Ekphrastic Poetry

Small Woman

At dawn she picks
mottled spirals
from beneath the lush hostas
chewed overnight to green lace,
fishes them from the white saucer
of treacherous milk, watches
as the grey-tongue bodies glisten
then fizz to mucus
in the trail of cruel salt.
Later she boils the brindled husks
to remove the taste of gritty
garden earth, builds them
now sanitised and cleansed,
into a ziggurat,
then slithers inside. In its cool
interiors she grows small, soft,
viscous as putty,
curled in the hidden chambers
tries to understand
the sounds of the world outside.
In the quiet she whispers
into this silence of shells,
listening for an echo of her
own breath. She longs
to speak but already
her tongue is turning to slime

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

A Necklace of Tongues

All morning she sits
stitching a necklace of tongues
in her high window,
picking each inert slab

from the shallow porcelain dish
holding its brass-cold weight
muted as a muffled bell,
heavy in the dip of her open palm.

Last night snowflakes
melted like kisses,
like salt
on their warm skin,

now her silver needle
pushes through the thick-muscled
root trussing
each glossal silence

with meticulous petit point.
If a worm has five hearts
and an angel none,
how many tongues

does it take to tell lies
about love?
But for now she can only wait,
passing the leaden hour

with herringbone and cross-stitch.
Later, in front of her mirror of ice
she will lift the cold carrion
like a queen’s fringed torque,

place it in the soft dip
at the base of her throat,
making visible the muted words,
that wounded song of herself.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

Nude with Blue Cushion

Amedeo Modigliani
Nude with Blue Cushion

Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s mistress,
threw herself from a high window, on learning
of his death, while nine months pregnant.

They deepen, satiated with desire
like the filming of trout pools
by the clouding of the sun, her sloe-black
burnt-black almond eyes.

Everything begins with the skin:
soft flesh gleaming in the knowledge
of its own perfection, recalling the recent
pleasure of his hand, the current pull of the brush.

Here she is all present: her
hip, navel, thigh, utterly surrendered
to the iridescence of madder hues,
the fullness of his love.

Elongated as a languid cat
she lies: a crooked arm angling her head
against the little cushion of faded blue
reveals its damp pit of tangled hair.

Softened by hashish and hunger
she does not now concern herself with sous
or grey morning’s marketing of bread.
Jeanne maybe? Her future as yet unwritten:

Backwards, nine months with child,
through that high window.
For chaos and sweet death tonight lie drugged
with a flush of carmine, of Venetian red.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

Crows over the Wheatfield

After Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh
Wheatfield with Crows

I have done with the sun.
Here on these northern
plains wheat fields become
waves, beneath leaden skies,
shadows black of dogs
run through the swaying crop.
Long ago I left another country
where the sulphurous sun
hung low over the potato fields.
They called me a madman
because I wanted to be a
true Christian. In Arles
I painted blossom pure as
drifts of Japanese snow.
Now it is upon me again,
this clamped crown.
I who melted gold into
an alchemy of sunflowers
burnished as a lion’s mane.
Misfortune must be good
for something…
Across the wheat field crows
wheel in a ragged requiem
towards me. My vision
shifts and slides. Three paths
diverge – leading somewhere
going nowhere. My eyes
burn. I cannot hold on.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

The Sower

After Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet
The Sower

Thighs braced against the curve
of field, puddled armpits
rancid in the freezing wind
he strides

diagonally down the slope
beneath a weight of sky.
From behind the ridge
the low sun catches

his left cheek, his hand, waist,
the hinge of his aching knee,
the linen-gaitered feet turning
to hooves of mud.

An outstretched arms swings
then dips and dips again into
the coarse grain sack slung
across his hunched shoulder

where the halter rasps the nape
of his raw neck. Bit beetroot hands
scatter seed on stony ground,
their moons all ragged and black.

A mercury sky. And his
scissoring bulk fills the frame
forming a large cross with the axis
of oxen dragging their heavy harrow

into the lavender, the rose-flushed dusk,
up at the picture’s edge.
Beneath his slouched felt hat
his shrouded face foretells

approaching winter,
the brooding dark. Exhaustion,
waste. Memory of famine runs
atavistic through his veins.

In a ditch a hare pricks
its ears to the wind. A black
scribble of crows writes
hunger across the sky.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

Portrait of Women in a Blue Tunic

Roman Period c.AD 160-70

Panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle
Roman period

They gave her a painted face to welcome death,
a nip-and-tuck in encaustic fit for eternity:
hieratic blush of madder and white lead,
coiled hair in warm Japan.

Behind the sophistication of coifed curls,
those earstuds of malachite and pearls,
the plaque of carnelian in the dip of her throat,
she stares out full of quiet restraint,

as though she had reigned something wounded in.
No meticulous archaeology discovered her,
just the illegal grubbings
of Theodar Graf, antiquities dealer

with an instinct for a kill,
rifling the hot sands of Fauym and er-Rubayat,
dreaming at night of pale Victorian girls.
I am pleased that he found her.

I’ve been carrying around this museum postcard
for days, struggling to hold her olive-black gaze
across two millennia, trying to interpret
the hieroglyphs of death’s silent grammar,

as if she’d simply slipped –
hair shining in the lamplight –
through a gap in the impermanence of things
to call me away from this visible skin.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

Nude in Bathtub

After Bonnard

Pierre Bonnard
Nude in Bathtub

Between the edge of the afternoon
and dusk, between the bath’s white
rim and the band of apricot light,
she bathed, each day, as if dreaming.

From the doorway he noted
her right root hooked for balance
beneath the enamel lip, body
and water all one in a miasma

of mist, a haze of lavender blue.
Such intimacy. A woman, two walls,
a chequered floor, the small
curled dog basking in a pool

of sun reflected from the tiles
above the bath. Outside
the throbbing heat. So many times
he has drawn her, caught the obsessive

soaping of her small breasts,
compressed the crouched frame into
his picture space, the nervy movements
that hemmed in his life.

The house exudes her still
breathes her from each sunlit corner,
secrets her lingering smell
from shelves of rosewood armoires,

and the folded silk chemises
he doesn’t have the heart to touch.
And from the landing, his memory tricks,
as through the open door the smudged

floor glistens with silvered tracks,
her watered footprints to and from
the tub where she floats in almond oil
deep in her sarcophagus of light.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Ekphrastic Poetry

I Carve to the Beat of the Heart

After Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

From her high window
an arc of blue
almost Aegean
where white gulls circle
and mew against
a canvas of Cornish light.

Below an oasis of shadows
palms and mirroring pools,
a garden
where sculptures grow like trees;

an ochre jacket, overalls stiff
with dust, still expectant
behind the greenhouse door
mallet, chisel, drill,
the paraphernalia of a mason’s art
seem only momentarily set aside.

On her bench a block of stone
white, unhewn, waits
in perpetuity for her hands

In the silence
her heartbeat,
the punctured cry of gulls

Nude with Blue Cushion

Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s mistress, committed
suicide on his death, while nine months pregnant, by
throwing herself from a window

They deepen, satiated with desire,
like the filming of trout pools
by the clouding of the sun, her sloe-black
burnt-black almond eyes.

Everything begins with the skin:
soft flesh gleaming in the knowledge
of its own perfection, recalling the recent
pleasure of his hand, the current pull of the brush.

Here she is all present, her
hip, navel, thigh utterly surrendered
to the iridescence of madder hues,
the fullness of his love.

Elongated as a languid cat
she lies, a crooked arm angling her head
against the little cushion of faded blue
reveals its damp pit of tangled hair.

Softened by hashish and hunger
she does not now concern herself with sous
or grey morning’s marketing of bread.
Jeanne maybe? Her future as yet unwritten:

backwards, nine months with child,
through that high window.
For chaos and sweet death tonight lie drugged
with a flush of carmine, of Venetian red.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

Experiment with an Air Pump

After Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-97

Joseph Wright of Derby
Experiment with the Air Pump

That night we gathered,
the white moon peeped between the skirted clouds
flooding the high-panelled room in eerie light.
Eight of us, at the great scientist Dr Wilke’s house,
a man with eyes so deep and brows so fierce,
in copper damask dressing-gown, he frightened men,
and that shock of wiry hair!

On the table such weird contraptions as I’d never seen:
an air pump made of gleaming brass, strange tubes
and liquids that gave a sulphurous glow.
I cried and hid my eyes, clasped Kitty close,
At six far braver and more curious than I.
Still I can feel the callused grip of Joshua’s
hand in comfort on my thin shoulder.

Science: an experiment, he explained,
to see if the pretty bird could fill
its gasping lungs and beat its failing wings
without the magic stuff he called oxygen.
I could not bear the thud of it snowy breast,
the rattle of its brittle beak, the scratch
of tiny claws, as it circled and circled
expiring from want of air.

Such power of life and death he had
that strange alchemical man.
I did not dare cry out ‘stop’ to save
the frightened thing.

Later, when they were finished, I asked
to hold the soft limp body, sat by
the guttering candle on the sill
and tried to close its beady current eyes
as a lick of scarlet dribbled from its beak
and felt the little bones
light as air, in my warm cupped hands.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

The Beach at Trouville

After Eugène Louis Boudin, 1824-98

Eugène Louis Boudin
Beach at Trouville

The wind is up:
tossing the gritty sand
into the stamping horses’ eyes.

Dogs circle and yelp
across the wide wet sands
snapping at bladderwrack

as ribbons of her straw hat
whip in the breeze.
She stands a little apart

From the beaux and belles
of Trouville, pretty
under ruffled parasols

their satin hooped crinolines
parachuted by the salty gusts.
For soon this giggling group

will tire of ‘oohs and aahs’
and leave this afternoon’s blowy
mise-en-scène for Monsieur Henri’s

fine cognac, chocolat or café au lait
and she will gather up her loneliness
and black crêpe skirts in handfuls above

the knee, to search the shoreline
for razor shells and tiny crabs hidden
in pools between the damp worm casts

while hissing breakers
roll and slip, spattering her wind-
burnt skin with spots of tangy spray.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid

An Easter light, watery as whey, spills
from the high window, catches the rim
of her linen cap, its white gulls’ wings,
the coarse cross-stitch of yellow bodice
against her apron’s blue, the sleeves
rolled to elbows against curdy skin.

Already she has raked ashes, broken bread
for him from the willow basket with her big
raw hands. And in the oyster-grey morning
while the house sleeps, Vermeer’s woman
pours warm milk from terracotta
jug to crock in silent communion.

She is mistress here,
moving with slow deliberation through
these daily tasks: her quiet meditations.
On the table beside her is spread
a Delft flagon of ale, a cloth; on the wall
a wicker creel, new polished brass.

Did he love her? Who can say?
As in the chill dawn he lifts his brush
to catch that creamy curve of brow
the shadow on her lowered lid where
sable tufts stroke, soft as her cool
fingers on fresh laundered ecru.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

The Convalescent

After Gwen John

Gwen John
The Convalescent

They have changed the white cloth, soaking
out the dark stain with salt. I hardly
remember days that were different, filled
with the sweet diversions of work.
Time is measure now
in poultices and lint. Below my window
the same hens scratch the same dirt,
borage and shallots bloom in the herb garden.

Hours stretch faded, formless
and I inhabit the waste lands
behind my eyelids where there is colour
for my body is white, my limbs thin
as saplings, my hair has lost its walnut sheen.
Once the bodice of this calico dress
clung tight across my apple breasts,
now it hangs like a nun’s blue folds.

All morning I sit by the window
read, write letters to my cousin;
outside children’s voices shatter
holes in a duck-egg sky. Lilac shadows,
long and dark as a bruise, stretch
across my room, camphor and crushed
violets fill the throttled air,
on my table a pink cup and saucer of camomile tea.

From behind drawn blinds sunlight needle-
points the satin gloom. My skin is grey
as old pastry. In my wicker chair,
with the down cushion plumped to the small
of my back, I dream of the impossible sun
high over courtyard and dovecot
illuminating the frailties of small lives,
baking the cracked roofs of barns.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

The Painter’s Family

After de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico
The Painter’s Family

She is edgy today
her nerves all jangled,
synapses stretched taught as hamstrings.

The baby’s mouth opens again
a grey mollusc, the blue bruise
of colic staining its lips.

The cracks are showing.
She is becoming as crazed as the glaze
on her grandmother’s plates.

She cannot carry on like this.
Her lap is too shallow, her arms
not long enough to hoop up the excess.

For he is busy. He has work to do
renewing the chipped mortar
in a wall of angles and silence.

Mute and deaf they have bound
themselves with winding sheets, filleted
down to white bone old fleshless words.

Now she must stuff the gaps, smooth
the pollyfilla’d crevices in her face.
Vinegar and brown paper will no longer do.

In the orange evening dust
she cannot open her crammed mouth
must drown her thin cries, her dim bleatings.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

Remembering Laugharne

In memory of Dylan Thomas

Dan Llywelyn Hall
Remembering Laugharne

How odd, after all these years
to return to the boathouse as the dawn mist
rises ghostly as a lapwing’s heart-cry

to lure daybreak from the grieving dark,
and catch the ghost of you out on the mudflats
in your old tweed coat

whelking for poems:
my beast, my angel, my fat little fool.
On these tidal reaches

Where Taf, Towy and Gwendraweth
meet and boats lie beach in
a silver throat of brackish water,

I danced barefoot, gathered cockles
In the hem of my long skirt, salty vulvae
to boil in a broth for you on the black iron stove.

At night, in our pink bedroom
you sucked me clean amid a musk
of winter apples, spilt bottles of ale.

Rats scuttled in the privy. Bath-time
I’d lay out dolly mixture in the soap tray,
scrub your plump baby’s back.

Unruly children we clung together
in an adult world. But with the rage,
the drinking, an innocence was lost.

That morning I found you dying across
an ocean, they strapped me in a straightjacket
for smashing the hospital crucifix.

Still I see your curly head against
the regulation pillow. Those little
fin-like hands curled on the white sheet.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Ekphrastic Poetry

Woman Bathing in a Stream

After Rembrandt

Rembrandt
Woman Bathing in a Stream

Some days Bathsheba or Danaë,
voluptuous and bangled
on her cushioned ottoman. But this evening,
her linen chemise crumpled high
against wide hips, the loose
sleeves carelessly rolled, she paddles
the stream, simply herself, Hendrickye.

Florentine brocade, mulberry damask
from Uzbekistan, she leaves the tumbled rugs,
steps in the pool, her body warm, the smell
of him lingering still between her thighs.
His eyes absorb the creamy solid flesh,
those familiar dimpled knees. He makes
no judgment on her nakedness.

Times she has posed for him;
out of love, not an interest in his art,
just as each morning she pours his ale,
chops pickled herrings, slices coarse black bread,
nights warmed his bed since Saskia died.
Nurse to small Titus, what difference,
opening her ample arms to him as well.
No matter others find him strange.

Soon dusk will turn to night, wood-smoke
and a Gouda moon hang over the gabled house.
She turns to her mirror, combs out her hair,
prepares for sleep, sees other selves reflected
in her glass: the sandy freckled skin. Let him
wrap her in chiaroscuro if he must – grey morning
will find him seeking the warmth of her bed.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995