Memoir: Thomas Harvey 1906 – 1984

My dad died thirty years ago today …

Early JBH.IMG

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I’d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back
until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

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Apples

My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nen and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.

My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once used
for storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.

Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler Again

 

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Photo : Burt Glinn

Helen Frankenthaler, whose work is currently on show at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, was one of a relatively small number of women artists who managed to find a means of negotiating their own distinctive and successful art practice in the midst of what was, by and large, a male dominated New York art scene in the 1950s and 60s. Here she is, above and below, pictured with two other artists from that number – Joan Mitchell (left) and Grace Hartigan (right) – at an opening of her show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in March 1957.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

And here are Frankenthaler and Hartigan again, hanging out at the Five Spot, a jazz club where Thelonious Monk famously played, and where the painter/musician Larry Rivers organised poetry & jazz events on Monday evenings, Monk’s night off.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

That’s Frankenthaler on the left, in front of the sculptor, David Smith, while Hartigan is on the opposite side, across from the poet Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers on her right. O’Hara, who reviewed art shows for Art News and other magazines, worked at the Museum of Modern Art, first as an administrative assistant and later as a curator, and was a personal friend of many artists, including Jane Frielicher, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, to each of whom, at various times, he dedicated poems.

It was O’Hara who curated and wrote the catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s first major show, Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, held at the Jewish Museum between January and March of 196o. This is part of what he had to say about her work …

Frankenthaler is a daring painter. She is willing to risk the big gesture, to employ huge formats so that her essentially intimate revelations may be more fully explored and delineated, appear in the hot light of day. She is willing to declare erotic and sentimental preoccupations full-scale and with full conviction. She has the ability to let a painting be beautiful, or graceful, or sullen and perfunctory, if these qualities are part of the force and clarity of the occasion.

Helen Frankenthaler, Hotel Cro-Magnon, Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo : Burt Glinn

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Photo : Burt Glinn

 

 

Reading Matters: Lee Harwood

Out with the North-East London Ramblers the other weekend, a pleasant ten-miler that fetched up at Chichester – partly along the edge of the water, partly through fields, and all nicely flat – we broke off for lunch at the village of Bosham, which brought to mind Lee Harwood’s Old Bosham Bird Watch and other stories, an A4 size pamphlet published by Ric and Ann Caddel’s Newcastle-based Pig Press in 1977.

That’s Lee, right, taking a rest from some of his own rambling …

OLD BOSHAM BIRD WATCH

I.

out of nothing comes …

nothing comes out of nothing

cut                  /            switch to

a small room, in a building of small rooms. “Enclosed thus”. Outside there are bare trees groaning and twisting in the wind. A cold long road with houses either side that finally leads down hill to a railway station. The Exit.

II.

Out on the estuary four people in a small dinghy at high tide. Canada geese and oyster catchers around. The pale winter sunlight and cold clear air. Onshore the village church contains the tomb of Canute’s daughter, the black Sussex raven emblazoned on the stone.

Small rooms.

I still have mine – no. 122 out of an edition of 200 – rust-red cover fading now on the back, my inscription on the title page telling me I bought it in April, 1978 for the princely sum of 60p, almost certainly at the much-lamented Compendium bookshop in Camden Town.

Along with Libby Houston and Barry MacSweeney, Harwood was one of the more established, but sadly undervalued writers that Slow Dancer Press was always pleased and proud to support. Dream Quilt, a collection of 30 assorted prose pieces, was published by us in 1985, followed by two collections of poetry, In the Mists: Mountain Poems in 1993 and Morning Light in 1998.

V.

In the closeness that comes with shared actions. From keeping a room clean, keeping clothes clean, cooking a meal to be eaten by the both of us. In that closeness, maybe on the edge of  losing something gaining something. Questions of clarity and recognitions.

VI.

We swing hard a-port then let the current take us, the ebb tide pulling us out towards the Channel. The birds about, the colours of the sky, the waters, all the different plants growing beside the estuary, and the heavy brown ploughed fields behind those banks. Here, more that anywhere else, every thing, all becomes beautiful and exciting – and the fact of being alive at such moments, being filled with this immense beauty, right, Rilke, “ecstasy”, makes the fact of living immeasurably precious.

Those extracts show something of Harwood’s style – cinematic, often moving between precise observation of the natural world and the personal; a use of language that is, on the surface at least, straightforward and direct – pared down yet evocative. And, in that final section, his abiding concern with the luminous pleasure – if we open ourselves to it – of being alive.

Shearsman Books from Exeter, who published Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems in 2004, brought out a fine Selected Poems in 2008, which includes “Old Bosham Bird Watch” and much of Harwood’s best work and is still in print and available.

Reading Matters: Libby Houston

The photograph which accompanied publisher Clive Allison’s recent obituary in the Guardian, showed him sitting at a pub table alongside his business partner Margaret Busby, with, on the table, a copy of one of the first Allison & Busby publications – Libby Houston’s A Stained Glass Raree Show. Houston’s first collection of poems, illustrated by her husband, Mal Dean, it opens with the first poem I ever remember hearing Libby read – “Post-War” – the same poem which begins Cover of Darkness (Selected Poems, 1961-1998), which Slow Dancer Press published in 1999.

Libby is a singular person, a singular poet, who has remained constant to her own muse, her own style, regardless of fashion and scornful of compromise. Short comic pieces mix with longer narratives, often based on ballad and fairy tale, and deeply personal poems which, as the Times Literary Supplement said, “express pain beautifully without sounding hurt.”

In the words of A. S. Byatt, “She likes to contemplate rottenness, rotting and the agents of change and decay, blowflies, maggots and mould, which she describes with a nice precision which remove them to the safe world of wit on one hand, or fairy-tale on the other. She looks at tiny details and large movements of life and time, like all good writers; a poet, a woman, not particularly a Woman Poet.”

Here’s that first poem :

In 1943
my father
dropped bombs on the continent

I remember
my mother
talking about bananas
in 1944

when it rained,
creeping alone to the windowsill,
I stared up the hill,
watching, watching,
watching without a blink
for the Mighty Bananas
to stride through the blitz

they came in paper bags
in neighbours’ hands
when they came
and took their time
over the coming

and still I don’t know
where my father
flying home
took a wrong turning

Art Chronicles: Eva Hesse

I was lucky enough to make my first visit to the Eva Hesse exhibition at Camden Arts Centre at the same time as one of the curators, Briony Fer, was taking round her third year History of Art students from UCL. I simply tagged along. And emerged much richer for it. For one thing, Fer is clearly a very good teacher: she allows her enthusiasm for the work to show without letting it overwhelm, she encourages her students to look closely, to take their time, to think about the ‘how’ of  something being made – materials, technique – without rushing them to a ‘what’ or ‘why’, a race to establish meaning. She is close to the work – of course, she is, this is, at least in part, her show, her choice – and yet with her students she is open. Yes, it’s latex, latex and rubber; it’s cheesecloth, cheesecloth and adhesive, it’s papier maché – beyond that, well, could be this, could be that.

Most of the pieces on display (there are exceptions: an orange-yellow hanging of fibreglass, polyester resin, latex and cheesecloth, for instance; another, golden, of latex, cheesecloth and wood – both beautiful) are smaller than the large-scale works for which Hesse is best known (you can see some, currently, at Tate Modern); they are test pieces, try-outs, experiments, templates for what was (or was not) to come. Talking to her students, Fer drew comparison with a collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished poems – drafts, fragments, some little more than a clearing of the throat. Not quite poems; more than nothing: suspended somewhere in between.

In one gallery, a number of Hesse’s cheesecloth and papier maché pieces have been arranged on a large, low table for us to walk around, pause and peer down at. Together and singly they are lovely to consider: like leaves bleached of colour, just beginning to curl; like parchment scored and creased with age. Ephemeral and yet not, they cry out to be touched.

Once you understand what it is you’re looking at here – and anyone going round without first reading the notes in the leaflet might well be confused – this is a really good show, and unlike most others I’ve seen. You’re not being presented with a collection of finished work and left to appreciate and judge; this is different, this is like being invited into someone’s studio and allowed to walk round, see what she’s up to – hmm, interesting, wonder what she’ll do with that or those – except that we know nothing will happen, nothing more. Eva Hesse died from a brain tumour in 1970 at the age of only 34.