Frank & Stella, Mark Wynne
tall-lighthouse, 2020 £6.00
I found this a wonderful, unexpected, pared-back pamphlet. An unusual debut. Based around the life and work of painter Frank Auerbach, Frank & Stella works well at two levels: both at capturing the spirit and feel of its subject, and as a sequence I could appreciate and relate to with little reference to that. Here, from ‘Stella Asleep’:
I see you’ve chosen a new colour for sadness
I stumble through the gentle disaster of sleep
Throughout, Mark Wynne shows refreshing restraint. Frank Auerbach famously scraped his paint off and started again and again on the same canvas. In ‘Camden Town’, Wynne writes ‘I wake up every morning / stunned // the walls scraped bare / again’. And these poems do have that same feel: of layers scraped away and a residue left which has a more powerful effect for all that’s been erased.
Throughout, there’s a sense of high anxiety — ‘I’m reading too much / into everything’, starts ‘Primrose Hill’ — and that paint is ‘a full five-inches thick’, as he has it in ‘Film Critic’ — but the eventual, unembellished poems work brilliantly, to my mind: a meld of brief statements. So, ‘it’s taken a week to climb these steps’, he writes in ‘Delacroix’; or ‘why are you afraid of your own bed?’ and ‘the past overwrites the present’, in ‘Earl’s Court’.
The final poem in the sequence is itself called ‘Brief Statement’:
to explain, falters
a brief statement
dissolves into nothing
And these poems do, for me, dissolve any ‘desire / to explain’. Very London-centric, as was Auerbach’s work, they simply offer up images and mood — sadness — and leave me to meet them. I love the opening poem ‘Interior, Vincent Terrace’. It sets out in front of us a small cast of characters, an interior: ‘that room that awful yellow // the colour of unlove’. The poem works powerfully, for me, less definitely delivering more:
picture our life
as a cardboard box
now try to imagine
the top lifted off
It’s exactly what I do, reading these poems.
Poet as collage artist
Many poets will be familiar with the idea of a ‘word palette’. We often use the vocabularies of a landscape, craft or occupation to create metaphors or unify a piece of work. In his intriguing pamphlet Frank & Stella, Mark Wynne has taken this idea a step further, adopting the art and life of the painter Frank Auerbach as his palette, along with borrowings from commentary about the artist, and composite characters created from the artist and his models.
The material is reworked to create a new context for Wynne. He interrogates his own concerns through a collage of all things Auerbach in short poems with mostly unpunctuated lines, as in ‘Primrose Hill’:
I take bus rides
all over town
the razed cityscapes
after months & months
over Primrose Hill
a secret geometry
my life illuminated
by a lie
Many of the poems are set in urban interiors, with place names and poem titles taken from Auerbach’s life, as in ‘Finsbury Park’:
I pace from room to room
I have seized all points of view.
Other poems are concerned with spaces where important scenes have occurred, or where people are missing, as in ‘Insomnia’:
I wake up at five — impatient —
my language is impoverished
strange how the absence of one
woman can empty a city.
Auerbach’s technique of painting in heavy layers and scraping away to begin again is referenced in some poems, as in ‘Camden Town’:
I wake up every morning
the walls scraped bare
This is not to say that the reader must be knowledgeable about Auerbach, although that would add another interesting layer. I enjoyed the poems with only a brief foray online to gain some idea of the images and context from which the poems were created.
Where the poet and artist perhaps differ is in the thickness of the brush strokes. Auerbach’s paintings strike me as weighty with their density of paint. Wynne’s poems, paradoxically, gain weight from spare language and lightness of touch.