Carry On, Leonora: 2

(Part two focuses momentarily on the image at the heart of this piece before pursuing these abstruse threads any further through the Labyrinth…)


Naturally, that isn’t the painting’s full title, which is ‘Oink! (They Shall Behold Thine Eyes)’, with the animal announcement purporting to be in Hebrew, and the bracketed statement a translation. Whether this is true or not – and it certainly doesn’t sound true – the relationship between the two types of discourse is what interests me: one is as silly as it may be transgressive, the other as sententious as it may be vatic.

(I happened to write this before the bizarre Piggate rumour enveloped our current Prime Minister, but there remains something marvellously appropriate in revising my description of ‘Oink!’ as those calumnies reverberate. What Mark E. Smith, citing Philip K. Dick, calls ‘precog’.)

The high priests of art and poetry, the Andre Bretons or Geoffrey Hills or Ron Sillimans of this earth – pluralising the names of such singular figures perhaps gives an appropriately ridiculous air to what I’m saying – although they appear to appreciate the comic as a region of the aesthetic palate, never seem to be or indeed have much fun.

Leonora Carrington, on the other hand, even though this picture is plunged in the subterranean light of the deep unconscious and filled with ambivalent symbols, has no difficulty in presenting us with our own difficulty in placing the comic beside the unsettling, indeed in suggesting that one may well be the trigger for the other.

We find ourselves in a soupy subterranean chamber, the sort we often turn the corner onto in dreams, as indeed a Cretan bull is doing on the left. That’s not right, it thinks, surely I was charging towards a young acrobat only the four thousand years ago? But the dream, as is its way, soon persuades the bull and us that all this makes perfect sense.

Look, at the back of this long, columnar, low-roofed hall: the Mistress of the Thresholds is indeed standing at a threshold. ‘A-sa-sa-ra’, she’s called in the Linear A – and something similar in the Hittite, assuming we’re getting any of this right – Astarte or Dyktinna, a powerful spirit or a snake charmer, who can be sure? Should Arthur Evans have stuck that cat on her head? What is the Greek for having a cat sat on your head? (I actually have this written down somewhere, but where?)

Never mind that now, because here be the sleepers, a long bed filled with them – is it five or five thousand? Nothing stays stable long enough to count, especially as their hair is standing on end in long candle flames that stretch up to the figures leaning on the bedstead in black Calvinist diddy hats. They look like they ought to disapprove but they are just as bewildered as everyone else by the huge chimera centre stage.

Did we mention that mothy-furred stripy-necked raccoon/jackal hybrid with droopy archaeopteryx wings and a bone Boreas blowing from its up-reared tail-tip while it sprays frightmare juice from its lemur paw thing upon the dreamers? We probably should have, as it seems to be directing the whole charade.

There are various alchemical vessels, giant lacewing flies, and glass snakes, left coiling and collapsing about the place, but we can discount those, as all poisons, medications, and tea, have already been drunk. In fact it’s only a matter of time till they kick in, or have kicked in, or whatever tense we’re in.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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