Woodblock prints

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.