First Poem from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Me by Tom Jones

Me by Tom Jones

I feel incredibly honoured and delighted to have been appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. The Barber has been described as one of the finest small galleries in Europe and, living in south Birmingham, I’m particularly fortunate to know it well. It houses works of a quality to match those in the National Gallery (where there is currently an exhibition of works acquired by the Barber in its early years) but on a scale which is much more human than in larger galleries. You can go close enough to examine the brush strokes and look portraits in the eye.
At the moment, the Barber is exhibiting, interspersed with its own paintings, portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt and Goya, lent by the National Gallery. I think the intimacy of the Barber is absolutely the best mood in which to view these. I’ve never really got Rembrandt before, but the experience of looking into his mistress Hendrickje’s eyes is pure emotion; at first sight the portrait became one of my favourite paintings ever.
In the Lady Barber Gallery is an exhibition, called Defining Faces, of 20th century portrait drawings from the Barber and the National Portrait Gallery. I went to Undefined Faces, an event to celebrate this exhibition at which Roz Goddard read her wonderful poem inspired by Wyndham Lewis’s drawing of his wife Froanna, and Tom Jones drew elegant and accurate sketches of the audience. Tom’s drawing of me will become my image of myself for the residency.
I was fascinated by the huge variety of lines in the drawings and I tried to find words to describe them, which led to the poem below.

HER LINE HIS LINE
Doused in water, tentative, fretted, spreading from point to shadow, mechanical, dynamic, meshed, blue, stubby as a thumb, segmented, terracotta, fly by night, a boundary, unmodulated, line, industrial, approximate, sanguine, chalky, laid on thick, preliminary, exact, exaggerated, tight, humble, phantom, sartorial, furtive, flourishing

(Defining Faces 13/06/13)

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On the Eleven

I was asked by talented amateur photographer Danny Taylor to write this poem to accompany a selection of his still photographs of the No 11 bus route in Birmingham, which he was compiling into a short film. I travelled all the way round on the 11, anticlockwise, and the poem was inspired by that experience and Danny’s excellent images.

On the Eleven
describing a circle
like a burst balloon.
On a journey
going nowhere in three hours.
Like magic, Acocks Green
away down lanes, past leafy avenues
round roundabouts, along the roads
turns into
Acocks Green,
the solstice, the still point
where drivers, woolly hatted,
hi-vis jacketed, interchange,
embarking, widdershins,
on the A4040
they never left

Inside –
caps and plastic bags.
An ad for surplus clothes
– turn rags to wealth. Bells ring.

For oh, outside are all those
city villages called green,
grassy wastes where no one plays,
no one strays, no one stays.

Inside bells ring.
“I’ll get off at the shops”
someone rises, props herself
in wheelchair space to wait
where mothers slide
and dovetail buggies.

For oh, outside they look for healing,
worship,
careless of what they throw away.
Past displays of grief and flowers
angels guard deserted graves.

Inside, bells ring, doors grind.
“Ta-ra” “Thank you driver” “Cheers”
they say as they alight.
No rush.
Long waits at stops
for nowhere, nobody,
for nothing, for nought,
except to throw
some time away.

“It was busy years ago,”
they say inside.

For oh outside
forgotten pasts still
dwell in houses
derelict, pristine, careful gardens
painted railings. Space for hire
History for sale.

Inside bells ring
and something smells warm,
salty, like bacon sandwiches, greasy,
spicy, cabbage, deep-fried veg.

For oh outside the distant glamour,
exotic hints of other worlds,
places unseen clamour on posters –
Be star in Perry Barr.
Jesus cares about Rotten Park.

Inside Polish, Urdu, patois.
“You working?”
“Where you getting off?”
Bells ring.
“Next stop?”
“You getting off here”
Bells ring.
“Next stop?”
“Why not here?”
Why not now?
Bells ring.

On the eleven,
crossing its timeline
ringfencing the city
the centre always just out of reach,
moving on
from Acocks Green
on the A4040
past alleyways and boulevards,
under bridges, over water,
down roads and streets
and carriageways
all the way to
Acocks Green,
forever looped
against the clock.