Duccio’s Dawn

Ekphrastic Poetry


Day break and a mint light unfurls in the bottega’s
dark corners. Between church bell and dog bark
he bends to strengthen seasoned panels of poplar

with strips of linen, size them with rabbit glue
and chalky gesso sanded smooth as a woman’s skin.
A reed marks out the ghost of angels,

smudged charcoal is erased with a feather.
With squirrel brush and ink-wash he fills in drapery.
Shadows are applied with something blunter.

And then the gold. Tooled and punched with flowers
and stars. Cusped Gothic arches polished to burn bright
in deep church dark. At last the tempera:

terra verde, orpiment, cinnabar bound
with egg yolk and water that takes years to dry.
Yellow from country fowl for swarthy peasants.

Pale ones from town hens for the blessed saints.
And in the dusty silence he murmurs credos,
paternosters, an Ave Maria –

asks the Virgin to infuse his tongue
with that metallic taste of miracles
so he can paint the face of God.

Maestà, 1308–1311, tempera and gold on wood, 213 cm × 396 cm

The Policeman’s Daughter – After Paula Rego

Ekphrastic Poetry

There she sits in her white dress,
all Goody-Two-Shoes, eyes downcast,
the little Miss Prim.

But she doesn’t fool me
with all that elbow grease furiously
polishing his black boots at the kitchen table.

Look how her bare arm, fat as a ham,
disappears right down to the heel.
She’d have him believe she was a real

Daddy’s girl. Twists him round her little
finger. But the set of her mouth, I know that.
The I-dare-you-to-tell clench of her jaw.

When she pinches me under the gingham
cloth, sticks pin through the wings
of blue bottles she catches

In a sugar jar on the ledge of our attic
window, then, as they squirm, fixes them
to her dress, two shimmering brooches.

I’ve seen that flicker of a smile,
curled at the corner of her lips,
Spread across her mouth like a kiss.

Paula Rego, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987

Naked Portrait 1972-3 – After Lucian Freud

Ekphrastic Poetry

I know this room as well as any prisoner
knows his cell, the harsh white pallor

tingeing the calamine rawness
of my skin infirmary green as pinioned

by his gaze I lie exposed across this
old brass bed, drowned cadaver on

a mortician’s marble slab. Though I give
everything I have, hold nothing back,

he barely sees me. A woman, a dog
for him they’re the same. At night

he breathes in my civet sweetness, by day
I’m an experiment in bald flesh;

nipples, pubic hair, my open thighs
terrain for his palette knife, the sable

brushes lying on the paint-clotted stool.
Crow-like he picks me clean.

My fan of fallen hair offers no protection
as he peels back my paper skin.
Outside his high windows
the winter morning is dark with rain;

buses, taxis, cyclists
swish through the glistening

mica streets as if there was
somewhere they needed to go.

Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait 1972-3

After Degas

Ekphrastic Poetry

Her young body lies a twisted S
In the pool of her black skirt,
The encased striations of her pin-

striped blouse, on a cool mattress
of sand under the tilted parasol,
Beneath closed eyelids

she breathes the thick
smell of surf and shore, hears
the yelp of damp dogs, the distant

shrieks of children running bare-
foot beneath the pewter sky,
as her sodden hair pours

onto the spread white cloth
where her mother drags and
and drags the shark-toothed comb

through the tangled mass.
She flinches, surfacing from day-
dreams: fat-bellied sails of distant

ships taught as bare skin, fish-tang
of rigging, the heave and heft
of dripping nets, wind unhooking her

like the steel eyelets on her bodice,
a taste of salt on her lips.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Beach Scene, 1877

Apprentice Pillar

Ekphrastic Poetry

They have eaten the sins of the world
these eight fishy dragons, scaleless serpents
with absurdly webbed wings.

Entwined round this stony bole the swim
its massive girth neither fish nor fowl
and from their elver jaws vines

coil heavenwards, stripped of speckled leaves,
flowers, the temptations of fruit,
like unfledged prayers wafting

into the moss-green light. He dreamt these
sandstone pleats and waves, a pillar so intricate,
his Master killed, jealous to see it reaching

towards a rosary of stars, the vault of Virgin lilies,
stone daisies of innocence, unnamed flowers
that open in Adoration of the sun.

I come to its sheltering from a sluice of Scottish rain
And find an eastern architrave that reads:
“ wine is strong, a King stronger,

women are stronger, but truth conquers all”
and wonder if such words apply to me here
in God’s garden where all’s right with the world.

It’s the second time: lured by loneliness,
the carved acanthus leaves where Green Men scowl,
angles blow crumhorns, twang zithers, plonk on lyres.

I could claim it’s the art or history; it’s easy
to be seduced by ancient certainties when
days feel like orchards blighted

by frost or latticed vines pruned bare.
When all old familiarities –
Children, lovers with arms as strong

as forest twine braided around the dark
heartwood have gone, and I am forced back to
this stripped centre, to apprentice dreams.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Apprentice pillar, Rosslyn Chapel, built 1446-1484

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Ekphrastic Poetry

It is as if by choosing this chromatic season,
with its slowing harmonies, when light grows thin and pale

on the garden wall, he might find equivalences
to the cacophony of niello swirls, that vortex of duns and pearls

in a veil of morning mist rising across the dew-soaked lawn
or damp twilight gathering like dust in unlit corners.

Perhaps between those interstices of splattered paint,
the smeared ochres and Chinese white, he could smell

wet leaves gathering in gutters, the pulpy stems of dahlias
rotting in terracotta pots or feel the low sun casting shadows

between the frost-bitten leaves of geraniums
yellowing on the slippery planks by the greenhouse door.

Maybe as the nights drew in he tried to push, like a moth
trapped in a vacated room, against the surface of visible light,

afraid that when it was done he would be left
in the dark, that irredeemable, unforgiving dark.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

Klein’s Blue

Ekphrastic Poetry

Of the three boys
on a beach
who divided up the world

he got the sky
and signed his name
on its pristine surface,

then lay back to look up
at what he had created
thinking that God

must be envious.
But how he hated the birds
that flew across his perfect,

cloudless canvas
boring holes into his
most beautiful work.

Searching for a blue to beat
the creator at his own game
he suspended pure pigment,

particles of heaven
in crystal resin. Young girls.
their breasts and pubic hair

smeared in ultramarine
pinned down his sky
as he orchestrated them

in tuxedo and white gloves;
though the lines
of the actual body

held no interest,
for at night he dreamt only
of alchemy, of gravity and grace,

of stepping from that high
window to float above the city street
in a void of endless blue.

Published in The Forgetting and Remembering of Air
Salt 2013

Yves Klein, Blue Monochrome, 1961

Room in New York, 1932 – After Edward Hopper

Ekphrastic Poetry

Her dress is red.
Her bare arms white as sour cream.
Her hair is malt and softly looped
behind the long arc of her pale neck.
In the half-shadows she scans the page
of her book, her face the colour
of bruised plums, then sighs and turns
towards the lamp which has a shade
the same faded red as her dress.

His shirt is white.
His buttoned waistcoat and knotted tie
are black. He has taken off his jacket
in the heat and opened the window
onto the sticky night.
He sits in a pink velvet chair,
his face inclined towards his newspaper
as sometimes he might incline it
towards a kiss.

Their bowed heads form a diagonal
across the room.
though her chin is tilted to the right
and his to the left.
There is nothing between them
except a small round Maplewood table
set with a lace cloth, The table is polished.
and shimmers like a lake.
But it is not a lake.
It is simply a table that sits
between them, just as the walls,
which are yellow as illness
are just walls.

Somewhere down the hall
A door slams.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932

Study of a Dog – After Francis Bacon

Ekphrastic Poetry

Dog 1952 Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Presented by Eric Hall 1952

Beyond the date palm
and ribbon of hot sand,
the electric zip of blue sea
and strip of burning highway
where cars black as ants
flow liquid in the heat,
and petrol fumes catch
in the throat like rags,
the midday sun bleaches
colour from the concrete boulevard,
and a patch of back-street dirt
a brindled dog,
sinews taut, elastic,
turns and turns
in its own shadow,
red-prick tongue hanging
from frilled chops,
chasing its own tail.
Flea ridden, the stink of gutter
clotted in its fetid fur.
It is, behind its black snout,
and milk-filmed eye,
behind its helmet of bone
and knowledge of the human,
returning to what is
vicious, taboo, feral,
to what is dangerous.

His Name is Abu Omar

Ekphrastic Poetry

Among the pulverised fragments
his father’s chair falls to its knees in prayer,
while the door ululates on a single hinge

and the iron stove cowers in the corner.
Torn curtains flutter in terror,
but only the mirror seems crazed.

Ghost-white, he sits amid
the ash and dust, the collapsed cornices
remembering his old life:

sugar lumps stirred
into a glass of black tea.
Chess with his neighbour,

children’s voices echoing
in the garden where pomegranates
grew outside the high window.

Now, among these ruins, he sits
on his bed, a Turkish pipe
turning his white beard yellow.

It’s the golden oldies from the 50s
he likes the best. Arab songs sung by
Mohamed Dia Eddine, romantic,

and melancholy with his thick black hair.
Slipping the vinyl from its Parlaphone sleeve,
he blows off the dust,

cranks up the windup handle,
closes his eyes as if in prayer,
to picture beneath

this broken wing of sky,
the living dancing the Dabke
through the wounded streets of Aleppo.

The Ice Ship

Ekphrastic Poetry

Caspar David Friedrich
The Polar Sea

Snow-clad mountains spit fire, icebergs drift
…..in a boiling swell, piercing the pale sun in its net of frosty air.
We have been at sea for days.

All night it is day. Glycerine shadows fuse sea and
…..sky into something indivisible. Hoar-frost and snow mingle with hail.
This is the end of the inhabitable world we are so far north.

Ice-cold, iron-cold, our lungs tense against the razor chill,
…..it could be the moon we are so distant from ourselves.
Dreaming and loving here are the same hunger

as we wander in watery exile, storm-beaten
…..by perishing winds. Ahead the glacial hull looms
spectral in the crushing heaves of pack-ice,

trapped like a fisherman’s float
…..in the mouth of a silver carp. Tattered sails,
fragments of mast, poke from their crystal coffin

like splintered whale-bone, trepanning the empty heart of blue.
…..For thirteen years they have waited, penitent
as glass angels, black lips welded to alabaster tongues,

untold tales frost-bitten in their throats. Alone
…..at his log, the Captain holds patient vigil,
awaiting a huff of divine breath.

Bird Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

Words are feathers
on her tongue.
Fledglings struggling to climb
the walls of her chest
clot in her throat.
As she opens her mouth
it fills with a flock
of birds, vomit
of green-black-wings.
Song has become the plumage
of starlings, her lips
drawn into a dysphonic O.
For they have cut her silver
cords with the cold
steel of a whetted knife,
hung them like lights
among the rowed vermin:
the jay, the stoat and the crow,
to grow stiff
in the far coppice,
a warning,
on the gate gamekeeper’s wire.

Moss Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

All night her skin erupts,
her face a sphagnum mask.
Puffballs sprout
from her nostrils
acorns from her ears.
Her eyelashes are ferns,
pine needles and twigs poke
from her thicket of wild hair,
dreams snag
like sheep’s wool on her spiky briars.
The darkness lures her in
down muddy bridle paths
to a spinney where
she shelters behind
the thick foliage of herself,
her heart in hiding. Here,
memories rot,
rank as the fetid stench
of fox,
and silent birds roost
in her deep woods.
Behind her mossy hood
she inhales the reek
of solitude,
dreams of ancient
of what is concealed,
what is wild, mysterious.

Snail Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

A Necklace of Tongues

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Nude with Blue Cushion

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Crows over the Wheatfield

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

The Sower

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Portrait of Women in a Blue Tunic

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Nude in Bathtub

Ekphrastic Poetry

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 foot 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

I Carve to the Beat of the Heart

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Experiment with an Air Pump

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

The Beach at Trouville

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

The Convalescent

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

The Painter’s Family

Ekphrastic Poetry

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

Remembering Laugharne

Ekphrastic Poetry

In memory of Dylan Thomas

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 Swimming to Albania
Salmon Press Ireland 2021

Woman Bathing in a Stream

Ekphrastic Poetry

After 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