The girl in the art exam applies herself
to colour – her brush layers a threatening
blueness across the sheet. The gobbet
of dark sputum on her palette, applied,
lightens to rich navies and ripples of light.
She’s intent on the centre, on the dark heart
of the mystery. But the edges are exquisite –
where the brush leaves the paper are feathers
that curl into air, into whiteness not planned,
into innocence no paint can defeat.
If I turn to inspiration, it is breath taken
because someone cared less about margins,
about what frames the deepest, and most
casual intentions, to deliver an end.
The poet seems detached from the final product and is unable to see more than the components of the work undertaken by the girl. We see ‘colours’, ‘ gobbets’, ‘dark heart’ and ‘feathers’ , frames and ‘margins’ but it doesn’t add up to much, except maybe a ‘casual intention’ at the end.
In this fragmented way, the poem has a contemporary tone. It’s the effect that Modernism bestowed from its flirtation with the early cinema; its technique of compressing time and leaving events to the imagination of the audience. This was one of Eliot’s technique in “The Waste Land” which so bewildered critics at the time.
On the other hand, ‘Untested’ explores a relationship between the poet and the girl, expressed through hints and images in the paint: now threatening, now depressing, sometimes a mystery, sometimes tenderness in the ripples of light.
From aesthetic perspective, the poem is a meditation on the nature of fine Art. It is expressed through another art, poetry. I always think this is precarious territory, and recall Tennyson’s warming against such meditations in ‘The Palace of Art’ (1828). I’m sure you know the work. The poet’s focus on the frame and margins at the end give pause. Are these the artefacts of commodification? Just as proscenium arch in the theatre ‘framed’ the performance in the late Seventeenth century, presenting it like a painting on sale.
I can see the painting and feel the girl’s intense concentration – and share the poet’s wonder. ‘If I turn to inspiration…’