From the Body Naked

Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud
, Barry Hill
(160pp, 10.95, Shearsman Books)

'As far as I'm concerned the paint is the person, I want it to work for me just as flesh does'. So runs Lucian Freud's dictum often quoted in exhibition catalogues of the late painter's work. The idea that flesh equates with Freud's actual medium informs the title of Australian poet Barry Hill's new ekphrastic collection Naked Clay. For Hill this is an artist who depicts the naked body of his model by substituting oil paint for the clay usually required to mould a form through touch, as in the poem 'Getting to Grips with Naked' where the speaker asks:

                    How do they bear it
                    endure such brutal looking?
                    All the while knowing
                    even settling into weary
                    sleep is no shelter from his slow turning
                    of their bodies on the wheel
                    his handling of their clay?

Reaching towards both the intensity and intimacy of the studio in 'Alchemy', the poet bravely adopts the voice of the painter:

                    Paint of my flesh
                    flesh that is yours
                    more paint, more that is yours
                    in my painterly hands.

                    My hand along your brow
                    your brow guiding my hand
                    my thoughts at your throat
                    your throat showing me how.

                    My flesh, your flesh
                    ours to the touch
                    the matter at hand alchemy
                    a distance from us.

And then, after this drive towards some kind of erotic fusion between painter and sitter enacted through 'wedding after wedding in pigment', the poem goes on to speak of the endless struggle to create and reinvent:  'A heart crossed with itself / from beginning to end / fist over fist / a finish begins again'. There appears to be an uncomfortable almost predatory sense of proximity lurking here, especially in 'the gleamings, slippery trust / the heat in the brush' for Hill has a natural ability to evoke such physical edginess and in poem after poem he dwells both on what the subject (mostly naked) reveals and what the painter chooses to pick up.

In an essay written for Griffith Review
(Edition 22, pub. Nov. 2008) when the sequence was still a work-in-progress, Hill explains how he became fascinated by the scale and fleshiness of Freud's subjects, 'their angularities and intimacy, the depth of their nakedness, their incomparable candour'. What he sees and admires in the painter is his compulsion to ruminate on this nakedness while attempting to convey on canvas the feeling either of pride or vulnerability this confrontation will entail for each sitter:  those brave souls (his male and female friends, many of his lovers, several of his daughters, his ailing mother, his studio assistant and so on) who allow themselves to be scrutinized by his penetrating gaze. Hill astutely observes how these figures appear to be 'in their bodies', that despite the fear of being exposed 'there is nothing to celebrate, and nothing to be anxious about - a double negative that produces a weird unease'. For Hill this is a nakedness that speaks of our shared mortality:  he acknowledges that these are paintings all about death.

Discomfort and mortality therefore loom over Naked Clay
as the poems strive for the same urgency as the paintings to conjure up the material presence of flesh, skin and bone. What constantly reoccurs in Freud is saggy skin over flaccid flesh that withers and droops:  death is encapsulated in his impasto, while through the same creative act, being simultaneously postponed. Returning to the poem 'Getting to Grips with Naked', we see the situation is disquieting and unsentimental for the subject has 'Nowhere to look. / Nowhere to go' while the painter prowls, desperate for the weight and texture he will find even in the fit and younger models, in 'such gravity of flesh, no / fast-forward glimpses of it flaking / the skin might as well be Cremnitz - / powdery on the spot'.  Then some sympathy for his palette-knife method of resuscitation: 'he has trowelled them into a new / life: edges, recesses, surfaces / you can smooth with a butter knife'.

Many of Hill's poems are titled simply according to one of Freud's paintings while others make direct reference to particular works. Like the images they are based upon, most stay firmly fixed inside the oppressive, windowless workroom with its yellowing walls, bare wooden floor and piles of paint-stained rags where Freud withdrew from the world outside to obsessively portray two or three subjects a day, working seven days each week. (The routine often required an endless number of sittings over many months as described in Martin Gayford's revealing book Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait with Lucian Freud
published in 2008.) 'Naked Men, Socks, Rags, Legs, Thread' is typical as Hill in the service of his poem adopts an equally exacting observational eye to comb around Freud's studio at all the detritus of painting despite the softening, melancholic light:

                    Or is he asleep, as many seem to be?

                    In any case
                    the rags in the room are closing in
                    a welter of filth enters stage right -
                                                closer, stickier looking
                                                than the ones in the painting
                                  behind the two men

                    which shows a woman naked upright
                    and is called Standing by the Rags

                                         their slippery toss and tangle
                                         a silly scaffold
                                         supportive as towelling or phlegm
                                         rags as oily-looking as her breasts
                    rags smoother than her mottled thighs
                                         but rags with a thick gleam
                    like the waves of creamy pigment for her hair -
                    a skunk's two-toned tail with a sheen to it (think Velazquez)

                    except that you can't make sense of it, really
                                         the man on the bed blocks her off
                                         she recedes into the picture
                                         into the dark wood of awkwardness ...

Conversely 'And the Bridegroom, 1993' is a memorable poem for its ability not only to go beyond the psychological confines of Freud's studio but also to reach out from the frame of its counterpart (and same titled) painting.  The image on which Hill's poem is based shows two naked figures spread out in parallel on a bed:  on his back is the monumental frame of Leigh Bowery bulked out by layer upon layer of his ample flesh; and then on her side, not just the slender but the almost emaciated Nicola Bateman.  Despite the close juxtaposition of their bare bodies the gap between them is shocking for whereas he is relaxed in his enormity, her lean state has nothing of his nonchalance about it, only a disposition of guilt.  The details of the poem reverberate far beyond the surface simplicity of describing or dramatizing the sheer nakedness of this morbid, dislocated scene. To evoke the question of texture and weight of separate bodily existence that dominates the painting, Hill sifts through episodes of back-story that have led to the non-interaction of these two characters and the disturbing chill of their isolation and misunderstanding.  Apart from the insistent refrain of '(The painter, self-soiled, oils his Hercules)', the poet avoids the emotionless stalemate of the studio set-up to concentrate on the male protagonist (Bowery, like Hill, grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne) whose heavy toil shifting huge bales of wool takes place at a dockside mill:

                    A torso itself can do the talking
                    a singlet soaked with all the body has
                    can signal, stir a man's mysteries, even to himself, yes:
                    what's man enough, what's in him that knows
                    the best of himself as he sinks, drowns?

The action of the poem, 'the wool foaming down onto him, into meaty hands / that gathered it, patted it' is in complete contrast to such limp bodily existence conveyed in the painting. Near the close of the poem we see the couple in happier times:  'a barrel of a man veering, crooning and / his short woman skinny as a dipstick'. But Hill can't resist the shocking disbelief at the physical mismatch at the heart of Freud's image when the speaker expresses his disgust at the logistics of their lovemaking:

                    'Fuck me dead!'  We were still learning to curse.
                    The girls we bagged were the right size for us.
                    They did not lie down like slaughtered lambs.
                    No one had to ask:  how the hell did you do the deed?

                    (The painter, self-soiled, oils his Hercules)

Hill's empathy with Freud and his passionate admiration of his painting are clearly expressed throughout the poems:  a respect for the painter's ruthless pursuit for visual truth while at the same time acknowledging that the human figure in the final image, despite the ravages of the process, will always in Freud's hands, retain a sense of dignity. In a highly charged passage from 'Magnanimity', one of the two poignant longer poems (and also Hill's original title for the collection) which form two of the book's five sections, we get a sense of the human condition just as appropriate to the painting of Freud's old drinking partner and brother-in-arms, Francis Bacon, who constantly sought what he called 'the brutality of fact':

                    in a mood of clay
                    when it's thrown and pre-kiln
                    when it sticks to the fingers still
                    like toffee, like shit, like semen ...

                    Things at regular turns deliver themselves:
                    marrow in bone, flesh on the bone, skin on the flesh -
                    the meat that is lugged in common, known to all

But included in the image is something more contrary, almost tender, for after 'a smile, a spasm, a new bruise' we are in a mode of changeability.  For Hill, making a painting or a poem involves an ever-shifting emotional state, for creation is always in flux:

                    suddenly its spring again, spring with its mystery
                    of how you can feel so ... egg-shell blue ...

                    and looking is a kind of invitation
                    to be spread on the wheel
                    and touched all round, delicately.

Building upon the conventions and open spirit of ekphrasis, Barry Hill provides a committed, arresting and insightful engagement with Lucian Freud.  His sustained poetic response to Freud's paintings is not only illuminating, it is also expansive and profound. This absorbing collection is a brave and vital attempt to realize the uncompromising painterly, tactile qualities in Freud within an appropriate poetic form.  Reconfigured and revised (as evidenced by Hill's 2008 essay), these poems contain the same volatile resonance as the painter's own loaded surfaces. As a multifaceted portrait of the artist, Human Clay
not only confidently riffs upon its elusive subject but also thrives on the grandeur of Freud's iconic images. It is a rich, hard-hitting, inspirational volume that celebrates a newly acquired 'Old Master'.

             Peter Gillies 2012