“A Language the Image Speaks” collects poems inspired by a range of paintings, photographs, sculptures and more

You don’t have to look far to find what inspired the poems populating A Language the Image Speaks, the new collection from writer Steve Abbott. Subtitled “poems in response to visual art,” the book pairs Abbott’s verses with the images that informed them, setting the two side by side on the page.

At times, the ties are seemingly tenuous, Abbott imagining entire worlds living beyond the canvas. On other occasions, the inspiration shapes everything down to the typography of the poem itself. Such is the case on “Deliverance,” based on a photograph by Stephanie Matthews, where the lines of the poem mirror the frozen swishing movements of Matthews’ dancer.

Abbott’s collection also engages an almost accidental conversation, making the reader weigh what could be considered art. Beyond the expected paintings and sculptures, Abbott pens verses informed by news photographs (“Nuremberg Defense” rests next to a widely circulated picture taken during the 2017 white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia) and, with “Jigsaw,” even a puzzle depicting a collage of figures and artifacts from the 1970s.

“With that one, my wife and I were putting this jigsaw puzzle together and I said, ‘We need to find Shaft’s afro,’ and there it was,” Abbott said, laughing.

Abbott encountered most of the included artworks at random, either when visiting museums and gallery openings or while flipping through magazines, often drawn in by a particular element that sparked a single line or phrase. In “Turtles Tread the Pier,” a turtle set to dive headlong into the water in a Christian Bonanno photo is reflected in the final lines of the poem. “At that height/An expectant pause,” Abbott writes. “Who could imagine/such Olympic style/in our plunge to joy?”

Abbott has been writing poetry since high school, starting off with “angsty, bad imitations,” as he described early works that aped beat poets and Walt Whitman. Gradually, though, Abbott started to shed these influences, beginning to view poetry less as an expression of an emotion than as “a reaction or response to a bigger world.” A turning point arrived in the mid-1980s with his poem “Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver,” which appears in A Language the Image Speaks.

At the time, Abbott was up late, preparing for what was going to be his first major public reading as part of the Arts Fest, when he started to consider the concept of eulogies, and how the glorifying words of poets are typically reserved for those lost. “And I thought, ‘Why don’t we write those poems before people are dead?’” he said. “And then I thought about Elijah Pierce, because I’d always admired his work. … And so I started writing this piece.”

In the years since, Abbott, lovingly referred to as “The Godfather” of Columbus poetry, has written thousands of verses, taking his keen observations and injecting them into vivid lines that often paint complex portraits with minimal language. (On “Blue Light,” for instance, Abbott writes of “the misery of labor” and the resultant “clouds of cinders falling on airless tenements,” which is as succinct an indictment of capitalist-industrialist society as one could hope to find.)

Within A Language the Image Speaks, Abbott inhabits a range of characters, some with worldviews far removed from his own, including the white nationalist of “Nuremberg Defense” and the sweatshop worker “merrily” stitching away under ever-watchful eyes in “Designer Label.”

“A lot of contemporary poetry is highly narrative and highly personal. Mine tends not to be. I’m kind of a private person. … I’ll share things with people I want to share them with, not the whole of Facebook’s kingdom,” Abbott said. “I like saying, ‘Here’s a way of seeing this thing,’ and it’s not always even the way I feel about it. That’s the art. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t get about poetry. ‘Oh, my God, you really think that?’ What are you talking about? It’s a poem, for crying out loud. It’s not my diary. It’s this persona that is looking at the world and taking on the attributes of whoever that character might be.”

At the same time, the character at the center of “Park Bench,” a meditative piece that closes Abbott's new collection, does feel oddly familiar. Based on a painting by Jim Glover, the poem centers on a patient, observant narrator who does little but sit and watch, taking in lily pads, water and muck, and then out beyond the “shades of green shadows,” waiting for nothing in particular and absorbing “whatever comes.”

If one squints hard enough, it’s easy to picture Abbott seated on the bench within the painting, notebook in hand, pen full of possibilities.