Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Notional ekphrasis – what even is it? [April 22]

This week I learnt a new term: notional ekphrasis (sounds like ’emphasis’). It means writing about an imaginary artwork. I learnt about it in a workshop with Robin Hemley, Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT.

And then I tried my hand at it:

 

The ceramic tiles will come from the demolition of a kitchen in which a woman only ever baked one pie (from a gift her husband gave her called ‘The Slut’s Cookbook’).

The tile fragments will be stuck in place by an artist who used to be an ornithologist (before an artery in her neck grew a lining of cells that promised to stop the blood flowing to her head next time she went bush).

The image will be of a rainbow bee-eater I once saw on an island where dingos outnumbered people (and where a woman whose child was bitten by one put out poison bait just before she boarded the ferry).

The ceramic bird will be attached to the back wall of my garden (over which I sometimes hear a man bullying his son into playing the drums while the piano-playing man belts out the same Elton John song at least fourteen times in a row).

The mosaic will soon be streaked with shit from the mynahs (who perch on the wall in a neat queue before taking their turn to bathe in the ceramic bowl I put in the garden for the native birds.) 

In spring the jasmine vines will grow over the mosaic until all I can see from the kitchen window are kaleidoscopic fragments of a dirty rainbow.

(But it will smell great.) 

 

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And then there is simple ekphrasis: a verbal representation of a visual representation. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts (1940)’ is a lovely example.

I had a go at that too, with an old postcard of Mt Etna erupting:

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Without imagination, there would be no science.

Stephen must have forgotten this.

He never believed the sky had turned purple.

He knew the postcard from his Italian uncle had been given the same technicolour treatment given to Dorothy before she clicked her imaginary heels in Oz.

Besides, even if those billowing clouds of ash had somehow washed the sky purple, this time there would be no clouds, no ash, no purple sky, because now all was dormant.

It had been ninety years since the last eruption. Tourists had been crawling all over the crumbling rim of the crater for the last sixty of those.

But perhaps Stephen had been carrying this image in his mind since boyhood. The invitation. The seduction. The promise. Perhaps this was the version of the world he’d secretly been hoping to find at the summit.

Stephen was a scientist. He looked for signs that came in clusters, for clusters that could be corralled into evidence. Imagination was the enemy of evidence. Imagination turned a blue sky purple.

When he felt a tightening twinge in his left shoulder as he knelt there in the crumbling pumice, he didn’t read it as a sign. He blamed his imagination.

The sky was blue, after all.