Flesh overwhelms poet’s art
Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud
THERE’S a strange tension at the centre of Barry Hill’s latest collection of poems, written in response to the portraits of Lucian Freud, the British painter famous for his unflinching, confronting and unbeautifying nudes.
The poems are intensely interested in nakedness, and in both looking and being seen, but also must attempt to balance this gaze against their own acts of representation and image-making.
This is, of course, a difficulty that complicates any kind of ekphrastic writing, where the image of the artwork must somehow coexist with the images of the writing, without competing or closing down any ambiguities of meaning.
Many of the poems in Naked Clay do struggle to find this balance, especially those that rely heavily on plain descriptions of the portraits. There’s a sense that these pieces are attempting somehow to present the paintings, to allow the art to speak for itself, but this often leads to a strange flattening, and somehow arrhythmic, unemotional effect, as in this from Girl with White Dog, 1950: The other hand is by her side in line with the dog’s head the gold of the wedding ring in tune with the ginger tints of its nose
But more problematic are the politics of gender that cannot be extricated from any work that deals with nakedness, and especially from any response to nakedness as By Barry Hill Shearsman Books, 160pp, $25 presented by an artist as challenging, and sometimes controversial, as Freud.
Freud’s nudes are, after all, portraits of the flesh: they are carnal and brutal and exposing, and they include portraits of his naked adult daughters. The poem Portrait of Rose is an excellent meditation on the moral and artistic ambiguities of this — but even this poem has some dubious moments: Hill writes: ‘‘ Here she simply wanted to be done by Daddy.’’
Elsewhere, Hill’s descriptions of Freud’s female nudes is unsettling, and quite problematic. The poem Mercurial Awe, for example, refers to ‘‘ women with their thatch and cracks, slits and pink folds’’ and to the ‘‘ huge furry spider’’ glimpsed on a mother in a bath; other women either have, or are, ‘‘ wounds’’. And while Hill’s male nudes aren’t let off easily either, the descriptions of them are focused mostly on colour, and on repose: here, the obsession is with death rather than sex.
This is further complicated by the figure of the mother that dominates Naked Clay; or, more precisely, the two mothers that are present beneath many of the poems. Freud painted several portraits of his mother throughout his career, including one of her dead body, and Hill uses this figure to focalise reflections and portraits of his own mother.
These personal poems are very strong pieces, delicate and tender and with an emotional honesty that is harder to accomplish with the more representative poems elsewhere. However, this focus does mean the women portrayed within the book become polarised: they are mothers or they are lovers, but they are never anything else.
And yet this portrayal is an affectionate and compassionate one, nonetheless. The final poem in the collection, Magnanimity, is an explicit address to the mother, as she is figured in ‘‘ the picture that hangs in my head’’, a striking image that makes physical the connections between art, memory and imagination that Hill is exploring in these poems.
Magnanimity is a powerful poem, a kind of autobiography told through the bodies of the poet, his family and his lovers, and woven through with reflections on Freud’s work. It is a kind of thinking-poem, and there are several others like this scattered throughout Naked Clay, which has been shortlisted for the Forward prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry awards.
These thinking-poems are Hill’s most interesting work: lucid poems, often formally challenging, documenting the poet’s struggle with his material as well as his consciousness of the problems of his project. In In Sight of Death, Hill writes of ‘‘ The task of the poem that would speak of the dumb painting:/ coaxing one into a murmur/ the other into intimations’’, and also admits to have ‘‘ been banging on as if the faces do not matter/ as if they have been done to death like shins/ knees, ankles, the lower belly, buttocks’’.
What this means, however, is that Naked