Beyond Caravaggio and an old ekphrastic poem


Two things dove-tailing this week . . . My thoughts way ahead of time about ekphrastic poems (poems stimulated by visual art) in relation to the workshop I am scheduled to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February 2017. The particular exhibition was in the news this last week as they will be showing, amongst many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. Also I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery a couple of days ago. There, though the numbers of Carravaggios per square metre of wall space is relatively low, much of what’s on display by those who came under his influence is well worth seeing.

At the end of the 16th century Caravaggio brought an almost photographic precision to painting, mixing elements of still life with portraits and religious subjects. His people are caught (again almost photographically) in realistic seeming mid-gesture, twisting, stooping, hands wide or aloft. Then there’s the light: powerful light sources cast illumination and correspondingly deep shadows across the figures, darkening the brows of a face, across a hand at a card game, on exposed flesh. One of the ‘followers’ turns out to be Gerrit van Honthorst whose towering ‘Christ before the High Priest’ is displayed in the final room. As I came across it I had one of those moments of recognition. The picture has been in the National Gallery collection for many years and it provided the (ekphrastic) stimulation for one of my earliest poems.


The poem eventually appeared in my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as Dannie Abse chose to include it in the plush, coffee-table anthology called Voices in the Gallery (Tate Gallery Publications) he edited 1986 with Joan, his wife and art historian. For a wannabe poet with no book yet it was a dizzying moment – a not-to-be repeated moment – being sandwiched between Zbigniew Herbert, W. H. Auden and Thomas Hardy! Year later I got Dannie to sign my original copy of it.


The voice in my poem is naïve and unknowing, an art historian ignoramus (close to the autobiographical truth). But he looks hard, starting with a bewildered rationalism as he tries to get to grips with the stylised, stiff religious images of the “early galleries”. He understands he’s nothing more than one of the “casual visitors” who prefer to gaze at something familiar, the “recognisable gesture”, the more simply realistic and identifiable images contained in later works. But gradually he recognises the thorough-going empiricism of “dimension, distance and the need for accuracy” has its own limits (I still like the dig against my own gender’s devotion of facts, though the portrayal of the too submissive female partner I’d not let through these days).

The Expressionistic distortions of Van Gogh (“inconsistent with the camera”) begin to appeal to him as he understands the impossibility of a truly objective view (“eyes jaundiced / only with being human and limited”) which – he seems to be on a circular walk round the National Gallery – then allows him to re-assess the earlier images. With the passage of time and the loss of religious faith (I was sure of it then, back in the 1980s), these pictures also openly admit their distortions. Their “dogma is laughable now, or / almost so”. They obviously possess no camera-like claim to objectivity or all-inclusiveness. Rather they now seem to him to admit “in all self-consciousness, / other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame”. It’s at that point the image of Honthorst’s ‘Christ before the High Priest’ comes to mind. It seemed to me then an image that was interesting and powerful at least as much for what lies just out of sight as for what the casual visitor can see plainly.

Years later, in different poetic modes, I’m still intrigued by what lies just beyond our reach – the Daoist’s uncarved block of wood – still think it has as much power as what we plainly see. Here’s the old poem in full:


At The National Gallery


What am I to do with these angels’ wings,

with the literalness of these gaping heavens

and haloes in the early galleries?

No-one believes them. Beyond meaning,

they are absurd – mannered and posed figures

as unlikely as the nude’s fig-leaf, the wooden

gestures of saints staring straight through you:

uncomfortable attitudes, seeming content

with their fantasies of transfiguration and myth.


Yet casual visitors walk right past. They’re drawn

to quotidian scenes, the scruffy breeches, old hats

in later pictures where they scribble notes,

trying to capture the vanishing feelings

of viewing these captured moments

of vanishing things – the recognisable gesture

at an execution, on the river, in the boudoir.

And I with them, yet always end uncomfortably

tracing holiday strolls through Canaletto’s

Venice or impatient somehow with men

who explain to their quiet partners about

dimension, distance and the need for accuracy.


But Van Gogh’s crippled chair confounds them,

restores a sense of things perceived in ways

inconsistent with the camera, eyes jaundiced

only with being human and limited which is

other than the capture of fleeting things,

the stunned insect, and like verse that must

struggle to avoid its final stop: another fairy-tale

though there are no haloes, no heaven here.

And I go back to those old pictures to find

their appeal, uncovered, is the honesty, almost

innocence, time has forced upon them,

for what was then dogma is laughable now, or

almost so. Uncameralike, their contentment admits,

rather asserts in all self-consciousness,

other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame:


like the one candle, illuminating a room,

the gleaming tabletop, across which one detailed,

serious face confronts another, unnaturally

bound in by a darkness in which we make out

nothing, yet know someone moves inches beyond

vision, rising, strained forward and demanding:

Give me some light, I say, lights! Now! A taper!


Rita Dove / Local Library Love

Here’s a shaggy dog story.

J—–, my 17 year old daughter was travelling on the London Tube between social engagements a week or so ago. She and her friends were all a bit girly giggly – by her own admission after pre-drinking at somebody’s house – and her mobile phone got left on the train. Her unsuspecting parents – probably on the sofa that Saturday night, catching up on Wolf Hall or something similar via the i-Player – get a phone call (from a friend’s mobile) with the bad news. Oh bloody hell, full-on disapproval voice, we’ll have to cancel the contract before calls are made to Mars or Outer Mongolia, but let’s just try ringing J—-‘s number on the off chance it’s been picked up by an angel.


After a few hopeless attempts, someone answers sounding less angelic, more Eastern European. And yes, the phone is in their hands, and yes we are welcome to come and pick it up, maybe tomorrow, in some side street near Balham Tube, way across London of course. By dint of masculinity and eminence of age, it’s me who sets off next day for south London. The phone bit of the story goes rather cold here I’m afraid (uneventful, after wandering a few streets, knocking on a door, a young couple, full of the smiles of the unthinkingly virtuous, hand over the phone and I press a box of grateful chocolates into their reluctant grasp).

But Balham High Street has an Oxfam Bookshop – the kind I can never resist – and hidden away on the poetry shelves (between Everyman’s Robert Herrick, old copies of Poetry Review and a suspiciously large selection of First World War poetry) I pick out a hardback, signed first edition of Rita Dove’s 1999 collection, On the Bus With Rosa Parks, published in the US by Norton. Just reward for the unnecessarily put-upon, I think to myself.


‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’ is one of the best poems in Dove’s book and as I rocked northwards on the Victoria line I drifted back to late 1960s, early 1970s, to my own beloved local library in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. In those days it was in a grand building not far from the central bus station (though opposite Jimmy Ladd’s hardware store) and we paid weekly visits there. My tastes were un-literary, nothing out of the ordinary, books on fishing and rugby, Tolkein, John Wyndham. I remember one occasion I went there searching for addresses of poetry magazines but this must have been a few years later when I’d begun to scribble verse. I probably sent some ill-tutored nonsense to The Times Literary Supplement and of course heard nothing back.

Later still, a TV programme on Vincent Van Gogh sent me off to borrow a book on the artist who I felt sure I resembled, my certainty expressed through vigorous claims to admire him as a painter, poet, thinker and man. Looking back, it was a rather escapist Van Gogh whose observations I copied into a diary: “We are entitled to entertain a certain hope that there may be other and better conditions for painting than here on earth – conditions that can be attained through a change that need not be more surprising than the metamorphosis of a chrysalis into a butterfly. [This] sphere of activity . . . might conceivably be one of the many stars which after death are probably no more difficult to reach than the small black dots on a map which in our earthly existence mark towns and villages. . .  It seems to me that it is far from impossible that diseases . . . are in fact heavenly means of transport . . . In that case, to die quietly of old age is to go on foot”. What I loved about this was the other-worldliness, the sense of the creative artist, the presence of death not as the end of things but as a transition to a better place. Misunderstood or not, my mind was moving beyond the limits of my home town, its confining little black dot, the piddling River Biss, Bowyers pork sausages and bloody Watneys Red Barrel. Love your local library! Click here for information about the local libraries campaign:

And here is Rita Dove reading ‘Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967’: 

Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967

For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty

to do: Browse the magazines,

slip into the Adult Section to see

what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic,

décolletés, and the plague of too much money.

There was so much to discover—how to

lay out a road, the language of flowers,

and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.

There were equations elegant as a French twist,

fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf;

I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure

of a pineapple Jell-O mould—or take

the path of Harold’s purple crayon through

the bedroom window and onto a lavender

spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle

and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch

the rough curve of bound leather,

the harsh parchment of dreams.

As for the improbable librarian

with her salt and paprika upsweep,

her British accent and sweater clip

(mom of a kid I knew from school) —

I’d go up to her desk and ask for help

on bareback rodeo or binary codes,

phonics, Gestalt theory,

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,

the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;

I would claim to be researching

pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,

but all I wanted to know was:

Tell me what you’ve read that keeps

that half smile afloat

above the collar of your impeccable blouse .

So I read Gone with the Wind because

it was big, and haiku because they were small.

I studied history for its rhapsody of dates,

lingered over Cubist art for the way

it showed all sides of a guitar at once.

All the time in the world was there, and sometimes

all the world on a single page.

As much as I could hold

on my plastic card’s imprint I took,

greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss,

the stuff we humans are made of:

words and sighs and silence,

ink and whips, Brahma and cosine,

corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels—

I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminium siding

and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,

someone had scrawled:



Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s

what I’m gonna do!

Maple Valley Branch Library

To give some impression of concluding my original narrative: as you can imagine, J—– was suitably grateful at getting her mobile back, dashing off to text friends that she was back on line and thankfully in touch with the world again. I remember we always tried hard while she and her brother were younger, taking them to Hornsey library most weeks and happily (with or without our help) they both acquired habits of reading. Even so, the local library is not really on their radar any more. It’s obvious why.

A little experiment to conclude:

bareback rodeo – about 57,800,000 results  in 0.44 seconds.

lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire – about 479,000 results in 0.51 seconds.

pre-Columbian pottery – about 403,000 results in 0.46 seconds.

blood sugar levels – about 29,600,000 results in 0.32 seconds.

Why would you trek to the library, however close by, when you can worship at the God Google’s shrine? Yes – I use Google every day and bless it (it tells me an unsigned copy of Dove’s book might be worth 30 US dollars!). But at the same time we are well aware that such a sublime volume of information, arranged in ways not within our own control and perhaps not even within our understanding, has its drawbacks. Here’s Eddie Izzard on google, wikipedia, i-Tunes, up-dates, terms and conditions and how we blindly play along: