Poetry & Sculpture: David Cope and the Making of Two Poems:
"A Dream of Jerusalem" and "I, You, She, or He"
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
Jaume Plensa was born 1955 in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. 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.
"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 calling doves."
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 reborn.
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.
I, You, She or He
for Jaume Plensa
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 stone).
Collection of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, 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 itself.
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.
David Cope Biography
David Cope has published six books: Quiet Lives, 1983; On The Bridge, 1986; Fragments from The Stars, 1990; Coming Home, 1993; Silences for Love, 1998; Turn the Wheel, 2003. His seventh book, Moonlight Rose in Blue, is nearly finished. He has been the editor and publisher of Big Scream poetry magazine since 1974; Nada Poems in 1988; and elegies for Allen Ginsberg in 1998, Sunflowers and Locomotives: Songs for Allen. He has received many awards including the 1988 Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters and the 1984 Grand Rapids Community College Distinguished Alumni Award. He currently teaches Women’s Studies, Shakespeare, drama, and creative writing at Grand Rapids Community College. He has been married for 38 years to Suzanne, has three grown kids, and is a kayaker and gardener.
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 and the
apotheosis of Augustus.
Ovid. Metamorphoses 2.1-18 The palace of the sun.
Catullus, "The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis," #64, lines 48-259, the ornamental
bedspread and covering of the marriage bed, which tells the story of Ariadne.
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 calendar art)
- - - - , "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 century poetry.
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 (2004).