Two Reviews of ‘Self-Portraits’

Self-Portraits: Poems based on artists’ self-portraits

David Pollard

(Waterloo Press, 2013); pbk, £12

Self-Portraits by David Pollard is a meticulously crafted collection of poems inspired by the work of eighty-nine artists. Each piece is assembled in such a way that the reader can visualise both the artists and the portraits which inspired the writing with clarity. From Caravaggio to Goya, Da Vinci to Warhol, the poet covers a wide range of sources and not only describes each piece of art, but also brings a better awareness of the creator behind the portrait. Pollard’s considerable academic research has resulted in a collection of pieces that is effortless and beautiful in its visual and literary construction.

Pollard is comfortable with his subject matter. He describes Andy Warhol, for example, with great ease in short, sharp lines with each word adding more colour to an artist known for his vibrant screen prints and charm; Warhol’s scandalous character and his famous self-portrait are recreated:

to the connoisseur,
who shocks his guests
with my exploding hair
and skin of many colours
screened quite off-centre
pink and yellow.

Just to portray my
deeply superficial self […]
and make an all new cannon of its absences,
gnaw at the superficial smile.

The poem depicts Warhol’s almost sickly charm, and in a final damning point, his over-commercial art and lifestyle.

As a poet, Pollard brings new depths that can be appreciated by both the literary and the art lover. This is demonstrated in “Lucian Freud”:

The structures of the skin have oiled me into life,
forced concentration into pain,
their own emasculation into paint […]

each lick a part of me, my own biography.

These words echo the harsh brush strokes seen in the figurative works that Freud is known for, and also portray the pain seen in his aged face. That first stanza depicts the severity of the artist’s expression, underscored by an almost visceral understanding of his use of the medium of oil paint.
When Pollard describes one of art’s most prominent sculptors, Auguste Rodin, there is a subtle humour:

How flat the charcoal is
thumbed down and rolled into the paper.

Pollard uses “flat”, a term sometimes used pejoratively in art criticism, to provide a contrast to what we know of Rodin’s work: sculptures of humans with pensive expressions and strong postures occupying very large dimensions. He continues:

its third dimension
as skin gives life
and tells us of our soul and plays
against the torture of each sinuous knot
in clay and bronze from clench of toe
to furrow in spine’s muscle […]

The self-portrait, drawn in charcoal with thick shadows and a background of discordant lines, has been roughly applied to grained paper. However, for all the looseness of the portraiture medium there is great detail to be found in Rodin’s drawing of his eyes. They appear endless, full of feeling, and found beneath a hardened and furrowed brow, the “‘sinuous knot’” the poet describes. This poem and the portrait that it characterizes provides an image of the artist, his work and style.

Each of these poems stand alone as a finely constructed piece in its own right, but collectively Pollard’s book builds and offers great insight into some of the most influential artists throughout history. This collection is enjoyable. The depth of the verse is delightful, providing fresh perspectives on art and poetry. Self-Portraits is highly recommended read, and I hope you enjoy pouring over each page just as much as I did.

Mhairi Anton
(Dundee University Review of the Arts)


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Acumen 79 – May 2014
Readers who (like me) have an interest in the visual arts as well as in poetry will surely find much to enjoy in David Pollard’s Self-Portraits: Poems based on artists’ self-portraits (Waterloo Press, 95 Wick Hail, Furze Hill, Brighton BN3 1NG.154pp.; [£12.00). Just under 90 poems are presented in the voices of a series of artists and arranged chronologically, from Bek (an ancient Egyptian artist of the time of Akhenaten) to Andy Warhol. In each case the starting point is a self-portrait made by the artist in question, more often than not a free-standing self-portrait, occasionally a painting (such as Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) in which the artist has included an image of himself. Most of Pollard’s poems are not ekphrastic in the purest sense of the term, they don’t, that is, have as their main object the poetic representation of the visual work, rather they reflect (self-reflect) on the character represented in the painting. Still, since many of the poems do make some reference to a specific painting (date and location of the work are given in most cases), the book is best read (unless one has a quite superb art library to hand) with Google Images within easy reach.

One of the things I like is the way that most of Pollard’s poems are lightly punctuated, so that the fluidity of imagined thought governs the poems’ movement, rather than the formality of language ‘correctly’ punctuated. Parentheses are also used very effectively, capturing the thought-within-thought or the thought-about-the-just thought of the vigorous mind. Some of the poems explicitly evoke an imagined viewer/hearer/reader (as when Pollard’s Hieronymus Bosch begins thus: “I hide behind the silvered water / where you seek my image / and find it thus inverted”), while others, such as the poem ‘by’ Maestro Matteo, are more in the nature of interior monologues than addresses to another. Some of Pollard’s artists go in for consideration of their own techniques and their place in the development of art. The following lines are ‘by’ Veronese:

I deny chiaroscuro and can keep
the strength of hue in shadow,
sfumato like da Vinci but with light
balancing light, Correggio subtle angles
and sainted Michel for the heroic,
none of whom could do my architecture of lines
– or trick the eye like me.

Some of Pollard’s best writing captures the artist’s awareness of his own ageing and mortality reinforced in the focused concentration involved in the creation of a self-portrait. The wonderful red chalk self-portrait of Nicolas Poussin (now in the British Museum) prompts a fine poem which opens thus:

Rough chalk alone can sketch
disgust of self and eye;
my vita brevis on a scrap of paper
Far From the calm severity
of the mind’s control.

The phrase-making is often impressive (and, yes, memorable), as when the Romanesque Spanish sculptor Maestro Mateo (c. 1 100-1200) opens ‘his’ poem thus:

Minstrel of hammers exiled from my own creation,
I set myself to kneel eternally in prayer
becalmed behind closed lids

or the initial lines given to Lucien Freud:

The structures of the skin have oiled me into life,
forced concentration into pain,
their own emasculation into paint,
Masked the devotion of the glass to me

or, indeed, the lines with which the poem by Pollard’s Giorgio Morandi closes:

Existence is the colouring
Of lost time quietly remembered’
Forcing the sight to cast
itself again into the
forms life takes
as nothing almost
can change so much’

This is a remarkable and illuminating collection. It has already rewarded more than one reading and I am sure it will richly reward many more.


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