REVIEW by Omar Sabbagh

NWR Issue r11

RS Thomas: Too Brave to Dream, Encounters with Modern Art

by Tony Brown & Jason Walford Davies (eds)

‘…Is he armed
for attack or

Too Brave to Dream is a posthumous volume of title-less, ekphrastic poems by RS Thomas; short poems, in the main, found penned in response to the reproductions within the pages of two art books from Thomas’ library, namely: Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933) and Surrealism (1936).

Certainly not his best work, there is nonetheless, for this reviewer at least, a certain coherence to these recently discovered poems. As though to reflect the basic structure (self and other) of ekphrasis, the main theme I make use of as a beeline through this very brief consideration is that of narcissism. To my mind, Thomas’ renowned, and admirable skepticism, runs at times in some of these poems into cynicism, which is cheaper. Yes, the title of the book takes itself from the ending of a poem after ‘Shelter Drawing’ (1941), by Henry Moore; and yes, tying in with the Thomas we know, the poem offers muted admiration for those able to live, or die, without delusion or comforting idealistic illusion; none the less, the attitude and tone of many of these poems is not only critical, but aggressive and defensive.

Narcissism – trivially associated with creative artists – involves aggression, or defensiveness, because when a bloated self-conception, an unrealistic ego, comes up against the real world, the real world, inevitably, doesn’t match up or map; hence, the reaction of anger. Take the opening poem, based on a Matisse, where an overtly mannishly posed woman reclines by a chessboard:

The chess-board stipulates
you must play her
at her own game if
you would have her mated.

The ‘mannish’ woman portrayed in the verse seems to be cunning, strategizing, like chess; in the image, though, she seems far more lackadaisical. If the poetic voice is to play her at her own game, it seems to mean that he too must be crafty, man to man, as it were. The pun on ‘mated’ suggests that romance is inherently aggressive, or defensive – depending on whose place in this duel we inhabit. There seems perhaps to be more of Thomas in the verse-portrayal, than the Matisse figure on display – what Jung would call a ‘negative projection.’ The next poem, after André Derrain, ‘Portrait of the Artist’, opens with:

No self-portrait but
one of the artist
posing to his palette.

Critical: again. And one gets the feeling that Thomas’ mild cynicism about other artists may have resulted from subliminal self-knowledge; as though the posing in the second were a different, or mirrored, version of the mirrored mating. Indeed, responding to a Magritte later in this volume, in perhaps one of the most accomplished pieces in the book, Thomas opens the second part with, ‘He is part / of what he resists.’ Tallying and next, after Paul Delvaux’s ‘La prisonnière’:

Art’s one prurience
is to be a voyeur of a future
in which time is sheathed
as our glance in her vagina.

The ‘prurience’ of ‘art’ again is aggressive, temporally, spatially. After Édouard Pignon’s ‘La Catalane’, the critical tone is directed at the woman in the picture, accused of bad faith; and then the voice counters – a conflict within the same poem, like Thomas’ good and bad angels – with a reflection of admiring, admirable stoicism:

Is that a tear?
Does she have to cry

to be sorry, put on
black to convince us?

The first half. Then, equally balanced: ‘There is a sorrow / too deep for the diviner // that remains liquid and yet / desiccates the heart.’ Poetic self, then, to painterly; or vice versa; none the less: a kind of stand-off.

Of Jankel Adler’s ‘David’, there is more artistic insight serving a critique of the artist’s – on an-other artist’s – lack of temperance:

what spirit possessed
this mocker at David,

pitting him against a harp
that was getting the better of him.

That said, after Gabriel Robin’s ‘The Hearth’, a kind of recompensing ‘warmth’ is associated with ‘anonymity,’ ‘reflected by bright coals’ – as opposed, we assume, to a conceited self, shouting ‘Name me, name me’ (party II of the Derain already cited.) Good Thomas against bad Thomas, again.

So when he writes with admiration of ‘his rendering of the absence / of superfluous qualities,’ after Graham Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ (this poem opening, equally tellingly, with the mere line: ‘Gorse is gorse’) – the preceding poem, after Gaston-Louis Roux’s ‘Woman with Flowers’, counterpoints with: ‘All round her flowers… // and on her face where / roses should blow the / smug look of one / congratulating herself / on her retainment of them.’

Though detailing the woman in the picture, again – given the reflexive nature of the ekphrastic endeavor – one can’t help but think that the poet sees a part of himself (as much as the painter) in that pose of self-satisfaction and complacency. If Thomas is defensive, aggressive, in much of this book, it is perhaps because, an honest skeptic for much of his life, he criticises most the weaknesses he sees or saw in himself first: as poet, artist.

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet and critic. Two of his extant collections are: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon, 2010/12); To The Middle of Love, his fourth collection, is forthcoming with Cinnamon in January. His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile was published by Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016. A Dubai sequel to the latter, From Bourbon to Scotch, is forthcoming in December this year with Eyewear. He has published essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, GK Chesterton, Robert Browning, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, and many others; as well as on many contemporary poets. His latest book is a collection of critical essays on literature, Disciplined Subjects and Better Selves (Anaphora, September 2016). He now teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD).

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