The Temptations of Solitude

Poems in response to paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, which includes all of the poems from my Temptations of Solitude series, is now out. It’s a stunningly beautiful book; you’ll definitely get your money’s worth. Carolina Wren Press does have some review copies available, I’m told, so if you have a well-trafficked blog or magazine, please consider writing it up.

The book was launched on Friday night with one of the best group readings I’ve ever been privileged to take part in, relaxed and well organized, with no bad readers and an overflowing and attentive audience. One of the six poets, the fantastically gifted (and much too modest) Callum James, blogged about the reading as well as yesterday’s launch of the exhibition, which was and is mind-blowing, for anyone who can get to the National Library at Aberystwyth by August.

I expect I’ll have more to say about all this after my return to Plummer’s Hollow and my own computer. I’ve been bothering all manner of people, including Clive, with my audio recorder, gathering material for the Woodrat podcast, and we have video of the reading, so I’ll have my work cut out for me. But for now, I intend to vacate for another week. Wales is spectacular; were it not for the shortage of forests, I think I could live here.

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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?

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

You always dreamed of a death
in the open, stopping at the wye
in the highway that runs past
the shell of the old mill,
the land like a black lung
infiltrated by bronchial trees.
You’d keep your eyes pinched shut
against whatever brightness might spoil
the immaculate desolation.
After so many tiresome years
of living for others, this would be
your own time at last,
alone on the baked earth.

But it seems the Father won’t let you off
that easy, sends a pair of his goons
to bookend your shoulders
& breathe cabbage in your ears.
Meaty arms wrap around your chest
like pythons & begin to squeeze.
Let’s go for a ride, they whisper.
Death in the open — you’re finding out —
means all bets are off. The air turns
dangerous with blades.

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

Turn up the lights on the hominid pen.
It’s feeding time, though some
don’t even know they’re hungry.
You can give them each
a slice of manna if you like.

See the one who squats in the crotch
of that tree? Almost since birth
he’s exiled himself from the ground.
Unlike the others, he seems to realize
something here is missing—
a grotesque sensitivity that makes him
a wolf in this wood, this tree
he clings to like a mother.
When the wind agitates its leaves
he hugs himself & rocks
back & forth, moaning.

Unlike the others who gibber with awe,
he wants nothing to do with us,
& recoils from your face
as if from a stone that the river
never learned how to read.
But see how his tree glows
in this lurid light, like a harp
rearing above a dark-suited orchestra?
Someday soon we will reunite it
with its former companions,
that whole forest enjoying
eternal life: value-added products
of our loving care.

***
UPDATE: Marly Youmans‘ series of five poems in response to paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (including “The Man who Lived in a Tree”) are now live on his website. Go look.

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

For the sin of thirst, surround yourself with mirrors
& wait for baptism.

For the sin of sensitivity, plant yourself among lawn ornaments,
neon-bright & obvious.

For the sin of poverty, expose yourself
to the cauterizing desert of the sky.

Build a stockade between the storm door & the doghouse
to incarcerate the green thieves of light.

You have lived too many years as a parasite,
drunk the high-fructose corn syrup of paradise.

It’s time to tunnel into the brazen day
& shrug off your integument, oh locust.

Under what basket or milk crate have
you hidden your cry?

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

Did he taste of loneliness, sour & marmoreal,
that man from away who came out here
to get away from himself?

What vapors rose from the punctured
balloon of his gut, which he used to tap
with the small end of a fist when explaining

the pull of mountain scenery,
the open spaces & abundant peace?
He would settle here

as lightly as a leaf, he swore, praying
for the developers to be enveloped
& the subdividers subjected to division.

They didn’t feel the wilderness
the way he did, living off the land,
conscious only of God’s grace

as he looked back: the poor earth raw
from harrow & bulldozer, a snaggletoothed jumble
of lighthouse, smokestack, steeple.

Nothing like the orderly ridges
rippling under his attacker’s pelt,
that figment of the blue distance suddenly at hand.

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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 CĂșchulainn.

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.

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

Chopping wood & carrying water
at the old collieries,
a sudden smug thought popped up:
I should be enlightened
in no time!
And just like that,
no-time snagged me

there in front of the tipple,
by the monkey puzzle tree.
The ground buckled as if
from a blast of dynamite.
My ears filled with roaring
from the long-closed pit.

Pride is an itch you can only
ignore for so long until
Old Scratch surfaces again,
naked & ridiculous, like
a malevolent penis with two
blind eyes instead of one.

I dropped to my knees,
sank into the vetch & nettles
while the others went on
with their meditations,
lowering buckets into the well
of the long afternoon.

Only a dog paused to watch
my clawing at the air.
A rash spread above that un-
reclaimed stripmine like the glow
from some legendary sunset
in a land without smog.

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

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

This ash-colored immigrant come
to steal an honest man’s job —
give him the business, why don’t you.
Let every slack muscle learn

what real work feels like,
how it aches & bruises.
Then let him go swimming
with a cast-iron kettle around his neck.

The sanitarium should’ve known better,
trying to hire orderlies from outside.
We’re hungry here.
The sun itself only gets in

a few licks each day,
& the sea eats like a drunk —
a nibble here & a nibble there
to steady itself against the shore.

We’ve all been tenderized.
We marinate in the tall salt cellars —
the rapeseed oil cans —
the cold ovens of our houses,

watch the flickering pilot light
in the corner of the room
& dream of an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Let us pray for the firm

flesh of angels, white,
with eyes that can sprout,
that can finger, that can shove
green fists through the dirt.

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

I’m very pleased to announce that my “Temptations of Solitude” poems now appear side-by-side with the paintings that inspired them on the artist’s own website. Though we’ve become regular email corespondents, I barely knew Clive Hicks-Jenkins when I started writing this series last spring, and was blown away by his enthusiasm for the poems. After all, he’s a fairly major figure in British painting, and it’s not as if I was the first to write poems in response to his works. In fact, I’ve joined a small online exhibit which includes five other poets (click on their names to view their pages on the site). I am particularly pleased to be published alongside my friend Marly Youmans and the wonderful Callum James.

I put these poems into the proverbial (and wholly suppositional) bottom drawer for many months, but didn’t end up making more than a few, minor changes when I finally took another look at them. This should probably worry me more than it does. I used to be such a perfectionist! Then I discovered blogging, and realized I was only as good a writer as my next post. Some of the poems in the Temptations series are stronger than others, and I’m O.K. with that. You can’t hit a home run every time, you know? I’ve decided there’s value in unevenness, and that if you attempt to reach the same peak each time, you end up with a featureless plateau.

At any rate, thanks to Clive for the inclusion — and for creating such damn fine paintings in the first place.