When I look at Tom’s work I am uncomfortable and sometimes puzzled and that for me is a good thing. I can never click ‘like’ as an immediate and knee jerk response. Many of his paintings have a nightmarish quality, they seem to speak to me from somewhere way beyond the visceral. When I was asked to look at his paintings with a view to writing a poem in response to one of them I picked several and then one painting crept up on me because the more I looked at it the more I could see it. It was an experience a little like one of those magic eye posters I struggled to ‘see’ way back in the 90s. I never succeeded unless I screwed up my eyes and let myself relax into it. Something about the painting I finally chose allowed me to go through it to see something else or more correctly to be somewhere else. In that sense the painting chose me.
A while back I was sitting in a room with some women who had lost a child at birth or soon after. They were sharing experiences and one woman became very angry when recounting an experience she had had whilst collecting for a charity aimed at providing ante natal and post natal care for women in the Sudan. Someone told her that the death of a child in such places was a ‘necessary evil’ as that meant they had less mouths to try and feed and parents in those sort of third world war-torn areas are resigned to their children dying young anyway.
I can still feel the silence in that room after she had finished telling this story, there was a palpable sense of inexpressible outrage that was beyond words. We all came at it from different places, carrying our own emotional baggage and our differing political and cultural views but the concept of the death of a child being a ‘necessary evil’ to achieve some greater long term aim was unbearable in its twisted world view. Any mother or father who has lost a child knows a pain that is drawn from the same well of grief the world over, no matter what the circumstances. Any mother and father who has lost a child, wherever and whoever they are, knows the sense of that phantom child that walks with them, the empty space where they are cut-out from the fabric of the everyday world.
I looked at the painting and I saw that deep well, I felt that moment of grief and with it the anger that is the close companion of loss. The poem needed repetition, repetition can give not only shape and pattern to a poem but also drive and energy. It can be the repeated prayer, the unanswered angry question of why, the quiet narration of the Greek chorus.
As I write this blog the terrible loss of life in Gaza continues; children killed playing on beaches, huddled in a school deemed a UN designated ‘safe’ area. Those are the headlines now but all over the world and throughout history in different ways children have had to bear the burden of adult decisions, they have to bear the consequences made by those who may deem their death or suffering as either inconsequential or a ‘necessary evil’. Suffering is not a game of top trumps, there is no winner, no one holds the most points for anguish and righteousness. I hope this does not sound like mere polemic, it is for me just a statement of fact. How we respond to that fact may be the yardstick by which the human race on this small spinning rock may be measured by. For now all that I feel I can do is remember that the ‘we’ in that statement can only in the end mean I.
The poem I chose to write I hope can be experienced on different levels. I can’t give you a map to navigate it, nor would I want to, each reader may take their own route through it and arrive somewhere only they might recognise. It is very specific to one experience but I hope it is slightly bigger than the sum of its parts. There is the old adage ( perhaps cliché) that poems start at the particular and go through that to the universal but I don’t want to pontificate about anything universal at all. I suppose I want the poem to just be itself, I make no grand claims for it beyond it being as honest a poem as I can make it. I could probably use the much overused word ‘authentic’ but it seems like fancy poetic jargon, honest feels a bit more grounded and true to the spirit of Tom’s artwork.
The Charnel House is full of rooms, it bursts at the seams with words and strange images. I find the graphic novel form it has taken so interesting and vital in making this book more than just an exercise in the ekphrastic arts. I think the graphic novel is a much underrated art form, it can engage with the reader in so many ways. The panels and artwork seem to be in this constant dialogue and tension with the words yet sometimes less is more. I was so glad that the final panel Tom made to accompany my poem was just black. The black space can be empty or full, we may never know.
Andrea Porter August 2014