Food for Thought is a series in which tastemakers from different fields consider their knowledge in relation to Old Masters, asking how they might offer a fresh perspective in the way one engages with the art of the past.
My poems explore sexuality, desire, history, and art. Many of my poems are ekphrastic, responding to works of art, or at least inspired by works of art and the worlds of feeling they evoke.
I am drawn to visual arts in my poetry, because I’m drawn to visual arts in my life, especially art from antiquity and paintings and sculpture from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, which I’ve loved since my childhood years in Munich. In those days, I dreamed of living in the time of Mozart; I thought history was an ornate room I could be myself in. I have returned as an adult recently, with more knowledge and understanding, but with the same sense of wonder at the grand sweep of Rubens’s mythological scenes in the Alte Pinakothek or the powerful sense of history, a collapsing of time, in the Antiquarium at the Residenz.
Many of the paintings I love are like lyric poems already, inspired by narratives, but capturing one sumptuous moment. I could spend hours with Rubens’s Cupid Making His Bow (1614), his copy of Parmigianino. The painting vibrates with poetic tensions. Nude, but for his wings, and holding the knife he crafts his bow with, Cupid is vulnerable and also threatening. He turns his head back toward the viewer: he knows we are watching him. Even without his arrows, he pierces us; we ourselves are conscripted into his work of seduction.
Immersion in other arts—thinking about form and technique, gesture and perspective—gives me new ways of thinking about what poetry can do. Ekphrastic poems can raise questions about representation, about the limits and capabilities of different media to capture or enact sensory experience. But most of all: the works give pleasure.
Often, encounters with works of visual art cast light on the inner lives of my poems’ speakers. I wrote “Book of Statues,” which engages with the work of Benvenuto Cellini, in order to remember a connection in time between a boy’s obsession with male nude statues and the murder of Matthew Shepard. In “Looking at Medieval Art,” the extremity and violence of medieval objects inspired a meditation on loneliness and sexual hunger. When I am lost, as a writer, I know I will find direction by returning to the work of the artists I love: Rubens, Watteau, Sargent, and others. In the quiet of the gallery space, my mind and my heart feel loud. Works of art provide me with something to measure the self against.
Most recently, as life was at last opening up, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to look at Jupiter Rebuked by Venus, painted in 1612-13 by the Flemish painter Abraham Janssens. A rival of Rubens, Janssens painted large-scale works inspired by mythological and religious subjects. He died in 1632.
The painting, alone but commanding on the wall at one end of the gallery, is a window into the world of the gods. It shows Venus arguing with Jupiter, who sits dejected with his head in his hands. The goddess’s body is muscular like one of Michelangelo’s sibyls; she holds a finger up to Jupiter. With her other hand she clutches the wrist of her son, Cupid. They are surrounded by other gods—some nude, some in armor, some cloaked in rich and swirling fabrics. There are two birds. Juno (I identify her by her signature peacock) has her back to the viewer. Jupiter’s eagle’s neck is suggestively erect between his legs. Turning this way or that, nearly every face in the painting is at least partially obscured or obstructed.
Outside the painting, it was April. The museum gallery was empty, but the space of the painting was crowded. Spring was just shivering into existence in Chicago: I wore my dark coat, but the central figures in the painting were nude. I was masked. I was drawn to the painting’s grandeur, its dynamism, as well as to the tension between its erotic refusal—Love’s rebuke at the heart of the painting’s narrative—and its sensual, bodily splendor.
When I wrote the ekphrastic poem, my aim was not merely to describe the appearance of the painting or to retell its classical narrative, but to capture something of my experience of the work’s Baroque sensuality.