In lieu of a podcast this week, here in video form is the full, hour-long poetry reading I flew to Wales to take part in last month. This was a group reading in support of The Book of Ystwyth: six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose launch coincided with a 60th birthday retrospective exhibition of, and monograph on, the contemporary Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins (who I interviewed in the two most recentepisodes of the Woodrat podcast). All six of us — three Yanks and three Brits — had written poems in response to his paintings, and The Book of Ystwyth includes a generous selection, illustrated with full-color details of the paintings in question.
In the reading, ably MC’d by Damian Walford Davies, as you’ll see, each poet appears twice, once on either side of a break (which occurs in part 3), so that the first poet is also the last, the second is the penultimate, etc. Here’s a key to who appears in which video:
Anita Mills was the camerawoman. I take the blame for the sound and all the editing. The bookstore’s set-up had the podium in shadow, which meant that the camera often focused on better-lit bookshelves behind our heads. In the process of lightening and increasing contrast on the videos, the color turned spotty, whence my decision to make it black and white. I assure viewers who have never been to Wales that it is a fully modern country now, and almost everything is in color all the time.
As for the book: quite apart from its contents, which are of course scintillating, it’s a beautifully designed object with high-quality paper and image reproduction, retailing at a very affordable $15.95/£9.99. It was published in the U.K. by Grey Mare Press in association with Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales, and in the U.S. by Carolina Wren Press. Click on either link to order.
These are, the subtitle says, “koans for Kelly Fearing.” How are the poems koans, and in what sense are they “for” the artist, William Kelly Fearing, whose works prompted them?
for when he’s painting he’s in the ocean
for if the shell had fallen from his hands
for when he grew within her like a Volute or Olive
at first armless
for when the paintbrush fell from his hands
(“Holy Shell Waiting for the Return of the Soul/The Difficult Toy”)
Can we imagine a celebrated 90-year-old artist, one with evident mystic leanings, applying himself to the very non-mystical practice of meditating on Zen or Zen-like questions — questions suggested by a lifetime’s worth of his own paintings, drawings and collages? Wouldn’t that make him, in a sense, his own master?
Everyone and every thing has already come,
already gone, so there’s no hurry …
(“The Zebra’s Secret is Silver”)
And what of the poet then? Shall we liken her to the disobedient monks who surreptitiously recorded the questions of the ancient Chan masters and the responses of their students inside their voluminous sleeves?
Boys will be boys, but then also men:
His mantle is tattered, his feet torn,
and the handles of the basket are gone.
(“Boy Returning Water to the Sea”)
Why are so many animals here — birds, horse, owls, rhinoceros, zebra, giraffes, three pink fish and a mollusc shell — occupying the place of honor?
The cameo paper is filled
with the noise of a thousand birds.
(“Man Doing Isolation, Horseback”)
If we took our cues from birds or beasts, where would we end up?
Above him, in cobalt-becoming-marine,
the four swallows follow;
wherever he’s going will be home.
(“The Night of the Rhinoceros”)
But what sort of wisdom or enlightenment is being sought here, and by whom?
“Shall I dance for you with my one wing
under two orange suns, counting steps
three, four, five, six, seven,
or back off angrily, screeching,
“‘The secret is number one’?”
(“Owl with the Secret of the Enneagram”)
With the poem on the left and the artwork on the right, and their shared title matching the color of the latter, which is call and which is response? Is it inevitable in a work of ekphrastic poetry that the poem follow the art?
But she has stopped, lop-eared, frowning:
Why couldn’t it be one going one way,
the other, the other? Why?
(“Two Giraffes in Arizona”)
Is the absense of page numbering intended to make each facing pair of cardstock pages, with no bleed-through from their neighbors, feel hermetic?
On the cliff above him, the angel Rafe
also hopes, as angels do, though
with his wings pinned back—impeccable.
(“The Place of Tobias and the Angel”)
Why, aside from the printing cost, are so few books of poetry illustrated in color (or at all), considering the extent to which readers of poetry fetishize books? What might we learn from color that the black type and whitespace alone are unable to express?
Not the heat in the summer,
nor the rain, when it rains, nor the way winter
lets you see miles away in perfect focus.
(“Texas is Much Smaller Here Floating through the Equinox”)
But isn’t there a kind of synaesthesia at work in this wedding?
To the eye, it’s nearly red.
Then close your eyes.
(“Large Bird Listening to the Sounds of Purple”)
If I revisit this book tonight in my dreams, to whom will the visions belong: to the poet or artist, to the painted animal or the animal that was painted?
In the gold there was copper; in the blue, fuschia;
and in the butterflies, flecks of the fallen sun’s last rays.
Little pink-faced owl, if she could choose otherwise,
she’d still choose butterflies.
(“Little Pink-Faced Owl with Butterflies”)
I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.