Every Poet Paints Himself

Self Portraits, David Pollard (154pp, 12, Waterloo Press)

More self-portraits exist today than at any other time in our history. Art of this nature has never failed to attract and compel - think of Narcissus caught, seemingly alone, by the pool - but has never before been so obviously shallow. Once you had to have talent. Today, smart phones and social media have sought to open the old gateways and now, to quote Grayson Perry's 2013 Reith Lecture, modern self-portraiture rains down upon us 'like sewage from above'. The 'selfie' has become ubiquitous in an age that seeks simultaneously to democratise and commodify the act of self-expression.

In his latest collection, Self Portraits
, David Pollard presents a series of imagined self-portraits focusing on artists active in periods from Ancient Egypt through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the present days. Channelling the voices of artists as culturally diverse as the likes of Brother Rufillus, Rembrandt, Blake and Khalo (among others, there are around ninety poems in total) is no mean feat and is achieved by Pollard with great aplomb. The poems dig deeply into the psyches of featured artists in an effort to differentiate between the inner and outer selves that are indicative of an artist's recognition of the tensions between celebrity and personality.

   Who else can be reflected by his solitude
   into the afterlife of his biography;
   who else can see the glass's ripples
   in the skin's slow loss when poverty allows
   no other subject who can read his sentence
   into paint
   as I?
      (from 'Rembrant Van Rijn')

I was intrigued by philosophical notions that it is nobler to look in at one's self to divine a sense of one's character than it is to gaze out on the world in simple wanderlust.

Each poem assumes the voice of one in a long line of painters, illustrators and sculptors and each of these artists lends their voice to the re-instrumentation of the act of self-creation, recalling the old Tuscan proverb 'every painter paints himself' and marking the page with a likeness that resonates from a place beyond it. In Self-Portraits
, Pollard examines the relationship between the painted image and the poetic word, locating his ekphrasis within an arbitrary space that seeks to bridge the gap between 'dumb poetry' and 'blind art' as in this extract from 'Edvard Munch':

   The paint has eaten into
   the very skin and form
   that backs (saving the skin's own
   staring grace) into itself and darkness
   suffers its existence to struggle
   into the hunger of creation
   which the wound knows -
   denies it the transparency
      - invades the call -
   made by the passion for destruction
   that impels the fingers' work
   creates as it destroys.

With little objective frame of reference, readers will be aware of tensions within the poems when prompted to assess the relative truths that Pollard is asserting on behalf of the speakers. This sense of historical ambiguity is overshadowed by Pollard's playful recognition of the pluralities within his poetic 'I', as here from the opening lines of 'Hieronymous Bosch' in which the painter speaks from within the Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell

   I hide behind the silvered water
   where you seek my image
   and find it thus inverted.

Throughout his Self-Portraits
, Pollard nurtures these tensions between pathos and hubris that manifest themselves within the dual speaker's voice and hint of an association with deceptive iconography

Though, it's worth bearing in mind the slight practical flaw that is to be expected when creating (and more importantly, reading
) a collection of poetry that makes constant reference to specific pieces of art (at the beginning of each, Pollard gifts his readers with the dates and locations of the pieces). Unless the reader is gifted with truly exceptional teleportation abilities, the collection is most affecting when in the vicinity of a large screen and a decent search engine.

   Phillip Clement 2014