Hedy Habra: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems

brush Strokes cover sm copy

OE: The poems in Under Brushstrokes are ekphrastic, but they don’t always announce themselves as such. How do you conceive of ekphrasis and how do you mobilize it as a technique in these poems?

HH: I do not aim at giving a purely ekphrastic rendition of the artworks through a mere description, but rather use the image as a point of departure for a surreal or oneiric recreation that may depart from the original. In Under Brushstrokes, poems often engage in a dialogue with the artist or his model, eliminating the boundaries of time and space, or offer an imagined version of what might have happened before or after the portrayed scene, oftentimes from the point of view of one of the characters in the paintings.
Although some of the poems in Under Brushstrokes are intrinsically connected to the artwork, I gradually wanted poems to stand on their own. With time, I decided against using epigraphs, and most poems were submitted to journals and published without acknowledging the source of inspiration. When I compiled the collection, I listed at the end the artists’ names and titles with their corresponding poems, in order to offer readers an additional perspective along with a different layer of interpretation. I chose to write many of the poems without knowing the identity of the artist, to be freed from preconceptions; although I also enjoy writing with a conscious knowledge of the artist and his work.

OE: You make use of myth in various ways in your poetry. Could you tell us in what ways you funhouse-mirror the contents of myth to create your own work?

HH: We find echoes of these allegories in our daily lives, and one of the roles of poetry is to highlight these similarities, which mirror archetypal patterns of the unconscious. I was always fascinated by the fissures between the oftentimes contradictory versions of a given myth or legend. It is tempting to enable a character–stilled within pigments–to tell his/her story. In Under Brushstrokes, writing a poem from Europa’s point of view, for example, ironically subverts the accepted version, because it aims at revealing that she wasn’t raped but participated in Zeus’ seduction. The painting that inspired this poem suggests a sensuous interaction and complicity between the young woman and the sacred bull. In another poem, as she is being encircled with bark, Daphne laments having refused Apollo’s advances, and reconsiders her former decision to escape. Although myths have their own sacred time linked to the present, the mirroring between their different artistic depictions reveals that they aren’t frozen in time but open to reinterpretations and re-appropriation.

OE: You also work with Spanish-language literature. How does this influence your work, either directly or indirectly?

HH: I love magical realism and the way some fabulist authors incorporate dreamlike and surreal elements in their work. I favor texts that mix levels of reality and blur boundaries between genres. My favorite Latin American poet is Octavio Paz, who has vastly experimented with form and genres, and wrote superb prose poems. I greatly admire Borges, Cortázar, Lorca, and the Neruda of Residencia en la tierra, among many others. In Under Brushstrokes, prose poems alternate with verse, as though each poem seems to dictate a particular form.

There is a myriad of authors that have affected me as a reader and as a writer. I grew up with French literature, with an early love for Baudelaire’s and Rimbaud’s verse and prose poems. I also love Italian literature, namely Montale’s poetry, and lyrical fabulists such as Buzzati, and Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I constantly revisit. It is difficult to pin point influences but my profound admiration for all these authors’ œuvre has undoubtedly influenced my writing, consciously as well as unconsciously.

***

Brushstrokes

Without any sound, waves permeate the floor, algae cover the curtains with an insidious verdigris patina, and she watches herself, complacent, looking awry in the mirror while she unbuttons her black evening dress, a mirror that remains empty like her own life. Seated in a sofa, back turned, he drowns in his indifference into the surge, and surely, it is his face that is seen reflected in the portrait hanging on the wall, an immersed look, barely visible behind the wide-open newspaper. Waters rise to the rhythm of the notes resounding from the rear window, in which a man with a white wig plays the piano, as though it were Mozart composing his Requiem. The painter raises inexorably the level of the waters, and the woman knows that even in that last moment, she will only be fulfilled by drowning in the torrent furtively surrounding them.

***

Broken Ladder

I am no longer this little boy who ran away at night to milk the moon and stars. What am I to do if the ladder is broken, leaving golden threads dangling in broad daylight, braided rays of hardened light yet fine as silk spun by a silkworm, once linking me to that lost site of fearless joys? But I will send back the stardust I fed on for so long. Now you know why I study the Almanac, awaiting for the right day and time when wheat is ripe, reaching high into those rays of light. You know why I’m here, in the midst of this field, dressed in my Sunday clothes: I will pull these gilded chords as those of a tower bell ringing above beckoning a gift filled with the substance of dreams, wrapped with Queen Mab’s veils. Don’t fear it is too heavy: it weighs less than a breath or a sigh. Let the wind blow softly, watch it rise to the top with your eyes closed.

***

The Memory of Unspoken Words

She has landed on the deck of an abandoned wreck, fails to remember how she swallowed the fiery ball that pulled her like a tidal wave into the stillness of a metallic sky steeped in lavender where angry clouds hover around the drowning sun suffused with coral. Her pillow is a melted cloud filled with birds that forgot how to fly and now swim in a pool that overflows the deck, washing the souls of dead sailors from every leak and corner. She presses on her eyelids to find a different ending to their story, sees her body glow with scales and the fish in the pool grow wings. She knows every drop of water will vanish at dawn, erasing with black ink her luminous shape, alive only in the formless night, and the rainbow will soon shine over a boat with discarded bags heavy with the stained memory of unspoken words and broken planks.

***

[The above poems initially appeared in Danse Macabre and Pirene’s Fountain and are reprinted here by permission of the author.]

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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