Feb 5 2023
Poetry review – THE BIGGER PICTURE: Neil Fulwood finds much to enjoy in D A Prince’s new collection
Let’s start with the title. The Bigger Picture is a bold choice, suggesting an author’s move to a broader creative approach or a wider sweep in terms of theme and material. It’s indicative, then, of Prince’s wry humour that the title derives from the last line of ‘The Mass of St Hubert’, a pared-down meditation on a small detail in the eponymous canvas. There’s a lot going on in the picture, not least an angel unfurling a scroll above the altar, and it’s very easy to overlook a small grey-white dog in the bottom right hand corner. Prince practically reframes the artwork, bringing this enigmatic pooch front and centre:
He is constancy and untroubled. He was never the hound who hunted stags. Whatever sainthood will happen beyond this consecration, he will remain the grey detail, central, an anchor, at rest, a small part of the bigger picture.
The devil is in the detail: always was and will forever be. The reason I love ekphrastic poetry is the opportunity it offers the poet to open their readers’ eyes to new aspects or interpretations of an artwork, or to bring said artwork into their sphere of consciousness for the first time. (I’m still indebted to Robin Thomas’s collection A Distant Hum for introducing me to the work of Eric Ravilious.)
And, of course, “picture” can also refer to motion pictures. Late in the collection, a run of three poems explores aspects of cinema from the metaphysical romanticism of Powell and Pressburger to Antonioni’s stark monochromatic dissection of ennui to the chilly textures and unflinching gaze of Pawel Pawlikovski’s ‘Ida’. A few frames from each:
Digitally restored - and none of its gentleness lost - another generation surrenders to the screen where Heaven’s comforting bureaucracy is no more than daily invoices matched to delivery dates. [‘A Matter of Life and Death’] But the scene in the Bourse you say while I brake flash of red slip round a cyclist you must remember that 8 minutes and a bus pulls over no one getting off as though money is all there is … [‘L’Eclisse’] The title’s unfamiliar but in the first few frames I recognise some faces. Not their story, yet I’m half a beat ahead … […] I haven’t been there but I have, in parallel, as though watching myself watching a film in another country and another time. [‘Shot in Academy Ratio’]
On a personal note: A Matter of Life and Death is my all-time favourite movie and discovering a poem about it in a collection I was already loving was just delightful. On a second personal note: I’d not seen the Pawlikovski film before; thank you, D.A. Prince, for nudging a masterpiece onto my radar. On a third personal note: architecture. An explanatory note: a good friend of mine is an architect and his passion for his vocation has communicated itself to me over the years; tales of pie-in-the-sky client mandates and eye-watering budgets have amused and astounded me. So it was equally as serendipitous as The Bigger Picture’s inclusion of the Powell and Pressburger poem to find ‘The Architect’s Couple’, a perfectly pitched satire on the kind of homogenous affluence conjured in those “artist’s impression” sketches designed to market as-yet-unbuilt residences.
The twiggy trees below will never grow leaves enough to make litter. Later, as per contract, they must stroll improbably long-legged among others, their kind, cool and shadowless, It won’t rain. The brief insists on sunlight …
Companion piece ‘The Artist’s Impression’ continues the exploration of image, expectation and aspiration:
We try our best but his vision of perfection demands so much. Sometimes we forget to stroll hand in hand, looking about us with elongated longing, slim as city trees and with their same light movement.
It would be lazy to label Prince’s writing as “painterly” – her intelligence, acute observational powers and effortless command of poetics attest to a far wider aesthetic than the merely imagistic – but the level of detail, the light-and-shadow interplay, the fine brush strokes and finely nuanced technique certainly don’t rule it out as a valid take-away from her work.
But there are more than just poems about artworks, architecture, cinema and other creative endeavours in The Bigger Picture: take ‘No Worse’, ‘Might Have Been’ and ‘All There Was To Do’, for instance – hard-won experience and a weary but still durable humanity buttress these works, which I’m purposefully not quoting from as they deserve to be discovered, whole and cohesive, by the reader. Nor am I going to list the other poems which play off each other or suggest themselves as mini sequences. I’m a firm believer in the review as a guidance rather than forensics: is a collection worth the reader’s time? Does it offer plenty for them to discover? The Bigger Picture is a substantial and affirmative work that answers an emphatic “yes” to both questions.