David Pollard’s Self-Portraits was published in 2013, the year Oxford Dictionaries made ‘selfie’ their word of the year. His cultural antennae are obviously fine tuned. But this is no meditation on the superficiality of narcisim. Rather, Pollard does ‘the voices’ of a range of artists from Bek, in Ancient Egypt to Mark Wallinger, born in 1959, via Old Masters such as Giotto, Hieronymous Bosch, Caravaggio, Velazquez, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Hogarth, and Turner. Nor is the twentieth century neglected – Francis Bacon discusses the power of the ‘sudden silence of the scream’, Lucian Freud is described as having eyes like ‘rivets’, Andy Warhol as having a ‘skin of many colours’ – phrases which so accurately fix their subjects in words we return to the original images that inspired these poems – each is listed – with eyes renewed.
But it’s not just over the quick brushstroke of the phrase that Pollard is so effective. Take this passage from ‘El Greco’:
The calm appeal mortality will grant to age
falls Christ-like into acceptance and the pallor
of quiescence as if the light of heaven can cast
its evanescence through the forms of my devotion
and the tincture in the depths of candlelight
through Venetian glass ripple like the colours of water
refracted into glory.
The liquid brushwork of El Greco is here reflected in an equally aqueous linguistic analogue – this is a gorgeous piece of writing, shimmering with sibilance and that ethereal quality the painter made his watermark.
But there is writing of this high order throughout the collection. Some of Pollard’s aphorisms, such as ‘A masterpiece must counterfeit the real’ (Johannes Vermeer), ‘The moral’s in the formal power of paint/that, through the eye, corrects the heart/against all the streets’ corruptions (William Hogarth), ‘The real is an epiphany/and dies upon the brushes’ touch I know or knew’ show that other side of his skill and demonstrate the power of a poet who has thought long and hard about art, who has imagined himself into the minds of his subjects, and who, in the end, in writing this series of brilliantly wrought poems, gives us a portrait of himself.
A fantastic collection.