Today is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of guest posts from poets discussing their responses to visual art. Robert Stein’s first collection, The Very End of Air, will be launched on 9th November at the Betsey Trotwood in London. Here is a poem from the collection informed by the work of the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon, who Huysmans described as ‘the Prince of mysterious dreams …’
I often write about paintings, or rather write about an interior, a mood, an imagined narrative ignited by a painting. I do so because writing in this way is a prompt, a forced turning of the head, to see the world as if I were another. That impossible question - what is it like to be someone else? - I have always found compelling.
On this occasion, I did not sit down to write about Redon’s work. Instead, I was simply noting down the titles of some of his pieces at an exhibition; partly because I liked the images, partly because the titles themselves were attractive and redolent. Since many of the works were in a series about angels, the titles were often alike, and thus a kind of poem with its own ‘rhyme-scheme’: made by the repetition of words, phrase-lengths and rhythms began to appear. The finished poem borrows only I think one actual title from Redon, if that, the others follow their own trajectory from his starting-place.
Fortunately, as happens sometimes, the poem wrote itself, with images of darkness, water and fallenness recurring with a slowly-building intensity that cannot break out of its compelled vision. The poem pretends to be a list of titles that might be suggested to the painter. Of course it is no such thing.
Titles for Redon
The sad angel, who has folded his wings.
The sad black angel with wings unfurled.
The black angel slowly unfolds his sad wings.
The unfurled wings of the drowned angel.
The angel who has drowned.
The flightless bird.
The sad, aimless man.
The forgotten black man, drowned.
The heavy evening by the dark canal.
The poor moon with an archangel, waiting.
The night has seeped right through me. I am drowned.