Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Compasses: A Triptych by Nancy Mattson


Blake drew Newton naked, every muscle
tense, seated on a rock, hunched over
the paper world unscrolling at his feet,
inscribing limits with his compasses
like God in Milton’s paradise.


Rodchenko photographs his wife,
Stepanova, working at her table,
a pair of compasses in one hand,
thumb and forefinger twirling the pivot,
eyes intent on the interlocking spheres
of her textile design. The universe
is new from skin to sky. Hand-rolled,
a cigarette rests on her bottom lip.
The ash drops, she smiles and blows it away.
Seed fluff, time flake, off to the past.

This is no lady painter of aquarelles,
she’s a maid’s daughter, Varvara Stepanova,
calls herself ‘Varst’ and she can do anything:
boil pitch or potatoes, build sets for plays,
shoot billiards, dance tangos, make zaum
poems in syllables, grunts and blobs of paint.

Varst is sewing canvas overalls,
her fingertips tough as thimbles. Bites the needle,
spits a smoke ring through its eye, pulls
a thread into a V, cuts and knots it.

Varst sneers at fine art,
slaps the heads off chrysanthemums,
uses her brain like a weapon, wages war
on the object, publishes manifestos, critiques
all ‘isms’ and the artists who deliver them,
writes in her journal with a steel nib,
nails their quirks and egos.

Rodchenko snaps the circle in groups, pairs
and singles, but his wife is his favourite
subject. Never object. She gazes away
from the lens as she points a blade,
arm-length, at six of her collages.

Her self-portrait mocks the easel: forehead
a cross-hatch in blue paint, mouth a scowl
of black X’s. She caricatures herself,
her husband too, as clowns
with elbows and pantaloons.


Never since John Donne has it been so true
as it is with this pair who stride
with equal steps into the Revolution:
If they be two, they are two so
as stiff twin compasses are two.

© Nancy Mattson

First published in Artemis (United Kingdom). Republished on the Tuesday Poem Hub with the permission of the poet.

About the Poem:

"Compasses" is inspired by photographs of Stepanova by her husband, Rodchenko, as well as by her own art and excerpts from her journal – all in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, eds. Bowlt & Drutt, London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1999. I was transfixed by the early 20th century Russian women artists in that exhibition and have nearly completed a book about them and their milieu. To my great surprise, my Finnish great-aunt who emigrated to Soviet Karelia in the 1930s, and was lost in 1939, has now popped up in the poems, insisting that her voice be heard. —Nancy Mattson

About Nancy Mattson:
Nancy Mattson is an ex-patriate Canadian poet, now resident in London. I met Nancy Mattson in 2008, when she and her husband, Mike Bartholomew-Biggs, also a poet, were resident in Christchurch for several months and appeared as guest poets as part of the Canterbury Poets' Collective annual Autumn Season of Poetry Readings at Madras Cafe Bookshop.

At that time, Nancy was already working on her forthcoming collection, working title Finns and Amazons, of which Compasses: A Triptych forms part—and was particularly struck by both the poem's emotional power and also by the strength of the historical narrative, translated into the personal portrait of Varst, Vavara Stepanova, and Rodchenko.

Nancy began writing poetry in 1977 after completing her MA in English Literature at the University of Alberta. Her poetry, non-fiction and reviews have been published in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland and Finland in magazines, anthologies, the odd scholarly journal, a printed encyclopaedia and a couple of parish newsletters.

In 1982 she edited and co-authored a history book which provided the inspiration for her first collection, Maria Breaks Her Silence (Regina: Coteau, 1989), based on the life of a 19th century Finnish woman who emigrated to Canada. This was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. Adapted for the stage as Lye Soap and Dancing Cows, it was also broadcast on CBC Radio.

Her second full collection is Writing with Mercury (Hexham: Flambard, 2006), with cover art by Elaine Kowalsky. Nancy is also one of five poets featured in the anthology, Take Five 06, edited by John Lucas (Nottingham: Shoestring, 2006). The poems in these two volumes are set in contemporary England, Canada, Finland and Italy and use memory, myth, history and family stories to create a rich linguistic and cultural texture.

Nancy is pleased to be one of 20 writers selected by Dr. Beth L. Virtanen to appear in Finnish North American Literature in English: A Concise Anthology (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009) and her work has appeared in many other anthologies.


This week's Tuesday Poem editor Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer and lover of story from Christchurch New Zealand. Her first novel, Thornspell, is published by Knopf, USA and her second The Heir of Night is just out with HarperCollins, USA, and Little, Brown in AU/NZ. Helen has also had both poetry and short fiction published, broadcast and anthologized in New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

For More Tuesday Blog Poems from the rest of the Tuesday Poem community browse our live blog roll in the sidebar – if the header says ‘Tuesday poem’ you know there’s a poem in there somewhere!


Kathleen Jones said...

This is a wonderful poem - the language is so strong. I could see the woman and feel the strength of her character when I read the lines. And the references are beautiful too. Fantastic!

Harvey Molloy said...

The poem makes me want to return to read again. A thoughtful, interesting choice. Thanks, Helen.

Helen Lowe said...

Thank you, Harvey and Kathleen--I was very taken when I read an early version of "Compasses" in '08 and no less so now. I am very much looking forward to the "Finns and Amazons" collection. Thank you both for commenting.

Anonymous said...

An intriguing selection. From the very little I know of Rodchenko's and Stepanova's art, I suspect the poem does them a favor. There's a terrible bleakness here. "The universe is new from skin to sky" and "uses her brain like a weapon" are neat but troubling lines for artists "who stride / with equal steps into the Revolution." It takes a good poet, like Mattson, to make art out of artists who themselves struggled (again in my limited acquaintance with them) to produce anything particularly artful -- which is why I suppose, in Mattson's mind, despite all the sneering and zauming and blade-pointing (die tradition!), they become themselves, in the end, interlocked within the great compass metaphor of Donne's immortal Valediction. Hardly avant-garde, that epitaph. If only they knew.