DID WE MAKE IT?
Paintings by Tilly Woodward
Poems by Ralph James Savarese
For Adrian, DJ, and Walker
Your name is still attached to a living thing.
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.
Iowa City, Iowa
Mixed Metaphor, Oil on Board, 11 x 9 inches, 2011
Rubber Band Balls, Oil on Board, 11 x 8.5 inches, 2013
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?
Dragon Dollar Shell, Oil on Board, 11 x 9.5 inches, 2014
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?
bitter as it may be?
Bird Blanket Gloves, Oil on Board, 11 x 8.5 inches, 2008
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,
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.
NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION!
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.
Sisters 1, Oil on Board, 8 x 8 inches, 2020
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.
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
picture Queequeg and Ishmael in bed,
their bodies entangled. Or the artist
and her subject, an oily pair.
They wing it with eyes.
Fly Ball, Oil on Board, 11x 8.5 inches, 2016
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.
Lots of Little Crabs, Oil on Board, 6 x 8 inches, 2008
Ambiguous, Oil on Board, 10 x 8 inches, 2019
Astrid: Words Are Hard, Oil on Board, 10 x 8 inches, 2020
Rhubarb, Oil on Panel, 10.75 x 8.25 inches, 2020
Quail Eggs x 5, Oil on Board, 3 x 7 inches, 2011
THE KING’S STABLE
Like spotted coach
dogs from the region
of Dalmatia, trained
to attack highwaymen
who rob (and
nobles, these eggs
from castle to
in this case, board.
Can you make out
the lady riding
Early breeders of
nothing of their
and, of course, labeled
In urban settings,
as firefighting escorts,
bow wow bouncers
clearing the streets as
a brigade moved through.
just about everything:
the King’s stable
and the beer
wagon out on delivery.
to guard themselves.
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
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.
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
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.
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
From disability, we language users
leapt to mood, to constitution.
Think of this poem as a ship
captain’s humble flare.
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
you can’t escape.
asked for my title.
“I’m interim Ralph,” I said.
“I have no plans
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?
Tilly, from the darkest
of backgrounds, the objects
you’ve painted seem to move
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.
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,
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.
Enough darkness; it can become an addiction.
Not like alcohol or drugs—
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
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
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.