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Poems from Lesley Saunders. Inspired by paintings from Rebecca Swainston

Lesley Saunders writes:

I began writing what I called my ‘plague poems’ on 16 March, directly after leading a writing workshop at Reading Museum and Art Gallery – the last outing for us all before the initial restrictions on movement were announced. It was there that I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Rebecca Swainston, an artist who lives in Tilehurst – I was captivated by the haunted, haunting atmosphere of the two paintings on show there, and wrote a poem ‘Symptoms’ in response to one of them the next day. (You can read the poem on the Poet of the Week page:

Since then I’ve continued to find a strong resonance between the strange, estranged world of the pandemic and the uncanny cosmos of Rebecca’s work – even though the paintings are not about the disease. We have been writing to each other often, and sharing our work-in-progress.

Here are three further poems in response to particular paintings of hers:

after ‘Dress of Lies’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

And the dress… / Branded her soft flesh. Poor girl, / She hurtled up, all fire – Euripides Medea, lines 1183–5, transl. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish

What reason was there not to adore it,
the dress – its watered silk, its weight;

it shimmered as she moved, silver warp
and rose-pink weft rippling like sunset

on a lake, the fishtail wrapping her ankles.
It clung to her like a second skin, every

mortal cell of her, each pore and hair.
But the dress is hungry, wet turns to fire,

it wants to eat her alive: she melts in its arms,
gum from a blazing pine in the cytokine storm.

17 April 2020

after ‘Woman with Connecting Dress of Cells’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso panel

The frock I’m wearing underneath my frock
is a miracle of construction, a farthingale
whose hoops are fashioned from elastins,
collagens, fibrils, organelles – such fine stuff
for everyday wear, such soft logic, seamless
and sensuous as silk! What you cannot see
is the way its lavish brocade stays me,
keeps me mammalian, wholly caro factum,
empirical, real, a Rosamund of matter –
if I prick my finger, the vivid blood-bead
on its tip is prophetic, remedial, a dose
of prophylactic plasma. The air may be rank
with fighting talk, but the frock I’m wearing
is patched all over with quick salvific roses.

2 May 2020

Woman Holding Up the Sky
The gap in unpaid work (activities such as childcare, adult care, housework and volunteering) between men and women… remained large, at 1 hour and 7 minutes a day – ‘Coronavirus and how people spent their time under lockdown: 28 March to 26 April 2020’, Office for National Statistics

after ‘Woman holding up the sky’Rebecca Swainston, oil on gesso

Having travelled the cloudless distances
from the nearest star, barren and metallic,
as far as this summer garden, the sky

has come to rest in the open arms of a tree.
Catching its drift, a woman pegs the fine linen
like clean washing to the line of the breeze

so it will not snag on the backfire of traffic
or be smirched and smutted by too much light
from glass cities left on through the dark – ach,

she’s been doing this since she can remember,
while a child, then another, grew heavy inside her.
Today in her dream-diary she writes the one

about flying, how easy it feels to breathe in,
lift off, begin. All she wants now is the view,
the sky unfurling its florals and blues below her.

29 May 2020

Contact details for Rebecca Swainston here

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