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  • Fiona Bennett

Review of Derek Sellen’s ‘The Other Guernica'

Updated: May 18, 2020

Published in The High Window.

The Other Guernica is a rich and giddying tour inspired by Spanish Art and artists and the poet’s own encounter with the country and its culture. Acute in its observation, surreal in its imaginative leap of thought this is a project that rewards the reader with poems fired by provocation, storytelling and the sumptuous power of visual description. Taking another art form as the subject of a collection, perhaps especially visual art, is to raise the bar high on the poet’s craft to meet the power of the visual image with the written word.

Derek Sellen meets this challenge with a number of nimble feats; his balance of reverence with irreverence, his open engagement with the problematics of ‘gaze’ and through the fine detailed specificity of his observation  – a still life comes to life in five exquisite lines: A hanging quince, gibbous. A green cabbage, its tender scalp folded in ribbed leaf. The cantaloupe’s opened heart of light. A gnarled cucumber curving beyond the frame. (Still Life – Still Life by Juan Sanchez Cotan) These grounding observational cornerstones act as poised counterweights to the curious obsessions, imaginary worlds and political commentary that the poet shares with us. Paintings become preludes to a story caught within the canvas, prompts to the painterly realisation of the poet’s own imaginings and secret windows onto the lives of the artists themselves.

The first room in the gallery, ‘Richer for its singularities’, offers an intense engagement with subjectivity and questions of the gaze. A layer of choices faces the poet – where is he standing, does he mimic the painter’s perspective or counter it, inhabit the imaginative realm of the subject or stand outside it and frame the context for us? Derek experiments with all these positions offering diversity of viewpoint and provocation alongside a celebration of the artists’ craft. In ‘Gitanos de Sacromonte 1908’ two painters’ works whose subjects are ‘gypsies, beggar women and female performers’, are considered within a dialogic form, its direct address challenging us alongside the artists, the subjects described as, ‘other than you and other than you want them to be’. This form of enquiry and debate is powerful within the poems and mostly accomplished with a deft use of structure and voice.

Occasionally the enormous scope of the mission topples the form and the lines reach for a layer of content beyond the space of the poem as in ‘La Tertulia’ where I was so engaged by the description of Angeles Santos’s painting of an all-female social gathering that the final lines of commentary detracted rather than enhanced my encounter. The poem, ‘It was the kind of hotel…’ opens up a new and different voice. This is the first poem where the painting is not in the title and the footnote references the artist’s work as ‘the inspiration for this poem’. The simplicity and haunting quality of the world that opens up here, a kind of imagistic fusion of Miro’s work and the poet’s own experience took me by surprise and remained for me one of the most powerful moments in the book.

As in a gallery where you go back to your favourite painting so I found myself returning to page 14. In the second section, ‘They Hardly Know Why – poems on war and violence’,  Derek Sellen’s craft enables the reader to confront the shocking and inhumane depictions with both the full body blow of the images and the political fury that fuelled their creation. Often there is a daring and ingenious juxtaposition of our own reign or terror with that of the painting’s era as in the title poem, ‘The Other Guernica’ where the painter’s journey from specific images of horror to the ‘abstracted emblems for his time and ours’ illuminates the work of Luis Quitanilla and underscores its resonance for now.

Direct address, personification of subject and detailed description are all invoked to bring us into the poem often to be startled out of it into a consideration of our own consciousness.  The third section, ‘The Circling Bee – poems on art and artists’, hums with a thrilling register that brings the experience of the paintings to life in extraordinary ways. Here the deft turn of phrase that is one of the hallmarks of this collection, ‘Phoebus tailgates Mercury’ in ‘The Sky of Salamanca’ and ‘plates and nations butt together’ in ‘Still Life’, lifts us out of mere viewpoint and into a visceral encounter with the world and the work that is at one and the same moment hallucinatory and grounded. The journey completes with poems of place and a sequence that maps a personal landscape. Here the canvas is the country, its history and the honesty and poignancy of one man’s encounter with it – a fitting coda to this rich collection.

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