The Grave Dug by Beasts

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Solitude is a burrow
into which you fold yourself
like a letter into an envelope

stamped Return to Sender.
It’s the metal flag raised
for the postman

or for the prisoner of conscience
still loyal to his cause,
waiting for the sky to change

its mind about being a roof.
His letters come back to him
with all the words blacked out,

leaving only the punctuation:
tooth marks, claw marks, tails.
This is the solitude

of St. Anthony, beset by lust
& anger, indolence & madness:
who wouldn’t want

to lose himself in
an unmarked grave
excavated by indifferent beasts?

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18 Comments


  1. It’s beautiful, tender and wise. I’m rather overwhelmed. An unsolicited collaboration (the best kind) which has made me re-visit and re-appraise my own work. Another Saint Anthony painting… this time a ‘Bonta’ influenced one… begins to simmer on my hob.

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    1. Clive – I’m so glad you like it. Now that I look at it again in the fresh light of morning, I almost like it myself. :) (Which is rare for me — I’m my own harshest critic.) Thanks again for creating such marvelous & open-ended work, so full of temptations for us writers (judging from what Marly is saying).

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  2. Hi Dave (and Clive)–

    A grand, worthy addition to the Clive-poem oeuvre! Amazing how many of us have one or more. I think it’s something to do with Clive having such a history with theatre and story and word, and that spills over into the paintings.

    I’ll send you the Clive-jacket for my next book when it’s released for public consumption: most astonishing. Painting by Clive, design by writer and book designer Robert Wexler.

    And congratulations again on “qarrtsiluni” doing so well on “Best of the Web 2008″…

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    1. Thanks, Marly! Have you shared your Hicks-Jenkins-inspired poems on your blog? And if not, could I persuade you to do so?

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      1. Guess you know where they will be now, as I gather that you told Clive the link wasn’t working. I wrote so many poems last year that a lot aren’t polished, and they included some for Clive (in honor of his no-doubt-splendid upcoming retrospective and just for friendship as well).

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  3. Reading the article before seeing the painting or rereading the poem, I think you romanticize the horrific. It was a better poem before the juxtaposition with the reality of “imposed solitude.”

    [Dave’s note: This comment refers to an earlier version of the post. See my comment below for the link Linda references.]

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    1. That’s an interesting reaction. Maybe I shouldn’t have included that link, but I do so want people to read that article. Because as the author says, nothing will change until the American public has a change of heart. (I was very pleased to hear the author interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”)

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  4. I like the line “waiting for the sky to change its mind about being a roof” and the punctuation marks as claws, tails, toothmarks. It occurs to me, though, that for me the word “solitude” has a connotation of chosen, more deliberate separateness rather than the imposed isolation and devastating aloneness here, so that at the beginning of the poem I am expecting to read something about a self-imposed state of singularity. Of course you bring the word back around a little later in reference to St. Anthony. Maybe I’m being obtuse; it wouldn’t be the first time. I think it’s an amazing poem and I would be thrilled if I had written one like it. I am curious to read the other poems written in response to this art.

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    1. Laura,

      You can find the poems (all but mine, and I am going to get off my duff and give them to Clive very, very soon!) at http://www.hicks-jenkins.com. Click on “Texts” and then click on “Poems.” It is interesting to see them all together…

      Good cheer,
      Marly

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    2. Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful response. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed “solitude” so hard in this poem. That’s definitely something to keep in mind if/when revision occurs.

      Some other poems in response to Clive’s work is on his website: here. Marly’s link doesn’t work yet, as mentioned, but you can click on any of the other three poets’ names to read their responses. (As you’ve probably gathered, I hadn’t discovered this page yet when I wrote my own poem — not sure how it might’ve affected me if I had.)

      [EDIT] Sorry, Marly, I guess we were both typing at the same time! So now Laura has the information twice.

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  5. Kia ora Dave,
    About to head out into the mountains and be cloud hidden and alone for 4 days. I find this poem very hard hitting and true.
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. Have a great time, Robb! I’m glad this poem spoke to you.

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  6. Cloud hidden. Been playing with that phrase for a bit lately.
    Thanks for the link, Marly and Dave. I haven’t spent time with these poems yet, really, but the three I read are very fine.
    That part about the sky waiting to change its mind is quite powerful for me.
    Clive, would it be all right if I posted a link to your site on my blog?

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    1. Thanks for asking Laura, And yes, I’d be more than happy for you to post a link to the site. Soon I’ll be building a page for Dave, and there his poem will be posted alongside the painting on which he drew. I’ve so enjoyed following the flurry of correspondence resulting from this beautiful poem. (I don’t run a blog myself.) I only once suggested a collaboration with a poet, and that was with the late Catriona Urquhart. We were close friends and it happened in an entirely natural way. (Only one small Private Press edition of her poems produced in her lifetime: ‘The Mares Tale’, published by the Old Stile Press in 2001. Illustrations by me. You can see images at my website on the ‘Books’ page.) But in recent years… certainly since the website has been up… a very small handful of writers have contacted me with regard to having used my paintings or drawings as a starting point for their own work, and I’ve found the process to be mutually enriching. Frequently a poem emerges that makes me want to just go back and do another painting (or paintings) on the theme. As with a thread of music, endless ‘variations’ can develop through the process. Ideas and perspectives I’d never thought of myself. True collaboration, and in the most gentle and rewarding way. I’ll certainly be returning to Saints Anthony and Paul, but this time via the filter of Dave’s evocative and moving meditation on solitude. His poem shall be pinned to the easel while I work. I can see the painting in my mind’s eye, even as I write this. However it can take time. In 2004 a friend sent me a copy of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’, and the paintings that poem inspired are only just emerging five years later. The first, ‘Tender Blackbird’, is nearly finished, and there are at least another six ready to go. Rich pickings from a single poem.

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  7. I love this poem.

    The solitude piece works for me, for what it’s worth:

    Solitude is a burrow
    into which you fold yourself
    like a letter into an envelope

    who wouldn’t want

    to lose himself in
    an unmarked grave
    excavated by indifferent beasts?

    makes a poem of its own, but book-ending the rest and in response to the (beautiful!) painting, I think these stanzas create a much deeper and more interesting exploration of aloneness in all its dimensions, chosen and not.

    I did not follow the link until after I allowed my own reaction to the poem/painting dialogue resonating with my own experience, so perhaps that article complicates: that monkey research – which is described very gently and subtly in that article – followed by the human analogy, is the stuff of horror and cruelty. I think pairing it with the poem & painting limits the emotional experience and personal projection available to the reader of the poem and establishes one context for reaction rather than leaving it open.

    And, I think people should read that article. Just perhaps not with the poem – ? Dunno. One reaction, anyway.

    Beautiful work, Dave.

    Reply

    1. I’m glad the poem worked for you. As for the link, not only do I think you’re right, but I’ve decided to go with the majority opinion here and remove it. For archival purposes, it’s here: Hellhole, by Atul Gawande.

      Reply

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