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Restorations

Rosalind Hudis
ISBN-13: 
9781781726082
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2021
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Restorations is a journey into what it means to preserve – a monument, a moment, a life-story, a poppy. It’s about the hunger to possess and the need to let go. Welding themes from art and history with the contemporary, there are poems about pigments and dictators, glue and glass houses, collections, crinolines, and barometers, and the vagaries of memory itself. Entwined, is a more personal story that tracks the loss of a parent to dementia. Also running through, is a theme of women eroding the straitjacket of gendered roles: we meet a variety of characters including the explorer, Isabella Bird, and the nineteenth century navigator Sarah Jane Rees (Cranogwen) who lived in Llangrannog in Ceredigion. Linking all is a play with colour, particularly blue, in all its stages from vital to decayed.

“No poet I know writes about art with such an intense feeling for its materiality, for smells and textures as well as the nuances of colour. If a poem is like a picture, these are history paintings, rich in human detail and many-layered in their brushwork.” – Matthew Francis

“From a discourse on the ingredients of glue to an interrogation of shellac, Rosalind Hudis honours painters, plant collectors and patients who hear ‘morse in the water pipes’ by lovingly restoring stories from remembered fragments. These poems are a masterclass in how to allow the energy at the centre of each poem to open like a concertina until we are engulfed by ‘a whitewash of song’.” – Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

 

Rosalind Hudis reads her poem ‘Shellac’:

 

Re-watch the online launch of Restorations on our Youtube channel:

 

REVIEWS

Review by Steven Lovatt, The Friday Poem

Thursday, August 26, 2021

‘Restorations’ seems by the end too positive a title, if not intended ironically. It needs a question mark, at least. ‘Restorations?’ would be more appropriate for poems that spend much more time with uncertainty, vulnerability and instability than with anything so affirming as ‘restoration’ seems to promise. 

This collection is obsessed (materially) with layers, borders and surfaces, and as a consequence (experientially) with ambivalence, porosity, guises. The emphasis is on flux; processes eclipse states, and material stuffs are often introduced seemingly just to watch them fade, crumble and peel. From a neutral perspective decay, after all, is just another form of becoming.

These combined characteristics — I mean the stress on instability and seeming, and their dispassionate treatment — are hallmarks of that baggy beast postmodernism, and if you’re weary of it you might initially bridle at the coolly distanced voice of some of the poems, in case the denial of essence and its replacement by a striptease of appearances should be fetishized as an end in itself.

Often, though, the position Hudis adopts is more ambivalent and interesting. In ‘The Artist Mixes Colour in the Renaissance’, the painter-persona delights in telling us that the ‘primal blue you worship’ is partly made up of animal parts which ‘I knife, mine, grind, churn, pound […]’. Transcendence duly has its face rubbed in the dirt, but the end of the poem suggests that all the blood and muck that goes into this painting (of a ‘hair-coiled girl’), rather than desacralising it, actually constitutes a rival and more authentic source of power:

Some of the text has been omitted here[…] She took on the earth
to coagulate: egg-yolk, red clay, mineral, old linen
marble dust. Do you think, if she looked up
she wouldn’t roar with the energy of her roots?

The relationship between substance and ‘vision’ recurs time and again. It’s ultimately one of co-dependence rather than antagonism, as neatly summarised in ‘Consolidant’, where art restorers, paid to revive a discarded artist’s mannequin, labour to ‘re-bond her to the dream / she hatched from’.

Hudis is a fine observer (‘a toffee-smooth infant Christ’; ‘the cross eyed stare of angels’), and she also seems to know her art history. Her interest in de-romanticising art leads her to accentuate the ironic and accidental, and turns up some surprises: the prized sound of Stradivari’s violins is all down to the application of insecticide that saved them from woodworm, while a painter’s ‘famous desert colour was by-product / waste, layered toxins.’ 

This theme, though, and a persistent trace of archness in its treatment, features in too many poems, and when the topcoat of rhetoric wore thin I found myself wishing for more substance. In ‘Last Sighting’, an account of the dissolution of Vasari’s Last Supper in the Florentine flood of 1966, Hudis’ description of how the apostles felt the ‘Yellows, blue, carmine’ of their garments being ‘rewilded’ in water is lovely. Still, the nagging question remains, ‘So what?’ The final stanza’s focus on the face of Judas feels like a half-conscious recognition of the need for deeper meaning.

Still, at their best, the poems on art go beyond description, beyond even a mischievous undermining of painting’s pretensions, to ask pertinent, difficult questions about the whole value system of modern, Western aesthetics, and this is a point of intersection with the second of Hudis’ main themes: colonial history, or rather, the colonial mindset that enables it. While they, too, are animated by irony, the tone of the ‘colonial’ poems is subtly different; what comes across is not only the folly and ignorance of this mindset but also its inherent melancholy. Colonial pioneers cannot ever do more than scratch the surface and lacquer artificial meanings onto places and ways of life that they have neither the wish nor the capacity to truly understand. Yes, it is horrendous, but it is also pitiable, in the way that the colonisers in Jean Rhys’ stories also are. The aura of pessimism, even sadness, implicit in these poems, adds welcome depth.

The painter’s mixing of ingredients, which so intrigues Hudis, is also relevant to her own, verbal, artistry. It’s a high wire act. The least imbalance can cause a poem to appear flat (‘routine as a hormone’), or too reliant on the reader’s complicity with its implied values. At times the real, unacknowledged subject of Restorations seems to be Hudis’ attempt to reconcile two completely different poetic voices – the one streetwise, glancing and tart, the other slower, more personal and reflective. The former mode works best when given free rein: ‘Annunciation’ is a wickedly amusing play on an unexpected delivery from Hermes: a ‘godlet’ whose asceticism leads the reluctant foster-mother to google ‘male eating disorder’ and who ‘was into vinyl, upset her by joining a marginal cult.’

About halfway through Restorations, the main theme switches from the restorer’s art to the illnesses of Hudis’ ageing parents. Now the relevant surfaces are not paint and grime but skin and the invisible meniscus that separates awareness from indifference, consciousness from coma. Unsurprisingly, these poems are more moving than those about art history, as the clever surface wordplay is sobered and stabilised by concealed reservoirs of emotion. ‘Under’ describes a visit to the hospital:

We’ve circled you like saints, on plastic chairs,
not homage but to stir you with names dropped
into the white well of your face.

Saints crop up all the time in the poems on art history, too, so this is an obvious point of comparison, but in this new context the reference expands. If the hospital visitors are like saints, what is the position of the patient? Is this some uncomfortable, terminal Adoration? But the syntax here is slightly ambiguous: isn’t it rather the departing parents who are figured as saints? And if so, does their seeming saintliness have less to do with virtue than with their final remoteness? We visit the dying somewhat as we visit an exhibition, and the very title of one poem, ‘The Person on Display Has Been Replaced by a Replica’ may strike us as horribly accurate.

There is very little comfort in these hospital poems, and perhaps the most that can be said is that though restoration (of people as of paintings) is ultimately futile, the effort is human. This tension between botoxed preservation and vital decay lies at the heart of Restorations.

Hudis is a gifted and versatile poet, generally adroit in her prosody despite occasional arbitrary-seeming line endings. I became impatient with what seemed to be the self-conscious gesturing of the weaker poems, and a surface busyness of words at the expense of inner coherence:

A porn of cute, these jerkined rabbits
wired to their teacups, ape
the hour’s pleasantry

But when the writing is more relaxed and snug to sense it can achieve a fluid beauty that contrasts appealingly with the gunge of the subject matter, as in this passage from ‘Inherent Vice’: 

The foam was breaking
down, grease softening, smudging, a cataract
over his ‘clarity of purpose’. It caught dust, the last
black powders of a blue-bottle, minute silage
of dead people or traffic going anywhere
but a gallery. Hairs.

Despite its flaws, Restorations is an unsettling and ambitious collection by a powerful, restless poetic voice.

Review by Nicola Vulpe, The Manhattan Review

Monday, August 9, 2021

In her essay “How I write poetry” published at the beginning of 2021 in Poetry Wales, Rosalind Hudis concludes with a reference to Alice Oswald’s notion of poetry as “carving from sound.” Indeed, writes Hudis,

       "poetry springs from the oral music of language…. The basic score is breath itself which by its very nature forms the music into poetic lines. Through these musical elements, language can reach to levels that can’t be articulated by words alone, multiplying, like an acoustic chamber, the resonance of imagery."

The poems in Hudis’s most recent collection, Restorations, confirm her as a poet of the physical, of the infinite details of the world as it presents itself to us through our senses: sounds, shapes, textures, colors, odors—particularly odors, which to my mind are too often lacking in contemporary poetry. Hudis’s poems do not stop with the senses, but that is where they begin, so the senses present, I think, the best point of entry into her work.

Almost any poem in Restorations provides evidence of Hudis’s skill in bringing out with her words the physicality of our world: “the slow curve it takes/to furl ‘f’s” (“Fitzroy’s Barometer”), “When you varnish me with meaning, remember/the grit under my nails” (“The Artist Mixes Colour in the Renaissance”), “Three adjectives up/from plastic” (“Consolidant”), “so, no, their daughters/may not paint the room black” (“Interior”), “When the painting arrived on a stretcher” (“Inherent Vice”), or “a moulting rug/that still smelt of your last dog” (“What the Burglar Took”).

Such language could easily draw a less accomplished poet into what Adair Brouwer calls Poetryworld, that “hermetic, overperfumed dimension” free of “vulgarity or surprise … brand names,” etc. Hudis avoids this trap; she is not afraid of the contemporary and mundane, words like “hard-drive,” “down-grade,” “tummy zone.” Her poems are dense and sometimes difficult, but her language is restrained; it is not of Poetryworld: it is not enamored of itself and it does not suffocate. Rather, it surprises and disturbs, but just sufficiently to make us sit up and pay attention so that the poet can then open the poem to draw us into its subject.

Among all the excellent poems in Restorations, to my mind it is “Isinglass” that most perfectly displays Hudis’s mastery of her art and best reveals her method. Isinglass—though its meaning can be gleaned from the poem, yes, I did look it up—is a collagen extracted from fish bladders, originally exclusively those of sturgeons. It is used to clarify beer and wine, and as a glue; Russian isinglass in particular is used in the preservation and restoration of parchment and paintings. Hudis’s unnamed persona in the poem presents the substance: “yellowish, translucent, smells faintly of fingers/warmed against a crotch.” Here, Hudis, poet of the physical; ten words to make us see and, yes, smell her ostensible subject, but also to lead us elsewhere. Does isinglass really smell “faintly of fingers/warmed against a crotch”? And why does the poet write “I soften it slowly on so little fire”? Why “so little” and not simply “small” or “low”? As in Hudis’s other poems, these details  are precise, charged, and necessary.

If in a rush to get to the poem we missed the epigraph, “(Leningrad 1941,)” when we arrive at the second stanza, we can no longer ignore it:

My husband restores art at the Palace
but today he braces their windows with paper strips,

We hold everything together with shreds.

This is the first winter of the Siege of Leningrad. Hudis’s choice of words to describe the smell of isinglass is no accident. Anyone who has known a true winter will recognize instantly that the crotch is the best place to warm icy fingers. The “so small fire” on which it is warmed is of course a starvation fire. With a single word Hudis wraps a chill around her poem before she goes on to explain the delicate art of preparing isinglass: “you must cut the hard glue into pieces/soak in brandy in a vessel of clay or glass.” But this preparation is no longer of the “gel my husband so delicately guided/under paint.” We are in Leningrad, 1941. Isinglass is edible and, therefore, in that first terrible winter, it is the “dinner we pour … into bowls/call it brulée, call it art.”

Strictly, the title of this collection is slightly misleading. Though Restorations does begin with a clutch of poems about art—not theory or appreciation, but the very physical process of its creation and restoration, it soon—and to my mind, effectively—also heads off in other directions, to the poet’s father, his decline and death, to landscapes, inventions, explorers’ logbooks and, in poems such as “Isabella Bird in Canada” and, especially, “Minik,” a poem about an Inuit man and the New York Museum of Natural History, the arrogant stupidity and cruelty of our civilization.

Review by Pamela Johnson, London Grip Poetry Review

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Rosalind Hudis’s knowledge of art restoration – its materials and processes – has supplied her with an arresting lexicon and an abundance of metaphor. This allows her to reframe familiar subjects as she explores childhood memories, family life, parents aging. Her poems also encourage us to look with fresh eyes at works of art.

The opening poem, ‘Shellac,’ serves as a kind of prologue to her project. In a poem that explores time, childhood memory and geo-political change the reader is drawn to consider The Philips London Library globe, its layers of significance. First, the childhood memories of being told it’s ‘not a toy’, then on to the facts of its materiality in the present:

                                           A globe’s constructed like a face:
                                           epidermis pasted to a mould plastered,
                                           papered. Inside a wooden cross
                                           pinned to the equator. It carries losses,
                                           a thickened, darkened surface.
                                           Panelled in under a weight of
                                           old shellac …

Many poets use old photographs as a trigger. Here, in ‘Fixative,’ Hudis shifts the point of view, to the person developing the black and white image, to the chemical processes:

                                           us in the 1960s, playing on a bombsite
                                           the man who dipped us in sulphate, vanishing

                                           silver halide, silver that held us
                                           not darkened or fogging, so that always our stares

                                           unweather from a storm of greys …

Hudis plays further with point of view to refresh our eyes and assumptions around works of art in poems such as, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Pear,’ ‘Millais Floats Ophelia’ and the entertaining monologue, ‘The Artist Mixes Colour in the Renaissance,’ in which she restores the artist:

                                          Don’t think of me as lime-robed and lost
                                          in undailiness; I come with sleeves rolled-up
                                          worker in a mire of substance. Yes, I stink!

The poem continues in this vein, subverting what John Berger referred to as ‘relic worship’ as Hudis, also restores the condition of its making:

                                          When you varnish me with meaning, remember
                                          the grit under my nails, the fumes. …

There is humour here too, in poems such as ‘Interior,’ a family portrait via the marks made on the walls of rented house which is ‘… wholly magnolia,’ until ‘… one sister/drew in jam the fate of another.’ Later on comes, ‘…the blur/of a lobbed plate, archaeology of chocolate …’ and ‘… mud Pollocks mushed by the soft/dissolution of moths …’

As the collection shifts towards more of family life – the illness and death of parents – Hudis sustains her forensic, art-informed explorations. She brings fresh eyes and awareness to the condition of dementia in ‘Book of Masters.’ Here is a father who, ‘believes in Art …’. Father and daughter view a much-treasured book of reproductions, ‘his holy book…’. They turn the pages on angels, ‘lemon groves and towers/fleshy murder in forests …’ until images merge with the viewers:

                                                                       I pause
                                           at The Conversation: a standing man

                                           in striped pyjamas, who won’t sit down,
                                           a seated woman in black who will not stand.
                                           And what they said they’ve said dad says

                                           or not yet spoken – neither can leave …

In ‘Hospital Art’ the poet staves off the pain of visiting the terminally ill by navigating her way down brightly colour coded corridors: ‘I play the curvature of blues…’

This is an intelligent, thoughtful and thought-provoking collection. Hudis works in a variety of forms, some experimental; often her challenging lineation keeps the reader intrigued. These richly-textured poems repay several readings in order to uncover the layers within. The reader, like the restorer, uncovers fresh layers with each return to the work.

Review by Billy Mills, Elliptical Moments

Monday, July 26, 2021

The poems in Rosalind Hudis’ collection Restorations are concerned, as the title indicates, with preservation. The starting point is the act of restoring works of art, and a good number of the poems in the book are either directly ekphrastic or deal with art in general through the eyes of those whose care is restoration. By extension, the book is concerned with the preservation and restoration of tradition, or perhaps more correctly traditions. The layers of accident that result in one thing enduring and becoming a touchstone while others perish is at the heart of ‘Theory of Stradivarian Sound’:

Stradivari sound could be pinned

in insecticide: a coating of chromium

fluoride, borax,

Chemicals for the next life, their crystals

mixed, like an afterthought of snow

into the hollowed body, cloaking

the dried-out heart.

There is a great deal of ekphrastic verse being written currently, it seems, much of it simply exercises in description. What makes Hudis’ work different to most is an intense engagement with the materiality of the painter’s (and the restorer’s) art. These poems are fascinated with the tools and materials that are essential to the work of the artist, and art is work, its beauty build on a basis of literal body fluids:

I chew on a rotter wafer of dried fish glue

my saliva in the mix. How else to stretch the hue

of some frosty cleric? My paints are part kill:

rabbit skin, horse hoof, pig’s blood.

I knife, mine, grind, churn, pound, steep, sweat

my way to that primal blue you worship.

[from ‘The Artist Mixes Colours in the Renaissance’]

This passage also gives a flavour of Hudis’ characteristic verbal music, which is dense, almost baroque in its twists and turns. Alliteration features strongly, as do the piled up assonances and dissonances of clustered vowels in structures that verge on the fugal.

Early in the book, in a poem called ‘Isinglass’, we encounter a line that, I think, is key: ‘nothing restores without emptiness’. This is as evident in the hollow body of the violin as it is later in the book in the parent-shaped holes that emerge from a set of poems that chronicle the dementia and death of a father followed by the illness and death of a mother:

Some returned to the hospital

to scavenge syllables

the nut-shape of an ‘o’.

We were keeping watch

by a too wide window

that laid her silence bare.

We were keeping watch

for a sound to root

like a chip of bone,

grow.

‘o’ would be enough

to restore her.

In these poems of loss, Hudris extends her concerns for restoration by applying her tools and materials to the lost parents, returning them to a kind of new life through her words. It’s an impressive achievement.

Review by John-Paul Davies, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

This incredible collection from Hudis is an expertly curated, visually transformative delve into the viscera, emotion and obsession of art restoration. Hudis somehow finds infinite ways of exploring the subtle science and agonising art that goes into bringing paintings back from the dead. And it is this personification of the subjects, the metamorphosis of restorer to surgeon, seducer and saviour that makes these poems so immediate and so fascinating.

Consolidant finds the restorer working on the image of a lady: “We turned on the infa-red on her / exposed her particles, saw her sticky traces, / a past life of beeswax in her crevices.” The dying paintings are not only brought back from the brink by the restorers’ work, but also given new life as 3D characters, ensouled beings – re-ensouled after years of neglect – by Hudis’ verses. Every aspect of the restorative procedure is given analysis, and the endless approaches Hudis takes to show this is a feat in itself. The spatula, the hose, the chemicals, the lamp are instruments of butchery or beauty, depending on the presentation and the perspective. Under ii moves the reader’s gaze to the subject being restored: “I sense the restorer’s eye, probing / Even down here, the heatless, base layer, he raises / my temperature minutely / … But I long for water’s memory.”

Hudis gives reference to some of the works she has used as her inspiration in the end notes; these, albeit interesting, are hardly needed as the poems are so illustrative on their own. A slight segue into the historic lives of women who have lived beyond the confines of their time and gender allows west Wales-based Hudis a welcome exploration of Llangrannog through the eyes of 19th century navigator Sarah Jane Rees.

The dreadful tale of Reading 2 Diorama made me want to explore more of the writer’s work not concerned with art, as the poem brought “puppet-jaws” around the child whose “eternally unseeing” mother is left to mourn. But the image that stayed with me most was that of the painted lady, made slowly invisible by the power of time and light as the restorer brings his own steady hand to strengthen her fading one. She Dies First On The Left: “The side the sun falls / … We grasp / as she grasps the bed rail / with her weak hand / where touch drops away.”

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