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More on the Self-Portrait: Self-Portrait as Ekphrasis, Ekphrasis as Refraction, Refraction as Reflection

Last week, writing about the self-portrait, when I speculated parenthetically that the self-portrait poem may be a kind of ekphrastic poem, I had two things in mind.

The first was that, to the extent that one can (as a painter must) treat oneself as the object, what the poet could say about him- or her-self–and the way he or she could say it–would be interestingly different from what and how a poet might express something about him- or herself in a subjective lyric.

In the subjective lyric–if there’s anything like a popular or dominant mode in American poetry, for good or bad, this is it–the poet writes from inside his or her knowledge and also through that knowledge, communicating it to the reader with a little indirection; one gets the feeling, to remember John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation, that what is said gets overheard by the reader, as the poet is talking to him- or herself, or to no one.

When I was thinking about self-objectification in the self-portrait, I was thinking about how different the mode or the mood of the poem that is describing rather than disclosing. There’s something more neutral about the language–or there can be.

The second thing I was thinking about is how, through this more neutral descriptive language, however aloof this can seem, the poet may be able to express more about him- or herself than would be possible or welcome or seemly in a subjective lyric.

You might say that it would be the same if Zagajewski had said

“ my father’s face
invades my slightly melancholy face: my short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation

instead of

“ his father’s face
invades his own, slightly melancholy face; the short white beard,
his enemies insist, must signify capitulation.

But the objectified, third-person version has a unique capacity. If you were writing a poem in which you described yourself as being invaded, if you characterized your ageing as a capitulation, you might be displaying some serious vocabulary, but I think for many readers such verbiage might come across as a little histrionic. We might ask Do you think you’re a country or something?

This is exactly the point here. As Zagajewski is talking about his awareness of his ageing and the signs that are specific to his family line, he’s also comparing himself, and his family, to his home country of Poland. These words–“invades,” “enemies,” and “capitulation”–can work in the third-person because the speaker of the poem doesn’t have to own them entirely. The third-person speaker can assign them to the object of description–can assign those words through description–even suggest that these are that person’s words, and thereby use them without being subject to any accusations of hyperbole. The speaker remains believable. A clever indirection that enables the poem to make a startling comparison.


If you want to see the descriptive mode in the extreme, leaf Andrew Zawacki’s “Self-Portrait,” from his book By Reason Of Breakings. This is a poem so focused on the details of what is seen, it’s easy to lose sight of the poet’s objectified self. Here’s the first stanza:

Only the colorless eye is undistracted: a lake
rubbed blue by twilight is not blue to the eye cast blue
and a violet sunset cannot be refracted
violet through the violet eye. A crimson retina
won’t conceive the paint of a rigging blooded by dusk
or the stain a star makes, cutting its patina
crimson across a backwind disturbing the houseboat.

Zawacki’s getting a great deal of detail–his self-portrait places him at a lake, at sunset, or just afterward, looking at a docked houseboat, seeing the late light on the boat’s lines–into the poem in the negative, bringing the world into the poem by talking about what would not be possible otherwise, if he were not there.

The abundance of detail given to the scene, always seems to swallow the poet’s self, to push that subject-object into the sensory richness of the world. And this, I think, is Zawacki’s goal, in a poem that proposes “the eye is naught / diffracting weather and water, and exists itself for the sake / of what it reveals.”

There is, nevertheless, in the poet’s language something that is not invisible and that points back to Zawacki. There’s nothing invisible about “a knot of isinglass that reflects / lightning tracing paraphs around the harbor.” This is like Percival Lowell mapping Venus and discovering not the canals he claimed but the pattern of his own retinas. In some ways, the voiding of the self leads to an even greater expression of the self.


This is the very idea at play in self-portrait poems like those in Cecily Parks’s book Field Folly Snow. The titles suggest the approach: “Self-Portrait as Rain Gauge,” “Self-Portrait as Seismograph,” “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly,” and “Self-Portrait Which Makes Use of the Beaufort Scale.”

In execution these poems, whose titles identify their metaphorical vehicles, invert the typical subject/figure relationship in order to inhabit the objects (or systems) and to speak as if, for example, a seismograph were writing its own self-portrait. But in the moments when the language seems to exceed the capacity of the sentient rain gauge or damselfly, that’s where we hear something self-expressive.

Here are the first eight lines of “Self-Portrait as Angler’s Damselfly”:

It takes a certain type to be devoured
daily, to slide into each fish’s jaw

with no song in my throat. Please consider,
in big-river country, the allure

of the miniature, of tinsel, feather and thread,
of still, glittering hackles and glued wings–

and know when the mouth strikes, I’m barb and hook
and bound by filament to bony ground.

It may not be surprising that a fishing fly would describe itself as “barb and hook,” but this is not the point of this sort of poem. The point is to ask what does it mean that the poet describes herself as such, thinking about her capacity to be devoured, her desire to be devoured–thinking about her tendency toward self-destruction, but also her sudden capacity to defend herself and fight dissolution?

We get there, by watching the poet construct a self and creating a voice for that self–literally creating a voice to “speak out of” (this is what the word ekphrasis means, as you already know) that constructed self. We don’t learn enough to impersonate the poet or to write a biography of the poet, but we learn something of the poet’s inner states, her emotions, her weather–and her capacity to create and change that weather.