(for Eric McCormick)
There are all these lines
without words telling you a whole
story. The portrait is a yellow table
a gingko leaf shaped fan you think
might smell of sandalwood, a paperweight
some flying sheets of paper and a Chinese
vase of ‘yellow-grey, 2 blues and brown’ [guess who]
curving itself round mountains and the wide open
branches of trees looking up river. Also an apple
halved, on a plate with knife and rose. Maybe
there’s a cat asleep beside the blue cup. Certainly
a teapot (and you fill in the cake from the corner shop).
Everything is luminous and shines. Green
makes a slight impression on the wind
flowing in the way sky runs
through the open window snaring the light
on a jug of jonquils catching fire
at the edge of spring.
And there’s your still-life portrait [yes, you’ve got it,
landscape in a figure. Frances Hodgkins]
© Riemke Ensing
from The K.M. File and Other Poems with Katherine Mansfield
Published with the permission of the poet
Editor: Kathleen Jones
Katherine Mansfield is the ultimate ‘writers’ writer’ - there is always some aspect of her life and work we can connect with. For Riemke Ensing it’s the aspect of exile. Riemke was born in the Netherlands and came to New Zealand in 1951, where she taught English Literature at the University of Auckland. Her collection, The K.M. File and Other Poems with Katherine Mansfield is one of six collections of poetry. It was published back in 1993 with art-work by Margaret Lando-Bartlett and Judith Haswell and it should really be re-issued because of its importance to Mansfield aficionados.
This poem takes me straight to Mansfield’s account of being in John Fergusson’s studio - her descriptions of the china, the way the light fell across the room, all the colours, but it is actually a dialogue with one of Frances Hodgkins’ still-life portraits. Frances Hodgkin was one of New Zealand’s first notable painters - a contemporary of Katherine Mansfield who also came to England in order to develop her art, became part of the modernist movement and died in 1947. There’s no evidence that the two women ever connected, though their paths crossed on several occasions in London and France.
|Drafts of the poems are included as illustrations|
Academic Lucy McAllister wrote in an essay that she considered the poems in this collection ‘ to have a playful and cryptic purpose like a cross word puzzle’, and she chose the ‘Spring Portrait’ as a particular example of this style.
‘The poet describes in detail a painting: "The portrait is a yellow table / a ginko leaf shaped fan you think / might smell of sandalwood...". Ensing is specific about shape, smell and particularly colour: "a Chinese / vase of 'yellow-grey, 2 blues and brown'". The use of italics (point to the text) should signal to the reader that this phrase contains key information. In the margin is a parenthesised "guess who". This is a challenge from the poet: she knows the identity of the artist. Is the reader able to deduce the painter's identity from the references to specific style and colour?
The theme of a puzzle or game is continued until the final couplet. This does not directly answer the riddle: it is a riddle in itself. In a matter-of-fact tone Ensing states "And there's your still-life portrait / landscape in a figure". This juxtaposes four types of painting as one and reverses the usual relation of "Figure in a Landscape". However, the italicised "still-life portrait" is the crucial "signal" for the reader to look at the notes in the margin. It is here that the answer lies: "(yes, you've got it Frances Hodgkins)". In effect the poet has described Hodgkins's painting style without directly stating the artist's name.’
So the poem manages to include both Mansfield and Hodgkins - it’s describing the portrait by Hodgkins in words that reference Mansfield. There’s a sense of longing in the last lines - the jonquils refer to Katherine Mansfield’s exile in the south of France among fields of those blossoms - the imagined familiar landscape - the cat curled up beside the blue cup (Wingley?), and the nostalgia for a sky that ‘runs through the window’. Mansfield was often homesick for the New Zealand landscape.
You can hear Riemke read this poem (and others) at the New Zealand sound archive, though - sadly - it seems you have to purchase the cd if you can't visit the library.
Renee Liang interviewed Riemke Ensing for The Tuesday Poem in 2012 and you can read it by clicking here.
Photograph of Riemke Ensing: copyright James Ensing-Trussell
This week's editor Kathleen Jones is an English poet, novelist and biographer living in exile in Italy. Her most recent collection of poetry 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' is published by Templar Poetry in the UK. She is also the biographer of Katherine Mansfield, published by Penguin NZ and EUP. Kathleen blogs at 'A Writer's Life'.
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