The Celibate Couple Pursued

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

Who let these two pawns crowd
into a single square? The game
requires that we each defend
our solitude. We have banished
the bird from the tree & the tree
from the horizon. But now

the white knight wrestles
with temptation: can’t he take
the direct route to head them off,
pin them against the straight-
arrow castle, instead of sidling up
in waltz steps like some kind
of goddamned dandy?

The black & white squares begin
to merge — a gray quicksand.
His horse grows scaley,
anadromous, gathers itself
for a leap worthy of Cúchulainn.

The disobedient pair flee
to the far edge of their flat earth
& turn into queens,
resplendent & terrifying.
The watchman bawls
from his tall tower,
Check & Check & Mate.

Series Navigation← The Barbarian Brought Down by a LionessThe Righteous Man Surprised by the Devil →

10 Comments


  1. Jeez-Louise on the series, most particularly this poem and The Grave Dug by Beasts.

    Poems inspired by paintings are such a tempting danger. What if the pairing casts one into shadow, as the less accomplished example of its genre? Another risk: the poem is so tightly woven from painting details as to exist in a permanent state of co-dependence. Who wants to see a cage without the bird?

    Much as I love Auden, I can argue that Musee des Beaux Arts avoids only the former trap. But here all traps are sprung, resulting in an independent and quite fine poem. And on a completely parallel track, way across town, even web-views of Clive’s works trigger lust.

    Reply

    1. I’m glad you’re enjoying these poems, Julia. They’ve been difficult but very rewarding to write; this one in particular took me well out of my comfort zone — never a bad thing. Obviously my project here is to invent brand new stories for the paintings, and fortunately Clive is cool with that. I don’t think there’s much risk of my poems casting his paintings into shadow, but the opposite could certainly happen.

      I hope to have the next in the series done by tonight or early tomorrow.

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  2. P.S. Dave, I am extremely impressed by the way you’ve written this sequence of poems in the order the paintings have been posted on my website. That must have taken discipline of the first order. Anyone else would have done them in order of inspiration or preference.

    Reply

    1. Discipline? I persist in thinking of this as a form of play rather than work. And every game demands adherence to some set of arbitrary rules; writing these in the order they’re posted is simply one of the rules I set myself.

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  3. Julia, it warms my heart to read your comment about Dave having pulled off the difficult trick of writing a poem that works equally well with or without the artwork that was its source. I’ve been totally swept away by the worlds D has conjured from these paintings. He’s re-invented them, both for me and for whoever comes to them anew, and I couldn’t be happier at that process of creativity. For me there is no single ‘correct’ way of reading a narrative painting, which is why I don’t say too much about what went on in my mind when making mine. The poet adds a new voice, and as a result not even the artist will ever see the paintings in the same way again.

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  4. Clive, the feat seems more amazing as I return to appreciate the paintings. But then again, your work doesn’t reduce to “narrative painting.” The work thrums with consequence, and a tone which includes but is not limited to terror. An entire civilization is implied.

    The paintings feel like artifacts: that frieze that you (save/steal) for the BM because you know that it deals with sacrifice long before you can decode the iconography. I imagine them hung at the back of an enormous Hall, so that the approaching viewer has time to square his/her shoulders.

    I am a bit disappointed, however, that Dave didn’t work in
    “rhomboid chapels”.

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    1. I think the Independent needs to hire you to write their art reviews. That critic didn’t even seem to know which exhibition he was reviewing.

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  5. Oh Julia, don’t get me started. How about that ‘penile chimney’!

    The Temptations of Solitude opened at MoMA Wales in 2004. The first floor gallery is chapel-like in its simplicity, and the eight paintings (plus one that was thematic to the series but not strictly included in it) were hung sparely and lit beautifully in the space.

    A man at the opening rather crossly accused me of painting on wall-mounted perspex panels lit from behind. (No, I swear he was serious.) A passing visitor who talked his way into a sneak preview while we were still hanging, attempted there and then to purchase the set of eight. But it wouldn’t have been fair to other prospective purchasers, and so we weren’t able to oblige him. (As he wasn’t able to attend the Private View, he arranged acquisition of one of the paintings via a proxy purchase by the gallery director.)

    Later the exhibition transferred to Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, where it was hung in proximity to the altarpiece fragments that had inspired me. A satisfying completion to all the endeavour.

    Some time later my friend and Private Press mentor Nicolas McDowall, who with his wife Frances owns two of the Temptations series, confessed that had he the means to do so at the time, he would have acquired the full set of paintings and built a chapel in his garden to house them. But the fate of the series was that the paintings ended up being scattered, and in a way I quite like that fact. Art, like life, is at its most tender when the fragility of existence is made apparent by incompleteness. I loved the original Oxford fragments because they unfettered my imagination by dint of absences. I would like to think that similarly each Temptation painting in isolation, carries with it the imprint of its siblings.

    We’re hoping that in 2011 on the occasion of my retrospective at the National Library of Wales, the various owners may loan their Temptations paintings to be briefly re-united. I’m not sure how practical that may be… one painting is in France… but it’s our goal.

    Reply

    1. Interesting to read your reflections on this scattering of your work, Clive. I’ve always kind of wondered what that would be like: to see something one had put so much thought and care into become somebody else’s private property. Seems almost Medieval.

      Reply

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