top of page
New House Empty Nest 4.jpg


Paintings by Tilly Woodward

Poems by Ralph James Savarese
For Adrian, DJ, and Walker



It’s no coincidence that this volume was produced during the pandemic. Alienated from one another, stuck in our houses or apartments, worried about the future, we all, I think, dreamt of bridges. Zoom was the most conspicuous and ubiquitous one—essential, of course, but glitchy and insubstantial. You might as well go for a walk in space. 


When my friend Tilly Woodward approached me about working together on an Ekphrastic project—writing poems to (not about) her astonishing hyper-realist paintings—I immediately said yes, but I pictured a footbridge across a canyon, actually felt it with my feet. High winds, swaying, mortal fear. Is that me screaming? I so desperately wanted to get to the other side of poetry where image reigns without words.


I wanted to connect, bring things together. Tilly sent me the link to her website, and I chose the images I would write to. The title of the project came first, which never happens. I liked the pun: it spoke to the pandemic (will we survive?) and to collaborative engendering—its surprise (did we make that?).


Tilly loves to pair things. She also loves nests, empty ones; dead birds; fruits; vegetables. The light she casts seems to come from some unidentifiable below—as if the Great Chicago Fire had happened in hell and night, that black sky, had become day. Her paintings are so composed, so still, and yet at the same time so dynamic and otherworldly. I was attracted to their drama. Realism is anything but ordinary.


One by one, the poems emerged. Tilly would comment on them. I would revise. The Iowa derecho of last summer, a friend’s stroke, my son’s early years in foster care—these things found their visual partner. I learned to walk across that bridge in a storm.


Ralph Savarese

April 2021

Iowa City, Iowa

Your name is still attached to a living thing.

--Ocean Vuong



If the pliers could swim, 

they’d mate with the crab: 

metal on meat, pincer on screw. 

(The pliers are players.) 


If the crab could do math, 

it would purchase those pearls-- 

right from your neck 

and wrong from the shell. 

To count is to cost. 


All metaphors are mixed, 

and strings must be pulled. 

If love is a puppet, 

then resemblance is a bruise. 

2011mixmet_070 copy.jpg

Mixed Metaphor, Oil on Board, 11 x 9 inches, 2011

IMG_5855[1] copy.jpg

Hummingbird, Oil on Board, 4 x 6 inches, 2018



Still more, his legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs

were running up the trunks of young palms. 

--Herman Melville, Moby-Dick 


Queequeg with wings and a brown harpoon. 

Its body is a text, a living parchment, 

a wondrous work, as Ishmael says, 

in one volume.  


Look at how it turns the pages of air,  

that other hieroglyph. 

The flower as whale:  

its nectar lights  


the gardens of New Bedford. Bee balm,  

trumpet creeper, columbine— 

sugar mommies one and all.  

Ishmael again:  


the cannibal never cringed and never had  

a creditor. Its heart works under-  

and overtime, from torpor  

to frantic calm.  


A metabolic marvel: 1260 heartbeats per minute.  

Surely, it needs a cardiologist. (I, too,  

have tachycardia and hover  

above my food.) 


Staring at this dead bird, I think that memory,  

like flight, is a stillness born of movement.  

Scientists speak of a plant-bird  

mutualistic network— 


picture Queequeg and Ishmael in bed,  

their bodies entangled. Or the artist  

and her subject, an oily pair. 

They wing it with eyes. 



How not to think of astral bodies? 

The smaller ball, moon to the larger; 

the larger without its sun, 

though clearly something illuminates both. 


It’s as if an office worker had become 

an astronaut and shot 

her own blue marble 

some 18,000 miles from the copier. 


She has perspective on her job 

and life, a kind of whole earth image, 

and an accompanying sense  

of weightlessness. 


If only wedding bands were made of rubber. 

If only her husband wouldn’t drink. 

In 1845 Englishman Stephen Perry 

patented this peculiar fastener. 


He’d seen his morning paper fall apart 

in wind: scattered stories 

full of woe, disassembling. 

“Keep it together,” he told himself. 

2013 bandballs1_2016 copy.jpg

Rubber Band Balls, Oil on Board, 11 x 8.5 inches, 2013

Fly Ball 2016.jpg



A week after the surgery, 

blood collected in my stomach 

like flies, let’s say, at a meat  

processing facility--I was the ball 

whose stitching then burst. 

There, I connected the two. 


At St. Margaret’s Elementary, 

a teacher claimed that puns 

were unforgiveable: a mortal  

sin in the church of language. 

As proud as the devil, they make 

a terrible racket. Bzzzz. 


Should I have played ping-pong 

so soon after the surgery? 

Should I have told the doctor? 

A fly ball is almost always  

caught, but a fly? There are  

just too many of them. 


Behold the squadron of paratroopers 

descending into battle, 

an insect Normandy. 

Your mitt is your gun. 

What do you think?

Did I live? 

Fly Ball, Oil on Board, 11x 8.5 inches, 2016



In the hand game “Rock, Paper, Scissors,”

each object or sign has an Achilles heel.


The Gods do not allow complete invulnerability.

Even apex predators must fear.


The scissors slash the paper but are crushed

by the rock; the paper covers the rock


but is slashed by the scissors; the rock

crushes the scissors but is covered by the paper.


Round and round we go until the vanquishing

stops--call it “Musical Snares.”


Three rocks in a row is an Avalanche;

three papers, a Bureaucrat.


Seven scissors in a row is a Guillotine;

seven papers, a Bible.


The game dates back to the Han dynasty,

some twenty-two hundred years ago.


It was a way of drawing lots.

Who shall enter the cave with pythons?


Who shall dig the village well?

Who shall marry the wealthy, yet


unattractive, widower?

What we teach our children!


They must compete for a punishment

(or prize) that is awarded randomly.


Paper now covers everything,

and scissors slash responsibility.


Let’s play “Dragon, Dollar, Shell” instead.

Let’s erect a sand economy.

The sea believes in socialism.

2014 shell dollar dragon.jpg

Dragon Dollar Shell, Oil on Board, 11 x 9.5 inches, 2014

Blanket bird gloves x 2. .jp

Bird Blanket Gloves, Oil on Board, 11 x 8.5 inches, 2008



The gloves hold the bird,

and the blanket keeps

the absent arms warm.


In this version of phantom

limb syndrome, the artist

feels the branch on which


the bird once perched.

She also hears its song,

which made coffee


on the back deck

what it was in its fullness.

The bird was coffee,


and the branch, its saucer.

In a field of relation, the “I” 

must be polymorphous.


Yet today art seems just

another kind of cryonics,

superior and removed.


It can survive the warmth

a sudden derecho brings.

My son described it


as an oven with wind.

For nine days the power failed,

and all her animals thawed,


each in a cardboard casket,

sodden and collapsing.

Like food, they had


to be discarded.

People bring dead things

to her and expect what?


Beauty’s triumph,

bitter as it may be?

Sorrow’s transmutation?

image (1).png

Lots of Little Crabs, Oil on Board, 6 x 8 inches, 2008



So, the tree’s the shore,

and the wind’s the waves.

The berries move across the sand.

But wait: the sand is green!


They look like sun-burned

preemies on a neonatal unit,

each hooked up to oxygen.

Let’s listen to them sleep.


Thoreau decried their harsh taste.

“It’s the Saunterer’s Apple,”

he said, “not even the saunterer

can eat in the house.”


But sour gives birth to sweet.

As in marriage, every apple tree

needs its curmudgeon.

When it smiles, the bees come.


The crustacean is said to have

“a crooked or wayward gait.”

Hence, the Middle English

word “crabbed.”


From disability, we language users

leapt to mood, to constitution.

Think of this poem as a ship

captain’s humble flare.

2019 Ambiguous Nest copy.jpg

Ambiguous, Oil on Board, 10 x 8 inches, 2019



It could almost be a nest

or what’s become of a nest.

What is home, anyway,

but a pile of leaves

with a provisional shape.

A few twigs to suggest


a structure in which care–

or its lack—might happen.

A home unraveled is far

better than one

from which

you can’t escape.


Somebody yesterday

asked for my title.

My title?

“I’m interim Ralph,” I said.

“I have no plans

for permanency.”


Once as a boy—

90 pounds and barely


stripped for a beating,

I bolted into the woods.

I hid behind trees


and then moved

to the swamp, knowing

my father wouldn’t follow.

The mosquitos that night

sang to me.    

In the morning, I tried


to scratch myself away—

my hand an eraser,

my body a blood board.

Just now it seems

the image is actually

two heads facing


in opposite directions.

Two nest-heads in need

of a bird neurologist.

(The twig-scan is awry.)

Do fowl beat their chicks?

Turn wings


into weapons?

Tilly, from the darkest

of backgrounds, the objects

you’ve painted seem to move

calmly toward

the light.

Astrid Words Are Hard.jpg



Words are heavy, too.

They’re like stones that skip across the pond and sink.


They do their job, but they sink.

Even words on the page, which don script vests,


eventually sink.

Language is a catastrophe:


icebergs beneath every vowel, big wave prosody….

The pond, that wordless thing, is being stoned.


How to mourn what was lost

without pitying the person who has lost it?


How to see aphasia as a seed,

windblown, to be sure, and uncertain, yet aloft?


(The birds, if you must know,

prefer the air.)


Let the steerage brain come forth

as the hull is gashed.


The senses are like Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia.



King George sits in the frontal lobes.

Consider it practice.


In the afterlife, I’m told, we’ll need to love one another

without words, without stones.

Astrid: Words Are Hard, Oil on Board, 10 x 8 inches, 2020

Rhubarb copy (2).jpg

Rhubarb, Oil on Panel, 10.75 x 8.25 inches, 2020



It sounds almost cruel, but your light-excluded plant  

will then desperately reach out in search of light,  

producing smooth, pale stems in the process. 

--Gardening Website 


Maybe this is how we should make  

basketball players—or adults in general. 


Put a child in an overturned pot  

and seal it off completely, 


like a panic room or dungeon. 

Let nothing out or in.  


Soon he’ll be shooting threes like pasty Bill Walton— 

and dunking, too! 


With my son we interrupted the process. 

We pulled him from a dank, 


foster-care closet and exposed him to the sun. 

A wild child, a kind of Rhubarb Hauser, 


made brittle by light and language 

and the doubts of others. 


Pale, stretched stems are so much sweeter 

than their ordinary counterparts. 


Perfect, you might say, for pie 

or people crumble. 



Yellow, even in its exhaustion, 

says, Tomorrow. 


The lily hits the hay. 

It lies down not with the lamb 


but with the loam. 

A full day is a full day. 


Even balloons rest at night, 

offering their helium to the fields. 


Everything must be lighter; 

everything must have  


a chance to float. 

What is mist but the mind of Earth? 


The wind, if it comes, can  

bluster all it wants. 


The promise of spring  

has a thousand tethers.

Hartwick  Sisters 1 copy.jpg

Sisters 1, Oil on Board, 8 x 8 inches, 2020

2011 5 quail eggscrop.jpg

Quail Eggs x 5, Oil on Board, 3 x 7 inches, 2011



Like spotted coach

dogs from the region

of Dalmatia, trained


to attack highwaymen

who rob (and

sometimes murder)


nobles, these eggs

have journeyed

from castle to



in this case, board. 

Can you make out


the lady riding

beside them?

Early breeders of


Dalmatians knew

nothing of their



to deafness

and, of course, labeled

them unintelligent.


In urban settings,

Dalmatians served

as firefighting escorts,


bow wow bouncers

clearing the streets as

a brigade moved through.


They’ve guarded

just about everything:

the King’s stable


and the beer

wagon out on delivery.

Yet somehow           


these dogs—these

eggs—have failed

to guard themselves. 

Pear Pear 300 dpicopy.jpg



Enough darkness; it can become an addiction.

Not like alcohol or drugs—

like exercise.


You think it’s unqualifiedly good for you

to be compassion-fit,



And so you sculpt yourself, your head-bulge.

You lift the free-weights of

human sorrow;


you run on the black treadmill of outrage.

When you’re hot and sweaty,

you climb aboard


the elliptical, that horsey carousel, and ride it

like a planet. Oh, the shape of justice

and illusory progress!


All the while you sneak glances at the muscle

man, Atlas, in the corner. “Take

these pears,”


a friend says. “Look at the juice running down

my chin. A tree worked just

as hard for joy.”

Pear Pear, Oil on Board, 11 x 8.5 inches, 2015

Did We Make It? Art as survival and survival as art.

An Ekphrastic video with accompaniment—paintings by Tilly Woodward, poetry by Ralph James Savarese, and music by Joseph Dangerfield. Produced by Tilly Woodward.

Ralph James Savarese is the author of three books of poems: Republican Fathers (Nine Mile Books 2020), When This Is Over (Ice Cube Press 2020), and, with Stephen Kuusisto, Someone Falls Overboard: Talking through Poems (Nine Mile Books 2021). He is also the author of two books of prose, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption (Other Press 2007) and See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Duke University Press 2018). His work has appeared, among other places, in American Poetry Review, Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, Ploughshares, Seneca Review, Sewanee Review, and Southwest Review. He is at work on another book of poems called Exact Conclusion of Their Hardiness. He teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. 

Tilly Woodward grew up on a farm, graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, holds a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and an MFA from the University of Kansas. Her artwork has been exhibited in more than 194 museums and galleries nationally and can be found in museum, corporate and private collections in Israel, Ghana, Uganda, India, and throughout the United States. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including two Fellowships for Drawing from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has initiated many arts outreach projects designed to help communities address social issues, foster creativity, build compassion, and engage with joy. She is well known for her highly realistic, meticulously detailed oil paintings of small things. 

bottom of page