Painting Pictures


The Remains,
Annie Freud (52pp, £9.99, Picador)


Annie Freud's latest offering starts with aubergines and ends with an omelette, though it is called The Remains there may not be much left by the time the reader places their order, considering the relentless demands of the poet's taste buds. 'Beauty. beauty, beauty' she writes in the title poem, beauty is what captivates Annie Freud, whether it's found in a Constable painting or a starter of prawn crackers and jasmine tea, beauty is what she craves and subject wise, it is what constitutes the orange to red glow on her poetry's heat map.

Being a keen admirer of Annie Freud's first two collections, The Best Man That Ever Was
(2007) and The Mirabelles (2010) it was a pleasant surprise to find her third collection in the reviewers goody bag I received from the satanic monkeys that rule Stride Towers. Annie Freud is excellent. It is a great pleasure for me to attempt to explain precisely what makes her excel.

One of the two chief inspirations for The Remains
were pieces of broken china and other trinkets Annie Freud found on digging her garden, these items spoke of histories and identities long forgotten in the shuffle of time's footsteps. The remains, as the title calls them, are not directly referenced in the poetry, instead they work as triggers for the poet's imagination. The other main inspiration, according to the blurb, was a viewing of masterpieces from the Sung Dynasty. This visual prompt is evident in the poem 'Once a small pavilion', which is short enough for me to include in its entirety:

   Once a small pavilion stood by the Canglan pond.
   (The waters still lap its empty railings.)

   Here there is always wind and moon for the fishermen.
   (I notice the tears on my cheeks have dried.)

   Rivers and lakes fill the whole land, enough for my enjoyment.
   (See how the ripples rock the boat.)

The poem is simple and could just be the description of a painting, except for the line 'I notice the tears on my cheeks have dried' which inserts the human source of the poem into the poem. The pond is where she goes in sadness, but her sadness is short lived, notice how the water of the natural world lasts longer than the water that falls in the form of tears, even outlasting the small pavilion.

The world of Annie Freud is one where the senses dominate, taste, touch and smell are all heightened. In the aforementioned opening poem 'Aubergines', her post-pub snack is the 'unpromising, deceptive, truncheon-like, rubbery, sexual' vegetable which she slices up and devours decadently:
                                                                                     
                                                                                  I slid
   six fine cut slices from the board into the smoking oil
   I was Scheherazade, wielding my spatula in ecstasy,
   telling stories to myself, eating discs of melting gold.

Most people, and perhaps poets, would probably be eating chips after the pub, Annie Freud is carving up aubergines. This may seem trivial, but its one of the keys to understanding her. She is a tasteful aesthete, her delights are epicurean, picking out words at random from her list poem of chosen subjects brings up 'rubies, fires, debaucheries, teeth, vases, vampires', her world would be Baudelairian (another of her chosen subjects) except it is much too pleasant. Fruit, flowers, paintings and parties are frequent features of her poems.

The first line the reader is offered on opening The Remains
is: “Annie Freud is a poet and artist.” That she is both a poet and an artist is informative, for Annie Freud has been a visual artist much longer than she has been a poet, since 1975 she has worked as an embroider and a tapestry artist. Annie Freud came quite late to poetry, she started writing in the late 1990s after bring 'electrified' by an Anne Carson reading. Her first collection appeared when she was 59 and at the tender age of 66 she became, somewhat ironically, one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets. There are certain sensibilities which come from being an artist that can be found in the way she writes, in particular, a certain painter-like attention to detail:

   That night they sat and drank a liqueur made of oak leaves
   and listened to the hoopoes hooting
   in the eucalyptus trees.
         [from
Je N'aime Pas Beaucoup Les Glaēeuls]

The delicate arrangement of objects could equally be the setting for a painting. Another boon from her artist background is that The Remains
features wonderful illustrations from the author, which add an extra aesthetic element. Of course, when discussing Annie Freud and art, the elephant in the room is that her father, Lucian, was the most famous British artist of his generation. However there's no need to dwell on this, it's not as if she's Sylvia Plath with a dominating 'Daddy' figure looming over her work. The one poem dedicated to her father is called, mischievously for a man rumoured to a fathered forty children, 'Birth Control'.

As previously mentioned Annie Freud's subjects are usually light, there are poems about horses, gladioli, a visit from the Queen. There is no violence, hatred or fury here, the biggest tragedy in The Remains
seems to be the loose lid of a salt cellar causing an excess of salt to fall onto an omelette (this happens in closing poem 'A Memorable Omelette'). The unabashed revelry in the good times suggests something of a Georgian influence, for whom the green grass of home and the songs of the singing birds were the chief delights. However though Annie Freud may be a Georgian in her sense and sensibilities she does not write like a Georgian, the majority of her poetry is not rhymed, her metres are loose, she's not afraid to underline words or CAPITALIZE THEM, she is also fond of found poems.

Annie Freud also looks further than England's green and pleasant lands for her inspiration, its clear from her poetry that she's something of a Francophile. Two poems in The Remains
have French titles and one of them 'Les Sauces, le Ballet, les Actrices' is, as its name suggests, simply a list of French sauces, ballet moves and actors. Her passion for all things Gallic aligns her poetic outlook with a woman who once lay down on Baudelaire's tomb to confirm they were the same size. Annie Freud and Rosemary Tonks are both highly sensual writers, as Tonks once declared: 'The main duty of the poet is to excite – to send the senses reeling'. Where this comparison loses ground is the subtlety of Annie Freud, Rosemary Tonks is a declamatory poet, an exclamation mark is never far away,  Annie Freud is much quieter, her craft is to paint a picture and to leave the reader space to admire it.

The Remains
is another confident and competent outing from a late blossoming literary talent. The ingredients are an eclectic mixture of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Slightly continental in taste, it goes well with any wine and should be consumed cold. Don't try to microwave it. 

       © Charlie Baylis 2015