In his latest collection of
poems, As We Draw Ourselves, Barry Hill presents his poetic exploration of painting
and the nexus between poetry and painting in this series of elegant and finely-crafted
verses. In fact, he does rather more than that, offering us also a subtle examination of
the effect of place on both forms of art, influenced by his own recent sojourns in Italy
and Japan. The poems in this book are grouped into three sections, clearly separate in
some respects, but equally clearly linked by their commitment to the common theme.
The first section begins with a
short series of verses stimulated by the recent Fantastic Mountains exhibition
at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In response to these ancient paintings
scenes from Mount Hua by the Chinese doctor and amateur painter, Wang Lu who
climbed the sacred mountain in 1381 Hill has penned six verses each with its own
striking visual component in the Chinese character of the title. The modern poet imagines
the painter, in the distant past, advancing in his ascent, both physical and spiritual,
and encountering in turn the features of the mountain scenery; valley, lake, path,
waterfall, cliffs and peak, until, at the end of his climb,
- Between life and death
at the end
- the warrior arrives to needle
Then follow the modern
poets musings on his own endeavours at drawing but the other rather than the
self. Valuable advice from a master artist is acknowledged just as the
quintessential painter-poet Wang Wei, acknowledged in Hills poem, may have aided his
countryman, albeit at a remove of several centuries. The poets thoughts now turn to
other painters. First to the northern hemisphere, and two painters, almost exact
contemporaries, but quite contrasting in subject matter and style. In a series of short
verses, Hill captures perfectly the Intimiste detail of Pierre Bonnard,
- She turns towards you
- with her hands there
- poised at her breasts
- left hand gentle with the right
- her nakedness to be aided
- by the waiting winter light
Then, in a single poem, he
hints at the suffering portrayed by Käthe Kollwitz, before moving on to two other artists
who, in their different ways, attempted to come to grips with the harsher light and
colours of the Australian landscape Rover Thomas Joolama and Sidney Nolan. The
section ends with the symmetry of three poems on place, balancing the opening poems on the
pictorial record of the fourteenth century Chinese painters mountain ascent.
Italy is the theme of the
second section and, within Hills poems on this particular place, Michelangelo is the
dominant figure. Drawing ourselves is now extended to the plastic arts, and
not only to the finished work there is also the material from which the work is
fashioned. The long poem on Carrara powerfully captures the poets complex response
to sublime artistry while mixing in details, quotidian and trivial, of his own visit, of
acquiring souvenirs. The solidity and substance of the mountain of stone, the raw material
of the Italian masters work, offers a striking contrast to the Daoist ethereality of
the scenery of the sacred Chinese mountain, the inspiration for the Chinese painter. One
poem in this section which particularly links the several arts by which we depict
ourselves (and others) is titled Poems at Sea, and reads in part,
- The poems he wrote were
constellations of stone
- up against each other, some
- trying to break free, some in
the wrong order
- defying la bella figura.
And still he pushed them
- into densities of little songs,
- sometimes with rima baciata,
pebbly endings that kissed.
- As I read, reread them, they
feel like clay
- and my own tongue slips and
slides in its efforts
- to speak well accurately
of him, his shapes
- his shaping hand, arm,
shoulders, soul and his own torso
- strong as an ox embodying a
perfect full stop.
- Alas, if paintings are silent
- these lines are louts. If
sculpture is opera
- they slink along cobbled lanes.
The section concludes with a
poem on another poet deeply influenced by Italy Ezra Pound.
The third section is called
Landings and there are two. The first is a homecoming, perhaps from a
journey of some duration. The poems chronicle the chance such a return provides to plunge
again into what is most familiar and most loved. Into the ocean, cleansing and bracing,
into the simple domestic pleasures of home and garden, the latter with its familiar
inhabitants, and into reunion with a loved wife all this signalling a return to a
deeper reality and calling to mind the earlier poems on Bonnard,
- We heard the parrot
- in the bristly tree beside our
- Leaning on the spade
- you named its green call.
- Earlier that morning
- feeling like raggedy bark
- I stepped into the shower
- washing parts of myself with
- For too long words have been
- relentless in their sucking
- of my blood. I seem to yearn
- for a re-rooting of myself.
The second landing comes at the
end of an outward journey, this time to Japan, and is recorded in a ten-poem sequence
which I found, together with the opening verses on Wang Lus mountain ascent, the
most satisfying part of this work. Here the poet, extending his involvment with Buddhism,
is moved particularly to reflect on what the rest of his life might hold for him. The
sequence opens with a quote from Saigyo,
- Shaking the bell
- on this mountain, am I loosened
- the world now?
- Can I shake myself enough
- to know what lies ahead for me?
The poet's response is couched
in a tone of humorous resignation which belies the seriousness of the issue,
- That broken field of turnips
- white and bluish after slaughter
- tops here, half-bodies there.
- You walk up towards the tall
- the sun setting cabbages
- alight with silver.
- What a mess
- the old ground of your thought
- wounds and memories
- straw brooms of good intentions
- the all-too-familiar earth
- the same same self.
A more sombre note is, however,
sounded in the final poem, Goings and Coming, which is one of the high points
of the whole work and brings the sequence to a fitting conclusion.
All in all, Hill has given us a
work of the highest quality. In exploring the central theme of the poetic response to the
visual and plastic arts how we depict ourselves he explores also a number of
related by-ways in a subtle and diverse manner, so creating a poetic sequence of
considerable richness. Further, the quality of the poems is ably matched by that of their
excellent presentation 5 Islands Press is to be complimented.
Ian Johnston is the author
of Singing of Scented Grass: Verses from the Chinese. His translations were
performed at Moorilla during the inaugural Ten Days on the Island festival, and have
featured on ABC radio and television, including Arts Today and Compass.