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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.

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