Sunday, February 8, 2009

THE MERRI CREEK : POEMS & PIECES #9, February, 2009


SCULPTING CLARE : Extracts from working journals and sketchbooks, 1990-93
(the John Clare Cycle)

5 October 1990
Made first of three armatures to begin a cycle of sculptures about John Clare.

8 October
In this cycle of work I sense many of my preoccupations will coalesce, the question will be whether the sculptures will have vitality, power and sensitivity equivalent to the writings and temperament of the poet.

21 November
Cold, very cold evenings. I have continued to rework the eighth version (study of memorial to Clare) which has served as a reminder that enthusiasm is no substitution for skill and to achieve the effects required needs hard work. Who better than Clare as example? Who could present images so fresh and vigorous and worked immensely hard to achieve those effects.

10 February 1991
I press on with drawings and correspondence in connection with a Clare monument at Peterborough Cathedral or the city centre or Helpston.

19 April
Another long hiatus caused by an asthmatic illness and completing works intended for submission to the Royal Academy. I continued to draw spasmodically and lately resumed work on the series of Clare in old age, wintering. ...I will/ must fulfill the cycle :

1. Clare as a young man with a child
2. Clare in maturity
3. Clare in old age

1. Stamford / childhood / promise / beginnings in poetry
2. Peterborough / vigorous maturity / intense objectivity
3. Northampton / solitary / become like a tree / wrecked / inward looking

9 June
Once more the wind and the rain. I wrote out the final drafts of the submission for the [Northampton] Guildhall Clare and drew until after midnight. ...I have three variants on the same theme as the choices for the final version of the Guildhall Clare and should have the submission in the post by Wednesday morning. The piece is of Clare in old age within a cage of three hawthorns, canopied over by foliage pierced for patterns of light to fall onto the head which is intended to appear sightless, inward looking.

My work does look back to my studies in Italy and France and to early heroes, Donatello, Rodin, Epstein & oddly perhaps, Jagger who was a powerful modeller with a sharp sense of composition. To a great degree I am a child of the C19th, I admire the achievements of many artists active in the early decades of this century in western European art... .

24 October 1992
In some of the sculptures of Michelangelo tensions are set up between passages roughly hewn and those vigorously drawn and become essential to the sculpture's nature and psychological density.

23 February 1993
When one looks at the Behnes portrait it reflects back the tubbiness of a meat and potato eater and a drinker of beer.

27 October 1992
I want to create the impression of Clare walking against the wind which was the element Clare associated with creation and in my experience of the region around Helpston the wind is seldom absent for long.

30 December1992
I began the journey to Stamford early yesterday, before first light, as I climbed into the car, a solitary blackbird sang into the dusky air. The journey towards Bristol was in clearing sunlight until Nailsea when I entered the twilight world of icy fog [which] lay across the Cotswolds and south western Midlands... I arrived at Stamford in glittering sunshine. With the help of Michael Key I erected the plaster, posed for photographs [Stamford Mercury] and left... reaching Thorverton before 7pm. for a drink in the Dolphin.
I anticipate the Stamford Clare won't have an easy passage, but then if I wanted an easy life I would not have chosen sculpture.

[These extracts are from the John Clare Society Journal, UK, Bicentenary number, 1993]




19-10-2008 ...How to paint a rose

A glass case displays the steps for painting a rose. It is like looking down through still water at a catalogue of the artist's mind. First, the water colours on white paper: orange-red, orange-purple, purple-red... like a row of summer icy-poles melting. Second: words in neat rows of type on the page: "the rose grows in the walled gardens of Highgrove and is the most glowing of reds oranges and purples - at times I had to blink to rest my eyes from its brilliance." The finished botanical lies beside the words. A single red rose, head composed high on its stem, elegant, vigorous, more luminous than its foil of white. Like the first and final drafts of a poem. The completed rose is perfect in every real detail: emblematic, cultivated to sharp points of lineage, the petals soft as blood. The real rose lies beside its representation. How do you draw a rose dying?

20-10-2008 ...The Art of imperfection

It is different in my mind's painting. There we swung on creaking swings and claimed the sky as our own. Now the pine tree is dead and the grass, in spring, is drier than summer. Aleesha's hair is crimped from yesterday's plaits, her bottom two moons in white leggings. "No," she says, "that's wrong. You do it like this." Ben tells the same story three times: "I threw this thing at a target and I won, but I cheated a bit, and I got a certifi-keet." His four-year-old eyes look somewhere - beyond his family, beyond his sturdy face. And then my mother. She and her walking-stick. My mother in her fuchsia purple and matching shoes. "I've started an art class but the teacher is not helping much," she tells me. "I can't get the light right. I am not really an artist." Her arms are a small drought, quiet as honeycomb left out to weather.

25-10-2008 ...Tableware for angels

What do angels do if they fall to earth and lose their wings? They make things to remind them of home. This white is so white it is not colour - it is a substance. This is Southern Ice Porcelain: bowls and cylinders - so perfect they name themselves to the eyes as an alphabet of shape. They have such stillness - as if they are pieces of eternity. But what work, what work: he draws clay from the earth, drives out the titanium, his hands and the wheel catch that moment when liquid slides form from its shadow. He stands them in a diamond blaze of fire and then inscripts: zephyr breeze on river water, wind in long summer grass, his dying wife's journal. In groups of three they stand on a fusion of green of earth, blue of sky. His porcelain waits for the company of angels.

These poems were written after a visit to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in October 2008. Les Blakebrough's Ceramics and Anne O'Connor's Botanical Paintings were on display. Les Blakebrough's web site is ]



(for Peter Rushforth)

through spring apple trees --
a white horse

so many shiny cars
around the potter's retreat

set on garden stumps
blossom vases
catch the bush light

the kiln's molten red
cools to soft blue

iron-speckled glaze --
five colours
of lichen on the sandstone

froom lip to belly and back
I stroke my favourite pot

the tea cup is full --
bamboo flue music
drifts over the cliff edge


[published in The Neon City]


Kris Hemensley / Sue Stanford
Dear Sue, Didnt attend an acquaintance's exhibition opening last night because heavy & tired & etc...oh well... However, what I did do was resolve to write you about a poem in your little book [The Neon City, pub. Post Pressed Press, Queensland, 2008] : The Potter's Retreat (for Peter Rushforth). Is there more for you to say about Peter Rushforth? Do you know him? Have you been around his work for a while? I'm increasingly a fan of certain strands in Australian pottery/ceramics, and respect him as one of the originals, as it were...


Dear Kris, Yes, I do/did know Peter Rushforth a little and wrote those haiku for him and at an open day/ sale he had in his place in the Blue Mountains sometime in the late 90s.
Long ago, I was lucky enough to get a place at East Sydney Tech to study ceramics full-time when Peter & Col Levy were working there. Silly me -- I didn't realise what a chance I'd been given and dropped out after about six months when it all started to get high pressure! But Peter (and Col) by introducing me to Japanese pottery were probably a bigger influence than I usually realise on Bill and I deciding to go there [Japan] and teach. Something we did before it was the thing to do.
(...) I guess you know about his background as a POW? I admire the way he put it to use (or overcame it?) and to have then gone to Japan to study ceramics. (...)


Dear Sue, thanks for stimulating e/ on the potters... My introduction to these great artists was the Australian craftsman potters book [Nine Artist Potters, ed Alison Littlemore & Kraig Carlstrom; pub Jack Pollard Craftsmaster, Sydney, 1973]. This year I've seen two wonderful shows at Anna Maas's Skepsi Gallery, top of Swanston Street, one by Ivor McMeekin's daughter, Susan, the other by Col Levy's wife, Maureen Williams-Levy... Is there a narrative here about potter fathers & children, spouses? In the gallery's cabinets there are Rushforth & co... You probably know all this... My brother Bernard is a Zen man in darkest Dorset... his pottery love out of Leach & Hamada... He has a couple of pieces, a Cardew, a son of Leach's... we share a little bowl we bought together on Portland... I've begun to think that I value the "Australian" aspect more in the potters than the painters... because of the material's relation to place & person as transforming entity... Would love to chat about this sometime... And about your Japan of course...
Best wishes, Kris


Dear Kris, (....) Do know all about Leach, Hamada, Cardew etc. (Or did!) It's a long time now. I expect you know the website ? Some fantastic photos. I had a small collection of mostly Bizenyaki and Tambayaki. But they all got smashed in the earthquake. Passed the time in my life for collections now! (Except perhaps for books -- but even there I have no space to keep what I won't read again.)
Cheers, Sue


Dear Sue (....) A monograph on Les Blakebrough came for me today. I'm fascinated, as you'd guess in that Japanese chapter of his life... he was in Kyoto with other poet artist expats in the early 60s...


(a salute to Hiratsuka Raichou)

Half sleeping, I am trembling
like the body of the plane.
Some papery husks lie offered on my tray.
"In the beginning woman was the sun."

Outside, the stratosphere
is minus fifty-two. Strapped here within
the darkened fuselage, my arm has fused
against another dreamer's arm.
How dull we look, though an inferno burns
beneath each well-banked surface.
"In the beginning woman was the sun."

My clock's awry! In flashbacks of Bizen
massed pots glow in the roar of the long kilns.
For sleepless days and sleepless nights,
an old man squints to judge the temperature.
"In the beginning woman was the sun."

Each character is formed by chance
and where the piece was stacked.
A storm of ash solidifies to sheen,
or tiny archipelagos of glaze.
A red rimmed blotch, so like a recent scab,
appears on separated neighbours.
"In the beginning woman was the sun."

Piled eastern cumuli release my window blind.
The attendant pours a cup of orange juice.
Chaotic turbulence resolves
into a sweet citric solar circle.
"In the beginning woman was the sun."



October 11, 2008

Dear Jan, I'd been looking forward to seeing Tony Smibert's exhibition at the Glen Eira Gallery, having picked him out of the September '08 Art Almanac, and couldnt believe it when, in course of a recent telephone call, you told me it had finished on the 5th! The advert in the Almanac --& I'm looking at it now -- states 24th September-15th October --evidently an error! More salt in the wound!
I didnt kmow his name or work, or at least cannot remember seeing him previously. What caught my eye was the juxtaposition of the dramatically lit mountain landscape and the Zen-like zig-zag slashes in two of the inset reproductions --water-colours --and the brief description referring to Smibert's involvement with JMW Turner, akkido, calligraphy, abstract expressionism. I guess this resonated with my own preoccupations or, better said, continuing attempts to define the equation which might hold the spontaneous along with the attention necessary for topographical art (which begs a question, I know, about the degree of body & imagination occurring in, say, landscape art) : the equation or relation of spontaneity & transcription, invention & document...
Our conversation about Tony Smibert & related matters did assuage my grievance at missing the show. And I'd like to recover some of it here and tickle it further. For starters : I thrilled to your comment that water-colour (your own medium) in the Western tradition, is to us what Chinese & Japanese ink-brush is to them.
And, of course, Turner might well be another key. I'd just been looking at reproductions of Turner's Rain - Steam - Speed(1844) painting, which was a reference in a topographical piece I was writing, about Melbourne or rather Westgarth & Clifton Hill [since published in HEAT, #18, December '08]... But I should also be writing about Chinese poems & paintings and everything else thrown up by my brother Bernard's & my correspondence on Kerouac's Dharma Bums!
I did look for Smibert on the Web, and found fascinating report on his work on Turner, at the Tate, and will follow up your suggestions regarding viewing otherexamples of his own work, including the technical videos...
Hope this finds you in a good space, and hope you can read my handwriting!
Best wishes,


Dear Kris, It has arrived! Thank you so much. I've done a little "dipping" but thought I should reacquaint myself with Celan, Jabes and Kafka, at least a little, before I begin.
The Tony Smibert thing is interesting re spontaneity & attention -- he has written a series of articles for The Australian Artist --a monthly magazine --on imaginative landscapes, which you might like. There's a couple on the web I think.
It's strange the spontaneity & attention/awareness thing -- in ink brush it was the thing, in its way, even though you were mostly engaged in copying the master's work which he had just done in front of you as a demonstration.
As regards my own 'practice' : I started ink brush with an art therapy book called Art is a Way of Knowing & discovered it was. The exercise I liked most was one where you held a feeling you had --without naming it-- shut your eyes and make marks on the paper with your pencil or pen and then looked to see what you 'had' : which was often nothing to speak of and went on from there. A doodling exercise in a sense -- that grew into the weird and wonderful. Spontaneous yet totally 'deliberate' & completely absorbing -- you became lost in it. It was a great way for me to avoid the self-harm demon but went on from that.
I almost regret the Botanicals etc because Art Brut as it's called is made with spontaneous intent & is made out of your inner self in much the same way, metaphorically speaking, that a spider spins its web.
As far as Watercolor goes & its relation to the way of the brush -- I don't know that the West has used it that way with all its under-drawing etc -- except perhaps for Mr Turner who dispensed with all of that -- it's just that it's a medium that can be used that way if you wish. Hence Smibert's appeal to me I guess. It's a familiarity born of my ink-brush lessons where we used watercolour for colour instead of coloured ink sticks or powder which are very toxic usually.
When it comes to the topographical I'm one for the landscapes of the mind, like Hopkins and other poets I'm thinking around but whose names escape me just at this minute -- Chinese poets of course!
Getting back to our Reluctant Theologians [ : Kafka, Celan, Jabes, by Beth Hawkins, pub. Fordham University Press, '02], I am interested in the relation between the unutterable and the unspeakable -- and so I think is Les Murray -- his darkness of course is different. The natural order is there as well. The light of Australia as opposed to the dark grey of Europe seems an almost Real Presence. In Kevin Hart too, I think.
Have you tried reading in concert a Christian English translation of Genesis with a Jewish English translation? If you haven't I recommend the Stone Chumash published by Artscroll. How strange -- the same yet they're not a fit. Also the commentary in the latter is wonderful -- Rashi, Rambam et al. Extraordinary insight that i find strangely echoed in the first pages of Vol 1 of Jabes, The Book of Questions.
I don't know if you've come across The Particulars of Rapture [Exodus] or The Beginnings of Desire [Genesis] by Avivah Gottlieb Zomberg? They are truly wonderful -- but like so much Jewish writing on these things so dense & rich that one can only manage a little at a time. I hope I will manage to get to the end sometime before I die --the same with The Infinite Conversation.
This brings me full circle to Zen & tao as almost it seems "stopping up" thought in favour of present awareness. It's beautiful --especially in the brush. But I cannot give up or escape words. The Word. "Going visual" for me has caused something of a crisis. The old saw : "Show Don't Tell" and "a picture paints a thousand words" is so true that for some time now I have felt I have lost my words -- for such things as poetry or fiction -- I want them back, I really do. There is something choked off in the heart of me, that has to do with this. Words are for something other than the visual I think --which belies some of what I have just written; but it has something to do with the work of our reluctant theologians and is beauty, depth, fear & trembling of course --but also of us & words and how we make them and they make us into something other.
I have never forgotten an English priest who came to speak to us in Matric. He said it's easy to prove the existence of the spiritual. the material, he said, you cannot give a way and keep at the same time --but an idea, now that's entirely something else. I think he's right.
I'll stop now. Save some for next time.

Jan S.


Dear Jan, Thank you for your ink-penned letter -- I actually bought myself an art pen, which isnt the pen & nib you've encouraged but would have been a step from the common blue biro, I resort to once again, had I not promptly mislaid it! And, though impressed by the wax seal on yours, I'm not equipped to follow suit! Please know I treasure both ink & seal --the touch of the centuries, after all, which is something to do with our conversation --the patina of tradition, which is probably also the way it would be disparaged, but for me it's living thread --as I said once, to my boy Tim, talking about the seemingly immense gulf of time between ourselves & the Ancient Egyptians, and I fudged the maths just a little bit : that's only thirty generations, thirty lifetimes, --nothing in the grand scheme of things --and Tim caught my humour, appreciated that image of tangibility.
After your reference to Hopkins and what you call landscapes of the mind I've returned to him, not that a particular reason is ever needed but it was a nicely troublesome one for me. That is to say, apart from the poems, I always visualise Hopkins's note-book selections, which are alive with the details gathered from his walks, and sometimes accompanied by thumb-nail sketches --so my first thought of him relates to acuity of observation, and he's right there with Gilbert White and all the naturalists on the shelf!
Still trying to meet your "landscapes of the mind" reference, I'm reminded of a phrase (and maybe it's my paraphrase) I've held for 30 years now, Husserl's "environment is perception", which might do the trick!
I guess your Mr Smibert holds a key --how he manages the difference between his Turneresque Tasmanian mountain grandeur and the dart & dash of the ink brush (--I'm referring to the small reproductions in the September Art Almanac).
The "eco-poetry" thing rolls on -- and all strength to it, tho' I'm keeping faith by my "topographical" project & prospectus! Louise Crisp was here the other day and we talked about the poets enrolling under the 'eco-poetry' tag, and she remarked apropos a contemporary that she was concerned such a poetry not be the dense & busy construction produced in its name. Mind you, her own work is sparse either in the Chinese/Beat manner or the French (like Jean Daive, a contemporary of one of your reluctant theologians, Celan, & others like du Bouchet & Guillevic), but her point was that for the landscape to speak the conventional poet had better be quiet & still!
I've been stimulated to think through some of this by a piece by Petra White, published in the Victorian Writer, which discussed what was meant by the sense of "place" in poetry [see the blog Placing Petra White].
In my mind, also, is a sequence of poems by Barry Hill, annotating a Chinese physician's journey to meet Taoist masters, ca 1380 A.D., after an exhibition of paintings, Fantastic Mountains : Chinese Landscape Painting from the Shanghai Museum (NSW, 2004). Barry's book is called As We Draw Ourselves (Five Islands Press, '08), and carries a lovely blurb from our mutual friend John Wolseley --the English painter who's evidently been born again as an Australian in this same period in which I'm identifying as a visitor &/or commuter!
Best Wishes,


Dear Kris, Thanks so much for the books. They actually arrived the day following our conversation on the 'phone. I have read some of the essays in the book on the New York Poets. I have some trouble in taking it in seriously. I keep wanting to sing to the writers & Poets (except maybe K. Koch) :
"Sing ho! for the life of a bear!
Sing ho! for the life of a bear...
The more it snows (tiddely pom!)
The more it snows (tiddely pom!)
The more it goes (tiddely pom!)
On Snowing."
It's time for the hums of Pooh to come into their own!
Happy Christmas to you & yours Kris,
Jan S.



TOM BATES Ex- UK, nowadays lives in South Australia, continues work on his Clare cycle of sculptures. Contributes to the John Clare Society Journal.
SUSAN FEALY, see Poems & Pieces #5, August/Sept,'08
SUE STANFORD lives in Melbourne, active locally & internationally on the poetry scene. Enrolled at Monash University engaged on a PHD involving translation & critical discussion of early 20thCentury Japanese haiku poets. Publications include Haiku Poetry Ancient & Modern (MQ Publications, London), Recollections (self-published chapbook), Opal (Flat Chat press, Melbourne, 2006).
JAN STUMBLES worked in the book trade in the golden age. Studied writing with Alan Wearne & co at RMIT before taking up the brush.


Edited by Kris Hemensley, with particular assistance from David Lumsden with the reproduction of images (for which, muchos gracias).
February 8th-19th, 2008

1 comment:

mountain-ash said...

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed Sue's potter's retreat - especially the 'five colours of lichen' and fantastic image in at end, very powerful.