Poetry Sunday: “Ink on Paper,” by Judy Halebsky

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Judy Halebsky when she read (or played, that is) for The Poetry World Series, a popular Bay Area reading series I co-curate, and since then I have been following her, picking up her books, and hearing her read when I can. She teaches at a college nearby, and I’ve enjoyed her lectures given during residencies at Dominican’s new low-residency MFA program.

Let’s start with what I’ve been calling the “MFA Flyover” in these columns—the way we were trained to open workshops in my graduate program at Warren Wilson—with a neutral description of the poem. “Ink on Paper” is classic free verse, unmetered and unrhymed, with 24 variable-length lines organized into five two-line stanzas (couplets), a tercet, a couplet, another tercet, and a closing couplet. The fifth, ninth, and tenth stanzas, the ones containing ideograms, are conspicuously indented. Except in its title, “Ink on Paper” does not use punctuation or initial caps and can be read as one long sentence, with the indented material functioning as asides or parentheticals. End rhyme is not used, but we do see internal rhyme and assonance; for example, the internal slant rhymes of “sap” and “maple” in line 2 and of “letter” and “water” in line 8. The poem is a lyric that captures a moment’s reflection—maybe triggered by the speaker’s examinations of the ideograms, or pictographs, that appear in the indented sections—and it iterates ways in which the writer would like to be remembered after her death.

Point of view uses the first-person singular pronouns “me” and “my” throughout while directly addressing an unnamed “you.” The verb mood is mostly injunctive, giving specific instructions to the “you” about what actions to take “if you want to remember me.” I interpret the addressee as a collective “you,” as if addressing the world (including us readers), but it could also be someone in particular, like a lover or friend. At first the “you” is told what to do without being told why—“unframe me” and “mix me”—but the why (for remembrance) comes in line 2 and underpins all the injunctions that follow. In a sense this is a list poem, and it evokes a class of poems I’ll call (since they don’t seem to have a formal title) “Instructions for my Funeral” poems. Javier Zamora has a remarkable one in his first book, Unaccompanied, that earned much critical acclaim last year.

Repetition is perhaps the poem’s most conspicuous literary device, with the phrase “if you want to remember me” repeated six times to make up one-quarter of the poem’s lines (3, 5, 7, 13, 15, and 23). Repetitions of full lines like this lend an incantatory effect. Another important literary device is image, and the poem is vivid with objects from nature that can be used for remembrance: pine, resin, maple, sap, snow, apples, sun, oil, stone, water, and a barn owl. There are also “made” things like cherry popsicles, malt whiskey, a stone angel, an outline traced in snow, and a photograph kept in a pair of jeans. Perhaps the most striking examples of made things are the characters, also called ideograms or pictographs, that appear in the poem’s indented lines.

Besides telling us how the speaker would like to be remembered, the poem also then sets up a tension between the natural and human-made worlds, perhaps between nature and art. What the images have in common, though, is evanescence. Almost everything suggested as a way to remember the speaker is temporary and disappearing. Slipping a cast from its mold is the first step towards its disintegration, and sap and resin in trees are seasonal phenomena, rising in the spring and lasting just a few weeks, and only during the spring during the tree’s life. An outline in snow begins to erase itself almost as soon as it is made. Candied apples in jars in the sun will not last long, one reason we store canned goods in dark cupboards or basements. The most fleeting image, and my favorite, is that wonderful letter written “in water on a sidewalk.” Next come the first of two instances of indented lines that present, and also apparently translate, a group of ideograms.

Ideograms make me think of the poet Ezra Pound, who, along with T. S. Eliot, led the  modernist movement in poetry in this country in the early twentieth century. Their influence on Pound’s work was significant, and an essay he edited, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” by Ernest Fenollosa, was re-released by City Lights Publishers in San Francisco in 2011. Although the essay’s premises, such as that ideograms are representational, are now disputed, Pound’s perception of the essentially poetic nature of ideograms is still credited as an important contribution to imagist and modern poetry.

In today’s poem, the first, second, third, and fourth characters of the idiom Ishin-denshin (represented as 以心伝心) aretranslated in line 10 as “by means of,” “heart,” “transmit,” and again, “heart.” Their literal translation is “what the mind thinks, the heart transmits,” and the phrase canmean “telepathy,” “sympathy,” “heart-to-heart communication,” or “tacit understanding.” [from Wikipedia]. It is almost as if the speaker uses the characters to go deeper to explain why the things in her list, all doomed to quickly disappear, are the ones chosen to best retain her memory. What she is really is after, it seems, is heart-to-heart communication, the kind that can transcend our own mortality and can last beyond the parameters of our own physical existence.

After the introduction of that first set of ideograms, the poem returns to its task of enumerating activities the speaker says will enable herself to be remembered. A list of pigments—elemental, pure, and strong—comes next: “china red, chrome red, vermillion / oil based, water based, ground from stone,” followed more whimsically by the image of melting cherry popsicles. The playfulness of that, along with “stone angel” and “outline in snow” of previous lines, made me think of making snow angels and of how we all treasure simple moments from our childhoods.

The next instruction, to “say words in the dark,” is a departure. Whereas the previous list items were drawn from nature or involved “made” things (writing or art) employing natural materials and elements, this one involves language, conceptual and wholly without physical corporality. Notably, we are told not to think of the things themselves (“barn owl, malt whiskey, stone angel”) but instead to “say” the words for them, and moreover, to say them “in the dark” where nothing can be seen. This may be an allusion to the origin of poetry as a spoken, rather than a written, tradition, but it also refutes William Carlos Williams’ adage, “No ideas but in things” (“Paterson”) and calls to mind Robert Hass’s well-known phrase, “the word is elegy to the thing” (“Meditation at Lagunitas”).

Indented lines 13-18 return to two figures from the Ishin-denshin, one for “transmit, convey, pass on” and one for “heart,” further elaborated as “the true meaning of a poem.” “Ink on Paper” closes with a last instruction and image, one among many wonderful lines conveying impermanence along with a tender intimacy: “if you want to remember me / wash my picture in the pocket of your jeans.” The word “wash” sounds like what we do with a picture—look at or “watch” it—and also recalls the word for longing, “wish.” I love, too, the idea of telling someone not just to carry your portrait but to also deliberately allow it to be effaced. Feeling triumphs over rational thought and memory and love over mortality—beautiful and moving ideas.

Reading “Ink on Paper,” I am struck by the concept of synergy, the way different elements can combine to produce something more than the sum of their parts. The poem’s indented material, for example, reproduces the pictograms that make up the Japanese idiom and offers translations or interpretations of those ideograms—a fruitful marriage of image and text. Such marriages—think hieroglyphics and the Book of Kells in addition to the pictographs themselves—have existed for centuries and are enjoying a resurgence in popularity now due to innovations in technology making them easier to present to the public. At the time of my first collaboration with artist Lorna Stevens, God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World in 2010, it was difficult to find an independent publisher (or even journal editors) willing to take on the expense of reproducing four-color images. That’s changed dramatically in today’s digital world, with many books and literary journals now online or otherwise virtually accessible. Our most recent collaboration, combining fourteen of Lorna’s images with fourteen sonnets from my book Paradise Drive, will be available as a limited-production art book, but it will also be offered online with a behind-the-scenes video showing Lorna’s creative process and even an associated video game. We are in a watershed era now, with these kinds of collaborations available to us via the click of a fingertip or thumb.

Today’s poem leverages the value of combining art with text, and another kind of synergy is found in the way it uses an appeal to multiple senses. The first set of images—unframing someone, ejecting a form from a mold, mixing resin or sap—are tactile as well as visual and for me, the sense of smell (turpentine) is triggered by the word “resin.” An outline in snow evokes touch (cold, as well as the feeling of outlining something) along with its visual image; you might also detect the metallic tang of cold air. Candied apples in the sun fires all the senses but hearing, and the image of writing letters in water on the sidewalk involves at least two (touch and sight). The elemental pigments trigger sight, of course, but I also feel weight and effort in the distinction between oil- and water-based paint, and especially in the words “ground from stone.” Taste, touch, and sight are all at play in “eat cherry popsicles melting to your elbows.” The act of saying “words in the dark” involves hearing, and the words to be said (“barn owl, malt whiskey, stone angel”) trigger sight, sound, taste, and touch. It cannot be an accident that this poem about how to remember the speaker after she is gone is packed with images of the corporeal world that, moreover, are so appealing to the senses.

Before I close, let’s return to the Poet’s Note and the window it opens into this week’s poem.

[T]he unarticulated experience of the body is a large part of poetry writing. This includes what we can’t put into words or hasn’t yet been put into words. A poem takes off when it tells me something that I had felt but I hadn’t spoken or thought.

“Ink on Paper” seems to prioritize unarticulated feeling over rational thought and movement and communication over holding things tightly and trying to preserve  their physical manifestations. I mentioned an art/nature dichotomy earlier, but it is more than that. Both art and nature are valuable, but neither lasts. Art may outlive its maker, but like all things, even ink on paper and paintings made with stone-ground pigments, must one day pass away. Art is powerful because it enables communication or heart-to-heart transmission. It is the message that matters, not its vessel; words whispered in the dark, not ink on paper; the memory in the heart, not its faded image, in the end washed to white in the pocket of your lover’s jeans.



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