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Life study: end of an era

Tuesday, 7 June 2016 at 20:37

No Text This Friday we have the launch of the end-of-year show at Hull College's School of Art and Design Park Street Premises. We move to new studio space in the old town in September. I'll miss the building and, in particular, the old life room I've been painting and drawing in for the last six or so years. This is one of the last studies I worked on in the Thursday morning sessions with Andy Fairbank and Chris Wiles.


Thursday, 2 June 2016 at 23:06

No Text Back to Spanish. Here's the first serious attempt I made to translate a Spanish poem. After a year or so in Spain, I found myself in Mexico City for New Year 1980, where I lived on and off for the next couple of years. I remember how Mexico was so important to me, and how much I loved that country. Awful to hear what narcopolitics and the rest has done. Anyway, I haven't been back for almost 25 years. Maybe time to do that now. Meanwhile, here's a version of a much longer poem. Even as a fragment it's long; maybe I'll look at it again, cut down, but I think this unedited versions still contains some of that long-form mythopoeic energy I admired in Octavio Paz's original. The image is the Aztec calendrical sunstone the poem takes off from.


a fragment after the Spanish of Octavio Paz, “Piedra de Sol”

willow of glass, black water poplar,
tall spray bow-sprung by wind,
a deep-rooted tree – dancing,
a passage of river which twists,
advances, recedes, circles, always arriving:
peaceful passage
of star or unhurried spring,
water trickling prophecy all night long,
unanimous presence in swell,
wave upon wave until everything is swamped,
green sovereignty without decline
like the dazzle of wings
opening in the heart of the sky,

a passage rifling the thicknesses
of the coming days and the damned radiance
of the cursed like a bird whose song
turns the forest to stone
and the imminent joys
between disappearing branches,
light hours which even peck at birds,
omens escaping the hand,

a presence like a sudden song,
like the wind singing in the flame,
a glance hanging in the air,
the world with its seas and mountains,
body of light filtered through agate,
thighs of light, belly of light, bays,
solar rock, body coloured by cloud,
colour of fast day jumping,
the hour twinkles and has body,
already the world is visible through your body,
transparent through your transparency,

I go through galleries of sound,
I flow through resonancies,
I go through transparency like a blind man,
a reflection erases me, I am born in another,
o wood of magic pillars,
under the arches of light I penetrate
the corridors of a diaphanous autumn,

I go through your body as through the world,
your belly a sunny plaza,
your breasts twin churches where blood
officiates in mysterious parallels,
my looks cover you like ivy,
you are a city that the sea assails,
a wall that the light splits in halves of peach,
a shrine of salt, rocks, birds
under the law of amazed midday,

dressed in the colour of my desires
you go naked as my thoughts,
I go through your eyes as through water,
tigers drink dreams from those eyes,
the hummingbird burns in those flames,
I go through your forehead as though through the moon,
like cloud upon your thought,
I go through your belly as through your dreams,

your maize skirt sways and sings,
your skirt of glass, skirt of water,
your lips, your hair, your glances,
all night long you rain, all day
you open my breast with your water fingers,
close my eyes with your mouth of water,
you rain over my bones, a liquid tree hides
its watery roots in my ribs,

I go through your waist as through a river,
I go through your body like through a wood,
like a thin path on the mountain that
ceases in an abrupt abyss,
I go through your sharpened thoughts
and just at the exit of your white forehead
my fallen shadow is destroyed,
I gather my fragments one by one,
continue fleshless, grope blindly,

endless corridors of memory,
doors open onto an empty room
where all the summers rot,
jewels of thirst burn in the depths,
a face disappears when remembered,
a hand crumbles at a touch,
coiffures of disturbed spiders
over ancient smiles,

at the exit of my forehead I search,
search without finding, for an instant,
a face of lightning and storm
running under night trees,
face of rain in a darkened garden,
stubborn water flowing at my side,

I search without finding, writing alone,
there is nobody, the day falls, the year falls,
I fall with that moment, fall into the depths,
invisible transit over thicknesses
which repeat my destroyed image,
I walk over days, stepped-on instants,
I walk on the thoughts of my shadow,
I walk on my shadow in search of a moment,

I seek a live time like a bird,
I seek the five o’clock evening sun
warming ion granite walls:
the hour’s cluster matured,
opening to loose the girls
from its rosy entrails and they
relaxed in the stone courtyards of the college,
tall as autumn went walking,
walking in light under the arcade
and as space girdled her it dressed her
in a skin more golden, more transparent,

tiger the colour of light, cloud-grey deer
on the outskirts of night,
girl glimpsed reclining
on the green balconies of rain,
face of adolescence – numberless,
I have forgotten your name, Melusina,
Laura, Isobel, Persephone, Mary,
you have all the faces and none,
you are all times and none,
you are like a tree, like a cloud,
you are all birds and a star,
you are like blade of a sword
and the goblet of blood from the tormentor,
ivy which advances, embraces and uproots
the soul to divide from itself,
fire writing across jade,
fissure in the rock, queen of snakes,
steam column, fountain in the stone,
lunar circus, eagles’ crag,
aniseed grain, tiny thorn
that’s mortal and gives immortal pains,
shepherdess of the submarine valleys
and guardian of valley of dead ones,
liana hanging from the gibbet of vertigo,
creeper, poisonous plant,
flower of resurrection, grape of life,
lady of the flute and of lightning,
terrace of jasmine, salt in the wound,
bouquet of roses for the shotgun-blasted,
August snows, gallows moon,
the sea writing over basalt,
the wind writing over desert,
testament of sun, grenade, spike of wheat,

face in flame, face devoured,
adolescent face pursued,
ghost years, circular days
which lead to the same yard, the same wall,
the instant burns and they are all one face,
all faces are one face,
all centuries one instant,
and through the centuries of centuries
a pair of eyes close upon the future,

there nothing facing me, only a
rescued moment tonight, against a dream
of an assembly of dreamt images,
sternly sculpted against dream,
uprooted from the emptiness of tonight,
pulled out by hand letter by letter,
while beyond time the world
with its butcher’s time-table
hurls itself to batter the doors of my soul,

only an instant while the cities,
the names, the flavours, the vivid lives,
crumble in my blind brow,
while the night’s grief humbles my
thoughts and my bones and blood
stroll more slowly and my teeth loosen
and my eyes cloud over and the days
and years collect their empty horrors,

while time closes its fan
and there is nothing behind its images
the instant plunges and floats surrounded
by death, threatened by night and its gloomy yawn,
threatened by the babble of lively and masked death
the instant plunges and penetrates, like a fist closing,
like a fruit ripening inside itself
and it drinks and spills itself

the translucent instant closes
and ripens inwards, springs roots,
grows within me, fills me,
pushes me out through its delirious leafage,
my thoughts are only its birds,
its mercury throbbing in my veins,
a tree of mind, fruits the flavour of time,

o life for the living yet already lived,
time returning in the swell
and slipping away without restoring the face,
whatever happened wasn’t but is being
and is silently spilling into
another vanishing moment…


Wednesday, 1 June 2016 at 23:05

Dark studio, orange lightbox Darkened Studio / model with cold light from device 

  A set-up I worked on late last year. How do you paint light? How can paint, a reflective medium, imitate a powerful light source? How can you mix colours in semi-darkness that you want to be appreciated in full-light? Here, in a darkened studio, we have the intense orange filtered light-box; the model coldly front-lit from her tablet / device; floor lamps and a wayward window light.

This was one of Andy Fairbank’s conundrums. Thursday morning life classes at Hull College's Park Street building with Andy (a great admirer like myself of Euan Uglow) have always set particular problems. Here it is light. The drawing is difficult, the forms are distorted by the contrasting lights. The light itself changes as your eyes become accustomed to darkness, see greens to compensate for intense orange; notice tonal harmonics on the edge of the light-box. All this, and then you look at your palette and see only mud.

Sir William Wilberforce looking out over Hull, again.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016 at 21:22

No Text I've been working on a couple of large (3 X 4 foot-something canvasses). The exact dimensions have been determined by the efficiencies of dividing how to cut up store-bought lengths of 2x4 wood for stretchers by what can fit into the car.

For previous paintings in this cityscape series I've been very influenced by Euan Uglow's theories of canvas proportion and have thought about and tried golden section (5:8 ) and root two (1: 1.4 something )....  but the size of the car is absolute. The car, I hasten to admit is not mine ...more on this (Euan Uglow, a sense of proportion, why poets tend not to drive, and why I haven't driven since attending driver re-education school in Doncaster several years ago) - soonish... or laterish.

Meanwhile, I've returned to the statue of William Wilberforce overlooking Queen's Gardens from the tower at Hull College. I did a few paintings of this statue early on in this project, and one of them appears on this website's pages. This one's not quite right yet and this little picture (I'm limited to 400 pixels width) can't quite give much more than a sense, but I hope it catches something of what I'm trying to do with the cityscapes.

Rilke: three Sonnets to Orpheus

Sunday, 10 April 2016 at 19:41


Here are three recycled versions of poems from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). It's something of a shock to realise that these must've been written the best part of twenty-five years ago after I'd spent a few months working in Germany.

These poems appeared in a chapbook Strange Tongues (1994) which consisted mainly of translations and poems about language. The first also appeared in the Forward Prize anthology 1996.

A God Perhaps

“Ein Gott vermags”, Sonnets to Orpheus I.3

A god perhaps. But it’s not that simple
for a man to follow himself through guitar strings.
His mind is split. Contradictory strivings
are his heart’s paths. At his crossroads is no temple.

Song, you teach us, it’s not about desire,
not about asking for what can never be asked.
Song is being. For a god that’s an easy task.
But when are we live? When does he trip the wire

that turns the earth and stars towards our being?
It’s not enough, young one, that you love, that voice
bursts through, blooms upon your lips. Try remembering

to forget. It means nothing, whatever you’ve sung
so far. Real singing – the truth – is another breath.
Breath of nothing. Gust of god. The wind’s lungs.

He Needs No Gravestone

“Errichtet keinen Denkstein”, Sonnets to Orpheus I. 5

He needs no gravestone. The rose’s
yearly bloom becomes him best.
This is him. his metamorphosis
through this or that’s an endless quest

for himself: Orpheus. No other name. His song
echoes through all art. He comes, he goes
through everything. Whether he stays as long
or as briefly as the petals on this rose,

it has to be enough. He also fears
to lose this world. But he cannot stay.
His words go beyond and he disappears.

His wrists are not tied by humming strings.
You will not find him now. He, too, must obey.
And this is how – by overstepping everything.

Be Ahead of all Parting

“Sei allem Abschied voran”, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13.

Be ahead of all parting, as though it were
already behind you, like the winter just gone.
Know that, among these winters, is one
so endless that the heart, unsheltered, must out-winter.

Be forever dead in Eurydike. – Yet rise and sing.
For it is praiseworthy to be raised proud.
Here, in our entropic realms, be loud
like humming crystal that, even as it shatters, rings.

Be – and yet still know Unbeing, the void,
the empty cavern in which you first heard
yourself echo. Just this once, fill it with your shout.

To the sum of all the second-hand, tinny
and worn-out things on Nature’s inventory,
joyfully add yourself. Then wipe the total out.

Hole: Philip Larkin meets Dante

Wednesday, 30 March 2016 at 17:31

No Text

Big Phil at Paragon Station, Hull

I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tongues concludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan malcontent to see what he’d say about our world. These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode – holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque” – but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.

A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld.

I started "Hole" as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere” wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”

Hole is the March 2016 poetry feature of The Common online:

Lorca: Death and Duende

Sunday, 20 March 2016 at 20:02

No Text

My trip to Nicaragua has made me realise just how much I've missed the language and its culture. I've not done much with Spanish since I lived in Spain and Mexico in the late seventies, early eighties, but maybe that's something to remedy. I have, though, done the odd version. Here's a poem from my latest collection Pilgrim Tongues.

In his lecture “The Theory and Function of the Duende”, Lorca quotes Manuel Torres: “All that has dark sounds has duende.” This poem, the third of the four which make up Lorca’s lament for a dead bullfighter friend, seems to exemplify duende and its relationship to death, form and improvisation. The “Lament” combines the traditional elements of elegy with surreal imagery: sudden associative shifts mimic both the transitory nature of life and the mind’s response to grief as it flits from one image to another trying to make sense of loss and the absurdity of death.

Lorca’s strange, dreamlike imagery is a challenge. Timid fidelity seems pointless: I introduce Rorschach blots, usherettes, hard shoulders and radio aerials. English typically needs fewer syllables to express an idea than Spanish. I knit quatrains together with rhymes and half-rhymes to echo the repetitive vowel-music inherent in even unrhymed Spanish. Just once, Lorca breaks his quatrain: a little past the mid-point, a five-line unit rattles the lid of the coffin-like stanza. (Oddly, Dario does exactly the same in "Symphony in White Major" ... see previous blog). In what I hope is a similar improvisatory duende-summoning spirit, I break the last stanza into two short-lined unequal fragments.

On The Slab

after Federico García Lorca

"Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: 3. Cuerpo Presente"

No curving stream, no frozen cypresses,
this slab’s the brow where all dreams groan
into planets, ribbons caught up in tears and trees.
It’s just a shoulder to bear off time, this stone.

Hard shoulders. You’ve seen how those grey rains
throw up their arms, then pit the running waves
to flee the stalking, outstretched stone?
Nothing soaks through this slab. The blood still runs.

This stone gathers seed and cloud, a Rorschach:
one half at least, the other’s in our mind
with the shadowy wolf and the bones of larks,
and all that’s left of bull-rings is the boundless sand.

No applause, no suit of lights, he’s dead:
just so many kilos cooling on the slab.
His body turns to meat, weird sulphurs,
masked by that dark minotaur’s head.

All done with now. Rain gargles in his mouth.
The crazed air wheezes from his unlocked
chest, and love, drenched with creaking snows,
warms itself in crags above the flocks.

Silence creeps around us like a stench.
We’re keeping vigil with a once-bright form,
one familiar with nightingales who now melts.
He’s filling up with holes. We stare into a trench.

Who has wrinkled this shroud? Let no one sing,
weep in the corner, tear hair, or frighten off the snake.
Here I need only my own wide-open eyes
to see this forever restless body in stiff repose.

Bring them in, those strong-voiced men:
breakers of horses, tamers of rivers, the skint
but rattling skeletons who dance and sing
with mouths full of sun, skins full of wine and flint.

Bring them all before this stage of stone;
before this corpse with its broken reins.
Let usherettes shine torches down the aisles,
towards the illumination of the Exit sign.

Give me dirge. I want lament. Cry me a river,
with steep banks, vague mists to bear this body off.
Hire wailing women to mourn him gone.
Let him disappear where no bulls snort.

In the moon’s arena, let him lose himself
between the calf’s sad horns; let him sleep
with the fishes, with coral, tuning the white
aerials of smoke into their songless night.

Don’t cover his face.
It’s better that he gets
used to staring up at death;

all that bellowing hot breath.
Let him sleep open-eyed.
Even the sea dies…


Cuerpo Presente

La piedra es una frente donde los sueños gimen
sin tener agua curva ni cipreses helados.
La piedra es una espalda para llevar al tiempo
con árboles de lágrimas y cintas y planetas.

Yo he visto lluvias grises correr hacia las olas
levantando sus tiernos brazos acribillados,
para no ser cazadas por la piedra tendida
que desata sus miembros sin empapar la sangre.

Porque la piedra coge simientes y nublados,
esqueletos de alondras y lobos de penumbra;
pero no da sonidos, ni cristales, ni fuego,
sino plazas y plazas y otras plazas sin muros.

Ya está sobre la piedra Ignacio el bien nacido.
Ya se acabó; ¿qué pasa? Contemplad su figura:
la muerte le ha cubierto de pálidos azufres
y le ha puesto cabeza de oscuro minotauro.

Ya se acabó. La lluvia penetra por su boca.
El aire como loco deja su pecho hundido,
y el Amor, empapado con lágrimas de nieve
se calienta en la cumbre de las ganaderías.

¿Qué dicen? Un silencio con hedores reposa.
Estamos con un cuerpo presente que se esfuma,
con una forma clara que tuvo ruiseñores
y la vemos llenarse de agujeros sin fondo.

¿Quién arruga el sudario? ¡No es verdad lo que dice!
Aquí no canta nadie, ni llora en el rincón,
ni pica las espuelas, ni espanta la serpiente:
aquí no quiero más que los ojos redondos
para ver ese cuerpo sin posible descanso.

Yo quiero ver aquí los hombres de voz dura.
Los que doman caballos y dominan los ríos;
los hombres que les suena el esqueleto y cantan
con una boca llena de sol y pedernales.

Aquí quiero yo verlos. Delante de la piedra.
Delante de este cuerpo con las riendas quebradas.
Yo quiero que me enseñen dónde está la salida
para este capitán atado por la muerte.

Yo quiero que me enseñen un llanto como un río
que tenga dulces nieblas y profundas orillas,
para llevar el cuerpo de Ignacio y que se pierda
sin escuchar el doble resuello de los toros.

Que se pierda en la plaza redonda de la luna
que finge cuando niña doliente res inmóvil;
que se pierda en la noche sin canto de los peces
y en la maleza blanca del humo congelado.

No quiero que le tapen la cara con pañuelos
para que se acostumbre con la muerte que lleva.
Vete, Ignacio: No sientas el caliente bramido.
Duerme, vuela, reposa: ¡También se muere el mar!

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