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Provocation Three: Image versus Detail

By Gillian Kessler:

Rick Barot’s "The Wooden Overcoat" is a profound and moving poem that explores the concept of image versus detail. Take a moment to read it. But take a breath first, as it might just take your breath away!


The Wooden Overcoat

It turns out there’s a difference between a detail and an image. If the dandelion on the sidewalk is mere detail, the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicep is an image because it moves when her body does, even when a shirt covers the little thorny black sun on a thin stalk. The same way that the bar code on the back of another friend’s neck is just a detail, until you hear that the row of numbers underneath are the numbers his grandfather got on his arm in a camp in Poland. Then it’s an image, something activated in the reader’s senses beyond mere fact. I know the difference doesn’t matter, except in poetry, where a coffin is just another coffin until someone at a funeral calls it a wooden overcoat, an image so heavy and warm at the same time that you forget it’s about death. At my uncle’s funeral, the coffin was so beautiful it was like the chandelier lighting the room where treaties are signed. It made me think of how loved he was. It made me think of Shoshone funerals, where everything the dead person owned was put into a bonfire, even the horse. In that last sentence, is the horse a detail or an image? I don’t really know. In my mind, a horse is never anywhere near a fire, and a detail is as luminous as an image. The trumpet vine on the sagging fence. The clothes in the fire. And each tattoo that I touch on your back: the three-part illustration of how to use chopsticks, the four-leaf clover, the clock face stopped at 12:05.


In your journal, jot down some details. Now convert those details to images. Don't overthink this. Reread Barot's poem. Keep playing. Revise and shift and scratch. Are images starting to move? 

Now begin with Barot's line “If the _____ on the _____ is mere detail, the ________ is an image because . . .

Write for fifteen minutes from there. Play with the narrative structure of quatrains, borrowing from Barot's form. Don't censor yourself. See what evolves. See what dances off the page. See how it moves.  

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