After/Après Francis Bacon
Alexander Adams, Bristol: Golconda Fine Art Books, 2022, 60 pages, £10. English and French (French translation by Peggy Pancini)
LIAM GUILAR follows an influential artist’s flamboyant trajectory through verse
Some years ago, the Canadian critic, Hugh Kenner, in conversation with Charles Tomlinson, lamented the disappearance of the ‘documentary tradition’ in poetry. He was referring to poetry where the verse functions primarily as a carrier of information. He was not making the false distinction between form and content, but describing a type of poetry that could be read for information the way one would read a newspaper, text book or biography. In Kenner’s view, such poetry had all but disappeared by the mid-nineteenth century, to be replaced by the egocentric poetry of the Romantics, and the poetry emptied of significant content written by those who followed. Alexander Adams’ new book, his seventh, After/Après Francis Bacon, proves the book length documentary poem is still being produced, despite its unfashionable nature.
Adams, an artist as well as a poet, takes as his subject the life of Francis Bacon (1909-1992). The poems follow the trajectory of Bacon’s life, from his early years in Ireland, via his time in Paris and London, to his death in Madrid. There is a facing page French translation by Peggy Pancini.
The book’s twenty-one numbered but untitled sections read like stills from a documentary film. The sequence begins in Ireland, appropriately with colours:
Surrounded by duns, olives, sages,
grey browns of trampled paddocks
the alcohol blue flame of asphyxia
burns with all the vignetting of unconscious
darkening and diffusing the periphery. (p.4)
Moving to London in the blitz:
Down from the ruin [Sic] ramparts
men grey with dust pass bundles
and expressionlessly scrape up
former people with their shovels. (p.14)
Sweet mint tea on the terrace,
hashish smoke wafts over.
Sea is flat as a strip of paper.
Endless warmth, dry air.
Paint dries fast but ideas come slow. (p. 34)
The writing evokes place and time, and like any biography contains snippets of social history: Paris after the Occupation; London rebuilding after the war, later a lost world of dilly boys, when homosexuality was still illegal, and where, in the saloon bar of The Grapes, ‘where men commune’:
The only woman is Marie,
behind the counter, beehive hairdo,
artificial nails, counting shillings,
menthol cigarette at the
corner of painted lips. (pp. 47/48)
The artist’s development is sketched into this trajectory. From his first excitement at seeing Picasso in Paris, which ‘broke you out of Edwardian airs/-dainty portraits, potted ferns-/and shaped you modern’ to an early exhibition where the punters, faced with ‘ostrich bodied, Buchenwald cadavers’, walked out in disgust ‘glad to be out of/their unwholesome presence’. To fame, drink, drugs, and finally death in Madrid.
The danger inherent in a poetry where information is the focus is that the writing can read like notes for a story that hasn’t been written. Details accumulate, but without context or effect and the possibilities of rhythm and sound are sacrificed. Section ten begins:
Men bending, lifting a heavy weight
Paralytic child crawling
Mastiff walking slow
Woman throwing a stick, three quarter view (p.28)
and continues like for this for the rest of the section’s mostly unpunctuated seventeen lines. It could be an exhibition catalogue, a summary of works produced, or it could be a young artist noticing the world around him, or all three. As information it is confusing; as poetry it’s flat.
Adams usually avoids this trap. His clipped declarative style keeps the story moving and creates deft images. The blank canvas is
-a mute mirror to perfect order
refuting the composite imagery
that grows so richly elsewhere.
At night, the canvas stands unchanging
like a locked door without a handle. (p.48)
The overall experience of reading After/Après Francis Bacon, is very similar to walking through a gallery hung with large pictures. Moving through them in their numbered sequence suggests they are related. However, the connections between the pictures are left unstated, and at times continuity and coherence are suggested solely by the fact that one picture follows the next.
It’s obvious that the Model Reader of this book knows as much about Francis Bacon as Adams does, and for that reader little will be obscure. Leaving aside the question whether the poems offer such a reader any new insight on Bacon’s life, what about the reader who knows nothing about Francis Bacon the artist?
It’s possible to enjoy the poems as poems. Adams provides enough information to suggest a biography. Relationships are hinted at. Names occur: Eric, Peter, George. However, there are sections where a lack of background knowledge makes the writing obscure.
Next day, the apartment was wrecked,
plaster gouged by chair leg at head height,
wine bottle dashed upon the tiles,
a canvas is rent open in a frayed V
lying on its side, cockeyed. (p.36)
Are we witnesses to a raucous drunken night or domestic abuse?
In passages like these, Adams makes no attempt to cater to the visitor to his exhibition who has strolled in out of curiosity. In section XV, if you don’t know who George was, then the seventeen lines listing some of George’s actions are just a list and the writing doesn’t make the list interesting.
George climbing a set of steps.
George cycling, double exposure
George seated on a stool
George seated on a chair, legs crossed (p.38)
However, even if, like me, a reader knew nothing about Francis Bacon before reading After/Après Francis Bacon, there is enough of his life in the poem and enough life in the poems to sustain and reward the reader’s attention. The writing, which is mostly vividly impressionistic, is guaranteed to make you want to know more about Bacon and his art.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head