I would say Carole Mertz's new collection of poetic writing is, were it a drink, a supremely fine Cognac. Upon reflection, it is a drink—of words and spaces distilled with intimate care to reveal a portmanteau of nuances aged in loving casks from as far back as nearly five centuries (not considering how many years Sofonisba Anguissola might have spent painting The Chess Game from which Mertz took the inspiration to write The Learned Ladies).
I say “would say” because, frankly, my palate’s sophistication deficit could easily betray me and confuse the Cognac with a cheap brandy. A waste to the connoisseur, presumably, but I’ve a worldly acquaintance who swears by a budget-friendly Portuguese brand that I’ve tried and found startlingly agreeable. What I’m trying to do here is lay a little groundwork for a confession that my palate for poetry is so personal I can’t really vouch for...waaaaitaminute—that’s the whole point of poetry! From the heart and mind of the poet. Period. A bonus should the poem connect directly with heart and mind of even one other human being, if only for a flash.
Mertz’s collection, Color and Line, contains a myriad of insightful flashes, some so sublimely lucid and intricate they’re still gamboling on my brain pan, and may well continue tickling its synapses for as long as they’re alive. I’m already happily drunk on them! And there’s a presentation bonus with this collection: examples of different styles and types and traditions of poetry, including a “cento,” which borrows lines from other poets, a “title poem” taking titles from other writers and arranging them into a story, and one built on a familiar hymn. Several are “ekphrastic,” which are inspired by visual art, such as The Learned Ladies.
My favorite of the ekphrastics was inspired, I venture to suggest, by two separate paintings—The White Soup Bowl, done in 1771 by Anne Vallayer-Coster, and Antonio Lopez Garcia’s 1971 work The Dinner, which I found displayed side-by-side when I googled the older painting. Mertz doesn’t mention Garcia’s depiction of an adult and a child alone at the dinner table, nor does White Soup Bowl reveal any human beings at or near the groaning board. Mertz might disagree, but I submit she saw the two paintings together, and her imagination took off from there and gave us Francois Enjoys an Evening. She starts out describing the bowl: “a very heavy cooking pot made of twice-baked clay. Do you hear the lid scrape the lip of the pot? Do you smell the onion soup brewing within...” I sure can. It’s making me hungry, and I just finished a bowl of chili!
Now she takes us behind the curtain of steam rising from the pot: “you are surrounded by friends, and the talk is lively...” OK, I’ll take her word for it. No choice. But now the adult and child (or poetic surrogates) step from their painting into The White Bowl, and come alive. “How charming that young girl looks, across at the table to the left. Her father, busy with the chatter, does not see her drop her napkin and reclaim it, the curls of her rich brown hair falling briefly across her face, concealing for a moment her wide, dark, and beautiful child-eyes...” We find ourselves part of the scene, caught between two centuries, wanting to dunk some bread into that steaming pot and make small talk with father and daughter, involved in a story told in the sensuous, evocative language of someone who likely spent more time choosing her words, getting them right, than the chef spent readying his cheese and onions for the broth.
First runner-up (sounds better than second place) for my favorite ekphractic poem in Color and Line grew from a painting by one of my favorite artists, Vincent Van Gogh’s cafe scene La Guinguette. The poet titles her inspiration Come Share a Glass with Me, describing in fine detail what she observes in the painting and bringing questions and ideas from what the scene says to her. The “guinguette,” she tells us, quoting from a French dictionary, is “a small cabaret either with or without a small dance hall where people can gather to drink a cheap ‘but malicious’ light green wine. She draws out attention to couples seated in the outdoor alcoves. “What do the people discuss? Do they talk of the rising price of cabbage? That Jeanne will meet Pierre after his shift ends?”
Alas “guinguettes died out when the cheap wine could no longer be had,” Mertz informs us, “when Parisians no longer swam in the nearby Seine. Their habits changed; they no longer came to the guinguette for a relaxing glass of that light green wine.”
Mertz is Book Review Editor at Dreamers Creative Writing, a Member of the Prize Nominations Committee at The Ekphrastic Review, and served as advance reader for Women’s National Book Association’s 2018 poetry contest. She judged (in formal verse) the 2020 Poets and Patrons in Illinois International Poetry Contest.
“There’s a freedom to writing ekphrastic poetry that appeals to me,” she says in Color and Line’s preface. “One can allow the artworks to speak directly and in specifics or one can muse on the artist’s intentions and leave unanswered questions.
“At times I research the artists and introduce a bit of their history into my writing. Often first impressions work themselves onto my pages and I let them stand. Sometimes I allow myself free rein to stray into open pastures.”