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Poetry and Art: Jenny Halstead writes about the artwork she created to illustrate Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’

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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Published in 2018 on the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death on the Western Front, Pennies on My Eyes is a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poetry illustrated by Reading-based artists. Here, Jenny Halstead writes about the influences for the artwork she created to illustrate the poem ‘Disabled’ (on page 25 of the book).

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Artwork by Jenny Halstead illustrating Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

The dominant images in my mind were of soldiers marching, whether walking or standing still bewildered, others unable to stand because badly wounded. These were the ‘lucky’ ones who had survived being blown to pieces after going up the line to the front.

In my career as a medical artist I studied the work of Henry Tonks, who trained as a surgeon before re-training in fine art. During WWI he worked with the pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, and made a large number of drawings and paintings of injured and facially disfigured soldiers, before and during the process of facial reconstruction, injuries caused mainly by raising their heads above the line of the trench. These pastels are largely housed in the Royal College of Surgeons.

I visited the Imperial War Museum, and particularly remember shaky black-and-white newsreel footage: soldiers coming over a rise, one by one passing guns over their shoulders, looking exhausted but nevertheless smiling, if only for the sake of the camera.

The crutches reminded me of a visit to the British Rail Works in Swindon in 1975. My late husband, a palaeontologist had identified a massive 9 metre short necked Plesiosaur found in the works floor while they were digging. So the following year we were invited to their Open Day. They proudly exhibited the shiny new 125 train alongside the amazing 130-150 million year fossil. But at the back of the foundry was an extensive display of WW1 prostheses made in the yard by railwaymen using metal and steel from the trains and leather and padding from the upholstered seating. An efficient use of re-cycled materials.

Jenny Halstead, February 2022

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Wilfred Owen's poem Disabled

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).

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Kate Behrens introduces three poems from her latest collection ‘Transitional Spaces’

Several poems in ʽTransitional Spacesʼ were written during lockdowns.

ʽBreakdownʼ arose from trying to support a friend during that time. The physical terrain in the poem is chalk, with all the implications of that. I wanted the ʽyewsʼ to be ambiguous when the poem is read out loud: mental collapse can involve the disintegration of ideas about who we/you are. The ʽCycladic headʼ came from the real finding of a flint that had elements of those tiny Neolithic Aegean sculptures, ones that reduce the human form to its most essential and enduring components: things of beauty with all unnecessary detail lost. It had felt like some kind of talisman.

ʽNarcissi on Valentineʼs Dayʼ started off as a poem about my late twin: the red-tinged trumpets trembling in the wind had triggered a memory of her when asleep, but I hadnʼt registered that I was writing it on the 14th February. It then turned into a more traditional love poem.

ʽThe Look of Transitionʼ began after I stood by the North Sea in Aldeburgh at night watching the hypnotic monochrome patterns of waves breaking, and the next day, a flatter, dun-coloured and less reflective surface. It was just after a series of deaths of friends and family members, including two brothers, and all within a few months of each other, a time of sharpening perceptions, as so often happens. The rhythms of nature were a comfort, and seemed the only certainty.

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Breakdown

You stab at birdsong with disavowals,
muffled as a doped-up dreamer.

Bonelessly writing himself on blue,
a crow seems to spell it out
in the guiltless act of flying.

I offer a flint ‘Cycladic head’
found in a quiet swollen by yews.

It passes through unsteady hands like water.

*

The slope is thick with spokes and frozen
arms. Silence is a gravitational force

holding the chalk in place,
allowing in one bird whose

single note, tremulous,
stretches through unexplored spaces,

searches like a parched tongue.
The answer’s almost inaudible,

but it comes.

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Narcissi on Valentine’s Day

The body’s long-ingested springs
spring in the veins,

though quietened
re-spark darkened blood,

as trumpets of lighter red lift
and suggest

the lilt and tilt of a loved one’s mouth
shifting in dream.

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The Look of Transition

I.

This dun unrolling doesn’t reflect us.
Seagulls rest secretive
eyes under hollow bones.
A cut-out boat is tissue-thin,
horizon’s a bent
cane.

It waits to ping now
into then.

II.

Night’s waves shelve silvers for blacks,
individuate

in rhythms not ours,
and ours.

Alien heartbeats the hours
uncover

in failing bodies
(now flashed with graces
darks allow)

stop.

Each wave sheds silvers
for blacks,

retreats.

III.

The pendulum’s swung:
rooks flung over
the pine, back again,

pattern a raucous conversation,
leave a ghost-looping
where questions
stuck.

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Transitional Spaces book coverKate Behrens’ most recent collection is Transitional Spaces, published by Two Rivers Press in April 2022. It follows on from her first collection, The Beholder (2012), Man with Bombe Alaska (2016) and Penumbra (2019). Other poems have appeared in MslexiaBlackbox ManifoldStandThe High Window, Reading Universityʼs Creative Arts Anthologies, Poetry Salzburg ReviewWild CourtNoonThe Arts of Peace (Two Rivers Press) and as Oxford Brookesʼ Poem of the Week.

Read more about Kate’s poetry here.

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Rosie Jackson pays tribute to co-author Graham Burchell (1950–2021)

Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell worked together on Two Girls and a Beehive, their wonderful collection of poems inspired by Stanley Spencer. Sadly, Graham died in May of this year. Rosie Jackson writes here about how she met Graham, how the collaboration came about, and his legacy.

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I first met Graham at a reading I gave for Exeter’s Uncut Poets, 2016. I was promoting my collection The Light Box, which included a handful of poems about Stanley and Hilda Spencer, whose work and lives had long fascinated me. A few days later, Graham wrote to say how much he liked the poems, that he too had some Spencer poems, and would I like to collaborate on a collection. I didn’t hesitate. I enjoy the stimulus of dialogue and soon we were both submitting poems to the 2017 Cookham Festival Spencer Poetry Competition (whose excellent anthology of short-listed poems is also published by Two Rivers Press). I was fortunate to win 1st prize, which further boosted our enthusiasm and gave me the confidence to submit our final collection to Peter Robinson to consider.

Not that Graham and I wrote poems ‘to’ each other. It wasn’t a poetry dialogue in that sense. Rather we wrote pieces in response to paintings or aspects of the Spencer life story that most intrigued us. The poems were not done chronologically, nor in the sequence in which they now appear. We emailed each other with new poems, gave critical feedback, and a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or ‘maybe’ to inclusion. Of 60 poems in the final version of Two Girls and a Beehive, we wrote 30 each, and another 20 or so were excluded as not quite up to scratch. I had the utmost respect for and trust in Graham’s critical judgement. It was always considered, sensitive, spot-on. And throughout the whole process he sustained his deep commitment to the project. I felt our voices complemented each other really well, his poems moving towards the war paintings, social history, a wry view of Spencer the brilliant artist and fallible man; mine focussing on Hilda and issues of relationship, art, spiritual differences and gender politics.

Sadly the timing of our publication in April 2020 could hardly have been worse, coinciding as it did with the impact of both Covid and a progressive decline in Graham’s health. We had 30 live launch events planned – readings alongside power point presentations of the paintings – all of which had to be cancelled. And though we had a few successful Zoom promotions, and some fantastic responses and reviews, the book didn’t quite make the splash we felt it deserves.

By late 2020, Graham was subject to more and more medical tests to try and find a cure for his respiratory problems – he’d been diagnosed with COPD – and early this year, he shared with me and a few friends that no more could be done. He died in hospital on 21 May 2021, aged 70. But he dealt with it all with amazing resilience and humour. His last email to me from 11 May makes a wry comment about a short review we’d had, then adds, ‘Oh well, it’s better than a poke in the eye or someone standing on my oxygen tube.’

He leaves a wonderful legacy. Six books of poetry, 22 files of manuscripts (some of which will be published by Poetry Teignmouth), an excellent reputation as both poet and man – kind, warm, funny, patient, loyal, courteous, forbearing – and a huge network of friends and poets still stunned by his loss. His close friend Ian Royce Chamberlain stood in for Graham in some of the last Zoom Spencer readings he attended, and I’m happy to say Ian will also be reading with me at future events as we carry on promoting Two Girls and a Beehive. Spencer believed that life and death were one, and I too believe that though Graham has shed his body, his spirit caries on undaunted.

Rosie Jackson, July 2021

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Graham John Burchell: 1950–2021

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A translation of Baudelaire’s poem ‘Recueillement’ by Gérard Noyau

This translation of Baudelaire’s poem Recueillement is by Gérard Noyau

Meditation

Calm down, my Grief, be stiller still
You were calling out for the Night; it falls, it’s here:
A dark mist wraps around the town,
To some bringing peace, to others anxiety.

As the vile mass of mortals,
Under the cosh of Pleasure, this pitiless executioner,
Go gather remorse in the raves to slavery
My Grief, give me your hand; come this way,

Far from them. See the lost years bend forward
In antique gowns, on heaven’s balconies;
See rise from the depths of the waters smiling Regret;

See the dying Sun fall asleep under an arch,
And, like a long shroud fanning out in the East,
Listen, my dear one, listen to the sweet Night on the march.

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Gérard Noyau’s translations of his father’s poetry were published earlier this year in the book Earth on fire and other poems, the first translation into English of the poems of Francophone Mauritian writer René Noyau (1911–1984)

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Baudelaire’s ‘Chant d’Automne’ translated by Ian Brinton

‘Chant d’Automne’ was written in November 1859 as an address to Marie Daubrun, an actress with whom Baudelaire had hoped to set up home. This dream of a settled life came to nothing as she chose to live with a former lover, the poet Théodore de Banville. This translation is dedicated to Leo Walsh.

Elegy for Autumn

I

Soon shall we be immersed in shadowed cold;
Farewell brief brightness of our short-lived summer!
I listen to the deathly thud of logs
Which echo round the pavements of our yards.

Winter breaks again through my door: anger,
Bitterness, shivering and fear, forced labour;
And like the sun buried in a frozen hell
My heart shall be no more than one iced block of red.

Shaking I listen to every log that falls;
The erection of a scaffold has no more doom-like sound.
My soul is like a tower which crumbles
In response to an unchecked battering-ram.

My cradle is pounded by the never-ceasing blows,
A coffin nailed in haste, but yet for whom?
Yesterday was summer, enter autumn!
And the pealing of the bell announces ‘Gone’!

II

I love the green hue of your oval eyes
My still Muse, but all today is sour
And neither the chamber nor the hearthside of your love
Is worth a glint of sunlight on the sea.

And yet reveal your care my tender love,
Be mother to my erring, graceless ways;
As lover or as sister, shed a fleeting sweetness
Of autumn colour or a sun that sinks to rest.

Brief request – the jaws of death are open!
Let me place my forehead on your lap
To taste what was the burning white of summer
In the yellow rays and sweetness of the Fall.

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See also:

Crowds – a new translation of a Baudelaire prose poem from 1861

The Cracked Bell – a new translation by Ian Brinton

Le Serpent Qui Danse – a translation by Ian Brinton

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Ian Brinton’s imaginative and haunting new translations of the 18 poems in the ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ section of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal are published in Charles Baudelaire Paris Scenes (July 2021).

More information here