Reviewed by Gabriel Mundo
In Color and Line, a collection heavily featuring ekphrastic poems, Carole Mertz creates an additional sensory layer on top of the many paintings after which several poems are modeled. In addition to grappling with the visual and historical elements of these paintings, Mertz sticks true to the ekphrastic form by using it as an exercise in self-discovery. The additional layer that Mertz paints becomes herself. With the mention of so many paintings varying in time and place, Color and Line borders on becoming a multimedia work.
In the poem “Smothered” Mertz writes, “Oh, pauvre Boggio! Your few colors in this painting, those gentle pinks, yellows, and blues plead only a pittance of solace. Your heavy tapestry smothers me.” On its own, these lines serve solely as a description of the painting Fin de la Jornada by Emilio Boggio. Yet, read in conjunction with earlier lines such as, “Painted late in his life, Boggio had already said his farewells. One journey remained…,” the interpersonal and multimedia connection comes through. The ekphrastic form allows Mertz to connect with Boggio through the medium of his art while also drawing focus to the painting itself. The emotion being transferred through the art is a deep empathy for the sorrows of the artist, which Mertz displays repeatedly throughout the collection. This empathy is only amplified when jointly viewed with the painting. Fin de la Jornada presents a desolate scene of workers returning home after a day of work. The colors Mertz mentions do appear sparingly and contrast sharply against the heavy greyscale and muted palette with which the workers are painted.
The ekphrastic nature of Color and Line does not end with paintings. As an excellent and proficient user of poetic form, Mertz understands that ekphrastic work can deal with all forms of art. At times, that art comes to her through language itself, such as when she writes, “Emotion is emotion, / no matter which language read or sung.” At other times, it is the artists themselves that inspire her. This appears prominently in the poem “Flow, River, Flow” that speaks on the influential nature other writers have had on her:
These rivers flow on and on. Never stopping,
I read them again and again,
enjoying vintages of each author’s outcroppings.
This River of Words smooths my way,
gifts from writers ’round the world.
How wide it reaches I cannot say.
Each investigation of art further solidifies the task that Mertz is undertaking in this work. It is the task that all art undertakes in some way, which is to seek out answers to the world. In some poems, Mertz simply wants more information on the hypothetical scene a painting presents. In others, Mertz tries to calculate how deeply art has affected her and her work. This is further exemplified with the repeated use of lines of questioning that appear in this collection. One of the most telling examples of the task of unraveling the world through art comes in the final poem of the collection, titled “Secrets.” Mertz writes:
She looks to her theatre programme
to see if she finds there
answers to dilemmas, desires, and beaus,
and still more serious matters.
But no, it’s all about actors
And directors, about mystery –
about love, losses, and discovery,
and still more serious matters.
This poem is another ekphrastic poem after a Prudence Howard painting by the name of At the Theatre. As with all ekphrastic work, it is elevated by viewing the piece after reading the poem. The painting is simple: two women attending a play while one is examining a programme. However, accompanied with Mertz’s description, this poem serves as an ars poetica for how much of the collection functions. The two women in the painting become sisters and the one examining the programme is now undergoing her own ekphrastic experience with the playbill. Through art, this sister is trying to answer her own questions but is instead presented with the universal questions that all art tries to uncover.
Carole Mertz accomplishes an impressive feat in making Color and Line a collection heavily featuring ekphrastic work where each work mentioned adds to her own personal mythos. Through sharp and imagistic language, there is a subtlety in these poems that offsets the complex nature of the paintings and the questions Mertz repeatedly asks. In the end, the reader is left reflecting on how art has impacted them so far in their life and how art will guide them through the rest of it.
Gabriel Mundo is a poet and writer. Some of his work can be found in Up the
Staircase Quarterly, Tint Journal, Plainsongs, and Inkwell Journal. In 2019, he
was selected as a finalist for the Scotti Merrill Award. He is currently an MFA
candidate at the University of Mississippi.