I don’t think these annunciation poems would have happened for me if you’d just emailed me a copy of the Fra Angelico painting one rainy Sunday.
Poets can be like the people who open jars for you after you’ve done most of the work yourself. They come along and unlock the mechanism and you think, ‘well, I was almost there’ but, in the end, they did open the jar for you because, before they came along with their jar-opening words, you were just looking at some jam (maybe Marmite if we’re talking contemporary art) through glass, scraping away the label or reading the contents list trying to imagine how all that might come together…
Sad. No toast for you and along comes this poet and out come the jam-words and everyone can have toast.
Slava was the result of me trying to open two jars at once and making a mess all over the floor. The first was the poet Robert Lax whose ekphrastic blue/black poem continues to fixate me. It really isn’t much more than, as you say, mimesis and yet something lives in the words that doesn’t in the Reinhardt painting it mirrors.
Perhaps it’s the poet himself, or, perhaps, something that the poet brought to the painting that I couldn’t.
The second jar was the polyarnik Vyascheslav Korotkin who appeared in the Guardian as photographed by Evgenia Arbugaeva. He’s the real Slava. I don’t know if I imagined a whole new life for him. I didn’t want to get too personal. Nevertheless, his life fascinated me. Turning him into a monk allowed me to work at the two emerging ideas at once. I’ve never met Lax or Korotkin but both unlocked problems I needed to work through and I had to find a way to enjoy toast with them.
I guess I did something similar in my re-imaginings of the annunciation. I wanted to re-introduce elements such as the difficult family dynamics, secrets and unreliable male figures that are erased from the gospel version of the story and work out how those erasures were problematic for me. Whilst also, hopefully, entertaining with my brand of heretical religiosity.
So, I guess like me, though perhaps with different concerns, you are weaving stories (in poetry) around and from paintings or stories or other poems? I think the idea of layers is one that I found myself peeling away when I started to think about why the Fra Angelico annunciation in San Giovanni Valdarno appeals to me so much. It's not just the image itself, it's the fact it's the least known and regarded of his annunciation paintings, the fact it used to be in a small room behind the church altar which you had to squeeze in to, and then all the symbols and motifs I had to read about to understand. Lilies, porticos, blue dress, abstract floors, not to mention early ideas of perspective; and then the centuries of annunciation paintings everywhere in Western Europe, not least of course in every tiny Italian church you care to enter.
And of course I am fascinated by this asexual, often muscular being, with glorious wings, in conversation with this placid and devotional, slightly bewildered virgin woman, who even as it happens seems to have ideas of 'Queen of Heaven' dumped on her. Where's Joseph in all this? Why are so many of the angels so prettified and resplendent? There's a magical moment being painted here, basically a kind of alien encounter – things from another world arriving in the human world. I somehow wanted to write about all that, hence the variations and retellings of the annunciation story, imaginary paintings by those, like Francis Bacon, who never did and probably never would, paint an annunciation, and a wider set of poems about Italy, colour, abstraction, and contemporary art. The series still seems to be spiralling away from the completed Dear Mary book into new areas, hence our collaboration.
Did something like this happen between Lax and Korotkin for you? I mean Lax does come with various baggage attached: ideas of being a hermit, his murky past in America, his friendship with Thomas Merton and Ad Reinhardt, the very cult nature of his work: elusive in language and style, but also in its availability! You suggested that sending you a Fra Angelico jpeg wouldn't have done anything, presumably just a Lax book wouldn't have either? It's associative and contextual stuff, plus the personal links we bring as individuals to a subject, yes?
Yes. I guess so. My nest of words. Your nest of words. The nest of words around certain iconic images. We’re all throwing bits of nest at each other as we interact and consequently making new nests or maybe adding extensions to the roost. Everything from the nest gets used and re-used and you can see the architecture of my brain-nest in my poems. To quote Vahni Capildeo, ‘language is my home’ and I think I can more easily understand the Lax poetry and the accounts of Korotkin’s life and build nest-images with that than I can with the Fra Angelico painting. Although, to contradict myself, I also found Evgenia Arbugaeva’s images a necessary handle on Korotkin’s life and Lax’s poetry is often concretely imagistic.
In some of my annunciation poems, I’ve changed the story completely. I was fixated, for a time, with the idea of a menacingly male angelic presence. The bluebeard figure of Leonard Cohen and the androgynous David Bowie are both symbolic of more complex, contemporary ideas of female sexuality. Both are just as problematic as the original.
It’s a strange scene, something of a monolith, that if looked at closer unravels like a green field, which you can either decide is just a green field and get on with your life or you can lie down and listen to how it’s an infinite number of other things.
You know I think I’ve just thought up ten new annunciation poems whilst writing this. Second book?
© Sarah Cave & Rupert Loydell 2017