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Steve Spence

"Dear Mary" by  Rupert M Loydell   pub. Shearsman Books   (101 pages)

Writing about art or ekphrasis, to give it its technical term, can be a tricky business but Loydell as poet, critic and painter has a foot in both camps and is as well-equipped as anyone to take on the task. He embraces the challenge with an awareness of the potential difficulties by giving us quotes from David Batchelor and Gertrude Stein as way of a preface and there is also a more ‘technical introduction’ by Dr Jim Harris who is based at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

This said I pitched into the collection with gusto and discovered that, despite there being some evidence of Loydell’s recent obsession with montaged material, on the whole this book is rather different in aspect to his other contemporary poetry. His ‘raw material’ ranges across the spectrum, chronologically, from the Renaissance to the twenty first century, including a ‘Shadow Triptych’ (after Francis Bacon) to ‘Fra Angelico’s ‘Pronunciation’ (a misspelling/misunderstanding I think by Loydell’s daughter which provides the basis for wit and exploration) to his own engagement with paint and words and an attempt explore the differences through the imperfect vehicle of language.

Take this extract from ‘How Grey Became’, for example, a poem where the relationship between words and paint is treated seriously yet playfully and where clichés and received ideas are used to explore notions of difference and complexity:

          The colour grey is preferred by people who are indecisive;
          grey is also the colour of evasion and non-commitment.
          Grey is an emotional colour, shields us from outside influence.

          Grey is a sophisticated colour which gives a clean graphic look.
          Look for the colour in grey and the grey in colour:
          grey paint gives interior walls and ceilings a popular matt finish.

          Grey is the colour of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom,
          the only colour that has no direct physiological properties.
          The world of adults is grey; grey walls make a dramatic statement.

There’s clearly a spiritual aspect to this collection, as suggested by the title, the cover art (a late 20th century interpretation of an iconic religious painting) and the recurring motif of ‘the annunciation’ throughout the book’s pages. In some ways I see Loydell as a secular humanist but one who has struggled with faith, or of loss of faith,
from the perspective of a thoroughly modern twentieth century creative practitioner who thinks deeply about things and who incorporates this thinking into his work in various ways. His musings about paintings from an earlier period while on holiday in Italy are probing and adventurous and as much concerned with technique and with the use of colour (‘Colour’ being a key theme in this collection) as they are with any overt exploration of ‘subject matter’. The poems dealing with Francis Bacon (‘Annunciation by Francis Bacon’ and ‘Shadow Tryptych’) are much darker, penetrating pieces and in some ways get to ‘the heart of the matter’ in more direct mode though this could be partly explained in terms of the difference between a ‘northern’ and a ‘southern’ approach – angst versus hedonism perhaps? ‘The spirit of God is upon you, / urgent and toxic. You’re soused, / unable to speak or think, have / been winging it from the word go.’ Loydell is clearly admiring of Bacon’s achievement as a painter and perhaps as a ‘documenter of the darkness’ but not uncritical either and the whole tenor of the writing here is more anguished and filled with drama – ‘Imagine! His smudges of raw paint / pulled into communion with the past: / the angel ill-defined, contorted, / with a gash for a mouth, can hardly / speak to the flesh wound that is / Mary’s face.  …’ (from ‘Annunciation by Francis Bacon’).

Which isn’t to say that a degree of playfulness and a lighter aspect is lacking – many of these poems are after all about ‘the annunciation’ and the play of light and colour in painting. In ‘Alien Annunciation’, for example, we get the following:

          One of the most fascinating and strategic topics in ancient texts is
          the record of fallen angels, giants and UFO’s. It’s not uncommon
          for animals to act in an  agitated manner  during UFO encounters,
          and according to Mary her pet’s  barking continued  to get louder
          and  louder  throughout  the  visitation.  Then the  angel departed
          from her.

The interest in UFO’s in this poem is both humorous and exploratory and provides
a stark contrast with Peter Dent’s recent book on the subject. Loydell’s mixing of the spiritual with the secular is both serious and light-hearted although I’m also pleased to notice that the angst that’s perhaps been missing in his more recent work is also present here.

I’ve barely touched the surface of this text and it could do with a longer review as I do feel there’s a difference in tone, technique and perhaps ‘outcome’ in Dear Mary than I’ve noticed in Loydell’s work for some time and that has to be worthy of note. For my money the most interesting of his recent collections – by a long way – is The Return Of The Man Who Has Everything but I enjoyed reading Dear Mary and look forward to his next collection. For a poet as prolific as this it’s quite something to sustain such a high standard.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018