...an ache in each welcoming kiss, Maria Isakova Bennett
Maytree Press, 2019 £6.00
The sacred language of fine art
This collection engages with seventeen art works in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and Port Sunlight’s Lady Lever Gallery.
These are not simple ekphrastic poems of appreciation or description. They are prayerful negotiations between individual paintings and the way they hold our gaze and influence perceptions and feelings.
The opening poem is a meditation on Jean Marchand’s ‘Nocturne’. It conveys the art world’s territory of pain and sacredness. The gallery has become a place of prayer in which we cannot pray. At the same time, it is personified: it is ‘dizzy’ and longing to break out:
In room ten you want to kneel to pray
but words won’t come
and the gallery is dizzy tonight —
the tug of a boat at Heurteauville,
flat sands, a low tide
a tumult of sky at Egremont.
The direct address of the poem (‘you’) allows both inclusiveness and welcome as the reader is invited to engage directly with Marchand’s painting — ‘consider a bouquet imprisoned in the corner’. The idea of the painted object as ‘imprisoned’ reflects the earlier concept of the ‘dizzy’ gallery wanting to escape into the open world.
This desire for freedom is revisited in meditations on other paintings. For example, ‘His Icon’ places the garment on the model in Brockhurst’s ‘Jeunesse Dorée’ within our grasp:
the unflappable grey cardigan,
its gape and tug between the fast hold
of each button
Again, in the final lines of ‘Novena before Singer Sargent’ — the speaker ‘(needs) the promise of a boat / the swirl of a troubled tide’. In fact, the poet continually suggests the need to break boundaries, and even the frames of our own bodies:
where night is absorbed into morning,
where the sound of the tide
is soothing white noise;
where there are no borders —
where there is no distinction
between memory and dream:
we pour ourselves
Maria Isakova Bennett is a translator between forms. In this pamphlet, she translates fine art paintings into poems of experience, elegy, reverence and sensual longing.
Where less means more
Isovaka Bennett wrote much of this pamphlet whilst visiting the Walker and Lady Lever Galleries in Merseyside. Many of her poems are ekphrastic, intended to be read alongside the paintings to which they allude. The poet’s economy with words is a great strength. There is not an ounce of spare flesh in this work, yet her imagery is so vivid and fresh that it enables the poems to stand entirely alone.
In the opening stanza of ‘In the Kasbah’, Bennett’s precise observations appeal to the reader’s senses:
they eat sliced oranges
bright with sugar.
He pours mint tea from a height,
loves the drama.
Her word choices are so evocative; awakening our eyes, ears and taste buds, they enhance the accessibility of the scene she creates.
Another example is in the first poem of the series, ‘Nocturne at the Walker Gallery’, which concludes with ‘the quench of peaches’. This is a brief but beautiful description suggesting ripe juiciness, likely conjuring memories of childhood summers and gorged sweetness. The referenced artwork shows us the fruit, but Barrett takes that image and explodes it into something we can almost taste — something we can savour.
In ‘Elaine after Lancelot’, Bennett’s focus shifts to the background:
Fierce sun makes no difference
to a dense forest —
there’s always carnage, antique bark,
In these two short couplets, the forest becomes metaphorical, impenetrable and deathly. Having read those impactful sixteen words, we may be drawn first to the background in the painting.
It is unusual for a reader to be allowed so much access to the source of a writer’s inspiration. This makes this a highly personal and inclusive collection of poems.
Bennett is a hugely confident writer: she writes powerfully, yet with such brevity. By interpreting and deepening meanings within each artwork, the writer provides her audience with greater conviction in their understanding of both poetry and painting, thus creating a fascinating exchange between the reader, the poet and the artists upon whom she has focused.