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English: Contemporary illustration of the Auto...

English: Contemporary illustration of the Auto da fe held at Valladolid Spain 21st 05, 1559 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strangest thing I’ve kissed is a section of stomach lining belonging to the Blessed Ralph Sherwin. He’s an old boy of the Venerable English College, Rome, where I spent a misguided few months training to be a priest. Ralph’s grey, desiccated membrane is sandwiched between a couple of sheets of glass and enshrined in Rococo craziness. December 1st, Martyr’s Day, is a serious business for the college and memorializes the 44 students who met grizzly, public deaths in the years following the Reformation; quite a few body parts are lined-up for kissing. Wherever you find the sacred, however, you also find the profane and, in my time at least, hard liquor made an early appearance in the day’s festivities; a squiffy mate managed to topple as the Te Deum was sung before the Martyrs’ Picture. It’s odd, but unplanned profanity seems to exist in some bizarre equation with piety. Take Martyr’s Day, 1997, for example: a couple of students had been busy at the bottom of the main staircase while the college slumbered spelling out IHS+ in votive candles but, from where I was standing when I looked down, all I could see was SHIT.

In Voluntary, Adam Thorpe nails the uneasy mix of the sacred and the profane. In Holbein we’re in one of those ticketed gallery exhibitions, the secular substitute for the divine if ever there was one, where ‘The crowd thickens, stands in rows / three-deep, as if waiting for a train’. The reviews would have us believe that art is a life transforming experience but the satirical bite of ‘waiting for a train’ is more like it. That we visit galleries just to substitute Apple’s bud earphones for those of the gallery’s self-guided tour baffles me. Those of us who eschew these twenty-first century pleasures generally opt for reading the useless information cards instead. Granted, there’s a certain frisson from learning that some poor family’s had to part with granny’s Rossetti because they can’t afford to pay the inheritance tax bill – anything to avoid actually looking at some pictures, I suppose. Thorpe goes to town on the modern gallery experience, ‘great art’s business end’ where even the stanza break is employed to separate us from art like the line drawn before it on the floor, as the painting hangs ‘behind glass like a saint’s relic’. For some readers, this line will evoke the reverential distance between the work and the viewer. However, if you’ve ever venerated a saint with a kiss, it means the opposite and the level of reverence is amplified infinitely. The work becoming a bridge between us and the divine.

Halfway though and Thorpe throws another observation our way: ‘Though there’s something flirtatious / about these slow-moving rooms, hushed // like a church, where certain faces / become almost familiar and unlike the art / will pass out of our lives for good: // that willowy girl with slight vitiligo, / the loud hipster with his lateral thoughts’. Thorpe has it: for most of us, a trip to the gallery is much like a trip to the supermarket, as our orbits intersect with those of fascinating strangers. The tone darkens though, as the gallery’s older visitors have learnt their place in the world and know that, unlike the subjects of a painting like Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the grave will not remember them and so they ‘cast in wonder while there’s time to do so’.

This poem is in dialogue with the opening Impression, where ‘The pawprint, bedded on the Roman tile / our late neighbour bequeathed us, // is deep enough, even on a roof’s pitch, / to pool rain as petals do’. Like the elderly visitors, the late neighbour will not be remembered by posterity: the common noun attributed to her / him tells us this. In this fickle world, there is no telling who, or what, will be remembered and the pawprint is granted the kind of immortality that many would dream of: Holbein’s Ambassadors, or a cheap Roman tile marred by an animal, it’s all the same.

The found object gains poignancy in Clearing Your Study, where we’re reminded that once useful items we’ve discarded in a desk drawer for possible use tomorrow will be viewed as ephemera by successive generations: ‘Private realm of accounts, typed letters; / a book of unused Green Shield stamps‘. Thorpe’s terse single couplet stanzas give the poem a forensic quality, like a landlord’s inventory. As the speaker is introduced, the poem modulates into something guilty, conflicted and wracked by doubt. The poem brilliantly evokes the child now holding power of attorney working ‘(like a thief) I am short of time / I am only doing this at your behest, of course – // the house must be cleared before it’s sold – / but as I keep vigil in the nursing home // I feel I’m untying what keeps you fettered / or dismantling something what has grown too old’.

Thorpe leaves us feeling that, despite our sophisticated consumption of culture, we are a society which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. In Extreme Unction, for example, ‘the local vicar bounds in, / tracksuit-togged, no dog collar. // I mumble something about extreme / unction: prayers, oils. ‘That’s not / our thing,’ he chuckles. ‘Now, // what would you like me to do?” Like the navel-gazing gallery-goers, Thorpe suggests that we are a society preoccupied with ourselves. Yet, for every loud, trendy vicar there’s a figure like the speaker’s unconscious Christian father: the sacred and the profane live cheek by jowl. In Voluntary, Adam Thorpe presents his reader with a series of honest, powerful, painful poems. Despite their apparently personal focus, they achieve a searing universality. At an aesthetic level, the collection will also leave you hankering to revisit London’s National Gallery.

Buy Voluntary from Jonathan Cape