Ekphrasis, in Greek, means “description.” I’m a big fan of ekphrastic poetry, that genre that, on the most basic level, is writing something descriptive about a visual representation (a painting, a photo, a sculpture). As the Poetry Foundation defines it, “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” The Academy of American Poets offers some fine-tuning that syncs nicely with my own work, saying “[M]odern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.”
Since my first encounters with the poetry of Ferlinghetti, and my first attempts with the flaming giraffes of Dalì, I have grown quite fond of art as inspiration. Thus is born the first poem inspired by the art of David Sweeney. His work, if you’ll forgive the brief, Cliff Notes-style, non-poetic ekphrasis, reminds me of the dream-like canvases of the Surrealists; his paintings make use of collage, of mixed media, which always summon my attention, reminiscent of the way I gravitate to some of the works of Picasso, Ernst or Braque. I am especially drawn to the appearance of text–newspaper clippings, stenciled quotes, scribbled phrases–in his art; the intersection of image and word begging for the poet’s ekphrasis. Lest I ramble on too much, I leave you to look at his œuvre at your leisure. If you find something you like, snatch it up, it’s hard to find good original art these days.
And now, to the poem.
It was first inspired by David Sweeney’s painting #517.
The italics (except for the French), including the title, are taken from some articles in the NYTimes regarding air travel. The thrust of the poem, in language and subject, has changed repeatedly, and the last line was a surprise, unexpected in its return to a minor detail in the painting, as I finished this, draft version 1.5.
Whatever Happened to First Class?
First, let’s get things straight. The euphemism for first caste has got to go, cleared for takeoff–always a misnomer misnaming for misdirection. Even before da Vinci’s device and the Wrights’ winged wonder, the ocean-gliding, wave-riding masted masterpieces kept the dividing line pretty clear, offering free passage to free labor for the not-so-free folks packed in the hold, barely holding on to their humanity, barely holding on to their little-scrap lunch.
So what happened to first caste? Classy became the label rather than the behavior, fancy china replacing fine company, fancy curtain replacing fine linen. And in first caste, room to stretch and kick, lie flat as capital’s whore, 300 channels to choose as you charge IMac and IPad and IPod and IPhone and IBeeper and ISnob, sip champagne, the warm wet sandpaper towel wiping from your face the grime of those in the back of the bus, the tail of the plane, the bottom of the boat. High above, the 1 percent fly first class; the .1 percent fly Netjets; the .01 percent fly their own planes.
Meanwhile, tail-side, knees to chest, elbows tucked with three-pretzel packs and chocolate-chip puck, the chosen few of the 99% lucky to escape the surface, grouped into herds by booking for boarding, one movie on one screen, one position for your one-inch seat, unsettle in for takeoff and turbulence.
And on the ground, far below, the (un)lucky 99%, stick in traffic, hostage to the toll road trolls, opt for one of the 300 $ burgers at the 300 fast food joints for the 300 lbs, the only bubbles from the soda machine–bottom caste transport never felt good.
“You go into first class because it’s less horrible than coach.” No cash to pay outright, CapitalOne card hassled to the max? Then it is perhaps with the free upgrade, high miles in your frequent flier club, without mile high club fornicating to give the bumpy flight some purpose. Which seat do you book? Which level are you?
Platinum Premium or Bronze Business, Elite Economy or Cushy Coach Poached Ivory or Plated Silver, Gaudy Gold or Dazzling Diamond these are the new Fabulous First, Satisfying Second, Thirsty Third, Struggling Steerage which were Captain and mates and crew and slaves from King and Court and Lords and Serfs. Plus ça change, the more it stays the same.
And somewhere in the middle, betwixt the heaven and the hell, the poet, drifting in his dirigible, observes them all.