“Poems from a Postponed Exhibition” Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Lapwing) – poetry review

Poems from a Postponed Exhibition Michael Bartholomew-Biggs book coverA series of ekphrasis poems inspired by David Walsh’s paintings of his native Australia. The paintings feature Australia’s hot, dusty terrains and include leafless trees, traces of humans and symbolic images of Christ on the Cross. The poems both reflect on and respond to the paintings without merely describing the paintings, e.g. in “In an arid landscape”

“Painted figures cannot speak
but they can mime and want
stiff gestures recognized.

So extract a narrative
from each now in front of you
and a dozen thens remembered

or imagined down the gallery.”

The readers are asked not just to respond in the moment, but to let the images linger, to build a narrative and continue thinking about the images after the viewing has passed. The reference to the universal language of guesture and non verbal communication is a reminder that it’s still possible for humans to share experiences and stories even when there is a language barrier or verbal communication isn’t possible. The poems invite the reader’s interpretation. There is an atmosphere of timelessness too, in “Rock occurred abruptly”

“Rock was grooved by water’s
long persistent fingers, hollowed out
where rainpools pressed like thumbs.

Rock could mark itself,
as skin does when it’s struck and draws up colours
hidden in the bone.

If signs emerged from rock,
like memories returning unexpected,
could there be a way

to make rock return
a likeness of whatever we might like
to see when out of sight.”

The poem explores the way two people will see the same painting differently because each viewer brings their own memories and emotions to the viewing and so sees the image from their own perspective. To some, a rock will simply be a rock, to others it might link to a geographical or cultural heritage. When moving away from the painting, the viewer will remember it through the filter of their response, picking out the aspects that struck a chord with them. But it’s not just viewers who have this filter, the artist too is presenting their view of the landscape they paint and that too will be distorted by the artist’s memories and experience. In “The blanks of their unpainted faces,”

“To make what seems to be a story
you must dainty-paint the mind behind
their unsketched features and the gestures
in a wilderness suggested
by an artists’s brush. Dead trees
are wrongly labelled totem poles.

Let the painter’s artefacts
and emptiness slide sideways past your gaze.
As memory’s perspective shifts
the paradox of parallax
makes each deeper view reverse
the movement you were following before.”

The final quoted line suggests the artist choreographing the mental or physical movement of the viewer in response to the painting. The collection’s title echoes Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition”, a suite for piano with a short walking refrain representing the viewer’s movement from one painting to the next, the repetition suggesting the viewer is also reflecting on the images just seen. These poems deserve the same treatment. The sparse language still uses echo and alliteration of sounds and the poems are crafted to invite the reader to build their own response. The poems go deeper than just a response to the paintings and complement them, offering perspective and suggesting ways of looking at and thinking about the images created.

“Poems from a Postponed Exhibition” is available from Lapwing Publications.