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Derek Jarman’s a finger in the fishes mouth

Derek Jarman’s a finger in the fishes mouth

A facsimile edition of Derek Jarman’s only poetry collection, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, originally published by Bettiscombe Press, Bridport, Dorset in 1972, is due to be published by Test Centre, with a new Foreword by Sophie Mayer and Afterwords by Keith Collins, Jarman’s partner, and Tony Peake, his biographer.


Postcards from Jarman’s own collection, here gorgeously reproduced in an evocative green, preface each of the 32 numbered poems, written when he was in his early twenties. The impact is at once beguiling, light and playful. The original printers refused to reproduce an image of a priest being pleasured by a nun before the poems, ‘Christmas 64’ and the image has not survived into this edition.


The book will be launched on Wednesday, 19th February at the London Review Bookshop, twenty years to the day since Jarman’s death. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of the film director, diarist, gardener and gay activist just after he left King’s College, London having studied English, History and History of Art to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in the early Sixties.


This collection then stems from a time when Jarman was immersed in the wide range of historical, literary and cultural references, which inform his provocative films, and when he was in the process of finding his own sexuality and providing a tradition with which he could align himself. Jarman has his feet firmly both in Renaissance tradition and Modernist experiment.


On first sight of the front cover, Wilhelm von Gloeden’s picture of a young boy with his finger in the mouth of a flying fish, I anticipated a collection of absurdist poems from the era of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell and their artistic pranks defacing library books.  It is in fact more of a travelogue of loosely linked postcard images and words and in part has a Beat connection. This is perhaps Jarman’s version of ‘On The Road’. Jarman loved Beat poetry and visited San Francisco and City Lights Bookshop in the summer of 1964 to pay his respects.

There are also poems here that come from Jarman’s immersion with painters from Rembrandt to Rothko, poets such as Coleridge, as well as cities from Calgary, New York to Venice and Greece.


One of the strongest poems, ‘Death Comes Through Mirrors’, is prefaced with a Twenties Riviera hotel interior and dance room,

and has an easy conversational style complete with a Jean Cocteau poem quotation:


Death comes through mirrors

is a blind man with a violin

collecting grudging offerings

I ask you’, is the hat

full yet

and you reply

‘Consider the fiery red

cherubims in the blue sky

or those empty cavernous

spaces where the image

scatters on the silver’

no his hat is empty

he is a young man

with violets in his eyes

he is blind and sings


It is thought that Jarman destroyed the majority of the first edition and so the new edition fills in a missing piece in Jarman’s extraordinary oeuvre.




David Caddy 5th February 2014



7 responses »

  1. THANKS for the review, David. Didnt know abt this at all tho cld well have assumed Jarman wrote poems. But delighted to read. (This also enables me to remember –loudly in the aether– John [Joe di Maggio] Robinson driving me down to Dungeness, when was it? late ’90s, early 2000s? –to see DJ’s garden on the shore. Wld love to know how & where he is after unanswered letter or two.) I like the poem you quote. Will think of him today! Best wishes, K H

    • Hi Kris, it is my pleasure! Jarman went to school at Canford, just outside Wimborne, and his publisher, Michael Pinney, of Bettiscombe Press, was based in Bridport. So there are Dorset connections. I will ask about John (Joe di Maggio) Robinson’s location for you. Best wishes, David

      • Thanks again, David. Very kind. I dropped a line to Jeremy Reed abt John R but nothing from him either. I loved the trip with John from Erith down to Dungeness all those years ago. Jarman’s magical domain. Amazing shoreline with the armada of boats dragged up on the stones. We had a pint at a pub in –? –wch John told me was where Jocelyn Brooke hung out! Jarman & Brooke but no H E Bates’ Pop Larkins orchards & farms overrun by canola. Yellow blight on England’s fair & green! All best wishes, K

      • Hi There My grandfather and Derek worked on a variety of films together. I actually have an original copy of A Finger in A Fishes Mouth with Derek’s signing it ‘Carry on filming George’ love Derek. I would like it to go to a Derek Jarman Fan, do you know where I could sell it?

  2. Hi Will, do you still have the Derek book. I met him a couple of times and have a few signed books but not this one.
    Cheers, Matt

    • Will sherfield

      Hey Matt

      Thanks for the email.

      Yes the book is still available I have not really marketed it, but I am in France until next week.

      I can send you some pics if you like?

      Take care


  3. Hey Will is your book still available. I met Derek a few times and have a good selection of signed books, Cheers, Matt


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