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See Saw: a series of poems on art by Adrian Buckner (Leafe Press)

See Saw: a series of poems on art by Adrian Buckner (Leafe Press)

This is a beautifully succinct addition to the ‘poems about art’ genre, otherwise known as ekphrasis.

Here we have 24 poems, each based on an individual painting, presumably favourites of the author, laid out in chronological fashion from Giotto to Rae. I don’t know all of the paintings though I do know something of most of the painters but as these short pieces (each are 9 lines long with an identical stanza structure) all work sui generis any further research will only add to the enrichment and you can easily dip in without any foreknowledge. 

     The tone ranges from light and delightful to dark and sinister and we could do worse than take the first two inclusions as examples of this range:


         The Entry into Jerusalem, c 1305

          I am a smiling donkey

          I am practically giggling

          With the Good News

          When the golden age arrives

          For children’s illustrated books

          I will trot from this fresco

          Onto those pages

          And wreathe the unlettered

          In smiles again

This is a wonderful example of how art from the distant past can be re-evaluated in a modern context and while the tone here is light-hearted and even joyful its serious subject is gently underlined by that slightly enigmatic  ‘…wreathe the unlettered’ which can be seen in terms of 

a message of hope and positive change.

          Fra Angelico

          The Decapitation of St Cosmas and St Damian, c1440

          When I am called to account at The Hague

          I will say I was obeying orders

          Like the three lads on crowd control rota

          Look to the front row for the guilty

          The self-absorbing gestures

          The more in sorrow than anger

          Exporters of rational governance

          Through a swing of the sword

          A drone strike in the desert

Once again we have the mix of ‘then and now’ which throws up some interesting dilemmas for politicians and ‘the military’ of whichever hue as that ‘drone strike in the desert’ can clearly be interpreted as a general condemnation rather than a partisan positioning.

     Coming a bit closer to home we get a more lyrical approach with Schmidt-Rotluff Flowering Trees, 1909 with ‘I left her sleeping / In the light and airy room / the window curtain pulsing with the breeze…’ . In English) Little Blue Horse, 1912 we have a moving reference to two artists engaged during WW1 who had different outcomes. Franz Marc was killed in Verdun in 1916 and Paul Nash’s  We are Making a New World (1918) depicted a surreal landscape of the aftermath of warfare which can be seen as both reportage (he was of course a commissioned war artist) and blistering condemnation. Marc’s imagined words – ‘I will not be around Paul / to gaze across / The new world they are making’ remains both heavy with portent and satire yet also somehow horribly innocent and genuinely poignant.

     Buckner does a similar thing, across the ages, with a further imagined dialogue between Leonardo and Rothko which throws up a whole nest of possibilities in relation to longevity, to the nature and aims of art and to commerce and the implications of sponsorship/patronage. Throughout this short collection of short poems in fact, he manages to combine an almost jaunty, wonderfully enticing glamour with something richer and often darker in intent and implication. There are also commentaries on Duchamp, Lowry, Hopper and Gwen John, among others, taking in a range of angles and perceptions, each poem having something of interest to say about artwork and creator. This is a neat little publication from the Leafe Press stable and one that is easily approachable and full of surprise and revelation.

Steve Spence 25th March 2023

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