A Finger in the Fishes Mouth: The Legacy of Derek Jarman

Jarman-Cover-webReport: Launch of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth by Derek Jarman
London Review Bookshop
Wednesday 19th February 2014

Scott Morris


As one of the twentieth century’s most lyrical horticulturalists, it seems fitting that Derek Jarman discovered poetry in a gardening book. For his fourth birthday, his parents gave him Beautiful Flowers And How To Grow Them, in which botanical information was displayed alongside watercolour illustrations and verse. This Edwardian guide book introduced Jarman to the Rubaiyat, and to Omar Khayyam’s simple command: “Look to the rose”. For Jarman, there was ‘no better path to poetry’. From Khayyam, William Dunbar and William Shakespeare ‘followed quickly’; later, Chaucer, Dante, Goethe, Blake, Rossetti, Rilke, Eliot, the Beats. The overtly poetic sources for many of his films are therefore hardly surprising: The Angelic Conversation, Edward II, The Tempest, War Requiem. And Blue, his final feature, a devastating monologue on illness and perception, with only a slab of Yves Klein blue as visual accompaniment – what is that if not elegy in its purest form? Tony Peake, Jarman’s biographer, is right to insist that ‘poetry runs like a golden thread through all his life’.

But while his journals and writings are interspersed with his own poems, he only ever published one volume of them, early in his career – later rejected by Jarman as ‘puerile rubbish’, according to his partner and executor, Keith Collins. But here it is, A Finger in the Fishes Mouth, recovered, in print once again and launched tonight at the London Review Bookshop, exactly twenty years since Jarman’s death from an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

So, what has prompted the republication of this ‘unwonted residuum’? Tony Peake, one of tonight’s panel (alongside Keith Collins, novelist Ali Smith, author and academic Sophie Mayer and curator/chair-extraordinaire, Gareth Evans) provides a potted history. He holds aloft a shabby original copy of the text, one of only five still in existence. It was originally published ‘without fanfare’ by Jarman’s friend Michael Pinney, of Bettiscombe Press, in the early seventies. Quickly forgotten, it was only last year that Sophie Mayer discovered the only publically available copy in the British Library and resolved to see it published again. Its twenty-first century incarnation is a facsimile edition brought to life by the brilliant Test Centre (‘from a small press in Dorset to a small press in Dalston’), its dazzling silver cover and grammatical oddities (such as the title) faithfully reproduced.

Jarman-interior1_0002If Jarman’s cinema is devoutly poetic, tonight’s panel are in agreement that his poetry is singularly cinematic. The collection is extremely visual, from Wilhelm von Gloeden’s photo of a prepubescent boy adorning the front cover, to the postcard images printed alongside all but one of these short poems (the missing postcard depicted a nun pleasuring a priest, which the original printers refused to include). These images, washed in green, come from Jarman’s personal collection, mementoes from places he visited and places he would have liked to visit. In some instances, they complement the poems; in others – such as the Black Madonna or the card divining the ‘feminine virtues’ of ‘Your Ideal Love Mate’ – they wilfully disrupt, they answer back.  In poetry as in film, word and image are inextricably intertwined for Jarman. However, this conjunction of poetry and cinema still ‘upsets people’ in this country; British audiences, Mayer maintains, are terrified by ‘the dangerous inversions and hallucinations that word and image can effect on each other’. As such, experiments in this vein have more commonly been continental (take Cocteau or Pasolini, filmmakers and poets both). In Britain, perhaps Jarman’s only identifiable comrades-in-arms are Margaret Tait and Sally Potter.

But what of the words, the texts themselves? This is not quite the wistful, quasi-Romantic poet we might expect after reading books like Chroma or Modern Nature. Younger Jarman is sparser, more hermetic, at times surreal. As a student at King’s College, one of the only British universities at the time to offer American Studies, Jarman was introduced by tutor Eric Mottram to the Beats. Their influence on his writing is obvious in this collection, from the Ginsbergian, prophetic present perfect tense of a line like, ‘I have seen screaming Manhattan thrusting to burst bounds’, to its cast of grotesques: ‘the devil old junk man’ or the ‘lady in the ashcan dress’. There’s also the conversational camp of another American, Frank O’Hara, identifiable in the ‘begum of the flowered chintzes’ and assorted ‘polka dot lovelies’. Irony and play are everywhere, from the absurd nativity scene of ‘Christmas 64’ (‘Surbiton or was it Slough’) to the exuberant wordgames of ‘Moon’, which wrings out as many associations from its title as possible (‘mooncalf’, ‘moon min’, ‘once in a blue moon’, ‘moony’).

The whole volume is read at tonight’s launch party, out of sequence, with contributions from the panel as well as the audience (which includes Deborah Levy and James Mackay, producer of Blue). An unconventional performance of this unconventional book helps to expose its interlocking strands and symbolic accumulations. Ali Smith, for example, reads six poems from across the collection that reveal repeated motifs of skimmed newspaper pages and a ‘man with a loony mask tearing paper at the edge of the superhighway’.

The year 1964 recurs again and again in the poems’ titles, and Jarman saw this year, from his student days, as momentous. It was ‘the year of his first affair’, explains Peake, the year he met his first love Ron Wright (‘Poem I’, the earliest piece in this volume, dates to this time). That Easter, the pair embarked on an ‘artistic pilgrimage’ to Italy while, in the summer, Jarman travelled to America for the first time, visiting Wright in Canada before making an excited trip to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, nexus of his beloved Beats. Both America and Italy feature prominently in this book; in many ways, this collection reads as a complex scuffle between the Old World and the New. The victor might surprise those who have come to associate Jarman with a certain Romantic conservatism, a lament for a lost landscape, for ‘the last of England’. In these pages, the Old World beauty of Italy and Greece is gently ridiculed. In ‘Venice April 64’, Jarman highlights the kitsch co-option of Italian romance by Valentine’s propaganda, while in ‘Assisi’ he remarks on the prostitution of the country’s heritage for the good of the tourist industry:

At assisi then
there’s a dive
to commemorate Francis
who charmed the birds
3 storeys high
with a soprano singing
ave maria
vibrato in the basement

In contrast, Jarman waxes near euphoric about America. In ‘Manhattan Lower East Side’, he describes the city

wailing the sirens knell
for oediple Europe’s distracted sons
leaving paternal warehouses
singing a new world song.

This is a new generation of Pilgrims, Europeans in joyous exile. ‘Through the billboard promised land’ is Jarman’s mantra (taken from an earlier, unpublished piece of his, described by Peake as a ‘surreal picaresque’), repeated throughout the book and even emblazoned on its back cover. And yet, while Jarman feels drawn across the Atlantic, to cities ‘composed of promises’, his travels are constantly underscored by a distinctly British sensibility, that warped ‘Englishness’ that has since come to define him as an artist. ‘A glimpse of ones own exile,’ he writes in ‘November’, ‘radiating across green lawns’; elsewhere, a ‘rapture among the sofas’ evokes an apocalypse so quaintly English that Stanley Spencer would surely have approved.

jarman-toylandThe opening piece (titled ‘Poem II’, naturally) sees the poet ‘sailing’ in a rocking chair, ‘to where tomorrow / washes the pavilions of today’. It is this strange combination of movement and stasis, through time and space, that ultimately defines the collection. In his afterword, Keith Collins calls it ‘a pre-nostalgia of terminus’; everything has already happened, including that which has not. It is tempting to see in this a fatalism that we do not automatically associate with Derek Jarman. There is a preponderance of elderly women in these poems, ‘old age with two white sticks’; the final poem, a ‘Farewell’, goes so far as to renounce those that have come before it, lamenting that ‘the highways have come to nothing’, that ‘the days are numbered / we have proven our loss’. But Ali Smith insists that there is a joy, a merriment, in this pessimism, a ‘celebration of time and rot’ and an affirmation of existence: ‘we’re almost more there if we’re thrown away’.

Which of course begs the question: should this ‘puerile rubbish’ have been salvaged after all? Simply put, yes. Remarkably accomplished, these poems shed light on a particularly neglected aspect of Jarman’s generally neglected output. It’s fair to say that not many people watch Jarman’s films these days. His politics and aesthetics are somewhat out of kilter with prevailing tastes: they are perhaps too messy, perhaps too flagrant. However, with this year’s extensive programme of events celebrating his work and remembering his life – including a season at the BFI and an excellent exhibition, Pandemonium, at King’s Cultural Institute – it is only right that his poetry is given the attention it deserves. This book is another exciting discovery, of an artist yet to be discovered by so many.


Order a copy of A Finger in the Fishes Mouth from Test Centre’s website.

Listen to the podcast of the event, as well as Sophie Mayer reading from the collection and to Keith Collins’ soundscaped readings of two poems at the London Review Bookshop.

Visit Jarman2014 for more information about films, exhibitions and events relating to this year’s celebrations.