About fifteen months ago ago I wrote a post, Pictures and stories. I guess this one will be Pictures and stories Revisited. I guess, too, that it all started, if not with A level Art, then with this chap…Elizabeth Frink’s Seated man. For ten years on and off I would start my working day at Bretton Hall college, driving into the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and past the seated man. I’d stop to take photos of him from time to time, especially in snow, when he would look especially glum and stoic. I have no idea why, but I conceived the notion that though none of us could see it, he was imprisoned in his allotment shed, forever frozen, unable to move or protest as the earth around, his brassicas and spuds and crysanths, were trampled barren by thousands of visitors…all of them unable to see what they were doing. I came to wonder what he had done to deserve it.
At some point I realised the truth, as I’d walk from the car park down into the college, and look at other figures on the mown hillsides. Igor Mitoraj’s Light of the moon: a huge, blank, eyeless face that silenced every shrieking party of primary kids that found themselves in its proximity. Another monumental piece like a cross between a christmas tree decoration and The Three Graces, made of three thick, perforated aluminium sheets. The most poignant was almost hidden behind the dance studio. Michael Ayrton’s Kneeling Minotaur. I always believed the Minotaur a victim. They don’t tell schoolchildren of his conception to satisty the lust of Minos’ daughter for the white bull, nor of the complicity of the artificer, Daedalus, in making that wild congress possible. We tell them about Icarus of course. There’s a cautionary tale. Do as your dad tells you. Anyway. I came to believe that great sculptures like the ones I saw every working day imprisoned the souls of the transgressive. And, indeed, of fallen angels.
This coincided, as I’ve written in another post, with my starting an MA in creative writing, in desperately trying to break out of endlessly describing bits of landscape, and in discovering Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, and in starting to write dramatic monologues that would give voices to the lives stilled in stone, and bronze and wood and steel. I tinkered around with them for years, before I started to sit down and write for real. The first one was a gift…Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North would speak in Miltonic blank verse. Obviously. It turned out the Minotaur was tormented by the white slenderness of young girls delivered as sacrifices he could not understand. The seated man, it transpired, contained the soul of Rene Descartes.
I didn’t just ‘do’ sculptures; I became fascinated by the stories of the painter John Waterhouse, his wife, Esther, and his favourite model, Miss Foster, and tried to find voices for them. And, at some point I learned there was a name for all this. A truly ugly word, but a word nonetheless: ekphrasis. I learned there’s even a magazine devoted to it, and also that it seems to be something of a niche business these days. This I cannot understand. As a young teacher, I grew up with Voices and Junior Voices. Books of poems that happily sat side by side with pictures. Metonomy and metaphor cheerfully bouncing off each other. I grew up with Remains of Elmet, poet and photographer happily exploring the same territory together; later it was Hughes’ collaborations with artists like Leonard Baskin. You’d think it would be more common, much more widespread, anyway. But I still come across poets who tell me they don’t like ‘poems about pictures’. They do like Musee des Beaux Arts, of course, and why not.
It seems to me that it used to be taken for granted, this symbiotic realtionship between verbal and plastic arts. Renaissance painters spent their days recreating myth and legend. Pre-Giotto, it would be the Bible. For Pre-Rapaelite painters, translating literature into pictures was their bread and butter. Boy, did they love Keats and the Morte d’Arthur and Shakespeare. And later, didn’t their successors just plunder Tennyson. Why doesn’t it seem so common in reverse? Ode to a Grecian Urn. Ozymandias at a pinch. OK. Off the top of your head, tell me more. Contemporary poets.
Well, I’ll give you Pascale Petit’s What the water gave me. And there’s Frieda Hughes’ Waxworks. There’s a lovely sequence based on Van Gogh’s paintings in Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers. You might remember Poets at the Tate. And now, because I’m quite thinly read, I’m stuck. Why should this be? It seem obvious to me that writing about and in response to visual and 3D images should be just as common as responding to first-hand experience, or, indeed, to other people’s poems. (There’s plenty of that about.) Because, after all, all art selects and fixes moments in time for your attention, takes them out of the bewildering flux of experience; moments of crafted stasis. Just the act of arrest makes the moment significant, just as when, on a walk with a friend, you grab her, or his, arm, and point and say. Look. Look. It’s ironic, I think, that, as people seem to have moved into a world where no one trusts memory or words any more, and where they take so many photographs and publish them so indiscriminately, the whole purpose of photography itself is being lost.
At which point we awakwardly segue into the point of today’s cobweb strand which is to share the poetry of Maria Isakova Bennett, her first published collection, Caveat, and her current collaboration with Middlesbrough poet, Michael Brown, writing in response to artworks in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. It helps that she is facinated by Gormley’s iron men on Crosby Sands…I’ve written about one of them myself, as well as his unnerving army of small clay figures Field for the British Isles (I think that was an installation in Liverpool at some time, too).
I suppose it helps too that I have a soft spot for art-trained poets with a penchant for hippy hats. Though this is not, you understand, a sine qua non. I first met Maria earlier this year in Leeds at an Interpreter’s House launch, and I was knocked out by the poems she read from Caveat which had just been published. Painterly poems. Passionate poems. Sexy and edgy poems in beautiful landscapes with big skies and seas, or in seedily glamorous cities, in bars and brasseries. Time you met her too. This is what she says about herself:
“Maria, from Liverpool, is an artist and poet. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2012. Over this year, Maria has worked as Project Support Assistant for a charity working with people who suffer various forms of bereavement, supports a poet- in-residence at Merseycare, teaches English to Asylum Seekers, and is working collaboratively with the poet Michael Brown on projects at the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever Gallery and on a river project linked to work at the Liverpool Museum.
She has been published widely in the UK, US, and Ireland, including work in Antiphon, Crannog, Envoi, Manchester Review, Orbis, and Southword.
During 2014 Maria was highly commended in the Gregory O’ Donoghue Competition, shortlisted in the Munster Literature Fool For Poetry Chapbook Competition, and awarded first prize in the Ver Open. In February, her first pamphlet, Caveat, was published by Poetry Bus Press, Ireland.
This year, in addition to reading in galleries in Liverpool and at launches of journals, Maria read at Heart Poetry Cafe in Headingly in January, as part of Poets and Players at the beautiful John Rylands Library in Manchester, at the Harris Gallery in Preston (as part of Korova), at UCLAN as part of The Wild and Rural poetry events, at the Bluecoat Gallery for Storm and Golden Sky.
If you’re anywhere near Calderdale, next month she will read in Todmorden as part of Kava Kultura . Here’s the link for more details http://kultpoet.blogspot.co.uk .
She’s sent me four poems to choose from. Let’s start with this one:
In room ten you want to kneel to pray
but words won’t come
and the gallery is dizzy tonight–
the tug of a boat at Heurteauville,
flat sands, a low tide
a tumult of sky at Egremont.
You listen for his note
somewhere in the medieval room
or before Psyche,
consider a bouquet imprisoned in the corner –
each flower a white star,
the hapless grey of roof tops
offset by orange light;
take in the simple geometry –
a red cloth, and the quench of peaches.
Read the poem, really read it before you even think of opening the link that lets you see the painting. What it does for me, and it does a lot, is recreate the sensory dizziness of art galleries, that feeling of of tipsy overload (it pivots on that word ‘tumult’) before you are quietly steadied, led to ‘consider’ the stasis of a still life, its calm balance of light and colour, the trapped energy of flowers like stars, and, satisfyingly, the utter surprise of a ‘quench of peaches’. Wow. Now you can click on the link and let the poem and the picture talk to each other, illuminate each other. I’m a sucker for colour, but there’s so much more to it than that.
The next poem is, by contrast, tactile. I may have some trouble making wordpress reproduce the artful line layouts. Let’s cross our fingers.
The green vase will break
so smash it now;
either you will try
to carry your memento, and it will crack,
or you will refuse to leave it behind
and never travel;
broken is the only way to carry
each piece a doll’s house saucer
each a palm open
to the room where you pack to leave.
Beat the light into crystals
so that you are free to move –
and when you travel,
fold them in a cloth.
At your destination,
don’t try to reassemble
its old form has gone –
but in the workshop at the lough-side
tip out the crushed pieces
and fuse them into something new.
The line spacings and indents of the original mime the fragmentation of the vase, the bits laid out but not aligned, but if I can’t recreate that, then just listen to the crack and rattle of consonants. And enjoy, as I do, a recipe which is almost like an incantation, for remaking. But you will need to be at a workshop, at the lough-side. I love the way that transports you to a place that seem specific and haunted. Not any lough-side. THE lough-side. You know the one. Of course you do. Close your eyes and make it.
Finally, because these figures haunt me, an iron man poem. This time there’s a narrative.
The Forty-ninth Iron Man
(after Antony Gormley’s installation, Another Place.)
Over a mesh of sand, her bare feet tense
on ribs, and clavicles,
she listens for a foghorn across
the pitch of the sea,
unbuttons her coat for him –
cast in black under a Hunter’s Moon
his shoulder sheds metal scabs,
grates her skin as she strokes him
and tastes him; a tang of rust.
Together we are a beautiful performance,
he assures her,
but he holds her indifferently –
racing waves peak and trough,
the tide rises and the moon is lost
in churning clouds. She founders
but is fastened to him –
at high tide they will drown –
only to resurrect.
I’m caught straight off by the physicality of bare feet on the hard cold corrugations of lowtide sands..ribs and clavicles. Yes. I wasn’t expecting clavicles but the texture and dance of it are exactly right, I think. It’s a haunting story; like tales of the selkie, and all hopeless loves, the indifference of the crusted, scaling iron man, the vulnerablity and desire of one who ‘unbuttons her coat for him’ under a scud of cloud, a wavering moon, and the melancholy warning of a foghorn across the cold drowning flats. So there we are. Thank you so much Maria Isakova Bennett for being our guest and sharing your poems.
You’ll be wanting to buy and read Caveat, not least for lines like these from ‘Looking for the source of madder’
I escaped while he slept. But every May / I make alizarin from his recipe – / and paint my body red
Caveat : [Poetry Bus Press 2015] 7.50 euros
Next week we’ll be thinking about the Bible. Consider dressing accordingly.