Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Delicate Attachments of a Bulgarian Poet

Safety Pins by Petar Tchouhov
Published by Ciela
ISBN 978-954-28-0751-3

Safety pins are objects that can sometimes be of vital importance, holding together two items - usually of clothing - that would spell disaster for us should they remain separated. [Think of when you're about to give a performance when your zip breaks or a button falls off, or you are travelling and your shirt or trousers split.] They form necessary but fragile attachments [for we know that sometime in the future, a more permanent attachment is advisable, if we want to feel secure in our clothes.] The poems in this collection combine that feeling of intense delight with an acknowledgement of the transitory or fragile nature of the two objects ideas or images which are linked together. These attachments or relationships may be delicate and ephemeral, but how glad we are in the present moment, that they have formed their unusual combinations.

As well as having published several books of poetry and prose, Petar Tchouhov is an experienced writer of haiku. I have only ever written about half a dozen haiku in my life but when he talks about haiku I immediately realise that what I wrote probably were not true haiku at all. At the same time, he says that in the west we should not be too strict about the number of syllables because the Japanese alphabet is such that a whole syllable or even word can be displayed by one letter, so to put too much emphasis on the number of syllables can be to miss the main point of a haiku.

He explained this as being [and this is where I realised that my so-called haiku were nothing of the kind] to find two images which would not normally be linked together and to create or discover a connection with them which gives us a feeling of insight or surprised recognition. I make a link in my mind with the surrealists, and their ideas of bringing together objects that have no obvious relationship with each other [such as an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table ] but a difference is that the surrealists were looking at the absurdity of life or its paradoxical nature or seeking to create a semblance of dream connections or associations, without necessarily working on these images to create a surprising relationship.

But Petar's haiku often create surprising links and there is a sense of recognition particularly as the objects or images described are often homely and everyday and so create a sense of intimacy as well as, so I feel, an enhanced appreciation of these objects, as we glimpse an inherent strangeness and even mystery in what we thought were humdrum or ordinary, at least nothing special. But here they are, suddenly special and glowing with the extraordinary.

Full moon
an orange from the bowl
Is missing

first snow
footprints leading
to the cobbler's shop

Of course that is the sign of all good poetry, that it should breathe life into what we skim over in our daily life, only half-noticing what is around us, and certainly not imbuing it with any particular significance. It's the poet's job you could say, to haul our attention out of its somnolent or distracted state, and make us see the familiar with new eyes. But to do it with so few words, with just a couple of carefully crafted images, is an ability I find admirable. It reminds me of Chinese painting, a few carefully placed brush strokes creating a whole image, for the space or spaces in between the lines as if linked by sympathetic strings, vibrate with their own communication.

In these haiku it is the relationship between the images that, though not directly stated, comes alive and resonates in our minds, through the juxtaposition.
As in

petty quarrel
dandelion fluff
in her hair

There can sometimes be the slightest touch of nostalgia, never over worked, merely hinted at -

morning fog
nobody sees
the falling leaf

All Souls' Day
I open my father's
black umbrella

but mostly, there is the sense of cherishing the small details of life, with a mixture of whimsy, affection and a clear and honed perception.

sunny morning
I love even
my neighbour's dog

full moon
one more ball
for the snowman

Many of these haiku have been published in haiku magazines and several of them have won prizes in international competitions. They are poems to delight, and to go back to, always refreshing, with their mixture of solidarity for the human condition, and a slightly wry smile at the oddness, often endearing, of life

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Impressionist Exhibition at Rouen

At the café Jeanne d'Arc, just off la place du vieux marché

The exhibition at Rouen's musée de beaux arts of impressionist paintings has been drawing huge crowds apparently, since its inception in June. People, says P, have even been coming from Paris especially to see it.

Today might have been one of these days as the musée was stuffed with people, to such an extent that you virtually had to move around in a long line, in the way I remember having to do at the palace of Versailles, where there was only a corridor of space available that was not roped off, and the viewing public moved obediently along the it. There was no hope of turning around, going back, you were in this moving snaking mass of people and you had keep in line. It began to cohere into an organism of its own. While it was not quite as bad as that at today's exhibition, at least at the beginning, it was close. If you wanted to see every painting you would have had to wait a long time. If you'd wanted to study them all you would have had great difficulty for it was virtually impossible to move a step without getting between someone's line of vision and one or other of the paintings. Almost as soon as I entered I felt that familiar of tug of claustrophobia from being in a confined space with too many people. Of course, had there been only 2 or 3 others it would not have been confined but that was not the case. There was nothing for it but to plunge in there, cut in front of other people's views and head for the painting you wanted to look at, abandoning any vestige of politeness.

Incredibly, all the paintings were of Rouen. Monet's paintings of the cathedral are well known but it seems that many other painters visited Rouen, including Pissarro, Turner, and Gaugin, among the most famous. Later there was a 'Rouen school' of painters.

So apart from Monet's famous Rouen cathedral, there was a plethora of misty bridges, rain damp narrow streets [rue du gros horloge], rooftops and rivers and boats and a more detailed rue de l'épicerie.

I decided the only way to approach this was to home in on a few that really struck me. These were Albert Dubois-Pillet's hommage à Pissarro – quai de Lesseps, Rouen. An old-fashioned sailing boat by the quay, a couple of horses on it. The quai with pink and purple colours of the cobbles and the water with yellows and greens and some purples too, all somewhat pointillist
e and all lovely.

Pissarro painted many of Rouen's bridges but my favourite was le pont Boieldieu, effet de brouillard, 1898. Yes it was foggy but there was also smoke coming out of tall chimneys so the bridge and its surroundings were smeared with a pale, luminous ash. In so many of the paintings, these tall chimneys, with their plumes of smoke.

Robert Antoine Pinchon had some lovely ones. La Seine à Rouen au crepuscule, 1906 - close up it looks like a bizarre bank of clotted cream at the side of grey daubs. But when you move further back, it transforms into a truly magical twilight. His Le Chemin, Neige also has an evanescent atmosphere, you can feel the silence of the path lightly dusted with snow, its evening or late afternoon peace. His Les prairies, inondées shows leafless trees sticking out of the water, their trunks an intense blue, and though there's something hallucinatory and strange about the painting, the blueness of the trees looks quite natural, the strangeness seems to come from the silence you can almost hear, because of the water covering the ground and the places where the trees emerge from the earth.

Charles Frechon's [1900/1] Rouen depuis la rive gauche is more detailed and less typically impressionistic, with just a hint of naïve style. There are several boats on the water, and a line of finely drawn shops with narrow awnings. The cathedral spire rises in the background.

Several of rooftops, in this city of 100 spires. And Leon Lemaître's smaller and very lovely paintings of people in the rain-wet rue du gros horloge.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

Léon Jules Lemaître, La Rue du Gros-Horloge 1890. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen.

But the main impression created by this whole experience – the fleeting glimpses of such lovely images between the passing people – the sense of the crowd almost forming a snaking shape and coherence and flow of its own – the exhibition ending inevitably in the boutique, where expensive books and catalogues were for sale, as well as the humble post cards – was of the gulf between the painters and the process of painting, and the massive machinery that feeds off it.

The paintings possess an almost overwhelming sense of peace and serenity – in most of them there are few if any, people in the streets or crossing the bridges. In most, the light is never flat, but suffused with change - either through dwindling with evening or rich and thick with morning, as in Albert Pillet's quai, or heavy and drugged with water and smoke, as in Pissarro's effet de brouillard. I think of the places you go to when you paint or write, the effect it has on you, at least when it goes well. The gulf and the distance between that original solitude and the high commerce you encounter now.

Well, I enjoyed the coffee in the café Jeanne d'Arc, with the smiling waitress, and all the astonishing buildings in Rouen look even more intricate and old and exceptionally beautiful, as if my focus has been sharpened, and I can see more - not in the panoramic sense but in that filigree'd and detailed way that catches a leaning angle of an old stone pillar, subtle patterns in brickwork. I empty my bag when I get back, pull out notebook, camera, tarte au citron and a yellow beech leaf.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Lausanne and Edward Hopper

The train slows down on the approach to Lausanne. One block of buildings is dark brown, a kind of roasted mustard colour. From every window, an awning is pulled down from the top, reaching the balcony. These awnings drawn against bright sunlight, reflecting from the mountains and the lake, and the whole sky turned into a vast blue mirror, have a place in some deep past, some half-remembered and familiar world.

ochre buildings, each window shaded
with a slanting awning -
repose in sunlight -
turn this new city into a place I recognize
I step off the train, into a memory

Lausanne is a bright city, an alert place, with purposeful busyness. In the underground passage from the platform to the station exit, a busker plays a harp. Outside the train station, we wait for the green signal before crossing the road. In Morges, a small town, drivers pull up for you, wave you across the pedestrian crossing. This is very gratifying and makes one warm to the Swiss immediately. Lausanne, like any other large town, has its own business to think of and get on with and this is does briskly, the inhabitants walking with confidence, half-smiles playing on their lips, in this glorious sunshine. The cobbled rue du petit-chene sparkles in the bright light, and I catch a whiff of that unmistakeable scent of roasting meat that immediately brings the East here, and a nostalgia carried on the morning light so that times and places flick open like a fan and so it seems, our memories lie hidden, folded one behind the other, until the sun flashes on them and the petals spread out like a flower, drinking in the warmth, revealing who they really are. Dazzled with this morning, I watch people striding up the cobbled slope, going into shops or looking in the windows, drinking coffee at the outside tables, reading newspapers, talking, people walking downhill, sun in their faces, knees slightly bent, to accommodate the slope. For Lausanne is a city of many hills, and the city dwellers must be stout of limb and spirit to negotiate these waves of streets.

From each new slope another vista of roofs, lake and mountains opens up. The huge building of the musee des beaux-arts overlooks the place de la ripponne, and a pair of shoes, possibly ceramic though it's hard to tell, swing from an overhead cable. I cross the square, continue up to the castle, into la cite, then wander through a wooded area and come out at la Fondation de l'Hermitage, where there is an Edward Hopper exhibition. To get inside you first have to put your bag in a locker, place one franc in a slot, which means you can then lock it, and then pocket the key.

It turns out that Hopper spent some time in Paris and there are several of his paintings of that time, scenes of the Seine and its bridges, looking for all the world like impressionist paintings. They sparkle with light and colour. Only later, when he returns to New York, does he begin the drawings and paintings we are more familiar with, a lone walker underneath a street lamp, seen from above [Night Shadows], people in an evening café, together but solitary. I particularly like South Carolina Morning, not one I'd seen before, depicting a black woman in a red dress, a wide-brimmed red hat shading part of her face, and she is standing at the doorway of her house, looking fierce and challenging as if defying you to come any closer. Like many of Hopper's paintings of houses, hers seems to be planted in a field with no visible roads in or out – it is a dwelling juxtaposed with cultivated nature, and the two are adjacent but, in the same way as many of his characters, they adjoin but do not speak to each other. They inhabit separate worlds which have not yet found a way of connecting or not yet found any desire to surrender their solitudes for the unknown gain of sharing something of themselves. For, who knows, it could mean a loss rather than a gain. Poised on the edge of this uncertainty, fields and houses turn their backs on each other, café patrons sit side by side or opposite each other, and turn their faces away. Or perhaps they do not yet know how to desire to converse and like the characters in Waiting for Godot, they wonder in their individual ways, about the possibility of someone who might awaken this desire in them.

And two more tankas from my not-tanka journal

In early evening sunlight -
half a rainbow, arching over trees
birds call and swarm like bees across the sky -
I take the track between the vineyards -
heading home.


Sometimes the track follows the railway line,
then it twists into a wood, crosses a river
comes out in a clearing -
elegant bee-homes are painted blue and sea-green.
The bee-keeper raises a slow hand in greeting
as I hurtle past.