Felix Cassiel on
‘Art comes to you,’ said Walter Pater, in an essay from his book Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ‘professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.’
Over the past century, the school of aestheticism has undergone dissolution; its treasury has been ransacked, and its faculty driven into obscurity. Today, these words of Pater, who believed in the pregnancy of the moment, and in art as its rightful midwife, communicate puerility to the modern ear. The power of the moment is forfeit; the event, composed with a careful manipulation of singularly useless moments, has primacy. The event is a talisman: it is sought after and feared, praised and derided; it dominates the irreligious imagination like a fugitive godhead.
The earthquake, the virus, the obesity epidemic; the recession, the riot, the shock election victory: sublimated into these phenomenal affairs is the moment. The lifespan of any event is the volume of moments afforded it, in other words, the amount of attention it can appropriate.
And from this entranced thoroughfare the modern artist can scarcely be distinguished. Utility is the watchword; and that which is not useful in the creation, destruction or avoidance of events is omitted: that goes for mediums, theories, vocations and emotions; our energies, in short, are spoken for: by what we dare not guess.
The modern artist rails, wails and bellows; he is outraged, hard done by. His mission is a bitter one, and unpleasant, but alas, it must be done.
From this maelstrom emerges Richard Skinner, who tosses into the air his silken wisp of a volume; with an eager fist we grab it, and are surprised by its contents.
The modern poet has a great deal to say, and it is very important that we hear it. The modern reader, of course, is quite accustomed to being talked at, sold to, pleaded with. Skinner, it seems, has no interest in that; these poems, crafted with a studied musicality and replete with cultural referents, engage without dramatising, deliver without giving an inch; the voice is elusive - in the manner of Eliot and the modernists, he appears to have effaced the individual. Skinner himself, it seems, as a phantom sits before us, motionless, as if at the other end of a poker table, daring us to ask: ‘What is it?’
We begin on a note of advice; not particularly friendly advice, but not particularly earnest either. ‘The Structure of Magic’ provides directives to a reader, presumably younger than the poet, in judicious conduct. The poem reads like a condensed and quixotic passage from one of Seneca’s letters, and is as declarative as the book gets:
Never be the man who fails to recognise himself,
but if you steal, steal well. Cover your tracks.
The place of salvation is small, maybe just a window,
and bear in mind that time is only time’s lapse.
Always leave yourself an exit plan
for choice is the only freedom.
Be senescent. Don’t admire. Refuse.
The line about theft reminds us, too, of a much more rigorous and didactic tome, by that high pontiff of modernism, Ezra Pound, when he counsels the poet, in his article ‘A Few Dont’s’, to have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.
Skinner is a man of wide reading, and, like Pound, is not bashful in showing it. In the second poem, we are introduced to Count Pierre, who we find stalking ‘among the colonnades’, surveying the blooms, for he will shortly be bound for Genoa, and from there to England, and for his perilous journey, only the most impressive and robust flower will do.
We segue from the Tolstoyan landscape to an ‘estate on the wasteland’: Karen Philpott’s estate, to be exact. This Philpott, whose ‘bloodless face’ and ‘unkempt hair’ are to our syrupy teenaged narrator objects of desire, leads us from innocence to experience to death, or rather, to death-in-life: an acquaintance with that blind will moving everything, from boy to tree, through its natural cycle:
They say the yews here can ‘walk’ by dropping branches,
which then take root and become a trunk.
Diving into the ground head-first, the cemetery is never still.
They say a yew can walk an acre a year.
But narration implies action, and Skinner is, in the main, not much concerned with action. Here there is no Browning, no knight at the gallop; here there is no event to rise to or to sink from. As the book’s title suggests, our poet is something of an observer, yet even that is perhaps too robust; his diaphanous style is more of a lens, allowing us a glimpse of a dance - a wild and impenetrable frolic of atoms, contrived of ornament and opulent colour, driven by a silent but discernible passion.
For Skinner, colour exists as a force in itself; it does not gild the image merely, but charges it; there is a painter in this poet, and he tries often to get out. For example, we have in ‘Budgerigar’:
Your breast is a map
a stain of salmon red
on chartreuse green.
And in ‘Il retrivamento di Giuseppe’:
Their black pantaloons are amazed,
ochre on ochre. In the fading light.....
.....on a faint horizon, the miry earth, half-
eaten skulls lay whitened in marigold-fields.
As an image-maker Skinner excels; these images, in their restrained but sumptuous solemnity, bring to mind the paintings of the French symbolistes, particularly Gustave Moreau, whose dancing Salome we can detect in spirit in the voluptuous rhythms and fleshy perfumes of lines such as
You sip your mint tea while I study your profile:
the imperious nose, the predatory eye.
We sit a long way from the ruby walls,
the ceiling rose off centre, the white plasterwork far too high.
How clear the night was.
The orange lamp outlined your head
as an afro halo, which I later embraced.
In bed, I hoped my sleep would be dreamless.
I longed to surrender
to the faultless workings of days,
the sense of falling.
(‘Plaza San Miguel Bajo, Granada’)
To his influences Skinner is quick to pay homage. In ‘Isola di San Michele, Venice’, for example, we find the poet at the end of a pilgrimage:
It took me an age to find you,
your final port of call
obscured by a turmoil of long grass and eucalyptus.
On the mossy slab, the words:
Each glyph sharp as a knife,
cut to the bone.
The sun beats, peacocks cry,
pansies shrivel in the heat.
Each of these cimitero is like a Chinese character
legible only from the sky.
Who reads them now?
Just the birds, who, passing over, break flight
and drop like a stone to the ground.
The dead Pound, whose works are impervious to anything but the most exhaustive analysis, exists in the common consciousness as an oddity, ‘obscured by a turmoil’ of misrepresentations and false data. Pound was, in his final years, self-exiled in Venice - an aesthetic haven, far from the noise of the ‘mass of dolts’ on which he had waged his private war, and lost. ‘You find me in fragments,’ Pound once told an interviewer, Donald Hall; and Skinner likewise struggles with the idea of a fragmented hero; in this way, he seems to imagine the poet’s body scattered across the Venetian cemeteries, communicating to the heavens in Chinese ideogram (Pound had devoted a fair portion of his career to studying Chinese texts, and translating them to English, citing the poems as the optimal transmitters of Imagiste illumination). Yet Skinner does, amid all this, seem to find one crystalline image, an image one can feel with the tips of one’s fingers.
‘It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works’, Pound advised, and we feel Skinner has found an adequate representation, if only in the sharp, deep-cut glyphs of the mossy slab.
In much of this volume there is a tangible exultation of heredity; Skinner does not attempt to hide his influences, he opts instead to rejoice in them; and if he has taken without due regard, it is so skilfully subsumed into the superstructure of his art that it has undergone a process of reanimation, scarcely identifiable, but providing continuous energy to its new host.
Perhaps the most enjoyable works of the collection are the outwardly ekphrastic: for example, ‘Il retrivamento di Giuseppe‘ mentioned above, and ‘Manganese in Deep Violet’, which takes its lead from a painting of the same name by Patrick Heron.
Down on the waterfront I watch
Africans in green overalls
sweep and clean the quays,
further out on the Thames
boats bring syphilis and smallpox
upriver from Dutch colonies.
Much further downstream I step
into Tate Modern,
look at the Heron and feel the unease
overlapping water colour, in the Hall
the footfall of probable futures
quickens, and fear comes rushing in.
In its studied evocation of the operations of Empire, the poem achieves the mood of fin de siecle literature; the bitterness, languor and sense of foreboding, which charged the aesthetic waters of the 1890s, ripple fluidly through each couplet.
The confluence of red, which darkens from persimmon to cardinal on the canvas, with the poet’s summoning of riverside industry, brings to mind the opening ‘Heart of Darkness’, in which Conrad develops his famous motif: ignorant adventurers, hungry for plunder, sailing over the edge of the world toward, at best, an indeterminate and fearful future, at worst, bloody oblivion.
‘Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
And, at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.’
(Page 3, ‘Heart of Darkness’, Joseph Conrad, 1899).
Keeping with the theme of century’s end, we see also in Skinner something of the Decadent; in works like ‘Nefertiti’ and ‘Death in a French Garden’, we spy traces of Huysmans; there is, in these verses, a lust for the exotic - our poet is, at times, a lugubrious voluptuary, tabulating the adornments constituting his purview:
Clumps of nettles surrounding the great stones,
blotches of lichen.
Soup à la bisque, au lait d’amandes.
Coping of a wall.
white musk roses,
Valerian and camphor baths,
Vichy, Seltzer, Barège waters,
Raspail patent medicine,
(‘Death in a French Garden’)
And in ‘Nefertiti’, the items indexed are not merely material, but of the imagination; the poem is composed of spars of knowledge, data lifted from historical reading, each thought imbued with a sensuality, an expectation of the soft touch of flesh:
Watching all this is Nefertiti,
her bronze brow at odds with the sun.
She basks in the warmth to stir
the sangue dormido in her veins.
In her eyes, flecks of mica sparkle.
They have the look of possession,
like in the eyes of women
for their men and children.
She smells of neroli, of orris butter,
the roots of Iris – floral,
obscenely fleshy, like the odour
beneath a breast or between buttocks.
Skinner is a tactile thinker; reading, to him, is undoubtedly an acutely sensory experience. His lyricism is supreme, and his refined sense of musicality, to which he seems to have devoted countless hours, is the beating heart of the collection; its influence is felt in every extremity.
Our time with Skinner ends with ‘Epithalamium’, a wedding song ostensibly in the vein of Donne, but rendered in a more instructive, earthy style than that of the dead metaphysician. Coming as it does after ‘Orpheus’, which speaks of our poet apparently abandoning his bride at the altar:
When I emerged from the shadows,
I should have seen light,
but saw instead a deeper black.
Since then, it has been a struggle,
the mornings weightless, cramped,
my life stuffed into a sour gift.
I can no longer sit still. That failure dreams me.
This final poem has an air of destitution; the poet’s will is sublimated into the enormity of the moment - what transmits from him is a cipher, which it is our good fortune to be in a position to unpick.
There is a red streak in the west, but mostly the sky is a cold,
Time courses through us like water. Two bodies rise in the night
sky, Venus and Sirius, the dog star.
Together they are very bright and very near.
You are more distant than stars and nearer than my eye. Lift your
but not too deep, to a place where all the waters meet,
where the birds gather in the shadows, and I will find you there.
Felix Cassiel © 2020