Responsibility in the Impossible
Steve Johnson, Untitled (Orange, Red, and Blue), 2018 (Unsplash)
by George Reiner
I Need Music
Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2020. 256 pp.
Ekphrasis, the written description of an artwork, is ‘the doom of an ultimate and inevitable failure, the absurdity or unnaturalness in writing a poem for a painting’ . This failure arises from the distinction between affect and language inherent within the written description of an artwork and how the writer was affected. For affect is a nonconscious experience of sensations or thoughts that precedes emotional states and thus cannot be fully realised in language. Nonetheless, this has not deterred writers whose attempts have developed a rich ekphrastic tradition from The Iliad to Chinese ti-hua-shi.
Curator, artist and poet Anaïs Duplan’s newest collection, I Need Music, delves deeply into ekphrasis, its impossibility and potential, through the community of creatives he gathers inside. This community is as varied as it is captivating, including figures like Tory Michie, John Dewey, Adyashanti, James Brown and Eartha Kitt to name very few. The collection’s companion site helpfully houses the notes associated with this community to invite further exploration of their work, becoming an intertextual syllabus for the reader that is well worth studying.
Duplan’s admittal of ekphrastic failure as “a manner I can’t describe aptly”, denies his voice any authority that simultaneously provides space for the collection’s community and welcomes the reader. However, he still tries to:
by listing the things it reminds me of:
robots at the beach, the darkest depression ’n’ the brightest cheer.
Duplan leans into language’s deferral of meaning, a “complement, or a tributary” meaning produced through a network of other terms, to describe how the work affects him. This “negation, evasion ‘n’ loss” translates into the above juxtapositions whose emotional range signals the impossibility to encapsulate affect within a singular term. Duplan’s frustration at this is palpable:
Do the particular words I’m choosing
point to different parts of the creative process,
or help explain how Katerina’s paintings are made?
The fear of misrepresentation makes “writing […] inappropriate” as it fails to realise affect, or adds distorting connotations to the artwork. This fear also exposes Duplan’s role as curator (cura: care, concern, attention) since the works are curated, cared for, within his poems, perhaps being the first encounter readers have with them. In his care, he states:
The images themselves are dying
for their own generalization.
Dying for, as both death and desire, embodies the double bind of writing about art: writing nullifies the image’s affect but is necessary for their circulation and appreciation. However, this all raises the question: why does Duplan, aware of the ekphrastic impossibility, explore these artworks through language? He wants “to rethink what a poem has done’ where traditionally poetry has encapsulated a sensation, event or thought, but Duplan argues that:
I haven’t been porous enough
in the past in my abstract
utopias are a banal optimism
Porosity counters poetry’s encapsulation while also describing how the collection is influenced by other works and reciprocally influences their reception. Rooted within effects produced by creatives, ekphrasis becomes a process of alternative world-making counter to the intellectual distance of “abstract / [banal] utopias”. For anything that materially affects, presupposes possibility, and every possibility presupposes a range of affects. Within language, we reconstruct and reorganise each configuration of utterances to tap into their potential to create ourselves, other subjects and worlds. Duplan’s ekphrastic poetry exhibits a “necessary shift to unknowing”, whose ambiguity and porosity maintains the potential for other worlds. Duplan only realises this necessary shift when:
I start to follow
the process of letting go.
Throughout the collection, he substitutes knowing for following to suggest that knowledge is the following of affect into the work, making knowledge inseparable from it. This into becomes an ethics since empathy is a translation of the German Einfühlen (to feel into), which suggests an ethical relationship between us and the work can help cultivate in-timate empathy rather than detached intellectualisation. There are moments throughout the collection where passages that first seem autobiographical are actually ekphrasitic. These realisations can be abrupt, for example a tender intimacy is interrupted by:
What kind of embrace is happening in the bottom frame?
These moments problematise intellectual distancing to gain “the total picture”, but invite us to enter the artwork and follow its nuanced affectual surprises. Duplan describes this porosity and the following or feeling into the work as “mirroring”. However, he redefines it from an unconscious imitation to “a constant flow of energy” where we are no longer effaced since:
Often, in mirroring folks’ paintings, folks’ likenesses rise
to the top of our psyches ‘n’ we try to find some meaning
in their presences. This cellular meeting at the crack of seeing.
We bring our personal histories to the work to organise and signify its effects, consequently shaping how it affects us. The meeting between us and the work opens subjective positions, “the crack of seeing’ that reconfigures meaning-making, as Duplan does with poetry. The effectual “crack” however can be painful where:
abusers had succeeded in leaving an indelible mark
While this may feel deterministic, Duplan reassuringly states we are:
no longer in the same position we were in as children
We move into the work, and transform through time to experience potential futures that are limitless and emerge for us to reconfigure. Duplan’s ekphrasis focuses on the process of empathetic relationality rather than affectual results which leads us to think of others. Duplan’s aesthetics follows and feels into a more explicit ethics where:
To look into the face of another is the first step
to filling in the ever-shifting map that charts our connections
Duplan wishes to prioritise that initial ambiguous connectivity so that its “empathic capability” can be maintained before we nullify those potentials by categorising the face as other, foreigner, etc. Following into the face of another installs a sense of responsibility to that person and by extension others . The multitude of faces we see daily necessitate a continual re-dedication to this responsibility but Duplan sees mirroring, its relationality and particularity, with the work as one way we can practice and attend to this without relinquishing ourselves.
The affectual power of these potentials destabilises the current world-order, so they are limited by different forces: language, educational systems, political orders and alike, who prefer atomised experiences to affectual connections and their inherent responsibility. For example, carried away by his imagining of an idyllic future of “lemonade, crackers, glitter, picnic blankets”, Duplan is halted by the police:
I was riding a horse into our future
when I was stopped by the cops
However these limitations can be comforting as potentials emanating from an aesthetic ethics, and all their heavy responsibility and ambiguity, can feel dangerously chaotic:
Too much chaos is painful ‘n’ unintelligible.
Which is why these systems exist —
to get some order out of death
These systems, like language, order the chaos of our experiencing the world and its potentials by producing expectations and meanings that are collectively shared. We ourselves have to organise, signify and perhaps limit a work’s affects through our own experiences, history and values to not be overwhelmed and to reframe them for our purposes. Duplan reminds us, however, that with every limitation another potential is produced, that while the police hinder Duplan’s potential capacity, one officer affected him deeply as a:
[…] tall handsome with milk chocolate skin
in uniform ‘n’ I couldn’t help myself.
Despite the disciplinary uniform, the vision of his beauty erupted through those initial limitations to create an impulsive affect that subverts the system’s limiting and creates a potential connection. The police officer becomes yet another face into which an aesthetic ethics, based on empathy and that following into, is remembered and realised.
I Need Music is above all an exploration of different affects from the artistic, erotic and intellectual through a reconfiguring of poetry from encapsulation towards porosity and ambiguity. The impossibility of Duplan’s ekphrasis helps us empathise with the work to lead us towards an aesthetic and ethical responsibility that we have to ourselves and each other; a responsibility to think better, bigger and together. He is not prescriptive in his exploration of art, but rather presents multiple potentials that can be reconfigured by reader and producer alike for their own particular circumstances.
This collection reveals itself to be a philosophical poem whose ekphrastic impossibility shows us not only how we and the world are created, or should be created, but how our particular worlds emanate in empathetic collaboration that is remembered and realised in the creative process.
 Simon Cheeke. 2008. Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis. Manchester and NY: Manchester University Press.
 Emmanuel Levinas. 1969. [1961. Totalité et Infini: Essais sur l’Extériorité. Phænomenologica 8. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.] Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
About the Author
George Reiner is a poet, translator and artist based between London and Birmingham. With Penny Burkett they have published ‘cruising for lavs’ that explored queer relations and experiences in Polari. He is a member of the Birmingham Hippodrome Young Poets and his poetry and translations can be found in Berfrois and Under a Warm Green Linden. He is currently working on a short story in Italian, ‘Di-Ospitare,’ that explores hospitality in the modern world as part of a residency at CasaPiena MicroCentro in Petralia Soprana, Sicily.
Steve Johnson, Untitled (Blue, Black, and Orange), 2018 (Unsplash)