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The portrait gallery

Vincent Van Gogh 1853–1890

A Velasquez-grey day. Rain.
         Thrown out of the chapel
I rock like the Greek oracle
         on its tripod, prophesying
a cure for uncleanliness
         through total immersion
in the working girl’s juices.

I’ve leant too long
         against the vestry wall.
It’s cold. Clergy condemn
         My camel-hair brush:
their pride requires
         a carpenter’s pencil
and hard-edged light.

Tremulous, mist transfigures
         the landmark into a
departure. I am nearly
         there. Sunflowers spr
out from the peasant’s boots:
         my fingers encircle
a postman’s world. Personal.


Edvard Munch 1863–1944

Every canvas is a woman who weeps in the ward
for venereal disease. I infected her….

When view and mood are fused
the deepest recess is a shared experience.

But exhibitions! They’re public executions
dignitaries attend with hats in hands

no painter chooses to shake.


Hans Van Meegeren 1889–1947

My brush caresses an Old Master.
But it’s not good enough!
A Paganini cadenza instead of Schubert:
an afternoon on the river
when I want to cross oceans….

Modernism? I refuse to come
under the influence: to stagger
through the beer booth of an October fair
where there is no vision, only
a display that dismays.

This non-sense of ‘conceptual embodiment’ –
it’s desperate as fair-weather
friendship when winter sets the jaw,
a sitter’s stare hardens
into the varnished masterpiece.


Egon Schiele 1890–1918

Vienna. The heresiarch’s denied
a prayer candle, matches
         to light it.

I wear my godfather’s hand-me-downs,
circumnavigate the civilised world
         with a soulful waltz….

Egon, get your shit together!
Star-struck cesspools are an artist’s
         glittering prizes:

his conspiratorial face flickers up
from their surfaces, ‘You corrupted
         a minor, right?’

Two uniformed demons appear:
‘These studies are indecent –
         you’re under arrest.’

I dip my fingers in spit,
sketch seascapes (Trieste, Venice)
         – they fade

into this jail’s plaster. The Adriatic
swells in the folds of my coat.
         I map the coast.

Every line shows an intimacy
never previously


Mark Gertler 1891–1939

Prayer candles keep
irregular hours:
Jewish children dribble
over the butcher’s display.

daubs the wall
before Shevzik’s Steam Baths.

‘Very fetching’
hats nod to one another;
blue eyes refuse
to meet. I’m white

as a sheet of Michelet paper.


Mark Rothko 1903–1970

The candle cremates
its paper lantern.


Philip Clairmont 1949–1984

         The face of God –
a forty-watt light-bulb
that fractures surfaces.
         Wallpaper weeps,
revealing snail-slime white
plaster smoothed by who knows
         who knows when: you

         don’t want a name
or date: detail needs grace,
longevity order.
         You catch dust-motes
in hands with veins that dry
like brushstrokes on the lost,
         the locked away


1976, Marshland Road, Christchurch, 15.5.1984, Clifton Terrace, Wellington


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