Ghost Hands, N. S. Thompson
The Melos Press, 2020 £5.00
A fine ekphrastic poem doesn’t just render an artwork into words, surely, but either explores its gaps or ventures off on tangents. In Ghost Hands, N.S. Thompson skilfully addresses, among other things, works by Brueghel the Elder, van Ruisdael (presumably) and Vermeer, and the mosaics in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. But he also investigates the place and purpose of art.
In ‘The Women in Delft’ (a well-constructed sestina and one of the highlights), Thompson addresses the timeless mystery of Vermeer’s paintings:
these women keep
The gentle art of looking artfully
Revealed, yet hidden in the art of space.
The poet goes on to ask: ‘Are we — the viewers — meant to have a hand / In them and come to see what artfully // Has been concealed?’
In the quatrains of ‘19th Century Nudes’, Thompson examines the neo-classical (and ancient Greek) vogue for depicting women without body hair:
A strange way for fine art to behave
And begs the question: did the ancients shave?
Thompson’s verdict is damning:
And so the painters imitated art
And, classically trained, would not depart
From what they saw almost divine,
A bloodless beauty, chaste and crystalline.
The pamphlet concludes with ‘For Art’s Sake’ (thirty-five stanzas of ottava rima), subtitled ‘An Essay in Verse’. Its argument begins in a ‘meta’ fashion, a kind of comment on the poem itself (‘like all essays it may take some time / To settle down until it hits the note / It wants’), and then traverses many eras and genres, considering art’s value and commodification, and the effort which goes into making it.
It seems to me unfortunate, though, that the artists and movements Thompson references are almost exclusively white and entirely male, and that his views come across as reactionary. He sums up contemporary art, for example, as possessing ‘permanent arrest / In false pretensions and the overdone / Experiment’.
By the conclusion of ‘For Art’s Sake’, one wonders if Thompson is perhaps talking to poets as much as artists in general:
Forget about what’s ‘Cool’
And get back in the swim, inside the pool
Of knowledge and ability unique
To those who demonstrate the craft of art
Within its restless philosophising and discursive tangents, Ghost Hands certainly contains considerable craft.