Poems written in response to atmospheric paintings by the American artist Howard Fritz whose work is now on show at the Torriano Meeting House
More information about the Howard Fritz exhibition at the Torriano can be found here. To coincide with this exhibition we have gathered some picture-and-poem collaborations by Howard Fritz & Michael Bartholomew-Biggs which previously appeared in magazines such as Other Poetry and The SHOp as well as in the collections Tell it Like it Might be (Smokestack, 2008) and Fred & Blossom (Shoestring, 2013). We also include some newer pairings which are on display for the first time and feature poems from Tradesman’s Exit (Shoestring 2009).
The relationship between picture and poem varies throughout this selection. Some poems are a direct response to elements in the picture and there are no other influences. In other cases, the germ of an idea for the poem already existed but it was the picture that provided specific images which initiated the actual writing. Sometimes a ‘finished’ poem was modified after a corresponding painting was discovered. And sometimes an existing poem turned out to have a perfect and serendipitous match in Howard Fritz’s back catalogue.
One brief disclaimer: Howard Fritz’s paintings are complex enough to admit many more possible responses than the particular fantasies contained in these poems; hence there may be completely different kinds of inspiration waiting for other writers in these intriguing images…
Adultery-on-Sea He became entangled in a cliché the moment that he started to erect the temporary triangle. Bright colours striped on canvas curved inviting him to do it in dark glasses while the sun shone with Kiss Me Quick pulled down across his face. The strength of his position hung upon the gap between two frames of reference remaining fixed as Euclid’s propositions: when one prop failed his situation folded with the weight of evidence and caught him by his short and curly fingers. Bang to rights, he still got off by playing on compassion for a self-made stretcher case. *** Convertible The part-clothed body in the yellow coupé, parked beside the lighthouse, has pretty ankles and one slender hand has dropped a half-smoked cigarette below the running board to smoulder like a baby beacon. The calves that rest across the roadster’s door underneath the bridge look bare but could be wearing sheer and shiny stockings fastened with suspenders or a pair of garters hidden by the pulled-up skirt. The long-legged body, sprawling in the drophead, is probably not dead: the hurdy-gurdy man’s lament is premature but hawsers holding up the girdered highway hum along in sympathy. The doll you picture lolling with her feet up in the dicky-seat is out of shot above her hips; there are no eyes, no lips accusing you of cruising easy pickups in your fancy vehicle. *** Intermezzo I could be hiding, howling behind a canvas screen instead of playing Elgar among the broken glass. The broom to sweep the fragments smashed the garden window earlier; and now it’s gone for evidence. The curtains won’t stop trembling in the jagged breeze. The bow slides like a jemmy forcing deep vibrations of defiance; fingers, artful as a cracksman’s, pick music, note by note, like tumblers in a lock. Night outside the basement hides absence of intruders. Detectives check the neighbours to imitate enquiries; they’ll fingerprint the cello later, when they’ve dragged it, keening, from the cupboard, because it wasn’t stolen. *** At The Butcher's Palace Of Varieties I was never troubled as a toddler by the drips from rabbits with small bloody noses waiting for a turn to have their skins pulled inside out like my raincoat in the cloakroom. I learned to take for granted contact with both flesh and money was taboo and caged cashiers must have each price recited with panache to match the twirled moustaches of a ringmaster. When sawdust disappeared and rabbits on trapezes vanished with money-changers in straw hats then Pantaloon went too leaving simply sausages and Grand-Guignol declined to sideshow I watch as Mr Hudson prepares a pair of Barnsley chops; he’s like a surgeon in Crimea with his busy bonesaw. Meticulous, he trims the fat as if he’s read Leviticus. Oddly, it’s his turn to show a trace of nasal bleeding above a nice plump lip. He mutters what I owe, stiff-mouthed, a second-string ventriloquist with nowhere now to throw his voice. *** . Killing Time at the Flying-boat Museum Foynes, Co. Limerick Silver clippers used to gather here and thrash along the Shannon’s soft wet runway, labouring like swans. Their web-foot sponsons scuffed and skipped the waves until wide wings could grudgingly begin the westward climb, tail-heavy with official subsidies on British mails to Ottawa and Lagos. When newsreel boasts of flying boats assume their near-Imperial importance, making much of Public Face comes close to poking fun at facing facts as hard as, say, a grimly private diagnosis. Glass and aluminium nostalgia stops at pre-war prices in the tea-room. Past the single tables, rain-blurred windows hint at spectres of departure: porters walking trolleys to the ramp; the boatmen shuttling to Canopus; stewards serving canapés hand-made in tiny pantries. No ocean’s vast catastrophe of breakers can make a separation bleaker than the distance to a few tomorrows, like white houses on an outstretched arm of land beyond a river when the bridge is gone. Static seeps across the wireless room. Some gramophone has finished braying Amy, wonderful Amy and is scratching round the centre of a silence as if scanning wavebands endlessly for SOS calls, puzzled voices from the far Atlantic not quite loud enough to understand. If attenuated warnings whisper sooner than the ultimatum comes, those signals ride unstable frequencies that fine-tuned dials cannot fix. Like rarest butterflies they won’t be pinned to cards. All the standard measurements will do is mask the would-be telltale tremors in a placid atmosphere and guarantee a taking by surprise as common specimens are netted for the jar. There’s just the wreck of Echo-Sugar’s engine left to show for hours of fog-bound droning waiting to come home. Meticulous corrections for a wind that wasn’t there unpicked the holding pattern’s tidy knot unknowingly to dangling loops whose ends were always bound to snag against a mountain. *** The British Aircraft Industry, Circa 1966 Donald’s involved in a government contract about slender deltas and laminar flow; he’s busy with transforms and multiple integrals – equations and formulae row upon row. Gerald is dozing and dreaming of Wimbledon (his sister gets tickets because of her work); he’s meant to be checking some data with Ronald who spots a mistake, wakes him up with a jerk. And outside the bombers are lined up and ready to roll down the runway, rotate into flight; but these are mere prototypes, empty of armament and no one will raid anybody tonight. Oswald’s a draughtsman with red hair and glasses a check shirt and beard and he’s gone a bit soft on the charms and the shape of the blonde busty tracer who lays out the spars and the ribs in the loft. And outside the bombers are lined up awaiting conversion to tankers – or else to be scrapped or crammed full of cameras for photo-reconnaissance ensuring all Russia is thoroughly mapped. Recently made up to manager, Reginald wears a black homburg, but you’d never guess this big honey-bear man in crumpled blue trousers is head of the office that takes care of stress. And outside the bombers are lined up and rusting. These small British cousins of B-52s relied on their pilots: now governments favour anonymous bombing – cruise missiles, not crews. *** Loss Adjusters They walk beside disused canals wearing matching jackets. At the collars slightly shiny uncut hair has curled, untidy as an unkept promise. Afterwards, behind uncurtained windows, they resume a sleepless dialogue on lists of post-disaster redesigns. A strain-gauge to tell if the building is bulging; foundations dug deeper to shore up the spire; conventional spars should replace surface bracing; make fuel-chamber gaskets resistant to fire. Partnership or kinship means they share a common blueprint. One’s left-handed so they sidle counter crab-wise scavenging round tragedies. Beyond too late, there’s always time for lodging ever-overdue objections to tenders that should not have won the contract. The signals defaulting to safe not to danger; no lightning rod earthing the main mooring mast; not enough lifeboats for all the ship’s complement; the iron bridge girders imperfectly cast. Why make attempts to make amends for other parties’ negligence or crimes? After blaming’s had its day in court, no praise awaits portfolios of hindsights. Sorting should-have-beens, to salvage just one could-be: this, they must believe, does more than set a record straight. No missing bulkheads to weaken the vessel; fill no more airships with porous gas-bags; add reinforcement at corners of windows; let cracks be acknowledged, not hidden by flags. *** . Effective Aging Mathematical theories about maintenance rely on the idea that servicing a machine makes its ‘virtual age’ less than its calendar age. Regular oiling of all moving parts is like putting their clocks back. But at the same time the same lubrication keeps clocks ticking forward . *** Blossom Going Solo Free of both of them. Free as air because of both of them. Inigo who bought the lessons – dutiful, attentive always wanting her to have things as if they were by right and with no fuss on either side. A gentleman is not a showman. Miles who gave the lessons – deferential but impatient in wanting her to do things until she got them right. He found it hard to hide frustrations a showman rather than an actor. Now his solid presence and his big firm hands always ready to take charge were missing for the first time from the other cockpit. Now she must depend on what he’d told her until she learned dependence on herself. That’s dual control she murmured. Now the Avro 504 was hers. All hers. The long and upswept wooden skid bolted on between the wheels would stop it nosing-over when she opened up the throttle. *** Process Of Elimination Eventually, whenever I approached his door, I began indulging in the hope of finding him not there – and, you understand, not just not there: not anywhere. Rapture, alien abduction, spontaneous combustion, or simple misadventure leaving me an empty body halfway down the stairs – for none of these could I be blamed, or blame myself. Surprise would be my alibi: for as I willed his non-existence I knew my will had never yet been proved to have accomplished anything. At his threshold I could focus briefly on a middle distance beyond the short and awkward briar-patch of possibility that fantasy might turn out true. And there in open fields the clichés romped: I’d have those options other people had; to find him gone would let me find myself. These rehearsals of a tidy disappearance were, I like to think, a harmless way of getting through some bad times till something really happened.