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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Henry King on Janet Kofi-Tsekpo's 'Beucklaer reports from the biblical scene'

Beuckelaer reports from the biblical scene by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo

after four paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer at the National Gallery

1 Water
A thousand fish found stranded in the middle
of a market town have had better days.

Hooked and gutted and sliding over
each other in barrels, they have the eyes

of humans who secretly worship nothing.
Some get a fair bit of attention

as they shimmy along the cobbled stones,
their mouths agape. Traders throw up their hands.

A man with long hair holds up two fingers,
says he knows nothing about it.

2 Air
Singing sea shanties to the empty waters,
half the sailors are longing for their wives;

courtyard women who wring the necks of birds.
They lost their flight some time ago. Talons

are removed from the foot of a falcon
that like a slovenly girl lies featherless

amongst the ordinary poultry, partridges
and guinea-fowl, and other wild game.

3 Fire
What we create are pale imitations;
this meat on the hob, these bodies hanging
over a flame. The fire gently nibbles

the trees of the forest. She lays down
her blanket like a vixen covering
her young. A volcano is just

an adolescent nosebleed, an eruption
that might disturb her parents; make them
wake up and feel the heat of their own making.

4 Earth
As if it had been lifted into the air
and dropped again, the earth
belches something sweet,

shedding and renewing
by mere circumstance
the rotten and the riches,

as we scoop vegetables in their packs
and ignore the cauliflowers, smiling
superfluously like maiden aunts.
from New Poetries V © Janet Kofi-Tsekpo

The internet has many advantages for poetry, not least being blogs like New Poetries, which put poets and their readers in contact. Search engines and online encyclopaedias, too, are invaluable for tracing references and allusions. I often wonder how different the debates about ‘difficulty’ and ‘obscurity’ in modern poetry would have been if the early readers of, say, Pound’s Cantos had been able to look things up online – but of course, there are complex reasons and ramifications as to why poets felt the need to include so much in their work at just the time that they did (the influence of Ezra Pound’s poetics on the theories of Marshall McLuhan being a case in point). The internet is especially helpful with ekphrastic poems – poems about visual artworks – in enabling you to see the image, as in the case of Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s “Beukelaer reports from the biblical scene”.

But it can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get tangled up in the chain of links – skim-reading articles, letting information stand in for understanding, even forgetting what it was you were trying to find out. In fact, these dangers are very similar to those faced by the critic writing on ekphrases: there’s a continual temptation to think that seeing the picture means knowing the poem, and vice versa, finally settling for a superficial acquaintance with both. One can perhaps guard against this by determining to look for what the poem is doing, either with the picture or on its own.

With these preliminary warnings, then, I would direct you to the National Gallery’s website, where you can see Joachim Beukelear’s “The Four Elements”. Look at them; scrutinise them; but then look back and see what Janet Kofi-Tsekpo makes of them.

In “Water”, the fish flopping over the foreground “have the eyes // of humans who secretly worship nothing”, a glazed, nihilistic stare. But look at the eyes of the humans in this scene. They look back, apparently surprised to find themselves being watched, but with only a bare minimum of interest. They seem to see us, but can’t; and this makes it unsettling to return their gaze, knowing it never reaches them. Contact vanishes into mise en abyme. What dead, empty eyes their spectator must have.

The sailors in “Air” are not in the picture; perhaps they’re the Disciples, just visible in the background of “Water”. In the foreground, their wives; beyond, a “slovenly girl” appears to flirt with someone’s prodigal son. There’s a contrast, not visible in the painting, between this open-air intimacy, and the loneliness of these women married to mariners. “Fire” continues the imagery of families and old flames, and seems to take off even further from the picture; while in “Earth”, the cauliflowers smile “superfluously like maiden aunts.” If this suite of poems has an underlying theme, without amounting to a message, it’s something to do with families: what drives them, and the times when that motor stalls.

And look: in the top left of “Earth”, the holy family, with the virgin mother, goes trundling over a bridge.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Miriam Gamble on Alex Wylie's ‘A Letter From Polème’

A Letter from Polème by Alex Wylie

This Year of Good God 1790 (blighted
be its annal!) year of common
rule, uncommon riot; the old ways rutted-at,
untenable, I rode southward
to Polème. Three days of cold (writing without light)
three nights, saddle-weary, well passed.
How slowly came I here! How masterfully kept
my back straight on the straight road back
to Hell – such wrought enormities housed in this place! –
dreaming of the green walks to come,
his gardens rustling rustic fictions in my brain.

The Count coddled me in rich wine.
I watched him lace the air and palated my quiet,
movement being air made flesh, flesh
unspeakable. Like an anxious shade, the candles
cast me on his lordship, arranged
thereon the wight of his lost house, an alien
cadenza playing on itself
(Nota, the question of the sum is yet unfixed
&c. &c.
the Count is more distrait, abstracted, these last days –
if this seems strange I am sorry)

He admires my selflessness and confessed as much;
I confess in faith, coming to
his point of view, I admire him for saying so.
Quixote of your riven sky,
O Moon! Enmantled yet, my comprador of light!
For I would not alert my host
to this my writing – there is a weird, subtle wire
binds me to this blasted helix,
a thing of Youth with scant attachment to the world
taking account of dead money.

(Tempered in the hissing wine, the will – iron, but hot –
is forged and bent. See! in the glass
grows a dawn of iron, as wine passing hot through blood;
as through a washed-up, half-drowned wretch.
Dribbling white sand, he dreams himself a golden mouth.
Yet politicking with the Count,
I count myself, of late, with the dreamers, lying
earth-hooked, tracing his lineaments
on ruin’d cloud)
For what dim purpose came I so
slip-shoddy into Hell? Through purpose, accidence,
I am quite utterly absorbed –
his kindness adversarial compels me here –
the Oleanders spike my heart
like Opium – the Count coddles me,
holding me in usufruct as in rich wine
(writing in the dark is seldom easy, my friend)
from New Poetries V © Alex Wylie

“if this seems strange I am sorry.” Many of Alex Wylie’s poems are very strange, and ‘A Letter from Polème’ is no exception. In fact, it may be the oddest one I know – vocally, syntactically, down even to the very question of what is going on and what we are supposed to ‘take’ from it.

These are not, however, criticisms, and the above-quoted apology, though partly in earnest, is only partly so. With most of Wylie’s poems, and emphatically here, we are asked to enter the world of the voice almost entirely on its own terms. In fact, this is one of the main drivers behind the poems. They are voices from nowhere, placed somewhere, and trying to communicate. This poem is not in ‘Wylie’s’ voice, but that doesn’t necessarily set it apart. It is not an exercise in mimicry, a workshop entity, so much as a problematic means of self-expression, exploration, through the vehicle of another. Another way of saying that is that, although faked, the voice is entirely genuine and the distinction between voice and poet muddy.

On one level, ‘A Letter from Polème’ is a gothic romp, an anti-pretension piss-take of characters like Stoker’s Jonathan Harker – earnest penners in the diary of self-important thoughts and ‘unusual’ experiences. Wylie loves rhetoric, but is suspicious of it, so he glories in this opportunity to give his lyrical skills full rein (without having to take the rap) in lines like “the old ways rutted-at, / untenable” and “Dribbling white sand, he dreams himself a golden mouth”.

Yet, as that last line suggests, there is a wistfulness at play for the very ‘pretension’ which he seems to knock. This image, like many in Wylie’s poems, is in fact profoundly beautiful, and captures with succinctness the central dilemma of his art. Prophecy and the yen for ‘knowledge’ are prominent themes – in, for example, the “moonstruck man” in ‘The Star and the Ditch’ – and suggest, in the very mode of their expression, the sense that, at its best, humanity is a glorious, a wonder-inspiring thing. On the other hand, they are simultaneously qualified or cut down by both context and irony. Or perhaps the context is the irony. Stars always have a ditch to go along with them, the ‘light’ its opposite number in ‘dust’. And the seeker after ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’ is always overseen by a gallery of disapproving livers by commonsense, with whom Wylie is not entirely unsympathetic. In some cases, as in ‘Jericho’, the reader is included in that gallery. Does he distrust his reader? I think he does; I also think he’s right to. His poems are difficult to understand because they are uncompromising, refuse to pay their tithe in common currency – common in the sense of ‘shared’. They’re dispatches from the interior, hard-won, fiercely honest and always, of necessity, partly opaque. To use his own words, the poem is “an alien / cadenza playing on itself” – aware of its aloneness, trying to speak, but not willing to tell untruths to do so.

The gothic offers us a world turned upside down, turned against the accepted world, both as pure antagonism and as a means of showing the latter to itself. Wylie has a foot in both camps, and grants them equal ‘reality’, just as Lorca did the dream against the ‘real’. Past critics have found him difficult to write on, and have blamed him rather than themselves, which is mistaken. We shouldn’t be trying to sum these poems up. Rather, we should accept that they are difficult (though also very pure), and that, if we lack the critical vocabulary to pigeon-hole them, that is down to the uselessness of pigeon-holes, and also part of his point.

Miriam Gamble's first collection, The Squirrels Are Dead (Bloodaxe), received a Somerset Maugham Award in 2011.