Purple clouds are as dark as faith
and wet mud seeps into the man and woman’s
knees this morning. It huddles them before the altar,
a drab green hill with a slate table,
adorned with a haphazard cross of basalt.
He crosses himself and looks at her.
She crosses herself and looks at him.
Deep in prayer, others trace crosses
across their bodies. The priest mutters
words and the man’s shoulder is next to
the woman’s and a mosquito now in his ear
and now out baptizes itself in his font.
This poem was inspired by an ekphrasis poetry activity designed by Allison Joseph at Southern Illinois University. It is a response to Salvador Dali’s Painting: “Chant 15: Dante’s Ecstasy.”
What follows is my analytical response to the poetry activity, which led to this poem. Questions from the original activity are in bold:
First impressions/Record all the details you can about the painting. What’s going on in it?
I love the way the painting is framed by incredibly imposing purple clouds: these clouds are malicious and, while not quite evil, deadly. The two individuals at the bottom have clearly succumbed to whatever fate these purple clouds bring. Presumably they’re dead. They seem to look imploringly at the condescending yellows and reds beaming from around the cross and the two individuals hunched around it. One, on the right, in blue and purple, seems to be praying; while the other, on the left, could be doing one of two things: the figure could be hunched over, praying, while its spirit ascends from the body; or the figure could be in one stage of motion. Those two shadows could be other, previous stages of motion, which suggests that the figure is laughing. Perhaps the figure is laughing at those shrouded in purple or at the command of the cross.
The colors in the image are stunning. I love the shades of purple and the contrast of those yellow and red colors up above.
What I’ve written so far summarizes what’s going on in the painting: two individuals are hunched down, watching those who surround the cross.
Does it tell a story?
I think the painting does tell a story. I think these two individuals are filled with desire, and the painting suggests that they can’t fulfill this desire. They’re watching the two figures up above, and they want to be with them, but they can’t. There is a purple road in the clouds, but this road doesn’t extend into the upper area. They can only sit, wait, and watch. They can only crave. They want, and no matter what they do, they can’t fulfill that want.
Is it a landscape or a portrait?
It’s more of a landscape than a portrait, though it does have elements of both. I can’t decide what the focus of the painting is, actually: is it the world surrounding the people, or is it the dark people themselves? While the world and the clouds takes up the majority of the painting, I give it equal weight to the two individuals at the bottom. Both are equally important—and although the cross is depicted as the centerpiece, I consider it to be less important than these two other forces. The cross may have its starburst coming out of it, guiding the eye along those lines, but the dark colors are so powerful and strong that the eye can’t possibly draw away.
Is it more abstract or realistic?
The painting is a cross between abstract and realistic, because, while it does contain shapes that resemble realistic figures, they’re painted in such a way that their edges are blurred. It’s not completely clear what they are. We know that they’re people, but we don’t know exactly what they’re doing or how they look. The most important thing we know about them comes from their colors and the impression that these give rather than any realistic interpretation of their motives, desires, or situation.
Describe it as fully as if you were interpreting it for a person who has never seen the painting.
Foreboding mauve clouds surround two dark figures on every side but directly across from them. Their silhouette is so shrouded that it’s unclear which way these deep purple slabs of flesh are facing, but either before or behind them, there is a breach in the surrounding darkness. The darkness fades from night’s purple into blue clouds resembling a tortuous road that leads to condescending light. There are at least two figures surrounding the light that grows from lavendar to burnt orange to a pale white yellow, huddled below a small pale faded red cross that seems to shine with long red lines streaking across the scene. These red lines seem completely unnatural: they seem to come from a different medium than the rest of the painting (pencil on paint?), which immediately strikes me as a kind of mistake, but I can look past that to consider them otherworldly. They’re not quite surreal, though. They’re far too tangible and rigid for me to consider them surreal.
The two dark figures huddled together at the bottom of the scene don’t quite look toward the figures in the light, but they seem to have their bodies turned in that direction. They bow to the light, the cross, and the figures in its presence. They’re clearly aware of the light. They’ve seen it before, but instead of approaching it, they defer to it. They’re lower than it and those who supplicate to it. The figures in the light are intently focused on the cross. Their gaze touches nothing else, not even each other. They have nothing but the cross. They bow to it because it is their everything. They neglect each other and those hidden in the purple darkness. Those in the darkness, similarly bowing to the cross and its holiness, have each other. They are away from the cross and its presence, but they cling to each other as if one entity.
What feelings or mood does the painting evoke? What are the images and colors that evoke those feelings?
The only feeling the painting evokes for me is excitement because of its beautiful color contrasts. The purple seems like it’s supposed to be a sad, depressing color, but it doesn’t make me feel this. Perhaps if I saw the painting in its full size, but not as an image on a computer monitor. The yellows and oranges are incredibly thick and rich, in an imposing way. When I look at them I feel like something I don’t care for is imposing itself upon me. It seems inhuman and unnatural. I much prefer to gaze at the purple darkness, its layers of colors, and these sad but content figures near the bottom of the scene.
If the painting depicts people, who do you think the people are?
No one has an obvious name in the painting. I imagine the figures at the bottom to be a man and a woman: a man on the left, in a blueish-purple, and the woman on the right, in a reddish-purple. Her hair seems to be tied in a bun behind her head.
I’ll come up with their names later. I think that adding a name to a character adds too much artificial personality, when I should let the characters’ personality come out of other things.
Invent a life or a story for the character(s) in the painting.
These characters aren’t from our time. I don’t know much about history, so I’ll have to look this time period up, but they seem to be from the 1500s or 1600s. They’re peasants. Sadly, all I know about this is from movies: I’m envisioning only peasants from the movie Braveheart. (Instead of learning about this kind of thing from movies, I should actually do some research to expand my imaginative capacity beyond clichés, eh?) They’ve worked hard all their lives and wanted things beyond their peasant lifestyle. They couldn’t imagine anything better, though. That’s pretty interesting—what would it be like to not be able to imagine anything different than soggy fields you worked at all day? What would it be like to only be able to imagine mountains or deserts or other landscapes from what people tell you about them? This sensation makes me think of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, as its sense of setting and isolation in that setting is remarkable. I think that’s something I could explore with the poem I’m writing on this. I think these people have been completely isolated throughout their lives: except from each other. They’re almost one individual. They’ve clung to one thing for most of their lives: each other. I can’t imagine them having had children, which is perhaps why they’re so alone. Even together, they’ve felt alone. That’s another great theme to explore.
These two have felt so alone because of the religious community surrounding them. Most people in their time devoted themselves wholly to religion, and that was expected of them. They’re atheists, though. They don’t believe in God. They don’t care about God. The people they associate with do believe in God, and they go through the motions of the religious services, but they don’t care, and they feel alone. They want to have others to share this with, but they only have each other. My poem will be about going through the motions and about religion feeling condescending. That it’s imposing something on them. I still don’t want to give them names. I hate naming characters.
Does the painting make you think of anything that’s going on in the world today?
I guess it makes me think about American democracy imposing itself upon the world, but my feelings for that are nowhere near the negative feelings this painting evokes. It makes me think a little bit about North Korea and their baffling status right now: I don’t have any idea why they’re so intent to be confrontational with the U.S. regarding nuclear weapons. This painting makes me think of that because I could see that as the result of the stifling this painting presents. I could see the two figures at the bottom feeling stifled, and because their muscles seem to be so tense in the painting, I could see them trying to rise up against the powers that are stifling them. I can see North Korea fitting that in a metaphorical way.
Does it spark any associations with other pieces of art or literature?
The only literature it makes me think of is Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, which I mentioned earlier. The woman in the painting even looks something like the way I imagined the woman in the book: very skinny and with dark hair tied perfectly in a bun. They seem completely at the mercy of their surroundings, just as the man in the book did.
I assume the painting would make me think of Dante’s work if I’d read any of it, but I haven’t. I know the painting is supposed to be based on that work, but I’ve not read it yet.
Brainstorm some effective language for the painting. Think of metaphors, similes, sound devices that can be used to describe it.
I’m not very good with metaphors, so I don’t know if I should really brainstorm any of these. A metaphor for the purple would be good, though my description has kind of done that…what’s dark, though? What’s something so dark that it evokes that feeling? What’s a feeling that feels that dark? I’ve never thought of generating metaphors in this way. I’ve always just done it as I’ve needed them—not generated metaphors to come up with them just for their own sake. Purple as dark as church is okay, but I wonder if I can do better. Purple as dark as a cistern’s water is pretty good and uses cistern, which is a great word. Purple as dark as a cistern. Is a cistern dark? Purple as dark as religion…purple as dark as faith…that’s not bad. I like the word cistern, too, and want to use it.
Cistern is one great-sounding word; what else should I do? I think I want my lines to be slightly longer than normal. 10 syllables is standard, less feels like rushing, and more feels like a bit of a strain. I should average at 11 or 12 syllables. More than that will be too much, but I think longer lines will make it feel like the structure is imposing itself on the poem, which I want.
I definitely want lots of low-sounding words. Cistern is technically a high-sounding word, but it has such low connotations to me. Do I want to occasionally throw high-sounding words in there to deviate from the low sounds? Will I throw a technically high but low-connoting word in the mix just to be paradoxical?
Think in terms of using the senses other than sight—what do you imagine is the smell of this painting?
The smell of the painting, eh? I don’t know how it smells. I’ve never been very good with writing smells. I wish I was, but I’m not. What does it smell like? It smells like church. It smells like incense. It was always so dark in church. Church is so uplifting, so why is everything so dark there? Is it supposed to make us afraid of death? I’m not afraid of death at all, but maybe I should be. Maybe I should go back to that kind of devotion to see what it’s like. Maybe we need to expose ourselves to death to raise ourselves above it. I don’t know. That incense smelled so sweet, and I’m not sure I want that in the poem.
I think the painting smells like the inside of an altar boy’s robe. A little plasticky, but not quite. I don’t really remember, and I don’t know if I can fudge that. How could I possibly smell the inside of an altar boy’s robe now?
Imagine yourself in the scene—what would it feel like?
I’ve gone on and on about what it’d feel like emotionally—or maybe I haven’t. But I want to start with what it would feel like physically.
The man doesn’t have his arm around the woman, so he’s not embracing her or clinging to her touch, but his shoulder and arm are up against hers. His leg seems to be up against hers. Sadly, I don’t think he notices. I’ve had moments where the lightest touch from a woman—casual touch: brushing against the shoulder or her foot against my shin—has sent its sensations all over my body. This is not the case, here. He feels the light pressure of the clouds below his legs and the tepid air around him. He doesn’t feel much connection to his body. He feels only his emotions.
These emotions are hollow. He feels hollow. That’s all he feels.
Is there air movement? Warmth or coolness on your face? Softness or hardness underfoot? What do you hear when you look at the painting? What tastes does it suggest?
When you have at least a full page of material, begin reading through it to find what you think is best. Pull out descriptions and lines that will work for a poem and draft a poem about the painting.
Remember: avoid abstractions, generalizations, and judgments. Use figurative language and vivid detail and imagery.
I’m not doing the rest of this. I have enough to get started with a poem.