Poetry & Sculpture: David Cope and the Making of
"A Dream of Jerusalem"
and "I, You, She, or He"
Poetry & Sculpture: Poetry based on the works of Jauma Plensa
Michigan poet David Cope was invited to
read two poems, "A Dream of Jerusalem" and "I, You, She, or
He," inspired by the work of Jaume Plensa (Spanish, 1955) at the Frederik Meijer
Gardens of Grand Rapids on November 7, 2008. The Museum of American Poetics,
in collaboration with the Meijer
Gardens, invited Mr.
Cope to comment on the process involved in the making of the two poems for
this sculpture-poetry event.
About Jaume Plensa
Plensa was born 1955 in Barcelona,
He is an internationally renowned contemporary artist and sculptor, known for
major public art projects. His outdoor work can be seen in locations
including the US, Canada, France,
Japan, Germany, Switzerland,
Italy, Korea and the UK, as well as in his home
country. Plensa is perhaps best known for Crown Fountain, a
monumental and very popular public sculpture in Millennium
Park, Chicago. While Barcelona
remains his home and base, Plensa has lived and worked in a number of other
countries, including England,
at the invitation of the Henry Moore Foundation, and France, at the
invitation of the Atelier Alexander Calder. He is the winner of various national
and international awards, including the Medaille des Chevaliers des Arts et
Lettres from France's Minister of Culture in 1993, and he has had numerous
solo exhibitions throughout Europe, North America and Japan.
A Dream of Jerusalem
by David Cope
if in time the city has been, will be desolate, the
scattered bones chirping in dry day,
the woman calls her lover to come away, searches without
finding, sings silently
that none may turn to Love until it descends in morning
dew and in calling doves.
as bone fragments & ashes swirl in shining waves, sink
into dark murk & are gone
one turns in dreams to the child’s eye, the dark
circles of bone where the mother’s
vision once stirred—where her cheek met the small
hand reaching thru space:
we are creatures made of words rounded by incantation
& the great lyric dream,
the fullness of young lovers sharing wine in the moonlit
night in the garden, swearing
they’ll not turn to Love until it descends in
morning dew and in calling doves.
here, in mountain air & silence before dawn, in the
spirit borne of blind sight,
cross-legged, the shofur nearby untouched—in this
heart shaped by words there is
a presence that could in a soundless tomb shiver the dark
with hammers, sound
the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels turning
across the universe & make
seraphs weep. yet there is the stillness of the word, the
child’s mind that turns to
her mother & touches her skin made of words: words
that measure breath to be
shared as tender touch in passing time: brothers cry out
at the prison door, women sigh
in their last dank beds, boys turned men shoulder rifles
behind dusty tanks & blood
is the cry thru a thousand cities. here there is silence;
here light & form where words
bring the lovers together, here the dream of soft bodies
moving together, the dream
at once the child’s cry & the mother’s
last gasp exhaled in fierce sunset as if
none may turn to Love until it descends in morning dew and
in calling doves—
here the desolate city, deserted temple, the lost tribe:
here the dream wrapped in words
that round the breath in silent air: here the ashes that
once were man, the bright dream
& endless night, here sun disc’s eternal round
in silence, unheard music of spheres:
let the woman call thru the city & on the mountain for
her lover, and if she searches
without finding, she may hear the scattered bones chirping
in the dry day & sing silently
that none may turn to Love until it descends in morning
dew and in calling doves.
Jaume Plensa. Jerusalem, 2006. Bronze, rope, wood
and wool, 18 gongs, 52 inches diameter each.
Courtesy of Jaume Plensa, Jerusalem.
"A Dream of Jerusalem" begins with my own
associations with the city through William Blake's prophetic
"Jerusalem"—the city itself as a metaphor for imaginative
redemption—and through childhood reflection on Jerusalem as locus for
both spiritual journey and holocaust, the latter including the Lamentations—the
fall of the city, destruction of the temple, and the Babylonian
captivity—as well as the slaughter of the population and destruction of
the second temple c. 70 CE. as recounted by Josephus in The Jewish War.
There were also countervailing associations: Plensa's inscription of lines
from the Song of Songs on the two parallel rows of giant gongs which
with their sounding hammers form the sculpture. Song of Songs is a
woman's book, a book of love and longing, and of the spiritual sexuality of
love itself, and in thinking about the poem I would write, I recalled the
woman's search and the famous refrain in 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4, which I rendered
freely as "none may turn to Love until it descends in morning dew and in
While this line would become the refrain for the poem, I did not begin by
thinking of it as such; in the initial composition, the line repeated itself
in the 9th line-it just seemed to fit there—and it came up again as the
final line of the poem. Later, I reworked a lot of the lines in the middle
sections, largely for condensation of phrasing and for specificity of image,
and in this process repeated the line as the 21st line, thus framing the poem
up with two refrains at the beginning (lines 3 and 9) and two at the end
(lines 21 and 27).
This was immensely satisfying for me, as I have long been fascinated with
weaving and the construction of tercet and couplet-based
poems—variations on the dantescan and ghazal patterns of
construction—as a kind of weaving. "A Dream of Jerusalem"
became a kind of Mexican blanket for me, with the refrains as stripes
repeating each other at each end of the blanket.
Beyond the pattern, I was fascinated by Plensa's sound hammers and his request
that those experiencing the work should take up a hammer and hit the gong
nearby. More fascinating for me was the potential for sound and the notion of
sound or action moving out in waves which imply changes far beyond the
initial action, as in Basho's famous "frog kerplunk" poem. I myself
had explored this concept in my 1993 poem "Catching Nothing" (Coming
Home 102-105), which ends with this idea of action changing the world:
our hearts beat like
hammers now, sending out waves of sound
over & over—
is a wind that
stirs up all the world.
When I came to Plensa's notion of the gongs, this binary
concept of stillness/action found its form in the idea of the shofur
untouched and of the "presence that could in a soundless tomb shiver the
dark with hammers, sound the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels
turning across the universe & make seraphs weep." Silence thus
became the meditative center of the poem, a priori the "unheard music of
spheres" which cannot be heard in a fallen age.
The last major association was the idea of the woman herself-in Song of
Songs, fairly obviously a young woman in the prime of her
youth—yet I also thought of her as the elder she would finally become,
of Time itself. I had lost my own mother this year, thus the importance of
the child reaching out to touch the mother's cheek, the bone where the
mother's vision once stirred, and finally the ashes which "swirl in
shining waves, sink into dark murk & are gone"—an image from
the final ceremony after my mother's death, wherein my siblings cast my
mother's ashes into the river where she raised us. The poem is thus the
central poem in that sequence of works exploring my mother's passage from this
life and my own self-discovery borne of that passage.
In the associations which come with my mother's passing, there is also the
image of the "scattered bones chirping in dry day"—that
astounding image from the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, wherein
the voice asks the prophet whether these bones shall live (Ezekiel
37:3). The part of my mind that was revolving on the associations with my
mother's death picked up on the chirping bones, an image I had previously
combined with the notion of Christ as "the word made flesh,"
turning the phrases in my 1993 poem "For Martin
King"—"who sang the flesh made word that bones may
walk." The image returned here as a rebirth, as the city itself has been
All these associations were activated when I first encountered Plensa's Jerusalem; when it came
to the composition, the words came quickly. It was as if I already knew them,
and of course it had nothing to do with the ridiculous notion of occasional
composition, but rather with opening oneself to the associations
evoked by the work. The work quite naturally fell into the pattern of
long-lined tercets, a format I have been very comfortable with ever since my
extensive interrogation of Dante's Commedia. Some minor motifs
popped up in the fury of the writing—the notion of "blind sight,"
borne of my years of watching Olivier's film of King Lear every
Sunday morning and borrowed from my 1990 poem "Vision"—as
well as the Egyptian idea of the "sun disc's eternal round" and the
aforementioned medieval concept of the music of the spheres. The images of
the world in crisis, whether brothers crying at the prison door, the women in
the "last dank beds," or boys shouldering rifles behind dusty
tanks" are generic images from the news, yet they are also specific,
minute particulars which identify actual events.
The composition itself involved centering oneself in a consciousness which is
ultimately receptive to all the images that derive from the above
associations. The harder part was in revising it so that it would achieve the
form it now has. The poem went through three such revisions.
three dreamers sit together on green, grown
yet coyly clasping hands below knees—
facing each other like lovers, emergent as
hollow, their flesh & form become shining
letters in patterns where once words became
lines by which they measured lives, words
which became them. manitou winds blow
softly thru leaves, thru vacant heads & torsos,
lips still forming sighs lost forever—they
might have danced in starlit nights or sang
heartsongs for lost love, as if they live still
in a dream now lost to a generation racing to
its own dead ends. Now there is silence
on the green where a distant child’s echoing
song is lost in one horizon-bound jet trail,
where the dreamers sit in stasis: we three
too have come to look at them, animated
in our conversation, lost already in dreams
Jaume Plensa. I, you, she or he...
(detail), 2006, stainless steel and stone.
102 x 71 x 106 inches, 105 x 73 x 102 inches, 102 x 66 x 78 inches (including
Collection of Frederik Meijer Gardens &
Gift of Fred and Lena Meijer.
The title of "I, You, She or He" fascinated me
before I ever saw the installation firsthand; I had seen the photos of
it—three seated figures almost like "The Thinker" in their
individual poses, yet a grouping which suggested a shared dream. The title
suggested the indeterminacy or fluidity of identity, as in the central
concepts of queer theory or in John Lennon's famous line "I am he as you
are he as you are me and we are all together." I was also
continuing my meditation on Plensa's use of words or alphabet letters as
flesh, skin, or form, the idea that our words are/become our flesh, our
demarcating limits, our form.
The process begins with a walk out to see the installation at Meijer Gardens. Poet Linda Nemec Foster
and I had met with the Gardens' contact person, Heidi Holst, to talk about
the Plensa exhibition and our part in it, and the three of us then walked out
to see "I, You, She or He." We had also talked of the much
larger installation, "Nomade," which is similar in form but large
enough so that the spectator can walk right inside the piece and thus
"become its spirit." This brought all kinds of associations
with Dali and the surrealists, the philosophical notion of the "ghost in
the machine," and I sort of ran with that when it came to the poem
The poem begins with a simple description of the sculpture as seen on the
bright summer day when we were there, and in composition the hollowness of
the pieces and the "shining letters in patterns" led to "the
lines by which they measured lives." I moved from that to images
of the lives they led, the loves and gestures which defined them now reduced
to memory or conjecture and the fact that the current generation is still
"racing to its own dead ends," a pun which I couldn't resist.
Returning to the scene at hand, I heard the calls of children over the green
and thought briefly of the "ecchoing song" of Blake, at the same
time noting the jet trail above. The poem ends with the peculiarity
that here we were, three of us, observing these three sculptures, our own
lives bending inexorably toward the dream embodied in the works before
us. It was pretty simple to write: partial association, partial
direct observation, and once again, opening oneself to the energy
embodied in another's work.
Notes on the Texts (bibliography of ekphrasis in
literature, provided by the poet)
Ekphrasis as a Literary Device: Three Periods
Ekphrasis, or the detailed description of a work of art as emblematic of the larger
themes or as the entire focus of a poem, has a long and distinguished
history. Some examples:
Some Ancient and Medieval Examples
Homer, the shield of Achilles in Iliad, book 18.
Virgil, Aeneid VI: 28-46, carvings of Daedalus on the Temple of Apollo
- - - - , Aeneid VIII: 810-955, shield of Aeneas, with
the founding of Rome
apotheosis of Augustus.
Ovid. Metamorphoses 2.1-18 The palace of the sun.
Catullus, "The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis," #64, lines 48-259,
bedspread and covering of the marriage bed, which tells the story of
Dante, Purgatorio X: 109-110, the Cornice of Pride
Chaucer, The Knight's Tale, Pars Tercia: building of the amphitheatre,
description of the temples
Renaissance through the Romantics
Ben Jonson. "To Penshurst."
John Milton. Paradise
Lost, Book 1. Pandaemonium.
John Keats. "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Some Contemporary and 20th Century Examples
William Carlos Williams. WCW's relationships with painters (especially
Hartley and Demuth) is pretty extensively documented, and even in poems that
don't specifically refer to painting or art, he often frames them up as in
ecphrasis. Examples abound: "Portrait of a Lady,"
"A Portrait of the Times," "The Botticellian Trees,"
"Proletarian Portrait," "Portrait of a Woman in Bed,"
"Sympathetic Portrait of a Child," "A Portrait in Greys,"
"Portrait of the Author," "Perpetuum Mobile: The
City," "The Three Graces," etc. Many of his poems do
respond to specific pieces of art:
- - - - , "The Great Figure" This famous poem is a response
to Charles Demuth's painting, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold"
- - - - ,"The Dance" ("In Breughel's great picture, The
Kermess. . . ")
- - - - , "Picture of a Nude in a Machine Shop." (anonymous
- - - - , "The Birth of Venus" (ref. to Botticelli and others)
- - - - , "Pictures from Breughel" (Self-Portrait, Landscape with
the Fall of Icarus, The Hunters in the Snow, The Adoration of the Kings,
Peasant Wedding, Haymaking, The Corn Harvest, The Wedding Dance in the Open
Air, The Parable of the Blind, Children's Games)
W. H. Auden, "The Shield of Achilles."
- - - -, "Musee des Beaux Arts."
The Poets.org link below can give one many other examples in 19th and 20th
Definition at Online Encylcopedia: http://www.encyclo.co.uk/define/ecphrasis
Ecphrasis: poetry confronting art: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5918
Ecphrasis: "Hollander answers": http://www.d.umn.edu/~jjacobs1/utpictura/1.htm
Ecphrasis in Russian and French Poetry: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3763/is_200209/ai_n9096904
"Ekphrasis." The New Princeton
Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and
T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton
U P, 1993.
Laird, Andrew. "Sounding Out Ecphrasis: Art and Text in
Catullus 64." The Journal of
Roman Studies 83 (1993): 18-30.
Quinn, Kelly A. "Ecphrasis and Reading Practices in Elizabethan
Narrative Verse." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 44