My earlier postings on ekphrastic poetry – poems inspired by visual art – have proved astonishingly popular and, when Agenda magazine asked me to review two collections with exclusively ekphrastic intentions, I leaped at the chance. I’m posting this now because the reviews have just appeared in the latest Agenda, a journal well-worth subscribing to. As will become clear, in what follows I am more persuaded by Seamus Cashman’s book, The Sistine Gaze (Salmon Poetry, 2015) than David Pollard’s Three Artists (Lapwing Publications, 2017). But both provide much food for thought on the relationship between poetry and the visual arts and evidently there are a lot of us fascinated by this sort of writing.
David Pollard’s book is divided into three sections, one each on Parmigianino, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Initially, Pollard presents a set of 15 self-declared “meditations” on a single work of art – Parmigianino’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (c. 1524). This is a bold move, given that John Ashbery did the same thing in 1974 and Pollard does explore ideas also found in Ashbery’s poem. Both writers are intrigued by a self-portrait painted onto a half-spherical, contoured surface to simulate a mirror such as was once used by barbers. The viewer gazes at an image of a mirror in which is reflected an image of the artist’s youthful and girlish face. It’s this sense of doubling images – an obvious questioning of what is real – that Pollard begins with. “You are a double-dealer” he declares, addressing the artist directly, though the language is quickly thickened and abstracted into a less than easy, philosophical, meditative style. It is the paradoxes that draw the poet: “you allow the doublings / inherent in your task to hide themselves / in open show, display art that / understands itself too well”. Indeed, this seems to be something of a definition of art for Pollard. “Let us be clear”, he says definitively, though the irony lies in the fact that such art asks questions about clarity precisely to destabilise it.
The 15 meditations are in free verse, the line endings often destabilising the sense, and they are lightly punctuated when I could have done with more conventional punctuation given the complex, involuted style. Pollard also likes to double up phrases, his second attempt often shifting ground or seeming propelled more by sound than sense. This is what the blurb calls Pollard’s “dense and febrile language” and it is fully self-conscious. In meditation 15, he observes that the artist’s paint is really “composed of almost nothing like words / that in their vanishings leave somewhat / of their meaning” – a ‘somewhat’ that falls well short of anything definitive. Of course, this again echoes Ashbery and appeals to our (post-)modern sensibility. Pollard images such a sense of loss with “a rustle of leaves among the winds / of autumn blowing in circles / back into seasons of the turning world”. He does not possess Ashbery’s originality of image, as here deploying the cliched autumnal leaves and then echoing Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”. Indeed, many poems are frequently allusive (particularly of Shakespearean phrases, Keats coming a close second) and for me this does not really work, the phrases striking as undigested shorthand for things that ought to be more freshly said.
The Rembrandt poems have a similar tone and style, not surprisingly when most of the focus is again on the mirroring and self-reflection of his self-portraits: “Skin and paint are different stuffs / as he was a different species from himself / reflected”. Perhaps there is less playfulness here than in Parmigianino’s trompe l’oeuil image, more of an obvious darkness in the dusky, obscure backgrounds: “These images were born in thoughts of his departing / and in the horror of identity, of selves, of ruins”. Yet there is more variety of tone to be found in these poems as Pollard develops Rembrandt’s social context, his painting of pictures to please Amsterdam’s wealthy burghers and corporations, images of their self-importance for which they “paid him well”. Yet the artist himself was more interested in other, more liminal figures:
And just beyond the door, always ajar,
there in the street canal side,
in a swift moment are his old hags
and poverty and Christ, the Jews
in fur and black passed down the ages,
too many beggars and those copulating dogs
and then again wives and washerwomen
The final Caravaggio section of this book makes different ekphrastic choices. Pollard allows the ageing artist a direct voice in one poem, then considers 7 individual images in separate poems, then concludes again with something close to a ‘meditation’. Hearing Caravaggio speak (in ‘Porto Ercole’) is a refreshing change to Pollard’s own rather too-consistent, sometimes haranguing voice. The artist is sailing to Rome, hoping to escape a death sentence, fretting about what he has achieved: “I am only spine and marrow of regret / and last prayers flail along my throat / and my weak blood is darker / than those holy tenebrae I drew art from”. Elsewhere we hear of the artist’s earlier life, hawking more conventional images on Rome’s street corners. Those familiar with Caravaggio will know what to expect: the play of light out of thick slabs of shadow and “[p]lain speech not mannered rhetoric”. Such a visual ‘plain speech’ is well described in ‘The Entombment’ with Christ’s “liminal grey flesh / full of the pure weight of the physicality of loss”. Also, in ‘The Rising of Lazarus’, it is suggested that Caravaggio employed grave robbers to “drag a grave” for a real, decaying corpse since “he only painted from grit and real”. The language here has some energy, but I doubt its precision in such choices as “drag” and “grit” – the former tries too hard, the latter not hard enough. Pollard’s liking for abstraction can also be harmful as in these final lines on Caravaggio, which leave me puzzling, though not in any good way:
Thus it can show only how
the insignificance of objects
waits for it, accepts it,
and then drowns in its almost too late a dusk
and ochre of our being
hewn out of nothing more than the liquidity
that holds invisibility at bay against oblivion.
In contrast to Pollard, Seamus Cashman lets us partake of the very moment when his single long poem began. Re-visiting the Sistine Chapel, we are told his eyes fall on a painted figure in a white, pseudo-architectural, triangular frame – a woman in a green jacket. He goes on: “Her eyes hold mine, and the word ‘gaze’ slips into my mind. As I stare she seems to invite me to converse”. The resulting ‘conversation’ is the extraordinarily ambitious poem that follows, drawing on Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Chapel (completed in 1512) and the altar wall (completed 1541). This admittedly touristic, but originating moment is poetically recast in Cashman’s Prologue as an epiphanic encounter: “This face centres a still point, draws me up and in. She is waiting. I attend”.
In fact, the woman is hardly given a voice and the substance of the sequence is dominated by the (male) artist’s reflections on his years-long task. He’s most often found “between this scaffold floor and ceiling”, complaining about his “craned neck”, pouring plaster, crushing pigments, enumerating at great length the qualities and shades of the paint he employs (Cashman risking an odd parody of a Dulux colour chart at times – “Variety is my clarity, / purity my colour power”). Later, we hear him complaining the plaster will not dry in the cold winter months. We even hear the artist reflecting on his own features, the famous “long white beard and beak-like nose”. These period and technical details work well, but Cashman’s Michelangelo sometimes also shades interestingly into a more future-aware voice, melding – I think – with the poet’s own voice. So he remarks: “Getting lost is not a condition men like me endure or venture on today. / All GPS and mobile interlinks enmesh our every step”. Later, a list of “everything there is” sweepingly includes “chair, man, woman; laptop or confession box”.
At one point, Michelangelo recalls working on a great marble block that fell and shattered, “bartering monumentalities / that break backs”. And I do worry that the sheer ambition of this project has led to awkward monumentalities in the texture of Cashman’s verse. He surrounds his poems with thickets of rubric. So on page 31, the reader is told that she is about to begin Book 1, called ‘Creation’, this being Part II, called ‘In the Mirror of Creation’s Dust’ and that this book consists of Verses 65-117 and that, firstly, comes Movement 9 (which runs from verses 65-67) and that the opening passage has been given the title ‘Convinced we are awake’. This gives the whole thing a clunky, pseudo-scriptural quality which (on my reading) doesn’t really fit with Cashman’s overall purpose and its enumerative, even obsessive titling and sub-titling certainly and frequently derailed this reader’s imaginative and emotional engagement with the poems. I suspect this decision arose as a response to the sheer fecundity, the multifarious nature, of Michelangelo’s Sistine work. It may also account for Cashman’s frequently rather grandiose register, his occasional drifts into archaism, the ubiquity of rhetorical gestures like lists of three (or even four) and the self-conscious habit of using nouns as verbs (thigh, sex, tray, story).
But as a result, Cashman’s verse has a Whitmanesque quality (the long lines) and can bring to mind Blake’s Prophetic Books; it has dashes of Hopkins’ alliterative energy. At one point the voice wants “to sing. I want to sing the body tune, / the rhythms of blood, the living heart” but I found myself wishing for a little less such effortful transcendence and a more Traherne-like, child-like, simplicity of diction which is still capable of conveying what Michelangelo declares, at a late stage, that “our instinct is infinity”. This might also sit more comfortably with Cashman’s Michelangelo’s intentions which seem to be to give “hope to some pilgrim searching my cabinet for direction and new ritual”. I think we are meant to see Cashman himself as this “pilgrim”, a latter-man, having lost his Catholic beliefs, but visiting the Chapel in search of a new vision.
Certainly, the Michelangelo-voice does not seem to be speaking of his works in a confined 16th century fashion as art in praise of God. More like a modern poet, he says “all we need / are words of admiration drafted with compassion for the flesh and bone we are”. Later, reflecting on the nature of the human self, he describes it as a “mobile installation, unfixed and indeterminate [. . .] emotion in the making”. Many verses in the poem celebrate the sexuality of “Eve ‘n Adam—penetration – vulva open to erection; risen nipples; hanging scrotum; nosing cheeks / all the open flesh and pleasured nerve-ends”. And alongside this, the poem works towards a modern – or perhaps it’s a Blakean – godless vision of human life where “heaven is adoration of knowledge, and god is who we know ourselves to be”.
Curious and bold then, that Cashman ekphrastically takes on the Sistine Chapel and then writes God out of the picture. Nor does he shrink from the shelf-clearing consequences for our conventional spiritual understanding. The idea of the “Soul” is now little more than a “word. It frightens children and old painter sculptors weakened by the weight of brush and mallet. Soul. / Nothing knows its place”. Likewise, The Sistine Gaze concludes its frequent lauding of human sexuality with a recognition of the plain fact of its opposite, death: “this finality, expired into a nothingness we each possess. Dead is dead”. Even the genius-artist himself is finally and ironically “absorbed in the great womb of chaos he created / leaving us to falter, wonder, and pass on / for we know nothing”. These lines are some of the concluding moments of the book and they possess a lighter touch than the majority of it. Cashman here allows the white space around his printed words to work its magic more effectively, creating a rhythm and a chain-link of tensions which add to the reader’s experience. For all its intended monumentality and dizzying ambition (which has led the poet to erect too much scaffolding around his poems), this quiet end-piece is for me the most affecting moment of the whole book: “our end is an endless breath / to fill – to vitalise / and imperceptibly / to let go— / never to know”.