V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Two mantises are having sex—female above
       to the left, stricken male 

    lower right:
long lean stick bodies, they could be scrawny
       humans, so little flesh
    on bones 
(all but emaciated to a gleam), knobby bumps
       for knees, small elbows
    and shoulder
joints the humanoid giveaway.  Or fierce eyes!
       But twiggy mantis segments
as well . . .
          This moment, they've sprung apart—
       wide space between them, amid
    a prolonged
coitus.  Two skeletons, man and woman sprawled
       across the canvas, four limbs
in pain or ecstasy.  Primal twist of their arms
       and legs, as in cave drawings,
suggest frenzy of tribal dance leaps.  Acute
       bends may be war moves.  Swings
    of rage.  Love
coupling and your classic battle of the sexes
       blent in the spiralling fury,
    bodies in flux.
Love wails and war cries may intermingle, perhaps
       merge in the wavy voice lines
    of graphlike
backdrop.  Sound waves or nerve vibrations: who
       can say what those many dim
    line wriggles
transcribe? . . .
            Two streams of droplets, curving
        awry, are spattered across
    the foreground.
Uppermost, the long trail of semen, tiny sperm
        tails aflicker, here & there, 
    in the spray,
tall penis still fully erect and exposed aspurt.
        A second that short gusher
    thickly oozing
from his neck.
            Ah, she's beheaded him in mid
        coitus, the decapitated skull
    oddly grimacing,
fallen to the ground underfoot, his blood more
        plenteous from severed neck-
    half below
than from above-shoulder spout.  His lower body
        still writhes in love spasms,
to the loss of its brain bulb.  Headless-chicken
        mode . . .
            Her glare of conquest
    so evident
in her tilt of brow, we know her secret joy.
        She conceives new life & claws
    her ex-mate's
skull off in one pure moment.  A simultaneity.

* * *

                         Misogynist, they call me.
But I adore women, could never hate a lady.  Yet fear
        of the female pervades
this portrait and many other works.  For she is the true
                predator.  Her aggression,
which disguises itself as tenderness, is far more lethal.
                        Sinister, she's the serpent
hidden beneath the wildflower—more dangerous for being
                    The mantises
are us.  These stick figure insects—who mingle the passions
                to love & kill so we
cannot tell them apart—lurk in all humans . . .
                                That day, Akyem
                        was seized, yanked by surprise.
These creatures sprang up—as if whole in their scraggly
        misshapen limbs, tubelike 
extremities—from thick tactile canvas he employed.  Rough
                surface of that medium,
so new to his touch, drew the pair of fierce animal hybrids
                        from his brush.  As he daubed
paint into the coarse-grained field, it seemed to spawn
        two slender twist-boned
Beings to answer the firm swish and stroke of his tools . . .
                Borne of his wrestling
with the Angel of plaited textures, they were engendered
                        less from his mind or hand's
fine rapturous sweeps than from that papyrus thick scroll-
        work of crinkly paper.

* * *

What the source of these grotesque imitation
    humans?  Copies
        of ourselves . . . The tall stick
of our body sprouts branches—necks, shoulders,
    backs & hips
        are extensions of arms & legs,
a reverse of the familiar body orders.  He watched
    these person-
        morphs seem to crawl or weave
across his paint swirls in amazement.  For all
        to that mantis he's pored over
in science class texts, boon of his school days,
    their posture
        and bearing on his matted page
expressed a mind of human animals.  And he let
    this sorcery
        of dual species draw from him
such hybrid creatures, spun out of our psyches
    as if waiting
        to be discovered by his half-
asleep brush strokes: more found than invented,
    sprung whole
        from the abyss of pre-racial
memory.  Their closest kin in the family of seg-
    mented animals
        are scorpions & tarantulas, tail
or hairy limbs poised to inflict their stings.
    But the truer
        brethren may be those wiry
scrawled spiderlings that survive for millenia
    on cave walls,
        thrusting beaks and twirled
claws over the arched wall-to ceiling murals
    of petroglyphs . . .
        Color, too, seems primal or
antique—both creatures and sullen backdrop
    they wriggle
        across draw upon the same
narrow band in the spectrum of whole colors:
    all tints, hues,
        of the work moving between
light brown, tan, beige and deeper yellow.
    Paired bodies
        are luminously red-tinged,
as in ocher, while the parts of mandibles &
    curled talons
        appear to be faded sienna,
darkest shades anywhere on sprawl of canvas.
    The shimmering
        desertscape of terrain (vague
demarcation between sky and land) is grainy
    stucco yellow—
        it radiates light of a low
dun sheen . . . .


                        Long before he takes the plunge
            into a new cycle of paintings, Akyem
            gestates.  He may wander the island outskirts for weeks,
months, exploring chance
        nuances in nature and slowly
          containing his thrills of discovery, hints
                    about fine threads
                        that hold the cosmos together:
            those knits & hinges that bridge
        all worldly parts of things, until he finds he's dreaming
gummy hookups, the glues
        and caulks that cement his daily
          bric-a-brac, piece to piece.  And he must feel
    this great mucilage

                        of Being has infiltrated dark
            core of his dreamlife before onsets,
            before he commences the finely cadenced rituals of paint
launchings.  He works best
        when this glimpsed amalgam roars
          into his blood beat—true subject and idea
                    always snapped up,
                        discovered, found waiting for him
            whole of its own dream-skin, ripe,
        rather than invented at whim, or concocted by his direct
controlling will . . .  You'd never
        guess how far into the adventure
          and vision of making a paint work I already am
    by the time I build

                        my stretcher of sticks & nails
            and pull the canvas across it.  Ah,
            those innocent tools have a secret life of their own, and I
must keep them pure.
        Soon after he applies his first
          flecks & swirls of paint, the work surges—
                    barreling along,
                        perhaps halfway to completion.
            When the silhouettes of our two
        randy stick paramours floated onto the burnished gold haze
of sandy waste landscape,
        Mantis seemed all-but-finished.
          My dream is an engine, Akyem muses.  A train
    zooming down the art

                        work tracks.  It's fully in swing
            before it pulls the congeries of color
            streaks & pigments into its vortex . . . The colors that fed
this erupting vision
        were stolen from the sun-baked
          surfaces of ruins: that distinct blotchy
                    rude color mix
                        of old crumbling walls, shattered
            roofs, jagged cornices, pillars
        and foundations gave him their patina, their softly
pungent tones of stain & tarnish.
        As he pored over the ruins of old
          Indian stone huts, some chattel houses among them,
    they prompted in him

                        a lust to capture their essence.
            He'd wandered the vacant semi-desert,
            surprised to come upon some gravelly weed-riddled
grounds of a long-abandoned
        site, parts of walls still standing,
          zigzag margins showing where breaks carved out
                    hulks of stone.
                        He cruised these zones by first
            light, starting just before dawn,
        hoping to study the very earliest layers of glimmer settling
on those grimy pitted
        surfaces revealing—at last—the aura
          of most oldened color blocks.  Arisen like spirits
    from the dim shadows!

                        So tremblingly alone he'd stood,
            searching for he knew not what secrets,
            who craved a message from this living spectrum of yellow
golds.  He kept pondering
        fallen blocks, the ravaged home
          shards, ignored and forgotten for centuries.
                    Had they become
                        invisible, perhaps, to anyone
            but himself (how mercilessly
          alone, he felt)? . . . His art was frozen stuck in an old
groove.  To free it, he'd muster
        his face up close to the telltale
          visage of rock, sniffing the crosshatched exterior
    of weather-gouged stone.

                        At times, it returned his breath.
            He'd risk touch of his lips, even ran
            his tongue tip along seams, heedless of stinging ants or
spiders that might lurk
        under sprigs of lichen or moss—
          he knew himself transported to past epochs
                    with old walls,
                        floors and warped or buckled roofs . . .
            until he stepped off a ridge
          into timelessness.  He stood outside and above his stooped
figure, and watched
        millions of dribbles of water
            scoring tiny ruts and trenched in all surfaces,
    and each droplet left

                        its tinges.  Faintest colorations.
            His eye learned to detect every shade
            or hue in the composite, and he embraced the weather-
witch's secret brew of color,
        refashioning Nature's slow-
          abraded mix of tints into his own palette
                    blend of oils.
                        His mental color code, taking fire
            from aeons of sun-baked crumblings,
          infused those yellowish shades into paint.  And his passion
empowered the leggy
        beasties in climax of amours,
            propelling the Lady Mantis into a feral
    bloodthirsty finish.

[After the painting, Mantis, by Ras Akyem]


© by Laurence Lieberman


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]