IMAGES: A Collection of Ekphrastic Poetry
by Sharmagne Leland-St. John
59 Pages ~ 29 Poems
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
When Michael Jordan was interviewed after the Chicago Bulls won their 6th
consecutive NBA championship, Jordan was heard to say, As a team, we
spared no effort to win, we left it all on the basketball floor. This is the distinct
impression I received as I finished the last poem in Images: A Collection of
Ekphrastic Poems. It was only last year that Leland-St. John published her
landmark work, A Raga for George Harrison. I thought she left it all on the
court then! I was wrong. With the ink still smudging the pages of Raga, the
poet set to work selecting poems for the collection now resting on my writing
table. Over the course of some 20 years Leland-St. John has not failed to write
a great ekphrastic poem. This well of accumulated poems has given birth to the
The term “ekphrastic” derives from the Greek “ekphrasis,” meaning “to
describe.” As the poet interacts with the artwork, which may be a painting,
photograph, sculpture, or handcraft, she naturally is concerned with
“description.” More importantly, however, she inhabits the world in which her
subjects live. In art as in life, halfway measures are out of the question for this
What strikes me about Leland-St. John’s work is her ability to touch me where
I live. I can sense her full-out investment in truth and in love. Her poems often
function as mirror-images of our lives; full of tender reminders of who we are
and where we came from.
Inspiration for Leland-St. John’s poems derive from classical painters such as:
Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet, watercolors by Blanca
Alveraz and Luis Cámera, a colored-pencil drawing by Mary Ritchie,
embroidery work by Camilla Ferst, a quilt designed by the author as well as
photography by Peter Shefler, Victor Riehl and the author. This is but a partial
Marriage between the Imagination and Reality
The volume opens with a response to Vincent van Gogh’s “La Chambre
à Arles.” Translated simply, “The Bedroom,” The poet captures contrasts
available when viewing this masterpiece. There is a feeling of rest and
security, something I felt in my own bedroom as a child. But van Gogh’s life
was fraught with tension and tragedy. Using couplet rhyme, the poem gradually
builds to reveal an uncomfortable truth:
Vials of pills could neither cure nor tame
Your many ills that had no name.
“Verismo,” an oil by Antonio Mancini, depicts a woman, “hair spilling out onto
her pillow,” nonplussed that the man she loves cannot bring himself to leave his
wife and children. Poignant and heartbreaking, the poem is gentle and at the
same time full of pathos.
In a life that has known its share of heartbreak; Leland-St. John reveals pieces
of her heart through her poems. I sense that she needs to do this. In so doing,
she never loses her commitment to art. That is, whatever she may be feeling
inside is sublimated to creative excellence.
The two poems referenced above serve as preface to the entire volume in that
they depict what is true in most, if not all, of our lives: we dwell in a space
between light and darkness, between hope and disappointment, between love
and the risks we take when we love. Only a person who has lived it can write
Pieces of a Poet’s Heart
I can think of no better illustration (though there are many from which to
choose) to illustrate this poet’s heart than, “Fly Fishing in January.” An avid
outdoorsperson, she ties her own trout flies, Leland-St. John lifts the curtain on
a moment of intimacy with Richard, her deceased husband (1928-2002). With
Paul Cezanne’s “Pines and Rocks,” as the backdrop, she links poetry and nature
in a moving tribute to love and loss—because love was, and is, worth the risk.
Peter Shefler’s photo, “To the Moon on the Subject of Darkness,” led to the
poem, “Ascent,” which speaks to all who bond to nature as compassionate
companion. Look for luscious language which augments the poet’s open heart:
the night is calm
a honeydew moon hangs
evades a gauze of clouds
above this silhouette
of branches bereft of leaves
as I bleed out my poems
Artwork from a remarkable colored-pencil drawing, by Mary Ritchie,
illustrates the poet’s heart for common things shared around a table like yours
or mine; excerpted from “Horoscope”:
Years after he’s gone,
over marmalade toast
and Darjeeling tea,
she still reads
his daily horoscope
in the crossword section
of the local newspaper
Leland-St. John has resided in many different regions of America and indeed
around the world. Though well-travelled, Taos, New Mexico captures her heart.
Set in a ruggedly beautiful desert region, “Red Willow Creek,” responds to a
winter photograph taken by the author. In a setting where basic things, like
electricity and running water, are denied, this poem reflects the poet’s
commitment to her Native American heritage and its values:
In the two rooms of their home
illuminated by candlelight,
shadows dance across adobe walls.
Electricity, running water,
indoor plumbing prohibited.
They don't need the dominant culture's
‘comforts’ to survive on their land.
They live in a past that will never die.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Leland-St. John’s heart for social justice.
Several poems in A Raga for George Harrison highlight this concern, not to
mention the “Red Willow Creek” excerpt noted above.
“Eulogy for Hector Pieterson,” is illustrated by an unforgettable black and
white photo taken on the day of Hector’s murder in 1976. The touching poem
that follows recalls the bloody Apartheid struggles of South Africa. This is
timeless writing about an always timely subject, Freedom.
He will not speak in syllables now
He will not utter a sound
in English, Xhosa, or Afrikaans
But he will speak volumes
through his martyrdom
this 13 year old,
who took a bloody stand
who took a bullet
from a white man’s hand
Poet Jane Hirschfield has written, “Poetry’s work is the clarification and
magnification of being.”
Sharmagne Leland-St. John understands this and has left her heart ‘whole’ on
the pages of Images.