Color, Ekphrasis, and the David Bowie Dilemma in Peter Jay Shippy’s A spell of songs

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Peter Jay ShippyYou begin A spell of songs in a startling way. “Untrimm’d” employs language which harkens back to the beginnings of epic poetry like Ovid and Milton. What follows are poems about intense personal relationships. Why did you choose to begin your collection in this register?

An earlier version of the book contained more poems like “Untrimm’d”—small pieces, lyrics, songs. I thought of them as a counterpoint to the other poems, which employ long lines and dubious punctuation. The title alludes to Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet—but it’s also a joke, calling attention to the book’s feral nature.

In “Blue, Stumbling Buzz” you mention Jan van Eyck. I was just reading that his Arnolfini wedding portrait has been poured over by art historians for decades. There is much debate in deciphering that image. I find that portrait akin to your collection. The symbolism and rich color add so much to the subject matter. Why did you mention van Eyck in this poem?

I’ve always loved his name—ike!—and the spider webs he painted on the vaulting of an imaginary cathedral. I think scholars call this “small time”—imperfections on paradise. Maybe he’s a proto-surrealist. The title is lifted from Dickinson, and the poem imagines another kind of signing away of keepsakes. A time when van Eyck might be exhibited on the walls of a village library.

You make an extraordinary and memorable use of color throughout the collection. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a “novel of color.” How does the writer use color to make impressions on the reader?

It wasn’t deliberate, which is just as well. If I had noticed—I might have washed them away. For the last few years, I’ve taught a course on ekphrastic literature. We read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Rafael Alberti’s To Painting, Gertrude Stein & Kevin Young’s To Repel Ghosts, among others. Maybe I ended up teaching myself something!

Along with color you make a fascinating use of symbols—their meaning is not immediately apparent, but like the symbols of medieval poetry, it takes some effort to decipher them. It is a very pleasurable experience! What is your approach to using symbols in poetry?SpellofSongsfrontcover

A few days ago I was reading a discussion between the novelist Rick Moody and the philosopher Simon Critchley. Their topic was David Bowie’s 1979 album, Lodger. Ostensibly, it was two middle-aged guys comparing who they were to who they are and how time reframes criticism. But, there was one moment that illustrated the poet’s dilemma—having to use words as opposed to notes or paint. Moody complained that the lyrics to “Fantastic Voyage,” the opening track, once bothered him because they were strange and unrhymed: “In the event/That this fantastic voyage/Should turn to erosion/and we never get old.” Now that he’s “desperately-middle-aged… I find it exhilarating.”

Critchley has no problem with the lyrics—then & now —because he had read the modernists. He describes Bowie’s lyrics as Pound-like.

So, always, the poet depends on a smart reader, an energetic reader, a patient reader—but even then, sometimes you have to wait for them to turn 50!

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Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
with a black boa and my mother was born

filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow,
Grampus slipped out the window and raced

a greyhound to the coast, on the shelf, a jar
of white rice shook itself silly, like stoned lice,

I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,
don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…

there’s no going back, in fact, it was me who wrapped
her own bawling mother in the Gazette while

Uncle Maxim greased his balancing pole and split
his pants for work, I read the funnies, specially

the strips with animals that wouldn’t exist
when I was a girl, I loved the one with Bugg,

a mustachioed cockroach from Bohemia
who broke English into confetti when he professed

his love for Clarice, a beetle from Rio
with question marks on her wing covers, so

we daubed-on whiteface and donned smoked glasses,
Nana latched the baby to her breast and ordered

a dozen long-stemmed American Beauties
and used the box to construct a pinhole projector,

at first light we were off to watch the cortege
carry the body of Atlas, our strongman,

to his resting place on the spinning stool
at the end of the bar, we rode the boneshakers

to the river and skipped stones at kids until
they handed over their lunch pails, her pupils

were black as pips, snake-eyes, the dog throw,
my mother’s eyes struck my eyes like matchsticks,

the sun whistled white as bone, Uncle Maxim
dipped a Kaiser roll into the warm water

then molded it into a dummy and plugged
my mother’s red yawp, years later, he would lead

a crack camouflage unit during the war,
they managed to conceal hundreds of clouds

from enemy zeppelins, years later
Grampus’s shadow came home and stained the carpet,

years later Nana stuck me to her old tit
and taught me to steer robotic mitts with my thoughts,

years later Bugg’s moustache grew into two queries,
as my mother grew older she stopped stomping

the floor like Trotsky, the amazing counting horse,
and so the circus ran away from her,

don’t ask how or I’ll tell you how and then…
I was there, her daughter, sipping sack, a witness,

Nana slapped a phony Fabergé egg
filling the kitchen with the smell of first snow.

 

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Peter Jay Shippy is the author of Thieves Latin, winner of the 2002 Iowa Poetry Prize, Alphaville (BlazeVox, 2006), and How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (Rose Metal Press, 2007). He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2005 he received a Gertrude Stein Award for innovative poetry. He teaches writing at Emerson College.

Jordan Rothschild hails from Philadelphia and is a graduate of Temple University. He is currently completing a M.A. degree in English. He enjoys exploring the rich cultural heritage of the City of Brotherly Love.