At the turn of the year

January 11, 2016

Steel solstice (detail): artist's book by Liz Mathews (text by Maureen Duffy)

My first work-in-progress in 2016 is Turn, a group of nine artist’s books setting poems and lines from Maureen Duffy’s new collection Pictures from an Exhibition, just out from Enitharmon Press; I’ll be showing some of them at the book’s launch on 28th January, when Maureen will be reading some of the poems. (Launch event is free, but it is essential to contact Enitharmon via info@enitharmon.co.uk to RSVP)

I began with a setting of lines from the first poem in the collection, A Christmas Concert, which includes

                                                  … a moment

redeeming winter’s, Lucy’s, shortest day

and longest night, […]

with promise of returning Spring.

I made the artist’s book at the winter solstice on 21st -23rd December, painting the snow with paint mixed with snow melt (from last year’s snow), and calling it Steel Solstice.  This ‘promise of returning Spring’ is one of the recurring themes in MD’s poems (especially in her recent love poem cycle Songs for Sappho, which I set in Paper Wings), the turning of the year towards light and away from the darkness of parting and absence.  Her new collection includes the extended sequence Burdsong in which the poet continues to trace the lines of connection binding together the lovers that were mapped so memorably in the poems for Paper Wings; I couldn’t resist setting a few of the 20 Burdsongs, and they will be among the books on show at the launch event.

As the book’s title infers (and like several of the Songs for Sappho) many of the poems are responses to the work of other artists, reminding us of MD’s characteristic openness of eyes, mind and spirit, her generosity, and her vivid awareness of the ‘great company’ (Jeremy Hooker) of poets, artists and thinkers through millennia and across the world, still communicating with each other and with us all through word, image and thought.

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One of my favourite poems from the collection, Last Light is a moving evocation of Turner’s life and paintings; All things in flux aims to capture something of the economy of the poem’s imaginative summoning of Turner’s vision.

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Darkling, another of MD’s trompe l’oeil poems, evokes one of her favourite poets, Keats, whose life had certain parallels with her own. The last stanza of the poem begins I follow your beautiful script / across the pages that are your true portrait –  and I enjoyed the challenge of presenting the lines, first in a recognisably contemporary script (from an unsigned letter to William Godwin c.1783) in Touchstone, and then in a fair copy of Keats’s own hand (from his 1820 letter to Shelley) in another setting, Talisman, lettering the text with a goose-feather quill picked up on Hampstead Heath just opposite Keats’s House. (I found these letters in the Bodleian’s Abinger Collection of manuscripts, with a timely pointer from Dr BC Barker-Benfield.) Both settings will be on show at the launch.

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And judging by the daffodils already coming up in our window boxes, spring is only just round the corner.

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