Film Ekphrasis: Poems on Film
Playlist by Janice Lee
Poets have long drawn inspiration from visual art, and more recently, film. These poems are inspired by, connect to, and create new relationships with film and cinematography, and include topics such as Valley of the Dolls, Izo, Chaplin, James Bond, Gone With the Wind, & Pierrot Le Fou.
1. Main Character
Jimmy Santiago Baca
2. I Wish I Want I Need
Gail Mazur
3. Things to Do in Valley of the Dolls (The Movie)
David Trinidad
4. Final Farewell
Tom Clark
5. The Blue Angel
Allen Ginsberg
6. The James Bond Movie
May Swenson
7. IZO
Janice Lee & Michael du Plessis
8. Edward Hopper's "New York Movie"
Joseph Stanton
9. Miss Scarlett
Vanessa Place
10. Chaplinesque
Hart Crane
11. Bruise
James Harms
12. Pierrot Le Fou
Adrienne Rich
I went to see
How the West Was Won
at the Sunshine Theater.
Five years old,
deep in a plush seat,
light turned off,
bright screen lit up
with MGM roaring lion-
in front of me
a drunk Indian rose,
the western violins
and hurled his uncapped bagged bottle
of wine
at the rocket roaring to the moon.
His dark angry body
convulsed with his obscene gestures
at the screen,
and then ushers escorted him
up the aisle,
and as he staggered past me,
I heard his grieving sobs.
Red wine streaked
blue sky and take-off smoke,
sizzled cowboys’ campfires,
dripped down barbwire,

slogged the brave, daring scouts
who galloped off to mesa buttes
to speak peace with Apaches,
and made the prairie
lush with wine streams.
When the movie
was over,
I squinted at the bright
sunny street outside,
looking for the main character.
The black kitten cries at her bowl
meek meek and the gray one glowers
from the windowsill. My hand on the can
to serve them. First day of spring.
Yesterday I drove my little mother for hours
through wet snow. Her eightieth birthday.
What she wanted was that ride with me—
shopping, gossiping, mulling old grievances,
1930, 1958, 1970.
How cruel the world has been to her,
how uncanny she’s survived it.
In her bag, a birthday card
from “my Nemesis,” signed Sincerely
with love—“Why is she doing this to me?”
she demands, “She hates me.”
she loves you” is and isn’t what Mother
wants to hear, maybe after sixty years
the connection might as well be love.
Might well be love, I don’t say—
I won’t spoil her birthday,
my implacable mother.
In Byfield,
in the snowstorm, we bought things
at an antiques mall, she a miniature
Sunbonnet Baby creamer and saucer—
a bargain!—I, a chrome ice bucket
stamped with penguins, with Bakelite handles.
I wanted it, I had one just like it
at home. Sometimes I think the only thing
I’m sure I want is what I have.

“What do you wish for?” I asked
a friend, I was so curious to know
how he’d formulate a wish, to know
if there is a formula. His list
was deliciously simple, my friend
the hedonist: a penthouse with a concierge,
“wonderful food,” months in Mexico,
good movies . . . .

Last night, you and I
watched “The Way We Were” and I cried—
I always do—for the wanting in it,
and the losing. “It’s a great movie,”
I said, to justify my tears. I wish
you were more like me. Streisand and Redford,
so opposite it’s emblematic, almost
a cliché. Each wants or needs the other
to change, so the pushy Jewish lefty,
Barbara, should be quiet, accommodating,
and the accommodating, handsome, laid-back
“nice gentile boy” should agree with her
that people are their principles.
He thinks people can relax a little,
be happy. If only
they could both become
nothing, they can stay together.

All her wishing and wanting and needing
won’t make that happen. She marches
against the Nazis, the Blacklist, the bomb,
through the movie decades, and he doesn’t
want to be a great unpopular novelist,
so he writes badly for movies,
and later, television.
At the end
(it’s the early ’60s), when they meet again
in front of the Plaza, his look—the blank
Redford quizzicality I’ve learned
is his whole expressive repertoire—
seems to ask, “Why? Why did I love you?
Why do I still? Why aren’t you
like me?”
And because the director’s
a liberal, Streisand’s the wiser one,
more human than Redford—she’s leafletting,
to ban the bomb, in the ’70s she’ll be
Another Mother for Peace—the way
she wriggles her sensual mouth
(a mannerism that’s become familiar
in the years since this movie was new)
I know she loves him or at least yearns
for him, still wants him, which is more
piercing, more selfish.
This morning, my throat
is constricted, my head aches, I’m always
like this, this movie reminds me you don’t get
what you want, even if you’re not weak,
or mean, or criminal. I wish I didn’t
believe that message so utterly. Today
I need to believe something more useful,
more positive.
Once, when I was a child,
my mother lied to me. Maybe that day
I was too demanding, more likely I needed
consolation—my schoolmates so lucky,
so confident, so gentile. Either
she meant to reassure me, or—more likely—
to instruct when she said (she couldn’t have
believed it, the ’40s had happened)
that the meek inherit the earth. That was
lesson one of our course in resignation.
My little mother,
little kitten,
be patient, I’m trying, it’s for you
I’m opening this can of worms,
for you I’m opening this can of food.
Move to New York.
Lose your virginity.
Become a star.
Send money to your mother.

Call pills “dolls.”
Fire the talented newcomer.
Have a nervous breakdown.
Suffer from an incurable degenerative disease.

Sing the theme song.
Do your first nude scene.
Wear gowns designed by Travilla.
Become addicted to booze and dope.

Scream “Who needs you!”
Stagger around in a half-slip and bra.
Come to in a sleazy hotel room.
Say “I am merely traveling incognito.”

Get drummed out of Hollywood.
Come crawling back to Broadway.
Pull off Susan Hayward’s wig
and try to flush it down the toilet.

End up in a sanitarium.
Hiss “It wasn’t a nuthouse!”
Get an abortion.
Go on a binge.

Detect a lump in your breast.
Commit suicide.
Make a comeback.
Great moment in Blade Runner where Roy
Batty is expiring, and talks
about how everything
he’s seen will die with him —
ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion,
sea-beams glittering before
the Tannhauser Gates.

Memory is like molten gold
burning its way through the skin
it stops there.
There is no transfer.
Nothing I have seen
will be remembered
beyond me.
That merciful cleaning
of the windows of creation
will be an excellent thing
my interests notwithstanding.

But then again I’ve never been
near Orion, or the Tannhauser

I’ve only been here.
Marlene Dietrich is singing a lament
for mechanical love.
She leans against a mortarboard tree
on a plateau by the seashore.

She’s a life-sized toy,
the doll of eternity;
her hair is shaped like an abstract hat
made out of white steel.

Her face is powdered, whitewashed and
immobile like a robot.
Jutting out of her temple, by an eye,
is a little white key.

She gazes through dull blue pupils
set in the whites of her eyes.
She closes them, and the key
turns by itself.

She opens her eyes, and they’re blank
like a statue’s in a museum.
Her machine begins to move, the key turns
again, her eyes change, she sings.

—you’d think I would have thought a plan
to end the inner grind,
but not till I have found a man
to occupy my mind.
The popcorn is greasy, and I forgot to bring a Kleenex.  
A pill that’s a bomb inside the stomach of a man inside

The Embassy blows up. Eructations of flame, luxurious  
cauliflowers giganticize into motion. The entire 29-ft.

screen is orange, is crackling flesh and brick bursting,  
blackening, smithereened. I unwrap a Dentyne and, while

jouncing my teeth in rubber tongue-smarting clove, try  
with the 2-inch-wide paper to blot butter off my fingers.

A bubble-bath, room-sized, in which 14 girls, delectable  
and sexless, twist-topped Creamy Freezes (their blond,

red, brown, pinkish, lavendar or silver wiglets all  
screwed that high, and varnished), scrub-tickle a lone

male, whose chest has just the right amount and distribu-
tion of curly hair. He’s nervously pretending to defend

his modesty. His crotch, below the waterline, is also
below the frame—but unsubmerged all 28 slick foamy boobs.

Their makeup fails to let the girls look naked. Caterpil-
lar lashes, black and thick, lush lips glossed pink like

the gum I pop and chew, contact lenses on the eyes that are  
mostly blue, they’re nose-perfect replicas of each other.

I’ve got most of the grease off and onto this little square  
of paper. I’m folding it now, making creases with my nails.
He’s coming: The blood on the wall is the crisis is the contradiction in the system is the severed head on the floor is the group of butterflies flying towards the moon is the promised flower, blooming is the pistol on the table.

A man can honestly believe in God without believing in the Devil, can believe in the Devil without believing in God, and can admit the demonic without believing in either one.

I will still be sad: The beheading is the service of justice is the imperfection born out of perfection is the system born out of imperfection is the falling of the gavel is the blood dropping from the little girl’s hand is the row of severed heads, neatly in a row, smelling already like expired Halloween pumpkins putrefying in the sun.

A man is coming with malice in his heart. He has form but is formless. He has a soul but is soulless.

Since it denies being, the demonic spirit must borrow a being other than its own; being itself only pure negation, it needs another existence in order to exercise its negation.

This is crisis control. This is the Doctor of Interfering With Everything in the Universe. This is the infinite hell, the Mobius strip of violence. Can a human be so cruel as this?

Where is he going and what will he do there? To a meaningless place, to find meaning.

Punish them: The falling between planes is the upside down camera is the beheading of an ignorant groom is the uncertainty of feeling is the coexistence of the demon and the individual being is the abandonment of something is the insufficiency of being is the propulsion towards violence is the monk, split in half at a diagonal, the splitting sound of flesh sliding off of flesh, slowly, intentionally, mercilessly, arbitrarily, needlessly, necessarily.

About myself, I’m not sure how I’m feeling. But the constantly ajar mouth signifies something. You are eating, keeping your eyes wide open. You are enjoying the food. I am suffering. I never knew it would be so painful to die.

This will to seriousness and profundity reveals a powerlessness to experience the serious and the profound.

What is the point?

To succumb to the Devil is to succumb to deception.

You’ll be dead: The demon wandering in the darkness is me is you is the sword that is the soul or the soul that is the sword of doom is a blade thrust into the flesh is the cruelty of humanity is the spectacle of life is the hand crawling back into the body is the throat, raw and sore from the screaming, singing, praying, punishing.

Your grudge proves that you have a soul.
We can have our pick of seats.
Though the movie's already moving,
the theater's almost an empty shell.
    All we can see on our side
of the room is one man and one woman—
as neat, respectable, and distinct
    as the empty chairs that come
between them. But distinctions do not surprise,
fresh as we are from sullen street and subway
    where lonelinesses crowded
about us like unquiet memories
that may have loved us once or known our love.
    Here we are an accidental
fellowship, sheltering from the city's
obscure bereavements to face a screened,
    imaginary living,
as if it were a destination
we were moving toward. Leaning to our right
    and suspended before us
is a bored, smartly uniformed usherette.
Staring beyond her lighted corner, she finds
    a reverie that moves through
and beyond the shine of the silver screening.
But we can see what she will never see—
    that she's the star of Hopper's scene.
For the artist she's a play of light,
and a play of light is all about her.
    Whether the future she is
dreaming is the future she will have
we have no way of knowing. Whatever
    it will prove to be
it has already been. The usherette
Hopper saw might now be seventy,
    hunched before a Hitachi
in an old home or a home for the old.
She might be dreaming now a New York movie,
    Fred Astaire dancing and kissing
Ginger Rogers, who high kicks across New York
City skylines, raising possibilities
    that time has served to lower.
We are watching the usherette, and the subtle
shadows her boredom makes across her not-quite-
    impassive face beneath
the three red-shaded lamps and beside
the stairs that lead, somehow, to dark streets
    that go on and on and on.
But we are no safer here than she.
Despite the semblance of luxury—
    gilt edges, red plush,
and patterned carpet—this is no palace,
and we do not reign here, except in dreams.
    This picture tells us much
about various textures of lighted air,
but at the center Hopper has placed
a slab of darkness and an empty chair.
Miss Scarlett, effen we kain git de doctah
w’en Miss Melly’s time come, doan you bodder
Ah kin manage. Ah knows all ’bout birthin.
Ain’ mah ma a midwife? Ain’ she raise me
ter be a midwife, too? Jes’ you leave it
ter me. She warn’t dar. Well’m, Dey Cookie say
Miss Meade done got wud early dis mawnin’
dat young Mist’ Phil done been shot an’ Miss Meade

she tuck de cah’ige an’ Ole Talbot an’
Besty an’ dey done gone ter fotch him home.
Cookie say he bad hurt an’ Miss Meade ain’
gwin ter be studyin’ ’bout comin’ up
hyah. Dey ain’ dar, Miss Scarlett. Ah drapped in
ter pass time of de day wid Mammy on

mah way home.
Dey’s doen gone. House all locked up.
Spec dey’s at de horsepittle.

Miss Elsing ober at de horsepittle.
Dey Cookie ’lows a whole lot of wounded
sojers come in on de early train. Cookie fixin’
soup ter tek over dar. She say—Yas’m
Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! De Yankees
ain’ at Tara, s dey? Gawdlmighty,
Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll dey do ter Maw?
Dey’s fightin’ at Jonesboro, Miss Scarlett!

Dey say our gempumus is gittin’ beat.
Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen ter
Maw an’ Poke? Oh, Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Whut’ll happen
ter us effen de Yankees gits hyah? Oh,
Gawd—Ah ain’ nebber seed him, Miss Scarlett.
No’m, he ain’ at de horsepittle.

Miss Merriwether
an’ Miss Elsing ain’ dar needer.
A man he tole me de doctah down
by de car shed
wid the wounded

sojers jes’ come in frum Jonesboro, but
Miss Scarlett, Ah wuz sceered ter go down dar ter
de shed—dey’s folkses dyin’ down dar. Ah’s
sceered of daid folkses—Miss Scarlett, fo’ Gawd, Ah
couldn’ sceercely git one of dem ter read
yo’ note. Dey wukin’ in de horsepittle
lak dey all done gone crazy. One doctah
he say ter me, “Damn yo’ hide! Doan you come

roun’ hyah bodderi’ me ’bout babies w’en
we got a mess of men dyin’
hyah. Git some woman ter he’p you.” An’ den
Ah went aroun’ an’ about an’ ask fer news
lak you done tole me an’ dey all say “fightin’
at Jonesboro” an’ Ah—

Is her time nigh, Miss Scarlett?
Is de doctah come?
Gawd, Miss Scarlett! Miss Melly bad off!

Fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett—
Fo’ Gawd, Miss Scarlett!
We’s got ter have a doctah.
Miss Scarlett,
Ah doan know nutin’ ‘bout bringin’ babies.
We make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
Across the room behind the mirror
he slips a quarter in the slot.
She can’t see him, doesn’t want to, isn’t interested
in being touched.
How are you? she says; it’s what
she always says: safe and friendly, not really
a question. What would you like to talk about?
He doesn’t answer, which isn’t rare, not
unheard of, just dumb.
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She wraps a finger in a strand of hair.
My sister died of fever, she says, it’s what
she always says, it sounds personal, like
she means it. My mother healed herself
by baking bread for eight days straight,
until the racks of loaves reached the kitchen ceiling.
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She has a bruise
the size of a knuckle below her collarbone
and she shows him, which she sometimes does,
though not often. Her husband pushed her there
on his way to work everyday
on his way to poker, on his way to bed.
He’s been gone six years, she says, but it won’t go away.
It’s like a botched tattoo, a smudge of blue ink.
He says something, he says, A tattoo is like a marriage.
He taps the mirror with a coin.
She says, How long were you married?
She says, Sometimes
I can hear the river from my bedroom window.
Sometimes it’s the sea. But I know it’s just the highway,
just traffic passing through.
He drops a quarter in the slot.
She starts to say something else, how she’s been to Hawaii.
She hears the door open, close.

Suppose you stood facing
a wall

of photographs

from your unlived life

as you stand looking at these
stills from the unseen film?

Yourself against a wall
curiously stuccoed

Yourself in the doorway
of a kind of watchman’s hut

Yourself at a window
signalling to people
you haven’t met yet

Yourself in unfamiliar clothes
with the same eyes


On a screen as wide as this, I grope for the titles.
I speak the French language like a schoolgirl of the ‘forties.
Those roads remind me of Beauce and the motorcycle.
We rode from Paris to Chartres in the March wind.
He said we should go to Spain but the wind defeated me.
France of the superhighways, I never knew you.
How much the body took in those days, and could take!
A naked lightbulb still simmers in my eyeballs.
In every hotel, I lived on the top floor.


Suppose we had time
and no money
living by our wits

telling stories

which stories would you tell?

I would tell the story
of Pierrot Le Fou
who trusted

not a woman

but love itself

till his head blew off
not quite intentionally

I would tell all the stories I knew
in which people went wrong
but the nervous system

was right all along


The island blistered at our feet.
At first we mispronounced each others’ names.
All the leaves of the tree were scribbled with words.
There was a language there but no-one to speak it.
Sometimes each of us was alone.
At noon on the beach our shadows left us.
The net we twisted from memory kept on breaking.
The damaged canoe lay on the beach like a dead animal.
You started keeping a journal on a coconut shell.


When I close my eyes
other films

have been there all along –

a market shot:
bins of turnips, feet
of dead chickens
close-up: a black old woman
buying voodoo medicines

a figure of terrible faith
and I know her needs

Another film:

an empty room stacked with old films

I am kneeling on the floor
it is getting dark

they want to close the building

and I still haven’t found you

Scanning reel after reel
tundras in negative
the Bowery

all those scenes

but the light is failing

and you are missing

from the footage of the march
the railway disaster
the snowbound village

even the shots of the island
miss you

yet you were there


To record
in order to see

if you know how the story ends

why tell it

To record
in order to forget

the surface is always lucid
my shadows are under the skin


To record
in order to control

the eye of the camera
doesn’t weep tears of blood

To record
for that is what one does

climbing your stairs, over and over
I memorized the bare walls

This is my way of coming back
New Poetry, Every Week
Sign up to get a new poetry playlist in your inbox each week. You'll receive set of poems around a different theme, with a focus on contemporary poets.