115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paintings That Look Like Things

Derek Updegraff, Azusa Pacific University

Derek Updegraff is the author of the forthcoming poetry and translation collection Paintings That Look Like Things (Stephen F. Austin State University Press) and the short fiction collection The Butcher's Tale and Other Stories (SFA Press, 2016). His poems, translations, short stories, and essays have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, the minnesota review, Natural Bridge, Measure, The Classical Outlook, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, and other places.


I am an Assistant Professor at California Baptist University, and I hold an MFA from Cal State Long Beach and a PhD from the University of Missouri. I am the author of three chapbooks of poems, and my first full-length book of poems and translations is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. I am also the author of a fiction collection published by the same press in 2016.

I would love to read some poems and translations from my forthcoming book. I will copy two poems below, but I can e-mail more if you'd like to see more.




My voice is coarse from singing “Twinkle Twinkle.”

We rock within the glow beside her crib,

clutching each other halfway through my watch.

“Again,” she says. “Again, Twinkle Twinkle.”

I’d sung a string of others hours ago,

but there’s no moving past these six lines now.

I sing. She quiets. Then as the final

syllable is falling, she squeaks, “Again.”

She doesn’t mind my raspy voice, likes it

even, and I like being unashamed

of it, how I sometimes manage in the pews.

Our loop replays. Her echo slips. I reach

the second “How I wonder what you are,”

and she allows the line to close, inserting

punctuation with her silence. I stand,

cradle her down, then slide my arms out,

but I’ve not let our song come to a rest,

repeating in my head the final words,

you are, you are, you are, collecting open

clauses needing her to reach completion.






Paintings That Look Like Things


She stands before the mass, studies its shapes,

its strokes, its colors and its lack of colors—

“Look for absence,” he once told her. But he

was younger then. And maybe now he’d tell

her something else to look for. She moves to the

placard. No title. Steps back to the center,

pulls out a notecard, cupping it in her hand,

then returning it briskly to her purse.

She mouths some phrase, her eyes fighting for sense,

turning from the canvas to the engaging

faces only now surfacing around her.

   His early paintings looked like things: still lifes

with fruit and bowls, pitchers and cups. Oh! and

the portraits. Such precision. “A God-given

talent,” she’d tell her son. Oh how she longs

to see those gifts being used. Even to see

what he had called his Lucian-Freud phase.

She’d gladly take those portraits now, the figures

that seemed abstractions to her then. She’d hang

those, gladly even, gladly taking down

each early canvas, each painting of a thing

as a thing, the likenesses of things hung

on her livingroom walls, covering peels

in floral paper. She’d take down her dearest

ones in the kitchen, the ones going back

to grade school, if it would mean appendages,

all things discernible if not familiar.

   The other viewers shuffle toward his next one.

She stands a moment longer. Then she inches

toward the placard again. A price but still no title.

“Titles help,” she whispers. She slips a hand

into her purse, pincering her card of phrases

jotted from phone calls, from his excited voice

explaining what he’s doing. She’ll let one hang

above her couch, get coached on what to say

before her friends sip tea in Christmas mugs,

get armed with explanations gifted to her,

his payment for her patronage, his easing

the mind of one who hates not knowing,

of one now readying herself to view

the next in line, the next of what is there

and what is not there and known not to be

there intentionally for one reason

or another. And see her now, lips moving

with the breath once from her and now his own,

his words sustaining her when she can’t

comprehend the things that others seem to get.