Category Archives: Poetry

Henri Scissorhands: Matisse and the ghost of Louis Aragon

Jazz: Pierrot's Funeral

Jazz: Pierrot’s Funeral

Dancers, bees, swallows, sharks, sword-swallowers, mermaids, stars: even first thing on a Sunday morning, the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern felt like a live show. Jazz (1947) was his first venture into cutouts, or ‘drawing with scissors’, as he put it. It features assemblages of dancers, elephants, clowns, pierrots, knife-throwers and most famously, Icarus – and is accompanied by Matisse’s swooping handwriting on the nature of his work. The process of creation is foregrounded throughout. Tate runs films on a loop of Matisse cutting into paper, and the speed and the dexterity with which he wielded the huge tailor’s scissors are remarkable. The famous blue nudes, too, are presented as if on a loop, staged on different walls around the room, allowing the viewer to circle from I to IV, and assess their variations.

Découpage is about the rough edges. It bears the marks of its construction. This performative element is signalled in this exhibition, which also features Matisse’s designs for ballet and the chapel in Vence. When he was commissioned to design the chapel he didn’t just stop at the stained-glass windows; his work extended to the chasuble worn by the priest, an adroit linking of man and place – or in the Catholic terms that the atheist Matisse would not have acknowledged, the linking of the human with the sacred space, which sees the priest as vessel.

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Tate presents the work in clear biographical terms. Shadowed behind these visions of light and colour and memories of the South Seas is the enclosed space of the artist’s, one of which you occasionally catch a glimpse through Matisse’s figurative inclusion of a door or window to the garden beyond his room.

Ah, yes. The suffering artist in his room, the poignancy of his frailty, the picture of the door leading to a world that was denied to him. It’s all a bit close to the familiar trope of the tubercular/syphilitic artist (Van Gogh, Maupassant, et al) that riddles French cultural history. The pathos is a plangent counterpoint to the vibrancy of the colour, but I’m not sure we should be too hung up on Matisse’s immobility, since his cloister midwived a radical reinvention of his art.

Matisse’s friend, the avant-garde communist poet Louis Aragon, who is referenced numerous times in the Tate commentary, would have had none of this mimsy biographical approach. Aragon came to visit Matisse in the 1950s. In Henri Matisse, Roman, Aragon’s lengthy compilation of his memories of the artist – itself a bit of a découpage, by all accounts – he meditates on the relationship between painting and writing and argues for the work, not the man, to be considered. It all sounds suspiciously formalist for an intellectual who was so high up in the French communist party; his uncoupling of the art from the artist doesn’t entirely fit in with a Marxist aesthetic in which literature and art cannot be understood independently of its material production. But then, Aragon’s socialist realism never quite held fast. His collected essays on art written between the 1920s and 1960s and called – yes – Collages (1965) show him incessantly wrestling with the political and aesthetic problems of art and representation.

Anyway, Tate’s nod to Aragon’s dialogue with Matisse is an important reminder of the milieu in which Matisse operated prior to the Second World War and after his Fauvist period. Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a laboratory of modernism; jazz was arriving, Russian, American and German emigrés thronged the Left Bank and the Surrealists had changed the game in art and poetry. You get a sense in the Tate exhibition of this creative explosion with Matisse’s scenery and costume design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, choreographed by Léonide Massine to Shostakovich’s first symphony, but it doesn’t go near to expressing the ferment of ideas that was taking place at the time.

What really connects Matisse and Aragon is their interest in the relationship between art and poetry, and also a shared fascination with collage. Aragon’s early poetry conspicuously used collage techniques before his conversion to communism. Both men were trying to invent a new language, and in Aragon’s terms this went hand in hand with a political project (although like so many intellectuals he became disillusioned with orthodox communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.)

Just as Aragon mused on art in his essays, Matisse – who read poetry every morning before he worked – put out engraved illustrations of poetry that run the gamut of French literary history: medieval (Charles d’Orléans), Renaissance (Pierre de Ronsard) and nineteenth-century Symbolism (Stéphane Mallarmé). The backstory of the Matisse exhibition, then, is a sense of joint artistic enterprise and ardent experimentation in the mid-twentieth century Paris. It sure puts the Bloomsbury Group in the shade.







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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales, Southwark Cathedral

From the grime to the clean-cut iambic,

Rime royale, rant or rap, get your slam-kick

I went to hear some Chaucer the other week. It was organised by Poet in the City, which puts on a variety of spoken-word events. This one involved a couple of hours listening to extracts of Chaucer in modern and Middle English and then the poets Lavinia Greenlaw and Patience Agbabi reading their adaptations. Hearing the Middle English was a shock to the ear – slightly Scottish, slightly Danish, mildly incomprehensible, you tune in and out of meaning. Lavinia Greenlaw read from her adaptation of fragments of Troilus and Criseyde – a bonus for me, as I’ve never read the poem – but the big draw was Patience Agbabi.

I was at university with Patience a long time ago. Back then she was a relatively shy English undergraduate with a wicked taste in Northern Soul music. Now she’s a fantastically successful performance poet. Her latest project, Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014 – buy it for any English student you know) is a retelling of Chaucer’s masterpiece. The writing is sinuously allusive with a diamond-sharp attention to form and rhythm; each version of the Tales she performed that evening (Prologue, Tale of Melibee, Man of Law’s Tale, the Franklin’s Tale, the Shipman’s Tale, the Prioress’s Tale) was distinctive. She is particularly strong in the different voices she evokes – she didn’t perform The Wife of Bath that evening, but it leaps off the page in the voice of a Nigerian woman, Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa.

patience agbabi

Patience Agbabi

Telling Tales reframes the premise of Chaucer’s work; this isn’t a group of pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but an open mic night at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Each performer is  given his or her own fictional – and very amusing – biography at the back of the book. The outstandingly inventive prologue, which mixes rap and jazz rhythms with high-culture wit, is spoken by the host, Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey. Check this clip for Patience performing her version:

Each of the tales was received rapturously that evening, but the eye-opener for me was ‘Unfinished Business’, a rewriting of the Tale of Melibee, which is about a man who returns home to find that his house has been invaded, his wife attacked and his daughter probably dead. Most of the original is a long and very dry disquisition on whether to avenge violence with more violence. Patience’s take on it is considerably more succinct than Chaucer’s, and rather than replaying the formal debate, focuses on the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event.

It starts off with a quote from Jonathan Nolan saying that at a distance, cowardice and forgiveness can look like the same thing. This idea of holding two differently-inflected versions of the same episode plays out in her version of the tale, a piece of formal virtuosity. As Patience spoke, the repeated phrases initially seemed incantatory; then, the audience realised that the lines were spooling backwards and the meaning was doubling up on itself, and in doing so, shifting perspective. Absolutely dazzling. Or, as my teenage daughter whispered to me, “That was sick.”



Conveniently, cowardice and forgiveness look identical at a certain distance. Time steals your nerve.

Jonathan Nolan, Memento Mori


That night, it rained so hard

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade,

spewing up so much low life.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries,

Revenge too sweet attracts flies.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying

on the bed, next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling,

still from a crime scene.

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this.

What stops me, cowardice?

None of them, even Joe, has the right to live.

How can I forgive?


How can I forgive

none of them? Even Joe has the right to live.

What stops me, cowardice?

I didn’t bring my wife to Gravesend for this

still from a crime scene.

Tonight I caught her, hands clasped, kneeling

on the bed next to me. Honey, I’m fine.

Even blushed with bruises she looks good. She’s lying.

Revenge too sweet attracts flies

in a blacked-out car park. My wife cries.

I know why. I’m three shots away from the parked car

put five holes in my daughter. I know who they are.

It’s a week since they beat up my wife,

spewing up so much low life

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade

that night, it rained so hard.

© 2011, Patience Agbabi

From: Poetry Review, 101:4, Winter, 2011/



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