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Review of The Other Guernica by Derek Sellen by Steve Xerri

Derek-Sellen-front-COVER

The Other Guernica by Derek Sellen published by Cultured Llama

Derek Sellen’s attractively produced The Other Guernica, published by Cultured Llama, carries the tagline Poems Inspired by Spanish Art. But if you tend to look slightly askance at the device of ekphrasis, that verbal description of visual artwork which sometimes smacks of the five-finger exercise or comes across as a would-be conspiracy of aesthetes, you needn’t worry : there’s far more to this poetry than descriptions of painted surfaces.

The very title The Other Guernica is a clue to the kind of oblique approach the book takes, playing as it does on our familiarity with the ‘Guernica’, Picasso’s famous protest against the horrors visited by Franco’s forces on the inhabitants of a village : but the name is in fact borrowed from a work we are much less likely to know, Luis Quintanilla’s other representation of that incident in a series of murals, which itself seems (as Sellen describes it) to reach across history, finding parallels with the biblical Massacre of the Innocents and, in our own day, with “the other Sarajevo, the other Fallujah, the other Aleppo”.

A broadening-out of meaning is achieved in part by sketching the essentials of the painter as well as the painting, telling us that “all his life, Luis Quintanilla / has drawn the particular […] even the rats during his prison spell.” It is to the drawing of the particular and the different that the poet responds; and it’s an artist’s delight in the telling detail which is suggested by the sparky language Sellen applies to the particularities of his chosen paintings and to the feelings they provoke in him.

This is the crux – the full significance of the artworks flowers as a result of what the observer brings to them. That’s true of any painting, any text : but the immense pleasure of reading The Other Guernica comes largely from witnessing how that expansive movement takes place on the page, through the intervention of the poet admirer and well beyond what a painter long-dead could have envisaged.

In forms as varied as near-concrete poetry and unrhymed sonnet, Sellen vividly expresses his personal recall of time spent – now contemplatively, now perhaps slightly more riotously – in his beloved Spain. At the other end of a very wide scale, he delivers sober reflection on the cruelty with which Spanish history, like any other, is riven.

The balance, though, tends to come down on the side of the wryly amusing, the beautiful and the joyous in these paintings : what Sellen gives us in his responses to them is not a series of art-gallery selfies dominated by the poet but evocations of the work themselves – not, I repeat, superficial descriptions of, say, a painted quince or historic slaughter, not even a mere account of the process of transferring still life or teeming crowd scene to the canvas.

Rather, the collection presents objects and events mediated first through paint and then through the filter of a skilled poet’s thought and language, their resonances amplified and overlaid by his many acts of careful looking, so as to produce a rich and humane document of a kind of kinship of creators in sympathy with the world they encounter through their senses.

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Steve Xerri is a former teacher, musician & designer now engaged in poetry & pottery. Was Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year 2017. Published in Acumen, Amaryllis, Brittle Star, Cinnamon anthology ‘From Hallows to Harvest’, Clear Poetry, Envoi, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Interpreter’s House, The Poetry Shed, Poetry Society Newsletter (Members’ Poems) and Stride Magazine.

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