Thinking in collage : reading Duncan White

Pam Brown

This week, as well as distractedly scrolling down hundreds of posts on the corporate social advertising site, facebook, I read hard copies of the Sydney Morning Herald every day, reviews in the London Review of Books, plus real time + onscreen, Rabbit issue 5, Art Monthly, various poems and essays in the current Southerly andvarious articles in Lemon Hound, Rhizome, E-rea, The Believer and Triple Canopy online magazines. I also caught up with the second issue of Pete Spence’s new handmade magazine ETZ .

ETZ #2 has poems by Laurie Duggan, Michael Farrell,  Berni Janssen, Rae Jones, Kent MacCarter, Francesca Sasnaitis, Emily Stewart, Corey Wakeling, Mark Young, and Tom Weigel; poetic prose by Javant Biarujia and Nicola Themistes and Tom Weigel’s translation of a poem by Georg Trakl. There is also a generous supplement, Splinters, an insert of poems by Duncan White.  He is a research fellow at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design at the University of the Arts London. He’s the lead author and co-editor of Expanded Cinema: Art Performance Film (Tate Publishing 2011). His research interests include film and media experiments, poetry, art and performance.

Duncan’s shorter pieces in ETZ are based on interviews with abstract expressionist painters. I was captivated by this intriguing suite because of its apparent metaphysics and the series of changes that a compiling, rather than ‘writing’, process effects.  Splinters opens with

You will not need instructions to make your way through this
the space dividing us is as thin as the air we breathe. Maybe
it’s because we skipped the boring parts choosing instead to trust
our instincts confident there was nothing dangerous in these mists only
a series of voices carried around in our heads. And you realize suddenly
that you were pursuing a sound splitting continuously into other sounds
beyond any identifiable term or phrase. Where does it lead? Why would you ask?
Never has so little felt like so much for those who love the products
of the day (the movies, the T-shirts) but are suspicious of its processes.
Light floods in from a larger emptiness.  …

These poems think-in-collage as anyone might, but they highlight the particular agency artists or poets enact in constructing a piece of work. Further into the sequence –

they seem to enjoy it talking all the way
and only looking out at things intermittently
between statements referring to space travel or municipal
arrangements for the movement of plastic wastes
which are plural and take no notice of the more refined differences
that brought you here to eat with me under a palm
while the sunlight keeps falling over.
Where do these things come from? Not from me. …

The ingenuity is in the lines lifted from whichever interview and slotted into a collage to epitomize visual perception and relation with colour, and its connection with states of being and with mental faculties like memory (the Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky was a well-known proponent of this) –

At this distance there are two of you
moving toward me before collapsing into a terrible
singularity. What is it? People wish to know
badly and call to you in new colours. It’s a great way
to introduce red into the room. But in this culture
flowers signal an unhappiness different from death
or lost memories.

Cy Twombly, The Geeks 1955

I wrote to Duncan White to say how much I enjoyed reading the poems and he sent me a poem that wasn’t included in ETZ. It’s based on abstract expressionist Cy Twombly’s 1955 painting ‘The Geeks’ –


Without being specific we’re half way between Naples
and Rome considering the question of colour.  colour?
the form of the thing is more interesting to me than colour.
I take colour as primary – like if it’s the woods it’s green
if it’s blood it’s red if it’s earth it’s brown how can you live otherwise?
all I want is to live. I’m in a good point of working right now.
I can take liberties.  you see these flowers?  they’re real flowers!
the effect is always the opposite of sensation – that is the fire
in our house.  it’s not entirely out of place like
a foot poking through the ceiling.  but I don’t do that anymore.
now I have someone paint the background for me and I plan
everything in my head before I do it.  that was the bob in the cage
I thought: where was I?  but I never was there. I was somewhere else.
I didn’t have to bother with myself ever, except as a vehicle to look for
subject matter.  once I said to my mother: “you would be happy if I
just kept well-dressed and had good manners.”  and she said:
“What else is there?”

In our email correspondence Duncan said – “The Twombly piece only refers indirectly to CT via the title ‘The Geeks’ which is an early-ish painting of his that I particularly like.  With those poems [in ETZ] I would lift whole lines from archived interviews found online (there are plenty of them, but I was particularly interested in the Works Progress Administration interviews which are very matter of fact, in their questioning, ‘where are you from?’ ‘how old are you?’ ‘how has the W.P.A. helped you?’ etc.  Although I don’t think Twombly was interviewed as part of that).  Anyway, as I say I would lift whole lines and then use these as springboards and collage them in with ‘my own words’ etc.

What interested me was how these artists would speak so freely in these interviews. One of the pieces in ETZ  says as much. This freedom of expression is something I guess we all lust after but feel a certain incredulity about, at least I do, for some reason.  That this phantom freedom is the cliched view of abstract expressionism, generally speaking.  Speaking so freely and being able to articulate ‘themselves and their works’ so elegantly made me wonder why they painted at all, why not just ‘say it’, (of course they never could without the paintings – I’m always reminded of something John Ashbery wrote – ‘if I could tell you I would let you know’)  and more to the point how they painted in a way that bypasses language altogether – although in Twombly this isn’t completely the case.  And in fact many of the paintings in question, particularly de Kooning’s, look like the feeling of language sometimes, while many of Twombly’s canvases seem to involve a sort of unlearning of language altogether – all those childlike scrawls referring to high-culture greek myths etc but turning them into detritus and ephemera scrawled across all those bumpy surfaces.

In general I use collage a lot – I particularly like to take things people have ‘said’ so that I can borrow voices and mingle them with, again, ‘my own’ and also I like what happens to things people ‘say’ once they are written down.  Often a great deal happens.  But also, very little.”

3 thoughts on “Thinking in collage : reading Duncan White

  1. I’m so glad you referred to the Duncan White poems, and that Cy Twombly work I’ve never seen and is remarkable. Would you call White’s ‘Under the Stars’ reverse ekphrasis, since it makes no effort to transpose the painting into poetry, but instead the transversal of witnessing a missing entity evident only in parenthesis: (The Geeks 1955)? The only term that comes to mind to account for this lovely weirdness bar the speculative “reverse ekphrasis” would be l’empêchement-oeil, a term Beckett uses for the work of abstract expressionists Geer and Bram van Velde, meaning ‘impediment of the eye,’ or ‘obstruction of the eye,’ an aesthetic sensibility he found sympathetic to his own.

    1. Dear Corey,

      In further email correspondence Duncan said “… and it’s true there is no attempt to transpose painting into writing, although I think I sometimes ‘quote’ from paintings if that’s possible. ”

      I suppose my placing the Cy Twombly painting in the piece prompted, on some level, your thinking about ‘ekphrasis’ or ‘reverse ekphrasis’ but I don’t think that’s what the poems are doing. And I had not heard that concept from Samuel Beckett before – ‘impediment of the eye’. It’s a useful one but, again, not quite what’s happening in Duncan’s collaged poems.

      Duncan also said ” ‘witnessing what is missing’ seems to be in the right area. I don’t know Beckett’s term — but the eye may well make it’s own obstructions. like i said before, in terms of how I ‘use’ things, like how Twombly uses materials such as house paint, crayons, graphite, I used what the artist said about the painting, or about himself rather than the painting itself. I suspect because it ‘means’ a lot less in the ‘scheme of things’. So no ekphrasis — just stealing!”

      Thanks for your comments Corey


  2. As I understand it l’empêchement-oeil is doubled, is at once impediment to the eye as well as impediment of the eye, as you say, “the eye may well make it’s own obstructions”.

    “just stealing” sounds fabulous!

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