Leo Spitzer defines ekphrasis as ‘the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art, which implies, in the words of Théophile Gauthier, “une transposition d’art”, the reproduction, through the medium of words, of sensuously perceptible objets d’art’ (1955: 72). Spitzer’s oft quoted definition highlights the dialectical struggle between the visual and the verbal at the heart of what may be called a classical understanding of ekphrasis, one that pervades poetics to this day. However, as Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington remind us, the contemporary practice of ekphrasis is more constricted than it was in ancient Greece: For the ancients, the best ekphrastic poetry was prized because it presented an often dramatic picture in words, enabling the reader to ‘see’ and respond immediately to what was being described or evoked (Atherton & Hetherington 2017).

With this premise in mind, ‘Woman quaerens quem devoret’ (Lacan 1994: 195) seeks to unconstrict ekphrasis by interrogating the ekphrastic gesture from a sexed perspective. In particular, if one considers ekphrasis as carrying over from one code or sign system to another, its limits exceed the dialectic between the visual and the verbal to encompass complex intertextual, intercultural, intermodal and even interlinguistic points of contact. The woman in this piece is the subject of Willem de Kooning’s iconic ‘Woman I’ housed at MoMA. The text is the subject of the painting’s riposte to the painter. It does so by utilising, broadening and exploding Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum as first expounded with reference to photography in a work intended as a tribute to his mother: Camera Lucida (1981: 42). A tribute is a tribulation, is it not?


Woman I, 1953, by Willem de Kooning, MoMA

Woman I, 1953, by Willem de Kooning, MoMA



I begin in the present. Because there is nothing to hold me but the wind and my hubris. See how I fly to the sun, white feathers all ruffled and riffling the sky, eyes intent on the spark that will redeem human folly. I am the white raven. Heavenly voices in my head corral a fugal chorus. Hear their crystal cascade cool the enfolding heat. Imagine us coming up for air above the haze. Catch fire. Light up the skies.


Spring has turned back to winter. Space into time sleep-walking with me, sleep-writing with a host of pronouns. Walking by day. Writing by night. I could not be anywhere. Here tulips and jonquils and hyacinths are boxed in or fenced in. Curb your dog signs are everywhere. And here, next to a post graffitied with the words GOTHAM WRITERS is a huge turd. Its owner is a Doberman trotting off towards the Bleecker playground. Am I dreaming?


Freud encourages us to read as we dream, according to our desire, surprised by what may strike us, and unable to predict what will haunt us; and able, if possible, to notice those resistances that Freud found so telling, in our difficulties with his own texts in which he is telling us something, so he tells us, that is the only thing we want to know, and that therefore we don’t want to know at all.


As Woman I do not exist: I am Woman I. Must speak ekphrastically. I don’t suppose it to be a priority in New York City. Ekphrastically speaking I am a legend. Heavenly voice. Ravenous Promethea whose feathers were singed. Gorge scorched. Now a painting in the eye of your been holder. Ik overdrijft. Natuurlijk. Nature’s luck. You get my ironic drift. We are inside and outside a painting. Inside a text, with its suspense and suspension of disbelief. Its themes and motifs, structures and images, contexts, subtexts and intertexts, symbols and metaphors. To give voice and language to the otherwise mute, muted, immutable. You are hooked by the attractive or repellent detail, the kind of subtle beyond that brings out a blind field. The disturbing punctum.


The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek ek / out and phrasis /speak. The verb ekphrazein means to call an inanimate object by name. In poetic practice, ekphrasis usually refers to the act of describing or dramatizing a work of art in words. Critics have written at length about

  1. the description of an objet d’art by the medium of the word
  2. the verbal representation of visual representation
  3. the frozen stilled world of plastic relationships
  4. the pregnant moment in painting
  5. the ornamental digression that refuses to be merely ornamental

Two competing or complementary views of ekphrasis arise in critical discourse: one that highlights the dialectic between visual and verbal representation (often privileging the visual) and the other that stresses the idea of rhetorical ornamentation and digression. Here is conflict. Not of the narratorial sort.

Ekphrasis is certainly very often a complex form of writing that tends to problematise the question of how art represents and ‘perceives’ things. It also emphasises, more directly than any other literary form, the perennial connection between poetry and the visual arts – a connection so powerful that in the minds of some ancient writers, poetry and painting were different expressions of the same creative impulse.

What are the margins of ekphrasis? What is a verbal representation of a visual representation? Can it be aural, too? Olfactive? This is the stuff of the dream work of the text. A carrying over from one code or sign system to another. This is beyond Théophile Gautier’s transposition d’art. Towards a transposition of lived experience, perhaps. Whose drive to ek would be yield a biographeme. Or, to be more precise, an autographeme.

And how does ekphrasis speak to us in the twenty-first century? As the practice of glossing one mode of expression with another mode. A transposition across time, space, medium, language, genre. Across myth and ideology. As such, ekphrasis would enable a conversation with artists and poets and thinkers from the past. It would gesture towards imagined futures from the sacred to the agnostic, mimesis to abstract expressionism, representation to presentation, academicism to in(ter)ventive praxis.


Artwork: Woman I
Artist: Willem de Kooning
Dimensions: 1.93 m x 1.47m
Location: MoMA, New York
Period: Abstract Expressionism
Created: 1953
Media: Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas


Woman quaerens quem devoret

Like a Jeep on fifth avenue, she comes
at you with bared fang-like teeth

Her wild eyes bulge out of the canvas
abolishing the idea of time and trend

She’s paleolithic postmodern
cunt creator cannibal craze

Pressed in pink peach flesh gilded
where the stars fell of art’s vault

She’s goddess mother lover cunt
getting high in Manhattan

Brushstroked free of layers of paint
enamel liquid ash desire cosmos

She is blood breast womb speed
light colour absence greed

If her lips could speak they would say
touch feel hear come breathe

If she could open her beak she would caw
in your end is your beginning

If she could still sing she’d say
the earth is turning into a frigid hell

Unlike diamond she won’t be replicated
She ponks of Eros Thanatos Woman I


I want to write away from death. This is absurd, of course. All writing is birthed by death. Tends towards death. Tends the dead with curlicues of ink oil led pencil beam driving light: so many crests borne above shields laid on wreaths before the finishing of stone in between furrows curling like waves, dreams, fingers of smoke. Die Amon of Eckphrastic Memory.


I end(s) in the present. Because there is nothing to hold one but the wind and hubris. See how one flies to the sun, white feathers all ruffled and ruffling the sky, eyes intent on the spark that will redeem human folly. One is the white raven. Heavenly voices in one’s head corral a funereal chorus. Hear their crystal cascade cool the enfolding heat. Imagine one coming up for air above the haze. Catch fire. Light up the skies. Again. Imagine.


A painting like poetry. Sketches. Rough drafts. Remains of a novel. Scattered feathers. What is needed in the current situation is a widening of the field of artistic intervention, with artists working in a multiplicity of social spaces outside traditional institutions in order to oppose the program of the total social mobilization of capitalism.



Jacques Lacan refers to the mother ‘quaerens quem devoret’ in his fourth seminar. The cover of the French edition features Goya’s painting ‘Saturn devouring one of his sons’ (1821-1823,) now housed at the Prado in Madrid. See Lacan, J. (1994 [1956-57]) Le séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre IV: La relation d’objet (J.-A. Miller Ed.) Paris: Editions du Seuil, p. 195.


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