Wednesday 20 June 2012

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern: Damien Hirst's Anatomy of an Angel

"Every angel is terrifying", Rilke wrote, when he started his Duino Elegies. Damien Hirst's angel is no exception, being a hybrid of a kitsch snow-white Carrara marble beauty and an anatomy-lesson mannequin where the skin is cut away to reveal the internal organs and the skull. We set up our chairs around her for the second week of my Poetry from Art course in the Damien Hirst exhibition.

But before attempting 'angel' poems we went on a lightning tour of a few key exhibits in the show, just us and the full glory of Mother and Child Divided (where I pointed out the furry snout of the calf foetus inside the dissected cow), and the shark in its tank of turquoise
formaldehyde. I steered the group away from the rotting cow's head and insect-o-cutored flies vitrine, since it wasn't looking its prettiest, past the pongy giant ashtray titled Crematorium, back to the end of the galleries, to the room adjacent to the angel. In many ways this room, containing both Black Sun and Black Sheep, is the antithesis of the angel-and-butterfly-mosaics display. Black Sun is a large circular black 'painting' made entirely of stuccoed flies in resin. I think it's one of Hirst's most inventive and evocative pieces, with its references to Beelzebub and black holes or anti-matter.

We read Selima Hill's poem 'See the Flies' and 'Sheep', both full of black humour, to see ways of writing responses that could be short, intense, oblique, personal, or funny. Our last vitrine was The Incomplete Truth, a perfectly preserved dove flying in  formaldehyde, seedpearls or air-bubbles glistening around its claws.

Here, I read out the Spanish/Argentinian poet Rafael Alberti's poem 'Dove', where everything is as reversed as Hirst's harbinger in its poisonous element, and the dove "to travel north she flew south.../ Believing the sea was sky, / That the night was dawn."

Back in the angel room we discussed Rafael Alberti's poems 'The Angel of Numbers' and 'The Good Angel', and recited the list of inspiring poem titles in his collection Sobre los Angeles (Concerning the Angels). Everyone particularly loved 'The Angel of Numbers' for its unexpected juxtaposition of maths with angels. We also read Selima Hill's funny 'Portrait of My Lover as an Angel' and the darker 'Love is Like a Terrifying Angel' from her fabulous collection Gloria: Selected Poems. This brought us back to Rilke, so I read out the first two stanzas of 'The Second Elegy' from The Duino Elegies to get us into writing mode.

They had just twenty minutes to write an angel, fly, dove or a cow poem, perhaps borrowing an approach from one of our examples. Our sessions only last one and a half hours so it's a bit of squeeze but we not only managed to hear everyone read back their excellent poems but also played a quick Hirstian instant surrealism game to close, a variation on the Surrealist Definitions game. I had collected 26 nouns (such as 'insect-o-cutor', 'pharmacy', 'fly') from the exhibition
and printed each one on a strip of paper. These were folded up in a chocolate box, and selected at random. We had to briefly define our noun then tear the definition away from it and hand the definition to the person on the left so they had a different definition for their original noun. It worked wonderfully, and I've asked everyone to bring in their surreal definitions in next week, to use in the Ewa Partum video session, when we will be working with lots of word scraps on paper as she does.

At the end of each session we go upstairs to the Members' Bar for free drinks, and as it was a balmy evening we sat out on the terrace overlooking the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's, listening to the terrifying screeches of two peregrine falcons on the Tate Modern roof.