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Sam BUCHAN-WATTS’ debut collection—PATH THROUGH WOOD (Prototype, 2021)—considers the capacity contemporary lyric poetry has to reflect social change. The many ethical dilemmas these poems enact listen in to the noise which society makes to distract itself—from carceral space to questions of asylum, masculinity and the boundaries of aesthetic play.

Described by the Guardian as a ‘sceptical, serious, versatile writer,’ BUCHAN-WATTS variously inhabits poetic form, exposing the interplay of sound, sense and desire. Returning repeatedly to the figure of a vulnerable boy approaching the thicket of adolescence, these are poems that are listening in when they’re not supposed to, distracted when they should be listening in, and finding secret listeners behind the arras. In this disquieting terrain we must hold ourselves to account for what we hear and what we make of what we hear.

Ahead of the collection’s October release, see below for a cut from the book, COLOURING IN ...


‘That’s the way we were made. We can’t help it.’

            John ASHBERY,
              Girls on the Run


Chicago is the home of INTUIT on Milwaukee Avenue, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. ‘Outsider’ is a contested category but mostly means art produced beyond academies, categories, canons: cultural production offset with its medium, works made with naïve materials, street waste, Prell bottles, drawing in crayon and coloured pencil.

An academic symposium, a two-day discussion, ends with a private view of the permanent collection of Henry Darger for delegates and dinner. Nearby the museum is a railway carriage repurposed as a retro diner. In the museum yellowing kitsch is furnished with an unearthly status, across the street it’s upcycled by the robust economy of service.

Within INTUIT and the petrified scent of the a/c, Darger’s little Vivian Girls flee and/or give chase across panoramas, the pale floral battlefield vistas he imagined hung like precious scrolls. Each moment in the scenes assumes equal prominence, each proliferating reversal. The flatness of his girl gangs and Glandelinian men, their familiar outlines cut from comics, belies the mutilation and more beguiling ambiguities, the way they cluster like cultures of bacteria. Watery mirror made thin with child’s paint. Images barely seen, prime for burning, the kind you can’t leave at the scene, when playtime’s over and it’s time for tea.

John Ashbery shared Darger’s boyhood vocabulary, Little Annie Rooney, Buster Brown, he opts—to different ends—to reinscribe a legacy from those materials: blood-red suit, stoned eyes, colluding dogs. Henry impaled his girls, rolled them up in floor rugs like pigs in blankets. From Henry’s wars John drew rhubarb stains on Peggy’s frock that match its rickrack trim. Textiles both lovingly stitched and shoehorned in.

Beyond the exhibition is a partitioned area, a room within a room, Henry Darger’s apartment-cum-studio reconstructed, from which he has always left for mass or work, represented by the art materials he collected, the outline of an interior for us to colour in:

                                                     elastic bands soiled by dirty hands,
                                                     shoes, buttons, eyeglasses, balls of string
                                                     aged with the homework trick of a dip
                                                     in tea, but here it’s darker, filter coffee,
                                                     the blemish of moral tinctures—primary
                                                     colours, clouds, childhood, blood—
                                                     the hoard of craft materials, the pulpy
                                                     catholic imagery, magazines tied devotionally
                                                     in stacks, comicstrips, ads and other means
                                                     of colonising the child’s attention,
                                                     to keep it fixed in two dimensions,
                                                     definite lines, the nascent anger of the ‘I.’

The smear of anxious threat beneath the jubilance of Edward Lear, the skewed perspective of the Lilliput, laid bare.

The gentle Darger Scholar greets each delegate in turn with the collector’s unwavering keenness, his fingers delicate in misty latex gloves.

Here are systems of organisation to please the most boyish: his love of the compact, sequestered places, sugary treats, hardened cake pigment in strips, annotated tracing, knick-knacks, bric-à-brac. Joseph Cornell was to find home amidst the little of his gleanings from Flushing’s dimestores and his brother’s train sets, to make nests in boxes for his desires, dead insects and other keepsakes. The intimacy of an imagined homemade machine. There is the presiding feeling that somewhere an underground tunnel leads to a secret hatch in a tree.

Like kids, we prefer to handle objects in their pliant, most suggestive state. To find in Cornell’s studio the glasses, balls, birds, plastic shells, and corking, over conscription and asylum for feeble-minded children after excessive masturbation. The unseen illustrations left by the dead artist. Colouring books not yet marked by 64 different brilliant colors in Crayola.

‘Crayon’ derives from craie, the French for chalk. In Modern Painters Ruskin refers to chalk debris, black and white, broken off the crayons Turner used. Ruskin drew Rose La Touche, his little white statue in the woods,

                                                              who by shading
                                                rose made pale
                                                              and elegant frottage
                                                sought to diminish

As a man who lived with and through art, he seemed unable to disentangle Rose from his aesthetic theories, even as she haunted his dreams, says the critic, as if that’s the way he was made.

Crayon does not shade. It has the jumbo quality of childhood as we would like most children to imagine it: chunky lines of uncomplicated colour, immutable but machine washable, firm as a well-kept bedtime. Darger offsets unhygienic brown with anaemic baby blue. Eyes and mouths plunging deep beyond the dimensions of their frame, as a bullet might be said to.

A child is rarely alone, though he may be let loose, each space for play highly predetermined so as to not fall out of the world, to pop down a large rabbit hole under a hedge.

To stand in a kitchen observing a child draw with such focus as to be alone in the world is to watch him draw himself out of the world. Is to become, in that moment, that child, to overturn the world, like Henry Darger in Chicago with his Vivian Girls.

The younger the child the more likely he is to draw over the lines printed for colouring within. The bird may exceed the confines of its wooden box, the dream interpretation the content of the dream, when the stricture of colouring in becomes discipline. Some colour as if that’s the way they were made, they can’t help it, others so not to take up space. Some to confront, or because to confront what’s beyond colouring is paralysing.

From crayon to pen is graduation: pen’s firmer, less redeemable. It’s a holding space, a tool that may be inscribed with discipline. And yet the child peeks out in parapraxes, slips of the tongue. He doesn’t care for the canon. Children like repetition, flirt only to find its limit.


Vladimir Nabokov took pleasure situating his transgressions in discipline—though the relative benefits of that have proven to be a matter of opinion. He sought out grammatical slips and subjugation. He taught us to make ornaments of accidents, that for ‘fountain’ read ‘mountain,’ for ‘comic,’ ‘cosmic.’

His ridiculous villain Charles Kinbote has the collector’s eccentricity. He collected his love, the bad gray poet John Shade, and may—in loving—eclipse him, or become him, sublimating desire into Pale Fire’s baroque creation.

Kinbote installed two ping-pong tables for twins and another boy, another boy, which function in the novel to foreground his unrepentant homosexuality and to distinguish ‘game’ from ‘play.’ Perhaps it’s fair to say that games have rules to stick to, ‘play’ more keenly evokes a boundary which may be defined, pushed, subtly transgressed without crossing. C. L. Dodgson’s boat rides with Alice Liddell kept, of course, within the Thames or Isis, licked by water heard and not seen, between bounds of the riverbanks, lolloping clouds, Christchurch Quad, Chartreuse for the Senior Common Room.

Nabokov translated Carroll into Russian, exalting him, as Ashbery does the paper Darger glued with water paste to make large pieces, puts crayon and colouring into the canon. Invoking the serious matter of play, to act as though—as Humpty Dumpty does—for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year it’s your ‘un-birthday.’

‘The rhyme is the line’s birthday,’ claims Nabokov’s speaker on Russian Poetry—joining a host of critics who assign to rhyme a life, gender, agency. Carol Mavor boldly claims that ‘critics try to veil the obvious sexuality that Carroll captured on photographic plates,’ offering rhyme a possible corollary.

The speaker declares: ‘there are certain customary twins / in Russian as in other tongues […] but sun / and wind and life and death [rhyme] with none,’

                                                         Nabokov is arch in his decision
                                                         to not distinguish the pronoun
                                                        ‘none’ from the implied ‘no rhyme,’
                                                         nothing, a ghost of ‘nonsense,’
                                                         rendered by the poem’s cadence.

Darger casts the skies in storm cloud purple, the texture of a bruise, but afternoons in July, if fair and cloudless, are apt to be narcotic, with the blue above and the watery mirror below.

The INTUIT gallery is silent but for the squeak of feet on polished concrete, the well-meaning self-regard of the scholars’ gazing.

From form’s precipice difficulty hangs: without the elegant bounds of chess, nonsensical refrain, magazines tied in stacks, the lines for colouring in, this ground is precarious.

There is always somewhere a child too bound to the play area to stop and say that was that for the day; it may be Darger, it will be another, drawn to crayon and pencil, too fearful to stop colouring, unconscious as he does of the paper’s darkening, of the weight his blunt implement is pressing. He might scratch out a realm behind the paper, get stranded there.

‘COLOURING IN’ is excerpted from PATH THROUGH WOOD, available from prototype publishing ... see here
Sam BUCHAN-WATTS is the author of Faber New Poets 15 and co-editor, with Lavinia SINGER, of TRY TO BE BETTER (Prototype, 2019), a creative-critical engagement with W. S. GRAHAM. He is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ Award for Poetry (2019). In 2018, he undertook a fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art and he is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University.

The two featured images are photo-collages by Lew THOMAS, ‘GRASS’ (1973), left, and ‘CLOUDS’ (1973), right


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