For a number of years I’ve asked my students to write poems inspired by artworks. My initial incursions in this area came from my participation in a program that was administered by the National Gallery of Victoria in partnership with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, with the participation of local poet Bonny Cassidy, who guided both teachers and students through the process of transforming visual art into literary art. I produced a couple of poetic efforts myself at that time, which are included below.
After a few years without ekphrasis, I’ve returned to it with my current Year 10 English class, this time expanding beyond poetry to allow them to produce prose inspired by artworks. As part of this I stumbled across the very interesting anthology In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block, and we looked at stories by Block himself and Stephen King. I thought my students would be interested in checking out my work (and others may be, too), and I’ll be collecting all of their efforts together in a publication that I’ve created called Exploring Ekphrasis.
As well as the poems, I’ve included a short story that I wrote for the Moreland Libraries short story competition, which was inspired by an artwork by Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison, ‘And Zarafa Kept Walking.’ I enter the competition each year with my son (although we missed last year) and we’ve each won twice, with this story being judged the winning entry in 2019. Enjoy!
The Parliament of Birds
The realm between the steadfast earth and the vaulted heavens is the domain of the birds. When they tire of the mundane concerns of earthbound life they take to the air. There they capture the wind and dive on a wimpling wing. Terrestrial creatures stare up at them and marvel as they swoop through the sky in mysterious patterns that seem like they might carry meaning if only it could be deciphered.
At certain times of great trouble the birds all gather together: curlew and crow, cormorant and cockatoo, cuckoo and crane. They gather from every land and they parade every type of plumage that can be imagined: down of bright vermillion and dull grey, magnificent trailing tail feathers and towering headpieces. Most fly but there have been delegates that have been known to swim or to wade through the shallow waters on long thin legs. The emus and cassowaries make their way across the sunburnt land and there are even those who hitch a ride on a lumbering mammal.
Rarely do humans become aware of such events, but the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar wrote about the ‘Conference of the Birds’ in 1177 and Chaucer described the ‘Parlement of Foules’ in the 14th Century. These distorted accounts fail to capture the true sagacity of these creatures of the air.
The birds are beginning to gather now that crisis is upon us once more. Even the humans with their limited understanding of nature have begun to grasp what they are doing to the world. It’s already too late for the great auk and the dodo, of course, both of whom made valuable contributions to the last parliament. In fact, nearly 200 species of bird have become extinct since 1500.
Consultation with the bees and other insects with whom they share the increasingly polluted air has been invaluable. All can see the impending catastrophe. The parliament of birds will not suffer from the same failures of leadership that have seen the humans flounder in the face of the destruction they have wrought and continue to inflict on the world. Not for them the venal kowtowing to vested interests and the loss of nerve of representatives who fear losing their jobs more than they fear losing the planet. No, the wisdom of the owl is such that it has become proverbial and the cunning of the crow outmatches that of Odysseus of old.
All that remains for those of us navigating the clogged highways and concrete-clad cities of the human world is to watch carefully and try to learn from those who have proven themselves our superiors. If we can live as part of nature rather than separating ourselves from it then maybe we stand a chance. We had better just hope that this parliament of birds hasn’t decreed that the only way to survive is to do it without us.
Listen out for that tapping on the window and, above all, watch the skies.
Navigating the Inland Sea
Scattered stones bruise the terrain;
These fragile fragments endure.
Waves bulge and belly without shore;
We listen for traces of voices.
Shivering iron unlocks the air;
These small vibrations speak to us.
The Garden of Love
Staring forlornly from the gallery wall
At the people who gaze and linger,
Time passes slowly, changing nothing at all.
The garden is green but lacking bird call,
Figures frozen in place without even hunger:
Staring forlornly from the gallery wall.
Love is defined by passion and will
To overcome obstacles, give them the finger,
But sometimes it changes nothing at all.
This fountain divides us, leads to our fall:
Makes us mortals mistrust and even malinger
While staring forlornly from gallery wall.
Chastity frowns down, casts us in a pall,
Trapped in a space where we can’t lift a finger
To stop time from passing, changing nothing at all.
Our fine clothes confine us, wrapped in a shawl
Of brocaded velvet that draws us in thinner,
As we stare forlornly from the gallery wall
And time passes slowly, changing nothing at all.