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This living brushstroke of a poem by Thomas Sayers Ellis was written in response to David Stern’s paintings at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City. Sayer’s haunting language comes together, a graphite blurring, smearing and distorting, bringing us through the words on the page and into an eddy of ink, pooling into sinister, ghostly images and powerful reminders of history and memory. 

 From issue 40.



By Thomas Sayers Ellis



In nature, always reality. In art, always nature.

xxxxxxxIf representational,

the recognizable governs technique.

If freer than figurative,

xxxxxxxyou can feel the object

referencing a primitive system of punishment.

Beneath the bruises, brushstroke brushstroke, skin.

To express Expressionism, the thumb of time

smears humanity, blurring history.

Truth, too, contributes to the pain-pulse of memory

as if color, complexion and flesh-spectrum,

as if, only if, the material

is men, women and children,

all in their greasy mornings.



A good exhibition decomposes theory

but the dead in the work remain dead, remain swirling reminders

xxxxxxxof evil’s palette,

pre-blister and post-burn.

The only thing surreal about weeping

are all the eyes, the absent ones lost to erasure.

The real map of mercy is here,

animated in Oil on Cotton

like the path water makes through abstract stone.

Shadow, ashcan, shadow.

Victims lined up, washed in the violence of vision.

Ghost-portraiture, shroud.


This is what “resilience” looks like

from a sensitive satellite.

I almost wrote “suffering” but I chose “resilience” instead,

thinking of how painting can bring blood

xxxxxxxback from earth.

Some sense of all of the elements is here,

depth of fear, harrowing despair.

Some sense the torturer, lost in layering, his aerial gaze.

Not being able to make out

a face or a family

xxxxxxxdoes not diminish these sacred, deformed forms.

Artifice, anonymous or mere remembrance

some smudges haunt the soul with hurt

bright as a cemetery of yellow, human flora.



Many of the images melt

while others appear to rumor, ghetto-fashion,

into one another.

xxxxxxxWhite is not used to brighten, only to accent

un-witnessed regions of grief.

I like it when Leica, breathing plastic and messy rainbows


Even the self, as graphite,

seems dimensional as handwriting.

Gravediggers, too, owe something to perspective.

Art can rip the skin off of

a cherry picker

—the same way the solid, September sky

can reject both above and below.

Private collections are worse; they hide proof.




Written in response to the paintings of David Stern and read at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City on January 28, 2009.


Thomas Sayers Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and received his M.F.A. from Brown University. He is the author of The Maverick Room , which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award and Skin, Inc . His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry, and The Nation.


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Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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