Pighog Press, 2010 £6.00 + £3.00 p&p
Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Helena Nelson and Kirsten Irving
The Artist's Room, a series of poems based on the life of the Welsh but largely Paris-based painter Gwen John, draws heavily on Sue Roe's biography Gwen John: A Life. I am sure it benefits from being read in conjunction with that book, but Slade's flyleaf note on the Welsh artist provides just about enough of a background for a sequence that is anyway sparse and universal:
Near the end of the night I looked
at my form reflected, I looked at my face
the pale flesh, the wide eyes solemn and calm.
In long poems or poem sequences that wholeheartedly inhabit the lives of others, one rarely finds a poet at his or her best (Douglas Dunn's The Donkey's Ears comes to mind). But the saving grace of Slade's poems is that they are about us more than (or as much as) they are about Gwen John, and constitute a concise study of hope and hurt:
She walked through the forest
'in the dark and rain, through fallen leaves'
feeling his absence, drawing on emptiness.
It almost seems unfair to quote small parts of this sequence in isolation; The Artist's Room is a work that really should be read in full (though a few poems do stand up on their own). Though riddled with bland pronouncements and ostensibly simplistic raisons d'etre, the texts nevertheless add up to more than the sum of their parts. They are not going to change the world, but there's something comforting and pleasing about reading these spare, intimate poems, interspersed with occasional quotations from John, pertinent addresses and locations in Paris, and the surprise (now somewhat ruined for you, dear reader) of a print of one of her paintings, A Corner of the Artist's Room (c.1907-9), half way through the pamphlet. We might learn a little bit about Gwen John by reading this sequence but - and crucially - we stand to learn something about ourselves if we are willing to listen very carefully to what this hypnotic and fragile work wants to tell us.
As soon as you pick this one up, you know it's a classy publication. There's a separate loose-leaf cover, for a start; there is a glorious full colour reproduction of a Gwen John painting in the middle; and then there's all sorts of fancy stuff going on with typefaces on the left hand pages, which also hold the title of each poem (the poem itself is on the right, in a grey, unframed box.)
Some of your response will dictated by initial aesthetic response - whether the design appeals. I had mixed feelings. I did like much of it, and overall it made me interested in both the artist Gwen John and Jo Slade's response to her.
Some of the individual pages irritated me a bit, in particular the one which comprises a quotation from Gwen John in huge white italic font on a black page. It's not subtle, and for me it got in the way of the rather lovely little facing poem ('God's Artist'), which-given its extremely small typeface and grey backing-struggles to make itself heard. This poem, however, will illustrate what I liked about the poetry in this publication. For me, it's the intense visual quality that appeals, especially when the central topic is a visual artist. 'God's Artist' opens:
She leaned against the timber door
and looked out across the sky.
It was winter.
I can see that, and I can feel the door against my back. 'The Still Room' opens equally crisply:
Wind in the birch in the aspen-
all night long the studio door was open.
The still room a white chair
white canvas against a white wall.
I like the way the images are dropped in there with minimal interference. It works for me.
All in all this is an unusual publication, playing around with all sorts of ideas. If some of the poems are a bit cramped and complicated ('The Last of the Weather'), others are beautifully lucid and understated.
The praise on the back of The Artist's Room focuses on Slade's 'ethereal' approach, 'reflectiveness' and 'inward journey'. The poetry in the collection has a strong theme of feeling, rather than knowing, with half-glimpses of John in the streets of Paris, suggestions instead of descriptions regarding her liaisons with Rodin, and a portrait of the artist sitting in an almost transcendental state, "different to waiting", acting as a conduit for inspiration.
Slade's poetry adds hints and impressions of stories and experiences, just as layers are added in paint to form a picture. But where one reviewer describes her style as 'elusive', I find it frustratingly vague. The idea of poem as sensation, and as something to be discussed and not concluded, just as visual art so often is, is a very seductive one, but that brief is very hard to pull off while still giving the reader something to cling to. There are strong images, such as the 'winter bitch' or wolf, crooked, dark trees and breasts, but nothing that builds or sets into a theme through the collection.
In 'Whistler Muse' and 'Mysteries of the Heart II', the tender, sensual description is almost reined in, as if the writer is intrigued (as I know I am) by the sexual relationship and desire between artists, but unsure of how to sew the imagined romance onto the reality of sex. There's always an argument for subtlety in the erotic, and leaving more to the imagination, just as there is in poetry, but the coyness of language like 'tenderness', 'extinguish' and 'a stream released inside her', coupled with the suddenly simple 'he touched her breasts', feels disconnected from the experience that could draw a reader in. While romanticising a hero is natural, often the most interesting aspects of legendary lives are the points at which they seem the most normal and average; what they drink with their meals versus their overall artistic vision. It's the moments when we feel closest to their template.
Indeed, a lot of the language takes places in the ghostly realm of abstracts. This has the effect of creating broad strokes of atmosphere and mood, with the figure of the artist a silhouette in the middle of it all. Good in small doses, too much abstraction means the poetry dissipates quite quickly after reading. Shorter sketch-like poems, such as 'Little Interior' and 'Early Light' place emphasis on 'dissolution', 'radiance' and 'overwhelming silence', while the strongest poem of the collection for me, 'The Last of the Weather', is bursting with interesting detail. From the 'child-painter' with her 'pocket of pencil' to the closing image of the toy boat and its suggestion of escape, the poem reads like a discovered cluster of photographs of strangers, through which the reader can begin to fill in the gaps.
It almost goes without saying that Pighog Press's production values are splendid. Perfect binding, high quality materials and an interesting approach to laying out the poetry inside all get big ticks, as does the resistance to interpreting the title too literally in the cover design, opting instead for a crisp mint green font on a muted background. Inside, the titles are laid out facing the pieces, as in a gallery. My dad, reading over my shoulder, said he wanted to see more John paintings in the pamphlet than just the single colour piece, six poems in. I'd say more or none myself.