Flesh over­whelms poet’s art

Naked Clay: Draw­ing from Lucian Freud

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Fiona Wright

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

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