Po-Chop: Olena Kalytiak Davis: An Imaginative Study in Degradation

“The rest of the day is a slanted floorboard.
The rest of the day is the color of absinthe.
Note the personal and detached attitude.
Note the application of arbitrary color.
The tilted perspective.
This poem is all surface.
You may stand where you choose.
This poem has no vanishing point.”

Olena Kalytiak Davis’ poem “An Imaginative Study in Degradation” (And Her Soul Out Of Nothing, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) reflects upon the role of imagery in poetry in comparison to the post-Impressionistic painters Cézanne and Van Gogh. Both painters are known for their unique techniques of perspective and use of color, which make the observer more aware of the actual composition of a given painting. Davis similarly draws attention to her use of imagery by addressing the reader’s perspective and her use of color in the final stanza of the poem.


Davis speaks of her own poem as if it were a painting hanging in a gallery. The slanted floorboards call to mind Van Gogh’s bedroom paintings (Bedroom in Arles), in which he rejects the laws of perspective. Assigning “the color of absinthe” to the day is also reminiscent of post-Impressionistic colors, which are frequently unnatural hues that draw attention to the composition of the paintings.


Bedroom in Arles


In addition, the full-stopped lines in this last stanza echo the “detached attitude” of art critics who attempt to succinctly describe a given painting. Instead of truly experiencing the colors and shapes, which are essentially “arbitrary,” art is reduced to something that can be analyzed. Davis herself states that the poem lends itself to no single conclusion or interpretation–it “has no vanishing point.” Words are arbitrary because language as a whole is arbitrary, and a single word can trigger many different associations in each reader.


Olena Kalytiak Davis

To say that her “poem is all surface” does not mean it is superficial in its insight; in fact, the opposite is true. Davis points out that what we read is what we get. The poem is physically flat because of its two-dimensional, paper and ink medium; there is no deeper meaning beyond the words. Once encountered, art, no matter what form it embodies, becomes an experience, and no experience is perceived exactly the same way by any two people. The line “you may stand where you choose” alludes to this particular notion.


In Davis’ poems, readers can stand wherever they wish to stand. Reading her work is reminiscent of gazing at a Cézanne or Van Gogh painting: there is no single-point perspective.

More Olena Kalytiak Davis:

An interview with Davis at Bookselling This Week

Buy Davis’ poetry at Amazon

Davis at Poetry Foundation