Ekphrastic Poetry: "The Annunciation" by Blas Falconer
Written by
Julie Henderson
December 2017
Written by
Julie Henderson
December 2017

Craft Response: Ekphrastic Poetry

Julianne Henderson
University of San Francisco
Seminar: Further Forms
Professor Soma Mei Sheng Frazier
November 1, 2017

Blas Falconer’s ekphrastic poem, “The Annunciation,” from his 2012 collection, The Foundling Wheel, offers an imaginative rendering of a work of visual art that illustrates a prominent story from Christian scripture. Unless the viewer or reader has been exposed to the Christian Gospels and is familiar with the story of the Annunciation, then the intrinsic beauty and historical merit of Falconer’s work may be beyond reach. It is important to reflect on the degree of faith that is required to even ponder this biblical narrative, which describes the moment when Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced she would become pregnant with Jesus Christ, the son of God/the Holy Spirit, and the man who would one day act as the Messiah that God sent to deliver [His] followers from the perils of evil. Faith and reason aside, the myth and the stunning visual representation that Leonardo Da Vinci masterfully crafted between 1472-1475, served as fodder for Falconer who, by way of a different medium—poetry—offers his own unique interpretation of the events described. For the purpose of this craft response, there will be an explication of the poem’s meaning followed by a discussion of its structure and diction.

Falconer’s poem is a combination of an extended allusion to both the biblical story of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and Da Vinci’s masterpiece, which depicts that same Christian myth. At the onset of the poem, the speaker wastes no time establishing what he is observing and instead presents the reader with a reflection on one of the artwork’s most poignant ambiguities. The speaker says, “Whether she lifts a hand to her breast in protest or/ surprise, I can’t say, though we know how it ends” (Falconer, 1-2). Not only does the speaker complicate the Virgin Mary’s gesture, which the familiar reader recognizes as her response to Gabriel’s alarming announcement, but he also implicates the reader in the preservation of the story’s details. The speaker continues to describe the narrative noting, “He reaches out as if to keep her there, her fingers on/ the open book of prayer or song” (3-4). At this point, the curiosity and speculation that the speaker displays as he examines the potential meaning of these small details creates two interactions that take place on parallel tracks: 1) the speaker’s interaction with Da Vinci’s visual representation of the biblical narrative, and 2) the reader’s interaction with the speaker’s assessment or claims about the piece.

The speaker then improvises more elements of the story that the painting does not explicitly offer. For example, he imagines Gabriel as having implored Mary to have “Faith,” and envisions the moment when Mary ultimately surrendered to the sacrifice God summoned her to fulfill, saying, “… a pull inside the ribs until/ she acquiesced, exchanging one loss for another” (5; 9-10). The poem’s tone then takes a sudden shift when the speaker moves away from his interpretation and addresses the painting’s critical reception and technical attributes. He explains, “X-rays expose a sign of someone else’s brush./ Experts doubt the dress or wings are his” (11-12). In these lines, the speaker is commenting on the fact that upon further inspection, art historians discovered that Da Vinci might have collaborated with another artist who used an entirely different technique. The speaker concludes by referencing the experts’ unforgiving critique of the artist’s shortcomings as seen in “the vanishing point… one hand/ too large, the flaw in her face: a lack of fear or awe” (15-16). Up until these final three couplets, the speaker avoids either taking or presenting a position on the painting’s accuracy or integrity. While he involves himself directly in the interpretation of the piece, he seems to consciously distance himself from any criticism of it. Falconer’s decision to shift from the speaker’s perspective to that of the experts creates a kind of dynamic tension in the poem that preserves its balance and grounds the reader in something tangible. In addition to analyzing the poem’s meaning, it is worthwhile to examine its structure and diction.

Although Falconer’s poem does not adhere to a strict form or rules of rhyme and meter, it does contain a series of couplets that can almost stand on their own, and it employs a quality of diction that is accessible to most readers. The poem consists of eight couplets, which, as stated, do not observe any kind of guideline in terms of pattern, rhyme, syllable count, or repetition. However, when viewed independently, each two-line sequence illustrates its own vignette or piece of the larger puzzle. The effect of separating the ideas in each couplet and creating negative space between them is such that it causes the reader to pause, observe the speaker’s experience of viewing the painting, and then weigh the credibility or validity of the speaker’s interpretation against their own analysis. As it regards the poem’s diction, Falconer is careful to make a subject that is potentially out of reach for readers who are not well versed in art history more accessible and relatable through his choice of intelligible language. However, there are a few moments when the speaker uses more elevated words like “breast,” or “acquiesced,” or when he discusses “perspective: the vanishing point,” which are terms that only artists or art enthusiasts would recognize. Those instances aside, Falconer succeeds at sustaining his reader’s attention and interest in the speaker’s contemplation of the painting.

The allusion, structure, and diction that comprise Falconer’s ekphrastic poem, “The Annunciation,” represent its greatest technical strengths. This poem is a stunning example of a literary work that simultaneously narrates and reflects on the meaning and value of a canonized work of art. It serves as a useful lesson on how to create powerful tension within a poem that not only complicates but also balances and resolves the poem’s contrasting elements or narratives. Finally, the layers of meaning and significance that a poem of this kind adds to the visual art that it is addressing enhance collective knowledge and deepen the human experience of art criticism and appreciation.

References: Falconer, B. (2012). The Annunciation. Retrieved November 1, 2017, from https://www.pw.org/content/the_annunciation_by_blas_falconer

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