My poem “Iconography of a Storm” began in February 2009 at an ekphrastic poetry workshop. The daylong class was held at the San Jose Museum of Art and taught by beloved Bay Area poets/professors, Nils Peterson and Sally Ashton. The main exhibition was “Culture of Spontaneity: San Francisco Abstract Expressionism from the Permanent Collection.” My educational background is in art history, and I’m very much at home in museums, but writing poetry based on or influenced by artwork was new territory.
James Kelly’s oil painting, “The Last Days of Dylan Thomas”, appealed to me immediately because of its large size. Measuring over 5 feet by 7 feet, you nearly step into the tumultuous, topographical surface—thick layers, jabs, and swirls of black and white paint, applied with palette knife. I loved its texture, movement, and dark energy.
The first attempts were left-aligned lineated narratives with stanza breaks. Some fragments and notes from the exhibition, like “soot-smeared,’ ‘impasto thick,’ and ‘muscle building texture,’ remained throughout the many drafts. It took me a number of years of leaving and revisiting it to discern and unpuzzle what the poem wanted. I started to play with sound work, remove punctuation, use ampersands as hairpin curves and tiny rests, place words side by side that created a rhythmic surge through language. Since that first ekphrastic class, I’d learned to bring in elements beyond the canvas’ edge and gave a nod to Dylan Thomas: “eighteen white horses” refers to the purported 18 whiskies he drank at the White Horse Tavern in New York shortly before he died; “somewhere soft gills of chanterelles,” a tender drift before the final silence.
This poem took its time to develop because I was also in a state of developing. Still am. I’m very grateful it was not accepted in its earlier versions and that I returned to it again and again with new eyes and ears. It’s my keen reminder to remain patient. Sometimes you have to wait for the poem; sometimes the poem, like your life, waits for you. Thank you, North American Review, for giving “Iconography of a Storm” a wonderful home.
Dushan Milic is a Toronto-based interdisciplinary illustrator, designer, and educator whose evocative, conceptual driven imagery appears in some of today's most influential publications. His reaearch explores the aesthetics of the sublime, alternative forms of data visualization, issues of representation, radical pedagogy, and creativty. When not drawing or designing, he can be found neck-deep in philosophy books babbling about philosophy and politics, indoor climbing or furiously whipping around on a bike. See more of his work at dushanmilic.com.