Aperture — Book Launch Key Note by John Holt
by Lindi Forde·
John Holt, a former English and Literature teacher, and artist, launched Aperture at the Rising Sun Pub, South Melbourne, on 17 June 2023. His speech was a highlight of the occasion - erudite, charming and insightful - embracing and elucidating both the words and art in our book. We share his speech and feel certain you will enjoy it as a work of thoughtful art in itself, as well as being a lovely introduction to our book — David & Lindi
When this book arrived and I leafed through it casually I felt a change in mood coming over me. I skimmed through the book quickly at first, looking at the images and picking up a few opening lines and noticed that it was already having an effect on the way I felt. Calmer, for some reason. I’d probably been reading and seeing too much that was making me anxious, but it did make me realise that I hadn’t read much poetry or looked at art for a while. This made me think about what makes poetry and art different from most other things we read and look at, so a lot of that is behind the way I’ll talk about Lindi and David’s book today.
As I read and looked more at the works here I realised that there was a lot going on, not all of it calming, and I felt a bit daunted at the idea that I could do justice to it, so I thought the best approach might be to just take a couple of angles which will give you a taste of the book and also make some attempt to say why these two art forms matter.
The first point I’d like to emphasise is that the poems and art works shouldn’t be looked at as illustrations of each other. Even though there is very often a strong link between elements of the poems and elements of the art works they each deserved to be looked at for themselves, as complete in themselves and not dependent on each other.
Look at, say, just the first image on page 10 so we can think for a moment about the ways we can talk about how images and poems can work side by side. In the first poem, Childhood Sketch, the sound of the words sketch, latch, screen door and the mention of ‘gully wind’ do seem to match the scratching lines and textures of the painting, the almost redness working with the way the adults in the poem dread the arrival of fire. When I looked at the image my first thought was of a fiery landscape but also of an emotion. To my eyes it captures disturbance and tension, energy and pain. That does connect with the poem, but through mood and emotion — try not to think of it too literally. It doesn’t need the poem to be understood, it exists as a complete work on its own.
We are always being asked to share in an experience, not told what to think.
Even so, the fact that the poems and the art do so often work so well together is something I found quite delightful.
There are many other examples but for the moment I’ll just mention Bogong High Country on page 28. In that case the name of the poem was so apt for the painting that I’ve found it difficult to get the idea that it is actually a painting of Mt Bogong out of my head when I look at it. There is a lot to enjoy in these art works and, perhaps influenced by the content of a number of the poems, I kept seeing images of landscapes and city scapes, of urban and natural environments.
But they are not imitating nature, they are not literal illustrations of the world, they are an exploration of form, they are the product of whatever it is that happens when an artist works with their materials, paint or words or lines and shapes or remembered moments, and that’s a complex process that is not entirely a thought process but something that also engages our other senses.
One poem, Point Leo Pointillism, starts very simply:
'Can there be any more perfection than this, our morning’s walk?'
But it’s not quite everyday speech, is it? A lot of its effect depends on that line break after ‘perfection’ and the extra emphasis it throws onto the phrase ‘than this’, especially ‘this’ which makes us feel we are there with them. I’m being taken somewhere, and this is the first thing I want to say about these art forms. We are always being asked to share in an experience, not told what to think.
In both of the examples so far I think it’s the the way form imposes itself that gets us to stop and consider, to bend our minds to the shape we’re presented with, not just pick bits of information out of it. And I think that’s why the book affected my mood when I first looked through it.
Here are a few more first lines. They are strongly visual, but I ask you to also listen to the rhythm and the sounds:
One starts with:
'The summer beats upon the weathered house'
another begins with:
'I scrape the butter from her plate'
and yet another with:
'Mud-splashed street urchins in restaurants'
These are vivid images that place us right there in the moment, but I wanted you to notice some of the technique that makes those images feel so real. It’s not just one thing and I won’t go through a sound and image analysis here, but each of these lines create feelings in the reader not just by telling us what is happening but by using rhythm, the sound of words and the way the words sit together and interact with each other to support the feeling we have that we are somehow right there at the place that is being created for us to experience.
Rhythm, for example, comes above all from our heartbeat, it is a physical thing just as sound is, something we feel in our body, in the beating of our blood. When poetry and art use rhythm they are engaging our body in our understanding. Last week I read an article by a neurologist who claimed that the distinction between the mind and the body has been proven to be incorrect by science. His point was that there was no one centre of consciousness, in the brain for example, but that many experiments have shown that consciousness emerges from throughout our whole body. His point that this makes a distinction between the mind and the body redundant is not quite right of course, because that distinction is a metaphor for a certain way of thinking, not an actual claim about human physiology. But that certain way of thinking, which I think of as the Platonic tradition, was uncomfortable with art in large part because it wanted to separate and elevate the mind over the body. Plato would have no artists in his ideal republic. After all, the body is essential to art.
Poetry itself, of course, began long ago as song, as chant and incantation and dance. Physical action and lived experience are there at the beginning of art and I’d argue that they are still always there. Rhythm is there in visual art too, of course, and this connection between art forms is why Kandinsky, defending his radical move into what got called ‘abstract’ painting, said that all art should aspire to the condition of music.
What poetry and art were doing right from the start was partly an expression of feeling, of what is in us, our passions, our astonishment at and fear of the world, but they were also finding ways to shape our blundering attempts to make sense of the world. Aristotle said that they were attempts to depict the world, to re-present it to ourselves, to imitate it as he said, but the world is not transparent to our understanding. Our feelings and our needs entangle our comprehension, so we needed to find forms and structures that could help us make sense of our experience of the world, both of ourselves as beings in that world and to make sense of all that was not us.
Kant said that experience itself is a kind of cognition, and although I love that he said that, we are still left with the problem that experience doesn’t ‘understand’ itself. Art is a kind of solution to that problem in that it attempts to find forms that comprehend experience in ways that embody it and make it available to reflection without deracinating it, without stripping it of its lived reality. Back then, when art began, it was still a world of nature, a world in which all that was not human still dominated and shaped human life. In the poetry here I even thought I could sometimes hear an echo of Homer in a line or two of David’s, taking us back to the time when poetry was oral memory, handed down from generation to generation. In that oral tradition of archaic and Mycenaean Greece, human experience was understood as constant heroic struggle against the inevitability of death and the inexplicable relentlessness of suffering, the indifference of a natural world that was at the same time full of beauty. For Homer that human struggle could only be understood through constant analogies with the natural world.
Here are two short examples that in both their rhythm and their analogies made me think of Homer:
'When as an archer’s bow across the sky a skein of birds drifts out into a winter’s closing day…' — IBIS
And again in:
'Now the day is given over to The warming hands of the closing hour…' — APERTURE
These are beautiful lines in themselves but I raise Homer not only because I saw the resemblance here but also so I could make the point that art is always close to its origins in ourselves and some things about ourselves have never changed. And also because I wanted to continue on this theme of nature in David and Lindi’s work.
...there is so often such a strong sense of the natural world in many of Lindi’s images.
For me one of the reasons so many of the images are such good pairings with the poems is that there is so often such a strong sense of the natural world in many of Lindi’s images. To my nature-focused eye some of the most striking examples include the first three paintings in the book, the first of which I’ve discussed, but there are many others, and just to mention one other example look at the spectacular work on pages 40-41 where I see a luminous joy in sky and sea and field and fences and paint and texture, tone and colour and I could go on with many more. It feels foolish to just pick a few examples from the book out of so many works but I hope I’ve given you enough of a taste by the end of my talk.
Wordsworth, a poet for whom nature was everything and who is both an explicit and an implicit presence in a number of these poems, famously said that poetry is ‘an emotion recollected in tranquility’. And you can sometimes see that here:
'Light is poured silver from the peninsular hills…Frosts melt under the gradual sun' — POINT LEO POINTILLISM
Escaping from his room during lockdown he puts himself in the landscape in a way also reminiscent of Wordsworth, the isolated self communing with nature:
'I walked this place not long ago and navigate again in a dream…'
'Birds take lazy flight above the lake’s withdrawing shores…'
'spoonbills dredge the dark inlet, it’s evening and I’ve far to go. The moon’s modest blush conspires with an unsettling gloom. I startle hedge-bound things.' — ON LEAVING MY ROOM DURING LOCKDOWN
At one point he half-laments about his schooling that:
'I am confined by what has made me; a Wordsworthian romanticising, a colonised youthful sensibility from days of cloistered schooling'
There’s a lot to say about these lines but I’ll restrict myself to the comment that this inheritance of school Wordsworth can sometimes be a good thing as can be seen in the reflective mode and rhythm of these lines as in the lines I’m about to mention.
It’s a thrilling vision of the way the struggles of our individual lives are part of the natural order
In the following lines he does something that I think is hard to achieve. It’s a little reminiscent of Wordsworth’s manner of remembering, his syntax and rhythmic style, in something like the Prelude, but David doesn’t fall into Wordsworth’s frequent failing of complacency that can verge on pomposity. Instead, this is the opposite, troubled, anxious, with a nervous energy. It’s a thrilling vision of the way the struggles of our individual lives are part of the natural order of the universe and it’s anything but tranquil. It’s as if it’s not only our human destiny to struggle but that in some way we share that imperative with all of nature. Here David does this in a way that is also humble, self-aware, a bit unsure, something expressed in the rhythm and the sound of words again as much as in their more obvious meanings:
'So am I drawn beyond my natural home to where the warring clouds amass and race, and others spur me to embrace the sum of life allotted me by time and grace' — IBIS
I think some of David’s poetry shows how limited, how complacent, that quote from Wordsworth is. The Greeks also valued harmony, balance, sophrosyne as they called it, almost above anything else. But harmony can also be an enemy of art and the greatest of Greek art is much much more than harmony.
Maybe one of the ways into understanding art is to see it as a struggle for harmony that can’t be resolved. Or you could say an art work embodies this struggle between harmony and conflict, or to put in another way, between painful emotion and tranquillity. It’s not something that is ever resolved. There is no such thing in art as that abominable word ‘closure’. If everything in a work of art is resolved it is only because the work is dead. In even sharper contrast to that comforting idea of tranquillity there are poems here like Defragmentation, where David’s subject is his anguished memory of his goddaughter’s death.
During the daylight we can keep our painful memories at bay to some extent - just - but they are still very much there:
'In the day, oblique to the senses, misgivings scuttle to the corner of my mind where they dissolve into the skirting' — DEFRAGMENTATION: (ABOUT DEATH OF GODDAUGHTER)
But at night, in what Ingmar Bergman called ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ in his film of that name, our suffering and our pain has a way of looming up out of the darkness and tormenting us when we can’t escape it, in this case, later in the poem, in a painfully sharp memory:
'I am numb already deep in the night where preternaturally bleached bandages lie reckoned in a linen press from where they wrapped my godchild…'
Those of us who are now officially old know that memories of childhood will haunt us to our dying days, and we also know they are not only memories but continue to live in us, continuing to shape our lives, however much we want to escape what our childhood made of us. In “Chosen” David writes:
'In my youth, the Almighty was embodied in a Baptist pastor squeezed into a suit jacket, belted trousers lifted high.
Easing from the pulpit, a leather-bound Bible clasped to his breast he carried the weight of souls
I owed him repentance for sins known and unknown. My father too, lived the terrible burden of the Chosen. With both men, I was in the presence of thunder.'
Again, there’s a lot to say about this and I’m trying to avoid getting into too much analysis of detail, but I’ve just put it in here to reinforce my point that art is about the struggle with experience, not just its ‘recollection’. He is here dealing with a tremendously important aspect of who he is, with a memory of something powerful that still lives in him and is still a part of who he is. Most moving of all to me in these lines is the warmth of sympathy and love David feels for these two dominating, frightening men. They live within him even now.
[Lindi’s] works combine attractiveness, beauty if you like, with disturbance.
I’ve already referred a couple of times to the poem Ibis, but now I want you to look for a few moments at Lindi’s image on the same page, page 60. Just look at it for itself. True, it works with the poem in a way that’s surprising, but I just want to raise a slightly similar point to the one I made about David’s poetry and that is the absence of anything like complacency. I often find her works combine attractiveness, beauty if you like, with disturbance. As I said about the first piece in the book there’s energy and tension here, as if something almost frantic under the surface is being contained by those arcs, by the subduing blue, and by those large dots across the bottom.
You see that nervous energy again in the piece on page 22, where a sense of written script across the work creates a feeling of something that can’t quite be written, something there’s not quite a language for, an expression of something that somehow can’t be expressed. What is expressed is that we can’t really say what we need to say. I say ‘need’ because that’s how urgent I think the emotion in it is. The blue lines work for me like a half-gained alphabet, like we’re getting there, we might soon be able to say what needs to be said. That might be why they have a slightly calming affect on the wildly dancing rhythms of the orange lines.
There is so much more in this little book than I’ve talked about here, but I’ll stop here, except to add that it’s gorgeously produced and looks fabulous, so hats off to the printer. And thank you David and Lindi for this evidence of what productive lives you both lead.
Key note speech given at Aperture Book Launch on 17th June 2023 By John Holt ©John Holt 2023