I set about reading a lot of her stories and autobiographical pieces, as well as the novel based on her life by Elena Poniatowska, and the more I learnt about her resilience and her drive to be true to herself, the more I saw in paintings I'd thought I already knew quite well. Eventually I wrote a sequence of four ekphrastic poems exploring aspects of her extraordinary life through four portraits she painted at key points:
Self-Portrait: Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937-38), painted at the time of her elopement to Paris with Max Ernst, when she left behind her family's suffocating expectations of her.
Bird Superior: Portrait of Max Ernst (1939), painted while the couple were living in the South of France, prior to Ernst's periods of internment at the hands of the French authorities, and then the invading Germans.
The Artist Travelling Incognito (1949), painted after her escape to Mexico, following a brutal stay in a mental hospital in Spain and her parents' attempt to force her back to England (by sending her nanny in a submarine to abduct her!)
The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) (c1947-50), which I construed as a mythical depiction of her arrival in Mexico, where she was to live out the rest of her long and fascinating life.
These poems have now been published in issue 18 of the fabulous journal of creative arts Riggwelter, and can be read here, but if you'd like to see the poems alongside the paintings, they're also below. (But do visit Riggwelter, because there's great stuff in it.)
‘Armed with madness for a long voyage’ *
After four paintings by Leonora Carrington
I Self-Portrait: Inn of the Dawn Horse (1937-38)
It’s lost its mane and tail
but she’s set that old rocking horse rocking
so hard it is lifting, hovering in the air
as if it might follow its living self
the one that has leapt through the frame
and is cantering into freedom.
And yes, it’s a dawning
Leonora, seated on a satin tongue
her demon hyena at her feet,
will soon be gone
as desire materialises beside her
casts a shadow, erases lines
that would confine her.
II Bird Superior: Portrait of Max Ernst (1939)
in a gilded country
where the forests are deep and dark
she paints maestro Max
all flounced out in feathers and fish tail,
his stinging stripy socks,
He paints her
tangled in briars and vines
she paints herself
frozen in the background
watching him walking out of shot
helpless to stop him.
Even before war is declared
taking her light
trapped in his lantern,
the egg he will hide in the ice
of this barren lifeless mountain.
III The Artist Travelling Incognito (1949)
Why so paranoid?
asks the Spanish psychiatrist
She straightens the citadel on her head,
rearranges the extra eyes she’s borrowed
from her cat’s remaining lives
They’re coming to get me, she explains
In a submarine
Lord Candlestick with his strictures
Mother painting biscuit tins
punishing nuns, suitors, the spies of the Gestapo
entitled artists who would use me
as their muse
I’m sticking my necks out
my real head’s the decoy
it will parrot
what you expect I’ve kept
my umbrella in case it rains
I don’t know why
I’m in disguise
none of them see me.
IV The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) (c1947-50)
No foam-born Venus blown ashore on a shell
She crawled straight from the mouth
of the whale
turned her back on the map of her journey
freed the geese that led her
to her unknown home.
As for the terror
that overwhelmed her
she’s put it behind her
so let waves rise, mound themselves into hillocks
miniscule men fight monsters
saplings sputter flame.
She is brooding mysteries in her head,
her unhatched visions sprout strange
feathers in their egg.
© Deborah Harvey 2019
* Paraphrased by Leonora Carrington from the inscription in Mary Butt’s novel, ‘Armed with Madness’
This sequence of poems will also be published in my poetry collection, The Shadow Factory, due to be published by Indigo Dreams later this year.