Queensland Poetry Festival’s Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award, now in its fifth year, is named after one of Australia’s premier art dealers, Philip Bacon. All the paintings used in the competition are personally selected by Philip from his own collection.
The word ‘ekphrasis’ comes from the Greek ‘ek’ (out) and ‘phrasis’ (speak), as well as the verb ‘ekphrazein’, which means to call an inanimate object by name. Artistically, ekphrasis is a rhetorical device in which a visual object, usually a work of art, is vividly described by another artistic medium — in this case, a poem of under twelve lines.
This year’s judges were Carol McGregor and Michele Seminara. The award was a tough one for the judges, with three outstanding poets ultimately recognised in joint First Place. The winners are Claire Coleman, Jane Frank and Damen O’Brien.
Claire Coleman’s poem ‘Pelin’ responds to the fantastical image ‘Primavera’ by James Gleeson. Pelin is a Turkish women’s name meaning absinthe, or its main ingredient, wormwood, a spirit otherwise known as the ‘green fairy’. In the nineteenth and twenties centuries absinthe was charged with causing hallucinations, an erosion of moral values and out of control — even criminal — behavior. The judges loved the way ‘Pelin’ responded to the gaudy, debaucherous, ‘morning after the night before’ feeling of Gleeson’s image, which abounds with green-tinged naked figures, over-gown flora and claw-like bones.
Jane Frank’s poem ‘Afterlife’ responds to the image entitled ‘The Oil Drums’ by Jeffery Smart. What struck the judges about this poem was its attention to visual detail — it bristles with striking imagery such as the ‘glossy public face’ and ‘formal geometry’ of the stack of pictured oil drums, which the poet paints as being ‘slick’ and ‘vivid as a kelp garden teeming with life in the / Bight where they want to drill’. But what really impressed the judges was the timely way ‘Afterlife’ concisely evokes and critiques the effect that drilling for oil has had on our environment: from the initial references to the ‘Exxon Valdez’ and the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ oil-spill disasters, to the chilling last lines which depict the stack of drums as ‘a mastaba of greed, a historical set piece, a burning afterlife’, all of which casts a sinister extra layer over the meaning of the poem’s title.
Damen O’Brien’s poem ‘12 Ways to Look at a Landscape’ is inspired by the image ‘Passage of Light from the Sea’ by William Robinson. The judges loved the way Robinson’s shimmering, mirage-like, multi-layered painting was reflected in the poet’s various ways of viewing the landscape: as a ‘sitter’ with ‘wriggling branches’ who ‘won’t settle’; as ‘a first garden seeking its original sin, the Union Jack yet to roll over the horizon’; as ‘Yugambeh country’ which ‘does not yield to…borders, spilling the canvas’; or, more fundamentally, as ‘basalt, chlorophyll, sodium, carbon, water: chemistry brewing geology’.
All three ekphrastic poems truly dance and resonate with the images that inspired them. Congratulations to the poets and thanks to Queensland Poetry Festival for allowing Verity La to publish their poems and the accompanying artworks!
Inspired by ‘Primavera’ by James Gleeson
Tequila and absinth, fire, fury and the green fay
It has left me delirious with agave; with maid’s ruin – pelin
I’m stuck in a fairyland of acid yellow and rosé
Of a morning when regret has not yet landed.
I’ve seen that view before, through a bottle; through;
Haze that came on paper; through too long awake.
There are many things that can be carried;
On paper; in our eyes; our minds; in sleep
I can no longer visit that place; the golden imagined
I’ve dragged my madness to a block and staked
It’s heart to the wood; left it to rot with worms in blackness
That golden spike-legged beast of mine has passed.
Inspired by ‘The Oil Drums’ by Jeffery Smart
I think of Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon.
The glossy public face – its formal geometry
Of slick colour and the artist’s golden ratio –
Vivid as a kelp garden teeming with life in the
Bight where they want to drill: cyan, cadmium,
The shrill yellow of unblackened coral, texture
Smooth as honeyed trumpet music. A mastaba
Of greed, a historical set piece, a burning afterlife.
12 Ways to Look at a Landscape
Inspired by ‘Passage of Light from the Sea at Numinbah’ by William Robinson
the tunings, vibrations, oscillations of light thrumming at the pitch of green,
but the sitter won’t settle, wriggling branches, until there is sudden grace;
the world cools, the trees un-bower themselves, this last snapshot;
one still minute – the sky pearls and the night retreats a star at a time;
a first garden seeking its original sin, the Union Jack yet to roll over the horizon;
Yugambeh country does not yield to these borders, spilling the canvas;
a green Sokovia that does not require an Avenger’s rescue; though there’s
40,000 tonnes of mixed native timber stock, good fish nurseries to exploit;
the eyes of an osprey measuring out a coastline, sweeping the fields of the sea;
as in heaven, so below and in between the tangle of the earth; which is all
basalt, chlorophyll, sodium, carbon, water: chemistry brewing geology; also
everything it isn’t – no birds, no signs of man, just the layered breath of light.
Claire G. Coleman is a writer from Western Australia. She identifies with the South Coast Noongar people. Her family are associated with the area around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun. Claire grew up in a Forestry settlement in the middle of a tree plantation, where her dad worked, not far out of Perth. She wrote her black&write! fellowship-winning book Terra Nullius while travelling around Australia in a caravan. The Old Lie is her second novel.
Jane Frank is a Brisbane-based poet, originally from Maryborough, Queensland. She teaches in creative industries, writing and literary studies at Griffith University. Most recently, her poems have been published in Meniscus, Not Very Quiet, Takahē, Cicerone Journal, Pale Fire: New Writing on the Moon (The Frogmore Press, 2019) and the Heroines anthology (Neo Perennial Press, 2018 and 2019). She is busy working on her first full collection. You can read more of her work on her website and at Facebook.
Damen O’Brien is a Queensland poet. Damen was joint winner of the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and has won the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, the Yeats Poetry Prize, the KSP Poetry Award and the Ipswich Poetry Festival, and has placed or been shortlisted in many others. Damen has previously been published in Rabbit, Southerly, Cordite, Island, Verity La and StylusLit. In 2019, Damen placed and second for the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award and tied for first place in the Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award. Find more from Damen at his website.