Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Home » Posts tagged 'Pete Townshend'

Tag Archives: Pete Townshend

Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

A Little Bit Late About Bettye Lavette

Like many listeners, I have come to Bettye Lavette’s music a little bit late. Just a few months ago, in a bookstore in Tsawassen, we picked up (for music to listen to in the car on the trip back home) the Bob Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom, a January 2012 release that bills itself on its cover as “honoring 50 years of Amnesty International.” There are some great (and some mediocre) versions of Dylan spread over its 4 CDs, but when our player cued up Bettye Lavette’s cover of “Most of the Time,” I have to say that I was brought up short: it’s a powerful, fierce, committed, startling transformation of the song. “Who,” we had to ask ourselves, “is THAT?” It turns out that 2012 also marks 50 years in music for Bettye Lavette herself. Her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” was recorded and released in 1962, when she was sixteen. Her career, for subsequent decades, seems to have been a long struggle for recognition, a story she tells in her forthright autobiography (also published in 2012, though titled after her first album for Anti-), A Woman Like Me. Her concert Saturday night at the Vogue, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, was a revelation for me, a brilliantly orchestrated overview of that career, featuring songs from her early days to recent versions of Gnarls Barkley, but every song infused with aspects of that struggle to be heard and acknowledged, and given an edgy vitality, a moving immediacy and a grainy depth that lent her performance moment after moment after moment of true greatness.  As Marke Andrews notes in an omnibus review in The Vancouver Sunof the festival’s opening weekend,
Despite 50 years in the music business, [Bettye Lavette] remains largely unknown (“We’ve just completed the ninth year of our Who The Hell Is She Tour,” she joked to the audience), and seems determined to prove herself with each performance.
But there was nothing strained or effortful about her singing, only a fierce and unwavering commitment to the emotional substance of each song she chose. She engages lyric and melody on their own terms, but she also remakes them on hers. At one point in the concert, she admitted that she “wasn’t a writer,” but I think that might be exactly what she is. Most of her source material (from standards to Motown classics to country ballads to carnivalesque Tom Waits numbers) is so utterly and radically transformed that it becomes wholly her own; her re-casting of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which she first covered in 1972, is nothing short of stunning, as she turns his frail nostalgic folk anthem into a tragically affirmative lament for lost days. The highlight of Saturday’s concert, for me, was a version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which was the song she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 that seems to have secured a position for her in the pantheon of epochal voices. Slowing the song, almost to the point of fissure, at the verge of coming apart, drawing out the melodic line syllable by syllable as she felt her way along and through the notes – “Love … reign … o … ver … me …” – she made the music do what it needed to do for her, to allow us to recognize her, that is, to connect with her as a powerfully felt and powerfully feeling human being. I don’t mean to suggest that her voice was especially serene; any saccharine critical platitudes would be belied by her take-no-shit attitude toward her own 50-years-overdue canonization. I think there is something to be said for hearing her performance in relation to what Edward Said called “late style”:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. . . . But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?
Bettye Lavette offers us neither one of these alternative alone, but sings instead with a resilient, difficult beauty. “Late style,” as Said puts it, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” In her voice, I hear a collision of fierce self-awareness and commanding aesthetic presence. For real.

A Windy Boy and a Bit

[This is another review essay that never made it into Canadian Literature. I delivered a version of part of this text as a paper to the Dylan Thomas Society of Vancouver in October 2003, I think.]
A Windy Boy and a Bit: Dylan Thomas at Full Volume
1.
When I was fifteen — in tenth grade in Truro, Nova Scotia — poetry started to matter to me. What held me was the built-in abstraction of any poem, what I took to be its inherent difficulty — something that appealed to my pretenses of alienated sophistication, one of the worst of teenage vanities. Small town adolescence creates a dire need to believe in your own young genius. You end up driven by palpable faith in your unheralded yet overwhelming significance, and you’re pushed by cosmic injustice to be, for a flash, “famous among the barns,” singing tragically in your local chains.
Late in that school year I horned in on a song by Pete Townshend, longstanding bard of teenage wastelands, a song I thought nailed my predicament dead-on (from Rough Mix, a record he made with Ronnie Lanein 1977): “I want to be misunderstood, / Want to be feared in my neighbourhood. / I want to be a moody man, / Say things that nobody can understand.” Well, maybe I didn’t want to be feared, but at least found out, remarked for my cryptic and appallingly contrived bitterness. The poetry I liked — and I was very particular about it from the get-go, although I’d barely read enough of anything — resonated with what I thought I absolutely knew, the crux of my goofy, half-baked intellectual machismo. I craved poems with a kind of latter-day masculine bravura, perhaps to offset what I wrongly assumed were the frailties of artistic work, and I wanted hard and strident voices to make their way into my breaking, pubescent croak.
So, there were three writers to whom I gravitated immediately. Robert Frost’s formal elegies, his temporary stays against confusion, bespoke an untenable paternity setting its teeth against its own inevitable collapse: it was heavily Oedipal, and I heard in Frost’s arch lines a way to wrestle with the laws laid down by all the fathers, my own or anyone’s. (For Christmas that year, my mom and dad gave me A Tribute to the Source, a Frost selected with misty New England photographs by Dewitt Jones; I couldn’t ever get past “Buried Child,” and still can’t.) The second of my triumvirate was John Newlove. I had found his selected poems, The Fat Man, in the high school library, and their chiseled ironic edges cut at the world the way I thought I wished I could, grimacing through the hellish existential manhood of his Samuel Hearne. (I had also asked for a copy of Newlove for Christmas, but the cashier at the bookstore sold my mother Irving Layton as a substitute, telling her it was “the same sort of thing.” Not exactly. Although Layton’s “Cain” — a poem of restrained father-son violence — is still one of my favourites, for some reason.) And then there was Dylan Thomas.
I bought a used copy of Thomas’s Dent Collected Poems from the “Nu to Yu” shop. I’d also saved some money from my summer job as a boxboy at the IGA, and bought Quite Early One Morning — a scrapbook of reminiscence, poetry and radio scripts — and, probably the first book I can say I really valued as a book, as an object: a sandy-colouredNew Directions hardback of the 1930s Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud. This rough and unready Dylan had a sprawling immediacy that seemed especially ripe in my own meager time and place. He had remained suspended on the page young enough to be relocated to small town Nova Scotia, I think, because of the way those obscure and elitist performances, an adolescent brashness finding and wagging its tongue, tended and still tend to lift themselves out of history, out of context — even, or especially, as the material aspect of those unfinished holographs in scribblers, tends to reassert those very limits. These books unknotted and then retied their lacings, and became Truro poems, teenage poems: mine.
For me, as for many readers, Thomas’s recorded voice offered a form of verbal religiosity, of spirit possession; the man himself long dead, his speech could nonetheless carry forward from the spiral scratch of a phonograph track to animate and stir our tenuous present. I found a Caedmon double-album of Thomas readings in the Truro public library, and kept renewing it. (I had recently progressed from the Junior to the Adult card, a major shift in borrowing possibilities.) From this compilation, however, I found I leaned toward the later poems of ecstatic resignation, flush with fractured verbiage and hobbled by overripe nostalgia; the spittle-cloyed choruses of “Lament,” the hawk- and curlew-heavy upheaval of “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and the chiming, verdant bluster of “Fern Hill.” Harper Audio has issued Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection, an 11-CD set gathering all of Thomas’s spoken-word recordings released by Caedmon. Thomas’s records, as many will know, were both the foundation and the mainstay of Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney’s Caedmon label, which went on to release some of the most significant recordings of poetry and prose in the mid-twentieth century. Thomas also recorded a number of poems included in this set both live and in the studio for the CBC at Vancouver in “late May 1952,” as the notes to the collection point out, when he was on the second and last of his two reading tours of the West Coast. (This date, however, remains problematic; according to some sources, Thomas read and recorded — in conversation with Earle Birney — on 6 April 1950; his second appearance in Vancouver was on 8 April 1952, and he was not likely here in May of that year. Surviving letters and postcards place him and Caitlin on a ship at sea that month.) The transplanting that I managed to effect as a teenager, carrying Thomas across time and the Atlantic into my own embrace, retooling “Wales in my arms” for Canadian reception, was already ghosted into the recordings themselves; his voice had already arrived here, only to take flight again into the false eternal present of the stereo lp.
The Caedmon Collection reproduces in CD-sized miniature the covers of Thomas’s albums. As anyone who collects records knows, their particular material presence, their 12-inch square glossy cardboard, matters a lot, and the Caedmon compilation gestures at this nostalgia, in a conveniently reduced format; you can hold all the transcriptions of Thomas’s voice, his digitized remains, in your hand. This wan materiality emerges in Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Bookcase,” from Electric Light. In his lyric, Heaney eyes the coloured spines of his books, and remembers not merely voices but encounters, intersections, coursings; the thickness of paper and binding melds with the poems themselves, their verbal textures:
Bluey-white of the Chatto Selected
Elizabeth Bishop. Murex of Macmillan’s
Collected Yeats. And their Collected Hardy.
Yeats of “Memory.” Hardy of “The Voice.”
Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens
Off a Caedmon double album, off 
                                           different shelves.
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
“Do Not Go Gentle.” “Don’t be going yet.”
Unlike the Heaney of this reminiscence, or Thomas, I was never much of a drinker — in fact, when I was wearing a groove into “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I remember being more often than not strangely prudish; poetry seemed to fill the same selfish gaps as Heaney’s Irish whiskey might, that indulgent loneliness every boy wants to pickle in — but I know exactly what he’s writing about here: the poem that wants not to fade away, to keep going, even as it manages to sustain nothing but, nothing much more than, its own bald longing.
In “Dylan the Durable?” — the interrogative title is significant, and suggests much of the unresolved duplicity of “The Bookcase,” where the invitation to stay that remains largely unanswered — a 1991 lecture reprinted in part in his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Heaney reads in Thomas’s villanelle a formal reflex “turning upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution”:
The villanelle, in fact, both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.
While Heaney seems keen to fall into step with mid-century mythopoeic interpretations of Thomas — the Biblical archetypes, books of nature and Blakean contraries that saturated the first flush Thomas criticism — he nonetheless finds the vital instability at the core of this thoroughly formalized not-yet-an-elegy. But where Heaney abstracts and generalizes this uncertainty into a thematic of “youth and age,” the poem is actually more specifically gendered: it is about fathers and sons, a refusal to relinquish the bond to his father, even as it takes up the poetic work of fathering, of parthenogenesis: the poem itself, rather than merely producing formal analogues, rages against a deathly, stultifying parental stricture even as it affirms, in that contradiction, a fierce and fatherly imperative. And it performs that rage, most famously, in the contradicted doublet of its penultimate verbs: “Curse, bless, me now.” The child, as Wordsworth says, is now father to the man; Jacob and Isaac exchange places, and then trade again, in the urgent pleading of Thomas’s blasted prayer. This demand, as simultaneous question and plea that refuse not to be put, seems to me best grasped as adolescence. It cannot accept its dutiful forms, and chooses defiance of the paternal in order to affirm its surging and unruly life-force that drives its green age, even as it wants only to inhabit those forms for itself, and discovers itself blasted and made dumb by childishness. It wants, like all adolescents, to be both adult and child at once. If we scan Heaney’s selected essays, we discover too what is obviously a need for poetic maturity and respect — he tends to write only about the poetry of Nobel laureates, Harvard lecturers and old friends, to position himself within a kind of transnational academy — coupled with a pervasive nationalist pastoralism, all those Irish vowel-meadows where he ran and the peat-bogs where he dug in his youth. I don’t mean to deride Heaney, but instead to point to the necessary and vital adolescence of what he does. And to use such a claim to look back, and forward, at my own willfully unresolved reading practices.
2.
Heaney mentions no Canadian (and very few commonwealth) writers, and we could hardly expect him to. Or maybe we could. But he does provide a hinge into a more localized nationalism, one that inheres not in artificially stabilized cultural thematics, a Canadian-this or Canadian-that, but in its own ardent instabilities, an adolescent discomfort that is not to be overcome but embraced. This sweetly duplicitous craving permeates Albertan (now Mexican-resident) Murray Kimber’s illustrationsfor Fern Hill (from Red Deer College Press), the middle volume — from 1997 — in what now appears to be a trilogy of work commencing with his brilliant 1994 collaboration with Jim McGuigan, Josepha: a prairie boy’s story, for which Kimber won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration , and concluding with The Wolf of Gubbio, a retelling of a legend of St. Francis of Assisi by Michael Bedard, published in 2000. But where both of these texts are narrative, and lend themselves to a kind of captioning, as events from story are depicted by brush, Thomas’s “Fern Hill” has, at most, only shards of plot, and coheres musically rather than descriptively, in the relative abstraction and obliqueness of time remembered, a blurring of present recollection and past recollected in incantatory pastoral surges: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” Temporal modalities collide in this famous opening gambit, interlocking the immediacy of the poem’s writing, the jetztzeit of that conventional “now,” with its historically orchestrated and orchestrating subject, “I was.” Kimber intensifies this interlace of here and there, now and then, both in the arrangement of his sixteen illustrations and in their subject matter.
Kimber’s work focuses on two principal figures, represented in two small watercolour cameos that frame the main text: on the title-page, he offers us the head and shoulders of a prepubescent boy, rendered in reddish fleshtones against a purple wash; on the recto of the last page, facing a page-sized reprint of the complete text of “Fern Hill,” he sets his counterpart, a patriarch in tweeds and cap, whose open eyes and quiet pinkish smile suggest a knowing serenity. This final image echoes the first illustration, apposite to the first three lines of the poem, which shows the same old man, now rendered in light blues with oils on canvas, but now with his eyes closed and mouth gently crimped. Kimber’s intention is to suggest the poem’s tenor of reverie in age, despite the fact that Thomas was in his early thirties when he wrote it, and to link memory both to aestheticized wonderment — the “darling illusion” of recollection as Charles G. D. Roberts once put it — and to pastoral vitality; the green apples that decorate the old man’s red scarf (their tones in sharp contrast to his pallid complexion) displace the real apples of those sagging boughs onto textile pictorial, past life sustained as lovely wearable art. In the second illustration, we see this capped figure walking, but now the boy and a horse run forward from him, surging right toward the next page of the book. The palette, too, shifts from blue to peach, yellow and deep green, as the present is revived in “the heyday of his eyes,” that splendid driven vision.
Kimber’s fourteen oils (not including the watercolour miniatures) form a visual sonnet, structured in a nested frame. The image for the first three lines, the solitary face of the dreaming man, are recapitulated in the image for the last three, the same figure, now shown head to toe in the middle ground walking alone with his bare feet in the surf; the second image — man, boy and horse — is replayed in the second to last illustration, where these three figures are rejoined, although now to close the loop as we go “riding to sleep” under an equine constellation, the forward push of the former image moderated by dark purples, as man and boy, his old and young selves, walk homeward hand in hand, their backs to us as they depart across the pasture into a shadowed, moonlit farmhouse. Thomas’s poem, though highly formalized, bears little resemblance to a sonnet, but Kimber’s visuals nonetheless uncover a version of the form, dividing the first and last stanzas in three, and the remaining four stanzas in two (grouped mostly in clusters of three or four lines, with no illustration crossing between the existing stanzas). In effect, Kimber’s illustrations surround a core octave, made up of four pictorial pairs, with two tercets or triptychs, creating a recursive envelope (3-[2-2-2-2]-3) that, as I’ve already tried to indicate in my description of the opening and closing illustrations, affirms a fixed architecture. The strong outlines and lapidary textures of Kimber’s figures confirm this essentially sculptural, even monumental tendency to his style, an effort I think to stay the mutable, and to arrest the ragged arc of time. Recurrent motifs — farmhouse, ladders and fences, a married couple holding hands or standing kissing, burnished barns, even the vertical trunks of trees — solidify this stasis, a circularity that emerges from the almost obsessive repetitions of motifs and even whole phrases in Thomas’s poem: “green and golden,” “nothing I cared.”
Simultaneously, Kimber energizes this visual torpor, the viscosity of his oils, with diagonal flashes and unresolved tangents: river flow, shooting stars, floating drapes, running horses that refuse to be contained by borders or grids. This kinesis, too, comes from Thomas’s poem, in the ungraspable syntax of the third stanza, for example: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass.” The run-on, thematized in the poem itself, distends and stretches Thomas’s closed, formal architecture like so much verbal taffy.  Time, though chained and bound, sings excessively, testing the tensile bonds of poetic enchainment. Kimber’s paintings embrace what Thomas appears to understand as the creative push of memory, the force that drives his green age, in their lovely dehiscence, as they catch at the fraying of time itself, at the doubled assembling and dismantling that inheres in the sustained “now” of the image.
So, this is much more than a children’s book; perhaps the music of this sometimes confused and difficult poem would attract a child’s ear, though the nostalgia of the text itself is fully that of an adult. It is best thought, perhaps, as an adolescent work, the text and visuals hovering between the child-like wonder the writer craves and the deathly adulthood he wants to refuse. It is a fine and engrossing work of male desire, of longing.
Kimber’s work is also mindful of its history; his landscape style echoes primarily the post-impressionists, especially Paul Cézanne’s rectangles and triangles, although his green forests clearly draw on Emily Carr’s vortices and his fields on the horizontal plains of Illingworth Kerr (perhaps something of a carry-over from his work on Josepha ). His portraits fuse the blue ovals of early Picasso with the ripe colours of Frederick Varley, I think.  I’m not suggesting that Kimber’s work is derivative, nor do I wish to claim that he has merely Canadianized early European modernism. Rather, like my own youthful transport of and by Thomas, Kimber’s paintings position themselves in a kind of negotiated middle, resolutely of this place and yet thoroughly conscious of their own displacement. Thomas’s poem, Welsh though Fern Hill itself may appear, actually takes place nowhere, or rather in the many imagined nowheres of memory from afar. It can’t quite be grasped, but can only be, to take Pete Townshend out of context, misunderstood, misprised and, as Heaney suggests, respoken at full volume, reintroduced into your own place and time. Just as the poem would have time stretched into the present, and across it like a screen, so too can Thomas be reimagined, remade in the crucibles of eye and ear, as he and you and I go running together “out of grace” and into a world where, however much unheard, we can still somehow sing.