The knotted rope


A funny thing, memory. The mind plays tricks, gives you back a replica of what was really there. But of course, what was there is not what is here; places, situations, people do not remain static. Only in memory, and over time, even memory becomes unreliable.

Back in Venice, I return to the Guggenheim, my first visit since I wrote about Jackson Pollock’s great painting Alchemy. The painting is darker than I’d remembered, larger. I found it oddly comforting the last time I saw it, but this time it is frightening as well. Vast and impenetrable. The image in my poem that conjures ‘a man stranded in space’ feels accurate. But it’s another Pollock that catches me this time: Enchanted Forest. Alchemy is a landscape, the sky at night swirling with galaxies, but Enchanted Forest is vertical, human-scale, like a door you could walk through. But, if you could walk into the painting, you would be immediately barred by the thick tangle of … branches? Thorns? Entry is impossible. The twisting mass of black is interrupted by flecks of red, like blood, just to enforce the idea that this is not a forest for mortals.

In another room, Joseph Cornell’s Setting for a Fairy Tale. A classical façade in the foreground, but clearly two-dimensional, like a stage set. What is behind is dense forest, real branches resembling trees looming over the house. The branches are painted silver; ghostly, but somehow they are more real than the cut-out mansion, the play house that they frame. The windows in the house are actually mirrors; another illusion. The whole construction is behind glass, boxed, framed. It’s only when you stand back from it do you notice the tiny figures in the foreground, almost blending into the façade. The mansion is a wall which will prevent them from entering the forest behind, as it has no proper doors or windows. The branches arch over the flimsy façade, as if they might break the glass and escape the box. For me, it has the same effect as Enchanted Forest, but on a miniature scale. The trees, the real three-dimensional trees, shrunk to fit their box, suggest that this fairy tale is grim(m). There could never be a happy ending.


And in another room, Arthur Duff’s Black Stars. Strands of vertical rope, like the kind of rope you see on boats along the canals, but not quite so thick; black, and knotted at intervals, so when you stand back, there is a dense cluster of knots at its centre. Like both the Pollock and the Cornell, Duff is playing with dimensionality. From a distance, the rope looks like a flattened surface, just paint on a canvas; it’s only when you approach do you realise. Are the stars knotty problems for us to understand (like alchemic equations)? Is this what we might call ‘dark matter’? Are we so small in the great scheme of things? Are we so easy to fool with simple tricks of perspective that any magician could perform? Do we find we get tied up in knots when we seek explanations? Is memory a dark clot in the brain, a thick tangle of trees we can’t penetrate?

Outside, the cold winter light of the canal. 


For many years, I would go to museums and stare at the Pollocks on the wall and think to myself I don’t get it. And that was the problem; I was trying to find a narrative. Certainly there are early Pollocks in which you can find figures, mythologies, symbols; but when he hit his late phase, the paintings become wholly about gesture, they are fluid, like a dance on a canvas. I finally ‘got it’ one summer in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, standing in front of a painting called 'Alchemy’. The light reflecting off the canal was latticed through the window onto the floor. The heat of the day was deflected against the cool marble. Everything was sensation, movement, as in his painting. In that decadent Palazzo, Pollock suddenly made sense, in that I wasn’t trying to 'understand’ him anymore, his painting simply affected me in a way I couldn’t explain. This poem is about that damascene moment.


Guggenheim Museum, Venice

Just when I think nothing can move me,
room after room of Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini,
the Virgin granting me her doleful eyes,
her pearly tears,

I enter a cool white palazzo,
find his huge canvas, which shows me the truth
of water and fire, in this place
of canals and candlelight, a city he never saw.

What he made was a world
in perpetual swirl, violent red, yellow bile,
the way the galaxy might look to a man stranded
in space, before science and logic takes hold.

And I stand before this picture,
the man who painted it
dead, like the masters shut away
in these palaces of art, their works their tribute;

wanting to pin beauty to the canvas,
dusty and flightless. But this picture lives, black
against the midday sun, legions of day-glo tourists
bobbing along the canal,

and I feel tears
welling up before I can make them stop.
I don’t know why; I’m tired,
vulnerable in my light summer clothes,

he and I foreigners to a faith
which isn’t ours: Christ on the cross,
the martyrdom of the saints, spelled out in
blood and gold.