With One Brush is a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic book. Although it ranges from lyricism to dramatic monologues, from humour to domestic tragedies and pleas for world peace, there is an artful rightness about the placement of poems and their progression from the beginning to the end. Like the paintings that inspire many of the poems, the writing is vivid and sensual. The voice is original and daring, riskily lateral and inventive. An impressively wide-ranging knowledge and respect for the visual arts informs the poems, linking the different art forms in a way that is rare in Australian poetry. With its genuinely different voice and ambitious embracing of the possibilities of language, life and art, this is a fresh, compelling first book.
– Jean Kent
With One Brush consistently achieves a sophisticated transmutation of the visual into the vividly imagined. As a collection, its breadth and depth are matched only by its accessibility. – Rob Riel
There is more than a keen artist’s eye at work in these poems. The leaps of connection beyond the canvas investigate life at that place where perception, intuition and empathy collide. The result for the reader is a deeper understanding of art, certainly, but mostly a deeper understanding of humanity.
– Judy Johnson
'Light caught, coloured, held, dispersed/ through dimness.' (p.64)
Such a quotation stands as a reference point for this book of poems by a visual artist who melds the twin disciplines of poetry writing and painting. Jan Dean taught visual arts for 35 years, and in 1996 returned to writing poetry. The poems in With One Brush have been previously published in current or earlier form. The book won the 2007 IP Picks Best First Book Award.
Her writing is infused with terms derived from painting. She has divided the poems into three sections: 'Scumbling,' 'Stippling,' 'Glazing.' Those not knowledgable about painting may wish to turn to their dictionaries for these words, as they are quite specialised.
each face was sapped, a far cry
from the one I saw when I stepped aboard the rowboat you steadied: Your juicy face stippled in sunlight and shadow.
(Cousin Crush [My twelfth summer]p.39)
Glazing is another layering technique whereby diluted paint is applied over dried sections, allowing the underlying colour to shine through. It produces richness and luminosity. Often there are multiple layers applied. Critics often like to draw attention to great modern poets like Seamus Heaney as having several layers of meaning in their poems. Such poems are more complex than the usual, and may deal with quite serious aspects of the human condition. Many of the poems in this section are based on memories, going back to life's early days, childhood, 1940s, 1950s, where decades are layered one upon another, even up to the present. Here is one of her shorter lyrical poems:
Scumbling is a layering technique where a dry brush with just a little paint on it is drawn across some already dry paint to produce a sense of depth, richer texture, luminous colours and tone. Darker paint over tighter paint can give a sense of light on shadows. In this section Dean's poems are often sparked by existing paintings, from artists tike Brett Whiteley, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Auguste Renoir, among others. To their paintings she adds her own poetic layers, yet the original is still showing through. It is a technique she uses very effectively. Here is part of her poem A Pointed Summer: Carcoar, 1977 (p.33):
I could eat this scene tasting of cheese, crackers and straw. Seasons at Carcoar are never insipid tike those in the city. The eel-like form of the Belubula River,
lingering through damp and dry, will determine dimensions. Ah, the scent of open country. But oil paint's headiness is its rival. Like a Japanese scroll or a Byzantine icon, this painting
shalt be read up, down and back, over and over. Solitary things: the fox and fairy-wren, a bloodsmudged log recall my own vulnerability. Aged nine, sent to school near here
I felt abandoned yet I revelled in this landscape. My wild-child country offered solace and continuity.
Stippling is a technique of applying dots of colour instead of lines with the tip of the brush. They can be overlaid to create a sense of texture and depth. Poems in this section are not so much drawn from specific paintings, but more from geographical locations and personalities. Concepts of art nonetheless creep through. Dean's images are vivid, her language is accessible, her emotion shines through. For example:
...Cousin, I would
have driven through fire for you, and I did to your funeral. You would have liked
the honour guard, navy blue lines, row upon row, but in harsh daylight.
Snow switches a light on, ices
the wooden strip around our window transforms the dirt, stones and conifers outside the house across the path
into a garden, places dustcovers over gravestones, fallow fields
and rooftops, muffles sound, shows me a new way of walking. Past
the embankment, the dog with spiky teeth who, chained to his kennel, never failed to startle me, has danced away
with last night's snowflakes.
(Walking to school. Tanagura, Japan, p.80)
Compassion comes through in several poems, such as Bonded Rail, about a dead bird, and a hope for the future, as in Creeping, where we see rediscovery of the lost, and in Sensations, where by some form of reincarnation we may be 'revitalised' and 'begin again.' These two poems are the last in the collection, the finale.
Dean varies the mode of delivery. The poem may be a dramatic monologue (e.g., Celebration and the Taste of Goat) or a scenic portrait (The Woman in White, The Door in the Wall, Suburban Melodrama) embued with empathy. It may be sensual (Skin a Fig, Six Persimmons) or descriptive (Haze, The Man in the Straight-backed Choir). It may be a sonnet (Still Life with Domino) or a sequence of couplets (Signed Auguste Rodin). It may be happy (Old Silks) or sad (Script of Sorrows). This versatility, ability to move from one perspective to another, building on memory and imagination, gives her collection a special coherence, held together by her deep understanding of the visual arts and how they may be integrated in poetry, bringing luminosity to her writing. What emerges is an intriguingly layered appreciation of life as seen by the artist, colouring
memory of the past, showing light and shadow through sensation and perception, projecting hope for what is to come.
John Sheppard is a Sydney poet, reviewer, editor, and publisher, with poems published in various journals and anthologies. He edited the last two Poets Union Anthologies Ask the Rain, 2004 and Sun and Sleet, 2006, and is currently editing the 2008 Anthology.
- John L. Sheppard