The dreary sea (and what is writ in water)

Well, not exactly the sea – but a view of the dreary Mersey, like a slab of wet concrete, through the window of Tate Liverpool. But we find the sea inside, contained in vast canvases by Turner and Twombly, turbulent, swelled by storm; the manifestation of the Sublime, as Ruskin defined it, a perilous beauty inherent in what is dangerous, terrifying.

The sea is contained inside us as well; Ruskin talks of ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings’. Both Turner and Twombly depicted the story of Hero and Leander, star-crossed, storm-tossed lovers, as a illustration of the Sublime. In Turner’s painting, the towers of Abydos fade in the twilight gloom, while the Hellespont gleams under a crescent of moon; its glow is casts long corridor to Sestos on the opposite shore, which is not visible, but we know that Hero is there, waiting (we also know that Leander will drown trying to cross the sea to her, and when Hero discovers her lover is dead, will throw herself from her tower into the sea to join him). To the right, there are nymphs or angels emerging from the water, almost water themselves – ghostly in the dim light. I don’t know if Turner would have known Keats’s poem on a Leander gem, where he evokes ‘sweet maidens … with a chastened light / Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white’, for whom Leander is ‘a victim of your beauty bright’, but Keats could be speaking directly about Turner’s extraordinary light effects, and Turner could be realising Keats’s maidens in paint.

Twombly knew Turner’s painting, he knew Keats’s poem. The first panel of his quadriptych shows Leandro being tossed in the sea, a manifestations of his churning passion; the next two panels show the sea overtaking and erasing his passion, his presence – the triumph of nature over man (and of the processes of nature over human emotion), until the final panel leaves us with nothing, apart from the final line of Keats’s poem: he’s gone, up bubbles all his amorous breath. A very Twomblyesque notion – there is nothing that remains of our passion and fury once we are silence and ash. Just words, paintings.

Twombly said ‘painting is a fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’, his take on the Sublime perhaps. That makes me think of Turner’s contemporary,Caspar David Friedrich, and his painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (not the actual sea, but a sea of fog, a haze of confusion and doubt).

I think of Byron swimming the Hellespont in honour of Leander, which makes me think of the Louis Edouard Fournier painting of Byron attending the funeral of Shelley, drowned in 1822 (which we had just seen the same morning in the Walker Art Gallery).

Shelley is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with Keats, who died the year before him; and Keats’s epitaph reads: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

After apple picking


It was one of those perfect autumn weekends, when you think warm days will never cease, to quote Keats. Light and sunny, but with a sharpness to the air, an early frost on the grass. And yes, mists over the river. We had gathered at Mendham Mill, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, to talk about the theme of harvest in poetry, and the apple as metaphor for all sorts of things …

There is sin, of course (‘the sacred fruit forbidden’, as Milton had it) and desire: the apple being likened to the breasts in Tasso and Spenser, in early 20th century American slang, to a woman’s sex. There is good health: (‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’) many legends feature apples which guarantee immortality; one of Hercules’s labours was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, in Norse mythology, Loki nicks the apples which are meant to keep the Gods young and the Gods immediately wither and age. There is beauty: the Anglo-Saxon word “aeppel” meant both “eye” and “apple”, both the beholder and what is beheld. There is this world and the next: the roundness of the apple like a globe, high on a branch pointing ‘toward heaven still’.

So we talked, and tasted. The Tydeman’s Late Orange had a sweetness that stuck to the teeth like cotton candy, but the Worcester Pearmain had a tarter finish. The Suffolk Pink was light and fresh, the Laxton Superb had very white flesh. We tried them with cheese that crumbled in our fingers, and washed it all down with Aspall’s cider. And we walked; through the village of Metfield, into the fields beyond, obeying Thoreau’s dictum on the best way to enjoy wild apples:

“These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,–that is, out-of-doors … To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, ‘To be eaten in the wind’.”

We ended up on Wakelyn’s Farm, where we found ancient varieties, as if we’d stumbled onto a garden out of another time: the Leathercoat Russett, around since 1500; Shakespeare might have bitten into one when he was writing ‘How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow’ (although probably not; it’s twisted and brown, certainly too ugly for the shelves of Tesco’s). Or the Coeur De Boeuf, blood-red, nearly black on the tree, and first cultivated in 1200. The apple of the Troubadours.

And we read poems. The one that stays with me is Frost’s, so beautiful and strange. The orchard as a ladder to heaven, and dream:


But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kellett. Her account of the Apple Walk here:

And thanks to Rochelle Scholar:

Wilder shores of love

I can think of no other recent painter whose work has been so intricately and delicately linked to poetry than Cy Twombly, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Incised directly into the paint in pencil are snippets of Keats and Rilke and Eliot, his ‘gauche scrawl’ (as Barthes called it) often compared to graffiti; but his ‘scrawl’ is more considered than that – like notes, like the artist reciting beautiful words that come back to him while painting, and then whispering them to us, his gestures meeting those of the great poets he loved. He said that painting was a ‘fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’ – the way these phrases float up to the viewer from the turbulent surfaces of his canvases. He was an artist who looked to the old world of Europe rather than the new world of America – surrounded for most of his adult life by the ruins of Rome, their grand inscriptions fragmented, worn away.

Those small snippets of poetry are like coded messages, a chart of the artist’s moods and desires, often mixed with scatological sketches of cocks and cunts (there the comparison to graffiti seems apt – his canvas like a blank wall waiting to be defiled). Twombly was drafted into the US army in the early 50s and assigned to the department of cryptography. At the same time he experimented with drawing blind, at night, to try and ‘unlearn’ what he had been taught. The paintings are there for us to work out – he gives clues, but no answers. We have to meet him in the dark.

I wrote a poem in response to the ‘Inverno’ canvas of his great ‘Quattro Stagioni cycle. It is for me is the most poignant, the most secretive of his seasons; sparse words obliterated by a storm of black and yellow veiled in bright white – like snow, like the sky wiped clean by coldness. Nicholas Cullinan describes it as a ‘mist of sorrow’. I wanted my poem to tell a story in fragments, ‘in a language no one understands’. The link to the poem at Tate Etc. is here:

To repel ghosts

I am staring at the iconic photograph of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Lizzie Himmel, the one where he is posed on a red leather chair in his studio. Painted directly onto the wall behind him is a lumpy black figure, part cartoon, part gremlin, with bared teeth. Gremlin and artist are facing each other. Basquiat is wearing a pinstripe suit and a tie, but he is clearly artist rather than businessman; the cuffs of his trousers are dirty, he is barefoot. One foot is propped against a toppled chair. He holds his paintbrush aloft. It is 1985 and he is at the height of his fame. Three years later he’ll be dead.

The photograph is blown up to fit the wall so that he is larger than life, confronting visitors arriving at his Musée d’Art Moderne retrospective. People are streaming into the museum to see his work; they are photographing his photograph, posing in front of his image. Mostly young girls; too young to remember him. But he is forever 25 years old in this photo – cocky, beautiful, haunted. If he had lived, he would have been 50 this year.

As I am walking through the show, I’m thinking about Jackson Pollock. Not necessarily the first artist you might connect with Basquiat, but since I’ve been immersing myself in Pollock’s life and work for the last few months, he is never far away. They were both ‘untrained’ talents. True, they both went to art school, but what they created was not something that was taught to them. Both were undisciplined, liberated, self-destructive, and what they brought to their art was an expression of chaos, the world turned on its side. If Pollock had lived, he might have admired the young Basquiat, from the perspective of the older artist who had ‘been there, done that’.

Basquiat’s world is bright and throwaway, but there are always gremlins and ghosts in the background, random scrawls crossed out, eradicated. He is often referred to as a graffiti artist, but the graffiti here are the jottings of the psyche, the ‘heart as arena’. These jottings link him most closely to Twombly, but the latter artist had a greater library from which to draw, quoting Rilke and Keats on his canvases. Basquiat’s references mix the high and the low; the language of billboards and ad campaigns merged with snippets from Greek myth, the names of gods and kings (which makes me think of O’Hara at his best, as in ‘The Day Lady Died’). The texts in Basquiat’s paintings give the viewer a way to read his mind. In Eroica II, one of his last paintings, the images disappear completely and the canvas is given over to words; a litany of ‘b’s from a slang dictionary: ‘balls: testicles / bang: injection of narcotics or sex / bark: human skin’. It is as if his gremlins are speaking directly to us, mischievous and deathly in the same breath. On the side, the phrase “man dies”, written in shadowy grey. In the end, he was not able to repel his ghosts.