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The Groyne, South Shields

I spent the weekend driving around the Borders.

On Saturday, I read at the James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Competition Event, organised by the lovely Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press. I read four poems, including ‘The Whore’s Bath In Art’, which won the 2012 competition. It was a lovely crowd, and a pleasure to hear the 2011 winner Maggie Whyte reading some vivid, beautiful work from her new pamphlet ‘No Mud, No Lotus’.

I’ll be back next year to launch my own, and look forward to it. Hopefully, I’ll be slightly less breathless without a baby sitting on my diaphragm.

I was also pleased to get to visit this pink alien spaceship lighthouse, the Groyne.

The Whore’s Bath In Art

My spine bows under Ingres’ fingers. Behind me,
he murmurs Odalisque as he follows the line of my buttocks
I must not turn. My arse grows as cold as marble.

Degas drenched me in scarlet pastel and crammed me
into a frame. I’d be like Venus, coming out of her shell
he said, sharpening his pencil with a flick knife’s blade

Renoir’s soapy, squidgy girl-woman arranges
her hair. Fiddles with her up-do, while the coy
drapes converge at the bare peach between her legs.

Bonnard caught the shimmering reflections
as he sneaked glimpses of his wife continuing
her long standing relation with a blue rimmed enamel basin.

In the slack purple water, among fat leafed
vines, Gaugin made his women glow as they watched
the voyeur, their dark hair pooling like an oil slick.

The women languish in steam. They stoop, sponge and soak.
While the artists scrub Alizarin Crimson so hard
it dents the canvas from behind and their fine squirrel-hair brushes splay.

From their baths, they observe as the old masters chase beauty
across the studio. Languidly, they tilt their heads as they wash,
rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, wondering where on earth all this dirt came from.

*

Having trained as a painter, and worked both as an artist and a life model, I wanted to explore the tension between the artist, viewer and model in this poem. The ambivalent power relationship of a clothed onlooker and a nude model has always interested me. Recently, I was looking at some pictures by male artists and noticed how many of their female subjects seemed to be caught in the grip of some kind of OCD – everybody was constantly washing themselves.

The title refers both to a whore’s bath being a stand-up wash (I thought this was a commonly known phrase, but some people seem not to know it) and the status (actual or perceived) of artists’ models in the past.

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