Writing on Taxidermy

Writing about Susannah Gent’s exhibition has been difficult.  The material is intricate and interesting, beautifully exhibited.  If I compare writing about this exhibition with writing about the photography, I don’t think it is the nature of the material itself that has caused the problem.  I think it’s just a difficult thing to do well.  Having said that, it certainly was different writing in response to these two mediums.  I think the poem that eventually came out of the photograph in James Dodd’s Triptych captures something like a mood in the man’s face, a serene expression, which is at odds with the rest of the photograph.  He appears to be falling head first, which intuitively, I think, is not a time for serenity.  But there is the flatness of the image, which I don’t think I emphasise, but is not not there.  And I wonder how much more textured the taxidermy poems should be.  Perhaps with time I will get to grips with this, but this particular project demanded a quick turn around, something like an immediate response.  This was my first attempt:


Gold remains.

The green skin of sky

free falls the curvature of space,

leaves only the Pole Star

scorched on the inside of eyelids.

Everything leads here,

to this one spot of beaded thread

so tightly stitched

the star is made

less of gas and hydrogen dust

than petals, florets,

a chrysanthemum

of all things.

I wonder if I can redraft to get closer to the detail.  Perhaps this would get at the texture.  Or perhaps I’m associating texture with something else, a muscular poetry that might have come through had I been writing about one of the more traditional taxidermy pieces.  Certainly, some of the poems written by other people have this:

… Thick lipped and snorting

we wear our identities casually.

He gnaws on the punk of a fallen tree.

She is naked in lace, plucking a swan.

… from Given Head by Noel Williams.

The writers were given the choice of writing an interpretive piece, whether that be thematic, narrative driven, etc … or writing something more in terms of the ancient origins of ekphrasis, something purely descriptive.  Most pieces have a clear narrative,.  One turns to mythology to place the fox.  Noel Williams has one piece that began as his descriptive piece, but turned away and took on an interpretive role.  I did write a short poem that was pure description, and I don’t think I made a bad job of it:

… pale gold rolled beads, intricate up to the nose, a star of David.

The eyes, Orion’s, against a jade skin, look down from their mount,

blinded by light they emit, leave only the outline of animal,

a trace of horseness beneath the stitch, the fold and gather of silk hide,

bordered and hemmed with repeating flecks of tailor’s tack,

overlock darn, a frayed yarn where the bobbin was cut.

… from Taxidermy – An exhibit by Susannah Gent

(Not a very imaginative title, though.)

I don’t know if it would stand up as a poem away from the context  of this project.  I wonder if the reason people chose not to write a descriptive piece, or were pushed by the poetry to move away from description, is to do with contemporary conceptions of what poetry is.  It is arguable that we live in liberal times, poetry-wise.  We don’t have to rhyme, count stresses or break our lines at a given point, but do we have to follow at least a subconscious notion of meaning?  Perhaps we feel that description just isn’t enough.  I can certainly understand such a sense.  Why describe, when we have cameras?  Surely as writers. we want to put a stamp of ourselves on the artwork (are we lamps or mirrors?), and to do that we need to bring our own interpretive values to the fore.  I certainly put off writing the descriptive piece, focusing on what the exhibit was not; it is not a sky, a star or a chrysanthemum of all things!

As it turned out, I really quite enjoyed the description, and I think found imaginative ways of getting across the piece.  I think maybe one of the points is that, as we do have cameras, the description is not there to serve the purpose of replication, as in ancient Greece.  It is possible, I think, that such a descriptive piece should have a place as creative image-making, that any meaning is purely metaphorical, and not whole, but glimpsed in the way the description is expressed, the connotations of language, the hierarchy of the image.


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