Tuesday 20 November 2012

Metamorphosis: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, autumn 2012, war poetry and Brian Turner

Last night was our last session of the poetry from art autumn term at Tate Modern so we spent the second part of the class in a reading celebration. For the first part we responded to two monumental war paintings: Leon Golub's Vietnam II and the Iraqui artist Dia al-Azzawi's Sabra and Shatila Massacre, which depicts the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982. We discussed the difficulty of writing poems about war when not a combatant, but these two artists were not directly involved with the wars they depicted. Is it possible to write authentically about such a huge subject if we have not experienced it? I've worked with students in Algiers who have lived through and are still living through terrorism, and mentored the UK poet Mir Mahfuz Ali, who writes powerful poems about the trauma of war in Bangladesh, and one of the problems for them is being too close to the subject, as well as the events simply being too shocking for the reader to be able to take in. So we studied three poems by Brian Turner, from his collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, about his time as a soldier in the Iraq war, to see how he dealt with being up close, and how he found a language for unspeakable things. 

Vietnam II by Leon Golub (detail)
We used three of Turner's poems as models for possible approaches to such a tricky subject. His poem 'Here, Bullet', for example, focuses on one detail of war: a bullet. The speaker talks to the bullet, which is whizzing through the air, so speed is arrested for the space of the poem, to allow a human to engage with a power object, and offer himself as a sacrifice to it against the harm it continues to do. Addressing the bullet rather than the 'enemy' takes away notions of blame and gives the soldier-poet distance, so although the tone is passionate this device gives him the objectivity to make a work of art. I suggested the group try picking out a detail from Golub or Azzawi's paintings instead of taking on the whole composition.

'Easel' uses the metaphor of a soldier painting a canvas of blue and desert yellows as he bombs his target, so that the action is conveyed through date palms that "open / in a burst of green" and where people are "mere phantasms / of paint, their features unrecoverable, their legs / disappearing...". Again, everything in the poem is happening at high speed, and the conceit of painting distances what might otherwise be too unbearable to describe. We read how Leon Golub, when he was painting Vietnam II and after the first layer of paint was applied, placed his vast canvas on the floor and scraped it down with a meat cleaver before reconstructuring the figures of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. The painting process could be a way in to write a poem, allowing the scene to remain open and metaphoric.

'Howl Wind', from Phantom Noise freezes a crucial moment, when a missile is released from "the high angle of hell" and the poem switches from this sky-high angle to zoom in on particular lives, couples who must kiss or say what's on their minds now, before "the steel-hard visitations of death" – "now is the time". Perhaps, like 'Howl Wind', a poem can imagine the sounds of a massacre (which can only be suggested in the painting), or shift angle to high up or ground level, play with perspective and scale. Anything that allows the imagination to fully inhabit the horror within a contained frame, to make order – art – out of chaos.

Sabra and Shatila Massacre by Dia al-Azzawi

Saturday 17 November 2012

BBC Radio 4 Expressing Pain and Frida Kahlo

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Dr Stuart Flanagan for a BBC Radio 4 documentary 'Expressing Pain'. He asked me about my book What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo and was interested in
how I'd written poem versions of Kahlo's paintings, expressing how her "art works on the pain spectrum". Like many people I've often struggled at the doctor's to describe what pain feels like, especially when the doctor seems rushed and sometimes uninterested, so it was a revelation to be in the company of one who was so concerned to know what patients' pain feels like that he was making a documentary about it.  When I say he was interested it would be more accurate to say he was passionate about his subject. The documentary, produced by Rebecca Maxted, is broadcast on Monday 19th November at 4pm and lasts about half an hour. You can listen to it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nxh2l

As well as focusing on how artists have depicted pain in their work the programme will include an interview with chronic pain sufferer and artist Deborah Padfield, who works with chronic pain patients to create visual representations of their pain. It will also chart the progress of one of these patients as he visits his doctor and makes paintings about his suffering.

There would be a revolution in health care if doctors did take the role of art in managing – and transforming – pain more seriously. Certainly, in the case of Frida Kahlo it was a lifeline. Her life could have been unremittingly ugly, had she not found ways to transform her suffering into paintings while she was in hospital, recovering from that horrific bus crash in her teens. It left her with chronic and often acute pain for the rest of her life. The resulting paintings might express that pain unflinchingly, but they are also stoic, astonishingly alive, and defiant. They celebrate life in all its gore and glory.

Here is my fifth poem about her painting What the Water Gave Me, where she is lying in her bath surrounded by  scenes from her paintings and episodes from her life that float around her legs like hallucinatory islands. The bath water is a scrying glass, but it's also a place of healing, a retreat to soothe away pain. In my poem I'm imagining her process of painting and how the act of making art, with the altered state it can put the artist into, can help:

What the Water Gave Me (V)

The water enters my pores gently.

When it sings all my body listens,
the little hairs dawdle 
            in calm eddies.

It is like painting then, that lost hour

when the colours play together
before becoming a mouth,
the rough face
                        not yet human.

One eye drowning in its rockpool

finds a tunnel of rippled light
and opens
to gaze at its maker.
                                  And I,
all alone with my painted bath,
my one-thread brush
grafting skin,

my sea-changed skeleton

          a surprise reef
where fingers of live coral
knit the shattered spine.
My out-of-the-frame head
           not  throbbing now.

The water a poured mirror, its song

rising up the chromatic scale
to create land on the surface.

The currents shiver like shaken glass

splashing my legs with shoals of pigment –

the blue sting, the red ache,

how art works on the pain spectrum.

© Pascale Petit What the Water Gave Me (Seren, 2010, UK, Black Lawrence Press 2011, US)