
no pitying turtle-doves
no parliament of owls
no murder of crows
we are free of migration
and our individual names
to live another day
liberated to die alone.


Fifty Days at Iliam: The Shield of Achilles
(after the painting by Cy Twombly)

It is told around campfires
in the holds of wooden ships
in the chambers of kings and queens
and by the gods themselves
how Achilles raised his shield
while heaven and earth stood still
to contemplate their fall.

In its telling it was like the sun
inscribed with the prophecy
of its demise
the end of heroes
and the beginning of myth.

After fifty days at Iliam
in its calligraphy
with Hector dead
a world died, too,
and another was born.


The Child Carburetor
(after the painting by Francis Picabia)

My carburetor child was born
of a metal machine
and the flesh of my loins
combusted of the air and fuel
that made its eyes so wide
his skin so firm
and makes the world go round.

What a beautiful child it is
unlike its cuckolded father
and me, a mother with a taste
for love of another kind.

How its muffled, burbling sounds
like a child’s incessant cries
in the middle of the night
remind me of that time
when the rubber met the road.

How proud I am
of its efficiency and drive
such a lovely child
no prodigy, perhaps,
but my first
and the first one of its kind.


Never, Never, Land
(after the painting by Futura 2000)

In a land of nevers
trees grow wherever they want
and nighthawks fly by the light of day
rulers promise priests portend
(as if they ever could)
the coming of ever if ever it will
just another place
to the south of never or when
where impossible creatures
roam improbable plains
hear mountains as high as the grass
a valley only an hour or two away
just around the corner
if it ever was.


Miracles of Each Moment
(after the painting by Kazuaki Tanahashi)

It almost never happens
even when a star is born
or a child in a manger
in the natural order
of the commonplace
nor even in the sea
when a creature
without a name
crawls to land to breathe
not even when a statue bleeds
or a face is seen in clouds.

When it happens if at all
it can barely be seen
heard or felt
appearing for a moment
more like an incomplete circle
than a four-sided square
more like the sound
of a silent drum
than the music
of the earth around the sun
each moment a miracle
of time when time
is extraordinary
and we are mioments
in an endless life.


The Ghost of Humankindness
(after the statue by Huma Bhabha)

How grotesque
in its daemonic skin
burned in fiery pits
and brimstone caves
a gargoyle mounted
at the gates of Hell
to welcome every soul
whoever spoke
the blasphemy
of humankind.

With hollowed eyes
that cannot see
but feel through darkness
to the core of men
it walks between
the shadows and the light
a ghost unseen
of humankind.

Alive in death
and dead in life
it lives
and always lived
as if it were
an apparition of the soul
of humankind.


(after the lithograph by Max Ernst)

Understand the owl
how its eyes penetrate
the night-time air
how it knows
the worth of every prey
worth the knowing
as if the knowing were enough
to satiate its craw
how it waits
silent on a branch
for never-ending night
as if it were the night
still, feathered, and alone
its eyes glowing
before it feeds
and finally devours
the kill.


Ad Marginem
(after the watercolor by Paul Klee

Where the circle begins
ad marginem
from the red-hot nucleus
of a fragment
of a fragment of its time
at the fringes of creation
to the perimeter
on the brim of a world

how the mind conceives
in the fire of the sun
ad marginem
the beginning of the end
where the end begins
at the blood-red brink
of oblivion.


Down the More Troubling Bird
(after the watercolor by Paul Klee

The troubling bird
more troubled than most
is troubled no more;
its troubles lifted
on currents of air
disappeared, forgotten
in less troubled climes
dismissed in the course
of its troubling flight
across the mountains
and under the aun
where down is never
the place to land
and up is forever
its life must be
troubled no more
at one with its wings
as it sings to the stars
“I am coming home.”


Face of the Machine II
(after the painting by Mohammad Zaza))

But for the sunken eyes
rivets, twisted gears
the serrated teeth of a wheel
wires where a mouth should be
the face of the machine
if it were a face
If it were a machine
could speak.

What a story would be told
through its tubes
and helix molecules:
metamorphosis of flesh
to metal skin and plastic bone
as when the first amphibians
crawled from the sea to mud
and then to land.

How science drew this face
from its machinery of thought
reinventing the intentions
of a deity
as the image of itself
in the contrivance of its mind.


The Quotidian and the Question
(after the painting by Jonathan Lasker)

In the commonplace of every space
in the prosaic and mundane
in the ordinaire of table wine
and routine orbit of the moon
around an unpretentious earth
in elemental particles
strung like ornamental beads
of simple glass around a modest neck
there is the unfathomable curve of light
as it passes by the sun.


Gedanken bei Schnee (Thoughts on the Snow)
(after the etching by Paul Klee)

Only the snow can feel
what it feels
on its skin.

Only the snow sees
however it sees
without its eyes.

Only the snow hears
the silence of fear
at the sun’s eclipse.

Only the snow speaks
whenever it speaks
and means what it says.

Only the snow knows
whatever it knows
of cold.

Only the snow takes
so many shapes to make
a universe of stars.


Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object)

(after the sculpture by Alberto Giacmetti)

The hands that hold the void
hold existence in their palms
touch the face of a god
and feel the hollows of its face
and glass-like skin
to know it has no shape
and speaks with empty words
and promises unfilled
to understand what can’t be known
or ever held
like the unborn child
of waiting, wanting hands.



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