I learned a new word recently: ekphrasis. It’s a Greek word meaning “description,” which would explain why spell checker has underlined it. I learned this when I was sent an ekphrastic poem about my drawing, “This Way and That.” An ekphrastic poem is a type of poem that provides a vivid description of a scene or work of art. A poet imagines details about the scene and creates his or her own original piece from these details.
In August this drawing was part of Expressions Northwest, a juried art show at Northwind Art Center in Port Townsend. One of the events during the month long exhibit was an invitation to poets to write exphrastic poems about a specific work in the show. I hadn’t heard about the event until I received this poem by Carl Youngmann:
Ekphrasis: This Way and That
I know that town; Highway 29 elbows west near there.
Four grayboard structures snug against each other,
shoulders to the wind,
faces to the street.
Imagine Eisenbeis, a Chicago banker,
ticking off sections on the public lands survey,
every twelve miles a checkmark, the perfect distance
for slaking a thirsty locomotive.
Tracing out ordinal streets paralleling the tracks,
marking tree streets at right angles to those,
a diagonal Presidential street leads to a courthouse
scratching lot lines a neighborly 20 feet apart.
Hill, the attorney, built a land office in front of a house
at the intended corner of 1st and Oak.
Land for the Millions
Ads in Czech, Polish, Hungarian.
butchers, tailors, bakers, and even brought a few farmers,
who came to upend the sod.
The widow Landes started her boarding house
in a canvas tent just east of Hill’s office.
The bluestem grew deep, winters were harsh,
rains fickle, and floods sudden,
the yields meager.
Kuhn leased his lot to Gise, a blacksmith,
who never made a cent, but always had plenty of eggs.
After the panic of 84, all trains stopped,
no longer a mainline.
Holcomb’s fortune sank with his store
at the corner of Maple Street.
The dusts of ’32 swallowed the last peal of the school bell.
Yes, I know these dreams,
and more like them scattered over the hills.
Although Mr. Youngmann didn’t know anything about the origins of the drawing, his words fit very well. One can’t walk the streets of this Montana ghost town without imagining what it was like when “butchers, tailors, bakers” and more occupied the buildings. These old structures have so many stories to tell, memories pour out of those weathered boards. When I draw old buildings I love to imagine what life was like in them. The last two lines of the poem are my favorite:
“Yes, I know these dreams, and more like them scattered over the hills.”