Death and Life in Middlesbrough

To Middlesbrough, for my workshop on Poetry and Memorial, occasioned by Julian Stair’s extraordinary exhibition at mima, Quietus: the vessel, death and the human body. I have been a long-time admirer of Julian’s beautiful urns and sarcophagi, and my poem ‘The Firing’ was based on his work (here it is, along with some other poems from the book Fetch, on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site: http://peonymoon.wordpress.com/tag/tamar-yoseloffs-the-firing/).

It was a glorious day, and the sun beamed brightly into the education room, where we spent the afternoon reading poems and talking about that most taboo and difficult of subjects: death. We started with some thoughts on the title of the show, and the meaning of ‘quietus’, a word we’ve lost in modern grammar, but charged with multiple meanings: a release, a calming, and perhaps more accurately for Julian’s show, a place between life and death. The word comes from the Latin quietus est = ‘he is discharged’, as from a debt. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126, all the meanings of the word come together in the final line:

Sonnet 126

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
( )
( )

We pondered the ‘missing’ couplet. Is this a deliberate silence, to echo the silence of passing? The 12th line feels like an ending, a closure, but Shakespeare is too great a master of the sonnet not to be hinting as more by the absence of lines 13 and 14.

We moved from Shakespeare, to Sir Thomas Browne (readers of Invective will already know of my love for his essay ‘Urne-Buriall’) to Sylvia Plath’s haunting and strange ‘Edge’, the final poem she wrote before taking her life. In it, she talks about the dead woman as ‘perfected’, and compares her to a classical statue:


The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Does the last line refer to the blackness of night, and by extension, the total blackness of death? Some critics think that ‘blacks’ could be mourning clothes, a stiff taffeta gown, as donned by a Victorian widow, another kind of costume the woman might wear (like the toga). Others think that ‘blacks’ are a reference to stage curtains, perhaps a pun on ‘it’s curtains for her’ but also evoking death as an act of theatre (which takes us back to ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’, the poet’s audience, her witnesses to the attempts she made on her life).

We read ‘Child Burial’ by Paula Meehan, a painful and terrible elegy about the loss of a child. And ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson, where death is a suitor, a kindly gentleman caller willing to pick you up in his carriage and take a you on leisurely drive out to the cemetery. And then we had a break for lunch and a walk around the galleries.

Although poems are normally two-dimensional objects, there is always the hand and heart of the poet behind them, and so I can’t help but picture the author, at his or her desk, in the act of writing the poem. I always think of Plath’s desperate last days during that cold London winter when I read ‘Edge’, and it makes the poem even more unbearable. There is something about Julian’s pieces that are at once personal and public, like poems. They often take on human forms – as Julian points out, the terms for the parts of pots are taken directly from the body:

The concept of anthropomorphism is central to the identity of pottery. We use bodily terms such as neck, shoulder, hip and foot to describe the constituent parts of a pot. And the very nature of the vessel as a container, a holder of things, is analogous to the idea of the body as a physical container for the soul or spirit.

The Reliquary for a Common Man is a single jar of bone china. To say it contains the ashes of Julian’s uncle, Les Cox, does not describe it fully – some of his ash was used in the fabric of the jar itself. Perhaps the best way to think of this jar is as an ‘auto-icon’, a memorial that contains physical remains of the subject. Most reliquaries contain bones or other fragments of saints, so this is not a new idea, but somehow one which has become alien to us at the beginning of the 21st century. The room where the jar is displayed contains two screens, one showing home movies from the 50s and 60s, the other a series of still photographs which trace Les from childhood to old age. A recording of his voice plays into the darkened gallery. The effect should have been ghostly, but actually, I felt Les’s presence very strongly, his living presence – and I have never been susceptible to spiritualism or stories from beyond the grave. I was in the room with him, not only his image and his voice, but also some small physical fact of him, absorbed into the jar. Isn’t it true we become something else when we die – the shape and scale of us no longer exists. Maybe this is what Plath was striving for in ‘Edge’ – to take a different shape, to make herself into something else.

The other piece that especially moved me was the Columbarium – a word I’ve always loved, which comes from the Latin for ‘dove’, because the shape and compartments resembled a dovecote, but also makes me thing of the dove of peace, the holy spirit rising beyond the body. Julian’s Columbarium consists of 130 pots which create a tower, to suggest a community, the way we all come together democratically in death.

We came together again after lunch to share our poems, which were all extraordinary statements on the process of remembering and honouring. The whole experience was, surprisingly, joyful and life-affirming.

Julian’s show continues at mima until 11th November:

Fine lines


On the lower-ground floor of the Redfern Gallery on Cork Street is a small display of twentieth-century woodblock prints by seminal British artists such as Gill and Ravilious. Monochrome figures and landscapes against the stark white walls. But my eye is drawn to the back wall, where two contemporary prints hang side by side: against a vibrant black ground (the black is almost shining), delicate white ladders appear as if they’ve been conjured from nowhere. But these are not ladders you might climb; they are unstable, unreliable, crooked.

I haven’t seen these prints “in the flesh” since the day Linda Karshan showed them to me in her studio. These two are from a set, five of which were reprinted in my last collection, Fetch, as a way of splitting the book into discreet sections. The title poem, a film-noir-style narrative about a woman who creates a “fetch” or doppelganger to seduce a former lover, was divided into five installments, interspersed throughout the book, each “chapter” introduced by one of Linda’s striking woodblocks. In the two which are hanging here, there are two ladders in each, twinned, but not identical, but as the series progresses, the ladders multiply, become dense, more difficult to negotiate or separate. As my unnamed narrator sends her fetch out to do her bidding, the coupling becomes a triangle. It felt right to accompany my strange poem of betrayal and disillusionment with these spiky, odd, imperfect images.

Thinking about the process of woodblock printing, the artist chisels into the block along the grain to create what will appear as white on the page; what remains uncut will take the ink, appear as black. Of course, when the block is inked and transferred onto paper, the image will appear in reverse, a mirror image; this also felt appropriate when thinking of the fetch, the familiar, the doppelganger, perhaps the “reverse” of the speaker.

Linda is about to embark on a new set of woodblocks, and I will be writing a new poem to accompany them. A mirroring of her process, perhaps? I think of Heaney’s famous analogy of “digging” for the crafting of the poem; what we poets do is a kind of cutting away until the line is shaped.



Rain, steam and speed

For those of you who have been following Invective since the beginning, you may be surprised by my choice of image today. Yes, I’ve given you Peter Lanyon and Prunella Clough, who, although they are very different painters, both represent a particularly British way of looking at landscape – which is at once modern and complex, and driven by internal as well as external forces. Both of them wanted to celebrate the landscapes they loved: for Lanyon, the West Penwith coast; for Clough, the brown field sights of South London and Essex. But neither one of them could have painted the way they did without Turner. Not to say that Turner was a direct influence, but it was Turner whose ground-breaking style (if that’s not too much of a pun when talking about landscape painting) gave them permission. Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most extraordinary images, and for me it represents the moment when the industrial meets the pastoral (like in Hardy’s novels, or Wordworth’s poems). Andrew Graham-Dixon says of this picture: 

The train was not just a contraption which moved Turner from place to place more quickly than ever before. It moved him emotionally. It made him see the world as never before. He put this into the very style of his picture, conjuring up effects of blur and rush to celebrate a new speeded up vision. Turner had looked the future full in the face. He had found it beautiful. He had found it exhilarating.

I have stood in front of this painting many times and felt moved, not just by the sensation of speed Turner is able to evoke, but moved emotionally. It’s an odd feeling to be moved by a painting, and it is difficult to say why. Something about a particular arrangement of shape and colour and line. The same way a poem affects you when you don’t always understand its meaning, but the language and imagery strike something subconscious.

The poem that follows (which was published in my last collection, Fetch) is directly inspired by not only Turner’s painting, but the experience of standing in front of it in the National Gallery and being moved, and then watching other people standing in front of it perhaps experiencing the same transformation. I’m a fan of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs observing crowds of people in galleries, and I wanted to capture something of that collective experience of looking at art in a public place (while undergoing some private emotion).

I’m off to Tate Britain in a little while, and although I am not going for the Turners, I feel I will have to call in on them while I’m there, just to say hello.


Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape


They stand, not quite touching,

before a world after storm.


There are drops of moisture in her hair,

in his scarf

                 the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,


while trains depart every minute, steaming

into the future, where the hills


unroll themselves,

vast plains of emerald and gold


            (she undressed for him, slowly,

             her skin like cloud under dark layers)


after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead

against old brocade

                                (their flesh alive in the white sheets).




There are trains departing.

                                        When they part

it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,


        and the sky will be blown with stars,

too dim to see in the glare of neon.


They will stand on concrete and asphalt,

                                    the innocent shining sands


lost. The world tilts to meet her face,

he holds her face close


           and something closes in on them,

the weight of silence in the street,


the winter horizon, bright, huge,

the moment before

                                 the sky opens and it pours.