Metamorphosis: Poems inspired by Titian 
Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 04:49 PM
Posted by Administrator
I bought this little book at the Titian: Metamorphosis 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery. Fourteen poets were asked to respond to the three Titian paintings on display, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon.

Patience Agbabi’s ‘About Face’ zooms in on the faces of Diana and her African attendant, her poem’s narrator. Both Ovid’s poem and Titian’s paintings play with various echoing and mirroring effects, and Agbabi cleverly extends this motif by making the two halves of ‘About Face’ near perfect reflections of each other.

The first stanza ends ‘Look how your fate reflects itself in water’ which is then immediately picked up in the opening line of the second stanza: ‘Look! How your fate reflects itself in water’. Then we reread each line from the first stanza in reverse order – and appreciate the various clever ways in which the new transitions between lines create quite different meanings. Thus:

I want you, Actaeon. I wish I were
Shroud white; O that you’d notice me and mouth
Each monumental curve. Her handsome face …

metamorphoses into:

each monumental curve, her handsome face
Shroud white. O that you’d notice me and mouth
I want you. Actaeon, I wish I were …

Many of the poets seemed to be responding both to Ovid’s text and Titian’s paintings, creating an effect of shimmering ecphrastic uncertainty. Simon Armitage’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ begins:

The whole hillside being smeared and daubed
with the blood of the hunt, I dropped down
to a stream whose water ran clear and cool,
and followed its thread through a wooded fold.

‘Daubed’ reminds us that the blood we see is paint, and the reference to the water’s thread suggests the texture of canvas. Carol Ann Duffy is still more preoccupied with paint. Each line of ‘Titian: Diana and Callisto’ ends with a word or phrase - ‘point’, ‘pout’, ‘planet’, ‘plant’ - which anticipates the poem’s punch line:

'My point,
ladies, is this – it’s all about paint.'

A moment in the middle of the poem when the rape of Callisto is described:

'each bruise on her skin his fingerprint'

seems, particularly in retrospect, to elide the predatory god with the artist himself, both powerful creators. It also perhaps echoes Ovid’s own description of Pygmalion, as he shapes his statue into life. He:

'Explor’d her, Limb by Limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a Gripe had left a livid Mark behind.' (Dryden’s translation)

This hint that artists and gods have something in common is echoed in Frances Leviston’s ‘Woodland Burial’, a poem which seems to respond to the way in which, in The Death of Actaeon, Titian makes Actaeon merge into the landscape as well as turn into a deer. It begins:

'Thrown water touched him and where it touched it said
his body was the same brownness leaves turn
when autumn is upon us …'

and ends:

'and nothing left of him was in the picture she composed.'

It is as if we are supposed to imagine Diana as a kind of divine anti-artist who, after the transitional moment captured by the painting, will go on to blur and smudge Actaeon out of existence. The poet – or perhaps the reader – becomes godlike in Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘The Dark’ which ends simply ‘The gods turned the page’. However, if this makes us feel in control, Tony Harrison may make his readers (at least if they are male) uneasy:

'And you, sir, yes, sir, you who just began
to read these lines you’re, maybe, a marked man …

As you exit through the gallery’s glass doors
that antlered head reflected, is it yours?
For survival’s sake when leaving best beware
of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square.'

The tiny detail from Diana and Actaeon which accompanies Harrison’s poem is particularly intriguing – and makes me want to go and look again at the painting. There is an uncannily doubled trace of a hand on the pillar on which the stag’s skull rests. It’s almost as though one is a reflection of the other, even though the surface is stone rather than glass. And the volume itself is also full of internal echoes, just like Ovid's own poem. The exhibition - which is free - is on until 23 September.

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