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“A glimpse of one’s own exile”: The poems of Derek Jarman

Jarman cover

“November”

A glimpse of ones own exile
radiating across green lawns
passing geometric laughter
someone had painted the oak yellow

2014 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman, artist and queer activist. Derek Jarman was one of those artists without boundaries, simultaneously pursuing filmmaking, painting, writing, creative gardening, set design, and more. His astounding notebooks, which look like overstuffed scrapbooks, were filled with collages, calligraphy, poetry, objects, drawings, and pasted images of all sorts.  As part of the celebrations taking place under the auspices of Jarman 2014, London’s Test Centre has reissued Jarman’s only published book of poetry. What’s especially interesting about A Finger in the Fishes Mouth is the fact that every poem is paired with an image from a postcard that Jarman collected.

Test Centre touts their reprint as a facsimile of the original 1972 publication by the tiny Bettiscombe Press, located in Dorset, which published a small number of books in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their list includes several small editions that combined the poetry and photography of the publishers Michael Pinney and John Miles. Jarman’s obscure book failed to sell and later in his life he destroyed what he had of the edition, and now only four copies are known to survive. Like the original, the new version of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth has mirrored front and back covers and an image by the rather colorful character Wilhelm von Gloeden on the front cover. Inside, the poems are all on the right hand pages, while the images are on the left. Each poem/image spread is separated by another double-page spread that is entirely blank except for a simple number identifying each poem’s number from 1 to 32.

Jarman sets the stage for his book by opening with a poem of an interior voyage, in which past, present, and future are collaged – or montaged.

“Poem II”

Now I am sailing on this rocking chair
back
back
to where tomorrow
washes the pavilions of today

Written roughly between 1964 and 1972, the poems in A Finger show Jarman still finding and refining his voice. But even though he shuffles through a handful of styles (including a haiku that’s three syllables too long), each poem exudes tremendous confidence. These are not the poems of an amateur.  Jarman admired the Beat poets and one can fine a couple of Beat cultural references here, such as the “heavenly automat” and “the billboard promised land.” But these are not poems written in the Beat idiom, though one or two will remind readers of Frank O’Hara.

“Six Pages I”

I dropped six pages of the sunday paper
At the edge of the field
and the wind blew away
Kings, princesses, whole
Countries, one presidential
election, and several
eminent letter writers

The poems in A Finger well up from a keen sense of observation and a rich imagination. They are filled with bits of nostalgia and self-reflection, with historical references, and a curiosity about ageing and mortality that reminds me of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy more than anyone else. In some ways, the poems reflect mainstream trends of post-war writing. Jarman, for example, eschews rhyme and almost all punctuation and he uses line breaks to force the reader to closely examine phrases and sentences anew. Nevertheless, there is a conservative undertow to most of the poems, both in terms of style and content. For the most part they are personal poems, inspired by travel or by quiet reflective moments. Considering the time period in which these were written, there’s no anger, no psychedelia, and, in spite of the teasingly suggestive cover image, the poems are oddly prim, with only one “universal orgasm” and a few sculptural phalluses. The single dirty postcard that Jarman wanted to use was rejected by the original printers in 1972 and so Jarman pasted envelopes onto the space where the image should have resided and slipped copies of the postcard into the envelope. No reason is offered why this postcard of “a nun pleasuring a priest” is omitted in the reprint. But aside from whatever prurient interest the image might have had in its own right, it seems clear that its real function was to serve as commentary on the cheapening of rituals. In the facing poem called “Christmas 64,” the Three Magi must make their way through a thoroughly modern environment, past freeways and the political headlines of the newspaper, only to find that “someone had lost the baby.” Jarman’s biographer Tony Peake calls these poems “portentous,” and he’s right. Whatever their subject, they almost always contain some kind of omen or foreboding element. Although Jarman’s poems tend to be short – they all fit on a single page and most are less than two dozen lines long – they are richly complex and they get better and better with rereading.

The postcard images that accompany the poems represent a range of postcard types: quirky, banal, touristic, religious, historical, modern. But Jarman, ever the great colorist, had them all reproduced in the same monotone green, a kind of pale, sickly green with a touch of yellow that reminds me a bit of pea soup. By eliminating all of the color variations in the originals, the images become instantly unified. Turning the images monochromatic green makes them simultaneously different from and yet equal to the facing text. It’s a brilliant move and one I don’t think any other poet or novelist has tried with images. The relationship between the image and the poem is usually more intuitive than literal. For example, the image facing “Poem II” (above) shows a pair of small boats being rowed beneath the overhang of an ocean grotto. And the image facing “November” (also above) shows the Pompey Column and a sphinx in Alexandria, Egypt. The postcard below of “Chief Sands Rock” faces a poem about a visit to Fargo, North Dakota, while the postcard of “Toyland” faces “Poem for Coleridge July 64.”

Jarman Fargo

Jarman Toyland

Listen to Keith Collins read two of Jarman’s poems and watch Sophie Mayer read several poems from the book at the London Review Bookshop. Peek into his notebooks in this video shot in the archives of the British Film Institute.

There will be a special event on February 19 at 7 PM at the London Review Bookshop (apparently sold out already):

Derek’s partner Keith Collins and his biographer Tony Peake will be joined by Ali Smith and Sophie Mayer to consider the poetic in Derek’s oeuvre and to read from the collection. In the spirit of collaboration for which Derek was renowned, the reading will also be offered to the audience, so that the whole collection will be heard on this most poignant of anniversaries. The evening will be hosted by Gareth Evans.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great review Terry; I must save up for this! You ever been and seen his cottage at Dungeness, Kent?; very poignant experience and the landscape not unlike Sebald’s in parts of “Rings of Saturn”; very eerie and other worldlySteve

    February 24, 2014
    • I have never been to Kent, I am afraid. The other garden I would love to see is Little Sparta, outside Edinburgh, created by artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. http://www.littlesparta.org.uk/

      February 24, 2014

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