Monday, June 02, 2008

2. Pavement Artistes - Michael Hofmann

Pavement Artistes is labelled ‘after E.L. Kirchner’, the German expressionist artist. I don’t know much about Kirchner’s work, but a quick search provided me with good examples and information. The poem centres on the women in Kirchner’s Berlin paintings and my googling suggests that he was most interested in painting prostitutes.

Hofmann describes them in terms of birds, but not common, domestic creatures. They “wear veils to cage the savagery/ of their features.” They are simultaneously alluring and frightening.

But Hofmann doesn’t stop there. He shifts the poem in the final couple of stanzas to an entirely unpredictable place by seeing the women through the eyes of the men in the paintings. The men categorise the women as either “policeman” or “clown”. Both types are “bowler-hatted” and afraid of shadows and test the heat of the pavement with a “long foot.” The poem captures the wilful distortion in the paintings, the odd angles, the weird facial expressions.

Kirchner’s paintings were condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate” in 1933 and many were destroyed in 1938. The trauma led to his suicide a year later. Hofmann doesn’t refer to these events, but his poem is a fitting tribute to and affirmation of the chaotic beauty of the painter’s vision.

My favourite bit refers to the women. It’s dynamic, imaginative, and perfectly describes how Kirchner places human characters against a background urban landscape. In three lines, Hofmann paints a dramatic picture using only words:

Their control of outlying stairways and arches
is ensured by their human architecture.
The gothic swoop of shoulder, waist and hip.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused on this: isn't it the women categorising the men as either policemen or clowns?

The grammar's ambiguous I think:

For men, they are something of a touchstone,
distinguishing them into the two categories
of policeman and clown ...

'They' are the women, so it could by 'they' who are distinguishing 'them' [the men].

Especially since the 'two types' are then described as strolling along 'bowler-hatted', which is very different from the image of the women.

This Kirchner painting looks like the kind of thing:

Perhaps they're divided into policemen & clowns because they're either being viewed as threats to business (the Law) or foolish (potential) customers?

Also, I don't imagine it's the women who are 'terrified of shadows', being posited as the hunters in this scene, and the men the hunted.

The most arresting (sorry!) phrase for me is:

Like the motherly pelican
they are plucked bare ..

The Christian icon of self-sacrifice (and Christ symbol) used to describe the prostitutes ... for which there is also a biblical echo, although I can't quite *picture* what he means by this description.

As per:

And after picking out the 'jungle' line from yesterday's poem, there was a nice follow-on in this one's exotic & feathery & savage figures.


Rob said...

I thought first that it had to be the men who were the policemen and clowns, as it seemed more likely, but then convinced myself that the grammar didn't allow that. I'd reckoned the description to be a strange surreal trick. But now I think I'm obviously wrong. I had too many other things on my mind today!