here are a couple of ekphrastic pieces for class. one is an ekphrastic piece based on henry ossawa tanner’s the banjo lesson, which is BEAUTIFUL.
the second is based on the life and work of david foster wallace. his 2006 commencement speech has been mentioned elsewhere as the inspiration for some of my recent work…i thought delving into his life a little would be interesting as well. i was not disappointed, but i hope my poem does him a little justice.
Inspired by the painting The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner
In this body there is so much pain,
can you hear it? Carried over from far-off
sea-coasts, its name dreaming of a lost lingual
land, the banjo leans into your lap, remembering
its polyrhythmic history. Your fingers find
the long paths of gut and copper, learning
to clawhammer and dropthumb, to strum
the arpeggio notes of knock-down rag ditties,
to pluck tones of the cooleset blues.
What are words to you, what is this song
you stumble to pump through your young lungs?
Against me, you are so small—a warm, beating
body as alive as the too-big organ in your arms.
Steadying the neck like a tiller, my hands
are scuffed leather and weathered wood,
resolute granite nobly crumbling back
into the land that bore me. I will guide you
over heaving seas and rolling drones,
deliver you to the truest tunes. My baby,
open your ears to the yowl yawning
through the stretched-hide drum face,
an echo resonating beyond our circling
of elbows, wrists and thighs—
to that trembling note singing deeper
than the dull twang of age and land,
bowed faces and broken hearts.
For David Foster Wallace
A boy from Ithaca, you knew the white walls
of snow ridges and ranges, heavy quilts
of frozen water weighing you down
as you scissored angels into the drift sides.
You were the best of them, hurling hunks
of ice from rusted car bumpers in the farthest
arcs to the point of exhaustion—burning
deltoids, numb fingers, collapsed lungs.
You followed your father to his alma mater
and aced modal logic, philosophy, mathematics—
they worshipped you. Summa cum laude,
postmodern novelist, they diagnosed you
‘a brilliant ironist,’ ‘the voice of a generation,’
earnest, intelligent, clinically depressed.
Your brain enslaves you while drugs fight
to free you: Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Tofranil,
in combination with unilateral ECT
(during a two-week voluntary in-patient course),
Parnate both with and without lithium salts,
Nardil both with and without Xanax. What
goes on inside is too fast and huge
and all interconnected for words to do more
than sketch the outlines. You want to stop
moving through your rounds: booking tours
and deadlines, bills and banking—your default
setting of solitude in a sea of humans.
From your window in Claremont, severed
from the manic pull of verbal calisthenics
and the avant-garde—of topping your keystone
with another crown—you have a vision
of a blue hole in a northeastern snowbank
where your body can rest; sleep off the hardest part,
dream, awaken later to tackle reality.
In the sling of your homemade noose, you slipped off
every fear of failure like icepacks pressing
into your skull, hard, cold, too heavy to bear.
It was easier to drift into deeper sleep than
stay awake in the winter of a writer in demand.
In your chest, the language was so barren, so tired.
You saw so little left. You had to conserve.