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).