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Friday, 4 September 2015

Claudine Toutoungi on John Clegg's "Lacklight"

Lacklight by John Clegg

At first we didn’t call the dark ‘the dark’;
we saw it as a kind of ersatz light,
a soupy substitute which shucked the hems
and wrinkles from our objects. That was nice.

And later on we came to love the dark
For what it really was –admired how
(unlike a candle) it could fill a room,
(unlike a torch) it focused everywhere,

(unlike a streetlamp) it undid the moths,
(unlike a porchlight) anywhere was home,
(unlike a star) it couldn’t be our scale.
In utter darkness, we were halfway down.

Then came the age of lacklight, loss of measure,
darkness turned inside to cast a darkness
on itself. Though ‘age’ would make it finite.
Perhaps we’re stuck there, straining in the lacklight.

Still, across the last however long,
I’ve noticed something budding, vaguely sensed
a nerve untie and reconnect itself.
I think my lacklight eye is almost open.

from New Poetries VI © John Clegg

I need to confess that I am little obsessed with this poem. I have been saying it to friends and acquaintances  – really anyone who passes through my kitchen long enough to hear it – and enjoying saying it enormously for a while now. This is partly due to the poem’s devilish simplicity. Phrases such as, ‘That was nice,’ and ‘..we came to love the dark’ are disarmingly pleasing to utter, as is the term ‘lacklight’ itself, with its playful echoes of lacklustre and lackadaisical. And yet there is nothing simple at all about this poem, which is why it has me in its grip.

One of its complex aspects is that from the outset we are made complicit with the speaker. The fact that darkness is being rebranded first as ‘ersatz light’, then as the invented term ‘lacklight, in a manner that calls to mind Orwellian doublespeak, is not a state of affairs outside forces have inflicted on us. We chose this. That ‘we’ rings out three times in the first two stanzas and so Clegg embroils us all in the murk, deftly evoking how self-delusion gains collective momentum in a society that’s ‘halfway down’. Clegg establishes a terrifyingly topsy-turvy world in which an Emperor’s New Clothes-like conspiracy exists, one where darkness gains plaudits and light none at all.   

And the plaudits are so persuasive! Of course a candle or a torch’s force is only partial, whereas darkness is total. Of course darkness provides universal cover and offers to even out differences in status. It’s startling how the neat syntax and assured repetitions of the bracketed phrases so easily convince us of their authority. We are swept along from the second stanza into the third with a delicious sense of certainty until, abruptly, we are brought up short by: ‘In utter darkness, we were halfway down’, and are floored. What does ‘halfway down’ signify? Inertia? Hell? Moral turpitude? Existential angst? Your guess is as good as mine, but wherever or whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go there.

Except, devastatingly, Clegg’s last two stanzas seem to suggest we already are there. Gone are the oh-so-carefully balanced phrases of earlier. In their place exists only confusion, disruption ‘loss of measure’, conveyed in the horrifying line: ‘darkness turned inside to cast a darkness/on itself.’ The deliberately cumbersome enjambment, the fact that now the ‘we’ has become querulous and questioning, ‘Perhaps we’re stuck there’– all serve to unsettle us deeply.

Is there hope? Maybe a shred. On the one hand, the speaker, by the last stanza is freed from the ‘we’ of earlier verses, which might foreshadow a moment of individual clarity. But just as we contemplate this possibility, Clegg undermines it. For the speaker here seems less clear than ever before. They can’t be definite about time (‘however long’). They can’t be certain about what’s going on with their own body (‘vaguely sensed’). The last line begins not with a confident assertion but a hypothesis (‘I think’) Might the speaker simply be more alone, more self-deluded than ever before? Clegg is, in this ending, masterfully ambiguous, ceding control of the narrative to a body part; the eye. I’m a little squeamish about eyes and never more so than in Clegg’s near-final image, conjured with exquisite economy, which has ‘a nerve untie and reconnect itself’. It is the speaker’s eye, acting semi-independently of its owner, that seems to be adapting to the gloom. There are overtones here of mutation, even of synthetic alteration. The effect is destabilizing. Yet, adaptation and resilience are good things, surely? There’s no neat conclusion here – the poem evades simplistic moralising at all costs, but Clegg’s final line is still indubitably ominous: ‘I think my lacklight eye is almost open’.  What will happen when the eye does open? Will the speaker be enlightened or more lost than ever? We don’t know. But the way in which the term ‘lacklight’ has crept into the line itself suggests we should be on our guard.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Joey Connolly on Ben Rogers' "Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation"

Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation by Ben Rogers

The sort of plant someone might grip a name on, a name 

lodged on a bath’s corner ledge. A trickle from the pot, 
shot with loam. Each leaf is an open hand with gaps 
between the fingers, which imply a loose hold on money, 
and which could connect to having a blank with names. 
A name that doesn’t make you think of cheese. The plant 
is a disorder that hangs over you, a shadow over a sheet 
of water you cannot name, a shade you associate with
the metallic weight of regret. In the mirror, your face
has a tug to it you don’t want to name. There’s a folly
to the multi feather-duster effect that the fronds have

as your father parades the plant down the hall on a plate 
whose pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name.
The plant has achieved a size where it can no longer perch 

and has been delivered to a new home behind the television, 
there being no name like home. The television is in the room 
named the living room, to distinguish it from the other 
rooms. The fire reaches out to feather the guard. If the fire 
were solid you’d name it a bed of thorns. Your mother
prods for a new channel, but before she does the news 
broadcaster with a name you can’t name announces
the death of a name you can’t name who appeared in a show 

with a name you can’t name. The leaves reach out to smother 
the television. The carpet’s name is soft earth, the wallpaper’s 
name is mountain slate, the ceiling’s name is a heart turned
to ice. The next trivia question in order to win a slice
named a cheese is to name the plant in the corner. Another 

time, the plant there will be named a Norwegian spruce.
The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up
and danger. This time though, the plant is unnameable.

Your parents have left the room, and you are left on the sofa 
with your name, a word that reflects you but you see
through. A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse. You imagine 

the plant will move again, and in years to come will plunge
its many feet into hills spun with pine and flint. Returning 

again to your name, it’s not your name any more, and doesn’t 
even taste like a name, let alone name like a name. 

from New Poetries VI © Ben Rogers

There are still other made-up countries
Where we can hide forever,
Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,
Sucking the sherberts, crooning the tunes, naming the names.
                               John Ashbery, ‘Hop o’ My Thumb’

*Click on the image above to enlarge it

‘Monstera Deliciosa’ is the name of a plant, also called the ‘Swiss-cheese plant’ because of the holes in its leaves; it’s defined by the gaps in it. ‘Semantic satiation’ is the name of that thing where you hear a word so many times it becomes meaningless. ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. But it’s also true to say that ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is the name of a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. The words, weirdly, seem to be both the name of the thing and the thing itself.

This is a poem obsessed with names, and the activity of naming. Naming, I think, is the delicious monster of the poetry world; it’s the violence poets can’t help but do to the world as they obsessively describe and redescribe – name and rename – the objects around and inside them, as they project themselves, sometimes forcefully, onto the world. Its deliciousness is the beauty and the power it can hold; its monstrousness is in its rapacious processing of phenomena and experience into something else, something somehow usable.

In the poem, Ben Rogers is mounts a full scale expedition around the different things that names can do. By the time we reach the second line we’ve had two possible models of names: they can be things to be ‘gripped onto’ objects, separate-to but joined-with. Alternatively, names can stand in for things: the plant’s name, rather than the plant, ending up on the bath’s corner ledge. Because this is a poem: it can’t have things in, it can only have the names of things. This goes on – the poem cycles through loads of cool ideas relating to how names work, but we don’t have time to discuss them all now. I’ll just skip to my favourite bit, which is this: ‘The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up / and danger.’ With the brilliantly placed line-break, what seemed to be a clever and entertaining poem about words snaps complexly into something a lot more emotionally involved.

Windows represent the point at which the outside world is made present and accessible, and for the narrator of this poem, that outside, external world represents danger. Suddenly, the obsession with replacing objects with their names makes sense as a defense mechanism. To conceive of language as replacing the world, rather than as being a window onto it – a way of looking at it – is a way of pushing away the terrifying chaos and disorder of the noumenal, inhuman world of things-in-themselves. The monsters of the too-real world are tamed by naming them. It’s the oldest spell in the book.

And taming is necessary; the window has sprouted four names (note it’s the ‘window’s names’ and not the ‘windows’ names’) which conjures some weird and unsustainable proliferation of designations, like cells dividing too rapidly, and of the same order of creepiness as what we feel when plants grow too fast, the natural world as implacable and voracious. Nature – by standing in opposition to the human – is often a potent symbol of otherness; think of Heart of Darkness, or of the thistles and bulls in Ted Hughes (or nature in all its narrative-shucking glory in Sarah Lindsay’s Debt to the Bone-eating Snotflower).

‘This time, though, the plant is unnameable.’ By now, the plant can’t be contained by its verbal packaging; for a narrator trying with increasing desperation to block-out the exterior world with a wall of words, this is catastrophic. ‘Your parents have left the room’ – some kind of grounding locus of authority is suddenly absent – ‘and you are left on the sofa, / with your name.’ At this point, the narrator is exposed to his own survival strategy, and becomes vulnerable to being neutered into language in exactly the same way as the rest of the world has – for security – been. The narrator’s name is ‘A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse’; there is no nourishment here, only a brittle fragility. The poem ends when ‘your name … doesn’t … name like a name.’ The poem, by this point, has reached the point of semantic satiation; the word ‘name’ stops making sense. This isn’t a stylistic or formal nicety, though: the poem stops here because it literally can’t go any further. It’s obsessed with names, and now they’ve stopped naming things, there’s nothing left.

Again, though, I get the impression that there’s a human psychodrama taking place here, and not just linguistic trickery. Even apart from that danger associated with the external world, there are numerous ominous reachings in this poem; there is ‘a disorder that hangs over you’ (‘disorder’ as chaos, as a lack of order, but also as implicative of a psychiatric disorder); there’s the ‘pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name’; the way the ‘fire reaches out to feather the guard’ and the ‘leaves reach out to smother the television’. This is a world in which mental stability is constantly under threat from the reaching out of one thing into another. Boundaries are scarily permeable, and neat languagey categories are wont to break down. There’s a huge desire for the safety of pure solipsism, with those dangerous windows bricked up. If, as Wittgenstein wanted to argue, language is the only way out from the crushing loneliness of existential solipsism, then when names and words fail – become meaningless with semantic satiation – we’re left in a very lonely place indeed. Ben’s poem, with great humour and wit, sketches this dry quandary into a plush technicolour.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Our writers read!

"I'll calm down when you tell me where I can get the latest Paul Muldoon title!"

Welcome to 'Our writers read', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.

We asked New Poetries VI contributors, "Which book of poetry published in the last decade is most often on your bedside table?"

Joey Connolly: Ooga Booga by Frederick Seidel is probably the most persistent offender. In several senses. But if I'm allowed to equivocate then I wouldn't rule out Jen Hadfield's Nigh-no-place or Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation either.

Adam Crothers: There have been some hefty and valuable Collecteds published in the last decade, and I suspect that Ciaran Carsons and Frederick Seidels have spent more time in my unruly stack (on my bedside table) than any slim volume. But Im interpreting the question as referring to discrete books of new poems by single authors, and so the correct answer is likely to be Paul Muldoons Horse Latitudes (Faber and Faber, 2006). I started reading him sometime after the 2002 publication of Moy Sand and Gravel, making Horse Latitudes the first new Muldoon I bought. And its publication coincided with the beginning of a doctoral dissertation in which he would feature prominently. So, even if one disagrees (as one should) with the occasional suggestion that my poems are overly indebted to this wonderful writer, it may not be surprising that Ive spent a long time with this book. The image on the Faber hardcovers dust jacket  George Stubbss Mares and Foals without a Background, c.1762  is the image I most strongly associate with Muldoons poetry and indeed with my efforts to say interesting things about it. Its far from an easy collection, and looking at it now for the first time in a while makes it clear that we need to become reacquainted: everything, one poem says of Bob Dylan but could say as accurately of its author, seems to fall within his range, and as such Horse Latitudes is not a book to be thrown overboard. I doubt Ill outlive its usefulness.

Caoilinn Hughes: Don Paterson's Rain

J. Kates: Poetry published in the last decade is very seldom on my bedside table, where I prefer classics — right now (I know it’s boring, but true) reading through Shakespeare once again —  but books of contemporary poetry are always beside my seat in the Little Room, where right now Robert Gray’s Cumulus holds pride of place.

Nyla Matuk: Maureen McLane’s This Blue, Don Coles’ Where We Might Have Been, Lavinia Greenlaw’s 2003 book, Minsk, and Annie Freud’s The Mirabelles.

Lesley Saunders: I've two books that have become pretty much indispensable and they're like mirror images of each other. Anne Carson's Decreation (2006) and Medbh McGuckian's My Love Has Fared Inland (2008) are constant reminders for me of what can be accomplished with and through and in language. McGuckian plays with grammar and semantics, twists meanings and sense, in the service of psychological / spiritual clarity — her poems are like persons with whom she is having an intense dialogue; whilst Carson deploys an apparently straightforward quasi-colloquial register, mouthed by a series of ironic personae, to express difficult and often very dark emotions / experiences.  Whenever I feel my own language is becoming clagged or clichéd, I turn to them.

Claudine Toutoungi: The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog by Alicia Ostriker.

Rebecca Watts: If I may extend the decade just a little: Jacob Polley's The Brink (2003).

Friday, 7 August 2015

Adam Crothers on Eric Langley's "Glanced"

Glanced by Eric Langley


You lovely looker on and by and by and. 
One-eyed Cupid, locked, cocks, and shot

Zeno’s arrow at Zeuxis’ grapes. 
Shaft straight. The pointed

parabola arced its homeward hoops on its 
wondering way through loop and loop

towards my eye’s apple; its
projectory now arches down to heel to hit

or miss, may kiss the head or glance off 
on bow bend or twisted thread.

My flighted hope: that bird cracks glass, and tumblers 
beakers breaks on painted grapes

on picture plane or bounce back 
deflected, as mote on float

no overlook, from then to now, as now 
and tip touches now, and now, and when

reflected. Map the rebound cause 
I am sore astound and all amazed,

while flecks dart and seeds quiver
quiver while the heavy freighted interim

by half by half by half. 

Split hairs or ends or seconds now sub-divide 
by half and half, as hare’s breath

on tortoise’s collar falls and arrow 
tip elbows each atom aside

to side or sneaks contracted 
kiss, a peak, a contact passing

charge in the charge in the change 
from Z to thee kinetic.


Keep lovely looking on and over 
looking keep looking till

your lead tip punctures what, back then, was 
walnut, poppy, hemp, pine and olive; then

a resinous gloss, of Paris Green, 
of arsenic, of mercuric sulphide;

then, later, oglio cotto, honied 
lead oxide; then beeswax;

now, bladder-pod, ironweed, calendula, 
sandmat, in slow drying strata

of alpha-linolenic, brittle as it brakes,
of crisp linoleic, of still wet oleic acid, still wet. 

Then warp canvas warped. 
Then wall.


So keep on lovely looking on,
no overlook, from then to now, as now 

the paste-board splits
dry eye and true to touch 

and peck hits home and
and each grape breaks and

tortoise tumbles down hap with hare
and tip touches now, and now, and when 

and then just so, soothed through 
freeze frame and bending glass,

each hot pigment shot and then and then, 
keep lovely looking till.

So glancing blown by, 
so palpably hit away, so

keep so lovely looking still 
keep lovely looking till

until each hungry bird 
has flown and had his fill.
from New Poetries VI © Eric Langley

How often, when reading anothers work, does a poet think: I wish Id written that’? Im surprised at how rarely I do. There's plenty of wishing to have the Others general abstracted skill, wit, intelligence, authority; and often a specific image or rhyme will be so triumphantly new and right that I feel some professional envy at that individual deal having been so decisively closed by somebody who was not and is not me. But these responses are, I think, essentially readerly responses experienced via writerly self-regard: being impressed by the poem, first, and then wanting (a very close second) to be similarly impressive.

Reading Eric Langley, however, provokes in me what feels like a writerly response, one poised between those two. The word craft is complicatedly freighted: many poems have died for lack of it, and yet to identify it in a poets work can be to accuse that poet of mere box-checking competence. Yet in Langleys poems craft is a verb, crafting the identifiable phenomenon. To feel that one is witnessing in detail a compositional process, a series of moments clicking together into a triumph, is to feel tantalisingly close to being the composer; the consequent sense of falling short, I suggest, gives rise to the desire to have authored the poem, to have had the satisfaction of that full experience.

Satisfaction is the aim and the subject of Langleys Glanced. Its core image is of a projectile launched at a painting, but not just any painting, or indeed any projectile. One-eyed Cupid, locked, cocks, and shot || Zenos arrow at Zeuxis grapes. The arrow that will never reach its target because it must travel an infinity of ever-smaller distances along the way; the two-dimensional painted grapes convincing enough to fool hungry birds of course Cupid would come to mind. In the first section, the arrow is fired; in the third, it thrillingly, impossibly, hits, and yet is hit away, glances off, another volley apparently required.

The middle section sees Langley catalogue the raw material of the target, the painting: bladder-pod, ironweed, calendula, | sandmat’… Ingredient and procedure are much on his mind, and this may be what prompts me to think along similar lines in my response to this poem. To engage in a full reading would be a pleasure, but a lengthy one; it will have to suffice here to speak of the constant fizz and zap of repetition and tiny variation, the poem embodying the phenomena it identifies: while flecks dart and seeds quiver | quiver; charge in the charge in the change; tip touches now, and now, and when || and then just so. Logic, acoustics, erotics: love poems, of which this is a jealous one, know that these are not discrete fields of study.

We are aware that through parody of reasoning the arrow cannot reach the grapes, cannot cover the space between the poems beginning and end or even the space between couplets; and we know that even if it did, those flat and artificial grapes would give no wine. Ceci nest pas un grain de raisin. Nor indeed would the painting give up each hot pigment as a separate part: but Langleys slowing and assessing of time and tone allows the reader to entertain the possibilities, to see that the set and frozen moment or colour is, when angled correctly, anything but. When MacNeice writes Everything wrong has been proved in Autumn Journal, he is movingly speaking in defiance of proof; Langley, just as movingly, speaks in its favour, persuading the reader that, in a manner of speaking, something commonsensically wrong can be shown as aesthetically right, emotionally accurate. Perhaps the notion that Cupids arrow might never satisfactorily hit its mark, and that the mark is anyway not as it seems, is as true as the notion that a painting is made of mere pigments, a poem of mere syllables; and perhaps this is all okay, or better than, with no need to pretend that matters are otherwise.

Many great poems seem more than the apparent sum of their parts. I find Eric Langley exciting because his poems as wholes are precisely made up of their visible or audible pieces, and because theres pride in every cog and switch and pin, every stress and rhyme and repetition boldly displayed. (The marvel at mechanism in Vaucansons Duck is itself a marvel.) Its like watching Penn and Teller or Derren Brown explain a magic trick: I believe Ive seen exactly how it's done, but I still don't know how they managed it, and I wish I'd done it because then maybe I'd understand. As it lies, I am sore astound and all amazed.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Our readers write

George Herbert's meat-tasting face

Welcome to 'Our readers write', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.

We asked New Poetries VI contributors to fill in the blanks:
If ________ were alive today, he/she'd be outraged/entertained by _________. 

Adam CrothersIf George Herbert were alive today, he'd be outraged by the suggestion that in order to innovate properly he should abandon, not redouble, his pursuit of metre and rhyme.

Nyla MatukI would introduce William Carlos Williams to the artist Tracey Emin’s installation, “My Bed.” He might appreciate it as a thing-in-itself.

Lesley SaundersIf Sappho were alive today, she'd be entertained (and probably delighted) by how much her poetry is still being read and enjoyed, especially considering how little of it survives. According to the Daily Telegraph (January 2014), a newly-discovered fragment of her poetry was 'even more exciting than a new album by David Bowie'. And you can even listen to a reconstruction of how the only complete extant poem of hers sounded

David TroupesIf Emily Dickinson were alive today, she'd be all about anonymous blogging.

Rebecca WattsIf Wordsworth were alive today, he'd be outraged by how out of tune we are with reality. In a well-known sonnet he laments the widespread inattentiveness to Nature (his capital) among a recently industrialised populace fixated on the 'worldly' actions of 'getting and spending'. Ironically, what he called 'nature' we might call 'the world', which today (at least in those parts lucky enough to be free from attention-demanding natural disasters) is generally ignored in favour of a virtual realm, where screens, headphones and social media platforms deliver on demand the proxy sensory and emotional experiences that so convincingly resemble meaningful interactions. While I don't believe collective human experience would be improved by us all spending our days rambling in the Lake District, exclaiming whenever we happened upon a nice flower, might there be some fruitful middle ground between Wordsworth's privileged position and iPhone-induced oblivion? No doubt if Philip Larkin were alive today he'd offer up some sensible suggestions.

Monday, 3 August 2015

John Clegg on Alex Wong's "The Landowner"

The Landowner by Alex Wong

Rambler, direct your care 
     To this magnificent gift.
Dare, rambler, to make durable those views.

     ——More trust, more debit.—— 
Lest the day come to see all trust is up, 
Learn to speak newly over nature; build 
Fresh castles for your chances to enjoy.
    Make chiffchaffs pay to find a way 
Within, from a world not edified since Eden.

Hear in the song not only expressive bird,
But a history in your tongue, to beat the bounds. 
As a child skims the ways of ideal gardens, 
     So can you then,      so have you those
Adventures to go on with, grounds
Possible to their keepers;—outworks, follies. 
from New Poetries VI © Alex Wong

One of the most substantial postwar changes to the English landscape was surely the passing of the majority of country houses from private hands: and this change has, I think, been slow to register in English poetry. Perhaps the difficulty has been the same as that which affects the casual visitor to these properties: the ambivalence between what was best and worst of the old system, how these estates are simultaneously a temple to conspicuous consumption and an English vision of prelapsarian order. (However far removed the latter concept is from our conscious sympathies, it must be part of what we imaginatively access when we appreciate, say, Austen.)  

This ambivalence is what animates Alex Wong’s ‘The Landowner’. The poem’s key word, ‘trust’, is freighted with it; the National Trust, of course, is the titular ‘landowner’ (as we know from ‘magnificent gift’, the language of brochures and panegyrics), and the financial sense of ‘trust’ is constantly foregrounded (‘magnificent gift’, ‘more debit’, ‘pay to find a way’). But at the same time, we are being shown Eden – another ‘ideal garden’ held in trust by a distant yet omnipresent landowner, in which we must ‘speak newly over nature’. The chiffchaff, I think, is emblematic of Eden because of its onomatopoeic designation: Eden being for Wong, as for other poets, the place where every object receives its single correct name. And Eden is, also, the Platonic image of the poem possible in language, towards which our duties are those of a caretaker’s or visitor’s towards a great house: ‘to beat the bounds’ (of language, of the estate), ‘to make durable’, ‘to direct [our] care’.

The pun on ‘grounds’ – both the reasons and the land in which a poem must be rooted – is beautifully handled, and in ‘keepers’ there is, perhaps, an echo of another Bible story, Tyndale’s translation of Cain’s question to God. The Eden invoked by the poem is treacherous and unstable (the ‘fresh castles’ are, surely, castles in the air); the resulting poem may turn out to be a ‘folly’, an unwisely nostalgic recreation of something already ruined; or alternatively an ‘outwork’, a working-out. ‘The Landowner’, I think, is the sort of poem that works something out, a poem which, remarkably, listens to its own advice.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Judith Willson on Claudine Toutoungi’s ‘Cats Breakfasting'

Cats Breakfasting by Claudine Toutoungi

after John Craxton’s painting Cretan Cats

The meat of the fish is long gone.
Its smiling bones intersect with the back of a chair, 

laid out pat, one more rung in a stack
and the velvety cats can’t leave it alone.

There’s no word for this in the language of cat,
this pawing furore, vertiginous spitting,
cats here then there, then not here and not there,
a hair’s breadth between them and their skeleton love.

Tails, bones, chair, paw, they are spinning and the picture is 
spinning, as they hiss in their fit, little beasts,
wild for the flesh of it, leaping in tempera strokes, 

implacable button-blue eyes driven so strong
they could lick the egg-yolk from the paint they’re made from. 

from New Poetries VI © Claudine Toutoungi

There is no implied narrative from which to draw out a poem in Craxton’s ‘Cretan Cats’, no human figure from which to conjure a character, not even a landscape to walk the mind through. It suggests nothing very complicated about the artist’s state of mind. It’s just an interplay of hexagonal tiles, a slatted chair, fishbones and a tangled circle of two black cats, all legs and tails and arched backs.

A painting so purely engaged in the pleasures of its own visual qualities might seem to have limited possibilities for exploration in a poem. For much of Craxton’s career, his evident delight in surface, in pattern, colour and the play of Mediterranean sunshine, was considered to have limited possibilities even as painting (‘a hint of the best type of Chelsea restaurant mural’, in one critical put-down that memorably combined spite with snobbery). Craxton had left England in the late 1940s, eventually making his home in Crete, and his postwar paintings sing with the pleasures of the South in glowing yellows, radiant blues, sunbaked greens and ochres. Craxton found his visual language in the clarity of light and sparse landscapes of Crete: ‘Don’t expect to find any perspective in and around the Aegean’, he wrote. Instead, ‘a complicated movement of lines ... dances with a static movement. ... The moment caught from right inside of the form and held with an internal and external pressure.’ Which sounds very like what happens in a poem.

Claudine Toutoungi’s ‘Cats Breakfasting’ is a beautifully lucid and subtle response to this inner structure of Craxton’s work, a poem that both sends the reader to the painting with opened eyes, and is totally of itself, needing no supporting illustration – ‘held with an internal and external pressure’. It is a compellingly visual (and tactile) poem – ‘velvety cats’ have ‘button-blue eyes’, ‘smiling bones’ ‘intersect with the back of a chair, / ... one more rung in a stack’. This is exact and restrained, achieving the illusion of transparency – yes, we can see that configuration of ‘tails, bones, chair, paw’ erupting into a spinning, hissing knot of ‘little beasts’, a ‘pawing furore’ of cats that thread and roll and jump through Toutoungi’s precise lines, a static dance circling around the poem’s midpoint: ‘ cats here and there, then...’.

Then look more closely, and it slips away, like a magic eye image when your stare goes out of focus. That spinning knot isn’t cats: ‘the picture is spinning’ (my italics). Toutoungi has changed everything – we’re spinning, too now, back to the beginning to look again at what we thought we were seeing. ‘The meat of the fish is long gone’, the poem opens: a succession of now-you see-it-now-you-don’t images. The cats are ‘here, then there, then not here and not there’. What did we expect? Real cats?

The poem’s last line explicitly draws us back towards Craxton’s painting, reminding us that these cats are dabs of colour on canvas, and now words on a page. They ‘could lick the egg-yolk from the paint they’re made from’. Craxton painted in egg tempera, but even as Toutoungi dissolves the cats into paint, her poem returns them to us in all their ferocious appetite for life, ‘wild for the flesh of it’, for the nourishing richness of meat, fish, egg yolk, for button-blue and golden yellow. The spinning cats will always be there, always in the moment of leaping out of sight. Claudine Toutoungi makes us see what it is like to look; what art – the poet’s and the painter’s – can do.