Death Wake: Notes on A Painting, A Poem and Coming into Being

Warning: This post contains off-key foreign phrases like “ekphrasis” and “pantoum”. If these terms displease you, don’t worry. They won’t take up a lot of space. I need to use them if for no other reason than to acknowledge that the ideas I’ve written about in this blog have a long history, going back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks. What this post is really about though is a poem (one of my own) and a painting: how they came into being, and what all of that has meant to me.

The Painting

In January 2007, my wife and I set off on a 3 month trip across Central America, travelling through Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. We’d moved to England the year before ready to start a new chapter in our lives. I wanted to write and make films; to give myself a chance to do it for a living. Above all, I needed to experience a different way of life. We both did. And those three months were exactly what the doctor ordered. Sunshine, sea and song; time to think; time to play; the opportunity to be immersed in new and vibrant cultures; to try to make sense of their rich and tragic histories, and in doing so, to gain a better understanding of myself.
I went in search of experience, and gave myself daily exercises to describe the objects around me in vivid detail. To the Ancient Greeks, this process – of bringing inanimate objects to life through evocative and dramatic description – was known as Ekphrasis. It’s a mode of writing that’s been passed down over many centuries to modern poets, who use it to bring new meaning to works of art through the act of translating it into poetry.
I must confess finding enormous pleasure in learning that what I wanted to do had a name and a long heritage behind it. That feeling has, of course, passed; but what has stayed with me is the exhilaration the process itself provokes: a creative interplay between my experiences, my ideas and emotions, and the form they were finally expressed in.

I spent a lot of time thinking about form over those three months. And, through T. S. Elliot, I also discovered the paradoxical freedom that comes from imposing creative limitations on yourself. The challenge I set myself was to write in old rhyming verse forms: sestinas, villanelles and pantoums. The pantoum, it’s been said, is “the perfect form for the evocation of a past time” so it felt right that I should write about Cuba – in many ways, a country trapped in its past – in this way.

I soon grew to appreciate the challenge this posed. The rules of the modern pantoum are hard enough to understand. Each stanza (or unit) has four lines. The second and fourth line of each stanza are then repeated – ideally, word for word – as the first and third lines of the next stanza, and so on until you get to the end. As if that wasn’t hard enough, what you’re aiming for is to end on the same line as you began with.

Unlike mantras or slogans, each repetition changes the meaning of the phrase.  That is: provided you had something to say, and at this point I had nothing. I almost gave up, and thought about trying something else. But then I encountered a subject worth of the challenge: a painting called Tuberculosis by the Cuban artist Fidelio Ponce de Leon.

Tuberculosis. Fidelio Ponce De Leon

Housed in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, alongside an impressive collection of art from the colonial through to the modern period, Ponce de Leon’s painting grabbed my attention from the first moment I saw it. It’s unique style and colour palette, its powerful imagery – so intense and striking – made a deep and lasting impression on me. Its impact only grew stronger as I began to find out more about his life and work, and it’s connection to the painting.

Cuban Artist: Fidelio Ponce De Leon

Fidelio, who’s real name was Alfredo Ramón Jesús de la Paz Fuentes Pons, was born in 1895, a few years before the US government took control of the country from the Spanish colonial authorities. Apart from his time as an art student at the National Academy in San Alejandro, details of his early life are sketchy. What is known is that after a few years teaching drawing to children of Havana’s satellite towns, he went into isolation for almost five years while most of his modernist contemporaries continued their studies abroad. When he re-emerged, Fidelio and his work had undergone significant change. His work seemed to acquire a more violent and melancholy character. There are accounts of his poverty stricken life; how he had to paint over previous works because he couldn’t afford new canvasses; his battles with alcoholism and especially tuberculosis. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how all of this life experience would have informed the painting I was gazing at, but even without that information, it was clear at the time the Tuberculosis was a personal work: one infused with intimate knowledge and direct experience of the subject. The elongated, swollen necks – no mere artistic signature, but a sign of scrofula, a form of tuberculosis affecting the lymph nodes. The colour of their skin, the pervasive white of the ward, the direct gaze of its subjects. All of these things drew me into the world of the painting. I imagined the scene actually playing out, seeing it from each one’s perspective: the nun, the little girl, the three women, and even the painter himself. In the end, the perspective I choose to write it from was the women with her hand on the skull. For that I think was the essence of the painting: the closeness of death.

But a strange thing happened as I began to write it. I realised that the painting had frozen a life in transition, in the moments before death: a moment of being alive. And I realised that as long as I was alive, I was responsible for how I lived. That even in the face of death I could create, I could find beauty, I could form meaningful connections with others. I learnt to feel more alive.

So here then, without further ado, is my poem: Death Wake.

Death Wake: Fidelio’s Pantoum

Even now, as the clock strikes his final hour,

There is still time to hold back the minutes,

To savour unlived dreams before they overpower

All that has been and exits.

There is still time to hold back the minutes;

For his canvas to capture every fading anguish;

All that has been and exits

This ward: the pale, the wasting and feverish.

On his canvas, he captures every fading anguish,

Each prayer, each trace of grief lost

In this ward: the pale, the wasting, and feverish

Yearning to stumble home in the early morning frost.

Yet each prayer, each trace of grief lost

Over him (his body consumed from within,

Yearning to stumble home in the early morning frost) –

Each offered, knowing he must rend our death wake chagrin.

Still, over him, his body consumed from within,

Five of us have waited.

Each offered (knowing he must rend our death wake chagrin)

Our bodies – mute and likewise fated.

Five of us have waited.

Our lips pursed in fear, soured with conviction,

Our bodies, mute and likewise fated,

Share the pain of passing an affliction.

Our lips pursed in fear, soured with conviction,

Restlessly hoping, wanting not to

Share the pain of passing an affliction:

This fatal pas-de-deux.

Restless – hoping, wanting not to

Savour his unlived dreams before they overpower

Our fatal pas-de-deux,

Even now as the clock strikes his final hour.

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About Darwin Franks

Filmmaker, Cinephile, Writer, Athiest, Civil Servant

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