Eavan Boland

The poet in the gallery


It’s good to start the new year with projects, especially if those projects involve mooching around galleries and writing poems. Lately, I have been immersed in the world of Martin Creed, in preparation for a course I’m running at the Hayward on the occasion of their Creed retrospective, What’s the point of it? You can find a guest blog by me on the Southbank website: 


So much of Creed’s work is about chance and order, and the collision of those two conditions. So much of writing is a similar activity. When putting together the course (which starts on Monday and runs for five weeks), I wanted to think about basic themes and structures, but I didn’t want to be too determined about how things should be. I want to go a little crazy, move my students (and myself) out of the usual poetry comfort zone (sitting quietly at a desk with a pen and a notebook, waiting for inspiration to strike), because Creed’s work is often about discomfort – looking at things we think we shouldn’t really be looking at, things we suspect don’t really belong in a gallery, at least not in the hallowed spaces of the National Gallery, or on the pristine white walls of Mayfair. There is a defiance in the work, poking fun at convention, having a laugh. I’ve been having fun too, listening to sound poetry, reading lots of John Cage and Edwin Morgan, a bit of Carl Andre, fiendish Oulipo experiments where vowels are suppressed and lines lengthened by measurement. And wondering how all these grand and batty experiments might still alter what we do and how we do it. It feels a bit like limbering up before running a marathon (of course I’m thinking about Creed’s Work No 850, which involved runners sprinting through the galleries of Tate Britain).



At the same time, I’ve been commissioned by the poets Catherine Smith, Emer Gillespie and Abegail Morley, who have formed a group called Ekphrasis to look specifically at the relationship between poetry and art: http://www.ekphrasis.org.uk/. They are asking 13 poets in total to respond to the current Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy. While not exactly as anarchic as Martin Creed’s show, the RA has commissioned six architects to come into the grand galleries of their Piccadilly building and let loose. The result is a show not simply of installations, but alternative spaces that (almost) make you forget you are in the RA.


But what I couldn’t forget while going through the show was that I needed to make a poem out of my experience, and that made me view the work differently, not just for its own merits, but also, and quite specifically, what could be mined from it? A quite mercenary approach to the gallery experience – one artist thinking what can I borrow, with impunity, from another artist (that is kind of the loose definition of ekphrasis, isn’t it)?

There was much I liked, but not much I thought I could use as a starting point for a poem. Not because the work wasn’t interesting, I just couldn’t see a way in for me. Something has to meet me on both an intellectual and emotional level (which takes me back to something Martin Creed has said, in negation to the idea that he is a chiefly a conceptual artist: ‘you can’t have ideas without feelings’). And then I walked into the space created by the Chinese architect Li Xiaodong. It is often difficult, sometimes impossible, to say why something moves you. Maybe that’s why you have to write the poem, to explore the question. But as soon as I passed through the simple curtain into Li Xiaodong’s construction of hazel twigs, forming a forest-like maze, which opens onto a shingle courtyard, I knew it was the installation I wanted to write about. Not that I knew what I wanted to say, of course – I’m still struggling with the poem itself – but that this was the place that could open my mind and heart to a poem.

I suspect I’ve quoted this before, a statement on the source of the poem by my great idol, the Irish poet Eavan Boland, but it’s so great, it’s worth saying again: 

Explaining a poem is difficult. The method is inherently unreliable. There is too much instinct and error in the process to make its initiator a good witness afterwards. Akhmatova says of one stage in her poetry “my handwriting had changed and my voice sounded different.” But such clear beginnings are rare. The truth is that every poem has a different hinterland: a terrain of chance and shadow, of images in life which stay put until they become images in language.

I like that idea of the hinterland. Maybe that’s what the gallery is to a poet, a ‘terrain of chance and shadow’ that we enter, hoping to be charged up enough to make something new.

That the science of cartography is limited

is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).

In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.

Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.

Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February: http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/literature-spoken-word/tickets/formerly-1000346

Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:

Rebecca Solnit: http://www.rebeccasolnit.com/infinitecity

The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson

The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting

Rag and Bone Shop (The Cabinet of Curiosities)

As someone who is fascinated by objects and their provenance (and has great difficulty getting rid of things I can no longer justify the need to keep) I feel a great affinity with collectors. There is something obsessive about a collection that focuses on one specific item or theme, for example, collections of Elvis memorabilia or Susie Cooper polka dot china (but only in blue). I like that kind of single-mindedness. For those collectors, the joy of collecting is in the search, the striving for completion (mixed with a secret desire never to complete, for to complete would mean there would be nothing more to search for).

I am a great admirer of Francis Alÿs’s Fabiola installation, which I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in 2009, and which has toured the world – this strange collection of over 300 images of Saint Fabiola, a 4th century Roman matron. Two aspects of the installation impressed me: 1. All the images of the saint are identically posed, based on a nineteenth-century French Salon painting, ironically now lost; 2. The artist spent fifteen years trawling flea markets and junk shops all over the world seeking out these images, rendered in a variety of genres, and all by amateur painters and craftspeople. It is Alÿs’s singular and obsessive act of collecting that most moves me; his search for this (not so) obscure saint, this one image of her copied and copied again, and then presented by him in one place. A world conference of Fabiolas. So I was thrilled on my recent trip to the Saturday market in Bruges to find my first Fabiola, in the form of an oval brooch. I resisted buying it, just in case Alÿs has an itch to add to his collection. It was enough just for me to see one out of the context of his installation. Presumably, once you start looking, you see them everywhere …

And you start to wonder how they got to where you found them. Flea markets are a great place to ponder this question. Things travel from one corner of the world to another, in suitcases or pockets. Some things never lose their power, even out of context. At the Saturday market in Bruges, I was momentarily halted in my tracks by the sight of a selection of Nazi memorabilia spread out innocently on a rug on the grass, part of a more general and random selection of goods offered by a jovial middle-aged Belgian dealer. Objects tainted by association. I had recently finished reading the excellent book The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, so as I wandered the stalls, his summary of the life of objects came to mind:

How objects are handled is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.

Of course, his inheritance, the collection of netsuke which is at the centre of the book, was hidden (under a mattress) from the Nazis who invaded his great-grandfather’s mansion in Vienna; so they are linked by history to these grim Nazi souvenirs (one of the less attractive aspects of our collecting culture – the need to grab trophies from those we’ve defeated).

As a collector whose habits are both specific (Chinese ginger jars and mid-century Scandinavian pots) and random (anything that catches my eye, from a rat’s skull to a Victorian grave marker), I appreciate the need to surround oneself with curiosities; objects which represent the variety of the world. I have always liked the idea of a wunderkammer, a cabinet (or in Renaissance times, a whole room) which would gather objects both man-made and natural, ancient and rare, works of art or geological samples.

Or even things common and ordinary. The best (and most obsessive) book on this type of ephemeral collecting is Collections of Nothing by William Davies King, in which he lists (over two pages) all the varieties of tuna fish for which he has collected labels from their cans. It is crazy, but also fascinating, as a way of recording how we branded and packaged items for sale at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Of no value now, but in years to come …

Eavan Boland describes one of her poems as ‘a small inventory of my views’. Perhaps poems are also a way of gathering these disparate objects together, another kind of ‘cabinet’. I will leave you with a quote from William Davies King’s book:

Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future. Objects from the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future. Collecting processes presence, meanwhile articulating the mysteries of desire. What people wanted and did not want drives what collectors want and do not want in anticipation of what future collectors will want or will not want. The mathematical formula connecting these equations of desire is mysterious and difficult …