(Marsh Hawk Press, 2014) http://www.marshhawkpress.org/BKing3.html
Basil King emigrated from South Chingford in 1947, attended Black Mountain College from 1951-56, and subsequently became an abstract expressionist painter and poet / writer. He continuously moves between painting and writing, and is highly regarded both sides of the Atlantic. His artwork has been included in poetry books by Amiri Baraka, Paul Blackburn, and Allen Ginsberg.
This warm-hearted collection of wide-ranging essays, one of which was published in Tears in the Fence 60, moves effortlessly between prose and poetry in a freewheeling style. The essays are highly informative drawing upon King’s extensive knowledge of art, artists and their experiences, as well as history, film and autobiographical detail. There is great charm, self-deprecating humour, running throughout the book which has the repeated refrains of ‘Leave home. Meet strangers. And learn to draw’ and ‘Be Rich. Get Rich. Be Rich. Get Rich’. The refrains gain piquancy as one reads on. A typical sequence from an essay on ‘The White Tablecloth’ follows:
‘The origin of the table knife is attributed to Cardinal Richelieu. He wanted to cure dinner guests of picking their teeth with the point of a knife. Later, in 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives in the street and at his table, insisting on blunt tips, in order to reduce violence.
A man and a woman sit at a table
Without a tablecloth
Another couple sits at a table
With a white tablecloth
Both couples use knives and forks’
According to Sir Isaac Newton white light is the effect of combining the visible colors of light in equal proportions. White is all colors combined to make white. Black is the absorption of all color. So black and white are opposites.’
It is an absorbing collage of anecdotal memory, knowledge and gentle argument full of insight. In his essay on why the miniature is as important as the mural King insists that light abstracts the smallest thing. As part of his argument he moves from his work at Kulicke Frames in New York in 1963, to Jack Odell, the self-trained engineer whose inventions led to Matchbox toys, Giacomettti in Switzerland, traditional Japanese garments and miniature sculptures, to his own collection of miniature vehicles, and onwards to the intricacies of the Book of Kells, Olemic murals, Walt Disney’s obsession with miniatures, the German miniaturist painter, Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt (1609), the first moonlit night scene in European painting, a quotation from Philip Ruben’s lament at Elsheimer’s death, and Velazquez’s painting of dwarfs and half-wits as people with personalities. The impact is cumulative and thoughtful, allowing a larger picture and frame of reference to emerge and yet still allowing for the smallest of details to have impact. It is clever and thoughtful writing.
I note that King’s Black Mountain tutor for History and Literature was that polymath with an enquiring mind, Charles Olson. Like Edward Dorn, another of Olson’s students, one has a sense of the practical and lived going hand in hand with the perceptive intellectual. The whole book is a joyful engagement.
David Caddy 23rd January 2015