Leaping Into Eel’s Death Colors

Jessica Damen’s introduction to Visions Verses Voices

Introduction by Jessica Damen

Welcome, to this room filled with oil paintings and the many voices reciting verses.  Hello,
I am Jessica Damen, the painter, whose artworks you see around you. Most of the paintings you see here were inspired by verses penned by Tim Joyce, Janet Lewis, Wilfred Owen, and my long time poet collaborator and friend, Maj Ragain.  There are a few Maj Ragain poems written responsively, that is, after he saw my artwork. I consider all of these paintings and poems to be like companions strolling along a path, each is distinct in their built and personality, sometimes they share sights and insights and at other times, they diverge and re-interpret a thought, a mood, a story and a vision.  I bring my personal life into my emotive, expressionistic, and color filled responses. The artworks never illustrate but do illuminate an idiosyncratic vision. I encourage you not to be concerned about hearing every word. Instead stand a few feet away from the paintings and listen. Experience the different voices of the many readers, who brought to their recitations, their own uniqueness.  Poetry read and recited comes alive with an individual’s phrasing and pitch. And so, even though the words are the same, the individuality of the reader comes into play. Paintings seen and studied can open a world of intellectual and emotional possibilities. The interplay of verses and visions makes for fertile ground enriching and renewing the sister arts of poetry and painting. At some point open and read the poems on the exhibition’s website. Then look again at the paintings. What more do you see and feel?

Leeping Into Eel’s Death Colors
by Jessica Damen

Leaping Into Eel’s Death Colors is the companion artwork for the poem Maj Ragain never got to do.  Our last exhibition, Home to Sargasso Sea-A long journey of loving collaboration was a race between finishing this endeavor and Maj’s declining health. Sadly, Maj reached his finished line before the exhibition’s poems were completed. He had planned to write verse based upon a remembrance described in the introduction from his last book of poems, Clouds Pile Up in the North-New & Selected Poems. He begins with these words:

    The Mystery. “Every writer finds a new entrance…” That initial opening was for me in childhood, as it is so often, when the Mystery quickened, pulsed, and found its way into my small world. One memory overshadows all others. It may well be the birthplace of the poems that follow, the beginning of a long pilgrimage home over the years. 

He proceeds with this memory. It’s 1946 on a southeastern Illinois farm. He is six years old, standing aside the opening of a deep, spring fed well. It is being cleared of debris. The worker deep from the well gives a terrified shout,

    “Get me outta here… Something is down there and it’s alive.” Quickly, bait is sent down and then hauled up from “that darkness was an eel…thick as a man’s arm. The eel thrashed with a fury and changed colors even as we watched, its pale body taking on a blue black sheen in the sunlight.”

After the work was finished Maj’s dad answered the young boy’s questions: the eel “swam through the rivers underground. “( She)” came from the Sargasso Sea.” And it was returning home.

In 2017 had sensed that Maj’s days were growing shorter. The introduction reflected Maj’s acceptance of his numbered days. That eel’s life was violently cut short. She never made it home, but Maj, he was ready.

My painting imagines Maj a boy ready to leap into an unknown, deep well to meet that strange, beautiful she creature, which traveled far to meet its death. It was, as described, "A life hardly contained by its form."  And now, this man, no longer contained by form. His poems live.

Leaping Into Eel’s Death Colors
oil on canvas
81 x 12”

Maj Ragain, Clouds Pile Up in the North – New & Selected Poems, Press 53: Winston-Salem, NC, 2017, p.xiv