The Sickbed

On pain, love, ekphrasis, and Craig Dworkin's 'Dure'



by Craig Dworkin

Cuneiform Press 2004, out-of-print ISBN chapbook


“It is extraordinarily enduring.”

v. to last; to suffer continuously. Or, to harden. In good sense, to make sturdy or robust; to strengthen. Also, of things, to permit of, or be compatible with. Drawing from scar, from mirror. Verse formed from the heart’s tear. A letter that one is scared into. Afraid for. “We are nostalgic not for what we no longer have, but for what we never had in the first place, and what we never, at the time, thought to miss, or even notice.”

It is the measuring of time that causes each pain to remain.


The subject

The ekphrastic subject of Craig Dworkin’s Dure is a painting titled The Sick Dürer, created in the early 1500s with the assumed purpose of sending it to an out-of-town physician for a medical opinion. The small self-portrait shows the German artist Albrecht Dürer — nude from the waist up — pointing to a sickly yellow, circled area along the lower side of his chest. The painting is considered by medical professionals to be the first “pain map,” and is labeled with the phrase: Do der gelb fleck ist und mit dem finger drawff dewt do ist mir we, or, “Where the yellow spot is and where I am pointing with my finger, that is where it hurts.”

The Sick Dürer, by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), held at the Kunsthalle, Bremen.  Copyright © 2004, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd.

The subject is pain.

The subject is language.

The subject is art. 

 The ekphrastic subject is pretense. Dressing, devise, disguise. “There is no poor subject.” Its purpose is “to mask more deeply operative structural elements, such as rhythm, parallelism, and juxtaposition … not only to hide but also to entice …” Shield, sham, charade. “A mask is something made to be passed through …” The subject of the poem is not purely material, or simply a slippery surface — but an opening for the eyes, for the mouth, for the heart or soul. Lure, allure, a draw. The revealing of a common “poetry of intellect.” An intersection of address. The gesture of pointing. A suppressed “it” — instead, a “this.”


History and tradition, part I

“The history of literature can be written as a history of its perennially conflicted response[s] to visual art.” Dure proposes an expanded sense of the possibilities of ekphrasis. The work indicates a relationship that is less concerned with a conflicted, challenged, or confrontational stance between visual art and language, and more interested in the aesthetic, intellectual, and thematic techniques suggested by a particular piece. There is no fixed, reliable “I” apparent (except as a grammatical exercise) — instead, his contemplation is a communal commune, a cacophony, and a clutter of quotations, appropriated texts, and references. An inhabiting of the I-thou relationship. The intention is, “not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work with writing … to meet in time … a kind of fusion.” Combine, join, yoke. “All real living is meeting.” The prosaic lines are spliced with definition, interrogation, poetic parcels. He moves quickly — fluidly, even — between history, theory, verse, quotation, innuendo, juxtaposition, rhythm, rhyme, complication, research, play, and contradiction:

Dürer’s treatise on ellipses is the first book of
mathematics published in German. Followed by a
fourth book of shadows, with chapters on the secrets of
vanish and converge. Sent, ject, jure. “Let none who
want geometry enter through these doors.” Sensual,
censure, sural …

                                        … Cloud theory covers
the syntax of mists, a grammar of water vapor,
etymologies of rust. “The next step we must take is to
see in how many ways one thing is said to be in another.”

Dense, the text is sonically energetic, explosive, and exploratory. We hear “jure” rhyme with “door” and “Dürer.” Notice weather as pattern. We look for the relationships between “sent, ject, jure” — all missing the prefix “con” (“with”) — and all circling, in some etymological way, back to the poem’s possessed thinking:

consent (v.): to agree together, or with another, in opinion or statement; to be of the same mind; to agree to a doctrine or statement, [and] also to the author of it 

conject (v.): to form the hypothesis, suppose; to forecast by signs, augur, divine, prognosticate; to contrive, devise, plan, plot 

conjure (v.): to swear together; to make a privy compact by an oath; to form a conspiracy; to conspire; to invoke by supernatural power

We might interpret this spiritual, lyrical triplet as echoes of the poet “agreeing” with the artist, “forecasting” meaning through dissection of aesthetic qualities and gestures, or even “conspiring” with the visual artist toward a shared vision, an alternate version. The three-suffix set may also refer back to the previous fragment, and evoke issues of linguistic and visual meaning, confusion, shadow, apparition. Or, it may “divine” the following appropriation’s ominous warning. Dure demonstrates mathematical strategies, and language that is obsessively reduced to its lowest common denominators. The poem, at a rapid pace, leaves a series of clues, cues, ruses that when pulled apart provide entire, separate, and complicated threads, threats, thrusts of thought pattern. Read as a record of relations. “A surgery theory of grammar” that exposes “the sonic bones of the medium.”

Dure is not a “classical” ekphrastic poem. It is not merely “about” a painting. Dworkin resists the role of a ventriloquist — as someone who voices, mimics, or “speaks out” the concerns of the subject, image, genre, or artist. Nor does Dure work as only a “contemporary” ekphrastic work, or a “painterly poem” — one that “activates strategies of composition equivalent to but not dependent on the painting itself,” and, where, “instead of pausing at a reflective distance from the work of art, the poet reads the painting as a text, rather than as a static object …” Dworkin’s “particular relationship with the dead” urges the poem to conceive of “how many ways one thing is said to be in another.” If we imagine the history of ekphrasis as shifting from Classical to Contemporary to Conceptual — from “about” to “along with” to “as” — then Dure fits into the latter category. Dworkin’s poem is a creation for a form, of many tones, and one that recognizes that, “individual minds are not self sufficient, independent entities, but part of complex networks incorporating communities and objects.”

“Dour, hour, door.” “Hisp, molar, cusp.” “Draught, graft, grief.”

An accumulation, arrangement, range, display. Or, in other words, “Everything, right now, is nearer than you think.”


The pain map

Dure searches for pain’s location — in language, love, and art. In the mind and body. Each of the poem’s difficulties is incorporated by the text’s inquisition into the nature of pain. Yet, we are reminded that “nature abhors a fact” — and are left with an unrelenting amount of complications and questions. Textually, formally, these ambiguities become the loose shadows and transformative shapes of a map. The traced — plotted but not permanent — geography of hurt. We ask: can a body become sick with love? (“Love is put to the test, pain not.”) We ask: can drawing explain where each ache originates? (“But what sort of doctor would diagnose a sketch?”) We ask: how does one gesture to the true source of pain, or the speech to explain? (“Can this sort of pointing be compared with pointing to a black spot on a sheet of paper?”) And — we must ask — what is pain’s relationship to belief? “Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe … I’ll carry my ideas out yet —” “I am a sick man … I am an angry man … I don’t understand the least thing about my illness …” “One drop more from the gash / that stains your Daisy’s / bosom — then would you believe?” “You see he does not believe I am sick.” “A strange sickness came over me, such as I have never heard of from any man …” Dure questions art’s bond to proof. And proof’s boundaries. Does a picture of damage make it true? Might physical harm ignite in the mind? And — importantly — does Dure’s chorus intend to bear Dürer’s pain with its attention? To say: we believe you, that you ache. We make art of the heart’s scar — and it forms a mark. “Our mental life is knit up with our corporeal frame … rapture, love, ambition, indignation, and pride, considered as feelings, are fruits of the same soil with … pleasure and … pain.”

The question arises: why did Dürer not write a letter? The drawing certainly took more time to compose than a note. Did Dürer believe that an image would more genuinely convey pain, or invoke sympathy? That a drawing could hurt the viewer, or that it could invoke a relevant phantom physical sensation? Distress, struggle, suffering. Agony, anxiety, apprehension. An apparition. The question becomes a ghost: what won’t the word hold? What might a gesture say better? The painting — appropriated by Dure — shows that a pain still endures within the inerasable circle that Dürer is destined to infinitely point to.

Everyone can read a circle. It forms a zero, an “oh!” or an “Element of Blank —”


Conceptual art

“What is important in what we must call a work … is not exactly what one has before one’s eyes but the stimulus that this sign provokes in the mind of the onlooker. The worth of a work of art does not come so much from what its creator condensed in it through his talent and experience as from the unexpected resonances and harmonics that it sets loose in the reader or viewer.”


Sound, form, song

In Dure, the intense, tangible rhyme — as well as attention to sound and cadence — is what produces a physical room to move around in. A body. Sound creates time, time creates space. “The more we move into space, the more we recognize its vastness as it expands before us, helping us to understand our own smallness and producing an attitude of humility.” Space is an integral quality of concept. Short bursts of rhythm punctuate Dure with, “the lexical significance of a snare drum snapping out a flourish before the reader’s execution.” Staccato consonants create breaks — crags, gaps, streams — as well as certain strange tonal variations, textures, grains. “The poetic function is not to produce new writing — we have too much already — but to force us to see what the language environment we live in looks and feels like, to make it strange.” “Every force evolves a form.” The poem is rich with resonance, materiality, echo, and honed lines intricately woven among various tones and histories. Importantly, Dure resists the temptations of strict constraint, and as with the painting or body to which it refers, it admits flaws, rawness, error by refusing absolute or pure structure. The democratic nature of its song denies firm ruling by unbreakable poetic law. It moves within individual organic boundaries, and has an “ecological sensibility.” “One recognizes that a work has style if it gives the sensation of being self-enclosed; one recognizes … the little shock that one gets from it or again from the margin which surrounds it, from the special atmosphere wherein it moves.” A poetic envelope. A free song in form.

there is free song
a free weaving of many songs
song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a
    blending of wavy pitches


History and tradition, part II (self-portraits)

Contemporary experimental ekphrasis began as Ashbery did it. One of the distinguishing traits of Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror was that “Ashbery advertise[d] his sources.” In Self-Portrait, he quotes and converses with scholars and art critics — “he draws into the poem his experiences …” For Ashbery, poetry is “a conversation … we are constantly in.” “How many people came and stayed a certain time, / Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you … / Those voices in the dusk / Have told you all and still the tale goes on …” In Dure, the poem takes over, an engine fueled by community. Text is prized over author, placement over original meaning, and materiality over the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Dure refuses to present the poet as a solid, omniscient being. “Against the glazing of the cased display, my reflections on the pane distort, and throw back my image in shivers.” The “I” is in threads, loose ends, feathers. “Dure … replaces the expression of subjectivity that is still central to Ashbery by a written record …” The overwhelming variety of participating sources includes bits, pieces, puzzles of philosophical texts, poems, diaries, medical journals, dictionaries, sculptures, musings. Figments, fragments, tangents. “Poetry is never a personal possession,” and in this poem there is no private property. Quotations and allusions are not prominently cited within the text — instead, almost-anonymous voices appear, creating a multitonal, multidimensional, democratic work. A work without designated ownership of language. “E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.” The obligatory citations are listed in the final pages of the book; however, we are not required to flip to the end for footnotes while reading. The language prioritizes procedure and process, not the author. “The mode of Dure is … transplant.” From transplant, to transformation, to transcendence. Each voice resuscitates its original urgency, and collaborates with surrounding calls in surprising relationship. “In appropriation of texts, in subsistence on the words of others, even from the contemporary world, imagination must have its proper position, because only imagination can return the texts to life.”



We pick, we poke, we prod. “The fingertip testing its sensation, and that lack, with an unreciprocated pressure …” We assess the spoil. “The scar, in essence, is simply the deformation of any particular breaking the surface of its abstraction …”

The rhythm of our breath in verse. The pulse in hands; the measured heart. What does one do with love but worry it? What does one do with art but mark it?

“If a scar is always a citation, are citations, themselves, always scars?”


The letter

“The assumption is that Dürer drew it for a consultation with a foreign physician: the page examined, and passed, through the post.” Hoping for a note of diagnosis. A seal of approval, a crease, or an address: Dear Sir, I see you. Dear Sir, I respond with solution. Medicine, alchemy, antidote, remedy. But what kind of letter — returned — cures? (“I’ve got a cough as/ big as a thimble — but/ I don’t care for that — / I’ve got a Tomahawk / in my side but that / don’t hurt me much, / <If you> Her Master / stabs her more —.”) After all, during the time it takes to wait for reply, the sore might restore itself. As does the medical patient or the eye’s attention, Dure demands the art of patience. “Wait! Is it not yet time for my pain-killer?”

Time heals all wounds, we learn, and correspondence ruins. “There is any difference between resting and waiting.”

In the The Sick Dürer, we begin to wonder why no clear cut is detailed; no absolutely alarming harm is apparent, or forefronted. The painting presents, instead, a region of injury, a vague area of ache. The poem, too, presents options. “It could be the frontispiece to a lost treatise on the melancholy of anatomy.” Or: memory, exercise, paranoia, error. The result of sleepless nights, pining, hypochondria, fear. Fear of health, bad news, the muse. Fear of mortality, disease, passion, doubt. “[Fear …] causeth oftentimes sudden madness, and almost all manner of diseases, as I have sufficiently illustrated … [it is] digression of the force of imagination … fear makes our imagination conceive what it list, invites the devil to come to us …” It is possible, of course, that Dürer’s drawing was never opened, not received, that it remained unread, unaddressed, alone. “The greater the distance, the clearer the view.” “Time, sensitive, materials.” Perhaps the image risked to relay another process.

Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in 1913 a journal of forms #4 and is reproduced in Jacket2 with permission.

Sources and Notes:


“It is extraordinarily …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 1.

“—v. to last …” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “endure.”

“We are nostalgic …” Craig Dworkin, Dure (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004), 25.

The subject

The Sick Dürer, Albrecht Dürer, 12cm x 11cm, watercolor, 1509–1521 (possible dates). Additional details from the British Medical Journal, December 2004.

Do der gelb …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 1. (Dürer.)

“There is no poor …” John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, And His Work,” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 99. (Rauschenberg.)

“to mask more …” and “a mask is something …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject” (presentation, Conceptual Poetry Symposium, University of Arizona Poetry Center, May 2008).

“poetry of intellect …” “The Ubuweb: Anthology of Conceptual Writing,” ed. Craig Dwokin, 2008.

History and tradition, part I

“The history of …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.

“not to explain …” Susan Howe, interview, in Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews, ed. Edward Foster (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1988), 50.

“All real living …” Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribner, 1958), 11.

“Dürer’s treatise …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 6.

“consent …” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “consent.”

“A surgery theory …” Gregg Biglieri, press release (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004).

“the sonic bones …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject.”

“not merely ‘about’ …” James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.

“speaks out …” Ryan Welsh, University of Chicago Glossary, s.v. “Ekphrasis,” 2007.

“painterly poem … contemporary …” Michael Davidson, qtd. in James A. W. Heffernan, introduction to Museum of Words, 2.

“particular relationship …” Cecilia Vicuña, interview by David Levi Strauss, in Cloud-Net (Art in General, 1999), 21.

“how many ways …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 6. (Aristotle.)

“individual minds …” Cole Swensen, “Ekphrasis that Ignores the Subject.”

“Dour, hour. Hisp …”; “Everything, right now …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 7, 11, 16, 23.

The pain map

“Nature abhors …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4, 25, 16. (Appropriations from: David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

“Sick! Sick! …” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1910). (Italics in the text are mine for this and the next four entries.)

“I am a sick man …” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (New York: Norton, 1989), 3.

“One drop more …” Emily Dickinson, The Master Letters, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 32.

“You see he …” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973), 10.

“A strange sickness …” J. C. Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 162.

“Our mental life …” William James, “The Emotions,” in The Principals of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 467.

“Element of Blank —” Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 323.

Conceptual art

“What is important …” J. H. Levesque, in Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10–11.

Sound, song, definition

“The more …” J. Scott Bryson, “Find the Way Back: Place and Space in the Ecological Poetry of Joy Harjo,” Melus 27, no. 3 (2002): 171.

“the lexical …”; “A surgery theory …” Gregg Biglieri, press release (Brooklyn: Cuneiform, 2004).

“The poetic function …” Kenneth Goldsmith, cited in Marjorie Perloff, “Conceptualisms, Old and New,” 4.

“Every force …” Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form: Twenty Essays by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987).

“ecological sensibility …” Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 17. (Wendy Wheeler.)

“One recognizes …” Max Jacobs, “Commentary,” in Poems for the Millennium, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 1:3, 115.

“there is free song …” John Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 2.

History and tradition, part II (self-portraits)

“Ashbery advertise[d] …”; “a conversation …” James A. W. Heffernan, “The Museum Goer in The Mirror: Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait,’” in Museum of Words, 169, 174.

“How many people …” John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Penguin, 1972), 71.

“spontaneous overflow …” William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800).

“Against the glazing …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 17.

Dure … replaces …” Marjorie Perloff, “The Pleasures of Déjà Dit: Citation, Intertext and Ekphrasis in Recent Experimental Poetry,” in The Consequence of Innovation: 21st-Century Poetics, ed. Craig Dworkin (New York: Roof Books, 2008), 267.

“Poetry is never …” Susan Howe, “These Flames and Generosities of the Heart,” in The Birth Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press,1993), 147.

“E pluribus unum …” Barack Obama, keynote address, 2004 Democratic National Convention, Boston, MA.

“The mode of Dure …” Marjorie Perloff, “The Pleasures of Déjà Dit,” 267. (Antoine Compagnon.)

“In appropriation of texts …” Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003), 6.


 “The fingertip …”; “The scar …”; “If a scar is …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4, 12.

The letter

“The assumption …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 2.

“I’ve got a cough …” Emily Dickinson, The Master Letters, 26.

“Wait! …” Samuel Beckett, End-Game (New York: Grove, 1958), 35.

“There is any …” Gertrude Stein, “Identity a Poem,” in Poems for the Millennium, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 1:3, 47.

“It could be the frontispiece …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 20.

“Fear causeth …” Robert Burton, “Fear, a Cause,” in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Longman, Reece, and Co., 1832), section 2, part 3, no. 5.

“The greater …” W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (New York: New Directions, 1995), 19.

“Time, sensitive …” Craig Dworkin, Dure, 4.