The Bridge Poetry Series, founded by four local Madison poets — Susan Elbe, Sara Parrell, Katrin Talbot and Jesse Lee Kercheval —collaborates twice each year with the Chazen Museum of Art to bring a diverse group of poets from Wisconsin together with the focus of creating a bridge between physical artwork and ekphrastic poetry created in response to it. This past Thursday, the Chazen played host to the fourth Bridge Poetry Series in response to the museum’s newest exhibit, “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” which is a collection of watercolor-based paintings and collages based on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.
Ten poets ranging in style, age and ethnicity met at the Chazen in September for a curator lecture during the opening week of the Bearden exhibit. Since then, these poets have been working to create poetic responses to the artwork, with each poet adding his or her own personal details and styles to the poetry.
Poet Gabrielle Daniels presented her piece “Way Back Home” to start the reading. “Way Back Home” describes the speaker’s journey toward home as “leaving everything that is holding you back.” Throughout the poem, the speaker comes to the realization that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world: “It is never enough / where you are, / until you find there is / no place like home.”
Milwaukee poet Jennifer Morales also caught the special attention of many listeners in reciting her poem, “Ego, Trouble.” The name Odysseus itself means trouble, which Morales touches upon in her poem. Stepping out from behind the usual podium setup of readings, Morales became one with the poem and allowed an amplified emotional expressiveness. “Ego, Trouble” is a response to the lack of women in “The Odyssey” and is taken from Odysseus’ wife Penelope’s point of view. Throughout the poem, listeners are taken on the journey of Penelope waiting on Odysseus’ return: “When people asked I told them, / ‘My husband has strayed.’ / How else to explain.” The poem leads up to the eventual return of Odysseus. However, instead of waiting around, we are told of the story of Penelope cooking dinner for other boys and weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus, only to unravel what had been woven at the end of the day.
Following in the footsteps of Morales, poet Rita Mae Reese stepped forward, presenting “Circe and Nanette Speak While Bearden Cuts.” Another poem from the women’s perspective, Reese’s poem includes two separate voices, Circe’s and Nanette’s, as well as a brief aside at the end of the poem in a separate voice as well. Reese’s reading of her poem included vocal changes throughout the poem to depict a conversation between two women about Odysseus and his epic journey.
University of Wisconsin English professor Cherene Sherrard-Johnson brought listeners back to present-day New York with her poem “An Elegy for Our Prince of Troy, New York.” Sherrard’s poem interacts with the exhibit’s artist Romare Bearden and a Cornell poet exchanging artwork for poetry, canvas for word. The exchange is also one represented through the poetry series itself. Drawing on the ocean in “The Odyssey” and Bearden’s paintings and collages, “An Elegy for Our Prince of Troy, New York” adds insight to Bearden’s personal and artistic life.
Bringing the reading to a close, poet Darian Wilson of Milwaukee brought the attendees of the Bridge Poetry Series to a roaring applause through his spoken word style performance of “The Black Odyssey: A Human Collage.” Wilson broke through the invisible fourth wall between podium and audience once again. Wilson described black culture at its strongest point, relating it to Poseidon as he said, “You see black people were born from the ocean.” Filled with emotion during every word, Wilson describes himself as “no hero,” “just a black man, making my way through this tangled web of life,” similar to Odysseus’ journey. “The Black Odyssey: A Human Collage” relates “The Odyssey” to the present journey of each person on Earth. Ending on a strong note, Wilson said, “You’ll never know where you are going or where you’ll end up. / You just have to go. / And like Odysseus, never stop.”
Poets Katrin Talbot, William Stobb, Richard Roe, Joel Friedrich and Fabu also presented in the Bridge Poetry Series. Written versions of each poem can be found on the Chazen Museum’s website. Bearden’s “A Black Odyssey” exhibition runs through Nov. 24 in the Pleasant T. Rowland Gallery of the Chazen Museum of Art.