Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Coloring Outside the Lines
“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For September, Luther turns toward craft, with an insightful and interrogative eye on ekphrasis.
Coloring Outside the Lines
I always consider myself a young babe in poetry because of how I came to it—late—or more so, how late I became serious about studying it, which wasn’t until I was twenty-three. Even more so, I didn’t study, or wasn’t interested in studying pre-contemporary poetry; I was interested in studying living and breathing poets. One of which was Rickey Laurentiis, a poet I truly admire and have situated my poems after for years. (Shout out to Francis for recommending Rickey to me all those years ago.)
In Laurentiis’s book, Boy with Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press), winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, I came across what I considered (and still pretty much consider) the most mind-blowing type of poetry—the ekphrastic: poems about art. I was deeply intrigued—no, I was shaken by the way Laurentiis was able to do more than describe the work of art, but push the art into new psychological and emotional worlds; the poems were breathing without the art. In the poem, “Vanitas with Negro Boy,” inspired by David Bailly’s painting with the same name, Laurentiis constantly interrupts the image of the black boy, inserting thoughts or questions, which, in tandem interrupts canonized art, power, and the white gaze, and illustrates taking back one’s own power:
It’s true: his face, his boyhood even
(And what is my boyhood, and where is it from?)
would fade if not for the rope of attention
yanked glittering across that face. Look.
This is my painting, my version of that Dutch
This is how I learned how to write ekphrastic poetry, and this is how I see ekphrastic poems working at its highest quality.
But before I get into that, I suppose some background is needed, yes? Ekphrasis breaks down into:
The Oxford Dictionary describes it as, from the 17th century, “an exploration or description of something.” So, at its root, ekphrasis means to describe; it’s a description. The earliest account of the ekphrastic poem is in Book 18 of The Iliad, which describes the shield of Achilles. This “description,” in a sense, wasn’t even materialized, it was, of course, fictional:
Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.
I am drawn by the breadth of this description— “Rich various artifice emblazed the field; / Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound; / A silver chain suspends the massy round”—because of the sheer gravitas of it. It truly makes the ekphrastic for what it is.
I am, however, really attuned to the definition that Grove Art gives, which I believe holds truest to how we look at ekphrastic poetry today:
“An ekphrasis generally attempted to convey the visual impression and the emotional responses evoked by the painting or building, not to leave a detailed, factual account. In an ekphrasis of a painting the author did not confine himself to the specific moment represented but was free to discuss the general narrative context, referring both forwards and backwards in time. He was also free to imagine what the characters might be feeling or saying and might even be moved to address them.”
So, the questions that arise for me is: what is art and who has the authority to define it? Honestly, I can’t tell you, for certain what art is and isn’t. But there is one thing I believe to be true: art cannot be interrogated without the society it was created in; art does not live in a bubble. When rendering art, I think one must keep in mind consumerism (both monetary and bodily), audience, and privilege and power. Those who can say what art is are usually the ones who have the means, privilege, and power to consume said art. But these consumers don’t necessarily make them the “audience.” Who’s to say the water bottle next to me isn’t art. Has it not been crafted, studied, and critiqued for emotional and audience response? And, about authority, you know, it’s a funny thing. One can have authority over a lot of things until that thing goes out into the world, and once it’s out many people have authority over it. For example, when submitting a poem, the authority of that poem now lives in the hands of those editors who can clearly say, “This isn’t a poem.” Does that make it true? When Jean-Michel Basquiat first started “arting” across the city, people called him a nuisance, a vandal. It someone with power and authority to say what he was doing was actually art.
Okay, so what is art? In Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf), winner of the 2015 National Book Award, Lewis uses both art—sculptures, paintings, pottery—and everyday things like combs and forks, putting them in the same ballfield as what we think of as art:
A slave carries jar and two dead birds.
Another slave who carries three
fish and a sheaf of wheat
enters a tower.
Askos, a black woman dancing
between a maenad and a satyr, black dancer
beside woman playing a tabor—
sacred dance performed
during an Isiac Ceremony, Negroid
dancers and musicians overall.
View: a juggler, a black dancer, Female
Offering Bearer Young Female Slave
with Negroid features carrying a stool mask
of a woman shown holding pouch and basket—
or urn—above two geniuses holding garland.
A standing figure of a Laughing Person
wearing a short tunic with large broad nose, thick
lips, and both male and female attributes: his right
arm broken off at the elbow, the left
arm completely missing.
Lewis is doing something wonderful when she threads together all of these titles/works of art with everyday things. They’re threaded seamlessly together so much that I can’t always tell which is “art” and which is quotidian. There are slaves carrying fish and wheat and dead birds, there are black dancers, there is a figure of a Laughing Person—what might be considered quotidian transcends and compliments, nicely, the work of art. To Lewis, I think, “art” is in how things interact with each other and how we, as voyeurs, respond to said interaction, whether between two objects or between the object and the audience.
You must be thinking now, Okay Luther, but how do I write about art? Good question. I think “Knowledge” by Natasha Trethewey, written after a chalk drawing by J. H. Hasselhorst. In this poem, Trethewey moves from the subject, to description, to an imagined scape, to the “I.”
Whoever she was, she comes to us like this:
lips parted, long hair spilling from the table
like water from a pitcher, nipples drawn out
for inspection. Perhaps to foreshadow
the object she’ll become: a skeleton on a pedestal,
a row of skulls on a shelf.
In the descriptive parts of the poem, the subject changes from person to person like camerawork, creating a propelling motion, pushing the reader forward. The drawing becomes alive, movielike, or it’s as if the drawing is being drawn in front of our eyes:
all the men
in coats, trimmed in velvet or fur – soft as the down
of her pubis. Now one man is smoking, another
tilts his head to get a better look. Yet another,
at the head of the table, peers down as if
enthralled, his fist on a stack of books.
When the “I” comes in, truthfully, I’m a little shaken:
the anatomist’s blade opens a place in me,
like a curtain drawn upon a room in which
each learned man is my father
and I hear, again, his words – I study
my crossbreed child
There was a “we,” but the “we” was universal—“we” as voyeurs. The “I” isn’t so “voyeuristic” here but becomes vulnerable. The speaker places themselves as the subject and the men become their father. It’s actually quite horrifying. There’s something four-dimensional that happens when the act of vulnerability happens in this poem that drives everything home. When it comes to art, I think the strongest rendering of it, in a poem, is when the reader is able to see the speaker interact with the work on a level that lifts beyond description and into an emotional state.
That, is what makes the ekphrastic alive, working. When the poem does more than just simply describe what’s happening but is able to breathe and live on its own psychologically, when it’s able to rub up against power and authority, when the speaker is vulnerable. I think an important question to ask oneself when writing an ekphrastic poem is: what effect does the “art” have on me and can the effect live without the knowledge of what caused it? Can affect = effect?
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal, Executive Editor for The Offing, and Editor-at-Large of Frontier Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.