By JUDITH WILLSON.
‘Day by day, good day’:
Peter Dreher’s 5,000 paintings of an empty drinking glass
One idea I had … was to paint an invisible picture.
—Peter Dreher, 2012
He paints light every day and every day
he is astonished how light collects into a glass’s shape
on a white table against a white wall.
I wanted to paint something usual, like a glass.
Not a brick. A brick is too heavy.
Tomorrow he will paint the glass he has never seen before,
the one that holds the pearl of a lightbulb, or late sun
caught like a moth, its wings folded to fit.
These are his quiet fixed hours, the days’ passage
amassed: a glass, a white table, a white wall –
there must be a window, an airy room, a house
where someone makes coffee, cooks herring?
In Mannheim light scoured from too many directions,
tasted of brick dust. He was twelve
and floating. When I was twenty-nine I built a house.
I learned this was not the way to get home.
The glass hovers on its reflection. The table’s horizon
is grey and tremulous. How did we not notice
those low distant hills across the puckered water?
How cold the morning light dredging the undertow
where tenements, the best department store, the planetarium
are burning. And in that avenue of lindens
a woman is pushing a barrow between splintered trees.
A boy runs beside her in a man’s clumsy brown shoes.
Tomorrow a slow current will carry the glass
past the warm slubby wall and he will be astonished
a glass could be so gold-flecked and ashy, so full
with the hour when the schoolmaster’s wife has settled the baby
and plays a gramophone record, closing her eyes.
He will paint the weight that falls across her lap.
It’s good if the glass after a time goes out of the painting.
When did the room become so dark?
[Lines in italic are from interviews with Peter Dreher in Peter Dreher: Just Painting, 2014]
After the wars, their monuments:
the heaped-up volumes – accounts of years,
minutes, the treaties. Insofar as. At 3am. Unavailing.1
The special character of the People.2
This document is unsigned. See Appendix.3
Has no recollection.4 Work of diligent housewives,
winter coats they’d put away
in vast mahogany wardrobes for a season.
(Ach, wax polish. That apartment in the Old Town.)
You might open a door,
reach through thick folds into pockets
for a letter or a glove; something crumpled and dry.
1. Our New Friends, a first reader
._from the year before language reform.
._Bunches of keys. Loose change. A train ticket.
2. A pun on the word strawberry
._in the mountain dialect. Hand flicks
._for yes/no. Lace. A fondness for talking birds.
3. Postcards from the last exhibition
._of the Watercolour Society. Old jokes
._disrespectful to the chief of police. Irregular verbs.
4. A porcelain coffee pot, three cups,
._four saucers; doll-sized. Rosebud cups
._rimmed with gold, each saucer crimped like a leaf.
No one any idea where or who
by the time they were mine. Once, in a shop
close to a bankrupt border, I saw a matching cup
in a box of screwdrivers, teaspoons,
old beads. A quiet morning, sun in the streets
and someone’s leavings. The warmth going out of them.
Reading the storm glass
Changes in the liquid in your storm glass will forecast the weather…
The chemistry has curdled. This morning the liquid was clouded,
shot with jumping sparks.
Now a storm is picking up your treasured things and laughing.
The air rings in your ears as if stones had fallen minutes before
and would not stop falling. The sealed glass holds its breath.
The broken skin on your hands will not heal.
On days when crystals slump like dissolving sugar
you will write your name again and again on scraps of paper.
It will be the wrong answer every time. In this place
your alphabet is deceitful as a wishbone.
If your thick blood would only stop clotting you could stand
weightless and legible in the hot salt wind.
At the sting of polar air, your crystals will seed to cottongrass
trembling on a starved moor. Now you will be alone until spring
walking a basalt beach the length of the peninsula,
miles of birch forest at your back.
After six weeks you are scoured luminous as an aluminium bowl.
The sky is soft as ash and each day tastes of glacier water.
Sometimes there is nothing to see in the glass but a window
curled like a leaf, rocking a little in silvery liquid.
You in your blue dress watching the sky turn over the sea,
you know how light will wash through this room
smelling of mint and a change in the weather.
You know there are yellow pears in a dish on the table.
Two faces under a hat
doves at the fountain_____ and folly’s flower
soldier’s buttons________ and naked lady’s foot
hawkfoot, crowfoot______ or lady’s petticoat
old maid’s basket_______ or baby’s shoes, also
old granny’s nightcap____ and granny hoods
fool’s caps, skullcaps____. dolly’s bonnets and
______________________two faces under a hat
which is Our Lady’s flower, her dove, her soft foot,
which flower is like to five eagles that meet together
mantling the torn lamb
which strewn unto bed straw protects from barrenness
which seeds, women whisper, gathered at Lammas moon
provoke the descent of blood
which hath poison in its seeds and roots, which causeth
heart pains, breathlessness
which pretty flower the custom is to plant on graves
which flower’s thick roots continue many years
Here we go again,
Donna Nina, Miss Franceschina, La Bella Diamantina,
sister Colombina in your grass gown, trampling the wild garlic
leading a miry dance in and out of woodland’s half-light gauzes.
O there’s tricks i’ th’ world, there’s sliding panels, masks,
there’s tumblers and fumbled catches under the hell trap –
snap that slapstick, Signor Alichino – ropes, counterweights
behind the fairy palace. You’ll remember the mirror routine,
Columbine tells the little girls in party shoes, you’ll remember,
when January rain wakes you, your window shaken open,
the black roads hissing, the track end at a flooded storm drain,
your breath beating its wings in your ribcage. You’ll know
exactly who I am, exactly who you don’t yet know you are.
Step across. You’ll find my doves sip-sipping the dark water.
You’ll find my black glittering seeds.
Views in a landscape mirror
Where the objects are great and near, the landscape mirror removes them to a due distance, and shows them in the soft colours of nature.
—Thomas West, Guide to the Lakes, 1778
Principles of Linear Perspective (I)
(i) This uneven world is strung with invisible wires
tuned to perfection.
(ii) A beam of light will be pulled inexorably down
to earth’s stone-blind centre.
(iii) A man who sets off on a long walk can be seen
becoming smaller and smaller
until he passes through
the Vanishing Point.
(iv) All this is beautiful and, if done correctly,
your picture may hardly be distinguished from the real thing.
The Discovery Centre
Fragile as old film, the miners whistle their names’ thin tunes –
John Newton, Cageman. Tom Evans, Shaftman – lines of them
rising from the archives, red dust on their backs. The youngest
have not grown into their clothes. No one opens a door,
no one steps into the parlour (John Crellin? George Walker?)
in the replica cottage entered through the replica mineshaft
where everything that happens has already, noiselessly, happened.
We could live here we think, comforted and quiet, mending
and making in the hearth’s sepia light. Very small,
full of history, someone has written in the visitors’ book.
We walk out to level sunlight, bleached air, pebbledashed streets.
A seawall curving away, a loading pier buried in slagfall.
‘This peaceful nature reserve is not natural’
Here you follow the map. Keep to access paths.
Discover the home of the Scheduled Species,
the natterjack toad, the tern. Look for marsh orchids,
their mauve alchemical flame hissing in grass
as they break through the silica crust.
meshed in invisible highlines and gantries,
the air full of skylarks pulling upwards rung by rung.
And under your feet, stacked vaults and shafts,
sealed workings where the sea plucks, sliding coils
gliding in silence perhaps, with unfettered sweep
through black windroads.
…………………………………………It is relentless,
the convergence of sightlines you walk through
between quarry and saltmarsh. Twice a day
the unhistoried tide leaves the mudflats rippled and shining.
A nice sharp boy
On 19th September 1903 Richard John Welch (age 13), began his fourth shift
….at No. 6 pit.
He worked on the wagons with Arthur Bond (age 14).
The boys’ work was to pick stones out of wagons loaded with iron ore.
As a rule, the wagons stopped for 3 or 4 minutes under the hoppers.
Sometimes the boys would leap from one wagon to another while they were moving.
Sometimes they would swing from a plank and drop into a wagon as it passed.
They were told not to do these things, but they did them.
When the boys were nicely set on the wagons, the foreman waved off the locomotive.
Arthur Bond saw Richard John Welch clinging to a hopper.
Oh my waistcoat is caught.
Arthur Bond saw Richard John Welch fall between the last two wagons.
He saw the wheels go over him. He had warned him the day before
He had not to go in that place. He’d be getting lamed if he went in that place.
When Richard John Welch saw his father (Henry Welch, miner)
he called out I’m done for now (‘ – or something like that, Sir’).
The foreman said the Deceased was a nice sharp boy
but he disobeyed rules.
No blame attached. He had not to go in that place.
Most awful and sublime
What was always remarked upon:
the slippery ladders
the guttering candle
the damp close air
its weight in the ears
the vast abyss
the dreadful majesty of the furnace
the consuming dark.
Now this place is a mirror to itself.
Wind has space to turn and roll,
the estuary is flooded with it.
Principles of Linear Perspective (II)
The man walking his dog through Red Hills once spent a summer
sketching the ironworks. You couldn’t describe it, he says,
the circles of walkways climbing No. 1 furnace, the ladles’ slow roll
swinging back empty on their chains.
How they raised the furnace door, how they gave him dark blue glasses,
and what he saw was nothing that had horizon or measure.
How they lowered the door like an eyelid.
When he opens his notebook now he finds sinter on its pages.
Look, and his arm swings up the long diagonal rise of a kite
that’s lifting away from a boy who plays its shrill line
to the wind, feeling towards the true point
where it all comes together. Each of us growing smaller
and smaller as it pulls up, holds taut at the apex. The drop,
everything flying apart very fast. The dog running, tide coming in.
Judith Willson studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge, and at the University of York, and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester. She has worked as a teacher and in publishing. Her edition of Selected Poems by Charlotte Smith and her anthology Out of My Borrowed Books: Poems by Augusta Webster, Mathilde Blind and Amy Levy are published by Carcanet Press. Her poems have appeared in magazines and in the Carcanet anthology New Poetries VI (2015). Her first collection, Crossing the Mirror Line, will be published by Carcanet in October 2017.