“Ekphrasis” is the literary term for the representation of visual art through words. Poet Susan Wheeler demonstrated the power and range of this poetic device during her reading for Writers at Rutgers last February. With a graduate degree in art history and a highly regarded list of poetic awards and distinctions, she seemed right at home addressing the packed audience in the Zimmerli Art Museum and reading from her latest book of poetry, Ledger. By showing slides of paintings to complement her poetry, Ms. Wheeler entertainingly demonstrated how an interest in the visual arts can join with a passion for poetic language.
Literally, a ledger is a record of financial transactions. Ledger, Ms. Wheeler’s third book of poetry, explores the multiple meanings of credit and debt, moving between monetary principals and moral principles. She has described debt as “a trail, linking the past with the present,” and Ledger shares this narrative theme. By suggesting the metaphorical connections behind commerce and exchange, Ms. Wheeler’s poetry explores what it means to live in our highly commercialized society.
The highlight of the reading was the long poem “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror,” an ekphrastic poem that explores the issues and ideologies of finance. Ms. Wheeler based the poem on “The Banker and His Wife,” a painting by the sixteenth-century painter Quentin Massys. The painting takes place in Antwerp, a European financial center at that time, and depicts a successful banker counting money while his wife sits next to him and watches. A convex mirror in the foreground of the painting reflects the face of the debtor who just paid him. Joking about “art in the dark” slides in art history classes, Ms. Wheeler projected the Massys painting on a screen behind her, allowing the audience to view the painting as she read.
The poem jumps around in time and space, from the banker’s home in Renaissance Antwerp to a contemporary shoplifting scene narrated in the first person, changing form and structure while connecting the themes of art, finance and identity. It begins with a depiction of the painting, then travels back-and-forth through time, evoking centuries of owning and owing, through the play of language:
[. . .] The merchant
moneylender leans to the obsolescence of his coins—the paper
debts he trades more in leave gold to the unconjoined, sole
debtors like this painter worrying his paper text. Livre tournois,
the French would call them, units of money valued at a Roman
pound, and livre, book: not the first time the two’re confused.
The poem ends by returning to this confusion of language between money and books, evoking the “value” of both currency and books of poetry: “The paper suffices for sugar and salt.”
Ms. Wheeler’s interest in the visual arts influences all of her work. In the question and answer session at the reading, she expressed her love for the silver screen, and aligned her poetry with visual concepts in film. Noting how a director is concerned with issues of space, of foreground and background, when setting up a shot, Ms. Wheeler said that she tries to achieve a similar sense of depth with words, by layering various voices and languages and meanings into a poem. She described poetry as an “engagement with language,” and cited the artistic possibilities of language as the driving force of her writing.
Ms. Wheeler teaches creative writing at Princeton University and The New School. Along with Ledger, which won the Iowa Poetry prize, she has published three other books of poetry: Bag’O’Diamonds (for which she won the Norma Farber First Book Award), Smokes, and Source Codes. Her work is frequently selected for the “Best American Poetry” series. She recently ventured into prose fiction, and her first novel, Record Palace, received praise from such writers as Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow. Ms. Wheeler is currently involved in several collaborative works on various topics, including music and photography. One project combines images and text to depict an industrial site outside of Rahway, something she is working on with her stepson, filmmaker and photographer Jonathan Furmanski.
It was especially fitting to have Ms. Wheeler visit and read. Years ago, she taught at Rutgers and directed the Writers at Rutgers Series, bringing notable authors to campus and building an audience for these literary events. This year, she contributed to Writers at Rutgers again by returning as a celebrated guest. For that, we are in her debt.
Susan Wheeler’s website
“The Banker and his Wife” by Quentin Massys