Posts Tagged ‘Maureen Duffy’

Flying over Bloomsbury

September 23, 2014

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Maureen Duffy has recently written Songs for Sappho, a cycle of love-poems charting the changing seasons and weathers of a passionate love between two women, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together – ‘the myriad faces of love’. These intensely personal texts explore many themes: her own gay identity (Can you love the both of me/ the yearning boy, the woman who’d wipe your tears?), desire (That moment when you open/ your arms and I come in…), pain and uncertainty (I booze on love, on pain, on wine…), and hope for the future (So maybe after all/ a summer of honey and petals/ will break at last…).

On first reading the Songs, lettering artist Liz Mathews was inspired to make a major work: a flying installation that would become an unending artist’s book. She envisaged the poems as flying messages like smoke signals or paper darts, or slung high from an unbreakable line connecting two points and mapping the distance between them, as the words are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

She set each of the 55 poems on a large page of handmade paper, lettering the text in her trademark style, and using unconventional tools – driftwood sticks from the Thames, a goosefeather quill, a reed pen, and wooden clothespegs. She mixed her paint with blood, honey, snowmelt, earth or wine as the text demanded, to make an artwork that reflects both the grit and the eroticism of the song cycle and inhabits the poems rather than illustrates them.

This joint project is Paper Wings, an installation at Enitharmon Press’s gallery in Bloomsbury, which opened yesterday, with the pages slung fluttering overhead like washing on a line with a touch of fairground bunting. The effect of colour, image, and word in fluent combination has transformed the cool gallery space, giving the sensation of walking within the poems themselves.

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)  Artwork and photo Liz Mathews

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Wall-hung artist’s books and paperworks continue the airy theme, with texts by other writers associated with Enitharmon Press and Bloomsbury, including Jeremy Hooker, William Blake and Virginia Woolf. (All these works are also exhibited on Enitharmon’s website.)

After the exhibition, the individual pages will be constructed into an artist’s book in concertina form. There’s also a limited edition of 100 digitally printed half-size facsimile reproductions, signed by poet and artist, showing each poem/page in full colour, and including elements of both installation and artist’s book.  This is the first publication of these poems.

Paper Wings limited edition book and DVD

The printmaker David Mitchell, one of the guests at the private view, wrote to me afterwards ‘It was a very impressive occasion; Maureen Duffy read beautifully, with such directness and modesty, and the walls and ceiling were echoing and accompanying so sensitively…’  And in the artist’s film Paper Wings the poet speaks the words while the camera explores the pages. Duffy reads her powerful poems with utter honesty and conviction; her lived-in voice moves between weariness and laughter, vulnerability and power, making for a deeply moving reading. The one-take live vocal recording is layered into a textured soundscape of wind and weather, blackbirds and buses, London streets and gardens, aeroplanes and seagulls, evoking the physical context of the poems.

Visually, the camera focuses closely on each page, revelling in the rich palette of colour, the exuberance of the handling of paint, and the freehand flow of the lettering. It takes time to explore the physical qualities of the paper – its textures, weight, light-bearing transparency or opacity. And it reveals the vivid detail of the images that contain the poems in all their dazzling diversity, with the jewel-like intimacy of an illuminated manuscript.

The camera’s close engagement involves the viewer as a reader following the movement of the text, accompanying Duffy on the voyage through the cycle. As the pages turn, their cumulative effect draws the viewer into a personal odyssey in collaboration with poet and artist. The apparently simple film-making (with shifting sequences of ‘still’ images animated by the reader’s moving eye) paradoxically results in a genuinely cinematic experience – moving pictures with sound.

Both the book and the dvd are available from Enitharmon Press, and the exhibition continues there until 15th October.

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews & Frances Bingham (photo by Peter Target)

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews, Frances Bingham at the launch of Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press (photo by Peter Target)






In Times Like These

October 10, 2013

Snowtree photo by Liz Mathews

Snowtree – photo by Liz Mathews

When a writer as historically aware and politically astute as Maureen Duffy subtitles a new novel ‘A Fable’, something interesting is in store.  In Times Like These doesn’t disappoint such expectations; it’s provocative, funny, unsettling, and twists to an unexpected conclusion.  There’s a lot to discuss, a lot to (re)consider, a lot of entertainment on the way.  One gets the feeling that the author enjoyed writing this one.

In many ways it’s a playwright’s novel – short scenes carry the action forward with dialogue, there are jump-cuts and close-ups, newsflashes as well as big set pieces; the story moves fast and doesn’t pause for pedestrian explanations.  This works particularly well for the central characters, Terry and Paul, a couple (historian-politician and artist) whose lesbian relationship is a given.

The premiss is that in the near future an independent Scotland comes to head a powerful Celtic Alliance while an ever-smaller England becomes more and more fractured and isolated.  Tribalism and neo-fascist ideologies gain ground, civil liberties start to erode. There are some brilliant evocations of a future London, deserted by world finance, disintegrating yet still just about functioning for tourists.

Against this convincing scenario of a nation unravelling, some time in the not too distant future, is set a narrative of the remote past in the Celtic world of the monk Colm Cille, mapping the slow growth of alliances between little warring kingdoms, and the growing possiblities of art, books, civilization, in times of peace.  The two apparently distant strands create a mutually-revealing commentary on the contrasting yet not dissimilar situations.

There are some wry funny scenes of the art world (too many artists will know just how Paul feels when the wealthy client/patron thinks she’s selling herself, not her work), academe and political life; almost satire but – unfortunately – all too recognisable.  Then the royals are given some hilarious conversations. There are some genuinely scary moments as well; tribal terrorists’ bombing and burnings which threaten the characters the reader has come to care about.

Without giving the plot away too much, it’s not without hope at the end; a heartening suggestion that art is what may save civilization.  But the portrayal of political extremism, bigotry and xenophobic nationalism is depressingly recognisable, as is the chaos involved in re-negotiations of nationhood. Maureen Duffy has let her richly-stocked imagination go to work on all this, but the result is a fable – from which lessons can be learnt – not necessarily a prophecy.

As a Londoner with Scots connections, I’m still hoping that there will be independence for Scotland soon.  (The Union of 1707 is comparatively recent history, although James VI & I hoped to unite the separate kingdoms a hundred years or so before.)  Since then, Scotland has maintained a dignified and convincing separate nationhood which deserves recognition, symbolised for me by the taxi-driver – in a tartan taxi advertising whisky – who drove two lost Sassenachs from Leith to Waverley Station just in time for the train, then refused to be paid, explaining he’d done it ‘for the honour of Scotland.’

But I certainly hope no country goes through the convulsions Maureen Duffy describes so convincingly, before finding equilibrium.

This is a novel to read now, in times like these, and then revisit with hindsight, after time has told…

A kind of translation

August 10, 2010

Shadowselves – photograph by Liz Mathews

I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation recently, in one of those enjoyable chains of association that’s set off by chance, one thing leading to another, with new discoveries as well as re-discoveries of new contexts for things read separately before.  The problems (and odd advantages) of translation are perennial provokers of thought and discussion, but there’s no arguing about the different light that another literature can cast even on familiar ideas.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, for example, in a lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is referenced by that other much-translated Portuguese writer José Saramago, in his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I haven’t yet read; I’m still on The Elephant’s Journey.  (After Saramago’s recent death, I was moved to read an account of his funeral in Lisbon, attended by  tens of thousands of people, many of them carrying his books.  There was a photo of a book held in the air like a flag, then the inevitable editorial comment that it was hard to imagine a similar outpouring of grief for a British writer – or any other kind of artist, you might add.)

Reis was one of Pessoa’s personae; in the Book of Disquiet he writes as Bernardo Soares.  The introduction explains that he had over 72 distinct ‘heteronyms’ which he used when writing the works which were largely unpublished in his lifetime.  Externally, Soares appears much the same as the writer, but Pessoa found the character different enough to merit its own name; ‘It’s me minus reason and affectivity’.  (Completely other, then…)  These complexities and levels of irony will be discussed and unravelled by scholars, perhaps in perpetuity, but at a simpler level the proliferation of authorial personae perhaps gives a clue to the crucial difference between the writer and their work, which seems almost imperceptible to many otherwise sophisticated readers.

Before going any further, I must confess here that I have read a review of a book by someone I know and immediately remarked that it sounded very autobiographical, before I’d even read it.  (But at least I can differentiate enough to understand that because murder is committed in the book, it doesn’t mean the writer is a killer.)  Any writer must be aware that their audience – if they are lucky enough to have one – contains a proportion of people who would simply lump all of Pessoa’s 72 heteronyms into one authorial autobiography, unmitigated by art.  I first encountered this long ago, at a literary festival, where I read a short story of a very lyrical and fantastic kind, then had an impertinent audience question about the ‘revealing’ nature of the piece.  It really hadn’t occurred to me that the poetic tale of archetypes (mermaids, gypsies at al) could be taken as any kind of personal confession.

This incident has recurred in various manifestations; one which I found disturbing was when a reader questioned me about the dedication in my long poem MOTHERTONGUE – apparently my relationship to the dedicatee (and who they were) made a difference to whether the work would ‘emotionally ring true’.  The implication of this is that a writer’s literal circumstances are what make the work ‘ring true’ or not, rather than some element within the writing and – indeed –  that they can only write about their actual life experience with any emotional conviction.  So, no writing divorces for the happily united, or vice versa; no observation, imagination, empathy, or even research? 

Then, imaginative works are open to the blunt interpretations of cod-pyschology, as though the artist is innocent of all such readings and might ‘accidentally’ reveal their secrets. Recently, in a very obvious train of thought onwards from news about my forthcoming novel, a relation remarked that – in a book he’d actually read – the hero was obviously the author’s fantasy-self, since a succession of beautiful women ‘couldn’t wait to get into bed with him’.  (I could only assure him that my novel is just like that.)  I comfort myself with the fact that The Principle of Camouflage has three very strange narrators, who couldn’t  – surely – be interpreted as anybody’s fantasy selves; not nearly as close as Bernardo Soares to Fernando Pessoa. The lowering part of this is the knowledge that some readers – perhaps the most avid – skim through books for scandal, intimate details, possible revelations, ignoring the dull truth that it’s a little more subtle than that. 

The moment comes when every artist has to accept this as a hazard of the work, and just get on with it.  I was half appalled, half encouraged when I read Maureen Duffy’s introduction to her first novel That’s How It Was – even this brilliant book has suffered from its own absolute success.  Since the author described it as directly autobiographical, it seems that some readers failed to perceive its superb technical command, and read it as an artless outpouring of youthful emotion.  She writes of these undervaluing admirers who have ‘failed to grasp its purpose and structure…[who] believe too that its vividness and intensity were a welling up from memory rather than the deliberate exercise of style’.

If it’s a kind of translation, from lived experience to art, maybe an awareness of the translating process is crucial to the appreciation of the work. And perhaps, for those who risk exposing their imaginations in print, the idea of the 72 alternative authors interposing themselves between the life and the work, will prove to be a virtual guard of honour.