It’s been more than five years since I started Ekostories. In the About section, I wrote that I originally chose the “Eko” prefix because it was a derivation from the Greek word “oikos”, meaning home or household, which was the root word for ecology, meaning the study of home or household. Over the years I have learned through happy coincidence that the name and this blog has taken on another meaning, of ekphrasis, which is the retelling of art through interpretation and re-creation.
I’ve tried to engage in this process on several occasions, particularly with art-related Ekostories. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop at the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat with Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan as she tackled the subject of writing about art and artists:
“How do we begin to describe the sound and texture of music? To convey the act of painting, or the effect that that painting has upon the viewer? How do we express in words the flavours in a thoughtfully made dish? Can verisimilitude ever be achieved? In this workshop we will look at excerpts of published works, as well as pieces of student writing, with an eye to grappling with this cross-genre “translation.”
– Workshop description
Moving from Homer’s shield in The Iliad and Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn to contemporary depictions of music (Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing) and ceramics (Edmund De Waal’s The White Road) in prose, we examined various forms of ekphrasis before attempting our own. Drawing upon a set selection of paintings, Edugyan tasked us to provide a technical critique along with a more creative interpretation.
After touring through the desolate landscapes around Hvalfjörður (translated as “whale fjord”) in Western Iceland the previous day, I found myself gravitating towards one particular painting called “Uplands” by Canadian artist Ivan Kenneth Eyre. Here is my attempt at something lyrical, polished up from the exercise. (I like how this looks on the page, but this is not a poem, and I’m not a poet, so please excuse the line breaks.)
West Iceland landscape in spring.
Skógafoss waterfall, South Iceland.
Hvalfjörður, West Iceland.
Church in Vik, South Iceland.
Hraunfossar Waterfalls, West Iceland.
Reynisfjara, South Iceland.
Basalt Columns at Reynisfjara.
He streams past the blue asters in bloom
Vaulting off the chalk cliffs
The distant shore unheeded
So eager is he is to grasp the point
Now vague in hindsight through the mists of time
That he cleaves the wilderness in two
Severing all other possibilities
To focus on the extreme operation
In years and resolve
The briar and mires exact their tolls
Until he craves nothing but to pause and curl
Into the embrace of old pines
But their branches break under his burden
and he cannot climb them
and he cannot stop then
forced to shuffle on
an agent of gravity and inertia
to seek always the low place
Until one day he finds himself at the sea
And as he looks back at the white perch he once stood
He sees his route and journey all at once
As he has never seen it before
Will never see again.
The waves murmur and he turns
to return the word
in the breath that was given him
Before looking up at the sky
waiting for night to fall
The still stars to show.
As I wrote, the exercise became less about the painting and more about the time I spent in a foreign place, my mind turning over this land of fire and ice that I barely had time to graze with my eyes. For a while now I had felt that I was in need of a recharge in mindset and setting, so this meander in body and spirit, this interlude between act and act, might have been just what I needed to get me going again. In the next while I hope to refocus my energies here on Ekostories. Until next time.