Wendy Klein reviews ‘Chagall’s Circus’ by William Bedford.

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Chagall’s Circus is set out in five sections with poems alternating between pristine tercets that give each stanza room to breathe, and relatively short blocks of text in contrast.  Poems are headed by quotations from Chagall’s autobiography ‘My Life’ (1923), and facilitate the storytelling.

Chagall, in his long life, experienced some of the most dramatically troubled periods of history.  Bedford writes of it boldly, slipping seamlessly into the painter’s voice.  The poems are never simply descriptions of the paintings; but are set within history and biography.

In the opening poem, Self-Portrait with Brushes (1909), Bedford has extracted the painter’s shtetl childhood, incorporating images:  the flowers, the cow, the fiddler, that run throughout Chagall’s art  — All the poetry of life glows in sadness,

 

and his (father’s) silence is a forest of imagined flowers,

like the cow sleeping on the roof of our barn,

the fiddler leading the bride to her wedding.’

 

The second poem-painting, Grandfather’s House (1923) is of a child-like sketch of a house, with two windows.  The voice is Chagall’s, a boy experiencing the vibrant world around him:

 

I spent my childhood devouring horizons,

seeing angels in the pattern of the carpet.

 

but warned ‘of the hunger hiding in colours, / the graveyards at the end of rainbows.’ Bedford unpicks the folkloric mythology Chagall created of his childhood in Vitebsk, his vibrant colours in marked contrast to the grey reality of poverty and fear experienced by Shtetl Jews.

 

The poem, Red Nude Sitting Up (1908), references Chagall’s romantic and sexual awakening:

 

my canvas was all nipples and angels

and despite the wild nights of St Petersburg

I painted my red nude sitting in Vitebsk.

 

All roads, inevitably, lead back over his shoulder to Vitebsk.

 

In the final lines, Bedford is the painter ‘covering the canvas in a horse blanket / to protect the villagers from their own fear,’ noting that his family ‘always preferred photographs.’  One recognises the stiff family portraits of that period.

 

In section 2, ‘The Paris Years’, the poet-painter takes on the art establishment labelling Chagall’s work against religion and poverty as ‘surreal.’

 

Yes, the man has the head of a bull,

and the girl wraps herself round his shoulder.

You can see that any night in Montmartre, (To my Betrothed, 1911)

 

In the following poem, I and the Village (1911), Bedford builds on its epigraph: ‘But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic:’ He writes: ‘My clownish inner world was all I needed …

 

I have collected these fragments from my dreams

the paintbrush fingering clouds’ (ah, fingering clouds!)

 

concluding with: ‘The poet naming what the painter painted. (the poet here, Chagall’s-friend, Blaise Cendrars)

 

That was not what I meant at all

My art may be the art of a lunatic,

but Surrealism is only the name of an era.

 

I love the way the poet Cendrars acts as a counter-balance between the poet Bedford and the painter in critiquing the process between art and poetry and art.  The effect is of a history of history within a history of art where politics, religion and love make up the Chagall circus:

 

But I had the Louvre inside me. The Fiddler

became The Praying Jew, the praying Jew

became The Smolensk Newspaper,

The Feast of Tabernacles became my feast. (The Fiddler (1912-1913)

 

The penultimate poem, Couple on a Red Background, references the painter’s second marriage to Valentina Brodsky.  Bedford uses some lyrical description: ‘The man is tenderness, / his arm, the arm of nature’s protection,

 

The painter-poet voices join in unison, leaving us with ‘Stalin fiddling with his black moustaches, / Hitler saluting the gods in his mind.’

 

This collection is a banquet for the senses, which in other hands than Bedford’s, could be overwhelming.  That it is not, begins with the poet’s skill in setting up a sound, containing layout.  The narrative, no matter how intense and detailed in its content, tells the story of a life with grace and precision.  Here is a book that that can be consumed with relish once and returned to with pleasure again and again.

 

 

 

 

 

U.S.-born Wendy Klein has published three collections:  Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.  She is currently working on a selected and assorted pamphlets.

 

You can order your copy of William Bedford’s, Chagall’s Circus, (Dempsey & Windle) here: https://www.dempseyandwindle.com/william-bedford.html

 

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Susan Taylor

 

 

 

No One Expects Stars

they’re dead sharp like fossils
or dance steps of snowdrops.
Their chief weapon is surprise…
lightness and surprise.

Their two chief weapons
are lightness,
surprise…
and team spirit.

Among their weaponry
are such diverse elements
as surprise and pale determination,
like the white in human hair.

White as a signpost, or broken line
down the centre of the road,
a night sky is a snowfield
with silver drifts of hedges

hanging around for a footfall.
The touch of a voice
triggers avalanche…
walk beneath with care.

 

 

Susan Taylor has seven published collections and a pamphlet, The Weather House, written in collaboration with Simon Williams, was published by Indigo Dreams. Her collaborative spoken word shows include The Weather House and La Loba – Enchanting the Wild. Website: susantaylor.co.uk

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Mhairi Owens

 

 

 

Hippocampus

At Corryvreckan, there’s an arm
that reaches from a dark sea pit
towards the strait’s surface.
There it catches tides and throws them back,
forcing surf that swallows itself
in perpetual circles,
spewing waves that break
where they swell, like forebodings.
Maybe they are, I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s the Cailleach
washing her giant plaid in public.
There’s a case to be made
for getting mythological about these things,
for supposing this is the kind of place
that might have spawned the nuckelavee.
Maybe it is, I don’t know.

But that’s something that lives where light doesn’t.
It appears in the deceptive netting
of its own flesh, its skin
being entirely flayed, a dark kelp-fankle
of sinews and black blood in warted veins.
Its lower body’s a warped horse
with razor-finned legs
and hooves that could crush counties. It’s said

it feeds on dreadful rationalities.
Maybe it does. I don’t know.

 

 

Mhairi Owens is a community worker, poetry tutor and online Scots Editor of The Scores. Her poems have appeared or are pending in various anthologies and journals, including the Glasgow Review of Books and The Rialto.

 

Note: Cailleach | giant creator hag; nuckelavee | Orcadian sea-horse monster.

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Matt Nicholson

 

 

 

Cerebellum (a secular prayer to the vacuum)

Teach me to draw,
to poach eggs,
to bring a streak-free shine
to every mirror in the house.

Teach me to swim,
bare, beneath the rush-hour bridge,
to dive down to the cloying river bed
where all the discarded pistols lie.

And, if there is time,
on any given Sunday,
teach me to be emancipated,
to be satisfied,
like Einstein in a garden shed.

 

 

Matt Nicholson is a writer and performer from the East Riding of Yorkshire and his first two poetry collections were published by Kings England Press. He is currently writing a third collection for publication in 2020 by Yaffle Press.

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Rachel Burns

 

 

 

White Noise

You are drunk singing downstairs
and I’m reading a book by Deborah Levy in bed.
I’m inspired, it makes me want to buy an electric bike
and wish I had a friend who’d loan me use of her
shed to write & offer me Havana rum. I can hear
the song from the musical playing intermittently
on a loop. A happy-clappy, golden era song
designed to cheer people up after the war
and it reminds me of the films I watched
with my grandfather as a child.

We had thirteen at dinner today
twelve chairs and a high chair
and I tried not to be superstitious
even when your mother refused to pull
the wishbone. I know she passes on making a wish
every year and it has nothing to do with the cancer
or chemo or being sick.

The baby laughs and hand waves to a song
she remembers and everyone laughs
and hand waves with her
so she does it even more.

The television is stuck on a loop
the trailer from the musical, playing over and over
happy-clappy, golden era.
I should go down and switch it off
but I’m scared of the white noise.

 

 

Rachel Burns has poetry published in Crannog, Poetry Salzburg Review, Algebra of Owls and is anthologized in Poems for Grenfell Tower, Poems for the NHS and #MeToo. She has a poetry pamphlet forthcoming with Vane Women Press.

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Ian Seed

 

 

 

Destination

It was hot and dusty. I’d fallen asleep on the train and only woken up just in time to get off at the small country station, where I had to change trains. My shoelaces were untied, my belt undone, and my overstuffed suitcase had sprung open so that I had to carry it flat in my hands. My train to the sea and a new life was just a little further up the empty platform. But there was no one else on the train, not even the driver.

 

 

Ian Seed’s collections of prose poems include New York Hotel (2018), Identity Papers (2016), and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014) (Shearsman). New York Hotel was selected by Mark Ford as a TLS 2018 Book of the Year.

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Diana Cant

 

 

 

Bearing Gifts

You visit us with gifts – whisky,
a bottle of prosecco, flowers,
bestowed with cheerful generosity;
our horizons lengthen, you update us,
upload us into modern life. You offer us
a twist to our old certainties,
kaleidoscopic pieces shaken
into different diamond shapes;
how did that rowdy, wayward child
– all that boyness – turn into this,
a full-grown man, strength rippling
underneath your skin.

By the fire light you whittle us
a wooden spoon, pale blonde curls
of beech lie scattered on the floor
like petals, like confetti.

 

 

Diana Cant is a child psychotherapist and poet, who has spent all her professional life working with young people in various sorts of distress.  One of the aims of her poetry is to give these young people a voice that is seldom heard.  She lives and works in Kent, and has been published in various anthologies and journals.

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