Spirals, inspirations

I’m returning to a beloved book this week, Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (2009), for a class on place, borders, and migration in contemporary poetry. Meehan’s collection inspired a lot of my thinking about place in verse. I suddenly remembered, as I wandered among the poems again, that Meehan has inspired some rockin’ visual art, too. Here’s a meditation I wrote last April-ish about Meehan and painter David Harrison–originally for another source, but since it was never granted residency, I’m giving it asylum here.

david-harrisonFor the “Poem in a Landscape” feature of Ecotone 19, I contributed an essay on place, time, and loss inspired by Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field.” It turns out I’m not the only artist galvanized by Meehan’s incantatory poem. David Harrison’s recent exhibition “Flowers of Evil” at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery featured an oil painting responding to her verses. A book containing the painting’s image found its way to me this winter—from London via Dublin to Virginia.

I love the way Harrison reimagines Meehan’s pocket universe. The poet powerfully conjures a literary afterlife for a field about to be lost to development, but the painter’s translation of the field possesses its own strong magic. Further, Harrison is, like Meehan, preoccupied with the porous borders between worlds.

In the Flowers of Evil book, Harrison tells interviewer Peter Doig that the exhibition as a whole was inspired by a childhood copy of Cicely Barker’s 1923 book Flower Fairies. Nowadays, he observes, the toxic flowers that preoccupy him are “called weeds—vilified. I thought of doing a modern version of flower fairies, using flowers that are ultra poisonous but also beneficial to mankind. People talk about the spread of these plants as if they are a threat, well, I thought I’d juxtapose them with the spread of these horrific modern housing estates and executive developments that are destroying the world.”

Meehan’s poem in particular influenced a painting called “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy).” It features a central stalk of blooming nightshade—a plant not even mentioned among Meehan’s lists of wild herbs. The upper left part of the painting shows a field under a bit of blue sky, but that peacefulness quickly leads down, past a gate, to a sign declaring some developer’s construction plans. From there, things get hallucinogenic. A dizzy spiral emanates from the belladonna plant, and an entity with gauzy pink wings presides over the painting’s right half. Multiple perspectives jostle for dominance.

Harrison walks an interesting line between realism and abstraction. His flower fairy—a mediating spirit—has a realistic head but an abstracted torso, her circular breasts overwritten by five-pointed stars. While some botanical detail, too, is naturalistic, Harrison has painted in an allegorical cartoon of the wrong kind of progress: a businessman’s silhouette rushes past a spider-web towards a death’s head skull.

Harrison also draws our attention to the medium itself. Every creation, he hints, is built over its own dark underworld. “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy)” is painted in oil on cardboard, with some of the surface torn away, leaving a crimson seam. “It’s a nod to Dada,” Harrison says. “I love the idea of cheap, throwaway objects and materials…I love the fact that underneath there’s a rib cage, almost. It’s like you’re working with a living material.” It’s not that the ribbed cardboard world is more real than the surface fantasy conjured in brilliant oils. Instead, they coexist, interdependent, enriching each other.

For me, the spiral in the painting’s center just keeps radiating out with new associations, the way Meehan’s original poem does. I think of the triple spiral from prehistoric Irish art, such as in the Newgrange tomb not far from Dublin. The spiral is a natural shape associated with curling ferns and other signs of vitality. Yet it’s also the painting’s most cartoonish element, reminiscent of those squiggles Mort Walker christened “spurls”—comic-strip shorthand for intoxication or disorientation. The fairy’s head and eyes repeat in the arms of the spiral, as if consciousness is dispersed through the plant’s hallucinogenic action. Where am I? the painting asks. Is there a more important question? ∞

Where you are now, by the way, is a redesigned “Taking Poetry Personally.” The header photograph is a retaining wall in my Virginian backyard, to represent my current obsession with boundaries and borders. More on that soon, closer to winter’s finish line and the cool edge of a North American spring.  

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