One of the most unexpected responses to the Margaret Rope ‘Heavenly Lights’ Exhibition in Shrewsbury has been a collection of poems – all inspired by the works.
The poems, written by writer Kate Innes, are each specific to one of the artworks in the exhibition.
Kate is a well-known poet and author, whose most recent book is the novel set in medieval times, The Errant Hours.
Kate explains what drew her to the work of Margaret Rope: “The space in her windows is teeming with life; many species of birds, flowers and trees painted with remarkable accuracy. I was also very taken with the beauty of the natural scenes and the contrast of the sinister beasts creeping around it. I sensed a great imagination at work in these images and felt stirred to respond.
“Since then I have had the privilege to become the poet in residence at the exhibition at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.”
All in all there are ten poems in this collection so far. The first nine poems of the collection were ready halfway through the exhibition’s run, which is when Shrewsbury Museum printed off copies, to leave available for visitors who could then read them as they walked around the exhibition.
In fact, the poems do most come to life when one reads them while simultaneously standing in front of the artwork that has inspired it. For example, her poem ‘The Servant Speaks’ is written from the point of view of the maidservant depicted in the Judith & Holofernes panel (see pic below).
The servant girl is in awe of her mistress’s courage and power: “She will not look back / on her deed with alarm / or the general’s seeping, severed head / wet and heavy in my arms.” The whole poem resonates to the power of Judith’s feat and how the maidservant is almost disbelieving of this woman’s power.
Meanwhile, the poem written in response to Marga’s ‘Goblin Market’ panel comes from a number of angles, refracting both the artwork and the original Christina Rossetti verses on which it is based. The strange sensuality of Rossetti’s writing and the way Marga has interpreted it is reflected in many of the lines Kate has composed here, including her reference to the goblins “…gloating over / tender cherries / bursting berries / from some unnatural bush.”
And Kate Innes has not restricted herself to merely reflecting the exhibition’s artworks. Kate takes the works as a starting point, or catalyst, to further thoughts.
The poem ‘Tidings Of War’ seems to have been composed as a meditation on the war pictures designed by Marga, and especially a family Christmas card designed by Marga in 1916. (Marga lived through the First World War, 1914-18, and the second too; and four of her siblings were involved in the war effort).
So, Kate seems to react to, not just reflect, the bigger idea of an all-consuming war, giving her own feelings too about “…the way the world / has launched itself, / like a thin-spun ball of gas / and set a match”. See the whole poem at the bottom of this page.
The poem set to Marga’s picture of Saint Francis, similarly, turns into a meditation on Nature.
For more on Kate’s own thoughts about what inspired her response, click here.
It is to be hoped that the collection will be published after the exhibition has finished – alongside, one hopes, photos of the artworks they refer to.
However, those who saw either of her readings of the poems at the museum, as she moved from artwork to artwork in the exhibition, probably had the best experience of all!
(Kate did her two readings at the museum in late December and on the very last day of the exhibition, Sunday 15th January).
Tidings of War
What can comfort in time of war?
Only the way a pencil line
stays fixed – can trace
a gasping stretcher
or a searchlight’s arc –
ordering the dark.
And for those who sit waiting
on cold chairs,
keeping a window lit
to welcome others home?
Only the weight of a soft muzzle
on the lap, alive and warm.
Only the escape of service,
the brain-haze of heat,
a hat’s fragile shade,
for those who work in rust-red
And for those who lift and carry,
who hold the cold hand and cry
at the way the world
has launched itself,
like a thin-spun ball of gas,
and set a match
and hurtled down to its own destruction,
while some men just watch
and warm their hands?
There seems none.
But we must not hide,
we must not snuff out the light,
so here – I send you hope for peace