Publisher: Blurb, Inc.
To Order: Amazon
Review by Neil Leadbeater
Enthusiasts of ekphrastic poetry will find much to admire in this collection of 57 poems by Michael Escoubas who serves as an editor and staff book reviewer for Quill & Parchment, an American online journal of the cultural and literary arts.
The running order of the poems follows the alphabetical listing of the titles of the paintings and not the chronological order of Monet’s compositions. That is to say, it opens with Autumn on the Seine at Argenteuil and ends with Woman with a Parasol. The poems are far more than verbal descriptions of the paintings. Most explore the relationship between the natural world and ourselves, the way it impacts with its beauty on our thought, bearing and mood as the author inhabits each painting mentally, physically and spiritually and more than captures a sliver of the light.
Throughout this collection, Escoubas makes use of all the senses to build up a powerful effect of “being there”. In The Cliff Walk at Pourville he feels the wind in his hair, in Evening at Argenteuil he hears the movement of oars in the river and in Wheat Stacks (End of Summer) he smells the fragrance of the harvested crop. Sometimes he takes a step or two back from the painting to imagine a scene that occurred a few hours beforehand. He does this with the snow in Melting Snow at Sunset by describing what it must have been like earlier in the day when it was pristine white and newly-fallen. The same idea is used to dramatic effect in Still Life with Pheasants and Plovers. Mention of all the things that are not in the painting – the dog, the waiting, the sudden rise of birds, the spray of shot and the unseen hand that dressed the birds – not only gives us a fuller picture but also acts as an effective contrast to the stillness of the painting.
On occasions he walks right into the paintings and engages in imaginary discourse with Monet himself. He is with him in Giverney and Argenteuil, and in the port of Le Havre on his custom-fitted studio boat. In other poems, he contrasts his present surroundings with those depicted in the paintings. The hustle and bustle of transport in his own city state is contrasted with a single sailboat on the Seine and an overcast day in Illinois is contrasted with a bright, sunlit scene in Argenteuil. Other poems, such as Pears and Grapes, evoke a memory from his early childhood.
Escoubas employs a memorable turn of phrase to bring his poems to life: we encounter two people on a small finger of the Seine on a summer day, a windmill that creaks and groans like the sound emitted by a cello, a train that waits for its iron belly to be coal-fed and a river that rushes its winter rain out into the sea.
In addition to the poems and paintings, the book contains a brief overview of impressionism, a short account of the author’s approach to his subject and his methods of interpretation. A list of the paintings included in the book, their titles and dates of composition together with some notes of factual interest are helpfully included at the back. After a lifelong career in the printing industry, Escoubas knows all that there is to know about presentation and all the elements that make up a good book. This is a beautiful book. It is one to treasure as well as to read. Monet’s paintings are suffused with light. These poems are suffused with joy. Fully recommended.
[First published in The Supplement (UK) June 2019].