Lines of beauty

by Hugh Roberts / 24 June, 2006
The poetry and art of Joanna Margaret Paul.

The claim that poetry and painting are "sister arts" goes back at least as far as Horace's Ars Poetica and its dictum: ut pictura poesis ("As is painting so is poetry"). Like Love Poems, the new "selected poems" of Joanna Margaret Paul, the artist and poet who died far too young in 2003, offers evidence both for and against Horace's claim.

I believe Joanna Margaret Paul to be one of New Zealand's most important artists. Woefully undervalued during most of her painting career, fiercely resistant to climbing the greasy pole of art-world reputation, Paul was a painter of extraordinary power and intensity. In an art world in which words like "beautiful" provoke deep suspicions of intellectual laxness and chocolate-box populism, the seductive loveliness of many of Paul's paintings led superficial observers to dismiss them as merely decorative. One can only hope that the recent retrospectives of her work, beauty, even, organised by the City Gallery in Wellington and the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui, and Subjects to Hand - Joanna Margaret Paul Drawing, organised by the Mahara Gallery in Waikanae, mark the beginnings of a process of re-evaluation.

Paul's poetry, however, had left me more ambivalent. Although I found some of it excellent, her more experimental work - typographic free-for-alls that pushed words as far as possible towards being a purely visual medium - struck me as poor substitutes for what she did so brilliantly in her painting. I suspect that Bernadette Hall, Paul's literary executor and the editor of this volume, feels the same way. She writes in her introduction: "I decided early on that in this collection Joanna's work would be presented in a conventional format, the poems to stand by themselves, as groupings of words on the page, to be read with active attention to their linguistic possibilities, their layered meanings. Poems ... that depend on calligraphy and visual inventiveness, notes, scribbles, crossings outs, etc, I would leave for others to present in alternative formats."

Stripped of this "nonlinguistic" mater-ial, Paul's oeuvre emerges as something of a revelation. It also suggests conflicting answers to the question of poetry's relationship to its "sister art". Can language ever convey what we find in a painting? Where the poem says "an apple", it gives us all the apples that ever were and ever will be: Jonathan, Cox's Orange Pippin or Granny Smith. When an artist paints an apple, she paints this apple, and no other. To read Paul's poems is to realise that part of what drew her to "calligraphic and visual inventiveness" was the attempt to achieve in poetry what was so readily attainable in her painting.

But then again, these differences between the verbal and the visual are striking for the very reason that the poems hew so closely to the formal and thematic concerns of the paintings. No one familiar with Paul's painting will be surprised by the poems in this collection. Poem after poem dwells upon colour and form, almost as if Paul were jotting down notes for a future work in the other medium:

_waves

surge in like music

retreat with a sigh

leaving

cappuccino lace

(cream on umber)

while a wash

of cerulean

lights a copper sea (from "Aftermath")_

And the similarities go deeper than this. One of the striking things in many of Paul's paintings is her use of empty space - the paper left blank, the canvas left bare - that opens a space of challenging uncertainty between the objects thus separated. These blank spaces readily suggest certain metaphorical possibilities: mortality, loss, erasure, infinitude. The painting becomes at once a record of what can be seen, known and represented, in all its overdetermined specificity, and an acknowledgment, sometimes grateful, sometimes despairing, that the world exceeds our grasp and baffles our desire.

In the poetry, we find this same fascination with the fragmentary aperçu, the necessarily incomplete details from which we create the seamless illusion of a world:

_There are red glasses

on the glass table & an empty

yellow bowl

a bronze tray with a letter

on it, a page that is

blue like the sky

the shadow of the

jonquils

& under the glass

are pinioned

scarlet cherry leaves

& I remember

even in spring

that it is always autumn (from "but it is always spring")_

After reading the searing sequence of poems on the death of her baby daughter, Imogen, it is hard not to read that overwhelming absence into all the smaller ones that permeate her work. But the connection between death and vacancy can be found even in poems Paul wrote before that tragedy:

_Saw through the tent's flap

black windows

vacant spaces

in the night's grey

& nearby scattered lights

of the moon

on white flowers.

That black gap

& the smaller

joined by a narrow frame

told of the child's passing

or of mine. (from "Untitled: 'big with it'")_

And the "gaps" do not always speak of death. The absence of figure can betoken peace ("Whiteness rests my mind" she tells us in "The Silence of Trees"), or the expectant void into which life, joy, being erupts. In "O", she riffs brilliantly on the visual punning that links the "o" forms of the zero denoting absence, the egg that promises new life, and the poetic "O" of rapturous exclamation:

_egg

oval

& not a

printers O

we only know

the circle

by its

absence

whiteness

perfection

ditto

ontology

by zero_

In "Drawing the Negative Space" - an artistic term for drawing the space around a figure rather than the figure itself - she explores the same ideas in a more concrete (and funnier) way. She gives an account of a trip to England by telling us of all the things she did not manage to do:

_I never found the Physic Garden

I looked for the Physic Garden

But stepped over a small cord at Kew

to walk up a pleached walk

walking with my sister.

I did not go to Lyme Regis

I did not take the bus

that went there & back in a day

I did not go to Lyme Regis._

But the poem is not, or not simply, a catalogue of failure. It is also an account of what emerges from that "negative space", the difference that is made by the road not taken:

_I did not go

to the Roman Museum

at Bath

but sitting outside, sipping

medicinal waters

from a glass, our eyes dwelt on

angels, climbing ladders

up the abbey wall

angels no-one had interfered with

in eight centuries._

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to Victoria University Press and, in particular, Bernadette Hall for bringing us this beautifully produced, fastidiously and intelligently edited collection. These are poems at once of lyrical beauty and rigorous exactness, poems about love that are utterly terrifying ("the conversation"), and poems about gardening that, like Ursula Bethell's (a significant influence, I suspect), turn out to be poems about the universe. They are also poems about death and loss that, like this last, complete example, acknowledge both its terrors and its consolations:

_a sick girl

the peonies shatter the shade with their red bodies

their hotness splinters my eyes

til the white curtain returns its kind whiteness_

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