Grimacier: A Poem

“peter mandelson, right, went mad”

The best piece of video ever captured did the social-media rounds again recently. It takes place in a corridor in a club somewhere, sometime during the mid 2000s. Mike Skinner of The Streets is gurning his way through an interview, extremely obviously under the influence of loads of pills. 

“Peter Mandelson, right, went mad”, he says. “In the ’80s, Peter Mandelson lost it, big time.” The interviewer here tries to get a word in edgewise; tries, it seems, to make some kind of pun on ‘Mandelson’ and ‘Mandy’. You can’t blame him for the effort, but it’s just not happening. 

“Nah, nah, he started, like, hearing voices in his head and shit, telling him to, like, kill Tony Blair, and shit”, Skinner goes on, his face a druggy-as-fuck picture of concentration and conspiratorial focus. Bass thuds through walls, and we hear the screeches of a string sample. Skinner’s face then subtly perks up, more magnanimous, coolly triumphal: “But he came back from it!”

Let’s press pause for a second, here, and acknowledge that Peter Lord Mandelson has once again, unfortunately, ‘come back from it’, re-established into a position of some power by a floundering Sir Keir Starmer. On the 11th of May, in the Guardian, Mandelson claimed that Labour can win back voters by ‘looking out, not just in’, before going on to thinly veil his instinct for self-promotion within unconvincing Starmer-support, and also (probably deliberately) display an extremely loose grasp of what ‘hard left’ means and how Trade Unions work, among other things.

Whatever the voices in Mandy’s head are telling him (and it seems, as ever, to result in a political theory and praxis that is at a distant, convoluted remove from the real world), we can thank them for the phrase ‘looking out and in’ in the current context.

Looking out and in at once is one of the few things poems are good at doing (and, incidentally, something people who’ve taken a bunch of ecstasy are very good at doing): an overshared, performed introversion. The whoosh of a good poem or a good, gurning, pilled-up monologue is an aspect that seems to have more than one face, to perform ‘seeing’ from various vantages, to define interiority by glancing it against the everything outside, but to distill all of that into one focussed runnel. It’s like seeing twice at once, an over-actualisation of the self. Who knows how much it means, but we’re left with a sense that it does, at least, mean. This kind of simultaneous looking is important, and I’m convinced it’s something that art and poems can teach. It allows us to face trying circumstances, tragedies, futures with acuity and understanding, exercise judgement and fellowship in moments of historic transition. Am I saying quite what I mean? Maybe not. It’s been a long year(s).

The UK is undergoing a transition, of sorts, from interior to exterior. July 19th 2021 has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’. It marked the government’s lifting of almost all measures that had been put in place to fight the spread of coronavirus. It’s a move that’s sent some people back out into clubs to gurn and grimace their way through their ecstasies, while leaving others gurning and grimacing in disapproval behind their stolidly still-worn face masks (presumably, those who buy into the concept of ‘Freedom Day’ now see the United Kingdom as having joined the long (and potentially lengthening) list of countries who can celebrate their independence from the United Kingdom).

In its many-faced, multidirectional, divisive, historical, obfuscatory, post-colonial, late-stage-of-the-capitalist-empire weirdness, Freedom Day got me thinking about the figure of the Grimacier. Paris at the start of the 19th Century, after the Napoleonic wars, suddenly turned around to find itself a cosmopolitan city of many peoples, a hub for culture and the sciences, at once the world-dominant power and experiencing a sort of ongoing crisis of identity. Scientists flocked from around the world to catch the lectures of Alexander von Humboldt before he escaped again on another expedition. Artists from across Europe hurried to the Louvre to sketch the various cultural curiosities reaped from Imperial plunder before they were all strenuously repatriated. Old money promenaded amongst the bourgeoisie and rubbed shoulders with a boomingly cosmopolitan populace. It was, in short, a time of furious inward-outward movement, and a period of self-reflection at the end of an era, much as we find ourselves in now.

The ambulating, self-reflective Parisian populace were a primed audience, which saw the rise in popularity of a large class of street performers, one of which was The Grimacier. As Colta Ives puts it, when discussing Louis Léopold-Boilly’s grimacing self-portraits (one of which is seen at the top of this page), “The Parisian population, which grew enormously in size and diversity during the nineteenth century, delighted in examining itself from every angle. The “grimacier”, a popular street performer of the day, mirrored the appearance and emotions of the city’s inhabitants.” The job of the Grimacier was to make faces.

An aside: visiting France at the outbreak of the Revolution, Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame, was imprisoned after being denounced as a royalist by a Grimacier. The revolutionary performer spotted the Tussaud family in the audience of a small theatre and alerted the gendarmes. Madame Tussaud narrowly avoided execution (she even had her head shaved ready for the chop), and spent some time thereafter making waxy death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and other victims of the guillotine. Was the face of this Grimacier in her mind thereafter as she moulded the visages of her sculptures and founded her famous London museum? Making faces is often adjacent to making history.

Another aside: ‘making faces’ is a sort of tautology – ‘face’ probably has roots in the Latin ‘facere’, ‘to make’.  So, like Sahara Desert means ‘desert desert’, ‘making faces’ means ‘making making’. Or reflecting reflecting. The same thing twice in two ways. Tautologies are interesting in the current context because they enact a collision between sameness and difference, another kind of ‘simultaneous looking’ that’s important to the poem which follows this sort of intro/essay/thing.

The job of poems, like that of the Grimacier, is often to reflect the reader, or the world, back at themselves. But slant, askance, dialogically. From many angles at once. And, also, to ask readers to participate in a moment of performed history, creating a tiny theatre where revolutions can be enacted. 

The speaker in the poem which follows is a Grimacier. He’s in Paris at the start of the 19th century, but also somehow in a contemporary city. Let the setting be fluid. He takes into himself a heady mixture of stimuli – the sounds and sights nearby, the distant frontiers of contemporary colonial activity, the feeling of his own blood inside him – and crunches them together into the lines of his face. He then begins his performance, making a series of complicated faces, hoping to catch the eye. He’s aware that history can happen in his clowning, but he’s also just trying to get by.

As the UK unlocks itself this summer, it risks plunging the world into even greater covid despair. The visible effects of climate change are becoming impossible for even the most committed skeptics to ignore. Fascism is spreading its combination of inward-looking xenophobia and outward-looking Imperial thirst throughout, at least, “The West”. The whole world’s making a face right now. Things look bad. The poem hopes, looking outward and inward through a fog of words, looking up into a weird kind of sky, to find some kind of reflection or response.


“But he came back from it!” Mike Skinner says. “He fucking came back”. Then, without breaking his rhythm, he lifts a second microphone we now realise he’s been holding all along, and delivers, as though it were simply the next sentence of his Mandelson story, the opening lines of ‘Turn the Page’: “That’s it. Turn the page on the day, walk away. / Because there’s sense in what I say. / I’m 45th generation Roman / but I don’t know ’em” – which we’re confused to find that we are now over-hearing, amplified from somewhere else, behind a wall, mingling with and puncturing through the background beat we’ve already grown accustomed to. Skinner walks past the interviewer and moves, both out (of the corridor) and in (entering a vast room), through a doorway, into the sound of his own magnified voice, suddenly onstage, addressing a roiling mass of bodies, reaches over a mixing desk to tweak some levels, all the while speaking with punch and rhythm, all the while gurning and grimacing with a hugely human power. Whoosh. The Grimacier-In-Chief. Ecstatic.

Grimacier

 

Inside my eyes, things are happening at once.

Things are happening at once in the lines of my face.


It’s a version of Paris around 1810. The trebly 

chirp of bluetooth speakers in parks, later.


Intimacy’s as naked as my blood, today,

as if anything looked better from a distance. 


An afternoon of varnish chips from clapboards 

of bouquinistes as buskers pinch harmonics.


Sands from the Sahel brush the city’s skins.

A system of rainbows makes a dome over Bamako.


A blank glop of fishes’ faces lines

a nearby stall, many-coloured-silver,


smelling rankly of ocean and gore. A dancer

extends a finger, accusing the space at its tip.  


From these my performance takes, or doesn’t, what

it needs to catch the eye, or fail to. Look.


Face: the bruising shock of seeing the scurf

of bits of flame snowing down on your home


or, worse, a large beloved building

of some storied faith or firm.


Face: an infant’s boil-red cheeks as chrism

slops its welcome to the world of wetness, cold.


Face: the dull calm thrill of hearing

the hush of traffic or water, airish and kind. 


Face: I’m looking at a doorway through

a window in a doorway into where


we once lived. On it, the undersides

of insects appear. Behind me, too-


smooth stones assume new shapes on soil.

Are you even listening? Am I?


Ask the violets what they think of the earthquake,

or the pavement what’s next from the ambo,


and you’ll get a gurn in reply as your spoils.

A series of thirty-five expressive heads 


makes a range along the streets. Look,

the whole world’s making a face right now, 


the exit strategy a fog of words,

sky gone the colour of bronze under blood.

 

Note: the Colta Ives stuff on Bolly and the grimacier is taken from Romanticism & the School of Nature: Nineteenth-Century Drawings and Paintings from the Karen B. Cohen Collection, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which ran from October 2000 to January 2001

Crash Blossoms: A Poem

mary richardson’s theme on a velásquez

In March 1914, the suffragette activist Mary Richardson used a meat cleaver to slash several wounds into the Velásquez painting known as The Rokeby Venus. She was protesting the previous day’s arrest and violent treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst. After Richardson herself was apprehended, she was quoted in the London Times as saying, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on a canvas”. 

At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that Richardson, in her later career, semi-cloistered yet sanguine in the Cambridgeshire countryside, with her adopted son and ducks, became a card-carrying fascist, participating in Oswald Mosley’s BUF. It’s also important to acknowledge both that the suffragettes were intersectionally unsound (put bluntly, they were racist and classist), and that their success in gaining suffrage for some women in 1918 may have been helped by the home-front events of World War I as well as post-war coalition politics. What is sure, though, is that Richardson’s escalation of the cause to include the violent destruction of property was a vital step forward for a years-old movement which had begun to languish and equivocate. 

As history invents its new dualisms, as the polarising and narrativising effects of ‘real-time’ shifting into ‘remembered-time’ take their toll, the famous story of a suffragette acting violently against a nude painting settles into an easy interpretation. Most suppose that Richardson’s iconoclastic ire was directed against the painting for its objectifying lewdness. No doubt contemporary reactionaries would see it as an example of cancel-culture, Velásquez’s notoriously ‘creamy’ pigments axed like Pepe le Pew for violating some imagined puritanical standard.

As valid (as vital) as conversations about the male gaze in art history are, Richardson’s words printed in the Times suggest that they’re of less importance in this instance than at first it seems. Richardson has little interest in silencing or cancelling history: she’s in dialogue with it, amplifying it, revivifying it. She recognises Velásquez’s contribution to the pursuit of beauty, and to it she adds her theme. It is now, of course, an accepted fact that slashed canvases and acts of ‘vandalism’ against artworks can themselves be considered art – from Lucio Fontana’s auction-house favourites to David Datuna eating Maurizio Cattelan’s banana. But, long before the fad, Richardson was both an activist and a performance artist.

Destruction in the service of justice, she suggests, is beautiful. Remember at least this from Keats: that truth and beauty are fungible. Anything whatsoever done in the service of justice and truth is a beautiful act. “No justice; no peace”. Quite right. And no beauty, either. At many important moments of history, a destructive, passionate intensity is called for, and the peculiarly Northern European breed of staunch, besuited, do-nothing moderates are exposed as the wilting stems they’ve always been. We’re at one such moment in the United Kingdom, now.

Our country is in the middle of a car crash, and the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, a man of such ideological flaccidity that he recently supported a hostile government takeover of one of his own party’s historic strongholds, is chin-scratching his way through the windshield. He’ll meet the concrete, soon. 

Starmer’s policy-constipation is catching up to him. A year in, his leadership has started to look very jaundiced. On current polling form, if he’s the Labour leader at the time of the next election, they will lose, and lose hard, even against the most glaringly incompetent government the UK’s ever known. For the party, and the country, to survive, it needs to place policy-led socialism and trade union collaboration at its very core, instead of practising it as some form of appeasement of the fringes (if ever at all). 

Starmer’s practised non-action is often dangerous, pandering stuff – visiting homophobic churches or refusing to condemn racism towards the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community within the Labour Party. In trying to broaden his appeal, his bloatedly expansive acts of ‘moderation’ are often at the violent expense of those people he is supposed to be representing. To borrow a pun from the poet Geoffrey Hill: is Starmer the judge “dispensing, with justice”, or simply “dispensing with justice”?

On which, back to Richardson: notice she says that justice is an element of beauty. Perhaps we might read this as meaning “some small part of” beauty, a piece of beauty plucked from some larger originary source. I choose to believe she means that justice itself is the elemental force of beauty, its very fount and fulmination. The zeal and verve of Richardson’s destructive act, its jouissance and its justice, is beautiful, just as the toppling of the Colston statue was beautiful, just as the Kill the Bill protestors are beautiful. The zeal and verve of the police officers, chopping down perversely on unarmed and defenceless crowds, using protective shields as weapons, are the very definition of ugliness. Not only because they are violent, but because they impose hegemonic power rather than justice. 

‘Crash Blossoms’, which appears below, is a poem I wrote this week with all this in mind. The poem is angry at moderates; angry at Keir Starmer; angry at the British media’s obfuscation around the Sarah Everard tragedy and the mishandling of its aftermath; angry that fascistic control and police brutality are looking ever more at home on England’s streets. Being a moderate in such an age is itself an act of crippling violence. Acting violently in the pursuit of justice in such an age (in all ages) is an act of beauty. 

To explore and enact these feelings, the poem takes the form of ambiguous newspaper headlines whose syntactic brevity make them unclear. Classic examples include, “Giant Waves Down Queen Mary’s Funnel”, and, “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”. Since 2009, these linguistic curiosities have been called ‘crash blossoms’ after an example in the newspaper Japan Today which read: “Violinist Linked to JAL Crash Blossoms”.

The poem keeps that violin for its first line, and repurposes it as a sundered symbol: a musical instrument always means ‘harmony’, but that ‘v’ gestures towards ambivalence, division. From there, the crash blossoms into colliding phrases and divided meanings, always trying to spiral down to some landing. The poem does violence to its own formal (private?) properties, in hopes that something blooms between the cracks.

I think “crash blossoms” is a sort of ludicrously beautiful pairing of words. It is itself testament to how beauty arises from a clash of opposites – that plosive crash, those quiescent but emergent blossoms. I also think that the neo-lib, metro-elite-style linguistic gag of them points towards a greater and more dangerous kind of practised ambiguity in the Western media. But I think, also, that within the confused cloud of our own contemporary crash, something might immoderately blossom; something beautiful, and something just. With all this in mind, here’s the poem:

Crash Blossoms

Oblivious violin keys count
vapour clouds early evening convos
as reactionary censors miss piggy over 
thirst fears. New House plants decay
clearing leaves behind the windshield shards.
Call for order satisfied falls.
Many again with colours on stand.

Afternoon launches set aside as rain
bars spring across the sky once more.
Ageing flames return to cause, happening
to happen. Global church signals benefit wounds.
Plural people dig punctum developing
in the sky, concrete meeting spirals.

You sometimes make a dust a dark dust
by sweeping away your little words.
Secret paint colours rise in the land. Hand 
holds hand up through cracks in the rain
covering proof from the world’s every
water. Gripping talk in coffeeshop explosion.

Note: the two lines “You sometimes make a dust a dark dust / by sweeping away your little words” are a warning from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, Robert, about being over-succinct in his poems (the link between this Browning quote and the phenomenon of crash blossoms was originally made by Ben Zimmer in the NYT).