Jessica Piazza’s chapbook of ekphrastic poetry takes its title from René Magritte’s modernist painting, “The Treachery of Images.” Created in 1928-1929, this painting depicts a smoking pipe and the caption, “This is not a pipe.” It is meant to make the audience re-evaluate the idea of “seeing is believing.” One of the early poems in Piazza’s chapbook, “The Treachery of Images” concerns itself with several variations of this theme: what is an image, and how can art possibly render the emotional truth of our world? This question is a thread throughout the collection. A reader comes to understand that all art is a compromise, essentially; the artist is at the mercy of her medium.
This Is Not a Sky challenges that compromise by including with each poem a QR code which links directly to an image of the poem title’s painting, allowing the reader to experience two forms of art at once. As a lover of art and ekphrastic poetry, I found that the QR codes led me to experience this book unlike any other. I read with my smart phone at hand, using a newly-downloaded QR reader, so I’d be able to view each picture before reading each poem. In this way, the collection felt interactive, but it also took me out of the book so often that I sometimes felt lost. A museum exhibit is curated by similarity, whether it be a painter, era, composition method, or even color. This Is Not a Sky jumps between painter, time period, and place so often that I could not figure out what the connection may be. I was aware of my distraction because it contrasted so obviously against the many factors that work to ground the reader.
This is not to say that other elements can’t offer connective tissue. In some cases, emotion may govern a leap. However, in the middle poems of this collection, I often found a lack of sensory imagery or emotion or life. It may be purely personal preference, but I don’t think a painting can be so easily boiled down into elliptical phrases. Take this sample from “The Persistence of Memory,” a poem after Salvador Dalí’s painting of the same name:
Clocks: negation, or its absence. Desert happening
All horizons: none the wiser.
clothed, all hiding.
As a reader, I find this language somewhat alienating. The painting itself, though surreal, is so vibrant, and this stanza feels so bare. I found myself most drawn to the poems in which we meet our speaker: voice-driven poems like “Print Gallery” after M. C. Escher. This piece begins by throwing us right into the middle of a scene between two people:
And the world endlessly curved. And the stairs never went anywhere.
And always, I stayed right here. And always, you stayed very still.
I lived in this gallery. I saw you once, across.
But you seemed endlessly cross, so I only watched you for days.
Here, the speaker enters the image and brings us with her. This is the work of an ekphrastic piece: to go beyond the image on paper and somehow find that levitation that happens at the perfect intersection of art and personal narrative. This connection happens again in the penultimate poem, “Ophelia,” where the subject of the poem experiences a deep connection to the natural world:
Deep into the night, she laments what’s lost. She runs to the river, she falls to the moss. The rough black tree’s bark bears her up; she tentatively steps, collecting blossoms as she tiptoes, branch to branch, a nymph, a laugh that madly ricochets… No rose, no jasmine coaxes her back home.
The painting comes alive. We can smell the rot and jasmine and even feel the mud and flowers between our toes. We get a sense of what it’s like to run—to be Ophelia. And it’s this imaginative re-re-telling of a story we know that does what a good poem should do: makes us reconsider what we think we know. On the back of a stop sign in my city, someone has spray painted the following sentence: “THINK that you may be wrong.” This is a difficult thing for anybody to do, especially in a culture that celebrates one standing by one’s beliefs. But art can help us question what we know which helps us grow. This is Not A Sky reminds us to look closer, to look around, and to sometimes look away.
Jessica Piazza is the author of two poetry collections: Interrobang (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press, 2014). She is a candidate in the Ph.D. program in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where she co-founded Gold Line Press. Currently, she serves as Contributing Editor at The Offending Adam. Among other places, her work has appeared in The National Poetry Review, Agni, Indiana Review, 32 Poems, The Missouri Review, and Mid-American Review. To learn more about Jessica Piazza, please visit: www.jessicapiazza.com.