Self-Portraits by David Pollard is a meticulously crafted collection of poems inspired by the work of eighty-nine artists. Each piece is assembled in such a way that the reader can visualise both the artists and the portraits which inspired the writing with clarity. From Caravaggio to Goya, Da Vinci to Warhol, the poet covers a wide range of sources and not only describes each piece of art, but also brings a better awareness of the creator behind the portrait. Pollard’s considerable academic research has resulted in a collection of pieces that is effortless and beautiful in its visual and literary construction.
Pollard is comfortable with his subject matter. He describes Andy Warhol, for example, with great ease in short, sharp lines with each word adding more colour to an artist known for his vibrant screen prints and charm; Warhol’s scandalous character and his famous self-portrait are recreated:
to the connoisseur,
who shocks his guests
with my exploding hair
and skin of many colours
screened quite off-centre
pink and yellow.
Just to portray my
deeply superficial self […]
and make an all new cannon of its absences,
gnaw at the superficial smile.
The poem depicts Warhol’s almost sickly charm, and in a final damning point, his over-commercial art and lifestyle.
As a poet, Pollard brings new depths that can be appreciated by both the literary and the art lover.
This is demonstrated in “Lucian Freud”:
The structures of the skin have oiled me into life,
forced concentration into pain,
their own emasculation into paint […]
each lick a part of me, my own biography.
These words echo the harsh brush strokes seen in the figurative works that Freud is known for, and also portray the pain seen in his aged face. That first stanza depicts the severity of the artist’s expression, underscored by an almost visceral understanding of his use of the medium of oil paint.
When Pollard describes one of art’s most prominent sculptors, Auguste Rodin, there is a subtle humour:
How flat the charcoal is
thumbed down and rolled into the paper.
Pollard uses “flat”, a term sometimes used pejoratively in art criticism, to provide a contrast to what we know of Rodin’s work: sculptures of humans with pensive expressions and strong postures occupying very large dimensions. He continues:
its third dimension
as skin gives life
and tells us of our soul and plays
against the torture of each sinuous knot
in clay and bronze from clench of toe
to furrow in spine’s muscle […]
The self-portrait, drawn in charcoal with thick shadows and a background of discordant lines, has been roughly applied to grained paper. However, for all the looseness of the portraiture medium there is great detail to be found in Rodin’s drawing of his eyes. They appear endless, full of feeling, and found beneath a hardened and furrowed brow, the “‘sinuous knot’” the poet describes. This poem and the portrait that it characterizes provides an image of the artist, his work and style.
Each of these poems stand alone as a finely constructed piece in its own right, but collectively Pollard’s book builds and offers great insight into some of the most influential artists throughout history. This collection is enjoyable. The depth of the verse is delightful, providing fresh perspectives on art and poetry. Self-Portraits is highly recommended read, and I hope you enjoy pouring over each page just as much as I did.