John Birtwhistle, in the event (Carcanet, 2020)
It may seem odd to start a book of poems with a footnote – well a note printed in the middle of the first page – but John Birtwhistle uploads his reader with historical information about the French commune located near the Belgian border, before he or she has set eyes on ‘The Path To Courrières’. So, we know it is a place where in 1906 Germans came to help rescue French miners after an explosion, and in 1940 German soldiers set fire to the village and shot forty-five hostages. And we know Jules Breton painted his oil sketch, the subject of the poem, many years before either of these events. You might think this does away with any element of surprise and the first couple of lines: ‘The gleaner in her shawl, the rough linen sling at her waist, figured against the evening sky’, lull the reader into thinking he or she is about to encounter a straightforward ekphrasis, even a clichéd plowman plodding his weary way. What a tender trap! There is no gleaner; she’s in a different painting. The poem tells us it’s the painter himself, not the gleaner, who’s trudging home, but there is no painter either, because we’re looking through his eyes at the path. He’s an invisible man. And all that history? Time is supposed to have ‘scumbled’ it, but the poem does the opposite. And then we’re suddenly out of the picture, just standing in the gallery sheltering from the Sheffield rain, noticing a bucket ‘catching ...
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