Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thank you for asking - "Do you have the image in front of you"?

Thank you, Maureen, for asking the question on whether I was able to spend time with Myra Albert Wiggins photographs before I wrote about them. Yes and no. I took two trips to the Portland Art Museum to see Wiggins' work. Although there are other museums with Wiggins photographs and paintings, PAM in Portland, OR houses the vast majority of her photographs, papers, and magazines. While I took notes while at the museum, most of the writing was done using the images I found on line or from Carole Glauber's definitive book on Wiggins: Witch of Kodakery.

What I'm realizing as I work on my article about how I wrote these poems, is that I begin with the image and then moved fairly quickly to what isn't visible. It is this balance between the seen and the unseen that I'm drawn to in writing ekphrastic poems. For example, in the photograph above, "Polishing Brass," we see the back of this woman's beautiful neck, her long arm, but we don't see even the outline of her legs buried under the folds of fabric; we don't know that this unnamed woman is Alma Schmidt, maidservant to Myra Albert Wiggins. In fact, Schmidt appears in several of Wiggins pictoral work. I found myself wondering how this young woman felt about dressing up in a variety of costumes so that her mistress could photograph her. Perhaps it was easier work than scrubbing floors -- but did she receive a copy of the print for her trouble? Did she have a choice in the matter? Did she like Myra or simply tolerate her?

When Mark Doty was in Seattle this year for Seattle Arts and Lectures, he said something to the effect that you don't need a poem to show you a work of art. That's how not to write an ekphrastic poem. Instead, he said, and I am paraphrasing here, we write ekphrastic poems to focus on and examine our own experience from that visual anchor. The visual is a vessel for our own emotional context. It carries our own obsessions. A good ekphrastic poem both acknowledges its source and moves away from it. 

I like this explanation -- perhaps because it captures what I have tried to do in all my pieces on Wiggin's work and her life. I begin with what we know and move into what we don't know. Perhaps that's what all artistic endeavor does ...

The poem "Polishing Brass" was born out of this photograph, but it is rather long and so I will only post the first two sections here. Well, maybe three.

Polishing Brass

 Myra Wiggins used her housekeeper, Alma Schmidt, as a subject in several of her pictorial photographs of Dutch domestic life. Schmidt wore costumes and posed in a  variety of theatrical scenes. No further record of their relationship exists.

No, more a holy meditation
on surface and stain:

Madonna with Vessel.

The inland
glow of white shoulders

rivulet of vertebrae

vestige of one breath-
takingly long

and sexual arm
which grasps

the ledge
of the cauldron

as she curves onward.


Remember form:

nothing more

than potent omen ~

pyramid of saucepan top,

of water bucket,
angle of the invisible skin ~

dimpled underneath her arranged garment ~

A light-stroked body,
conflicted as rosewater, as clotted cream.

  (to be continued in the collection, The Alchemist's Kitchen, White Pine Press, 2010


  1. Thank you for taking time to provide a bit of background about these particular poems, Susan. I, too, like Doty's statement.The poem you quote here is one I went back to and re-read just before I posted my question.

  2. Hi Maureen,
    You are so welcome! Thank you for your sensitive and intelligent interest in my work.

  3. And Maureen, If you hear anything about whether the museums have any od Wiggins' work -- I'd be thankful if you let me know...