J.M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship
I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I
would choose this.
Try the full title.
Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on.
The anger presses into brush stroke, the billow of image.
Before you the painter’s confirming motion of sky, ocean, light.
You see your way into the picture only dimly.
A storm of color, blurring wave and surge.
Almost abstract, but the senses sharpen.
Each viewing sifts detail from mass, specificity.
The three-master rises, spectrally, upon a background crest.
Spray roars, foam rises, curls of ocean clash.
Fish monsters, open-eyed and slack of jaw, approach in opportunity.
Sea-fowl fly low, avian ocean raveners.
The bodies float, tied leg, raised arm, reaching fingers.
Dangled manacles keep company into death.
Centre runs a white-yellow ray of light, sky to water.
It almost mocks the desperation, the lost cries.
If illumination it descends upon vital brutality.
Enslavement figured, men, women, reduced to bait.
The picture’s motion becomes a shared drowning.
How not to see with Turner the world overboard?
A. Robert Lee
This poem first appeared in Imaginarium: Sightings, Galleries, Sightlines, 2Leaf Press, 2013.
A. Robert Lee was Professor in the English department at Nihon University Tokyo, 1997-2011. British-born, he previously taught at the University of Kent, UK. His creative work includes Japan Textures: Sight and Word, with Mark Gresham (2007), Tokyo Commute: Japanese Customs and Way of Life Viewed from the Odakyu Line (2011), and the collections Ars Geographica: Maps and Compasses (2012), Portrait and Landscape: Further Geographies (2013), Imaginarium: Sightings, Galleries, Sightlines (2013), Off Course: Roundabouts and Deviations (2016), Passsword: A Book of Locks and Keys (2016), Written Eye: Visuals/Verse (2017), Alunizaje/Lunar Landings, with Blas Miras (2019), Writer Directory: A Book of Encounters (2019) and Suspicious Circumstances. What? (2020). Among his academic publications are Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions (2003), which won the American Book Award in 2004, Modern American Counter Writing: Beats Outriders, Ethnics (2010) and The Beats: Authorships, Legacies (2019). Currently he lives in Murcia, Spain.
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