Late poet's words take flight on walls of Piper Writers House


Two women examine paintings of hummingbirds hung on a wall

Attendees at the June 28 opening reception of ASU MFA alumna Kelly Houle's “Hummingbirds” exhibition examine some of the 20 paintings inspired by the late poetry Professor Norman Dubie. The artwork will be on view at the Piper Writers House through July 31. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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There are hundreds, if not thousands, of poems about hummingbirds. But chances are they’re not about putting the delicate birds to death.

The late Arizona State University Professor Norman Dubie, however, managed to slip the slayings of these colorful creatures into his poem “Hummingbirds,” featured in his book "The Mercy Seat: Collected and New Poems, 1967- 2001."

The poem’s pain — though not its deadliness — is the inspiration behind an art exhibit by the same name that opened recently at the Piper Writers House on ASU’s Tempe campus. It is artist and ASU alumna Kelly Houle’s first solo exhibit.

See the 'Hummingbirds' exhibit

When: 11 a.m.–1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through July 31.

Where: Piper Writers House, Tempe campus. Map link.

The show features 20 small oil paintings of hummingbirds, ranging in size from 2 by 3 inches, depicting life-sized hummingbirds, to 9 by 12 inches. The title of each painting comes from lines in Dubie’s beautiful and startling poem, which includes this verse:

“They have made a new statement 
About our world — a clerk in Memphis
Has confessed to laying out feeders
Filled with sulfuric acid. She says
God asked for these deaths …”

“I think it is a horrible verse in the middle of the poem,” Houle said during the opening. “But Norman always had this idea that you couldn’t express something beautiful without also expressing something devastating.”

According to Houle, Dubie once said, “If there’s an egg in a poem, it should have its speck of blood.”

Houle says her paintings are meant to be beautiful, but the pain of the poem gives them a depth they would not otherwise have. Despite the deadly references, Houle’s paintings depict none of the destruction relayed in the poem. Instead, her work celebrates the exquisite beauty of her finely feathered friends. 

The painting titled “They Will Be Without Arms Like God” captures two birds fluttering against a backdrop of an Arizona blue sky filled with soft clouds. Many of the birds have metallic, emerald-colored feathers. 

Houle says she was thinking of illuminated miniatures in medieval manuscripts when planning the show, which features jewel tones common in that era. Some of the hummingbirds have gold halos, perhaps as references to their holiness. Several are enhanced by gold frames.

“That is a purposeful rendering about a reference to God,” said Alberto Ríos, ASU Regents Professor and director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, who spoke at the event. “It is a nice metaphoric trail.”

Houle studied with both Ríos and Dubie and graduated from ASU with an MFA in 2005. 

Dubie’s work appeared in virtually every major journal of poetry during the last 40 years and is included in the “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry,” which represents the best poetry published in England and America. 

Dubie was Houle’s thesis chair. He died in 2023.  

“Since Norman was here for so long and chaired the MFA committee, it seems appropriate to have it (the exhibit) here,” said Ríos, Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate and a recent chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.  “It was the perfect confluence of ideas.”

Houle is an Arizona-based poet and visual artist. Her paintings and handmade books are in public and private collections around the world. Her poems have been widely published in places like the Connecticut River Review — a national poetry journal — and the Kenyon Review, an international journal of literature, culture and the arts.  

Houle’s exhibit is one of many events — including fundraisers, readings and performances — planned for the Piper Center. Ríos said preparations are underway to add an outdoor space to the building, making it more usable and habitable.

“It is a house of wonder for writers, thinkers, literary explorers,” said Ríos.

And visual artists.

“Hummingbirds” will be on view at the Piper Center through July 31. Houle hopes the paintings in the exhibition will do justice to Dubie, “his poem and the creative writing community he created.” 

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