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What is Left of England? – A poem from Richard Stephenson

What is Left of England?

What is left of England?
January 878. Chippenham, midwinter.
The king has fled.
The people have no king.
The people have no country.

What is left of England?
But a dream of what used to be.

February 878. Somerset Marshes, winter,
The king is hiding.
The people are lost,
And the Vikings hold the country.

What is left of England,
cannot be found.

What is left of England?
April 878. Athney, early spring.
The king is plotting.
The people are stirring.
But the Viking holds the country.

What is left of England?
But an idea of what could be.

Whitsuntide 878. Egburt’s Stone.
The king returns to the people.
The people return to the king.
But the Vikings hold the country
Will the country fight the Viking?

What is left of England?
A dream a hope a belief.

May 878. Edington. Spring.
The people fight for the king.
The king fights for the people.
The Vikings flee the country.

What remains of England,
Is stronger than the sword.

~

Richard Stephenson runs the Dreading Poetry Slam under the name The Legend that is Richard Stephenson.
He took up poetry shortly after moving to Reading towards the end of the 20th century.
He works in London as an engineer and important middle manager.

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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about her monotype inspired by Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

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An exhibition at Reading’s Turbine House in 2019 entitled In Reading Gaol by Reading Town, showcased artwork from Reading artists inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. Jenny Halstead’s monotype is reproduced here, together with some creative context from the artist.

The Ballad was written after Oscar Wilde was released from a two-year sentence of hard labour, and was prompted principally by a hanging that had taken place in the Gaol during that time, which greatly affected both the poet and the other inmates.

My first thoughts turned to what the word ‘ballad’ typically suggested: a simple song, often with a memorable refrain conveying a moral, often expressed in combination with a mournful melody.

Monotype seemed the appropriate medium, given its immediacy as the product of a single pull without a printing press. My intention was to catch a precise moment on the stroke of eight, the victim alive one moment, dead the next, but the rope still swinging, with the horror of and end-of-life event set over against the haunting line: ‘nimble feet to dance upon the air’. The shapes on either side represent an inverted tent, ‘the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky’. The whole conception is intended to look unrefined and brutal.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022

Jenny Halsteads artwork inspired by The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Jenny Halstead is a long-standing member of the Reading Guild of Artists and founder of the Whiteknights Studio Trail.

Also by Jenny Halstead: An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden (2013), Silchester: Life on the Dig (2015, with Michael Fulford), The Art & History of Whiteknights (2020, Editor).

The Two Rivers Press edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is illustrated with imagery by Peter Hay.

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Poetry and Art: Sue Leigh writes about the influence of Winifred Nicholson

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Small and expansive: writing about the paintings of Winifred Nicholson

The life and work of Winifred Nicholson, the British twentieth-century artist, has always been significant to me. Inspired particularly by colour, light, flowers, landscapes and seascapes, her pictures have a freshness and immediacy (she painted quickly), a lyrical intensity. Her work is joyous. The paintings – often of pots or jugs of flowers on windowsills with a view of mountains, snow or sea beyond – bring together near and far, the small and expansive. It is as if by looking with attention at those flowers we might begin to understand what she calls ‘the secret of the cosmos’.

There is often a visionary quality to her work as in ‘Flower Table’ (1928–9) which she painted at Bankshead, the Cumberland farmhouse where she lived for most of her life. The pots of flowers in this painting sit on a heavy work table which itself sits on a rag rug (Winifred Nicholson designed rag rugs and was also interested in other crafts). I love the radiance of this painting, its silvery light. It is both domestic and homely but also otherworldly.

Why write about a painting? I am always questioning how we might respond creatively to the world and experience. Winifred Nicholson uses colour and form to express her vision. I try to articulate my own, not with paint but with language. Writing about painting helps me think again about the act of making, to consider the possibilities and limitations of different mediums. I live in language but sometimes I would like to be a painter just to see what happens, beyond the words.

Sue Leigh, March 2022

 

‘Flower Table’, Winifred Nicholson (1928–9)

 

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Flower table poem by Sue Leigh from Her Orchards

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Sue Leigh read English at London University and completed her doctorate at the University of Aberystwyth. She worked for Faber & Faber for a number of years before leaving London and settling in rural Oxfordshire. She now works as a freelance writer and poet, and as a part-time tutor at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. The poem ‘Flower Table’ appears in her latest collection Her Orchards, published in 2021.

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Poetry and Art: Alistair Noon unearths a Flemish landscape painting

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

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Some time in the early 2010s I was looking for furniture at a Berlin flea market when I came across a faded but striking framed reproduction of a harvest scene with stylized hills. Not that I recognized the picture, but it was clearly a Flemish landscape, a genre I’ve always liked for its tendency towards realism, ensemble casts and non-sacrality. For fifteen euros, it was a deal.

Several years later, I was half-way through a day of inspecting Habsburg loot at Vienna’s gigantic Kunsthistorisches Museum (which also cost around fifteen euros) when my partner excitedly directed my attention upwards in one of the galleries: “That’s it! Up there! That’s it!” Not faded at all, and half as big again as the reproduction, hung “Autumn Landscape (October)”, by Lucas van Valckenborch.

It’s one of at least seven seasonal landscapes painted by Valckenborch in the mid-1580s, each of them incorporating the work traditional for the month in question. It’s not clear whether Valckenborch intended to paint one for each month, or did so and the others were lost. In any case, five survivors are now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a reproduction of one them can be found propped on a chest of drawers in a bedroom in the Berlin district of Wedding.

A contemporary and acquaintance of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Valckenborch’s biography exhibits the typical elements of his profession at the time: lots of artist relatives with the same name to confuse art fans with, a patron to paint, and a peripatetic existence depending on where there was work and where he wouldn’t be persecuted as a Protestant. His fish market scenes are good as well.

Alistair Noon, March 2022

Lucas van Valckenborch, Autumn Landscape, 1585

In the distance, spot the castle
guarding its great trove of rocks;
deep within, no doubt, an arsenal,
kitchens, vaults and lots of locks.

Over that domain, a cloud
waits to salvo off its drops
onto that grey cone-roofed round
watchtower on the top-right outcrop;

by the cloud, a line of cranes
flies across and on until
every bird forgets the rain
once it finds a drier hill;

down below, men rolling barrels,
women plucking, unseen bees –
by the bucket, piles of apples;
folk in ruffs at wine and cheese.

~

Alistair Noon lives in Berlin. Paradise Takeaway, a long poem beginning and ending at Luton Airport, is forthcoming from Two Rivers Press in 2023.

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Poetry and Art: Ian House introduces poems inspired by Rembrandt, Rodin and Kandinsky

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Sometimes I have doubts about the propriety of ekphrastic poems. The artist has done the work: selected or imagined a slice of the world, responded to it in her own way. The danger is that the poet will succumb to being a parasite who describes the work (at length, to assist the reader) before tying the ribbon with his dependent response. Over the years I have become inclined to use familiar or typical art works so that some knowledge can be assumed in readers and I can concentrate on recording the experience and feeling of standing before the work.

Ian House, March 2022

REMBRANDT

A Life

A film flows by. Watch frame-by-frame,
the illusion of a whole is gone.
Peacock, patriarch and potentate,
stricken burgher and serene artist,
each portrait reels us in, holds us fast
for thirty minutes to its truth,
a truth affirmed by the unavoidable nose,
the nose he will not gloss over, the pole
round which the masks and costumes whirl,
the rock round which the fluent selves disperse
and form the delta of his life.
Labile himself, he grips us.
Fixed, gives us the freedom to roam.

Interrogation

There’s an early painting where he pops up
as a grinning jackanapes, and in an etching
he’s a snarling, wild-haired Hamlet,
styles he’s trying out and masks he’s trying on.
By mid-career he’s looked at himself so long,
so inquiringly, so intently looking at me

that I flinch.
then face up to him,
fling the challenge back,
probe and rummage him,
and still he bears down,
demands to know,
and I turn in, go deep,
mine and defend myself.
We back-and-forth like this
till I’m barely aware who’s who
and it’s intolerable
and I tear myself from him,
diminished, enriched.

Has Been

When Rembrandt took one last look in the mirror,
he saw an old guy with uncombed grey hair,
a puffy face, that nose, dead eyes.
It seems a final honesty. All those years
had he painted not what he saw but what he saw
as what he felt he was or, more dishonest still,
what he felt he was as what he saw? At last
he closes the dressing-up box,
shows what’s there beyond apparent artifice,
a man dissolving, passing out of life.

The old master wasn’t an Old Master
but a bankrupt, sick, unvarnished failure.

No: ‘Rembrandt’ names the works and all his selves.

In Amsterdam, one January too bitter for tourists, I sat on my own for thirty minutes in a room full of Rembrandts. At Kenwood once I sat for thirty minutes facing the great late self-portrait. In life we rarely have the opportunity to look so closely and for so long at another person. Unlike a sleeper, Rembrandt (a Rembrandt self-portrait) is no passive recipient of our gaze. He meets us.

~

RODIN

Encountering Rodin

That’s no thinker but a performing of thinking,
that brazen, posturing, ponderous simulacrum,
that frozen, statuesque lump. This is a thinker,
Rodin’s first shot, a small terracotta creature
stuck on a metal rod, leaning forward,
neck straining, urgent
to see, to understand;

his hand a clenched claw,
the fingers cramped to his mouth;
his right eye a thumbed hollow,
his left eye a slit,
his back cracked and peeling
and lodged on a titanic thigh;

man or amphibian, taking life
from the fingers of his maker,
sprung from the oven of making,
still forming, gathering himself
for the first shot,
for the making,

for making the thought into thing,
the release of contortion,
the body’s projection
into thought that flows
from the head down the arm to the hand
to the nib that encounters – here, now – the page.

In July 1921 I saw The Making of Rodin at Tate Modern, an exhibition of the maquettes and plaster casts which were the first shots at the definitive marbles and bronzes with which many of the likely readers of my poems will be familiar. The quality of exploration and improvisation rejuvenated the works for me. The poem, an exploration of my feelings as I looked at one work, has, I hope, something of the same quality, reflecting the struggle of creation.

~

KANDINSKY

Things of Beauty
Kandinsky, Study for Composition VII

So lightsome and joyous this Study,
a ballet of greens and vermilions,
a profusion of Cambrian life forms,
flute solos of orange, floral starbursts of blue;
thudding browns and sunshiny yellows
are caught in the dance of the ocean,
the swirl of the springtime, urgent
as Stravinsky, sweet as Debussy:
just such a medley as I’d seen that day
in the gutter, distressful not blithe
because I couldn’t uncouple
the cylinders and circles and oblongs,
the crimsons and purples and glittering silvers
from crisps packets, sweet wrappers, coke tins.

Everything, looked at with detachment, is beautiful but that detachment is sometimes hard to achieve. Grey and rainy is as beautiful as sunny and dry but you can’t see that if you’re out in it.

~

Cover image Just a Moment by Ian HouseIan House taught in England, the United States and eastern Europe. His collections are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2021), all with Two Rivers Press. He lives in Reading.