Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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Phenomenological Thresholds of Art, Poetry, and Perception

We are continually in conversation with a variety of theories and philosophies that structure how we engage with, interpret, and represent the world. Invariably, the dense and ever-evolving systems of meaning in which we participate make their way into the works we produce. My writing does not escape this. For me, it is difficult to approach any representation of the body—whether in fine art or social presentation or even a mirror—without feeling compelled to reflect on the array of gendered meaning carried by cloth, gesture, and form. Gendered meaning does not remain within the domain of the human body, but extends to objects, colors, scents, et cetera. Attempting to untangle this web of social and individual meanings is difficult and occasionally feels hopeless, but, as a trans-nonbinary person, this attempt is essential.

Ekphrasis generates a layered perception that is unique in its capability to draw attention to sight as participating in the nearly inescapable systems of dialogic schemata of meaning. The human body, as well as everything else, is subject to complex narrative transpositions as image becomes language—an apparatus of denotative and connotative meaning making of its own. A trace of this becomes evident in an artist’s creation of a painting, and that event of sight is doubled by the ekphrastic poem. I believe Oscar Wilde suggested that an artist’s portrait is an image of the artist more than the model. My drawing attention to this is not new in aesthetic circles of thought. In some ways, Wilde’s sentiment is true, but I would modify the claim by saying a portrait is also made by the society and social identities an artist inhabits at a moment of painting. An excellent example of this is the extent of Sargent’s revisions to Portrait of Madame X—several of which I detailed in my poem of the same title—to adapt to the social pressures of the fin de siècle.

Of course, my poem about Sargent’s painting went through a series of revisions—some for aesthetic reasons and others for the constraints of digital publishing. The first complete draft of the poem, which was the product of months of research and writing, existed as perfectly rectangular prose blocks. Recreating the shape of those prose blocks in HTML was partly possible, but I had also written toward the justified edge to create intentional enjambments that would have been lost in the webpage. The published version has been lineated and has lost some of the physical sharpness it had before; however, the process of change to the body of the stanzas has added another layer of meaning that seems appropriate to the content and concerns of the poem itself.

“Small Songs of the Body” explores what it means to exist as vignettes of vision. Like many of my ekphrastic poems, the poem is comprised of informal sonnets. Informal is suggestive. They are in conversation with a concept of a traditional form, but they also challenge how meaning can reshape fourteen lines on the page. They are contained and pressuring liminal space—within, without. While each section alludes to details of the painting they engage with, none attempt to represent what that painting looks like purely as an object of sight. Rather, they investigate what ideas exist for me in the act of perceiving them. A process that will hopefully be extrapolated to a larger social conversation about what occurs in the act of perceiving the human body as a gendered—and often misgendered—object; this process is not exclusive to the domain of sight, as can be explored by the gendered associations with vocal ranges, for example. The sonnets cannot encapsulate or perfectly describe artwork, they can only show a curated version of my way of seeing in a moment of creation.

Ekphrastic poems heighten an awareness of what might be thought of as taxonomies of language; for example, my initial concept of a poem is often structured inside of academic jargon that’s not particularly suited to the kind of work my poems need to do, so I find a way to re-represent those ideas in another mode of language. Ultimately, ekphrastic poetry asks the writer and reader to confront sight, to know a consequence of living in a body is to be perceived as the ideas of a body—to acknowledge that pain, that distance. My poems are driven by a need to make the process of sight visible, an attempt to make my self that exists in a body that is not my body begin to be seen. I hope my poems do not lose sight of the layers of perception I am conscious of in my daily life: my identity as an object of internal perception, my body as an object of my own perception, and my body as an object being perceived by others. I also hope they do not treat the dialectic with a work of art carelessly; I have not and will not meet an image without imposing my own self in the act of sight. The same is true for my self as I navigate the space in which humans make meaning of one another.  

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