Gaia Holmes: Where the Road Runs Out

Gaia Holmes: Where the Road Runs Out

On dealing with loss, with grieving and healing, the dislocations and consolations of wildness and weather, and the smaller ones of everyday people and places who prove as McCaig wrote how extraordinary ordinary things are. Whenever and however you find yourself in the dark, read this beautiful essay.

The High Window

I was going to call this lecture ‘The Poetics Of Grief’. I was going to call this lecture ‘Beyond The Mainland: Poetry of The Highlands And Islands’. I have started, and deleted, this lecture at least seven times. I was going to cancel this lecture because I am, to use the vernacular, ‘all over the shop’ but I’m here now talking to you. Well, most of me is here but some of me is way up North where the road runs out and the sea takes over at Dunnet Head. Some of me is stumbling through the darkness in my father’s size 10 wellies. Some of me is counting roadkill as I sit in the passenger seat being driven up the A9 towards Orkney, towards dawn, towards grief. So this lecture may be fragmented. It may drift back and forth between Jamieson’s Quay and Hatston ferry terminal. It may trip…

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The company you keep, and a Polished Gem: Maggie Reed

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When I was doing a bit of back-reading for this post I was looking at an earlier one when the guest poet was Martin Reed. The reason for this will quickly become apparent. I introduced that post like this:

“When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. “ 

Julie Mellor has been approaching this idea, on and off for some time in her always-thought-provoking poetry blog. If you don’t follow it already, I highly recommend it. Here’s the link:                   https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/

I’ve got a different problem at the moment. I’m busting with ideas I want to articulate, experiences I want to nail down and share, and simultaneously physically/mentally tired; I can’t seem to think clearly, or concentrate in the right way, and it seems the only thing to do is just to let it be. There’s no rational reason to believe that I can’t go away and find it all waiting when I come back. Maybe what’s needed is some peace and quiet inside my head.

Quietness. I think that’s the keyword when I come to think of the work of today’s guest, Maggie Reed . It’s a quality that attaches to another poet whose work I love…Jane Clarke. I’m a noisy, rackety sort of person, and I don’t do that sort of grounded serenity. That quietness. I wish I did, and I’m grateful for those who do. At which point, let’s meet Maggie Reed, originally from Cumbria who now lives in West Malvern where she writes poetry and short stories. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a merit in an MA in Creative Writing and in 2017 achieved a Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, London.

In 2016 Maggie had three poems published in the North magazine and won third prize in the Settle Sessions Poetry Competition. In 2017 she had another poem published in the North and self-published her first pamphlet ‘Life Lines’. In August 2018 another two poems are due to be published in the North. Previously, in 2011 she won a merit in the Nottingham Open Competition.

Before taking herself seriously with her creative writing in the year 2000, after attending an Adult Ed evening class, Maggie worked in Further Education in Cumbria, Lancashire and Central London, with a focus on teaching and supporting adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. Prior to teaching, she ran her own sign-writing business in the Lake District, painting signs for hotels, pubs, shops and cafes, whilst also working part-time in a factory packing dried food products, driving a van for Securicor parcel delivery as well as assisting in care homes for the elderly.

Maggie enjoys the beautiful British countryside and loves walking in the Lake District as well as discovering the wonderful landscape surrounding her new home in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Much of her writing reflects her life experiences and the people and places that matter most to her.

She met and married her soulmate, Martin Reed last year, after meeting him at Whitby on one the Poetry Business writing residential courses – life right now couldn’t be better!”

So now you see why I was re-reading that post from a couple of years ago about Martin Reed. Essentially, this is a first: a guest poet who met, on a Poetry Business Writing Week in Whitby, another guest poet who I met on a Writing Week in Spain, tutored by Ann Sansom of…the Poetry Business. Which has a nice sort of synergy, and makes me very happy. As do the poems she’s sent me to share.

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John Arnold

 

First week in my new job,

lesson observation still on my mind,

he came in the office to suss me out

with words like Silver Book, Ofsted.

 

You’re not one to rock the boat then.

He knew as soon as I smiled

he’d get at least one coffee from me.

He preferred the company of women,

 

wolves, some of them, circling on him

as he sniffed around the smoking room.

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

 

His shed, the engineering block:

metal vices, cold radiators, stacks of scaffolding.

Lunchtimes in the pub rather than

filling forms, meeting deadlines.

 

Kids loved him. He could teach them

to fix a car, jazz up a bike.

Tell them how to learn best,

on the job.

 

He sat in our staff room

flashing his white bushy eyebrows,

his failed career at BAE Systems

waving at him across Walney Channel.

 

I heard and read this for the first time as a draft in a critiquing workshop. Sometimes a poem just speaks direct to a specific experience.In my case it was having to do an Ofsted style inspection in a bleak technical college, observing the ‘teaching’ of a morose individual who despised his students, the job, and probably, himself. John Arnold lifts me above that, because of its humanity, its gentleness. I feel as though the narrator, and John Arnold with his failed career at BAE Systems / waving at him across Walney Channel, are both out of synch with where they find themselves  She should be lining up her lesson-observation checklist sheets; self-evidently, he shouldn’t have

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

but there’s the mutual sympathy of outsiders who recognise each other in a cold and angular environment. And after all, kids loved him. And what survives of us is love. It’s poem that couldn’t have been easy to write, in the sense that it needs to persuade the reader to suspend a rational criticism of a teacher who assaults students, goes down the pub at lunchtime, and is a ‘failure’. But it does. Quietly.

When you listen to the next poem for the first time, you may think you’re in over-familiar territory. You may be inclined to think : nostalgia. But it has a trick up its sleeve.

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Visiting.

 

A red-brick vicarage in a northern coastal town

near the football club by St Andrew’s Church.

My father, taking me to Roker Park,

asked a policeman to stop the traffic

so we could cross the road.

 

I remember cold winters, hands over gas rings,

velvet curtains drawn, matching blue carpet,

draughts under the door.

Mrs. Donkin boiling sheets, wooden tongs,

struggles with the mangle, steam,

pegging them out in the back yard,

 

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn,

staying in Marlborough House

on Emerald Crescent, taking Peter,

our cat, how he never ran away?

Always smiling at the flowers

in the window, eating homemade

chocolate cake for tea;

riding my bike in the garden,

no, it must have been a tricycle,

I was only three.

 

I remember these things because you told me

from your chair in the nursing home,

eyes searching then holding my own.

 

I do remember these things, don’t I?

Or was it you?

Or was it me?

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I like the way (as I read it) the poem invites me to assume the “I” of the narrator who tells me about the vicarage and the policeman, and the old woman doing the washing is the voice of the poet. If it was, then I guess this would just be a piece of nostalgia, which is as interesting to a listener as a stranger’s photograph album. But something happens very quietly in one line which retrospectively made me re-read and re-evaluate:

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn.

Just like that, the poem turns from a soliloquy to a dialogue. Who asks the question? Who’s being asked? Why?  I make an assumption that it’s a daughter (because it’s a woman poet; yup, that simplistic) and I know she’s visiting a parent (a mother, I assume, because in my experience, it usually is) in a care home. But the thing is, that I don’t know whose memory is unreliable, who rode the trike, who owned the cat. And at the end I don’t know whose memory is more unreliable. And I find it hugely moving. It’s quiet and unassertive and it won’t let me be..

One more poem. It reminds me of U A Fanthorpe and a kind of love called maintenance. A poem of love and undramatic happiness. Which is a condition we can all devoutly wish for.

February

 

It’s a day in February,

Monday, perhaps Tuesday,

it doesn’t matter.

Birds are on the feeders,

washing-up is still in the sink,

Radio Five Live on too loud.

 

I’m remembering images from that dream:

the crowd on the staircase

the sketch I made of pillows in sunlight,

how I ordered a sherry at the bar.

I can hear you in the shower

and think of the books you’ve read

on Stalin, Scannell, Country Walks in Worcestershire.

 

This time five years ago I lay

curled on my mother’s bed,

remembered how she held me,

how she loved the scent of snowdrops.

seedfeeder-400

So thank you, Maggie Reed for the poems, for the quiet, and the smile you’ve put on my face.

I’m not sure about next week’s post. I have a guest waiting patiently in the wings, but on Friday I’m delighted to say I’ll be driving up to Kendall to read with my hero Kim Moore at the Brewery Poets; on Saturday, I have promises to keep, and though I’ll certainly be knackered, I mean to be at the Poetry Business in Sheffield for a day’s writing. And on Sunday I’m off to the prize-giving for the Red Shed poetry competition, and listening to all the winning poems as well as seeing Maria Isakova Bennett who judged it. So the Sunday post may be delayed.

In the meantime I’ll be trying to set up some launch events for my new pamphlet. Did I not mention that? Perhaps I can keep quiet sometimes. It’ll be out in June. I’ll tell you more about it later. Quietly. Well, fairly quietly.

 

Advice to a Traveller 723

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of [uz]. An afternoon with Tony Harrison

“All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [As] into RP

……………………………

‘We say [As] not [uz] TW. “ That shut my trap.

 

Of course it didn’t; for which we all give thanks.

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Sunday afternoon in The Leeds Library….the oldest subscription library in the UK, celebrating its 250th birthday in the most fitting way I can think of. A reading with the poetry legend from Beeston. The scholarship boy who took a long slow-burning revenge on his patronising old English teacher at Leeds Grammar School by writing two Meredithean sonnets. Them and [uz]. A rallying cry for all of us, that remind the world that [uz] can be loving as well as funny. Erudite, sophisticated and articulate, too. I set that alongside another of his lines in National trust

                             the tongueless man gets his land took.

Tony Harrison read with his trademark relish for the heft and texture of words; it was a Leeds event and he celebrated with lots of his poems about his mum and dad, from The school of eloquence..which are rooted in his personal history and theirs, but which speak for everyone exploited or conflicted by the class appropriations of language, literacy and education. It was joyous.

Tony Harrison. He’s the reason that I ever thought I might write poems (if not poetry). This comes with stories. In 1971 I moved to Newcastle to be a lecturer in a College of Education. When I took my children to school of a morning, there were very few men doing the same, and one of them was a striking figure..lean and handsome in an RAF greatcoat, very Dostoevskian. Eventually, I asked our Julie (5 yrs old)    ‘who’s that bloke?’.     ‘That’s Max Harrison’s daddy.’  ‘What’s he do, then?’   ”He doesn’t do anything. he’s a poet.’ I’ve dined out on that story, but the point is that though contemporary poetry meant absolutely nothing to me, then,  I mentioned this to a colleague, who invited Harrison to come and read to our 3rd Year B.Ed English students, and so it was that I went to my first ever poetry reading.

Only about 8 students turned up that evening, so we used the staff common room, sitting in a circle of comfortable chairs, and Harrison (trademark greatcoat and all) sat on a sofa, and read. He read along with his trademark lengthy introductions to many poems. He read with a compelling intensity, flattened Leeds vowels, and exact consonants. He read from ‘Loiners’ ...(the collection that his mother had thrown on the fire and then snatched back, realising it was a library book); he read Thomas Campey and the Copernican system..the poem about the crippled bookseller in Leeds Kirkgate Market from whom a young Harrison would buy all sorts of esoteric (to me) stuff: Mommsen, Spengler, Gibbon. He read The nuptial torches and the hairs on my neck prickled as he made the flames of the auto da fe crackle in a hushed staffroom. Above all he read National Trust, which then was still a handwritten draft in his notebook, and he told the backstory of the Edale gentry lowering a prisoner from the local lock up down the shaft of a cave to find out how deep it was. It was only later I learned the craft of it, this immaculate blend of demotic English, linguistics and scholarship, and the elegance of its complex rhyme scheme..this 16 line sonnet that became another Harrison trademark. And I have never ever forgotten the last lines:

mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr      /      (Cornish) ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’

What Tony Harrison did that night was a revelation. Poetry could be angry, political; it could give back a voice to the tongueless, it could be passionate, it could use rhyme and structure and scholarship as a natural part of its rhetoric. It could be funny and sexy. So I was hooked. I still am. I’ve been to readings of his in big auditoria…I’ve even introduced him at one…I’ve seen him on film and on television. But nothing ever comes close to that first reading, the one that made me want to write crafted poems about, say, the struggle of 19th C industrial workers, or about a suffragette (like the one about Emily Wilding Davidson) and ultimately, because of Them and uz about MY parents, MY childhood.

My signed copy of The school of eloquence is arguably my most treasured possession (family not included). So. Thank you Tony Harrison for a Sunday afternoon and for 50 years of poetry that’s unafraid of of rhetorical passion, craftsmanship, and bursting with humanity. We’ve never needed you more.

 

The male gaze (5) Innocent bystanders

Last in the series, you’ll be pleased to hear. Guest poets coming up very shortly. I’m off to listen to Tony Harrison in Leeds on Sunday, so the next post may be delayed. We’ll see.

I’ve been putting this post off, because it’s about poems and paintings that elect to deal with women who it’s difficult to think of as anything but victims, not just in the narratives, but in the subsequent treatment of those narratives.

Ophelia, first. She’s always troubled me…and particularly so when I once directed  Hamlet as a school play. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that though I like working with Shakespeare texts, and their multilayered subtexts, the sad fact is that there are a lot more male than female parts, and we used to get a lot more talented young actresses auditioning than there were parts for them. This led us plan for four performances, and in the case of Hamlet, for instancewe’d have an almost exclusively female group of travelling players, plus two Ophelias and two Gertrudes, who would play alternate shows. It was intriguing how this shifted the dynamic in the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, depending on how each young actress saw her. Because it’s possible to pick up a bit of defiance and feistiness in Ophelia’s first exchange with her brother; or a learned obedience. You takes your pick.

Objectively though, her first appearance is with her pompous brother who gives her a lecture about ‘Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour’. Her belief in the possibility of Hamlet’s genuine affection is brusquely dismissed. Hard on the heels of Laertes comes Polonius, that moralising old bore of a father, pooh-poohing ‘these tenders of affection’ Affection seems to be in pretty short supply as far as Ophelia’s concerned. Still she sends all Hamlet’s love-letters and tokens back. The time compression of the play means that almost instantly, but off-stage, Hamlet turns up in her room, apparently deranged. He’s just had a chat with the ghost of his father, but she’s not to know that. Alas, my lord, she tells her father, I have been so affrighted. And so she has.

And her father’s response? Off to Claudius to set up a nasty bit of eavesdropping. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ he decides, and we’ll hide and see what happens. Every time we see her she’s badgered and lectured, and now she’s disgustingly manipulated. Never mind she’s been terrified by Hamlet, and now she’s sent as bait in a trap. I’ve always believed that Hamlet has sussed this. Where’s your father? He asks. Hiding behind the arras, getting a taste for it, is the answer. And later, hiding behind another, he’s killed by Hamlet for his pains.

The next time she appears, Ophelia is deranged, distressed and talking Shakespearean not-as-mad-as-it-seems doggerel about flowers. Then off she goes to fall, (off-stage) by accident, as a willow bough gives way, into a weeping brook, incapable of her own distress. And there she floats, singing for a while, and drowns.

The thing is, this is the bit that seems to fascinate 19thC painters; this scene, described in graphic detail by Gertrude, and no other scene at all. I started off these musings by referencing John Berger, and his analysis of the way in which “Art” was re-appropriated for a particular class after its democratisation by photographic reproduction. The trick was to make it seem inaccessible via the mystifications of language, and in the case of Millais’ Ophelia , by chopping her up into little components, a bit like the images at the start of the post. Stuff like this:

By veiling the emotional significance of Ophelia’s death with a profuse veneer of detail, Millais privileged surface effect over content and divested the literary heroine of her traditional emotive impact in favor of a sensationalistic style. Millais thus created a crisis of sorts in literary illustration that allowed the painter power to skew conventional readings of female characters like Ophelia from one indicative of virtue to one of transgression, perversity, and decadence. The irony is that Millais did this by being quite literal in his depiction of Ophelia’s death, rendering the entire text rather than a portion of it. Traversing Shakespeare’s text from beginning to end, one finds Millais adhering strictly to his source: a willow branch arches over the brook and Ophelia’s head; flowers of the type mentioned in Gertrude’s monologue either grow on the bank or float in the water; her white embroidered and beaded dress spreads into a bell as she sinks; and her mouth is agape to indicate singing.”

Kimberly Rhodes, Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1988), 87, 90.

Or this:

The unstated lesson of Ophelia’s tragedy was that a woman’s fate is determined by the men in her life. Without male guidance or a male object of devotion, Ophelia was lost and helpless. That female independence could precipitate insanity was supported by ‘scientific’ research….The research of Jean-Martin Charcot – father of psychopathology and teacher of Freud – into the female ‘malade’ of hysteron-epilepsy, conducted during the 1870s, supported the myth of inherent female irrationality, especially among young, unmarried women….To citizens of the late nineteenth century, Ophelia represented the fate of single women driven over the brink by circumstances that men would normally overcome and epitomized an erroneous, if widely accepted, link between gender and insanity.”

Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 123-4

Let’s chuck in this backstory:

Ophelia was modelled by artist and muse Lizzie Siddal, then 19 years old. Millais had Siddal lie fully clothed in a full bathtub in his studio at 7 Gower St. in London. As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses. According to Millais’ son, he eventually accepted a lower sum.

….and Ophelia, as a living breathing human being is left behind in a dust of words. It bothered me and bothered me, and then at some point in a writing workshop I find myself imagining her, through this haze of stage productions, A level essays, art criticism and what have you. This is what I wrote.

One day

 I may grow fey, muddy-footed,

tangle-haired, caught up with goose-grass,

burrs, dandelion clocks, shepherd’s purse.

 

I’ll bite the ends of my hair,

tie loose knots of it across my eyes,

tug at elf-locks, thrash docks

 

and nettles with an elderberry switch,

puddle the river’s edges, kick

rotting branches, trouble frogs,

 

sing to water voles, pick blackberries –

hard and green, portwine, plum;

spit their bitterness out.

 

I shall wear bewilderment like a child

in a grown-up dress, trespass

among dog-roses, meadowsweet,

 

trespass among flag iris, marsh marigold,

trespass among the slow brown waters.

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Male gaze? I think so. And who comes into my mind? Yes….John Waterhouse and Miss Muriel Foster. Is it right to ‘envoice’ someone who’s presented over and again as a helpless victim without colluding in one way or another in the assumption. What was I thinking? I’ll ask the same question about one more poem, in this case, one about Echo, that much abused mythic character, the victim of the characteristic small-minded spite and cruelty of the classic pantheon. This one ended up as a kind of dialogue or interrogation, though I’m still not sure that it isn’t completely internal. I know it was skewed by yet another 19th C painting..by Alexandre Cabanal; pretty horrible it is, too. What was it about that pose of raised-hand surrender and vulnerability, plus several yards of gauze. What went on in their heads?

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Branks                     

 

In my cool room

I left that bracelet of fine silver

hung with amethysts, but it wouldn’t do

 

somewhere among the colonnades

you left your soft scarlet sandals,

at the gates, you loosed the clasp of pearls from your neck,

you cut off your hair, its living weight, in the avenue of laurels,

on the hot road you threw down your girdle, rings, your linen shift

 

I would have left my nails, my skin

anything to keep the telling of myself

 

they left it all in the dust

 

they pulled words

like teeth from your mouth

and left you dumb to tell your self,

alone in the crack of stone

in whispered frost

 

wrapped in cast-off language

unravelling

in bits of syllables falling

leaves in a well

saying nothing again

and again saying nothing

that is mine or might have been me

 

this is all in your head

 

I say stonefall

I say buzzard

I say sleet

 

you will say your name

if they call

Echo

 

oh I cannot be silent

 

I can say nothing

thing

 

(Should you wonder, a branks was also called a ‘scolds bridle’…essentially a gag of metal and leather. Tony Harrison uses it in a wonderful phrase the branks of condescension, by which the labouring classes are silenced)

There we are. To my relief and yours we come to the end of this sequence, and normal service will shortly be resumed. Thank you for your patience and attention, and especial thanks to those of you who’ve commented, here and also on Facebook.

 

The male gaze (4) “Envoicing”

Two more posts in this sequence…just in case you’re thinking the line will stretch out to the crack of doom. And it keeps me busy while I wait for stuff that’s in the pipeline from a bunch of new guest poems.

I was reminded on Wednesday night about why it’s important to keep on teasing out the issues. Driving back late-ish from a great night at The Puzzle Poets Live, chatting away to Laura Potts who just goes on and on winning prizes and plaudits. At some point we got on to the subject of what had been one of my favourite poems as a teenager. I was talking about how important time seems to be when you acknowledge you’re running out of it. Time’s winged chariot / deserts of vast eternityTo his Coy Mistress. 

Taken aback when Laura told me that she thought it was a poem with a horrible message…and quoted the bit about worms shall try /that long-preserved virginity. Which gave me a well-deserved jolt, because I realised that somehow I’d always managed to edit that out. Woah!! A valuable lesson.

What I’d thought, at 16, a sardonic, playful (and possibly tongue-in-cheek) piece of seduction, a poem shared between equals, was from another viewpoint calculating, cynical and misogynistic. Shifted me right out of my comfort zone, and quite right too. Which is why I’ll go on a bit longer with this process of asking questions about poems I’ve written.

Right; onwards and hopefully upwards. Poet Pam Thompson wrote a really interesting comment on the last post, describing what I was doing with some of the poems was “envoicing”. I was much taken by the idea, conflating it, I suppose, with Robert MacFarlane’s idea of “en-chantment”….that is to bring into being, or to call up, by language. I’d always thought of the business of dramatic monologues as ‘ventriloquism’, but envoicing seems much more an act of imaginative invention. I’ve written before about what brought me into it. Basically, I was looking to break out of my own ‘voice’ and its way of seeing, and what unlocked the door was Carole Ann Duffy’s The world’s wife. An absolute revolution at the time, to me, ‘envoicing’ all those female voices in a series of revisionist versions of myth and legend. Eventually it lead me to finding voices for a whole range of sculpted figures…the angel of the North, Epstein’s St. Michael,  Rodin’s kissing lovers, one of Anthony Gormley’s figures on Crosby Sands, and so on. But the first  project, which produced a lot less than I thought it might, was to explore the relationship between the late Victorian painter, John Waterhouse, and his (supposed) favourite model.

 

 

I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. While I’ve been worrying away at this business of the male and the female gaze, I’ve revisited the poems, and I’m not sure what I feel about them any more.

Take the case of the envoicing of Muriel Foster. As far as the most reliable researcher could make out she was probably the daughter of a bourgeouis Quaker family who were friends of the Waterhouses. Bear in mind that Waterhouse himself was trained in a tradition that taught figure painting from statues, rather than from living models, and yet from the age of about 15, Muriel Foster ‘sat’ for him in painting after painting, right up to his death in 1915/16. She had trained as a nurse in the late 1890s, (bear in mind it took Florence Nightingale to turn it into a respectable profession) and she died, aged 90, in a nursing home in St. Leonards on Sea. I wondered and wondered how she could have come to model for this eminently respectable and successful painter. It seemed to me that the only way I could ‘get at it’ was to imagine her much older, reflecting on her own story. I still find it baffling, but here’s the poem I wrote after a long and painful process.

 

 

 

Miss Muriel Foster

He asked if he might do a pencil sketch;

a simple head and shoulders;

said my hair would grace ‘his mermaid’;

told me of a vision of combed silk,

of autumn-umber leaves against white skin,

a sea impossibly green and cold,

irridescent scales, warm flesh….

and it seemed that I could hear the mermaid’s song

and that I sang it.

So,suddenly, I said I’d sit for him. Unclothed.

That’s how things came to be. That first time.

 

You know ‘The water babies’? Yes?

You see, I thought that as a waterchild,

like Tom, or Ellie, I would be unafraid –

– no unaware – of nakedness. So, I imagined

high grey crags, sweet turf, the limestone beck,

and how poor Tom, so hot and trammelled

became so cool and clean. So, simply done.

How to put it? All was loose and lovely.

 

Stillness? Quiet? I’d always loved the Meeting’s

silences. And, oh, his eyes were grave

and serious. I think I never felt so much

myself before. I think I never felt so real.

 

So many sittings, so much peace. Such dreams.

So many stories in that steady gaze.

He transfigured me; I was Danae

inaccessible in a tower until Zeus came

in a shower of gold.. and so was set adrift…

Naiad, dryad, temptress, nymph, Ophelia;

so many lives he drew for me to live

in his quiet studio; or even, by a river bank,

La belle dame sans merci; my kneeling knight

in all his heraldry, his armour softly gleaming,

and the air starred with flowers, a heart on my sleeve,

my living hair ensnaring him, there in the dark copse,

and I pulling him close, and his eyes so dark.

Oh my.

 

In all those years among the weak, the hurt

along the wards,soiled dressings,

starch and metal, antiseptic air, I knew

that there were always other worlds

that only he and I could make.

 

The last work that I did for him

was never finished.The Enchanted Garden.

There I stoop to prove

the scent of one pale rose.

Never kissed his living face.

 

He was my Hylas, and I, desire multipled.

See how he painted me. Each nymph

wears a flower in her hair,

but I the only one to wear a rose.

The one who holds his hand, who clasps his arm,

is me. Or who I used to be.

I seem to imagine her, not sentimental exactly, but still puzzled by her own innocence. Which raises a lot of issues, I suppose. You’ll let me know, I hope. Esther Waterhouse, the artist’s wife, seemed less difficult at the time. Some 10 years his junior, she had been a watercolourist, but apparently gave up exhibiting after their marriage. In the years following his death she was increasingly in financial difficulty, having to sell their home. Cared for at some time by relatives ,she died in a nursing home in 1944. My starting point was the one portrait that Waterhouse painted of her, in a style quite unlike any of his meticulous pictures of, say, The Lady of Shallot. What would she have made of it? (I like it a lot..I like the textured painterliness of it, the energy, the vitality).

ophelia 6

Esther Waterhouse

See me,a brown patch.

No expense wasted here.

Don’t talk to me about the avant garde,

about  advances, fashions;

this is how he sees me: brown, trowelled.

 

Where’s the sensitivity? the sables?

softness of touch? the gleam of subtly considered skin?

expensive pigment? translucent lakes?

This is plastering.

Where are the coppiced stems? the salt shores?

the limpid pools? the dog roses? gentle petals

like the skin of babies that we never had?

Why the mud, the shale, the clay?

Why this drab suttee? Why lay me in this murk,

this dark laminate, this clotted earth?

 

And now I’ve read his last confession.

Tell me. Should I laugh or cry?

Be numb; or bitter; sour; an unripe thing?

What am I left with now?

His house. His dog. This portrait.

Not enough to live on,

and canvasses that no-one wants to buy.

I read The Times obit. again,

that condescension, damning with faint praise.

They judge his work ‘agreeable’,

consider that ‘he never quite found himself’.

Let me beg to differ, now I’ve found

the man I thought I knew.

I’ll burn it all. The letters, private diaries.

I’ll not be mocked or pitied.

My questions all are answered here,

and now I know. I think I always knew.

I’ll leave nothing. No.

All this can go into the fire.

 

I’ll leave you to imagine that ‘confession’ which is sort-of-made in the poem I wrote in his voice, as he contemplates his own death. All the three poems are in Outlaws and Fallen Angels. I’m always happy to sell anyone a copy. See My books via the menu at the top of the post. In the meantime, are these ‘envoicings’ in Pam Thompson’s terms, or just clumsy examples of ‘the male gaze’ ?

Just one post in this sequence, when I’ll look at two female ‘victim’ figures. See you then