An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Cinnamon Press
Ty Meiron
Glan yr Afon
Blaenau Ffestiniog
LL41 3SU
ISBN 978 1 905614 28 8

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In 1955, Kingsley Amis famously declared that

...nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems.
Philip Larkin backed him up, denouncing the notion of literature as a myth-kitty, a repository for allusions to some tradition. Yet, half a century later, the task of ekphrasis continues to engage poetry. It rears its head in writing workshops with ugly regularity. It certainly crops up in Robert Peters' HUNTING THE SNARK, a tongue-in-cheek catalogue of all the sorts of poems contemporary America churns out.

Hazel Frankel, an artist and poet from South Africa, pays no heed to Amis' blanket ban in her collection DRAWING FROM MEMORY. From the first poem, I AM NO VAN GOGH, visual art is self-consciously her concern. And these are, for the most part, comfortably familiar images: a Manet nude, a Cezanne still-life, Picasso's mistress, Matisse's snail.

Why ekphrasis? What is it for? Sometimes defined as the technique by which one artist responds to another, ekphrasis at its best can be a widening-out of the conversation to which literature aspires. Merely exploiting an image to inspire some pretty words must be a misuse of the conceit. But when a writer really engages with art or music, or architecture, or prose, or indeed any other discipline which humans use to understand the world and answers it, or takes it further, or in a direction it could not go in its original medium, ekphrasis is an invaluable technique.

I am not sure that Frankel is always altogether successful in this. Sometimes she addresses a canvas or its artist, that object remaining frustratingly opaque. At other times the speaker is the painting's subject, in particular the female model, but these poems lack the surprise of for example Paul Durcan's National Gallery poems. Picasso's predictable mistress made me yearn for Van Gogh's hilarious mum. And, surprisingly, Frankel is at her best when she departs from art. Her honey badger and her PANGOLIN were the two paintings I find myself circling in a gallery, when all the other art, despite my best efforts, leaves me cold:

	But, propped on my tail, I broke,
	shell by shell, the golden artichoke
	of her armoury, her delicate petals
	waiting to open, her flesh sticking
	to the mucus on my tongue.

reviewer: Ailbhe Darcy.