Do poets always feel envious of painters? Do painters ever envy poets? “Field Dress Portal” (NER 41.4) was not begun out of envy but out of admiration for the painting Field Dress by Lauren Woods. However, I would be lying if I did not admit to often being envious of my friends who are painters. With layers of color from an invented palette, the artist’s perception of the world is realized; sometimes, it seems like an easier task than the poet’s. I am making assumptions. Of course, I do not believe that either the painter or the poet ever endeavors because it is an easy task. Writing this poem was not a commentary on a rivalry between the sister arts—poetry and painting—but more an experiment in the ekphrastic poetic mode.
The ekphrastic poem has always eluded me. In graduate school, I failed to respond to a writing prompt by one of my favorite mentors. I never really tried again until this poem because, I think, the ekphrastic poem intimidates me. At its heart, I understand that ekphrasis—defined by The Oxford Classical Dictionary as “the rhetorical description of a work of art”—is supposed to describe and respond to a work of art beginning with the poet’s description. But how does one adhere to the mode’s expectations and, possibly, transcend the pitfall of mere description?
My response to Woods’s painting evolved over time, almost along with the artist’s reworking of her canvas. I watched the pictures of her progress on social media, the painting morphing over the course of several months. Revisions of the poem did not exactly follow the changes the painter made, but I reworked many drafts from August 2019 to the final proof for NER.
I wanted to step into the painting—to feel the tree limbs underfoot, to imagine inhabiting the lighted landscape the painter created, to understand the forest in a new way. A painting is 2-D, but how can words make it 3-D? I hope this poem enlivens the painting, creates a portal for the reader, encourages looking up the original artwork, and for the question the poem asks to be worthy of the leap. Also, I am aware that I cannot use the phrase “dead doe” without evoking “Dead Doe” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which, in my opinion, is inimitable—I bow down before her and her genius. Perhaps Woods’s painting reminded me of Kelly’s poem. And, in that regard, Noah Stezer’s poem “For All the Deer” in Sixth Finch provides another lens to ruminate on deer poems.
Most importantly, though, I consider myself a “rural poet.” What I mean by that self-designation is that I claim belonging in the rural landscape—Vermont, specifically—as a Korean American adoptee. Seeing someone like myself represented in a rural or wild landscape was not common when I was growing up. I claim the pastoral. The poem’s speaker’s identity is not disclosed, but it is important for the “I” to take up the rural descriptions, to walk through the painting, to make my own portal of belonging with words.