My friend Jane Edberg, who is a writer and visual artist, and I coined the term etymphrastic to describe visual arts that are created in direct reaction to poetry. It’s a counterpoint to ekphrastic, which describes poetry written in reaction to visual arts. I don’t know whether The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is etymphrastic or ekphrastic because the photography by de Koninck and the poems by Serchuk work playfully together. My guess, however, is that whichever way it went this collection was probably done in a kind of joyful collaboration. I read this collection because of my admiration for Serchuk. I came to know his work through the New Voices Project, which will be publishing a book on April 18th. It is the work of dozens of writers and poets writing new work about the Holocaust. The hope is that we might understand it and keep learning new lessons from it. His work in this collection is painful, so I expected that same kind of thing here. Instead, what I read was joy. The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is a playful collection that examines what things do for us and how they bring us joy; while I will be quoting the poetry in this article, the poetry is incomplete without the images that go with it, the image and poetry together forming the meaning of the book.
This book of etymphrastic and ekphrastic work is innovative in its use of this approach, and its use of short measure as a poetic form. Short measure is a form defined by a quatrain of iambic verse using 6, 6, 8, 6 syllables in each line. The result of this is a bouncy, playful meter that is child-like without being childish. Serchuk’s poems stop after only two stanzas, so they are quick as well as being playful. However, it is the white space between poem and image that helps us to form meaning. For example, in The Purpose of Dirt,’ Serchuk writes,
To bristle every broom.
To bury every war.
To wash the smirk off every face
that wears a righteous smile.
Asylum for the root.
Confetti for the dead.
To know the work in any man
by scouring his hands (45).
The image that accompanies the poem is a bin of dirt sitting in the middle of a cemetery. The seemingly happy and bouncing nature of the poetry, juxtaposed with the image of dirt presumably left over after being displaced by the dead, and also juxtaposed with discussion of war dead, creates a tension that is difficult and uncomfortable to sort out in the reader’s head. After all, the rhythm and the style draws us toward lightness and humor, but there is a level of guilt once we feel this emotion given the discourse of the photographer and poet. This tension is where this book often lives and helps us to get a more complex understanding of the things that inhabit our world.
The Purpose of the Things: Illuminating the Ordinary is an interesting dive that plays with what poetry can do. I found myself breezing through the first reading because it is a quick read. But it stayed with me. Subsequent readings were slower, and I spent more time thinking about the tension of images and words. The two artists take on so many ideas and explore so many points of view that it’s a little dizzying. Each one though demands attention and reflection. Each one hides a power that can be understood only through some level of meditation.
John Brantingham 27th May 2023