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 eternity. To 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.
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).
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