Saturday, March 28, 2020

Past and Present Collide in Poetry from the Future: Lorette C. Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine

“I may lie a lot. But never in my lyrics.” – Courtney Love

Imagine receiving a postcard from a friend who claimed to be writing to you from the year 2120, describing their vacation there through a series of artworks to which they were responding with duende. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. The poet Lorca stated, "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm . . . All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." The works of Lorette Luzajic, like those of Lorca himself, are utterly drenched in duende.

Now, these prose poems contained in Luzajic’s collection Pretty Time Machine are not literally from the future, of course, but they do embody something that Lorca was hinting at: the poetic rebellion against an exact present. That postcard from the future notion, for instance, is my utility of an ekphrastic gesture, a rhetorical device designed to express how these pieces make me feel. Intriguingly, the Greek language form of this expressive poetic response to works of art is contained in ekphrasis: a poetic evocation of what is seen visually and expressed linguistically, and it is as ekphrastic prose poems that Luzajic succeeds in transporting us back and forth through time via her evocative responses to a wide range of classical, modern and postmodern works of visual art. This is the fifth collection of poetry by an award-winning visual artist, writer and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, which as the title suggests, is a poetry journal devoted to just this species of emotional reaction to visual stimulus.

All of my own art criticism is, in practice, precisely such a demonstrative means of conveying what an artwork makes me feel, and so I’ve taken particular pleasure in wandering to and fro across the literary landscape that this talented writer builds for us. And I’m pleased to say that her sensitive grasp of what a visual artist is actually depicting, beneath the surface of his or her canvas, is capable of engendering an entirely new combination of interacting forces: one looks at the art inspiring her prose poems with fresh eyes, just as one reads the mysterious terrain of her words with a fresh heart. A good example of this phenomenon is her poem inspired by a timeless moment in a painting by the great Canadian artist Lawren Harris, one well worth pausing over to examine in some detail and at leisure.

Northern Lake, Lawren Harris, 1923.
“Misery Bay” (after Northern Lake, Lawren Harris, 1923)
"My paddle's keen and bright, flashing with silver . . . follow the
wild goose flight, dip dip and swing."  – Margaret Embers McGee 
 Autumn is falling, cloaking the lake in a blanket of maple
and burning orange. The fire in the sky blazes brief and swift
before giving in to darkness. The eventual stars and shy
moon spangle silver across the deep. Here on Manitoulin, in
the wild valley between cut quartz hills and blueberry moss,
we are Canadian to our marrow. Our soundtrack, lonely

We have walked across miles of shallow pools of seaweed
and foam, through armies of whining mosquitoes.

They have warned us about the coyotes. We can hear those
strange whooping yowls just beyond the horizon. You stand
still until their songs sink into silence. You wade through lily
pads, climb solemnly into the canoe. We have said all of our
goodbyes, and all of our prayers. We have offered them
naked, we have offered them with smoke and mirrors, we
have offered them with bitterness, and with the humility of
all last ditch attempts. We have been desperate but now we
are calm. We have raised our fists, but we have also given
thanks. There are no petitions or psalms left but the cry of
those dogs.

I stood at your side while you emptied into the northern
lights. The known, the unknown: only time stands between
us and then.

The boat starts softly, and you leave me standing at the edge
alone. I watch the blades of the oars sluice the shallows,
pushing off, before my tears can save you.

And you're gone.

The ferryman does not look back: the night has eyes of its

One of the many joys of this kind of writing, as an expression of what a visual artwork makes us feel, is that for me ironically it also brings about yet another overlapping and expansive form of incidental ekphrasis, that of immediately thinking of and needing to go and listen to a piece of music. In this case, it’s the popular song from 1963 written by Dorothy Wayne and performed by crooner Bobby Vee, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”: “A thousand eyes can’t help but see / If you are true to me / So remember when you tell those little white lies / That the night has a thousand eyes.” Which accidentally not only bumps into infamous widow Courtney Love’s vulnerable admission about her duplicitous real life versus her truthful lyrical life but also suddenly bangs headlong into a host of other paintings depicting skies with eyes, such as René Magritte’s remarkable 1929 painting The False Mirror, which in turn collides with a piece I happen to have penned for The Ekphrastic Review on the evocative writings of culture critic Walter Benjamin, for which I used Magritte’s image as an enigmatic emblem. It’s enough to almost give you vertigo, but of the most pleasant sort.

Decalcomania, René Magritte, 1966.

In “Shallow Lake,” a Luzajic prose poem piece composed in contemplation of another Magritte painting called Decalcomania, from 1966, she offers a highly personal account of her regular encounters with a person named Andy, not exactly a friend but more of an itinerant acquaintance she saw in the streets and felt some empathy for. Many years of such encounters and conversations eventually built up into a strange kind of intimacy, one without real physical or emotional contact per se, yet riven with a deep spiritual connection of an exotic sort. One day someone is here and part of your life; the next day, even if it’s actually twenty or so years later, they’re gone.

She received a notification online that this odd personage had passed away from cancer at age 46.
Lorette commences her contemplation of the mysteries of this missing person by remarking that the notice came to her via a person she did not know but who Andy had told that she was his closest family, a startling statement in itself. “He asked to be sure you knew he was gone,” the stranger explained, “and that he sent you all his love.” She looked online for an obituary and noticed a charity had posted an announcement at an anonymous kind of funeral home, whose site format encouraged loved ones to leave and share memories of their deceased. There were no comments. This prompted her to reflect on the Ralph Waldo Emerson observation, an ekphrastic statement of his own, that “Of all the ways to lose a person, death is the kindest” and resulted in her writing the piece in this collection called “Shallow Lake.”

For the second time now I have just typed the same typographical error, calling it “Shadow Lake” by mistake, which is perhaps a shadow title, and also another ekphrastic gesture par excellence of the most aleatory sort. But it was the little northern town of Shallow Lake, population 317, from which Andy hailed. In one of the lines of this piece, the author shares that “[t]his story has no ending. It’s just part of my fabric, one layer of love and loss in the roots of how and who I am . . . He is a prototype, a ghost, an ordinary guy. He is there but not there, for the first time in the long enigma of Andy, I can see right through him.” And thus perhaps the ideal portrait of someone who isn’t really there, maybe never was, was captured through the feverish yet calm demeanor of a great visionary painter such as Magritte. It’s not a picture of Andy, it’s a picture of every lonesome Andy everywhere, and nowhere, and of Shallow Lake, population 316.

Premonition, Henryk Weyssenhoff, 1893.
Premonition (After Premonition, by Henryk Weyssenhoff, 1893)

On that night, the wine was bitter and the sky had the feeling
of purple rain. The hounds were gone haywire in the yard,
and the wind was howling at the moon. You were locked
inside, tethered by cancer to the bedposts and sheets, your
eyes were twin shotguns and your face was just a skull. I
wondered, selfishly, what would become of me when you
slipped away from your skin. There came sounds of thunder
from across the river but it sounded like the screaming of a
million bells, not like a storm. You saw it too, the thin man
in the dark hood, pale as hell, coming on the waves. You saw
him through the walls, and I saw him in your eyes.
The deep evocation of the impending passing of someone close to you is extremely palpable in this piece, one of several which focus on mortality and the brevity of our obscure existence. Especially a short one called "The Writer," focusing on a friend dying of cancer and the eventual fate of his literary papers subsequently. Another favorite of mine, one of her best I believe, is called "The Encyclopedia of Obscure Shadows" (after The Dead Toreador by Edouard Manet, 1864|).
All the art in Seville is making our eyes bleed. We cannot
bear the beauty of another palacio or a million mosaics, or
the clatter of one more café. We follow the swans around the
bend, under a bundle of low leaves, into the soundless grove.
I’ve told you already to go off and find yourself a young
woman, someone who could keep up in this heat, but you
were too busy fiddling with your camera battery to assuage
my neuroses.

If I was afraid to come here with you, it’s only because I
was afraid of what I might lose.

There is an old woman in flowing purple and red scarves,
armloads of bangles, and sensible shoes. I do a double take,
thinking for a strange second that I am passing some kind of

When I turn back, she has her arms around the trunk of a
tree. She stands there like that for a long time.

There is no one else in the garden for a quiet mile. We
stumble on a murder of doves, luminous orbs of white in the
green foliage. After a while, we hear far off lonely strains of
Puccini, move toward the sound and find a violinist
performing for a small film crew and a few Muscovies.

Restored, we retrace our steps through the Parque Maria
Luisa and back into the medina, searching for wine and

It is too early to turn in, especially in Spain, but sleep is
the only thing we want for, so we go to it. You fall into me,
a little rough, then gentle, and I turn a little after so you
won’t see that I am crying.

And it’s too soon to tell you this is everything I ever
wanted, even if I didn’t know it until now.

I dream about the bull bar in Madrid, all those heads from
fallen beasts watching us watching the city. We sipped on a
broth made of their tails. There was a shrine heaving under
worn photographs, a thousand tasseled toreadors, too many
of them just boys, satin and gilt swans dancing between life
and death.

I watched a bull fall in Lima, watched as they dragged
his vanquished carcass around the ring. I wouldn’t have
believed it then myself, how I could be tamed. 
The Dead Toreador, Edouard Manet, 1864 (National Gallery, Washington).

The title of this piece alone is worthy of the great Fernando Pessoa, and it reminds me of what I enjoy so much about this kind of prose poem, a spirit also found in the raw and beautiful works of Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Elias Canetti, and certain short works by Robert Musil. What is that spirit exactly? I don’t know. In fact, not knowing is what it’s about I believe. It is beyond mere exactitude and borders on sheer metaphysical bliss, it is trembling and shimmering, barely able to be sustained by the language on the page. The prose poems collected in both Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire and The Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud share a similarly indefinite grasping after something immaterial and yet so heavy it presses the reader down into the earth of the page. We bury ourselves in certain writers, who welcome us back home as if we were being born, not again, but for the first time. At certain unexpected moments, Pretty Time Machine provides exactly this same kind of tourist bureau service: short excursions into and out of the void.

Safe return from our mutual vacations into the void is guaranteed by poetry itself, our passport is pre-approved and stamped, by virtue of our temporary encasement in bodies that come and go, and by its obscure providing of the only meaning of life we’ll ever really be certain of: that it stops (as Kafka remarked to his friend Max Brod during one especially tormented night) And yet, such prose poems as these by Luzajic also provide us with some consolation for the fact that life is impermanent. It is found in precisely the corollary to this realization that life is so tantalizingly temporary, and it consists in the privilege of knowing the actual purpose of life: to make impermanence meaningful. That very purpose may surprise some readers, as well it should. That is exactly what makes the reflections contained in Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine so precious, and that is exactly the fragile diagnostic task of ekphrasis in the first place, and also in the last.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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