Art Responding To Art: Poetry and Plastic

by Allie McAllister (Penn State University, Class of 2020, Environmental Studies major), with Professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador

When Penn State English professor and poet Julia Kasdorf challenged her undergraduate students to compose a poem based on a work of plastic art from the Plastic Entanglements exhibition at the university’s Palmer Museum of Art, she did it with a specific intention, both pedagogical and provocative. According to Kasdorf, “the dialogue between the visual and verbal arts is as old as Ancient Greece,” and she wanted her students “to see how looking hard at a work of art can enable them to make discoveries and write some of their own true poems.”

Kasdorf herself is a long-time environmentalist, particularly passionate about fracking, and of course the production of plastic is part of that story as well. The Plastic Entanglements was a framework for thinking about a different aspect of today’s petro-culture, and encountering the many dimensions of the crisis of plastic pollution as both an ecological crisis and as an ethical challenge.  

These four poems here are haunting literary transformations of art observation into personal meditation, emerging from a deep inner reflection of what it means to be human in the time of  “the Plasticene” period of our history (or more broadly, “the Anthropocene”). Each student presents a unique response to a chosen work, and thinks through the relationship between image and word. The poem complements the art work, and vice versa, while also drawing the reader/spectator through their own emotional and imaginative thought process. Writing and reading a poem about a work of art can push one past the passive “spectator” role, and beyond the apparent “face value” of the art work. The poet and reader, as spectators alike, experience how words conjured in the observing of the work can create imagery of their own, giving a shape to feelings, hopes, and fears about a damaged world.     

Take a look at these moving poems by Penn State undergraduates Will Campbell, Talley Kaser, Brandon Neal, and Megan Deam, whose reflections call into question the value of life and ecological balance, compared with imbalanced economics of materialism, and rampant consumerism. Kasdorf’s writing assignment is grounded in the belief that “the process of looking and thinking that produced these poems required a deep level of engagement with the work of art,” and she, like us, “hopes that readers of these poems will share that experience.”  


To a Dead Albatross, Will Carpenter

 (After Body Bag for Birds (Polyethylene Terephthalate / PET), 2013, by Marina Zurkow)

Funny isn't it?

Isn't it? Do you know

why we bother

to bag you up?

You will sustain us

like leftovers, plastic wrapped

in the refrigerator, recycled.

In just tens of millions

of years, you will be

oil, be useful.

 

All we ask

is that you decay

until the bag is no longer full

and wait for temperature

and pressure to work

their miracles.

 

The plastic inside you

remains;

The plastic enveloping you

remains -- holds you close

as you decompose --and will do so

for over a thousand years,

ensuring you are not eaten,

displaced -- wasted.

 

You may complain,

as you pool into black gold,

that your prospects

seem lackluster.

It’s true, we proffer only one solution

(CnH2n+2)

but let us assure you,

your possibilities are limitless:

 

you could fuel an oil tanker,

taxidermy a polar bear,

bind together a family of canned

sodas, soar in a hot air

Balloon, balloon into a five gallon water cooler spout into a mold for eyeglasses,

 

so don't label us nearsighted.

Who knows?

Maybe you’ll even grow into

Another body bag for birds.

Albatross Ekphrasis, after Chris Jordan

By Talley Kaser

 

how unlike me

to look at a bird

and think of myself

 

and not the bird.

but still I wonder

which bright bits

stab jagged

 

through my even

Most silversoft lining. which

is the biggest bolus

drawing the eye

 

when

I am

opened

 

*

 

my little brother

is a doctor. my little

brother cut open a person.

 

cadaver corpse -- for a

full year he teased it

into pieces. he says

they start you with

 

the back. the face

comes last. the face

is difficult. one morning

he gently lifted

 

a bright now tie from

the neck of his

corpse. he walked the scrap

of plastic to the trash

then turned to his lab mates.

we’re not doing that

again. he says

they covered her

 

hands to hide the color

of her nails, which was too like

someone’s mother’s.

 

*

 

the photographer’s hands

(bare) teased from the

dark bile of the bird that stuff

 

which cut and

lodged and

crowded but never

fed and therefore

 

killed. the photographer scrubbed

each bright piece clean

and lay it back against

the opened body

 

riddle: my father

is like unto or not

the photographer

 

*  

much of my mother

has been removed

 

but lucky she

remitted. I made

the mistake of googling

 

tumor. I am no doctor but

they don’t appear to come

in a wide variety

of colors. my mother

is farm-raised and

well bred. also uneasy.

 

and diseased. my mother

fed on food fresh

from the garden

 

which they sprayed

same as the cotton.

*

the birds swallowed

the bright bits on the sand, as they

have always done.

 

as they have always done,

they offered from the depths

of their bodies those same bits

 

and fed their children, tell me

what I’ve swallowed. tell me

how it's killing me. given the chance

 

I would prefer to slough in the dirt

without particular color -- no pink

clinging to my nails, no strange red

 

bulge collecting in my thigh, no evidence

of which stray memory choked

my growth or stunted flight,

 

which sadness I was fed

and ate. I would prefer

earth swarm what's left:

 

an opened harmlessness,

soft, gnawable flesh

and clean, bright bits of bone.

Walden, by Brandon Neal  

In the woods

            Lies a pond deep and dark

It overtakes you

            Splashing through your eyes

Drizzling through the filtered

            Cracks in your skin

It calls to you.

 

Each step you take

            Flows into the next

You Sweep along

            All the mud choked reeds

And plastic

            And cigarette butts

You crash.

 

Into this world

Where children sleep in their beds

With your icy soft words

You fill their lungs

With the entangled mess

Of everything that you

Became.

 

They choke. 

 

Origin of Species, by Megan Deam

(After Institute for Marine Invertebrates, Mark Dion)

 

I see the irony:

Crustaceans crowned at the bottom of the ocean,

tucked under plastic eyes, rubber toys

Intermixed

with deathless colors

History -- do we want to go down like this?

 

Will we be remembered as murderers?

Poachers of natural landscapes?

Our cabinets of curiosities are landfills

what we’ve collected in our

anthropomorphic thirst.

And we will continue to temporarily quench

our needs

while permanently infiltrating

the sands

            Sea

            Seagulls

            Gills

            Breathing in our scrap

We will discard our excess,

extra expensive

exotic and erotic

aphrodisiacs turned abstract

now

man-saved, manmade, once again

coral contamination

fluorescent fossils 

Preserved in their own synthetic

man makes us think there are no consequences.

We present our trash on shelves and make it a trophy.

Have we won?

We’ve only taken

the prize

so durable,

indestructible.


Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials features sixty works of art from thirty international artists who are exploring both the nature of plastic as a material, the role of plastic in our world and its implications, and finally how art can be used as a form of science communication.  Proposed by PPC ambassador and Penn State professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, and co-curated along with the Palmer Museum of Art’s curator, Joyce Robinson, and New School assistant professor Heather Davis, the exhibition has finished its four-month run at Penn State, as well as a second run at the University of Oregon. It is currently showing at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. through July 2019. It travels finally to the University of Wisconsin, opening in fall 2019. For questions about the exhibition, contact Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, jaw55@psu.edu.