The Sistine Gaze: I too begin with scaffolding
Page Count: 116
Publication Date: Sunday, April 26, 2015
Cover Artwork: Sistine Ceiling, detail: female figure in a pseudo-architectural spandrel above the Jesse–David-Saloman [Soloman] lunette.
About this Book
“The Sistine Gaze engages imaginatively and intellectually with Michelangelo’s frescoes and this demands scale and execution of a high order; it requires a more than usual organisation of sources, religious, philosophical, biblical, mythological, and artistic. The fruitful interaction of the parts, the changing music of the lines, and the dynamic linking of images carry the work forward in lyrical, descriptive and dramatic modes. The poem illuminates an entire process of seeing and understanding.”
Like the Ceiling and Wall to which the poet is lured by Michelangelo’s muse, The Sistine Gaze dances between vision and fantasy in words, images and metaphors that are muscular, tangible, sensuous, erotic, or at times cold and questioning. The poem’s philosophic currents in rhythmic line and verse are meditations on existence in the swell and fall of activity, of changing lives.
The poem’s ‘gaze’ fixes on the creative process as mythologies, the god, the ungodly, and the corporeal luxuriate in the riches of the great Michelangelo’s genius. Human certainty, death and the artist at work are central strands, discovering magnificence in the human body and tasting its destiny.
This ekphrastic epic is orchestral, impressionistic, thought-provoking and conversational. Indeed its raison d'être seems elegantly framed in an aphoristic line inviting us, ‘To balance life with death and venture bravely to be beautiful.’
“This compelling book-length contemplative poem will fix you in its gaze and transform your very concept of art, poetry, and human genius.”
Poet and publisher Seamus Cashman founded the Irish literary publishing house Wolfhound Press in 1974 where he remained publisher until 2001. He has three published poetry collections: Carnival (Monarchline 1988), Clowns & Acrobats (Wolfhound Press, 2000), and That Morning Will Come: New and Selected Poems (SalmonPoetry, 2007). He co-edited the now classic anthology, Irish Poems for Young People (1975, 2000); and in 2004 compiled the award-winning Something Beginning with P: new poems from Irish poets (The O’Brien Press). He was one of three English language judges (with Yusef Komunyakaa and Debjani Chatterjee) for the first International Mamilla Poetry Festival in Ramallah, Palestine in 2013, and edited its English language anthology. A poetry workshop facilitator, he has given poetry readings in Ireland, England, Wales, the UK, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and in Iowa and Wisconsin, USA. He is an emeritus International Fellow at the Black Earth Institute (USA), where he edited the ‘Peaks & Valleys’ issue of their About Place online arts journal. He has four adult children. From Conna in County Cork, he now lives in Malahide near Dublin.
Review: Peter Costello reviews The Sistine Gaze for ‘Books of the Year’, Irish Catholic, 26 November 2015.
Quite one of the most astonishing books of the year was Seamus Cashman’s long poem about creation and creativity, The Sistine Gaze: “I too begin with scaffolding”. At a time when the long poem seems to have died, Seamus Cashman has achieved in his new work a wonderful resuscitation.
A long poem is not a merely lyric line written long. It is a thing unto itself, demanding new responses, new insights from both the poet and the reader. Meditating on the images of the Sistine Chapel (the subtitle is a quotation from the artist Michelangelo), which deals with creation in a cosmic sense, is a daunting theme.
It can be said that Cashman carries this task to a wonderful conclusion. Just as the painting of the ceiling was the artist’s most demanding work, so too this made demands on Cashman’s skills. Perhaps the most important poetry publication of 2015, The Sistine Gaze will be is a landmark in Irish literature.
Review: Liam Murphy reviews The Sistine Gaze for The Munster Express (16th June, 2015)
Poet and publisher Seamus Cashman holds a memorable position in Irish writing and publishing since he founded the Wolfhound Press in 1974. He fought hard to gather support to publish and create an Irish publishing house, and in its day it had its up and downs with Arts Council and state supports. His latest book of poetry is a masterwork - The Sistine Gaze (SalmonPoetry) that uses Michelangelo paintings in the Vatican Chapel to create an almost stream of consciousness set of poems in thirty- one movements and 258 sections.
This is a large and ambitious undertaking and reading the work posed several problems. In one sense, it reads like a Doctoral or a Masters thesis in Creative Writing, complete with detailed notes. I initially found it hard to get into the mind of the poet, and the language ranges in styles with some of the contemporary or Urban Dictionary slang seeming to sit uneasily with the intellectual breadth of the work. I googled the various images from the Sistine, and while this was visually informative, I couldn't progress with the flow of the poetry. For me, the images got in the way. For example, Cashman chose a 'minor image' of a woman - a modest figure hunkering down in an architectural triangle of molding. He sees this figure as meditating and I didn't.
So I returned to the poetry and read and read and left the words build their images, and I stopped seeking sense and structure. There is a subtitle of 'I Too Began With Scaffolding'. I had to abandon that notion of scaffolding to 'support' the poem and dived into the words. At times, this was amazing and exciting. At other times, I was lost in history, myth and a sense of pretension like I was being preached to. Yet, I loved sections like " a Venus Aphrodite Cleopatra - a Medbh Morrigan Magdalen - All Mary on the eve of this day's space. My Eve, my nursemaid, mother, martyr, mirror me".
Book 1 - Creation is a blast of energy, and it was sexy. A section (We are Awake) wowed me with Joycean fun and the power of words. Cashman has the words and he plasters high heaven with his ambition.
This morning, while browsing, I came across Judith Newton’s review of Mark Doty’s collection Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy. "Is that what soul or spirit is, then," she quotes from Doty, "the outward flying attention, the gaze that binds us to the world?"
Cashman’s "gaze", fixes as much on the creative process as on Michelangelo’s masterwork. This ambitious project was inspired by a particular fresco he refers to as ‘The Gaze’ which transfixed him when he first saw it, years ago—an image of a seated female figure, which is shown on the cover. He returns to her over and over, his muse, as the book evolves. “What dimensions, depths, expanses can there be?” he asks himself.
Like Paul Durcan, whose collection, Crazy About Women, was a series of ekphrastic poems in response to paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, Cashman uses the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling as starting points for his own thoughts, which often incorporate present day technology, with GPS and mobile interlinks, as well as old Irish legends: "I make my way like a Blasket Island bull"— this refers (we are told in the notes) to a bull who was taken to a nearby deserted island to protect the cows, but undaunted, the bull swam back to Blasket Island. Other myths and figures include Leda and the Swan, Jonah and the Whale, the Flood, Venus, Aphrodite, Plato, Cuchulainn, Satan, Cleopatra, and Medbh Morrigan Magdalen: "all Mary on the eve of this day’s space. My Eve, my nursemaid, mother, martyr, mirror, me." ('Such beauty and its solitude are radical.')
Yeats once wrote:
"Michael Angelo's Sistine roof
His 'Morning' and his 'Night' disclose
How sinew that has been pulled tight,
Or it may be loosened in repose,
Can rule by supernatural right
Yet be but sinew."
Cashman flamboyantly celebrates Michelangelo’s evocation of this sinew, "the body’s flame". But we need not fear that his response to the masterwork of a genius will be dauntingly intellectual: “Better far to make a joke, for few they die of laughter.” The opening sequence prepares us for what to expect: "my fingers tremble on the lip and my arse, / like gods in wayward pre-existing skies,/ bares to mankind a sphincter of expectation." There are numerous such groan-worthy moments: "the force that floats through me"; "limpid penis" etc. Gothic, baroque, rhapsodic—all the excesses you can imagine.
The register veers from a formal Latinate flourish to the conversational: "Let’s see what we can build," he tells himself—"some honest construct".
The "construct" itself is unnecessarily complicated (with thirty one Movements, and three Books, divided into 258 verses) which makes me think that his intentions were conflicted. He mentions in the notes that conversations with his daughter inspired poems: “I find my truth in youthful conversations and autopsies, in flower and weed, in living bodies and decay of fruit,” he writes. Perhaps these conversations contributed to the tone and levity too: "What has an apple to do with this? Who gives a fig!" Cashman writes in ‘As dark and light disperse’, alluding to the fact that in the panel depicting the Temptation, Michelangelo paints not an apple tree, but a fig. "Now that the apple’s plucked, the fig eaten … with aged, harrowed skin we leave the paradise we belong to for another."
The sexual focus is reminiscent of Tom MacIntyre: “through vagina’s open eye”; “I help her swollen breasts to rise and fall”; “Eve, my owl, between night’s thighs”; “She’s with me, limbs stiff and languid, inviting darkness to embrace her”. "Bodies know; they tell their tale”, he writes. And he certainly tells their tale here. As he says,
"I want to sing
I want to sing the body tune,
the rhythms of blood,
the living heart."
Cashman mentions in a YouTube clip that he papered the walls of his studio with the "scaffolding" of his collection, to mirror Michelangelo’s own scaffolding. The poems themselves, however, feel like a stream-of-consciousness, with an overspill of adjectives: "a slow relentlessness of coiled confident excitement humming its mighty power, its own expansive curving song." (‘I think of Michelangelo’).
Cashman baulks at the immensity of the task he has set himself, and contemplates abandoning his project: "I could jump now, dive perhaps, a clean break". He knows that he is "out of control" but clearly finds it too irresistible to give up: "What do we do to know except continue as we are and stay the stay until the rain / stops or the clouds break. Like ruminating cows in gondolas, / we’re passing through convinced we are awake." (Yes, strange, but strangely compelling too.)
In the notes, Cashman mentions that Michelangelo wrote journals, letters and poems himself, and he draws heavily on this research, taking on Michelangelo’s voice: “I can measure in braccio and coin, in brush or mallet, hammer, stone, beauty or betrayal.” He is like the actor who comes into his own behind a mask, (although he could be speaking for himself too): "I don’t need to cover my nakedness … I mock myself, and well."
On occasion, he reveals an impulse for sincerity: “How do we tackle life? As we bridle our horses and race / them without saddles on sand; or with harness and collar push/ to plough our meadows and hope to sow for harvesting?” Perhaps he’s aware of the dangers of influence, too: “There’s poison in smoky dialogue and gunpowder rhythm.”
Not all a maelstrom of the flesh, the collection is also colour-drenched: "travelling by vermillion cinnabar, in white / dove-gray and rose-red through all the blues". Later, he writes: "Watch my colours bed the day and night."
A pianist himself, Cashman has an ear for sound, and takes pleasure in word-lists: “squirm, brim, broth, brew; loosen, stretch, streamline, stew”. You want to take your red pen and start striking; but this collection isn’t about constraint at all. Quite the opposite. Think Ginsberg.
There is something endearing about his self-deprecation, self-mocking bombast: “my dead grows soggy in despair”. Especially when, in ‘The grip of the uncanny,’ he writes, "The melody was indeterminate, and wrong; the rhythm false, / the patterns overdone", in beautifully rhythmic lines.
From this "gaze", Cashman emerges as a personality with a highly developed sensual bawdiness, self-doubt and generous human sympathies. "We must destroy, renew, revise, even if doubt is the loss of six days’ work," said Michelangelo. Instead, Cashman goes for "one gigantic laugh"—both at the reader and at himself. But, for the sheer verve and exuberance, you have to smile.