Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …
The Wrong Wind
The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.
Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.
Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.
High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.
Once, we stayed here, out of season,
arcades and the Magpie Café closed,
clouds massed like bulkheads in the northern sky
and around the municipal grandstand
only the melismatic cry of gulls.
Close by our feet, winter lay coiled like rope.
At night hope hung across the water like a child.
What is never shared, cannot be lost.
When she was seven or eight,
I brought my daughter here to stay.
Our first time in an old-fashioned B & B,
hot water bottles and flasks of coffee on request.
She laid out her clothes, folded and neat,
each item in its proper drawer,
alarm clock wound and set for seven,
books and diary on the square oak table
nudged against the bed.
There have been other lovers, other nights.
The town, I heard this morning, is falling
rock by rick and day by day into the sea.
Tied up against each forecast,
fishing boats, all colours, rack and slide.
My daughter ran yesterday from France,
she and the man she’s lived with for years
are breaking up. I shall come here again, yes,
I think so, with someone else or on my own.
We cling to what we can, and the rest,
one way or another, clings to us.
from Bluer Than This, Smith/Doorstop, 1998
Just back from a few breezy days on the North Yorkshire coast; long enough, almost, to feel the metropolis blown out of one’s system and enjoy fish suppers, warm doughnuts on the harbour’s edge, and striding out into the wind. My only regret that Whitby Town were not at home.
I’ve seen images of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna as a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, but never the thing itself. Nevertheless, I’ve talked about it, written essays about it; praised, admired and been awestruck by it. Constructed from concrete and steel, it stands, squat, solid and unflourished, at the centre of a square overlooked by ‘fine’ houses, formerly homes to many of the Jews who were transported to those concentration camps whose names are engraved at the foot of the sculpture.
It is a library: a library to which the doors remain resolutely closed. No one can enter: and if they could, once inside, they could never escape. The walls are made from casts of library shelves lined with books, but the books – which all look like the same book – stand inside out, their titles and authors hidden. Anonymous and unread. Lives unaccounted for. Unacknowledged. It’s a statement about the loss of identity, the loss of life, the denial of memory. Uncompromising and uncompromised.
A powerful work, whose strength of form signifies its strength of meaning and discourages the ease of tears.
To have expected something similar, work which would have the same power or elicit a similar response, from the retrospective of Whiteread’s work currently at Tate Britain would have been unfair and not a little foolish. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being just a little bit bored.
Part of the problem [a problem for me, but not, from speaking briefly to others at the gallery, for many] is that Whiteread’s most significant work – which can mean having a significance beyond itself – is public work on a large scale and so can only be shown here in a photograph, a diagram, a plan. What the gallery gives us is a generously large space with several larger pieces – the interior, stairs and floors, of the former warehouse in which she and her family once lived; the room in Broadcasting House which might have been the inspiration for Orwell’s Room101 – at the centre and smaller works – windows and doors cast in plaster and coloured resins – arranged around the perimeter.
Walking round, it’s not difficult to think, okay, this is very clever, but why? Why in the case of the doors and windows, the Tate handout tells us, because “Such a re-imagining of this range of forms in their cast versions, as sculpture, emphasises their details and our relationship with the structures that surround us.”
To which I can only say, “Hmm … ”
But all was not lost. Along one wall there is a delightful array of small objects, some brightly coloured – and, oh, how the heart was crying out for colour in the midst of so much grey concrete – casts of everyday objects such as boxes and, nicest of all, the cylindrical tubes from the centre of toilet rolls. Even better, on the wall at the opposite end hang a number of photographs, sketches and drawings made using pen, pencil or paint – for the most part preparatory work leading up to the final sculptures, but satisfying in themselves. And, best of all, a long vitrine in which is displayed a selection made by Whiteread herself of pages from her notebooks, more sketches and photographs, along with a number of objects she has collected and kept. Absolutely fascinating.
Outside the gallery space, in the Duveen Galleries, are a number of pieces Whiteread has selected from the Tate’s permanent collection – sculptures by Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Barbara Hepworth, Rebecca Warren and others. As one of the visitors I spoke to said, the problem with is that, set against range and liveliness of that work, Whiteread’s own can suffer in comparison.
And finally, a literary footnote. For the sales display outside, amongst the catalogues and postcards, is a small selection of books that Whiteread has recommended: and what a selection! Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes; short stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver; Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary; Henning Mankel. Enough to form the beginning of a small library of contemporary fiction.
Known pleasures aside – Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, plus exhibitions at Penlee House [Stanhope Forbes, some very fine paintings indeed] and The Exchange in Penzance; excellent food at Mackerel Sky in Newlyn and the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives – our recent brief trip to the south-west yielded up newer delights, from a blowy ride on the open top deck of the A17 bus from Penzance to St. Ives to the deliciously straightforward and tip-top food at the small café at Penzance’s refurbished Jubilee Pool. Just three days but worth it.
Almost every visit we’ve made to St. Ives in the last twenty or so years has included a visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden: on this occasion the sun came out just as the rain receded …
Crosses on the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91. Idaho
It started when I told Jerry not to take the wheel. Look at you, I said; he was so close to falling-down drunk, if it hadn’t been for the way he was bouncing off the walls, he’d have been eyeballing the floor. Will you get a look at the state you’re in? Well, of course, it was the last thing I should have said. I mean, whatever else he was, sober or drunk, that Jerry always was the world’s most cussed son of a bitch. Besides, by then we’d already hit on these two girls, dark-skinned, like maybe they had some blood in them, you know what I’m saying, and the way they was swallowing down shot after shot, barely stopping to wipe their mouths across the backs of their hands – Hot! Jerry grins at me when we’re out to take a piss. Hot and not a day past fifteen. He was wrong about that. The taller one, Marcie, she was sixteen years, three months, so it turned out; Sheryl, she would have been seventeen three weeks this Labor Day. Anyway, Marcie and me climbed right in the back, Sheryl up front with Jerry, real close, one of her legs hooked over his knee. We had this pack of Coors swimming in a bucket of day-old ice down by my feet. Petey, Jerry said, swinging round his head, pop me one of those. I saw his face, just for that moment, bright in the headlights, Jerry having the time of his life, smiling his cock-eyed smile.
When they rolled the truck back over and reached inside, mine were the only arms that reached back.
from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)