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Kites Without Strings
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INTERVIEW: February 24, 2019
Artist John Di Leonardo Follows His Passion in Debut Poetry Book
Among cold things, I whisper your name/in the sweetness of morning jams, evening fruits/and the Atlantic that draws me towards you. – John Di Leonardo*
February perfumes the air with desire and passion fruit while the cover ofJohn Di Leonardo’s debut poetry collection Conditions of Desire is scar- let like rose petals, like a daring shade of lipstick, like Cupid’s heart. Launched in late October 2018 by The John B. Lee Signature Series im- print of Hidden Brook Press, this 74-page collection of 54 ekphrastic po- ems evolved from Di Leonardo’s visual art exhibition “The Contentious Nude in the History of Canadian Art.”
Before becoming a published poet, John Di Leonardo taught visual arts for 30 years. His latest exhibition of graphite drawings was at the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. Photo courtesy: Druworx Photography
As Lee penned for the back cover, “John Di Leonardo’s masterful ekphrastic project involves the writing of a collection of fine poems each of which is inspired by an original work of art. Although he is working in the poetic tradition of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Di Leonardo is first and foremost a painter who brings to bear the eye of a man whose primary art is visual.”
His transition–from an established artist and visual arts teacher to a poet who paints with his words–has been fascinating to watch.
Conditions of Desire (Hidden Brook Press, 2018, John B. Lee Signature Series) is John Di Leonardo’s first trade publication.
In my view, what made this debut collection strong was that Di Leonardo used his knowledge of art to select similar themed or linked paintings/sculptures/drawings (spanning from 1486 to 2010) to ensure that his ekphrastic poems exhibited a cohesive theme of desire: loss, lust, longing, and love. The poems are accessible and can stand on their own without the art references but for those who are willing to search the images on the internet, like I did, the experience will add another dimension to the work. Although all the poems were inspired by work by either the Masters or several contemporary artists, the book also includes both a striking cover image of the back of a woman and a centerfold of six graphite drawings showcasing Di Leonardo’s artistic talent. What a gift to mix the different creative mediums together! While I’m not a huge fan of certain types of desire-themed poems nor this book’s obsession with the woman’s body and the human form, I am impressed by Di Leonardo’s minimalist style with poems no longer than half to a full page in length. Several lines were so unique and strong, they remained with me. In the poem “Nude” inspired by A. Maillol’s “Ile –de France’ Sculpture/Bronze, 1925 he writes: Then the softness of her step/turned bronze//transient as//autumn leaves/ on sullen passersby. (p. 37) In the poem “Longing”: Your black bridal veil/grows tangled/by slabs of satin tears/whites of coffin velvets. (p. 59) In “Suffragette”: Her red hair/with hints of rebellion/the colour of coals. (p. 60)
Earlier this week, I chatted with John about his journey as both an artist and a poet.
Hi John, You’ve taught visual arts for thirty years. At what moment did you decide to start writing poetry and what motivated you to continue honing your literary skills to the point of having a book published?
Review by Susan Ioannou:
John Di Leonardo’s Conditions of Desire reveals the abundant possibilities of the contemporary ekphrastic poem. No longer is the form limited to vivid descriptive details, such as “the blue flicker of a fridge door”, “the wife raked salad”, or “sullen light”. More broadly, inspired by works from the Great Masters to current artists, Di Leonardo stages his short, concise poems from a variety of angles. While he may stand apart, observing the sufferer of “morning’s green gill” in “Divorced Birthday”, he also can speak directly to a figure in a painting, such as Botticelli’s Venus in “Reproduction”, or Salvador Dali’s Girl at Window in “Breakup”. Half way through “Sackville Station” he pivots, to compare his own situation with Alex Colville’s soldier and girl, or in “Horse and Train”, spins off the word “horse” to expand into a wider reflection on beauty and life. As an accomplished painter, he is able to analyze the techniques of a master artist in “Renoir”, but can also look compassionately both inside and outside the picture frame, as in “Ironing” where he contrasts the dreary lives of the women depicted, with the elegance of gallery viewers toasting the art to the clink of Baccarat crystal. Sometimes he steps right inside the painting himself, as in “Rite in Spring” and “From Above”, or as in “As the Steeples Slept”, he speaks in the voice of a woman, musing on herself in a childhood photograph about her debt to her own mother. Six of Di Leonardo’s own beautiful graphite nudes round out this collection as a visual counterpoint to his poetic words—words that will whet your appetite to see the original art that was their inspiration.
Susan Ioannou's latest book is Looking for Light (Hidden Brook Press).
Review by: gillian harding-russell
Conditions of Desire is an accomplished collection of ekphrastic poems using artwork from artists across the ages to study desire in its various guises. Whether erotic or romantic love, maternal, conjugal or unmarried, as belonging to the brothel or as sublimated between the artist and his sometimes nude subject, Di Leonardo has a talent for drawing story out of art scenes using a select epistemology of details and for transcribing these portraits of lives into exquisitely chiselled, often poignant verses. Between Part One and Two (between the bed covers, so to speak), the artist-poet includes a series of his own erotic studies as if to pinion the subject and to establish the poet’s own perspective inside this kaleidoscope of poems.
gillian harding-russell The League of Canadian Poets
Ars Longa, Poetry Eternal
Review By Miguel Iglesias
Comments on John Di Leonardo ́s Conditions of Desire (Poetry) (2018) Hidden Brook Press. Canada
In the weeks before the pandemic expansion of the virus scourging the world, the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (CCLA) Founding President, Richard Grove, forwarded me a stock of first-rate books published by Hidden Brook Press (HBP), some of them under the John B. Lee Signature Series. To my honor and delight, many of the authors are poets I reviewed in my book In a Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry (HBP, 2020) and in this second volume we are presenting now.
"I wrote an essay about a poet who was not in my previous book, John Tyndall (See here Reading, Listening to and Writing about John Tyndall´s Poetry. Comments on Some of his Poems in Listen to People (Poetry) (2020) Hidden Brook Press. Canada), and this essay on John Di Leonardo, who was not in my first book either. I was truly attracted to the profound meaningfulness of their poetry and what it made me feel and write.”
The more I read Di Leonardo, the more I saw distinct elements in the poet in manners that motivated me to review his book. John B. Lee ́s introductory words to it were helpful in many points I will try to reveal here. In a sad context of sickness and death, culture comes to us to soothe our bodies, bring a bit of comfort to our souls and necessary hope to our lives.
I remember now, amidst so much pain and so many deaths, what I wrote for The Envoy 84 (CCLA digital newsletter), a month after the tragic airplane crash in Havana where many Cubans and foreigners lost their lives, “... we seek peace and enlightenment reading... poetry and prose... The deep riddles of life and death must be decrypted by looking for and holding on to spiritual healing, and sheltering in human sympathies and love... let ́s try to turn then to less rending realms.” (Taken from The Envoy 084, June 2018). Spiritual healing, human sympathy, hope and love are what we need. Faith, fortitude and love in times of virus (paraphrasing García Márquez ́s book title, Amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in Times of Cholera)) – is what we must find today to overcome this dark hour.
Di Leonardo offers his spirituality and aesthetics by exploring and evoking, unveiling and connecting in that sentient human drive to build, either with words or with images – or with the overlapping produce that results from blending both, as we have enjoyed in the works of John B. Lee and Richard Grove (A Small Payback, Ode to Victoria Lake (Poetry and Photography) (2016) Hidden Brook Press, Canada), James Deahl and Richard Grove (North of Belleville (Haiku and Photography) (2011) Hidden Brook Press, Canada), Stella Body and Robert Bateman (Keeping the Earth Alive (Poetry and Art) (2005) Hidden Brook Press, Canada), the Bridges Series Books I, II, III, IV (Poetry and Art) (2011, 2013, 2017, 2018) by SandCrab Books, an imprint of Hidden Brook Press, etc.
However, Di Leonardo takes a novel step up: many poets do include in their poetry pieces inspired by paintings or other works of art but I had never read an entire book of poems dedicated to – or stemming from – them. He writes inspired by images, he turns into poetics what was already poetry, as he lets us know opening his book with a quotation from Simonides of Ceos: “Painting is silent poetry; poetry is painting that speaks.”
Well-known Canadian poet and professor, Antony Di Nardo, has wisely looked into and shed light on this notion too: “I often consider poetry as a form of visual art painted with words. As varied as that world of art can be with paintings ranging from the representational to the abstract, so too poetry encompasses such variety. The surreal and the absurd in poetry can be as intellectually effective as a Dali or painting by Frida Kahlo. In my mind, Picasso’s Guernica is an epic poem like no other, and there are poems by Ashbery I consider echoes of the finest cubist paintings. Such parallels are endless. The image often dominates a poem’s aesthetics.” (Taken from Di Nardo ́s review on a work- in-progress poetry book of mine, This Pulse of Life, These Words I Found)
Thus Di Leonardo repaints, in word form, the works of art he so admires. He engages in ingenious labor and materializes a second “reading” – that is, a re-construal of a reality that had been interpreted before by a visual artist – this time with words. While I read his poetry book, I was crossing readings of Joseph Gold ́s The Story Species, where this author voices concerns clearly spelling for me that Di Leonardo grants an “extra salvation” to the paintings he writes about. Consider Gold ́s question in his book: “Why is it that if a painting is burned, it is gone forever, but a poem... can be memorized intact, unaltered and transmittable as long as a human brain retains it?” (Taken from Joseph Gold ́s The Story Species, 2002, Fitzhenry and Whiteside. Canada) I couldn’t help thinking about K. V. Skene ́s evocations of “all things beautiful and old / and otherworldly...” in
her poem “Notre Dame de Paris Brûle” (Published in The Envoy 088, June 2019 after the Notre Dame fire). I couldn’t help thinking about the Alexandria Library fire...
Therefore, through highly emotional (the poet has been touched by the paintings) information transfer (visual/pictorial/graphic), Di Leonardo “saves” them via a re- perpetuation process. He is more than experienced to do so because he is a graduate of McMaster University, where he earned an Honorary BA in Fine Arts, taught Visual Arts for thirty years, and is an artist who divides his time between writing, painting, and travel. Being an artist and a poet, he becomes, fortunately for us, perfect vessel and “medium” enraptured by beauty/meaning/impact, aesthetic-cognitive-affective stimuli, absorbing a painting and returning it to us in another code.
His fascination is best measured when we read comments by Canadian poets Malca Litovitz and Elana Wolff: “You can only write from the depth of an emotion if you’ve been there.” (Taken from an interview made by Elana Wolff to her friend and poet Malca Litovitz, included in their book Slow Dancing (section Duologue). Guernica Editions, 2008) and their competent decoding of what happens when we read/write poetry: “Malca Litovitz said: “... the human soul needs poetry and that it will always be around and that it serves a real function in our psyche.” (Taken from Slow Dancing, Guernica Editions, 2008). Elana Wolff stated that “a poem is not only a form of self-expression, it is the writer’s way of bearing witness to the world in which he or she lives...” (Taken from Implicate me, Guernica Editions, 2010)
Litovitz and Wolff stress on the role of emotions, of those emotions felt deeply by the individual, and how poetry is a necessary spiritual repository and “exhaust valve.” Di Leonardo writes after the paintings with heartfelt surrender to their aesthetic and nurturing worth.
Ponder John B. Lee ́s introductory words to Di Leonardo ́s Conditions of Desire: “For what we experience, what we remember, what we dream, what we imagine, there is a language that reifies and makes real and true both original experience and the secondary experience of the poem as written,” or Di Leonardo ́s Preface to his own book citing Henry David Thoreau: “It is not what you look at, but what you see.”
Yes, Di Leonardo saw word-stories streaming from the paintings he was looking at. He creatively re-transformed them into reified written text, not only letting us see through his own eyes the paintings we don ́t have before ours but also unfolding the endless story-telling possibilities each art piece evokes and waxes as a new dual result.
At this point, let ́s examine two poems by Di Leonardo for exemplification. “Conditions of Desire” (which entitles the book too), inspired by Alex Colville’s “Refrigerator,” acrylic, 1977, shows that duality of result I referred to earlier: we see the painting and the ensuing story Di Leonardo skillfully knits out of it. A fragment will suffice:
“When you are gone
I pace kitchen tiles, roam living room walls hunger for the stars in your eyes
nibble self pity in the blue flicker of a fridge door. Among cold things, I whisper your name
in the sweetness of morning jams, evening fruits and the Atlantic that draws me towards you. When you are away
I stalk the cell under cuticle moons
until its notes ring me a moonlight sonata.
I sleepwalk horizons, tip-toe a collage
of love’s smallest details.”
We also notice it in “Reproduction”, inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,”
“You linger –
like a milk-skin model
on the largest shell
my best lit wall... //
... Your placid glaze will end when the classical toes step on shore
turn to good wife
below your torrent of hair rose shower
makes us ashamed
for not making beds clearing dishes
sipping morning coffee...”
John B. Lee asks in his introduction: “And how then might a poet hope to express something of the original in a parallel text when the medium of the original is paint and canvas and the medium of the poem is language written for contemplation on the page?” Of course Lee is not questioning the probability of attaining such feat (in fact, Di Leonardo did find the expression fulcrum); Lee is quite aware of that and is walking more on the wonder-thread he wishes to rhetorically make us see and walk on. I believe that the key word in Lee ́s question is contemplation.
In both cases, painting and written poem, we pause for contemplation – defined in the dictionary in what is for me, more than just an enumeration of meanings, a sequence of brain processes, “looking at; thinking about; meditation, deep thought.” (Taken from Babylon, Digital Dictionary) – where hedonic-intellectual nexuses are sparkled through the eyes.
Yet the key answer lies probably in Di Leonardo ́s own explanation in his Preface: “... elaborate description of the artwork... interpret, confront, inhabit, mediate, or simply use the visual elements as a springboard for the poet’s imagination to take flight.” Let ́s cry Eureka! for Di Leonardo, who has succeeded in finding the “tools” needed to make the transference, tools which are duly sharpened by factors such as the poet ́s preparation and sensitivity, the painting ́s – and the painter ́s – unique significance to him, and, voilà, the “conditions of desire” ignited to prompt the poet to write all these jewels.
The poems in the book transcend beyond the poet ́s urge to put in words what was so indelibly suggestive and substantial to him, logical trigger and outcome if we consider his formative years as a visual artist and his poetic flair as well. They are in their own right fine pieces of poetry, superbly signed with well-thought-out expressive means and stylistic carvings.
Let ́s visit four of them, beginning with the end lines of the previous poem, “Reproduction,” where Di Leonardo embraces his acknowledgement of life ́s richness and sighs about the mixed sensations stirred sentimentally, olfactorily – and figuratively in the end phrase, “the scent of land.”
“... our lives reflecting living warmth, the scent of land”
“Tangoing,” inspired by Fernando Botero’s “Dancing Couple,” oil, 1982, where we are swept by the exquisite depiction of “tango mood” and the atmosphere, elegantly heightened by metaphorical phrases. Enjoy the last stanza:
“... Should you smile
with every breathy pause
I will inhale such pirouettes of scented hair
our shadows swirl of daily cares
to measure time in scattered blooms
your moonlit eyes entranced
as each rose in bud awaits an autumn rain.”
“Breakup,” inspired by Salvador Dali’s “Girl at Window,” oil, 1925, where more imagery engulfs us and invites, sensually, through between-the-lines insinuations; word-stories hinted and masterfully elaborated upon by the poet, impressively reminiscent, as we read the whole poem, of Dali ́s surrealistic brush:
leaning on a sill.
Your tousled hair
vocal with love
learns to wait
across a muted sea where stirrings
aloud with song
are not depicted... //
... muzzy eyes
the palest stars // yearn the moan
of a tender kiss
if not to live, at least to whiten your silence”
“Nude,” inspired by A. Maillol’s “Île -de France,” sculpture/Bronze, 1925, in which the poet innovatively gives us a pre-existing time, a pre-condition – a pre-story!, something/somewhere that step comes from! – by simply starting with “Then.”
Let ́s keep in mind that this particular poem comes not from a painting but from a sculpture, which adds a more “realistic” sensation, being a sculpture tridimensional. He magically blends two seemingly different, distant realities: human (“the softness of her step”) and natural (“autumn leaves”). To work this out, he resorts to a simile: “transient as autumn leaves” (Italics are mine). Distant realities perception is sensed in the closing lines: “autumn leaves on sullen passersby.” Let ́s read the full poem:
“Then the softness of her step turned bronze
on sullen passersby”
Imbued with Di Leonardo ́s mesmeric, accomplished poems I go back to my initial tenet in these comments, the distinct elements marking his work. The poet is able to intensely explore and passionately evoke, imaginatively unveil and concretely connect; he becomes a double mediator (from painting to poem, from poem to reader/indirect “spectator”); he confirms Ceos ́s adage; he responds Lee ́s questions; and he stands as a sui generis convinced curator of art by re-framing it into a new format as a symbolically salvaging act that reinforces the old say, Ars Longa, for poetry too is art represented in a parallel code system.
Furthermore, Di Leonardo brings us relief for Joseph Gold ́s unsettling worries about paintings and poems, and bequeaths to us his legacy/understanding of painting from a broader perspective, which will last – allow me to cite Shakespeare ́s Sonnet XVIII, “When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st, / So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” – as we have now two versions of one reality, a visual and a written one.
One last comment on the broad spectrum of paintings (and sculpture) Di Leonardo has included in his homage. Ranging from the 15th to our 21st century – notably outstanding 19th and 20th century works – the paintings mirrored in the poems “at our disposal” evidence the poet ́s thorough voyage through the plastic arts ́ world and his connoisseurship. We must thank him for “poetically collecting” the pieces in one book. The eternalizing quality and value of what Di Leonardo has done in writing these poems inspired by paintings is, nonetheless, best worded lyrically by William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.” (Taken from Joseph Gold ́s The Story Species, 2002, Fitzhenry and Whiteside. Canada).
That is why I quoted Margaret Atwood to begin this book: ““The arts”–as we’ve come to term them–are not a frill. They are the heart of the matter, because they are about our hearts... A society without poetry and other arts would have broken its mirror and cut out its heart.”
This is Di Leonardo ́s contribution. Poetry is “the heart of the matter,” it is eternal; it immortalizes us and what it depicts. Thank you, John.