Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World

Side by Side: New Poems Inspired by Art from Around the World

Edited by Jan Greenberg
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 8 to 14
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008   ISBN: 978-0810994713

For centuries people have been writing poems that were inspired by works of art. They have sat in front of a painting, a piece of pottery, or a sculpture, and words have come to them that describe that work of art or that capture the essence of the piece. Often the poetry is a deeply personal reaction to the artwork, one that is unique to the poet.

   In this very unique collection of poems Jan Greenberg offers us poems written by poets from around the world that were inspired by artworks from around the world. She invited poets to choose “artworks that were representative of their own cultures,” and most of the poems in the collection were written specifically for this book.

   The poems are divided into four categories: Stories, Voices, Expressions and Impressions. The first story poem was written by Pat Mora, and she offers her readers the poem in both Spanish and English. In the poem she describes a collection of ceramic and painted wooden figurines that are part of a scene. The characters in the scene are all musicians who play on drums, guitars, pipes, and other instruments. Seeing the musicians reminds the poet of her “abuelo,” who plays his violin outside at sunset. His playing encourages other musicians to join him and soon the “whole town floats / on the rhythmic river of music.”

   In the Voices section of the book poets gives the characters or scenes in art works a voice. For example, from the Netherlands we hear the voice of woman who appears in a painting that was created by Hans Memling in 1480. Poet Anne Provoost tells the story of the young woman who is making a lace collar for her father when a young man comes to her and “falls on his knees.” He tells her that “the light I have only seen/ in the stained glass of cathedrals” shines out from her face. She is shocked that anyone would consider her attractive and is drawn to him.

   The poems in the Expression section are more contemplative in that they explore “the transaction that takes place between the viewer and the art object.” From Canada there is a painting of a young woman standing on the deck of a ferry that is going to Prince Edward Island. She is looking straight at us through her binoculars. The poet thinks that the girl is not really looking through the binoculars. Instead, she is hiding behind them, the way people in “alien atmospheres / are awkward inside the costumes they wear for safety.”

   In the final section, Impressions, poets describe what they see when they look at their chosen artwork. They use all kinds of patterns of words to show us what they see, and it is interesting to discover that what we see may not be what another person sees. A painting by the Japanese painter Ei-Kyu may look like the birth of a planet to one person, but to the poet, Naoko Nishimoto, the painting shows a dream that blooms behind closed eyelids.

   At the back of the book readers will find biographies of the poets, the translators, and the artists. There is also a map “showing where each poet, translator, and artist included in this book lives or lived.”

   This is remarkable book, one that young readers will find interesting and thought-provoking.