Elisavietta Ritchie, Reflections: Paintings & Poems from a Poet’s Gallery. Poets’ Choice Publishing, 2016, ISBN: 978-0997262919, 168 pages. Price $25.00.
Elisavietta Ritchie’s newest collection consists entirely of ekphrastic poetry, written in a variety of styles and printed alongside their inspiration; mainly paintings from the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Ms. Ritchie’s long-time home. Her poems are a kind of work in translation, deconstructing and reassembling each of the paintings, converting visual beauty into literary beauty—but not without altering it and making it her own. In some poems, like “A Gift of Tomatoes”, Ritchie keeps within the bounds of the painting; matching Mary Blumberg’s explosion of color and loose lines with vibrant imagery of “bloody suns” that “swell and explode”. In others, like “Snowy Egret”, she reinterprets the painting, turning John James Audubon’s somewhat subdued picture of a dull white bird into an image of violence and struggle, the bird “iridescent with oil” and trapped “in slime”. Ritchie is able to make familiar and even overexposed images uniquely her own, such as her piece inspired by Domenico Veneziano’s “Madonna and Child”:
That sweet baby’s gonna
give his innocent mama
a tentful of trouble.
The glint in his eyes,
twist of his lips,
predict mischief maker
He will tip over tables,
stay too late with his elders,
hang out with riffraff.
Not the typical carpenter’s wife.
What peculiar guests
she entertains: those wings!
She may not find time
to sweep up Joe’s sawdust
or properly diaper the Infant.
Let’s observe how
she raises that Child!
As for those halos of gold-
Both have auburn hair.
You know what they say
about redheads—watch out!
Ritchie’s casual tone and vernacular reimagines the painting in an American culture of gossip and motherhood, without actually altering its subjects or context in any way. Christ is at once himself, the capital I “Infant”, and the “mischief maker” the narrator teases he is. In this piece, Ritchie makes the old appear new, and demonstrates the variety of responses that the image of Madonna, or simply of a mother, can inspire.
Ritchie’s most memorable poems are those which give voice to the objects of the painting, rather than simply commenting on it as a viewer. One of her best is “The Widow Speaks”, inspired by Adolphe Blondheim’s “The Decoration”:
They give me a medal destined for him!
So I’m a widow who never was wife…
What use is this silver bauble?
Did my fleeting lover tell his captain
my girlhood name, where to find me?
Yes, I’m still here, ten long years…
Our daughter picked oranges, filled a bowl,
we are hungry! But the artist insists he needs
the oranges for color, our faces so pale.
My dress is maroon, but he paints it dark
as my hair, as my life. What lady works
as a model? But I’ve kept on my clothes.
In the original painting, a woman looks toward the viewer, her children on either side of her, her hand resting over her heart and surrounded by shadows. Ritchie renames the poem, directing the viewer’s attention away from the “decoration”—the glass object clutched by one of the children—to the woman, and her gaze. The “widow” of Ritchie’s poem is defiant, outspoken, critiquing the artist’s choices in painting her and casting off the labels of “wife”, “lady”, “model”, and “widow” in turn. She resists being categorized by the visual cues of the painting, and, through the literary medium, is able to achieve a degree of self-expression that she seemingly was not in the visual medium—at least, so long as her representation was controlled not by herself, but by the male artist. Ritchie explores these same themes in other poems in the collection that she titles “The ______ Speaks”, including “The Hunter”, “The Wife”, “The Model”, “The Prisoners”, and “The Anemic Cashier”, to name a few.
My favorite piece in the collection is “When Foxes Came Calling”, a prose poem inspired by John Woodhouse Audubon’s “Long Red-Tailed Fox”. Her language compliments the painting, crafting a narrative behind the artist’s observation of the fox that includes both wariness and admiration, representing the beauty of the fox in “rusty collars” and “dusk his color”:
He steps among tiger lilies, alert for whoever slips past underfoot, bottlebrush
tail still as a stick. He eavesdrops, suddenly leaps, digs, bounds, pounces, nabs
wind, lands with a look admitting that he was outfoxed by a mouse, mole or vole…
© Elisavietta Ritchie and Emory (Zoe) Russo
Elisavietta Ritchie’s published books include Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes, New and Selected Poems; Guy Wires; Feathers, Or, Love on the Wing; Cormorant Beyond the Compost; Awaiting Permission to Land; Arc of the Storm; Elegy for the Other Woman; and Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country (winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “New Writer’s Award for Best First Book of Poetry 1975–76”).
Emory Russo is a student intern at the Loch Raven Review and a junior at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Emory has done editing work and written for NewsUp, BrickHouse Books, and the Loch Raven Review.