What Else Could It Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations
Carolina Wren Press, 2015
Paperback, 95 pp.
My God, It’s Full of Stars
Ekphrasis and collaboration are a kind of vandalism, a kind of confession in which the ephemeral, and not stasis, emerges as the truer reality. Ekphrasis and collaboration are an erasure of identity, a forking of possibilities and the acknowledgement that all possible realities are possible simultaneously. And in the poems found in Ravi Shankar’s latest collection, What Else Could It Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations, we find ourselves positioned within the text as witness and agent to both the unutterable and illimitable ways that art exposes how we mean.
What Else Could It Be fittingly opens with a poem on a work of art by Marc Chagall, an artist, who over the course of his career was influenced by Modernist movements, such as cubism and surrealism, who worked in multiple mediums from painting to stained glass, but who simultaneously defied traditional classification, as well. In Chagall’s own words, his “art is an extravagant art, a flaming vermilion, a blue soul flooding over my paintings,” effusive in expression and its demands on our imaginations. In “Blue Circus,” the poem titled after the work of art itself, Shankar matches Chagall’s energy and playfulness, exacting in line and tone in a joyous ode to invention and beauty as it can only be achieved through a kind of controlled chaos, “like a prayer / that sometimes ends / in laughter” (Shankar 1). The painting, the poem, our experience of Shankar’s experience before the work, all truly a “river without banks / speculum mundi” (1), a way of preparing ourselves to see the work on the pages ahead, the world even, with eyes and minds anew. And immediately we are situated perfectly to access all that is to follow.
In that very same section, just two poems later, in fact, in a piece written in collaboration with poet Alvin Pang, Shankar explores future “rivers without banks” in the poem “All Tomorrow’s Ancestors.” Though the most prevalent tone of the poem denies it, the poem is itself a celebration of hybridity and an exploration of the ephemerality of self, which can perhaps best be explored in the very last tercet:
The fossil air stiffens into breeze, into heat, folds light
over itself in waves, impossible to trace without smearing
the instruments with agency. Particularizing whatever will be. (4)
Here, the idea that attempting to name, to declare what we think we know, even when it comes to naming ourselves, is “impossible” without “smearing / the instruments” we use to take those measurements, “with agency,” ultimately denying the signified’s truest expression. The imposition of tercets on the poem is also an expression of such folly, intimating that we should disabuse ourselves the notion that ideas explored in any poem can be materialized, commodified and given specific shape and form. The poem even makes allusion to Frost’s best know poem, “The Road Not Taken,” (which is commonly interpreted to mean that we are defined by our choices, our attempts to “particularize whatever will be”) in the first stanza, claiming “the road last travelled barely road, nearly desert now, / parched coarse as a lunar surface, erasing the footprints” (4). Or, that whatever lasting mark we felt we may have made in this world is as immaterial as the, “Burnt out taxis [which] rust like lozenges on the tongue of rain” (1) found in the first line of the poem, and that the greater experience is in its own immateriality.
Just as fittingly, the book ends with a reminder on the virtues of ephemerality in the poem, “The Virtues of Vandalism,” written in collaboration with Daniel Donaghy. Again, in this poem it is easy to “smear the instruments with agency,” disallowing ourselves to embrace the idea that vandalism is not only necessary but that it is a type of beauty; that accepting beauty in all of its forms is itself a violent, necessary disruption of our own expectations. The poem is born of the same opening line as “All Tomorrow’s Ancestors” (one of the many lines Shankar shared with each collaborator as a way to begin each new poem), further instilling the idea that “for now, nothing exists” (80), erasing the notion that each poem occupies, even deserves a singular, individuated space in our imaginations. This poem, too, is fashioned into tercets, as if we truly peered into our “ancestor’s tomorrows” at the beginning of the book.
What Else Could it Be: Ekphrastics and Collaborations is a book that demands the reader’s undivided attention at every turn. The entire collection is rich and elaborate. Even the quotes used to give definition to the different sections eschew our desire to impose commonality on the works we encounter, and perhaps none more so that the Nietzsche quote that begins the third and final section of the book: “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to birth a dancing star” (49). In other words, we must be able to, nay, demand of ourselves that we permit “The Virtues of Vandalism” be evidenced in our lives.
Ralph Pennel is the author of A World Less Perfect for Dying In, published in 2015 by Cervena Barva Press. Ralph’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, F(r)iction, The Cape Rock, Apercus Quarterly, Monologues From the Road, Right Hand Pointing, Rain Taxi Review of Books and various other journals. He teaches poetry at Bentley University and literature at Bunker Hill Community College. Ralph is a founding editor and the fiction editor of the online literary journal, Midway Journal. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart, and he was a finalist for Somerville Poet Laureate in 2014.