Week #83 In the Shadows of Our Heads: a poem

When a poem stays in the mind to quarry and flutter, to query and answer, it’s not always clear how that illumination works. Inherent in the sensation is a hidden craft; the work stretches out and takes its time while covering ground like a greyhound on the chase. In Anthony Lawrence‘s poem, ‘In the Shadows of Our Heads’, the heady seamless feeling from the smallest step to the flightiest of notions, gives us that strange unwieldy encounter with time and space often intrinsic to our experience of life. Bound to the language, the poem joins us to a story of a couple falling in love. Visceral and grounded, genuine and filigreed, complete and yet wide-open, this poem is emblematic of much of Lawrence’s work, its fusion to both the physical and metaphoric, true.

This work didn’t come out of nowhere. Lawrence has penned some wonderful work. Narrative in form, his poetry takes the reader into a world open-handedly, a world entwined with our surroundings. And, of course, there’s always the language here and here.  

In the Shadows of Our Heads

I’d called the Humane Society to report the neglect
of a neighbour’s dogs. A woman assured me there
would be an investigation, took my details, then asked
if I needed more assistance. I mentioned the flightless

swans of Malta, and she said Imagine, ten thousand years,
then added They were the size of the pygmy elephants
that also roamed the island
. To test her liability
to respond in a capering manner, I described the pattern

of my sleep and how, after drinking Akvavit, my cells
become part of the dust of the Horse Head Nebula.
Your astral projection is world class, she said. I could
see a swivel chair, the noise-cancelling headset, a light

blue blouse embroidered with a hook or claw symbol,
the windows of light on her shoes. Are your projections
always so peregrinatory? I’m curious, as I sense I’m far
too fond of the regional.
 Satisfied, I felt compelled to ask

if Spring, in the mountains, had ever crossed her radar
as a good season and reason for marriage, but chose
instead to invite her for a drink. I don’t date, but we
could drive, as long as you’re partial to Elgar’s

‘Nimrod’, anything by Wagner, and my minder, Karl,
who, depending
 on his mood, likes to follow at a clip
or respectful distance
 in his Beamer. I laughed. Alright,
she said, His name is Bob, he’s either a serial tail-gater,

or he moves like a tortoise in his Triumph Mayflower.
On Sunday morning, her music darkening the speakers,
we passed the wreckage of housing estates, then onto
a road lined with trees that cast flickering lines

of light and shade like a view through the arrow-slit
of a zoetrope. We opened the past and found things
worth sharing. As a child she’d been orphaned when,
escaping a forest fire, the family car had come adrift

in smoke and driven off a bridge. She had lost an eye
and her spine had been broken. The monocular vision
and limp had ended her ribbon-floor exercise routine.
When we met, she had approached like someone

leaning into wind. I told her I’d stolen meteor samples
from an observatory on a school excursion. This had led
to frequent stealing, and when I said kleptomania,
I lowered my voice and concluded the confession

with the words illness, serial, and the eight-point-turn
of psychopharmacological. When we stopped for lunch,
I sat across from her by a river whose patchwork surface
she described as snake skins sewn haphazardly together.

I saw the glass eye, and she said Ocular. Three perfect
 then they ruined everything with Prosthesis.
Her hand hovered briefly over mine before moving on.
I said nothing and she took a long time to answer it.

We discussed rescue dogs and how certain bats would
make good pets if only their bites weren’t potentially
lethal, causing fever and delirium. At fifteen, she had
run away to live in a trilogy of Mervyn Peake novels.

I suggested we return via a pub where the Guinness
is collared velvet, the music live. As we stood, the flame
of a kingfisher fluttered on like a pilot light and went out
in the shadows of our heads.


Week #82 The Picture of Dorian Gray: a play

Not turning in his grave, I think Oscar Wilde would be doing joyful acrobatics if he could see Kip Williams’ adaption of his century-old novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Drawing out of the text seamlessly, Williams has brought Wilde’s work to life in an explosion of contemporary theatre.

Not only are we catapulted across the decades and thrown into Wilde’s lavish tone and diabolical turn of phrase, we are led behind the mirrors that excoriate and unpick one of the ugliest of human characteristics, that of vanity. With the bones and muscle of the work in place, it is the dressing with which the production has been marinated that allows the audience to drink it in. Theatre, you say? We will never look at theatre again in the same way.  

But it’s not only the reimagining of the play in a modern high-tech extravaganza that’s thrilling, it’s the alteration to the way the work is structured that’s impressive. To have created a performance platform which is pinned around a one-woman show, is, as the fliers say, genius.

In the brilliant and unscrupulous move of a woman playing Dorian, not to mention the other twenty-six characters in the prose, Kip Williams’ artful decision not only sets something right for all the years in which men played women on the stage, it brings an alacrity that lends itself to the flamboyance of the prose. The effect is stunning. Wigs and facial hair, suits and corsets, trousers and braces and puffy-sleeved shirts, remind the audience, not only of the element of narrative but the playful mechanisms that are so often woven into Wilde’s work.

At the foundation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, lies a cautionary tale. Indeed, all these decades on, as the play so boldly reminds us, even the young are affected. And because of the swippling that’s managed between modern technology and an age-old desire, a scaffold has been built for a whole new generation to climb.

Straddling that time, the play, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is, it would seem, enhancing the work. Indeed, the play manages to both hold true to the original idea and resonate with current meaning. Sending it off into the stratosphere it has found with sure footing where to take hold. And, in the process, rather than something having been lost, Kip Williams has written and directed an adaption of Wilde’s fable that holds a ruthlessly honest mirror up to our modern era. 

Week #81 500 thermal portraits from today 37degrees C 28 XY 010222: photographic video

It’s unusual for me to write about someone twice on my blog. Chris Friel, however, has been so adept at developing the craft of photography and finding new ways to disrupt and reinvigorate his view through the lens, that I just must.

After early work that captured country fields and lonely trees, to dark landscapes and multi layered pictures, Chris Friel turned to portraits. The faces he depicts are stripped of distraction. Life lies in their large baleful eyes and uncompromised presence. He seems to be interested in the statement of life through portraiture, here, (there are many clear portraits like this if you look through his work here) but in 500 thermal portraits from today 37degrees C 28 XY 010222 he takes this statement of life and distorts it. As you watch the image build and undo, fracture and reconstruct, digitalise into abstraction and then balloon with a naïve palette, back into full face, an understanding passes between artist and viewer that is personal.

This facial splintering is, for me, an allegory of our modern lives. We have, the work seems to be saying, not only many faces but many realities as the digital world pulls on our psyches. The process and, by extension, the work is both brutal and subtle, insidious and straightforward. In high temperatures which nature did not intend (or certainly not presently) the effect is exacerbated. And as we watch, we are ruptured without notice and built back with layers of fillers. We are rounded and boxed and blackened-out and both coded and discombobulated. We are stretched beyond recognition.

The ‘stills’ I have posted here are indications of Friel’s work, signatures of one of the current threads his work is exploring and that I have chosen to highlight. They, in themselves, are full of the lattice-work of life, its hard wiring and broad dough, its ineffaceable truth and angelic naivety. Even through our abstraction, humanness is undeniable.

Week # 80 Lonelinesses: a photographic series

Antoine Buttafoghi has not only centred his camera in order to take these images but, as if the gadget is an extension of his body and mind, he has centred his being. Broad in scope and yet personal to a fault, Buttafoghi’s work takes the viewer away from themselves and into the reality of someone other. Presented in grand meticulousness, the images are sharpened to the point of beauty. However, what makes these photographs truly attractive is the humbleness in which their protagonists have been portrayed.

Often times dwarfed by a large canvas, these pictures knit the world into the soul of someone. The person depicted is not so much overwhelmed as integrated; not so much awestruck as grounded; not so much bound to a scene as present in one. Because of this, the capturing of a person in their environment, these photos reflect back to us what it is to be current, contemporaneous and in progress even when we are still. For more distillations look here and here. Or choose from Buttafoghi’s gallery, here.

Week # 79 In My Blood It Runs: a documentary film

It’s not often a film infiltrates the body, making its way past the epidermis and into the bloodstream. Evoking its name, In My Blood It Runs has that quality. It’s a film that sinks into the mind and alters the viewer’s consciousness, teaching us something that most of us never get to experience. We see through a boy’s eyes, how life can be felt rather than ‘figured out’, lived rather than ‘ticked off’, known rather than sought. Connection is key.

Quite like an elegy for the human spirit, this film is a meditation on the ‘sense’ of our lives. Vastly applicable and extraordinarily important, there is something conveyed in the movie that is beyond words. The narrow parameters of how we denote success in our modern world are first perforated and then torn open. We are drawn in to something which western thought has, for the most part, little time for, and gives – to its detriment – no value.

Signalling why self-determination is so vital and why stymieing it is so damaging, this film lets us understand what’s at stake and how all of us can shine more brightly. For me, it made me ‘woke’ in a way that, rather than knowing something intellectually, I understood it viscerally. With some hard-to-stomach scenes when white dominant-culture weighs in, In My Blood It Runs displays certain truths that show us what happens when one society is raised above another. It demonstrates how domination works.

So, sitting with the current of the movie moving through me, I found a part of me had been opened and a meditation on what it means to be alive, let in.  

Week #78 My Time in Govie Housing Draws to a Close: a poem

Set in the unfurnished world of the welfare system, My Time in Govie Housing Draws to a Close, tells the softest and hardest of a stay in emergency housing. Sarah Rice illuminates small but visceral details that show us what’s happening and what’s at stake. The narrator – who has unknown but not unfelt difficulties – is astute and open-eyed and suitably cautious. And we see through their eyes, what adds and what leads to a picture of an environment. Authentically set, and taking a series of distinct and yet interlocking rounded images, we realise the situation in total. I love that when it happens in poetry.

My Time in Govie Housing Draws to a Close

Most sit out front with no front teeth
but lots of heart
                    and smokes
Their cars in many stages of undress

I’d showed up with mum and dad
(while I still had one)
                    and a wheel chair
They’d got sick of carrying me
          up the stairs

We nodded to Housing and the sunlight
          coming in the front windows
and the next door lady gave me a key-ring
          she’d made herself from leather
She gave the neighbour to my left a cut
above the eye with a smashed bottle

She would sit on the wall between us
and chat about life depression drugs
Certain days were bad
          the ones that reminded her
          of her murdered boyfriend
then she’d swing a baseball bat
at the night flying fucks
          and striking out
The ones who dobbed her in
to the coppers were the worst

But she was kind enough to share
          her music with me
through my bedroom wall
          at 3 am – a thumping
good time

I’d chat to her feet dangling
from the wall while I dug
in the garden – and in the end
she was saved by a dog
who hated the volume up
and my sleeplessness exchanged
          beats for barks
He wanted up and out
in the morning for walkies
so the benders had to straighten out
and while the pup didn’t take to men
he took his owner to a nice new house in the burbs
          with a larger yard

I’m following in her footsteps by moving out –
my place now a parking lot
for boxes – the washing machine untethered
          and the frigid air finally gone
The shelves unburdened with fresh ignorance
and the smell of the mould they’d tried to paint away
                                                  infusing everything

And although I was prepared
to leave behind the trees my dad had planted
currently in mid mad blossom
          Azaleas and camellia sesanqua
fuscia-pink and holed up making their last stand
I wanted to bring the tiny pomegranate tree
he’d given me just before he died –
the roots still struggling
to live up to their name
                    still settling in
                    not yet branched out
                              into new fields
                    somehow address-less
I would have – and I tried –
had made a small attempt the night before
with the wrong kind of shovel
          flat and square and useless
but it must have left some kind of mark
a trace of something wanted – something loved
          which was enough
to drive some random neighbour
to yank it out that very night
grasp it by green matted hair
and there –
all gone

Week #77 This Thing of Darkness: a podcast

Understanding homicide, as it turns out, helps in understanding the human condition. Who could have known? But the podcast, This Thing of Darkness, produced by the BBC and superbly written by Lucia Haynes and Anita Vettesse, tells us a lot about us: about how we think and why, about what it takes to commit murder and why, and, about love and how distortion and anxiety can pervert it. It isn’t hate we’re shown but the other face of love, which can deadly.

Despite the presence of brutality – you can hardly have murdered without it – what we hear is why life can produce brutality in an individual. The reasons, of course, are vast and deep, cruel and illuminating, sobering and disturbing. But, underlying it all, they are very human and because of that, ultimately decipherable.

Perhaps the reason This Thing of Darkness can boast to have achieved such a high standard of insight, is because the story is so beautifully choreographed. As it swings from the personal to the theoretical, the narrative reveals how the unresolved in us, can build. Without realising it, we are pushed ever closer – often by distortion – to bring about a resolution. For some of us this eventuates in things being resolved in a deadly way.

While the gulf between murderers and the rest of us may seem vast, this podcast not only manages to clarify and inform us about why murder occurs, but to bring those who commit it, closer. It demystifies our tendency to think of them as outside of us. Like the warp and weft of material, the text never excuses their behaviour but seeks and succeeds in showing us the fabric of the human condition even if it leads to the act of killing.    

Deftly pieced together, This Thing of Darkness shows us how we love and how that love can be misshapen.

Week #76 A Thousand Words: a photographic series

Valentin and Clara

Sven Creutzmann is a photographer who, by his own admission, is keen to tell a story. Marrying documentary photography with artistry are his ingredients and he’s good at getting the balance right. There’s a warmth in these shots, even the brutal ones, that draws the viewer in. They fill in the details by inviting their audience past the front door; they expand on what it is that we need to understand.

The breadth of Creutzmann work is considerable. From the political to the social to the personal, the work is crisp and decisive. Whether up close or shot from a distance, engagement is key. For more of his tales, try here and here and here.

The Bat
Ruben Gonzalez
Idelbis, Tropicana

Week #75 Dead Europe: a novel

Christos Tsiolkas is probably best known for his novel The Slap. Here, however, I want to recommend his third novel Dead Europe, my favourite of all his books. Not only is the narrative layered with all the mysterious and atmospheric veils of a myth, but it pulls the reader into a rippling search for place and timely-location. As a young man, a photographer, goes on a trip through Europe, he must come face to face with the claws of his past and the way in which they have been worn down.

It is the undercurrent of life that Tsiolkas is interested in: the roof-top chats, the ugly outskirts of Paris, the lonely barren insides of a Greek café. Energetically brutal while engagingly normal, Tsiolkas is a writer who excoriates the personal, sometimes to unbearable depths.

Eerily, Dead Europe has the feel of a prophetic missive, a kind of current dystopia. But what’s most arresting about this novel is what lingers, that of a bitter sweet reminder that the human experience is at the behest of historic whimsy. And the pain to understand our location in the world is often packaged in brutal truths.

Week #74 Casablanca Not The Movie: A photographic series … Yoriyas

How do you get just enough movement and stillness in a photograph? Actually, how do you get just enough modernity and tradition in a photograph? The complimentary juxtaposition of subject matter and form are a quintessential aspect of Yoriyas’s photographs. They abound with it: humour and seriousness, colour and blanch, fantasy and reality. Devoid of judgement, they allow a taste of everything of variance to be packed into one image.  

Yoriyas Yassine Alaoui is a Moroccan photographer who seems to have come to the art in an organic manner. From chess to mathematics to hiphop to dance this is a person who follows their passions, and his photography is definitely one to be celebrated.

Documenting daily life in almost poetic distillation, you can see more of his work here and here. And for a recent look in the time of COVID, here.