An Ekphrasis of “I Saw Three Cities” by Kay Sage

A poem that is based heavily on a work of art, by means of depiction or re-imagination, is called an ekphrasis. Here is my attempt at one based on the surrealist painting “I Saw Three Cities” by Kay Sage, pictured below.

I Saw Three Cities, 1944, Oil on canvas


She likes the dark because there are no shadows;
Her monochrome gray pigments birth the Guardian
She prays to — asking to shield us from sunlight,
An overlord onlooker cloaked with
Robes to match the sky and shards of the city,
Dressed much too warm, standing much too high.

She begins with human — that is where we all begin:
Tracing out folded sinews with rough brush fibers,
Plump with meat enough to hold a beating
Heart. But her strokes become violent as she succumbs –
She breaks off one by one the limbs, squaring
The curves into angles to build a staff
Glued together by nails and screws, not sinew,
Human now looking much more like drapes of cloth than
What would hold together muscle and bone.

The beating heart still casts a shadow, however.
It cannot be, she says, shaking her praying hands.
So once she smothers it into the fabric (not sinew),
Even the drape cannot hold up its act much longer
To hide that underneath, there are no bones, no blood.

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