I’m sometimes a little suspicious of ekphrasis. I’m not sure why but I think it is related to a feeling I get that it is used for one of two reasons: either because the poet has run out of ideas of their own or they are showing off their knowledge and understanding of another artist’s work. A third reason might be that they are practising their own craft by tapping into the craft of another – there is nothing wrong with that of course, although it would seem more appropriate in a creative writing workshop than a published collection. I have similar suspicions about the use of extensive epigraphs and in-text allusion. A little cynical? Maybe. And I should say that as a poet I use ekphrasis, epigraphs and allusion as much as the next person, so it’s hypocritical too. Furthermore, there are countless examples of wonderful ekphrastic (and art- or artist-inspired) poetry online and in print, some of which I have blogged about before, for example this piece I wrote on Sasha Dugdale’s incredible ‘Welfare Handbook’ towards the end of last year. I mention my suspicions here only to acknowledge some of the prejudices I brought to my reading of Ian House’s New and Selected Poems, recently published by Two Rivers Press, and to add emphasis to the delight I found in having my suspicions in this case blown to smithereens.
To say that House’s poetry embraces ekphrasis does not do justice to what has clearly been a life’s project for him. His work, I think, transcends the very idea of ekphrastic poetry and finds instead an expression of the symbiosis of life and art. Yes, he describes visual works of art, as traditional ekphrasis would, and he does so beautfully, as in his central sequence of seven poems based on the paintings of Paul Nash ‘It Must Change’: e.g. “blazing yellows and oranges / intenser than all imagining / fierce as a fusion reactor / self-unsparing self-consuming / the sunflower hurtles downhill” from the sixth poem in the sequence (‘It Must Burn’). But many of his poems are not descriptions as much as contemplations and digressions, as in ‘Now You See It’, inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 1995 triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ in which House recreates the heartbreaking descent towards the ground of a priceless work of art before questioning our reaction as viewers (“Couldn’t you admire the man / who had the balls…?”) and then proposing a way of understanding the problems surrounding Weiwei’s paradoxically iconoclastic artwork (“We… / wanted someone to tell us / … / that we share no genes with the millions / who’ve shattered statues, burned books.”). On other occasions, the artwork is used as a point of departure from which to bury into a moment or a relationship from the poet’s (perhaps I should say the speaker’s) past: “When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale, / the long, dumb wail,” he writes in a poem called ‘L’histoire centrale’, “there was no reason on earth it reminded me / of you”. The irony here of course is that the painting clearly does remind the speaker of the ‘you’ and their perhaps brief moments together outside the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, and so Magritte’s depiction of a “woman with the grey cloth over her head” and her suitcase which may or may not contain “louche / camisoles, canaries, cinnamon (and an) odour / of excitable gunpowder” becomes charged with the unspoken sexuality of a ‘brief encounter’ and a certain film-noiresque danger (via German Expresionism) which allows House to suggest a depth to the speaker’s relationship – however brief – with his interlocuter, and a profundity to his regret, that could not have been achieved without his use of allusion and ekphrasis.
Even when casting back to his childhood in ‘The Harbingers’ the first of the ‘new’ poems (which take up a good two-thirds of this ‘new and selected’) House recalls an early experience at an outside performance of ‘As You Like It’ in which his ten-year-old self is alert to the “shiver of leaves” which anticipates Orlando’s arrival through the “twilight and greenwood”. He takes this moment as representative (at least “a hint of a sense”) of the engagement with art as a way of understanding the world which has, it seems, remained with him throughout his life. He describes it succinctly and beautifully as “a glimpse of what hovers, / of what’s beyond presence”; but then takes it further with a stanza which I think goes to the heart of his poetic project: “and may be disclosed / in the unforeseen moment / by a tree or a smile or a chair”. It is this movement from ‘tree’ (natural/non-human) to ‘smile’ (natural/human) to ‘chair’ (a combination of the natural/non-human with the natural/human resulting in something non-natural/non-human but paradoxically both natural and human, i.e. art) which I think speaks to a complexity in man’s relationship with art which, were it not so precisely described by House, would approach the Spiritual. He concludes the poem with a stanza that captures the purity and peace he finds in art which many might turn to religion in order to locate (“a glass of water, say, / simply that, a volume / limpid and still.”) The double-meaning of “volume”, of course, is not lost here.
Elsewhere, House engages with the life and work of artists as diverse as Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, Ovid, Kazimir Malevich, Djambawa Marawili and Gogol. And what a pleasure it is to be introduced in some cases to creative minds you have never heard of before, and in others to be reintroduced as though for the first time.
As ever when writing a review it is more difficult to decide what to leave out than what to include, but there are two further aspects of House’s work I would be very remiss not to mention.
The first is that, for all this talk of art and ekphrasis, House also writes beautifully about nature, and often surprisingly aswell, particularly in the selection from 2014’s Nothing’s Lost (“How sexy bream are” he declares in ‘Silver Bream’, “industrious lap dancers / in slinky chainmail”!). This is illustrated also in the following stanza from ‘Peregrine’, which also displays the poet’s abilty to bring that viscral and startling vision of nature back to his central artistic theme, leaving us with a heightened sense of both:
Not for her the hawk’s swerve
to the tossed gobbet. She’ll biff
a rook like a bullet, grab and rip
like a machine, strip life
to the bone, like poetry.
The colloquial and dated ‘biff’ is the surprise here, but paired with the more traditional ‘bullet’ it evokes perfectly the precision and blunt power of a falcon’s mid-air attack, and a further surprise is to have the violence of this attack compared to poetry, “strip(ping) life / to the bone”; but that really is what poetry does, isn’t it?
My second point will probably already be clear from what I have said above, but it is worth stating overtly: these are poems of great technical skill which balance form and content extremely thoughtfully. To illustrate this I will return to ‘L’histoire centrale’ from Cutting the Quick (2005). The content I have already mentioned, but it is worth pausing over the way the rhyme scheme forms a sort of vertical bracket around the poem’s ‘central story’ i.e. the “me” and “you” which end the lines of the fifth (of ten) couplets. The “head” of line one is reflected back in the “lead” of line twenty, as the “tuba” of line two returns in the “rubber” of line nineteen; and then the ‘almost’ semi-rhyme (suitcase/louche) in the second couplet is set against the ‘almost’ visual rhyme (Prague/rouge) in the penultimate. Between these rhymes the cetral protagonists are cushioned on either side by lovely and imaginative slant-rhyming: odour/powder, centrale/wail, mine/rain, hall/swell, and Don Giovanni/alchemy. I submit that the rhyme structure of the poem protects a valued memory as though it were encased in the heart’s india-rubber, as “whispered” by the speaker’s partner by the “twinkly Vltava” in the final couplet.
And I would furthemore submit this poem (see in full below) as evidence that in taking a lifelong engagement with visual and literary art as inspiration, Ian House has created his own, quite astonishing, works of art.
The woman with the grey cloth over her head,
one hand behind a tuba,
has no need of the reticent suitcase
and its cargo of, let’s say, louche
camisoles, canaries, cinnamon, its odour
of excitable gunpowder.
When I came across Magritte’s L’histoire centrale,
the long, dumb wail,
there was no reason on earth it reminded me
plaiting your words with mine
as we watched the skirmishing rain
from the door of the Rudolfinum concert hall
while Brahms and Mahler’s swell
drained through talk of Don Giovanni,
Arcimboldo, Rosicrucian alchemy
to beer and the backstreets of Prague.
The streetlights splotched your rouge.
You whispered that the heart was india-rubber.
The twinkly Vltava was sheeted lead.
You can buy Just A Moment from Two Rivers Press, here.