“Poetry Ekphrasis”
October 2019

North Fork Arts Projects is pleased to celebrate October as Filipino American History Month by presenting an exhibition of four new paintings by Jean Vengua. Jean’s exhibit is entitled “Poetry Ekphrasis” as each of her paintings is rooted in poems by four Filipino-Pilipinz poets: Nick Carbo, Eric Gamalinda, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Eileen R. Tabios. Ekphrasis is art inspired by another art form, in this case paintings inspired by poems. 

From bottom right and going clockwise, the paintings are

“Calle de Recuerdos” by Jean Vengua, inspired by Nick Carbo’s poem “Directions To My Imaginary Childhood”

“Lunar Night” by Jean Vengua, inspired by Eric Gamalinda’s poem “Zero Gravity”

“Heartlines” by Jean Vengua, inspired by Barbara Jane Reyes’ poem “Having Been Cast, Eve Implores”

“Hourglass and Ellipsis” by Jean Vengua, inspired by Eileen R. Tabios’ poem “Kapwa’s Song”

All paintings are 10 x 10 x 1.5 inches, dated 9/5/2019, and are acrylic on board utilizing colored pencils, cellophane, glue, vinyl, dustcover from an old edition of Wizard of Oz, and papers collaged from numbered Bingo sheets and a 1950s-era Esquire magazine.

Featured below is a Q&A with Jean Vengua, followed by images of each painting in the company of its root-poem.

What did you think about how to respond through paintings?  How did you allow poems to guide you?

I wasn’t sure what process to use when responding to the paintings. I read the poems in a café, circling words that resonated, while making notes in a lined notebook. That wasn’t enough. I read them through again, then I taped them up on the easel that held the wood panels I would be working on, and just read through the poems now and then while working. Certain words or phrases brought images to mind.

What changed in your process/thinking as you began painting? 

I did the paintings on wood panels. Once I put an initial shape on the panel, usually it suggested another shape, line, or color. The shape didn’t necessarily correlate with a specific part of a text (though sometimes it did). I wanted the painting process, as well as the poem, to talk to me. 

How about the logistical stuff, like did you do them all at same time?

Early on, I thought I would focus on one painting at a time; but, because energy or ideas for one painting might disappear at any moment, I realized it would be better instead if there was a painting right next to it that I could work on. This actually helped me to maintain some momentum.

In Progress #1

In Progress #2

Was one poem easier than others and why?  Was one poem more challenging and why?

Feels like a complicated question. Eileen Tabios’ “Kapwa’s Song” (that generated “Hourglass and Ellipsis”) was probably easiest, because I realized early on that I could never contain or address all the various images in that poem. So it ended up being a case of going “on my nerve,” and therefore it was a more physical and improvisatory process than the other paintings; it almost felt more like I was making music. 

Nick Carbo’s “Directions to My Imaginary Childhood” (“Calle de Recuerdos”) was “easy” in the sense that I knew fairly quickly what I wanted to do (images from one of my earliest childhood dream memories informed it), but the “doing” soon became complicated and difficult in terms of process because what I needed to do required straight edges. Using tape to make the straight edges meant that I had to work in small sections, then let the paint dry before doing an adjacent section. It also contained collage, and gluing requires time to dry, too. So the painting took much longer than the others; it also felt like a constant balancing act in terms of color, shape, pattern, etc.  As well, the reference to the “Buddhist Temple” is from a Salinas Chinatown planner’s overview of the neighborhood.

Is there something you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

The paintings I did for Eric Gamalinda’s “Zero Gravity” (“Lunar Night”) and Barbara Jane Reyes’ “Having Been Cast, Eve Implores” (“Heartlines”) were both influenced by the idea of the agimat, or anting-anting, the Philippine talisman or amulet. This is an idea that I know I will continue to explore through painting. I was thinking of each poem as a textual agimat (agimat sa oracion), and the painting as its visual counterpart. Interestingly, because both paintings had a central image, once I got each image centered on its panel, I felt that I had given up a sense of control. The central image dictated to me what would come next, and I almost felt powerless to change it (even when I wanted to), and had to work with it, or around it.   

Finally, as I worked on the paintings, I began to see parts of each painting in the others (kapwa), so I had a sense of connections and continuities echoing through the four paintings—as though they were speaking to each other—and I went with that whenever I could.


“Calle De Recuerdos”

Directions to My Imaginary Childhood
     By Nick Carbo

If you stand on the corner
of Mabini Street and Legazpi Avenue,
wait for an orchid colored mini-bus
with seven oblong doors,
open the fourth door—

an oscillating electric fan
will be driving, tell her to proceed
to the Escolta diamond district—
you will pass Maneng Viray's Bar,
La Isla de los Ladrones book shop,

the Frederick Funston fish sauce factory,
and as you turn left into Calle de Recuerdos,
you will see Breton, Bataille, and Camus
seated around a card table playing
abecedarian dominoes—

roll down your window and ask
them if Mr. Florante and Miss Laura
are home, if the answer is, yes,
then proceed to Noli Me Tangere park
and wait for a nun named Maria Clara—

if the answer is, Je ne se pas!, then turn
right onto the parking lot of Sikatuna's
supermarket to buy a basketful
of lansones fruit, then get back
to Calle de Recuerdos until you reach

the part that's lined with tungsten-red
Juan Tamad trees, on the right will be
a house with an acknowledgments page
and an index, open the door and enter
this page and look me in the eye.

“Lunar Flight”

Zero Gravity
     By Eric Gamalinda

The dry basin of the moon must have held
the bones of a race, radiant minerals,
or something devoid of genesis, angel-heavy,
idea-pure. All summer we had waited for it,

our faces off-blue in front of the TV screen.
Nothing could be more ordinary—two figures
digging dirt in outer space—while mother repeated
Neil Armstrong’s words, like a prayer

electronically conveyed. The dunes were lit
like ancient silk, like clandestine pearl.
In the constant lunar night this luminescence
was all we hoped for. A creature unto itself,

it poured into the room like a gradual flood
of lightning, touching every object with the cool burn
of something not quite on fire. If we stepped out
Manila would be blank ether, way station,

a breathless abeyance. It didn’t matter,
at that moment, where our lives would lead:
father would disown one brother,
one sister was going to die. Not yet unhappy,

we were ready to walk on the moon. Reckless
in our need for the possible, we knew
there was no turning back, our bags already packed,
the future a religion we could believe in.


Having Been Cast, Eve Implores
     By Barbara Jane Reyes

I want to know the fires your hands bring — 
the fractured fates and deepset furious lives, 
the weaving of your heartlines, and how perched 
upon the finest blade of language, the sonnets 
you have breathed into your city of constant sirens. 

I want to know the words to your prayer — 
my earliest memory, a thirst for your bones. 
Tell me what you know of redemption, dear one, 
and blossoms of hope unfurling their first petals. 
Tell me you awaken holding my name upon your lips. 

I want to know the scent of your promise — 
an azure calm that rises and falls, your lungs 
drawing air, whispering, muse. Lover, 
I am your constant siren, your ocean lullaby. 
Lover, I am your midnight dragonfly song.

“Hourglass and Ellipsis”

Kapwa’s Song
     By Eileen R. Tabios

Evening musk quivering into post-elegance—Blossoming 
of desk lamps—I wanted to make memories, not press 
petals between pages of ancient books—Someone pleaded

to be buried under a canopy of red roses—No need to 
apologize for dancing from one’s hips roundly, eyes closed
taking up as much space as one wants on the dance floor 

of someone else’s wedding—When Pygmalion sculpted 
himself into an embrace he used stone in hopes the hold 
would never break—Sand shimmering with black diamonds

the world pausing to form a black diamond, fear becoming 
as real as a black diamond—Ancient warriors captured 
the brutality of cracked skies through “lightning marks” 

as long grooves along the wooden shafts of their arrows—
Feel votive candle flickering within navel—Montana, where
I breathed deeply the scent of black earth, dampening

and becoming a forever metaphor—O practicality of water--
Wasp nesting behind screen door—Whispering to a daughter 
borne from rape, “Regret is not your legacy”—Violets vomiting 

rue—Alexander Pope proclaimed in The Second Book of 
Horace, “The vulgar boil while the learned roast an egg”—
Never privilege (or marginalize) the chaff—Never betray butlers 

with mother-of-pearl cufflinks—O storm shaming me for watering
the nasturtiums all summer with dishwater—Agony of knowing 
no aftermath to recognizing what makes you rear up on your 

death bed—Unforgettable mental snapshot of three coyotes 
peeing upon the buttercups—Wrestling a long poem until all 
thorns have been gathered into cupped palms for birthing psalms 

(O smile at a stranger’s blood mixed with rose petals to birth 
generous perfume)—Turquoise on the Kachina doll hanging on 
your wall, color of sunlit ocean embracing Greece while you 

explored Mexico: I remember Philip Lamantia—Puzzle of agriculture:
I remember Philip Lamantia—You entering the blue frame of glass 
bordering the blue wooden door into Maykadeh where we met for 

“they do wonders with tongue.” Sprezzatura woke my veins: I 
remember Philip Lamantia—How, sweetly, you offered eggplant, its 
skin made palatable through much prior bruising: I remember you, 

Philip Lamantia—I forgot my birth language Ilokano: maysa, duwa, 
tallo, upat, lima, inem, pito, walo, siam, sangapulo… Allowing the 
edges of diamond facets to fray—Maturity defined as recognizing 

the second-greatest among losses is disillusion—Looking at the 
decaying world through slitted eyes—When the hunched sommelier 
corrected, “You mean ‘saddle leather’,” I learned one can forget 

what one never knew—Defining the figure eight as an hourglass 
frittering time away—Icarus actually lived and the sky went livid—
Red pistils rising from waxy white petals always look profane and 

magnificently divine—Blades tangoed on my palms to carve life
-lines—Wings curled beneath black leather—A “someday” as 
elusive as a cab at 4 a.m., and the musky scent of fortitude—

O crushing tune that worked Baudelaire to the bone—Waiting 
by grimy hotel glass, peeking through hair, fingering lace 
sleeves, envying the lobby’s silk flowers for their inability to feel—

White birch flashing through forest greenery evoked your eyes—
Duende that overcomes without satiating the longing for more—
Derrida hunched as I was over an antique desk scribbling past 

egregious back pain, “There is speech. / There is phenomena.”
How the “wet jade” eyes of cats can make you forget felines are 
always dusty—Athena also rises from the gape of wounds—

Charisma defined as a wall at dusk where shelves of books
turned their backs for their spines to stare at you as a neighbor’s 
saxophone elongated—The generic ________________—Your 

finger tracing the ear I offered as proxy—How the ellipsis hides, 
elides, gives up … Forgotten boy, skinny as he offered his toys: 
twigs, cracked stone, two matchboxes cradling spiders, earthworm

in a tin can… Pounding through fields of tall grass to release 
the beauty of white butterflies rising in a panic—Abu Ghraib—
Tondo, a shanty town that sprung up by a massive garbage dump 

called “Smokey Mountain”—Mountains losing trees for books
about mountains losing trees—Kali warriors memorizing halad
to quicken the surfacing of deadly positions during hours of battle—

A yellowed photograph slipping from brittle pages—Milk leaking 
from the corner of the sleeping child’s mouth—Believing the world 
was populated by the hearts of mothers who would always welcome

back prodigal sons and daughters with warm rice and cool slices 
of pineapple—Sarong undoing itself to the trill of birdsong—Sarong’s 
fall bringing down the eagle with curious eyes—Sarong caressed 

my breasts and thighs before it was borne away by a river’s current—
Sarong fell and a river blushed—Ikaw, aking pag-ibig, ay naruon… 
“You, my Love, were there…” O stone garden in Kyoto where the 15th
stone is invisible from all angles—That the sun practices justice by 

privileging vines which work harder on steep terrain amid gravel 
than on level land fertile with natural nutrients and easily accessed
by water—Kathmandu where I recognized you in me and I in you

upon turning a street corner onto a plaza where every inch was 
topped by mud pots, the inky glazes like benefactions from goats 
peering through second- and third-story windows—Coltrane in Napa 

Valley, his “Pursuance” the rhythm of your heartbeat against my 
roaming palm, and the sound of grapevines growing—A flock of 
starlings shattering the sky’s clean plate like grains of black pepper—

A calf affixed to an iron rotisserie: the animal cooked slowly for hours. 
And hours until its meat was a page-turn away from falling off the 
bone—A valley witnessing my return to you with a primitive ardor 

shared by hunting hawks—the crack of cartilage audible as they 
obviated distance, as they swooped, wings flared as if posing 
for Rembrandt—Wines behaving like jealous lovers, clamoring for 

the drinker to focus on the individual—Those paintings that made
you think of what lives outside the frame, like a woman who so 
loved a man she ate his testicles between quaffs of sweet jerez—

A tremor rippling a vein in anticipation of a possibility. Another 
possibility was the tremor rippling a vein in anticipation—You living
somewhere along my spine (integral yoga to squeeze you out of 

bone marrow)—Jackson Pollock wore fingerless gloves in the winter 
chill: paint will dance when flung from fingers exposed to everything, 
even what bludgeons the autistic child—We never knew the opposite

of Easy Beauty—Darkness was the key, not the lock—A wooden 
door in Ulan Ude, cracked in places, a wash of faded blue paint 
tattooed by pale green diamonds, evokes an island in the Sulu Sea, 

an emerald floating on lapis lazuli staining, too, the sky—A night train 
lumbering across Siberia in whose hold Ivan, a Russian geologist, 
apologized for his poor English by reciting Pushkin in his native 

tongue. Ezra Pound was correct: inarticulate sounds transport as 
music—A room where the only sign of contentment was a gown 
framed on one wall, its dance present but not visible—Ignoring Paris 

waiting on the other side of a shuttered window—Passion always 
exacts a price, and Love is always eager to pay—A beach where 
sand constantly shifted its hollows—The debris from attempting to 

unify “the convex with the concave”—Writing a poem, then turning 
it physical (I forgot its opposite is equally arduous…and lyrical)—
A girl singing as if Heaven was mere breath away—A girl singing 

to repel a black bear—A girl singing along with Dave Brubeck 
after he regaled with a tale: he turned to music only after studying 
how to heal cattle as a vet. I forgot Dave Brubeck on the piano, 

Randy Jones on drums, Jack Six on string bass, Bobby Militello on 
sax—all conspiring for “The Time of Our Madness”—A girl singing 
to mountains in Nepal quivering like 500-pound Sumo wrestlers—

A girl singing to la luna naranja—A girl singing as she spun a globe, 
its whirl evoking the guarantee of returns with all departures—A girl 
singing, I will become Babaylan!, with notes only virgin boys can 

muster, only dogs can hear—A girl singing to unfurl wings that have
never betrayed her—A girl singing as she smooched the sun… A girl 
singing forth her benedictions: May you never grow intimate with cold 

ashes and burlap. May you never feel tar and black feathers. May 
you know what I saw through flames... A girl singing in Porto Vecchio: 
lobster at noon, a tiny tortoise tip-toeing across the bedspread, a bus 

endearingly halted by determined partridges marching across the road, 
Simone De Beauvoir and Nelson Algren—Heaven could be … a breath 
away. I am trying to remember why a girl remained in constant song—


P.S. on "Hourglass and Ellipsis"--this is the only painting of the four where Jean continued painting onto the sides. Jean explains that she'd wanted to feature the ellipsis on the side, as shown on this image:

Eileen appreciated Jean's move as it reminds her how resonant poems continue off the page, as do paintings whose power transcend the limits of the edges of the works.


North Fork Arts Projects thanks the poets for their permissions for posting their poems. The poems were previously published as follows:

Nick Carbo’s poem “Directions To My Imaginary Childhood” was previously published in Andalusian Dawn (Cherry Grove Collections, 2007)

Eric Gamalinda’s poem “Zero Gravity” was previously published in ZERO GRAVITY (Alice James Books, Farmington, ME, 1999)

Barbara Jane Reyes’ poem “Having Been Cast, Eve Implores” was previously published in Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010)

Eileen R. Tabios’ poem “Kapwa’s Song” was previously published in HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, Newton-le-Willows, U.K., 2018)



  1. Ekphrasis is my jam. And this compact exhibition of same is a signal example. Brava!


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