Colette Sensier reviews
De Chirico's Threads
by Carol Rumens
Carol Rumens’ fifteenth book of poetry, De Chirico’s Threads, is wide-ranging, deeply intelligent, and surprising. Unlike most poetry collections, it has a central character running alongside the authorial voice: Giorgio de Chirico, the early Greek Surrealist whose painting, The Uncertainty of the Poet (featuring a disembodied classical white torso and a bunch of bananas) has become a keystone image of surrealism. The artwork has already inspired one humorous poem by Wendy Cope, but Rumens’ play with the painting is extended across a miniature verse play and a whole collection.
Although de Chirico’s story does not really begin till part three of the book (entitled, like the book, ‘De Chirico’s Threads,’ and described as ‘a verse-drama, with soundscape’), he or his influence can be seen in many poems in the first two sections (‘Ice and Fire; Sonnets for Late-Elizabethan Lovers,’ and ‘Itinerary Through a Photograph Album’). De Chirico becomes implicit in many associations: classical Greece, interdisciplinary art, new beginnings, the dead. But although the fourth sonnet is dedicated to him (De Chirico Paints Ariadne on Naxos) as well as the book title, no biographical information appears till the verse drama. Coming to a direct discussion of de Chirico late like this enables his 1890s landscape to collide with the contemporary life seen in the poems of the first two sections. The nonplussed, but life-affirming inclination of the famous bananas blossoming from the torso are echoed in Rumens’ surprising work.
The sonnets of the collection’s first section take on different voices as well as speaking in the abstract; and the second section is more heavily tinged with the poet’s personal voice. Carol Rumens is a thoughtful poet though, and there is nothing here not touched by a slant through knowledge, or through humour. A description, ‘East Ending,’ of her East London neighbourhood full of ‘names too big for it, old working names/ Blitzed by re-development’ comes with the comment ‘we hate and love this torpor of museums. Hate it, mostly.’ The slick addition of the second sentence onto the perfect iambic pentameter already put down does what Rumens does well in this collection; she presents a seemingly simple form or thought, and then problematizes it with an aside. There is always a lot going on in a Rumens poem, both formally and in the poems’ content, and the strong acknowledgement of history’s burden, its ‘torpor’ - coming in the middle of a praise poem - keeps the reader sharp.
A similar effect is reached in ‘A Christmas Home-Coming,’ a meditation on the poet’s birthday and her parents’ relationship during World War Two, which slips into its conclusion the thought that ‘there are soldier-dads this Christmastime/ Not coming home. For these too, sip your birthday wine.’ This coda to a long introspection seamlessly updates the remembrances which make up the rest of the poem, running contemporary and past together expertly.
Greek sculpture, last-century painters, modern poets. Lenses of different times. They slide together here, from the first poem, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ which couples the notions of Venus felt by people today – a planet whose ‘oceans warmed and went,’ who warns us about climate change – and by Bernard de Fontenelle, a late-seventeenth-century writer (who knew?), to the concluding verse-drama.
And to top things off, Rumens never forgets the bunch of bananas. The ridiculous, the witty, is not missing from these poems. True, the salute to dead soldiers mentioned above goes with laments on global warming, a mourning poem to Mick Imlah, and more than one Holocaust lyric; one of these names the ‘hell’ of genocide as the ‘language everyone understood.’ One global warming lament stands out for its pathos and light touch, ‘2084,’ running
The children want to burn
anything that burns. They say we stole
the magic brand [...]
it’s their turn to hit the gas [...]
Just let us be children.
But these things are counterbalanced with jokes and surprises. In ‘A Winter’s Prayer,’ grief is hailed as ‘crystal-complex,’ and its power gains strength from Rumens’ integration of many other elements. Humour isn’t the least of these. In one poem, Count Dracula comes down from the Romanian steppes to create an online dating profile; though deciding to ‘’fess up to his years (six hundred),’ he eventually wins his prospective ‘middle-aged English rose’ with an ‘Eton smirk’ and the first part of his title. Humour and tragedy are very close when seen through the lense of surrealism, as Rumens makes clear in her description of a surrealist dealing with grief,
I was drawn by the same old sadness
Of seeing our furniture wander
It’s an earthquake, the death of a father.
‘De Chirico’s Threads,’ the verse-drama which concludes the book, doesn’t shy away from the different connotations of surrealism, interweaving its biting satirical quality with Greek mythology in ‘De Chirico’s Threads.’ It carries off the slanted seriousness with aplomb, helped by the chords which Rumens’ tense modernism has already struck in the collection’s other sections with such lines as:
I closed the programme. Me. The mouse ran down
And sideways over a diminished future.
In this final section, Rumens treats the classical world, art history and philosophy with a satirical thoroughness which replicates de Chirico’s own joking distortion. The painter was famous for his juxtaposition of realist, natural objects in a way which seemed ridiculous. Rather than leading to ‘uncertainty’ for this poet, the approach works for Rumens, partly because of the expert timing and pace of lines such as ‘The Dithyrambs of Dionysos! Nice!’ uttered by a cynical arts editor.
Rumens’ writing is marked by its embrace of different qualities of art – evoking both scholarship and abandon, for instance, in a speech by ‘Le Poète’ (Guillaume Apollinaire):
Boum boum bongo boum
The dithyrambs are dumb as doom.
The only echo’s Doric.
Come on boys, get choric.
Eventually, the verse-drama takes the form of a labyrinth, unrolling the artist’s life, atmosphere and ideas with subtle rhythmic interrogation. However, early on in a poem in the first section of the book, ‘De Chirico Peeling Ariadne on Naxos,’ it’s stated that ‘You can’t unpeel the dead/ from their dirty sheets, their wrap of liquefied stone.’ Ultimately, the characters in the verse-drama prove unknowable, their art forming a facade – a ‘double-dim perception,’ as poems are described earlier on in the collection’ - as well as a communication point. Another hint from that early poem is relevant: the final statement ‘Art is brief. Life longer is.’ De Chirico is a lense for this collection, a focus point allowing the poet to access myriad points of view; the verse-drama is a fine piece of work, but the real power of this collection comes from the diversity of sensibilities which inform all three sections.
Colette Sensier is a young British poet.