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‘The Gate to Another Garden’: Text and Image in Jenny Bornholdt’s These Days

Masami Nakao

Originally published in Writing at the edge of the Universe, ed. Mark Williams (Christchurch: Canterbury UP, 2004): 151-64. .

 

Poetry and the visual arts have enjoyed especially close and fruitful relations in New Zealand. Colin McCahon’s collaborations with John Caselberg and those of Ralph Hotere with Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde are part of a rich and distinctive tradition of hybrid art in this country. Gregory O’Brien’s work in each medium has continually enriched the other. Concrete poetry also has established a particular tradition in New Zealand, where poets who began experimenting with the form in 1960s when it was internationally fashionable still do so, and where new practitioners still arrive. [1] The 1990 exhibition at Wellington City Gallery ‘Now See Hear!’ broke down the traditional distinction between fine arts and poetry by allowing poets to exhibit their work in an art gallery. [2] Literary texts are not alien to the visual arts in this country.

This phenomenon impressed me as a Japanese reader and student of poetry because it is also the case in our country. Japanese Haiku are often accompanied by or, rather, incorporated into painting. Roland Barthes, in his renowned account of Japanese culture, Empire of Signs, cites a work combining a Haiku poem and a painting (see page 152) and asks: ‘Where does the writing begin? Where does the painting begin?’ [3]

Of course, this genre of combined poetry and painting called Haiga – Hai meaning Haiku poetry and Ga, painting – is partly explained by the fact that the two modes of expression use the same apparatus: ink and brush. In other words, the visual has always been an intrinsic element of Japanese, and originally Chinese, poetry. In Haiga, poetry, calligraphy and painting form a trinity of equal parts.

The Japanese attitude towards this compound form of art suggests ways of elucidating the practice in New Zealand. The example on page 153 is not a Haiga but a Bunjinga, from which Haiga was derived. [4]

 

Bunjinga as a genre originated in third-century China. The word Bunjin literally means ‘men of letters’, and referred to the class of people who had passed the well-known examination to become bureaucrats – intellectuals, in other words. Bunjinga can be simply defined as paintings done by these intellectuals, with no restriction as to style, theme or the materials employed. The only important condition is that it should be created by somebody cultured in the literary tradition.

Imported into Japan, Bunjinga took root there because, for the Samurai class, knowledge of classical Chinese literature was a necessary sign of refinement. In this particular work the text is in Chinese but was composed by a Japanese artist, Gion Nankai (1676–1751). The painting depicts a plum tree in blossom, but the poem makes no direct reference to the painted
flowers. It merely makes allusions to plum blossoms in Chinese literature that will be recognisable to those familiar with the tradition. Nankai then laments the absence in the present age of those able to appreciate the beauty of plum blossom as subtly as the Chinese men of letters who created exquisite poetry from their appreciation.

What is notable about this combination of painting and poem is, above all, the skilful control of correspondence and distance. The poem does not directly describe the plum itself, but by association it refers to plums recorded in past texts and to those that will figure in future texts. In other words, invisible flowers are brought together outside the boundaries of time to enrich the painting.

On the other hand, it is the painting that inspired the text. The relationship between the two is not direct, yet it is indispensable. Here the location of the text is significant. Art critic Sasaki Johei sensitively observes that ‘the text is placed within the scent of the plum flowers’. [5] It is not only the plum tree that is painted but also the atmosphere full of its scent. The text is enwrapped within this atmosphere and gives off its own scent from the ancient plum blossoms. Furthermore, readers are supposed to appreciate this intermingled atmosphere. If they do not know the classical allusions, the text will mean nothing to them. And the text needs the painting as a sensory stimulus to the reader’s imagination.

The text occupies a space within the painting, so that the two modes of art are inseparable. At the same time, the text gives temporal extension to the painting and releases it, as it were, from its spatial confinement. We are thus presented with a compound experience to be shared by the reader, who is supposed to have enough sensitivity and knowledge to understand both poetry and painting. [6] The art is completed only when rightly appreciated.

This tradition is still alive in the contemporary Japanese art scene.  We can trace the line in Japanese comics, which are thriving today.  Moreover, collaborations between poets, novelists, and visual artists have resulted in many ambitious achievements.    Yamamoto Yoko's engraving attached to the translation of 'Sonnet 60' by William Shakespeare ('Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore/ So do our minutes hasten totheir end') is a good example (n8).   Instead of depicting waves or the course of the sun, Yamamoto merely engraves the two toes of rather worn-out shoes looked down at from above.  The course of life is a journey during which you stop sometimes to look at your own feet.  This is an indirect and suggestive treatment of both the theme of time expressed in the sonnet and the poet’s meditative attitude to it.  Image and text thus complement each other, and, at the same time, go their own ways.  Again, the combination creates a new species of art that is only realised in the experience of appreciating both the text and the image.

Instead of depicting waves or the course of the sun, Yamamoto merely engraves the two toes of rather worn-out shoes looked down at from above. The course of life is a journey during which you stop sometimes to look at your own feet. This is an indirect and suggestive treatment of both the theme of time expressed in the sonnet and the poet’s meditative attitude to it. Image and text thus complement each other, and at the same time each goes its own way. Again, the combination creates a new species of art that is only realised in the experience of appreciating both the text and the image.

Jenny Bornholdt is a poet in whose work visual images often play an indispensable role. Moreover, the relationship between the text and the image in her work seems particularly reminiscent of the above Japanese examples. The volume How We Met (1995), for example, has four drawings (including the cover) by Noel McKenna. The volume begins with a group of poems entitled ‘Estonian Songs’, and on its title page is an image of a horse running up a hill under the crescent moon. None of the eighteen poems in the group actually depicts a horse except a short piece entitled ‘Praising the Cook’:

They say the sexual impulse
is like a fiery horse.
When you break an egg
one-handed
into the frying pan
it sounds like distant hooves
crossing a dusty plain.

It is noticeable that the horse is referred to only by way of similes in the text: first, it stands for something invisible, (‘the sexual impulse’); and second, the sound it makes (‘hooves’) is compared to another sound (an egg broken on a hot frying pan). McKenna’s drawing of a horse visualises what is only indirectly mentioned and thus stored in the mind of the reader. Text and image are compensatory and yet do not explain each other. The collaboration obviously produces something more than an illustrated literary work. Let us explore this further with Bornholdt’s 2000 volume of poetry, These Days, which is a more conscious attempt of incorporating the text and the image.

The volume contains four visual images among the poems. The artists vary, and the processes of the collaboration differ from one piece to another. The first poem begins as follows:

It was a year of great sadness
in the garden. A sister
died. Our friends’ wounded
marriage. A sick child. Another
sister died and they wrapped her
in cloth and we laid her
in the ground.

The painful events listed here belong to one year, but not necessarily to the garden. The word ‘garden’ reminds us of a small self-contained peace ful world whose archetype, of course, is that of Eden and thus evokes the peaceful passage of time that normally surrounds the narrator. Deaths, a broken relationship, sickness and departures disturb its enclosed stability. The contrast between the two elements, temporal and spatial, seems to be central to the collection. And we will see that the two are often expressed as states of fluidity and solidity.

The latter half of the poem is occupied by the solace that is an antidote to the sadness. ‘Solace came in’, the poet puts it, so that the enclosed garden is activated by the arrival of something from without. One of the objects that arrive is a vase, which is drawn by Joanna Margaret Paul at the end of the poem.

After time a vase
entered our lives
as a body of light
its white flowers a kind of
peace we craved and
entered         as the gate
to another garden
on a hillside, tended by
women who looked up
from roses to mountains
and saw snow
bloom there.

A note by the poet explains that the vase originally belonged to the poet Mary Ursula Bethell, who was in the habit of filling the vase with the white flowers mentioned here. In addition, ‘snow’ on the mountains is depicted as ‘bloom’. The ‘garden/on a hillside’ from which women, presumably Bethell herself and her companion Effie Pollen, ‘looked up . . . to mountains’ appears in Bethell’s poem ‘Pause’.

When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing. [9]

But here, the mountains are not depicted as covered with snow. In another poem, ‘Decoration’, snowy peaks appear:

This jar of roses and carnations on the window-sill,
Crimson upon sky-grey and snow-wrapt mountain-pallor.

The amalgamated allusions create an image that exists only in Bornholdt’s poem. This intertextuality is most suited to the image of the vase when it is compared to a ‘gate to another garden’. As the container holds fresh water and white flowers that continually enter and exit, so the gate opens the enclosed garden to other gardens. Thus the poet’s own garden becomes a point of intersection where the flow of time is temporarily stayed.

In contemplating the vase, the poet’s imagination is drawn to another poet composing seventy years before. Bethell’s ‘Pause’ was, in fact, a meditation upon the long span of time in which nature retrieves the ‘fond human enclosures’. The vase itself has been inherited through the hands of two others, and is given to the poet on condition that it be passed to another young woman poet. [10] The owners of the vase also come and go through this gate.

The poem also compares the vase to ‘a body of light’, another recurrent image in the volume. We imagine the whiteness of the flowers that illuminates the sorrow-stricken hearts. Here, it must be noticed that the text carefully avoids describing the vase itself or the flowers in it. Comparing a vase to light or a gate stimulates our imagination but does not really help us reach the thing itself.

The drawing, on the other hand, simply describes the vase and nothing else. The absence of flowers draws attention to the object that passes between the poets and remains the same, possessed by both Bethell and Bornholdt, unlike the flowers. Besides, the outline of the vase looks vague and indistinct – doubled at some places and disconnected at others – as if it were drawn from distant memory. In both text and image, the vase is represented incompletely, and the reader is encouraged to complete it themselves by appreciating both. Just as the plum tree emits sweet fragrance in Nankai’s Bunjinga, so the vase establishes its own existence in the book through the interaction between words and image.

A similar contrast and complement between the temporal and the spatial can be seen in the treatment of the third image, a photograph of an installation by Bill Culbert.

The poem is entitled ‘A light interlude 1’ and makes a pair with ‘A light interlude 2’. The photo describes numerous lights illuminating a dark room without a window. The poem is about installing lights in the basement. The only and critical difference is that in the poem light is never present. It is about the period of time waiting for the arrival of light. Just as in the first poem, the lights are something to be yearned for.

It is the period of waiting that is significant, as with the season of Advent before Christmas. The family must wait for Chris, the electricity man, to bring light, and they hang socks for him with the key and a message in one of them. While the lights themselves are visualised in the photo, the text
is devoted to their expectation. At the end of the poem, Chris talks about Bill Culbert’s work in the image then being exhibited at the City Gallery in Wellington and says, ‘Jesus, if I’d been working on that one you’d still be waiting for me.’ Even when the long-awaited saviour appears, the light is only talked about. The text consistently devotes itself to verbal representation.

The second interlude, on the other hand, does not have its own image, but refers to a video:

We watch a documentary about Colin McCahon.
Pause the video to make coffee and decide to replace the
blown lightbulb in the bedroom. The fitting breaks, we can’t
get the old bulb out, so leave it all hanging, go back to
McCahon and the heading on screen is light.

Again, in the text the poet fails to obtain light, although the resumed video displays the heading ‘light’. The two episodes confirm the complementary functions of text and image. In another poem included in the volume the word ‘light’ is rhymed by ‘night’. The arrival of light in a space requires a period of darkness in which it is awaited. From the very first poem, the sadness of loss is the recurrent theme of the volume, and solace of which the light is a symbol is earnestly desired. Yet the poet is also willing to immerse herself in the darkness, the absence of light.

Sadness is again the dominant mood in the poem and the image entitled (Woman Raking Leaves).

The poem was written to coincide with an exhibition of work by painter Noel McKenna. The title directly describes what is apparent in the image, and the connection is evident. ‘Sadness’ is the word with which the poet summarises the painting. In the painting, the leaves are mostly fallen and the broad sky looks grey in the book’s black-and-white printing. The woman raking the leaves on a cold and cloudy day before winter looks melancholic enough. But rather than going further into that mood, the poet lists words that rhyme with ‘sad’:

Sad.
Like bad
and glad.

The word ‘glad’ makes us stop for its mismatch. Then the word ‘rake’ is also given rhyming words:

These trees –
their leaves punctuate
the air.
A girl rakes – that’s
rake, like bake
or cake – she gathers in
sadness. She can
use that.

By the end of the poem, the mood has been completely diverted from the sadness that accompanies the painting. Interestingly, it is the same text that sets the mood of the painting and that moves away from it under a completely different law – that of sound.

This is the moment where the text abandons the descriptive function and enters its purely verbal sphere. The verb ‘punctuate’ is effectively used because it not only describes the leaves interspersed in the image but also suggests punctuation in writing. While the image crystallises one instant in the woman’s movement, the words emphasise its rhythmic repetition by the rhymes. The contrast between the spatial and temporal aspects of the two kinds of art is foregrounded.

An encounter with visual art not only urges poetry to reach out for interaction, but also inspires it to become more aware of itself. By repeatedly presenting the rhymes, the text succeeds in creating a certain distance from the image and finally declares: ‘She can use that [gathered sadness].’ Sadness does not dominate the scene any more, but the text can make use of it just like an ingredient in a cake.

Here, we must pay attention to the fact that all the poems that we have discussed so far make some reference or other to the word itself. The garden that the first poem refers to is one verbally created by a preceding poet. ‘A light interlude 1’ describes the child learning to speak: ‘Yight/Yight/Fix it. Fix it.’ The lights arrive verbally even before the actual lights are finally obtained.
In ‘A light interlude 2’ also, it is not the light itself but the letters ‘light’ that appear on the monitor. We have already seen that the horse in ‘Praising the Cook’ was presented in two ways distinct from that of the visual image: as a part of a discourse (‘They say . . .’) and through sound (‘distant hooves’). These are exactly the elements that Bornholdt emphasises when her texts are coexistent with images.

The title poem, ‘These Days’, proves this point most strikingly:

These days, if we want
to talk to our brothers and
sisters, we go down
to the basement

Again, the poem is set in the basement. The enclosed space is now a place to visit to talk to absent brothers and sisters. But greetings are addressed only to furniture and household goods:

Hello chairs, hello tables,
hello bookshelves, hello records,
hello bananatable, hello
printing press, hello rugs, hello
bikes, hello washing machine, hello
guillotine, hello other belongings
stored in boxes and suitcases.

In a room of still life, words echo as if to enliven the inanimate things. The basement also contains objects that the absent brothers and sisters send: ‘books’, ‘news’ – that is, probably letters – and ‘a transistor radio’. But now it is these objects that produce words. The enclosed space is now opened up for the communication with distant people. Words are exchanged.

This image is the photograph of the above-mentioned transistor radio,

which is ‘wrapped in green felt with instructions to lie it flat and place the accompanying tiny lighthouse on top’. Now the light is ready to be cast, although it is obvious that the object does not actually function as a light-bearer but is placed there symbolically. In the same way, the ‘boxed ocean’ is not really fluid. Yet,

The lighthouse stands
on its boxed ocean
of green, broadcasts
muted static into
our living room. It’s the sound
of roiling sea. The sound
of distance. The sound of them
trying to reach us, us
trying to reach them.

The words interpret the sound of the ‘static’ as standing for the ‘roiling sea’. The ‘sea’ is only imagined to ‘roil’ in the minds of the listeners. Actually, it is a solid box and the sound is even ‘static’. But the intervention of words, in their wave-like repetition of ‘the sound of . . . the sound of . . . the sound of . . .’, translates the solid objects into a fluid movement reaching for another.

In Jenny Bornholdt’s These Days the text emphasises its status as a temporal form of art when placed side by side with the image. Light is thus cast upon the details of everyday life safely accumulated in the enclosed spaces like a garden or a basement room; they are reinterpreted and become open to the greater flow of time. The juxtaposition of words and images produces various effects: they complement, they distance, they activate and they translate each other. Through these processes of interaction, the two media come to define themselves. At that moment they begin to tell their own stories, which eventually resonate with each other.

1. Contemporary practitioners of concrete poetry are Michele Leggott, Leslie Kaiser, Gregory O’Brien, Bill Manhire and the late Joanna Margaret Paul. Notable examples of the genre are Bill Manhire’s ‘FALLING WOMAN’ and ‘MALADY’. The art of Ralph Hotere and Rosalie Gascoigne can be seen as a version of concrete poetry.

2. See the special issue of Landfall, 177 (March 1991), pp. 3–41.

3. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, trans. Richard Howard, p. 21. The painting is Mushroom Picking by Yoko[i] Yayu (1702–83).

4. Gion Nankai, ‘Bokubaizu’ (A Plum Tree in Ink), in Sasaki Johei and Sasaki Masako, Bunjinga no kanshou kisochishiki (An Introduction to Bunjinga), p. 19.

5. Ibid., p. 18. Translation mine.

6. The same kind of collaboration between the artists and the reader can be seen in Haiga. See Suzuki Susumu, Edo no haijin (The Haiku Poets in Edo Period), p. 82.

7. Novelist Yoshimoto Banana and painter Nara Yoshitomo, both of international reputation, have published two successful collaborative works: Hinagiku no jinsei (The Life of Daisy), and Argentine babaa (Argentine Hag). Etching artists Hamaguchi Yozo and Minami Keiko had a collaborative exhibition with poets Tanikawa Shuntaro and Ooka Makoto entitled ‘Shi to no deai’ (An Encounter with Poetry) at Nerima City Museum, 2003.

8. William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, trans. Odashima Yushi, illustrated by Yamamoto Yoko, p. 60.

9. Ursula Bethell, Collected Poems, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan.

10. Jenny Bornholdt, These Days, ‘Acknowledgements’, p. 70.




Masami Nakao
 



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Last updated 1 March, 2005