Composition for Words and Paint
This darkness has a quality
that poses us in shapes and textures,
one plane behind another,
ﬂatness in depth.
Your face; a fur of hair; a striped
curtain behind, and to one side cushions;
nothing recedes, all lies extended.
I sink upon your image.
I see a soft metallic glint,
a tinsel weave behind the canvas,
aluminium and bronze beneath the ochre.
There is more in this than we know.
I can imagine drawn around you
a white line, in delicate brush-strokes:
emphasis; but you do not need it.
You have completeness.
I am not measuring your gestures;
(I have seen you measure those of others,
know a mind by a hand’s trajectory,
the curve of a lip).
But you move, and I move towards you,
draw back your head, and I advance.
I am ﬁxed to the focus of your eyes.
I share your orbit.
Now I discover things about you:
your thin wrists, a tooth missing;
and how I melt and burn before you.
I have known you always.
The greyness from the long windows
reduces visual depth; but tactile
reality deﬁes half-darkness.
My hands prove you solid.
You draw me down upon your body,
hard arms behind my head.
Darkness and soft colours blur.
We have swallowed the light.
Now I dissolve you in my mouth,
catch in the corners of my throat
the sly taste of your love, sliding
into me, singing;
just as the birds have started singing.
Let them come ﬂying through the windows
with chains of opals around their necks.
We are expecting them.
From Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2000). Subsequently published in Collected Poems (Victoria University Press); originally published in Tigers (Oxford University Press, 1967). Posted with kind permission from Bloodaxe Books and Victoria University Press.
Note from Tracey Slaughter:
When I read Fleur Adcock’s ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ I get a feeling like I’ve just stepped from glaring sunlight into a dim cool room, a blinking transition where objects shift their edges, textures and sensations blur. Things cross the retina that shouldn’t coexist – heat and cool, shade and sheen, disorientation and sharp awareness – as the dazzled eye tries to pull focus on outlines, shadows, glints. I’ve read it so many times now I could start to break down how its sheer mastery does this to me – but first I’d rather just surrender, step over that threshold, and let it return me to that liminal space it evokes, that experience of sensory eclipse.
Charted in a present tense aquiver with nowness, it’s a poem that wants to keep you in that state of dissolve, that hazy receptivity. Stanza through stanza as it tracks the movements of lovers drawing close in an intimate room, it guides the senses through concrete details that both cloud and illuminate, define and veil, observing the couple’s actions through sustained brushstrokes of metaphorical paint. It’s a poem that watches the act of love with an eye for its composition on the canvas, using the artist’s gaze to render the encounter in visual strokes and shapes, bringing bodies to slow light through questions of perspective, surface, angle, plane. As if conducting an ekphrastic exercise, analysing imagery already framed, it envisages the elements of this love scene in terms of its visual field, lining up the lovers in a studied play of light, curve, pose, dark, parallel, emphasis, depth. But if it employs the methodical and intricate tone of the artist approaching the canvas at the same time it applies the motif of paint to evoke the flooded senses of the lover lost in the work-at-hand’s erotic experience. Issues of surface, extension, colour, focus are at once used to underline the artist’s trained gaze and to wash the scene with a sensuous physical impression of the lovers’ work in progress. ‘I sink upon your image’ the speaker says – the borders of the canvas collapse. It pivots on a repeated play on ‘drawing,’ a practice which moves both brush and body – from a white line sketched around a figure, a head is drawn back, another tantalisingly down – using the term to figure both the tactile capture of the painted line and the gestural seduction of bodies, the pull and call of the lovers pacing and exploring each other in the shaded room. In that elided term, the hand that draws cannot sustain its ‘measured’ distance, it’s too coated in the palette of touch, too absorbed in lust for each line it envisages. Each brushstroke shivers on the painter’s own skin as it orders and colours objective space. It’s part of the mystery I love in Adcock’s language throughout the piece, that it can be at once controlled and lush, clinical and intoxicating – when I read it over I’m always searching for how it extracts such pulse from precision, such glistening intensity from poised restraint. Heat and chill, dark and gleam, it always keeps me blinking for how she keeps that threshold so skilfully blurred.
From an eye scrutinizing the shades and planes of love, the perspective slips to a place where the deeply implicated speaker can only ‘melt and burn’; I imagine that Adcock must have known the work of other women trying to depict female desire around this era: I always hear a tinge of Plath and Sexton in that phrasing. Perhaps there’s an echo of those poets present in the voice of this piece too, its commanding first-person, an ‘I’ intent on fixing and tracing the interaction with ‘you’ in a potent, honed, hypnotic tone. The slow processional sound of each line moves like brush or fingertip savouring the detail, like an entranced hand lingering on the contours of all it draws to light, tasting and positioning each syllable that ‘discovers’ the body with its palpable paint. It is unconventional glints of the lover that are touched upon too, the odd raw details an ordinary love-poem would read as flaws lifted into luminosity – flashes like ‘thin wrists, a tooth missing’ stand in contrast to the points of perfection a love ode would usually pick out, but the ‘tactile reality’ of this encounter sets them alight with ache and lustre. The final blur is ultimately the blur of fusion, of bodies merged and dissolved in such a close-up all sense of scale is lost from the visual field: ‘We have swallowed the light.’ The paint of the scene now spills into the speaker’s throat as she drinks in the lover: it’s a slyly rapturous depiction of orality which could have been a terrible paean to pleasure, but which Adcock’s lyric language manages to sculpt to a sultry and mutual release. Could any other poet pull off the miracle of birdsong ‘flying through the windows’ at climax? Sometimes I wonder if there’s a tint of darkness caught in the opal chains around the necks of those birds – but if there is, it is set against the tender domination of the voice, its soft imperative immediacy: ‘Now I dissolve you.’ It’s been said that a love poem always appeals as much to the reader as it does to the lover, using its language to pull and lure their senses too into a sweet-talking thrall. Consider me dissolved. ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ always has me at ‘This darkness…’
Bloodaxe Books page
Victoria University Press page
Tracey Slaughter‘s latest work is the poetry collection Conventional Weapons (VUP, 2019). She is the author of the acclaimed short story collection deleted scenes for lovers (VUP, 2016), and her work has received numerous awards, including the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She works at the University of Waikato, where she edits the journal Mayhem.
Fleur Adcock, a New Zealand poet, editor and translator, resides in Britain. She has published numerous poetry collections, her most recent being The Land Ballot (2014) and Hoard (2017). This year Victoria University Press published her Collected Poems. She has won many book awards and has received notable honours including an OBE (1986), the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2006) and a CNZM for services to literature (2008).