‘Pretty Time Machine: Ekphrastic Prose Poems’ Lorette C. Luzajic
Mixed Up Media
‘Pretty Time Machine’ is a substantial book of 110 prose poems written either directly in response to a piece of art or using the piece of art as a starting point and drawing on ideas sparked by the image. All artists and artwork, from classics to contemporary, are acknowledged. Some poems also have an epigram, a quote from an artist or snatch of song lyric. Although each poem works as a stand alone piece, themes emerge: the poet’s father’s death after a long illness, an abusive mother, living in Mexico and Canada. The first poem, ‘Opening Nocturne’ after ‘Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Chelsea’ James Whistler 1871.
‘There is a time between traumas where the page falls blank, or the words change shape. Sometimes I thought I was free at last from epiphany and analysis, that |I could turn my back on what was behind me. For a moment I believed that I could just write poetry about dogs or lakes and not the things I tried to bury.’
The poet felt the book was writing itself through her. The art provided space to explore trauma – hers and other’s – and not restrict herself to what others expect poetry to be about. It freed her to address what she needed to write despite her expectations, that she could just focus on surface scenery and avoid examining why her response formed the way it did and what personal baggage a writer brings to their work. Unsurprising then, that part of that exploration involves how women are seen and defined. In ‘Nobody’s Wife’ after ‘A Beautiful Women in Plain Lines’ Xue Susu c. 1600,
‘You take out a compact and nervously swipe red across your mouth, replenishing what you’ve lost to the rim of your glass. You open a book, turn it to show me A Beautiful Woman in Plain Lines. She was an archer, you tell me, and a painter, Xue Susu. She wasn’t an artist’s student or somebody’s wife. Xususu, as she was also known, was a courtesan. It was a world away and long before the Belle Epoch. I study the beautiful woman in plain lines and billowing silk robes. The intricate ink draughtsmanship catches in my throat.’
A woman is reduced to her looks. Her biography erased in favour of what an artist wants an observer to see. The observer is free to research, but how many do? It’s also about how we appear to others. A woman who retouches her lipstick, even in the company of a friend, is a woman unconfident in her appearance, possibly not at ease in her own body.
Appearance is at the forefront of ‘Shalimar’ after Frida Kahlo,
‘7. At Walmart, I contemplate Frida’s Barbie. Bold brows, strong arms, Mexican skirts. I want to be back in her blue house, surrounded by swooping blooms and the bric-a-brac of her life in painting.
8. I could care less for Diego, that rotund brute with brown slacks hiked up under his armpits, belly tamed by suspenders. His art never moved me. His saggy jowls and bowling ball torso seem crude caricatures. Still I own him something more than knee-jerk aversion. She could have belonged to anyone, but he was the one who truly saw her.’
Van Gogh’s ‘Vase with Twelve Sunflowers’ 1888 provides the starting point for ‘Yellow’
‘The dreams are mostly gone. He doesn’t visit nearly as often as he used to, midnight cowboy or the ghost of Christmas past or any of the other costumes he donned. There is life after death, after all, and life is for the living. Instead of courting spirits in slumber, you are out there, singing in the shower, and looking for love, and you have painted everything yellow.’
It’s the colour of optimism and sunshine, driving ghosts into hiding. In contrast, the story behind Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ 1919, invoke ‘Disappointment’,
‘The caress of paint, in pursuit of pure beauty, how he dusted every water lily pad at dawn. It was an obsession against nature interfering with nature, recording truth that isn’t truth, the artist taking her virginal, wiped clean, back to the start, again and again. The spell snapped like first love, shattered, upon learning about the maid. Claude hired a cleaning lady to tend to his passions, someone to dust and wipe his water flowers before he painted them. Another arrow through the heart of poetry. Well, then. Morning has broken.’
How true does an artist’s representation have to be? Does the priority lie in factual truth (dusty water lilies) or emotional truth (their purity)? Does it matter how the final piece, visual art or poem, is achieved? Here the poet seems to be disappointed in discovering that Monet was altering the natural world to fit his vision instead of altering his vision to suit the natural world. It’s an echo of the sentiments in the opening poem; what matters, surface or depth?
The title poem is one of the last. ‘Pretty Time Machine’ after ‘Gluing Collage’ A C 2019,
‘I will accept with grace my own failures and too lates, I will accept that you are mine because she gave me that gift and you consented to it when you fell into the crook of my elbow after too many first birthday cupcakes. You are hers, so you are mine, too, in some small way, you pretty time machine.
‘Well, she is worried about what you will ask about her and how she will present it, but I won’t shield you with a mother’s protective veil from the missteps those girls made.’
‘Pretty Time Machine’ is a hefty and worthwhile book. It invites readers to consider how they look at and respond to art and also how readers present themselves: what individuals choose to conceal or reveal. It explores the differences between outward appearances and inner worlds and who controls what is seen. An artist may guide a viewer’s focus, but ultimately has little control over how a piece of art is seen. A controlling mother manipulates children into the presentation of a perfect family, but also suffers the ever present fear that someone will see beyond the façade. Knowing the artworks will bring a deeper response to the poems, but the poems also stand alone, separate from the artwork.