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At the Tate Modern

There is a sickness, feeding on itself,
that festers in the mind. The structured forms
of art, in which discovery is dressed,
are scattered to the winds – or at the best,
let lie like so much dust on history’s shelf.
A brusque farewell, then, to the courteous norms.

Take the ticket.
Monochrome Till Receipt (White) 1999 Ceal FloyerA till receipt
for 49 items
from Morrisons
that are white or
have ‘white’ in their name.
How has this preposterous piece
of smug white paper
blagged its way onto
a gallery wall?
Why, it’s a ‘conceptual still life
in which the objects exist
but are nowhere to be seen’.
Of course! Ta-daa!
And yet…and yet
even despite
its curious justification
on art’s behalf,
can an individual
throwaway object
be held to be worth
the space and framing?
Does it in its silence –
or even in
the bragging insistence
of its raison d’être
somehow stand, somehow speak
as an individual?

That way lies madness. At an old power station
a disused chimney raising to the sky
an index finger, signals something of note –
but might that sealed-off gas-space, still afloat
with heady vapours, be a capital “I”?
What’s at the centre of this celebration?

Ignoring a mass
of half-baked narcissistic
exploratory ventures
into new “takes”
on space, shape, colour
and the flimsy network of being –
let us travel straight
to a beating heart.
Picasso’s Three Dancers Picasso - Three Dancers
brandish a killer weapon
at death.
Death-laden themselves
and crazed with cruelty,
for a moment, a beat, a throb
there on the wall
all is put aside
as with a wild exhilarating counterpoise
and hand-touching harmonies
they dance to the music of the spheres.
I am there on the wall.
You are there on the wall.
Our sad bad glad mad history
raves in a deathless instant
in an agony of joy
an ecstasy of body and sound
in a perfect movement and stillness
on the wall.

Pablo my boy, no more of this gallivanting
into one storm-dark pose and out another.
Within the magic there is something wanting.

A drawing master of sorts, I find self-vaunting
beyond the pale. So too says your mother.
Pablo my boy, no more of this gallivanting

across dead wastes, flaying yourself, self-taunting,
in a night where lightning strikes and wet winds wuther.
Within the magic there is something wanting.

If only, your mother says, to ease the daunting
path you’ve set, you’d had an elder brother!
Pablo my boy, no more of this gallivanting

about a circus ring, your clown’s mask flaunting.
A loneliness at heart will smear and smother…
within the magic there is something wanting.

In life and now death-long I see a haunting
childhood genius hide in something other.
Pablo my boy, no more of this gallivanting!
Within the magic there is something wanting.

Goodbye mother goodbye father.
The cord is cut.
A brilliant-eyed ape-thing is born.
Down every last avenue in art
a creature tumbles roars screams
and springs

Child of the time
it has ripped free of Time
as bounding, abounding
endlessly self-spawning
it feeds on mental matter
and as each new mind appears
it springs

It is a species
in denial of a past
and denying to itself a future.
Condemned to an endless repetition,
with an investigative mania
but in the terms of its engagement
the merest brutality,
it prowls the edges of the world

With here and there a genius
and a vast, vast mass of lumpen benightedness
faintly glowing
with the merest banality

yet always that bright light in the eyes

as one animal it acts
to take us backward.

To take us forward.

With what relief I turn to seeLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880-1, cast c.1922 by Edgar Degas
a girl in pride of place,
simply herself. In front of me
a perfect grace both trained and free –
a bronze cast that can speak, can be.

She is: and does not interfere
with the room of my mind,
but finds in that interior
a space to finely stand. With her
set free in there, what dance can stir
the stillness! She is blind

to where she is . . . to all I am.
So much of me has been
a sham of being . . . at once I’m whole,
almost as if I had a soul.
How glad I am that I have seen
a little dancer aged fourteen.

Even to introduce her
to this place of invasive shadows
this crazed new brain-thing swinging through the forest
this “I” “I” “I” “I” “I” “I” hanging from the minds of many
this meddlesome half-seen monstrosity, this stammering stadium
this flickering soapbox of lunatic oratory
is an affront to her and Degas.
Yet she does not care, he does not care, why should I care?
Let them get wrong what they get wrong –
the write-up stressing her “stress”,
taking pains to announce her “pain” –
to discolour her delight, and ours,
with a hint of victimhood.
It does not matter. She is stronger.
The past is proof against the present.
In the perfect calm of performance
its daring does not die.

“Why the long neck, Mr Modigliani?
Why the full form, that’s yet so twining-slight?”
“I saw a lady in a new encounter,
a gift of light.

Within the surface of our drab existence
she sits – not only her –
but the chair has arms as she has arms, and all
is still astir

with a wayward grace. The accident of being
is hers, is its, is all: the reds and blues
and fragile skin for a space make up a world
that’s mine to lose

and hers to keep. Her eyes
are like sere leaves . . . yet inwardly awake
to all the humour, tenderness and sadness
our frail lives make.

She speaks with none and is a muse to many.
In her own time she stays
remote, nearby . . . within a half-seen room
of her own ways.”

“She is in my dreams, Mr Modigliani.
I am beguiled
not as an adult, by that faraway look,
but as a child.”

May I say
the frame is wrong: a rectangle is odd
for the arc of flow within. May I say
the arc withholds and holds a flow of beauty,
a robe of movement that has come to rest
and never rests. About the raiment of art
a liquefaction takes the travelling eye
till all’s complete. The air is still again.

And still again. To know the smallest art-thing
the mind embarks upon an epic journey.
A beginning and an ending is in play
and always a new going. The start is naked
and the end robed in knowing. But on the journey
good artists, do not skip the wherewithal
of ending: let it be there to be found.
To every voyage let there be a landfall.
To each new stillness let there come a rustling
to start again.

The inner frame is all. May I say
to re-discover a beginning is
within art’s end and purpose. But the noddies
who flounce and squawk their art and disallow
the movement and the settling and the movement
of a seeking mind – give off so much static.
When the start’s the ending – so much for the journey.

When the raiment of art is ripped – there’s nothing to show.

Lost am I
on a ground spitting with air-attacks. Lost lost
in a devil’s hurling of grenades. I cannot speak
but through my grunts and growls and shouts you will see
all that I saw, a craze of cruelty
and hate, and if I whimper, it will be
the hurt I saw. Born deaf and dumb, I know
how to make my body speak. You will see
a building crumble, people tumble within,
you will see soldiers ticking off lists, denying
even a drop of water to the dying,
you will see shootings, you will see beheadings,
neck-wringings, people brushing off people-bits . . .
a living body slit to the waist . . .
but do not be afraid. Simply I’ll tell
the camera with my body and my voice
what it should see, what you should know. I am
a boy of thirteen who has seen too much.

Lost am I.
The body’s snap, the cries and shouts
and cruel commands, and more than all the face
will never leave me of a Syrian boy
who in a brief film shot in a dingy room
has borne a witness. The film-maker’s art,
deferring to a pure expressive genius,
upon the soft unhurried Thames-side air
has etched the unspeakable.

Lost am I.
Beside their truth my words are grunts and shouts
and whimpers.

I walk the rooms
that honeycomb the still and whirring space
of an old power station. I walk the rooms
that honeycomb my brain. Loud walls,
the clutter of a strange rich store,
a shifting travail of shape, a plunge of colour,
a half-intent. Voices
rumble continuously, just out of earshot,
an immensity of air is packed with energies,
yet all’s contained, all dangers are withheld.
The hint of an ongoing universe is half-offered,
half-hidden, half-ignored, half-taken
in structures of beauty.

I am shaken.
And as I enter yet another doorway
I am displaced, nudged back to a room in time
some seventy years ago
by an elbow akimbo.

I am in a garden. For an hour or so
I have been capering,
my hand behind my head. The sun has caught
some odd triangular thing
in a shadow on the ground. A tiger’s eye –
or else my wing –

but why is it, oh why is it, the play
of a child who saw things once
in a new way, should catch at me again,
to fill me with its sense? 
Far back a new mind-mantle lay on me . . .
this one time since.

To a young child’s most strange discovery
an old child was alert,
and all his world was filled with a sort of joy,
a kind of hurt.
I am back now by a portrait-of-sorts, to which
more closely I advert . . .

the image is banal. A spacewoman –
the world’s first, I believe –
is hinting, with her hand behind her head,
at the sexiness of Eve.
There’s a real zip down her front. A master-stroke!
I turn to leave.

Their stage, my stage.
Within the thump and press of feet and eyes,
and behind a sprawling gregarious colony of exhibits,
are a thousand chance dramas.
For an unseen performance
the minds of public and artists are engaged
in a vivid exchange, an ongoing show
in a vast knockabout theatre stretching nowhere.
Their stage, my stage.
Evelyne Axell and her spacewoman
laugh – would you believe? – at an ageing writer
lost in his thoughts as he approaches, peers,
recoils, and makes his zipped-up way away.
It’s a reaction at least. They and their like
take part in a magnificent display
of a new genre, the random provocative.
Their stage, my stage.

What a farrago it is.
A perfect riot of roles with this or that show-stopper
ad-libbing almost without a pause, and others
unnoticed for hours, the artists and the public,
attendants, and the runaway stars, the exhibits,
all in their own crazed act. A demented festival,
a neo-existentialist farce, a performance art
for itself alone, a gargantuan Broadway
behind the scenes.

Modern art’s a gamble.
What was the Royal Academy of Arts
is now a trip to Las Vegas. But as I lean back in my seat
in the Tate cabin-canteen, and sip at a drink,
and look at the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s
across the river, I can see it is needed:
in some sort the most natural of developments
of images of the mind.

Here’s a warm-hearted piece! Well damn,
the title alone says it’s a sham.
And yet I’m drawn to it, I am,
Delaunay’s Triptych.

A beautiful oblong, richly vital,
all-near, all-far, from which the title
diverts, alas, to a subtitle,
“Delaunay’s cryptic.”

We’re sent to look for two dividers,
to trace a code that’s there to guide us
to parse and solve (ah, woe betide us!)
Delaunay’s Triptych.

The sham’s the word. There is a character
in the Nowhere Theatre who rattles the scenery
and drowns the others out and knows the latest
theories and jargon and byways of debate and catchwords
and maps out everything and yammers nonsense
and stomps the stage. His name (for it’s a he, whoever speaks)
is Roboword. He rules and overrules. In the end his role is
to be the last on stage. And so it transpires
in the Colosseum of Art, that his is the first cause:
all the art is for him and his words are the true art:
and he flashes his chest on stage with a great R,
and everyone claps and degrees sail in through the windows,
and prizes fall from the roof. Yes, he’s a clown, a joke –
but his gift of the gab has our thinking by the throat,
and the danger to art cannot be overstated.

I would challenge anyone now to read ten placards
explaining TM works and not to feel, “Yes, but . . . ”
while in the future, the not too distant future,
there’ll be no “buts” and robots will hiss, “Yes yes.”

I am serious.
Slowly, but aided more than we know
by mechanical word-stores colonising
the freedom of the amphitheatre
of the discursive self, we are giving in
to a black cloud’s drift. We are becoming smaller.
It is no ordinary cloud. It is
the alien “us”. We are surrendering
a vital space.

And yet, Tate Modern, you hearken to and hail,
and shake the hand and shout hosannas for
the individual. That overbearing chimney
we see as we walk up is off the map
the moment we’re inside. The capital I
is safely housed within. But is it potent,
the sense of self that’s carried deep inside?
Is it empowering? Or is it empty?

The journey to Modigliani’s lady
and back, the to-and-fro, in a dreaming landscape
of the contours of an inner room, is travelled
in a half-known intent. One is conducted
to a fine chamber. This was art’s old way,
the back-and-forth, the admission, the arrival,
a meeting with the extraordinary and always
a presentation by some deft means offered
within an element of understatement.

With the Triptych there is nowhere to go
except itself. There is no universal
except itself. A forest of fine forms
is breathing; one is let loose on a way
deep and delightful, a never-ending ramble;
until one chooses to depart mid-route.
And where’s the meeting? There’s another brand
that sears itself upon the sense – itself –
itself – itself – in its own overstatement.

I see stars
I see a pandemonium of light
I see a scrambled horde of letters adrift
in an event at full tide, a controlled explosion
in space, a thrown switch, a concentration of minds
I see a black sea and a flotilla
of small square sails of light, I see
an alien life, our own . . .
an exclamation mark, a question mark
now no more than a metropolitan cliché
now a blind code not to be unscrambled
I see it head-on, forthright, loud and clear
I see it through a windscreen of cracked glass . . .
what is this starburst? All these yellow windows
of cityblock and office, sitting-room
and kitchen, minds at one and beings at many . . .
whatever it all is, I return to Earth
to stand at last becalmed, transfixed, before
a city’s glitz at night . . .

In the eye of the artist
it is altogether more important.
‘The entire design’s made out of bits of paper
picked up from the streets of Los Angeles,
a memory of things pasted and things past.
It’s like reading the streets through the signs.’
It’s called Los Moscos or The Flies, ‘a slang term
for the migrant day labourers who scratch a living
in the streets around San Francisco Bay’.

Dropped from a great height, I land unsteadily.
After reading the placard it’s so much less.
Does Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters need
blather like this? The word
that makes the artist his own analyst narrows
the art. Why do we need a homily?
A discussion of materials, a social motive
outlined in a thin dimension of words?
Let it speak for itself. Or change the write-up
with T.S. Eliot’s help, to something visionary,
less trapped-in-time, and wildly more significant . . .
things pasted and things past
are both perhaps pasted onto things future.

Art’s brain is out. What was its reason alters.
Genius bows to Roboword – and falters.

Sometimes a work of art itself escapes
the boa constrictor of its “explanation” –
but all too often the artist is swallowed whole
down the soft silky jaws of the cognoscenti,
as they address a name and reputation,
to turn it into something suited to
the modern taste.

I would ask, Mark Bradford,
you let your great gift search and charge the skies.
Take your diurnal self out of the picture.
Do not dictate to it, or overshadow
what it might be. It is not you. It is
a deed of existence. Let it merely be.
What need is there for you to superimpose
an over-statement?

Down in the dungeons of the Nowhere Theatre
a dark festival of film is showing. Hurry.

Enter a tank of submerged thoughtweed.

A room in Berlin rented for two months
45 years ago plays itself on a loop,
an empty space inhabited by a brain-smudge,
a floater, an idle plaything of an uprooted
mind with nothing to do.

A tall young woman with Struwwelpeter nails
tiptoes up and down expressionlessly,
two hands scratching both walls, and then the ceiling.

Next up she disturbs a white cockatoo
as hidden from it she breathes soft throaty bird-chucks
like soap-bubbles on the air. Highly ruffled
it struts the sill, tries to get out
by window then by door. It blinks. She blinks.
A blinking series of close-ups. At once the room
is a cage – a space of its own – a metaphor
for something less than lovely.

A kind of beauty, narcissistic and cruel,
touches the air. In a nine-piece artwork
Rebecca Horn imposes herself and her lover
(a balletic duo) upon the viewer’s mindset.
Ruffled, trapped, one pecks at the window, the door-handle.
There is no way past the barriers of her vision.

Another “bird”: feathers dancing on shoulders.
Attached to wires, all standing to attention,
regalia-like the dark plumes dip and play
as a waltz plays. Her shoulders play. Good heavens –
she nearly smiles.

A gingerly slow stroll with her friend: a three-legged
pairing-off, the central bond a novelty
and still a match in a trouser-stripe of its own.
And now a yah-booing, a word-yahooing. She calls it
keeping those legs from fucking-around.

The next
assault on the sensibilities is a bare chest
of dark hair tickled by two tiny fish
remembering a dance. Toy orange goldfish on sticks
dart about, squirm, daringly dip into
the navel. Through their infantile forays
the body rises and falls as on a wave’s breath.
What are we meant to think? “Think what you like,
no-one is trying to make you think at all,”
I hear the batty pretty woman say.
But that’s the trouble. Merely arty-tarty,
she can’t let any mind stop and think at all.

Dreaming under Water. In a cute title
the film disowns responsibility, purpose . . .
merely it is. But nothing merely is.
Choices of a sort inform, underlie
the flimsiest structures. The wobbliest of the lot:
rooms encountering each other in the mirror.

She wears mirrors. She holds mirrors. She is
a vanishing-act. Bits of a room jump out
from across the street, into the empty room,
obscure her form. How jarring, how contrived
a “meeting of rooms”. And yet . . .

the jungle sheds her skin. Trickling water
sounds within a fern-high forest grove,
with close-ups of the great leaf-structures breathing.
Gradually strands are parted to reveal
a vast human torso dripping with sweat.
The idea – all is animate – is no problem:
the juxtaposition is. Invasive, gauche,
it makes the weary viewing mind recoil
from ‘interventions on the human body’.
At the end a surprise: as if we had stepped back
we see the grove as a mere installation
in its own box-pit in the room.

The room . . .
the empty space. I look about the curtained
gallery cubicle where the film is showing.
I look beyond, at the souped-up power station
where so much of the beautiful and bizarre
has its own pulse and charge. I look beyond . . .

and back to the screen. The engaging youth explains
the dark mechanics of the combat dance
of two male snakes. He takes us to the next step,
a mating dance. And lo and behold, Rebecca
dances two scissor-pairs in opposition
around her face and skull, cutting hair.
A violence of snake-ritual? What absurd
ignorance litters the room as she ploughs on?
A frozen face, an auburn clip-clip-clipping . . .
and yet somehow the room is subtle, sharp
and beautiful.

Finally a minimalist oasis.
A line of a poem about how much she loves
to wrap her legs about the legs of her lover –
gee, thanks Rebecca – and a simple shot
of a single window slowly opening,
no more than that – and finally a glimpse
of both the windows open to the sky.

Simply a giving-out onto the world.
An empty space, a room of happenstance,
a patchwork of events, a blind extraordinary
sequence built of randomness, intent,
a scattered mind, a foolish commentary,
a powerful search-engine like a throb
within a star, a loveliness and folly,
a falling-in upon itself, a record
of tentative advance, a theatre
of play and youth, a flaw of innocence,
a hint of evil, and a radiance
of love.

opening onto boxes, rooms on rooms.
Let us suppose
a geometry at the base: then is there
a way to come to terms with what’s inside
at any one stage? To seize upon
the personal mass, to crawl about a heap,
to salvage something, is there a given way
to be re-clothed in the glorious colourful
discard of time? To hark back, to re-visit
the junk of existence? So to recollect
that store, in the lovely act of memory,
according to some maker’s chart? Unlikely.
There is no blueprint to light up a spectrum.
To be sure the heap has its own hidden way
to feed the soil, and populate
with sap and strength, the richest structure of all,
the living tree of the mind. So we
experiment, and learn, and re-combine,
and sift and play, and stumble on
an inroad, it may be, to take us on
a new path forward.

One room, one room. Yet it can seem
a pebble of wealth in Dreaming under Water
can store an Earth-adventure in its veins,
to star and drift upon the Milky Way.

With new eyes I observe
the whole ramshackle scene. A trim surround
has a furnace of white heat: but what is settling
into salient unimaginable
prizes of eye and hand and life? Is there an outcome?
Is there (dare I say it) a cooling period?
Is there a transformation of a past
experience, where junk is jewellery?
It seems to me, surveying this great mansion,
that even despite the occasional masterpiece
of decoration; even despite, indeed,
the finish to a piece that finds the light
in a half-accident – look at the words –
the point, for now, is all in the unsettling.

I tour the chambers
of a new Babel, a wild orchestra pit,
a staircase hung with unintelligible portraits
of the unsteadiness on the rim of the future . . .
a roof-yard that looks out on present London.
And modestly and unobtrusively,
holding it all in place, a background army
of staff contain the overwhelming structure,
a quick contingent, paid and volunteer,
a comity, free-hearted, knowledgeable,
themselves a work of art. And quietly,
because of them, the visitors can join in.
They have their own dimension in the art-show,
the angle of the interlocking present,
a rich and random and robust engagement
of minds now made the most alive on Earth,
a passionate travelling-by, a tour de force
of the vivid reciprocity of art:
life’s extra,
present now.

You take a few steps up
you take a few steps down
up down up down and circle all around
and suddenly you stop
and suddenly you stamp
You’re doing the Turbine Hall Ramp!
Woah, the old Tate Modern
woah, the young Tate Modern
Like you and like me it’s an odd ’un –
it’s twenty years old today!

To us that sounds like a pretty ancient stat
’cos some of us aren’t even as half as old as that –
but we really like the floor here because it isn’t flat –
we’re doing the Turbine Hall Ramp!
Woah, the mad Tate Modern
woah, the glad Tate Modern
Like you and like me it’s an odd ’un –
it’s twenty years old today!

Now listen up you grown-ups and get this in your head
if you aren’t still a child you’re a little bit dead,
and that goes for this place here, and that’s enough said –
we’re doing the Turbine Hall Ramp!
Woah, the wild Tate Modern
the simple-as-a-child Tate Modern
Like you and like me it’s an odd ’un –
it’s twenty years old today!

You take a few steps forward
a few steps back
forward back, forward back, and try another tack,
you run around like crazy
and you end up on your back –
you’re doing the Turbine Hall Ramp!
Woah, the smash-’n’-grab Tate Modern
the yakkity-yakkity-yab Tate Modern
the absolutely fab Tate Modern –
it’s twenty years old today!

Now I go on, as primed as I may be,
to visit and re-visit some enshrined
names in the modern pantheon. In art
the maker’s name is like a missing key
to dollar value. Without more ado
I take a beady-eyed yet adventurous look
at a sky-swoop, a lurid comic-book blast,
a tracking-down. A technicolor detail
of a new chart.

“I pressed the fire control . . .
and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky . . .”
a narrative of speed, of war,
of hunting-hype, the cruelty
that skill is shaped to
my life splinters by
lost to a blind infantile
stutter of locked-on wants
a stream
a hurtling-by, a scream
of hurting others and (too deep to know it
except at core) myself
merely a moment’s
gaiety, a sliver
of fun, a novelty
page on a wall, a slap-doodle
seeming to pose a question – or an answer –
or nothing at all

A moment of surrender fails. Enough
to call the artist’s bluff – or double bluff.
One cannot win. Roy Lichtenstein, you jammy
picture-card-sharp, you score. A double whammy.

How to respond? I am an old man learning,
a wandering misfit. How to dispel the aura,
that writes its name in lights, of a confidence trick?
Should I set my mind to neutral? Or go for the margins?
Switch the whole caboodle from Central to Skim?
The needle will not shift. Nor would I want it:
a part of me waits to be overtaken,
and in the moment of the overtaking,
to be altered, imperceptibly, by art.

I wonder, as I go downstairs, to see
a most delightful children’s studio
with wild and wonderful lights, materials,
ideas sketched out and snipped up on the air
by glinting minds and busy quick small fingers –
I wonder if the earnestness of modern
thought in the public sphere, that’s so enlarged,
has not become a desiccated strand
of modern art, to rob it of its freshness.

the enemy
an endless retailing
of all-too-acceptable
theories, and the need to theorise
my enemy
for nigh on sixty years
one or two young musicians
two or three young painters
and four or five young poets
of a marvellous gift
I have seen quicken
to the time’s signal
and gathered up, passed round
to be slam-dunked
into the bin of the present
a litter of mediocrity
the true art escaping
only by accident
and less and less
as time goes on
art needs no words
no padding no stuffing
from a different dimension
Tate Modern, I ask you
slip the dry strand
from your shoulders, unfasten
the choker necklace
of trite robosyllables,
to stand in the ever-new
minted wealth
centuries on
of the art of silence

This is my journey.
To step among the hopes and dreams
of a planet-people, tilted, it is true
toward a hovering mental mass new-formed
in the thought-sky; and yet pristine
for all that, in its imprint on the way.

To touch in innocence a myriad shapes
of an emergent beauty, breathed
each to a still space, by the imagination

that is the first force and the last. There is
a builder’s yard of dream material,
some old, some young, to fuel it on its way.

Seventy years back a wise guy
dripped paint, poured paint, used a stick for a brush –
let the canvas grab its partner every which way
(not his business) – and you know what? – they did,
they made it. Now that was a trick and a half
the guy thought, and took a few steps back.
It didn’t happen, he thought, but his body knew
it had been midwife to something kicking and screaming,
and there was the evidence staring him in the face.
The damn infant could’ve inherited
something of his, he supposed, but it breathed
slept woke and chuntered to its own design,
its own modification. He knew he was in line with
a current wave of research on the pool
of awareness. And there it was. It was.
Hot damn, he thought, I won’t make it happen,
but if it starts to, that hidden meeting –
that joy-ride, that concept, that frenzy, that labor –
I’ll sure as hell know it, and I’ll sure as hell let it.
He got called on a lot after that.

Who am I
to decry such intelligence?
Such news from the heartland
of art, the dark savannah
where it all began, and in modern terms
from the lit window
of the design office,
or the quiet thrum
of the factory floor.
Even if for some
of a later date
than the breakaway swarm
of Pollock and his ilk,
the mechanics of production
seem to lead merely
to the polluted outcome
of an ‘industrial plant’ . . .
still I salute
the searing intensity
of a once-and-only need:
to half-know, search
and let be made.

But oh my God
I marvel sometimes
at the result.

One Gormley, two Gormleys,
three Gormleys, four . . .
five Gormleys, six Gormleys,
seven Gormleys, more . . .

Just one, against a backdrop of the sea,
may have been beautiful. But if ever a sight
imploded in its own plurality,
it is the Gormley-chimney-figure blight.
Set here, set there, set everywhere on Earth,
and no doubt, one day out in space as well,
on shores of other seas, a sapless dearth
is scattered of our being. A tinpot shell.

If ever a note was fractured in its echo,
if ever a thought was lost in the re-telling,
it’s in this replicated chimney-fellow.
For in its eyes there is a vital quelling;
its frame is of a zombie sturdiness,
and crippled in its uniformity.
And something has been robbed of life, I guess,
in the whole graceless set-up. It is we

ourselves who imitate the Tate’s dead chimney.
It is “I” “I” “I” and “I” “I” “I” again,
who people the world of art like a dead army.
Can it be just a blip? Come stinging rain
and wake us up. Come centuries of fashion,
give us new eyes. That this will come to be,
that we will re-discover wit and passion,
I know. Here endeth Gormley’s elegy.

I look at what I see.
And what I see is an unintentional chronicle
of blindness. I see a long line of mirror-figures
each filled with a need to pronounce upon itself.
They do not look at each other (for what would they see?
only themselves) and every homunculus,
each stray solipsist is holding himself unique,
agog with significance.
They look instead at the passers-by
to solicit their aid (and aid is given),
to forge a new thesis.
It is a joint venture, as the sculptor knew,
but what he may not know, is that all they are there for
is a line of words.

Modern art stands on the edge of a sea
of words, a new patter, an existential discussion
ready to sweep in and merely drown it.
I look at what I see. There is a raging need
for a new formulation. The artworks themselves
are set up finally to go under,
a vanishing-point in a wild inversion,
where what they say is no more than a whisper,
an opening gambit, to be buried in a many-voiced
cacophonous shout of what is said about them.

It is one way of doing it. But beware the tide.

How good to see a portrait by Gwen John.
A lady sits, and lets time pass her by . . .
a moment’s universe has come and gone.

After the use of a panopticon
to view the far and small, the whence and why,
how good to see a portrait by Gwen John.

It is not, it cannot be put upon
by micro-talk. Simply, beneath the sky,
a moment’s universe has come and gone.

A stray hair-bow, the dress that she has on –
the detail does far more than hold the eye.
How good to see a portrait by Gwen John.

A new acquaintanceship is undergone.
In a light space, that’s suddenly nearby,
a moment’s universe has come and gone.

Someone is present. A touch woebegone? –
and yet a thought can overtake a sigh.
How good to see a portrait by Gwen John!
(A moment’s universe has come and gone.)

One is allowed
a glimpse of something new, briefly to know
another place. For me
a lightness and a depth, a passionate thought
that’s near and far, invites me to take part.
Perhaps the faintest touch of modernism
heightens a contrast: the lifeless sallow skin
of neck and hands, and a mind-flush of the face
to hold the action there, behind the eyes.
So I observe, and so I am included
within a cameo, to take part from the wings
and centre stage.

If artist and observer
join hands, and so transform
an artefact to something capable
with its own means of life, I make a plea
if only for a trace of wordless passion
to find a tempo, make a space.

And then
there is a vein near-hidden in the compound
that modernism was half invented for.
An element of wit will always linger –
how could it not? – within the walls
of a great painted cave, a glinting quarry,
a treasured hearth-hall, a rambling-rich Alhambra,
a house of travelling delights, a palace.

In a friendly and curious way
they are looking at me, I dare say,
a bird and a cat, a face and a letter
(unless you can think of anything better),
and so they go sailing away,
these Ships in the Dark by Paul Klee.

With a faint mountain-cluster below
(or more sails) they pause as they go,
and bid me hello, and bid me farewell,
and where they are bound for I cannot tell,
and yet I am half in the know
in the night, in the blue moon’s glow.

For I too am sailing in space
(and you too, from some other place),
or else it’s the sea. And I let go a presence
of triangle-tips and rocking crescents
at a moment of ship-shapely play,
the last thing I see on my way.

In part it is no more
than a child’s joy, as I leave, that takes me over,
down the stairs, past other journeyers:
to have gazed again at a row of humorous ships.
In part an unaccountable response
to a poetic truth, in those deep colours.


in an avenue of tall thin silver birches,
next to the busy and bird-haunted Thames,
I happen to look back at the TM tower.
In perfect complement against St. Paul’s
it stands there, plain, unthreatening and real,
a landmark witness to discovery,
a friend.

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