Occult Ekphrasis in Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine by AM Ringwalt

Since reading Johannes’ blog post on occult ekphrasis, I’ve been thinking about Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine.

Sheep Machine is a book-length ekphrastic text that documents, second-by-second, Leslie Thornton’s film of the same name. Its unsettled and unstable point-of-view challenges what it means to see. As the narrator fluctuates through voice—from “I” to “we”—I wonder, too, what it means for anyone to see. How singular that act of vision is or isn’t.

Occult ekphrasis, eschewing mere description, “teems with linguistic and visual contagion.” This contagion results in unsettled perspective as the author becomes affected by their subject. The author is “taken over” by their subject through the very act of seeing.

Sheep Machine begins with blackness; I imagine the poet watching the film. On page thirteen, after fluctuating assertions of what Thornton’s film represents (“This is ‘The Pearl of the Alps’ […] This is outer space with steel & cables”), a voice emerges:


A sheep appears with its head down.
One with the proper shading so that
no one will ask it to flatten out. I am
a backdrop against another backdrop.

Given the distinction between the sheep and the self, my first assumption is that the poet is watching, and transcribing, Thornton’s film. However, the poet inserts herself into the medium by likening herself to a backdrop. As, in any theater, backdrops are not fixed.

(Is the self the backdrop for occult ekphrasis? Does the poet—the self—submit to being “taken over”? What are the implications for the self in this practice?)

In this un-fixedness, I see Nao oscillate between singular and plural first-person perspective. The “I” of Sheep Machine is observant. The “we” of Sheep Machine takes on ontological, choreographic, and animal valences. On page fourteen, moving swiftly past the singular, Nao writes: “We know appearance / isn’t deceiving.” On page nineteen, “We move on to ten seconds.”

The latter “we” might include the reader, might implicate the reader in the project of ekphrasis.

I turn the page to ten seconds.

As Thornton’s film continues, Nao transcribes the movement of wheat and grass. From this pastoral, sheep emerge: “A flurry of wheat appears to ride above the sheep’s back. As if sheep is earth, a vase.” In these scenes, in these seconds, images of terror also enter: coffins, five gods, the Twin Towers collapsing. There is “an elegant panic that borders between apocalypse and beauty.”

Somewhere in this elegant panic, the speaker becomes the sheep.

Now there are two of us. Our heads to the ground, masticating. The ventriloquial wind. The ventriloquial wind.

This, to me, is the primary occult moment of the text. If the wind is controlled, if the wind is ventriloquized, who turns Nao’s “I” into “we”—first human, and then animal? Ultimately, the artist casts the spell; in the book’s final pages, Leslie Thornton moves to the forefront:

Visible, we are four. Curtain of grass + wheat frames the inverted bang of the camera. Our maker, Leslie Thornton, had conceived our quadrupedal and ruminant ontology.

Here, too, the theater emerges. Through the theater, Nao foregrounds her project of watching, transcribing. Through the theater, Nao foregrounds the distance between audience and artwork, yet as the book progresses this boundary collapses, blurs. Following Nao’s vision, we see the curtain, too. And as we move through the theater—from backdrop to curtain—we become part of her occult ekphrasis.








AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. Her words appear or are forthcoming in Peripheries, the Washington Square Review and the Bennington Review. Called “unsettling” by NPR and “haunted” by The Wire, she has performed her music at the Watermill Center and the New Yorker Festival. @amringwalt

June 25th, 2020|
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