Beholding

Up to the minute thoughts here – this story, poem and picture are about a moment in a day in November 2014! My thoughts go back to it from time to time, and for a number of reasons. Why write it today? I’m not really sure – but here goes anyway.

Young boy drawing Stubbs' 'Whistlejacket' at the National Gallery in London

This picture was taken in the National Gallery in London in mid November 2014. I would have been unable to take it the week before, because the week before was the last in which visitors were not allowed to use a camera in the gallery.

I have a pretty poor memory, but I do remember a few things from that day. As well as the many tourists taking this new opportunity to snap their way around the nation’s artistic highlights, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I stood in front of a Caravaggio. The painting was ‘Supper at Emmaus’ – the flashier version, the one with high drama and big hands. There is something unique about the way light interacts with layers of oil paint. Something that defies reproduction in any other medium. No matter how fine the quality of a photograph or print, it cannot record the confusions of depth, those ambiguities of transmission that, in the hands of a master, seem to make the thing just, well, glow.

I stood and stared while the cameras clicked on. I didn’t want to photograph this amazing thing in front of me, I wanted to breathe it in through my eyes.

Further along the gallery I found something I did want to photograph, in front of one of the English artist George Stubbs’ most famous horse portraits ‘Whistlejacket’. This shows the ribbon of vibrant muscle that is an immaculate Arabian thoroughbred – rearing on a field of gold. The horse was a race winner owned by Stubbs’ patron the second Marquess of Rockingham. At the time the painting was first shown, some, reacting to the absence of rider, or any other details other than the horse itself, suggested it was incomplete. Stubbs, however knew his craft exceptionally well, and knew the object of his purpose in painting, perhaps to the point of obsession.

My photograph wan’t Stubbs’ painting – what interested me was the intense attention of a young draughtsman sitting in front of my it. Drawing in the National Gallery is a long-standing tradition. Artists seek to learn from those who have gone before, or bring their own technique or observation into sharper focus. I am and will remain a dedicated photographer, but still I can see that drawing like this can involve a more intense and active way looking. Being there, it transpires, is often everything.

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Beholding

Until yesterday – you had to draw
to make an image in this place.
From today – photography is allowed –
just click to capture (but no flash, please).

I was there, and so was Christ –
Caravaggio’s, supping at Emmaus.
Have you seen the painting or
only pictures printed, or on a screen?

Fermat’s principle is confounded in oils –
refraction confused as rays are cosseted,
kept and honeyed through the layers.
Additions are made, and given back.

It’s more than OTT – it’s airborne.
“Just back from the dead – yeah, but … Shh!”
I don’t believe, but I can’t photograph magic,
so I simply stand beholding, breathing light.

Twenty paces on another immortal
hangs on the opposite wall,
glowing chestnut on a field of gold.
All racehorses are minor gods.

The critics balked – “When will you finish?”
“Where’s the scenery?” “Where’s his rider?”

He knew. The thoroughbred rears forever –
heartbreak still, eyes high-strung in doubt.

I found a photograph to keep the day.
Back to me, eight perhaps, sat on the floor –
drawing the horse, his horse, his racing lines –
the crowd invisible, his gaze alight.

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Getting REEL

walker in silhouette

REELPoetry 2022 – the festival of poetry film, is on 25/26/27th February, live (in Texas) and online (everywhere). I’m delighted to have been able to curate a short program of poetry films, which I’ve called Stravaig. I like to think of it as a wander through film-poems both from Scotland, and around the globe about the natural world and our relationship with it.

As well as a couple of my own short films, the Straviag program (Festival program, Day 1: 26th Feb) has works from film makers I am really pleased to be able to include – Life-breath Songs, presented by Scotland’s Makar Kathleen Jamie – the poet driving this national poetry collaboration – is a collection of three beautiful poetry films by eminent Scottish poetry film maker Alastair Cook (founder of Filmpoem), and featuring the gorgeous voice of Eilidh Cormack (of folk trio Sian). The Mirror is a poised collaboration between poet Em Strang and filmmaker Jonny Randall.

I’m also very pleased to be able to include the challenging The animal that therefore I am by award winning Dutch filmmaker Bea de Visser – a unique collaboration with animals (and other human animals). Jesse Adlam’s and poet Greta Stoddart’s Lie in a field on your back gives a precious moment of pause in the rush of the world. Artist Alisha Anderson delivers a remarkable visual-speech-poem centred on the aftermath of forest fire in Meristem. The wave by Janet Lees with poet Lucia Sellars is a song for and of the sea, and for life.

REELPoetry 2022 – the festival of poetry film, is on 25/26/27th February, live (in Texas) and online (everywhere). For tickets and program details see http://www.publicpoetry.net/reelpoetry (Please remember to adjust event times from CST to your own timezone.)

REELPoetry 2022 poster

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Ventifact

Not owning a property, I don’t own a fence or a wall.  I’m not sure that is the reason, but I suppose it could in part  be why posts seem to have become a minor theme for me. Or it could be just be that, in a populous and long-cultivated island like Britain, lines and boundaries, old and new, are so plentiful as to be unavoidable. You are always bumping into the edge of someone else’s definition of something. 

In places that generally feel quite wild for the drawing of lines on the land, posts of one sort or another – wood, stone, metal – are generally hard to avoid. In the hills – even (or the perhaps especially) when wires are long gone, old fenceposts are often handy waymarks for walkers – especially in fog or snow. At any rate I seem to have become attached to some of them, and developed needs to tap, listen to their sounds, and daydream a little about their stories…

Ventifact

High up, near the drystane shelter
between Leacach and Maol
by the ridge dyke, by iron spikes –
once I was an older fence of wood.

Wind beat time and ice and rain
and drummed norther posts
down to the final nubs
of outsized Argos pencils.

I retain my tensioned form –
grain-split twisting sinuosity,
a lime-dried wrist upthrust
wire-clench tight, though

not to punch. To punctuate.
Sculpted dot on a broken line.
Air’s song is what it moves –
I am an artefact of invisibles.

I am dictation. I am a note.

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Other post posts…

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a tree speaks

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a large beech tree

a tree speaks is a short film poem.

The poem is one that I wrote back in 2017 when I was working on a collaboration with artist Tansy Lee Moir.

Now felt like a good time to rework some text animation that I made for a projection back then into a proper film poem. You can see the result below… (sound on is best)

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Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

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I was recently lucky enough to be able to attend a short writing workshop given by Kathleen Jamie, Scotland’s new makar. At the coffee break I was bold enough to ask for her to sign a copy of her book Surfacing for me. I explained that I’d enjoyed it so much that I had bought several copies of it as presents for friends since I first read it a couple of years ago. I had actually ended up giving my own book to one friend, so I’d bought another copy on my way in that morning. I’d been intending on re-reading it soon anyway – but as it was, I had only read a few pages in the time before the workshop began.

Kathleen kindly took my pen and, before she signed the book, asked if I wanted her to include my name – “Yes please.” I said, and she replied, joking a little, “You won’t be able to give this one away then!” 

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