Skip to main content

Guest Review: Brinton On Wheale

Ian Brinton reviews
by Nigel Wheale

In an article for The Pen in autumn 1984 Nigel Wheale wrote about ‘Venetian Aspects’ highlighting a city ‘famously the place of painters, poets, masqueraders, all those who operate through the play of surface and the actions of glaze and veneer’ and this concern for the play of light on surfaces shone through a poem, ‘Venetian words’:

          Slicks and rips ran eel-fast
beneath the lagoon, hammer-beaten
by an early rain burst:

In the evening we stalked fire flies
that might have been moving
within the constellated dark
of cypress trees,

Beyond which true light struck
like a night-long inflection
burning among storm clouds.

A similar playfulness and masquerade haunts this lovely new volume of poems from Oystercatcher. The opening page consists of a quoted line from Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude Book I followed by a skilful cut-up of lines from different parts of James Thomson’s The Seasons, the whole becoming a new poem celebrating a world of glint and movement noticed when ‘all is off the poise within.’

The motto for Tsinghua, one of China’s foremost universities situated on the site of a former royal garden in Bejing, is ‘Self Discipline and Social Commitment’ and the grace with which Wheale combines the transient human affairs of Government with the wondering awareness of life’s continuance ensures that this glint and movement stretches beyond the accurate observation of the naturalist deeply embedded in Orkney:

          You close mate-guarded
this only, tapered egg,
written in a single day,
now rocking gently on the blank cliff face.
Within, a new bird-dot forms inwith the sun yoke,
hanging in clear protein on twisting ropes of chalazae.

Endless curve of shellsphere,
strengths to be taken in frail colour.
How did you sign this womb of cryptic tints,
who writes this fluent shell script,
your gull’s hymn to the ovular bird therein?

In Tsinghua an old man
is washing pollution
from the fine granite steps
that climb to Party Headquarters.

He moulds his mop to a brush point
and signs his labour secretly
with three lines of characters,
a mop calligraphy writ I water

That will evaporate before
the morning operatives arrive,
this writing as covert, fragile and muted
as blank signs on eggshell.

This last section from ‘Fulmar Egg’ echoes the quiet timelessness of Hardy’s ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’: the contrast of different activities bound together by an overarching perspective and a deep respect for the ordinary. It is that respect which informs the poem written for John O’Neill, ‘classicist, painter and good man’, and titled simply, in the form of a letter, ‘Dear John’:

          Light is breaking like a heart over Hoy
and the islands are feline tonight,
grey velvet flexing under an overshot sky.
The bleached trace of fence posts
And power lines quarter the land,
And the fields are shaved like landing strips
In the raw truth of extraction.

None of our feuding painter friends catch this, John,
can I say, they all dress it up, this island,
for who could show its rawness and cruelties?
You painted the bay and Flow for me,
Insisting that you leave out the power lines,
And the waymarking buoy, which you regretted.

The elegiac tone is hauntingly interwoven with the late artist’s awareness of those aspects of Orcadian life which have become the bedrock of Nigel Wheale’s recent poetry:
The island children are playing out in this high cold evening.
They quad-bike furiously over the perfect brae,
and how you would love to hear them, John.
A hare lies smoothed by the cool flows of air,
pale fur rings each eye, her pelt blonde-tipped.

But now the light is gone, the bay blank-faced,
the braes and feas mute, and our Virgil wakes to sing
the chastely rising star world, the asterisms we too glazed upon.
‘Indigo night, my silent friend’, you’d written
in that other life, those other lives, we’ve all undergone.

When Nigel Wheale’s selected poems, Raw Skies, appeared from Shearsman in 2006 I was struck by the sense of place that weaves its way through the carefully crafted lines: one was always being confronted by the palpable. The early work suggested the influence of George Oppen’s hard edges hemmed  with the distinctive compassion Oppen achieved in his poems from the sixties. The definite world, where even light ‘rakes across all surfaces’ (‘White Love, White Ship’), is invaded by the insistent arrival of the mundane in the pedestrianized shopping mall and ‘money continues to ooze/from an acid green hole set firm/in the wall.’

The slim volume of poems, The Plains of Sight, published by John Welch’s The Many Press in 1989, concentrated upon the life and works of the painter Gwen John and in one of the prose sections which interleave the little volume Wheale writes of the artist’s development:

There is a well-defined progress in the style of her work, which began carefully and securely in the minute exploitation of accumulated glazes, semi-transparent layerings of the paint, a method taught by Whistler.’

That minute care for the registering of the effects of light and the definite contours of the visible world is then caught by a poem’s simplicity:

          A suffused window

a generous breakfast cup

unofficial flowers in a white jug

a chair that waits for no one:

what more could we want?

The title poem of this new Oystercatcher, ‘The Six Strides of Freyfaxi’, takes its name from the horse in Hrafnkel’s tenth-century Icelandic Saga, tales of struggles between chieftains and farmers in the east of Iceland:
Eternal marble pacing of the Parthenon,
the rider floats, smoothly borne along,
a trance horse to cross the nine worlds.

Stone and air, the palpable and the dream: in this final ‘stride’ Nigel Wheale gives us a world of Art and Nature.

Ian Brinton is an English scholar and poetry critic, and regular contributor to Eyewear.  He is the editor of a key study of JH Prynne, A Manner of Utterance (Shearsman, 2009).
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog


According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…


Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…


The Oscars - Academy Awards officially - were once huge cultural events - in 1975, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaineandBob Hope co-hosted, for example - and Best Picture noms included The Conversation and Chinatown. Godfather Part 2 won. Last two years, movies titled Birdman and Spotlight won, and the hosts and those films are retrospectively minor, trifling. This year, some important, resonant films are up for consideration - including Hidden Figures and Moonlight, two favourites of this blog. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington will hopefully win for their sterling performances in Fences. However, La La Land - the most superficial and empty Best Picture contender since Gigi in 1959 (which beat Vertigo) - could smite all comers, and render this year's awards historically trivial, even idiotic.

The Oscars often opt for safe, optimistic films, or safe, pessimistic films, that are usually about white men (less often, white women) finding their path to doing the right thin…