Deborah Harvey reviews ‘Two Girls and a Beehive : Poems about the art and lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer’ Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell

 

I confess to having a personal interest in the art and the life of Stanley Spencer that is entirely fanciful, born of the fact that he and my grandmother, Hilda, both worked in war hospitals in Bristol during the first world war. ‘They could have met,’ I thought, when I first learnt this information. ‘My Hilda could have been his. The visionary Stanley Spencer could have been my grandfather!’

In fact, hers was a different hospital from Stanley’s and she a different Hilda from the  imaginative and striking art student Stanley wouldn’t meet until December 1919, and by and large I’m glad, as my grandmother enjoyed a happy marriage with her tram-driver husband, Jack, whereas poor, put-upon Hilda Carline lost her art, her family and her sanity as a result of her union with one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century, and his enduring sexual obsession with the manipulative and malevolent Patricia Preece.

Whilst encompassing Stanley’s formative years and his experiences in the Great War, and the unconventional religious faith that drove him repeatedly to recreate scenes from the Bible with Cookham as a backdrop, the majority of poems in Graham Burchell and Rosie Jackson’s collaborative collection focus on Spencer’s and Carline’s entangled lives – a personal history that’s been called ‘most bizarre domestic soap opera in the history of British art’. They mostly use Stanley’s paintings as their frame of reference, but also one or two of Hilda’s. The reader, aware of a future still unknown to those who must live it, can’t help but shiver when reading the poem ‘Lady in Green’, after Carline’s ‘Portrait of Patricia Preece’, in which the trusting Hilda ‘paints people as if light/were spread equally inside them’ yet ‘knows how yellow turns to green/in the shadow’.

This feeling of foreboding is fully realised a few poems and four years later in ‘Fantasy of Hiding in the Greenhouse’. Hilda has embarked upon the process of securing a divorce from the man she is doomed always to love, and appears to have lost her sense of self entirely:
‘She wasn’t sure what she was doing here,

wearing the skin of someone from the past,

like a ghost staring into the familiarity

of a garden lost forever, the life

that wandered in it lost forever.’

 

Poets are frequently exhorted, in the words of Emily Dickinson, to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’, and this is a particularly effective way of approaching paintings which themselves often exaggerate detail or focus on the familiar from strange angles. Thus Patricia’s hands in the poem ‘Patricia Preece’ are ’rakers/shovers, gold-digging forepaws’, a verbal echo of the hands at the forefront of Stanley’s ‘Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill’, with their disproportionately long, grasping fingers that seem to reach out of the painting itself, while the following stanza gives us the startling image of ‘ … her à la mode/choker necklace, like a zip pull/that she feels for to change her head/for another more appropriate to the season’. In a more light-hearted vein, the poem ‘Bloodrush’ is written from the point of view of someone somersaulting over railings in a line of people doing the same: ‘You too know what it is to be fat/and fluid as an atom. You glimpse hems/of skirts, an artist, someone’s potatoes’.  This is ekphrasis at its best, in which art and poetry engage in dialogue with each other, each adding to the understanding of the other.

It’s no reflection on the poems, all of which stand independently of their associated paintings, to say that a reading of Two Girls and a Beehive is enhanced by looking at the art that inspired them. If you’re not lucky enough to have access to a copy of Phaidon’s Stanley Spencer, they’re all searchable on line, and there’s a timeline at the back of the book for those who aren’t familiar with the detail of Stanley and Hilda’s lives.

 

 

 

 

Deborah Harvey’s poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies, broadcast on Radio 4’s Poetry Please, and awarded several prizes. Her four poetry collections are published by Indigo Dreams, the most recent being The Shadow Factory (2019). She is co-director of The Leaping Word poetry consultancy.

 

Two Girls and a Beehive by Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell is published by Two Rivers Press and available here: tworiverspress.com/shop/

 

 

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Erika Kamlert

 

 

 

Your other name

The river, fat and glistening green, slithers through the city
through the church yard, covered in windflowers

Their petal confetti tore up winter so that spring arrived
empty and unwritten with a naked, confessing light

Only oval hymns from the other side, puncture the silence

I think that our undeadly names cling to the ones we carve in monuments
and I wonder what your name is now

His head is heavy on my shoulder, shying away from everything
Late in the evening, with a sharper glow around our edges, we walk home

His tense muscles move faster towards buildings, corners, angles
I want to scratch his skin and feel his weight

I know it’s impossible, but I pretend he is you
and that you can force me to scream

 

 

Erika Kamlert has contributed poems to a number of Swedish literary journals including Pequod, Papi, Komma, and Ordkonst. She worked as a teacher in creative writing and is now translating her poetry into English.

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Jenny Edkins

 

 

 

Starlings

Dusk, on a winter’s evening, overcast, cold,
a stiff offshore wind blowing in from the Irish sea
as people emerge from town streets,
in twos or threes or solitary, to see this miracle.
Small figures muffled to the ears all eyes
as the magnificence unfolds, rises over the pier:
billowing shapes swell and shrink again.

They arrive from all directions now:
swooping over the stone grey theological college:
flights of latecomers, anxious to join the show,
startle me as they whoosh by and I duck.
Then a great cloud of thousands zooms in:
migrants from snow-bound breeding grounds,
fleeing the cold, meld with resident birds.

Their roosting ground’s the pier, their treetops
the criss-cross of metal beneath.
Some plummet down at once and settle,
jostling into place, making space for latecomers,
chatting; it looks convivial, cosy even,
as spray breaks on the rocks below and
others swirl away again and return.

The ease, the magic, stretches our imagination:
no leader here, no choreographer, just thousands
riding the wing tips of each other’s flight;
no fight for survival, no fittest, no one
out for themselves and never mind the flock,
just soaring synchronicity against the sky,
a celebration as the sun sets.

We watch in awe: how do they do this? Why?
Have we forgotten we too can move together
through the world, and we do, sensing,
harmonising, interweaving, playing our part?
Have we forgotten what it’s like to surrender
our selves to the dance, to the joy of movement,
to being as one with each other?

 

 

Jenny Edkins is Professor of Politics at The University of Manchester and lives in Aberystwyth. Her poems have appeared in Acumen, Contexto Internacional, Inspirations (Einion Books, 2019), and Planet.

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Alan Cohen

 

 

 

Of Change and Collaboration

Here in the Valley
The sun each day
Rises over the mountains
At a different time in a different place

In the East, some say
But others see each day is unique
And, flexible, cobble a self to suit
And so they grow and change

Sun, earth, and water
May be separate departments
But they all collaborate
To make a garden

 

 

Alan Cohen: Poet first/Then PCMD, teacher, manager/Living a full varied life. To optimize time and influence/Deferred publication, wrote/Average 3 poems a month/For 60 years/Beginning now to share some of my discoveries

 

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Miles Salter

 

 

 

Crisps with Robin Hood

I almost missed him, with those
camouflage trousers on. He was,
naturally, in the woods. I had shorts.

‘Are you Robin Hood?’ I asked.
He stared for a spell, then nodded.
‘Where’s Merlin?’ I said. ‘And Little

Elton?’ He laughed then, and offered
me some Cider. It was sweet and
I burped. ‘Show me your house,’ I said.

Behind him was a sluggish tent,
a dog called Rascal, seven bottles
and a sleeping bag. We sat and did

stories and Robin released some
cheese and onion and told me about
robbing a piggy bank. He smelt funny

and when I asked about Marion,
he went very quiet. He showed me
a crossbow and we aimed at quick

squirrels. Then Dad, breathing a lot,
came and stared and took me home
and talked loudly with Mum. I had

a bath and story and thought all night
about Robin and why he didn’t have a sword,
or a terrific horse, or a gang of laughing

buddies, or why he cried when I said about home.
Next morning it was cornflakes. I looked out the
window, but there was only next door.

 

 

Miles Salter lives in York. He is working on his third collection of poetry. He fronts Miles and The Chain Gang and presents The Arts Show on Jorvik Radio. Find out more at www.miles-salter.co.uk

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Lucy Atkinson

 

 

 

Sunspot

I watched her. Persephone.
Sunflowers on her dungarees. Breathing in
the blackened syrup. London air.
She’s trying not to talk about it
but she remembers. Winter.
There’s Parsley on the windowsill. Planted
in a little mug. The only spot in her fifth-floor flat
that ever gets some sun.
She doesn’t talk about him, either.
If there was a him. She asks me
if I would sing if they put on a karaoke night
down at our local pub.
She misses Karaoke. Good music and bad.
All at once and all around.
A tsunami for the thoughts.
On the radio they play “Wild Daffodils.”
A low budget song from an album
by a local artist. We both agree
he can really sing. There are no people singing
here. Karaoke or in the streets.
But she mouths the words to
the same song that the radio played an hour ago.
Winter is gone. She’s forgotten it.
She asks what song we can dance to next.

 

 

Lucy Atkinson is a North-East born writer studying a MA in creative writing at Durham University. She has published poetry in magazines such as Acumen, Agenda and Crossways. Her play ‘As It Was’ was recently published by lazy bee scripts.

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Stanley Wilkin

 

 

 

Appearance and Apparition

He pirouetted into the room, the lonely dancer
With moon-blown hair.
Along the way he brushed the sea
Gathering it up like dust.

Each morning seated on my porch
I welcomed his unseen arrival
A coffee in one hand a smile in the other
And toasted his return,

Admiring the steps he took, admiring
His powers of invention, as he soared
Died and soared again. After an hour
The illusion shattered I went back into the house

Raindrops fell like atomic bombs.
Sunrise collided with the changing earth
A crazy boy reminded me of my past
The tabernacle at the end of my road

Grew rose coloured blisters
The superstore nearby became emblazoned
With frost, cars vomited out their saturnine
Grease. He slid away in a slither of thought

Wrapping up the earth with his toes.

 

 

Stanley Wilkin is a lecturer and exam marker now living in Portugal.

 

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