‘Olympia’s playrooms’, 2004 – Poem by Robert Nelson
There are rooms in my house where the wall and the floor
open up to a scene like a magical door,
where I walk in imaginary spaces and fictions
and play in a realm of enchanted depictions.
The first of these rooms is a library, filled
with the pictures and stories that chroniclers build,
where innumerable books lie to hand on the shelves
and where fresh curiosity liberally delves.
Among all of the books that I fathom the best
are the ones with a mixture of picture and jest
by the sweet Lewis Carroll whose stories are told
with a humour and wisdom that never grow old;
but it isn’t his stories alone that beguile
and attract me with gorgeous invention and style
but his photographs taken with children like me
in a room set aside for the mind to be free.
There are girls whom you probably also know well
like the famous and beautiful Alice Liddell-
as of Alice in Wonderland-she of the story
who may or may not have deserved all her glory.
The other Liddells and the Kitchins are there
on a couch or upon or in front of a chair,
with their make-believe costumes and delicate faces,
their mystical airs and their bonnets and laces.
Another fantastical room contains props
that were bought from suppliers and myriad shops;
there are textiles and costumes created by hand
with the templates and threads that I don’t understand.
They’re constructed with artistry, carefully sewn
from designs that were bought by computer or phone.
It’s a busy and crowded disorganized room
inaccessible both to the vacuum and broom,
because cumbersome paintings are made there as well
on a scale far exceeding the size of the cell.
They’re on rollers and hooks amid brushes and tubs
and a host of equipment for glazes and scrubs.
What goes on there is more than I know how to tell,
conjured up by degrees in some magical spell.
Here a mountain, a tree or a flower takes shape,
here a puppy, a dodo, an eagle, an ape.
Here’s a sunset, a mist, an unreachable glade
where unfathomable secrets abide in the shade;
here a harbour grows out of the canvas’s weave
with its junks coming in and the sampans that leave,
from colonial times and extraordinary places
that mum calls sublime post-colonial spaces,
exotic and charmed, atmospheric and still
with a mood from the sources that brushstrokes distil.
What a tumble of paint is applied and runs riot
but focused in time to be gentle and quiet!
The chaos of colour is bundled together
like storms that recede to yield temperate weather.
These colourful, large and unwieldy constructions
are brought to a platform for further productions.
This room is for photographs. Here at the end
a big camera records all the moments we spend.
I get dressed as the girls from the erudite books
and perform with their quietly curious looks.
I am Xie or Alice, Lorina or Brook
but with colour and tone that depart from the book.
We have friends in the studio, girls who perform
in the guise that the pictures in archives inform;
with our costumes and gear we step into the past
as if making it live with our presence-and last.
We’re connected to girls who did theatre back then
and their gorgeous performance is active again;
we connect on a stage that belongs to the click
and the moments that happen in order to stick.
It’s as if we join up in the term of a dream
which is visited twice and re-entered mid-stream,
as if thoughts in the dream were recovered on stage
from the rapturous cues of an intimate age.
Not arresting or cancelling history’s march
we reach forward within the proscenium arch
while our gazes explore both the lens and the dark
and the spaces that absence makes hollow and stark.
Other-worldly and magical, this is the room
where the lights of invention dismantle the gloom;
inaccessible zones of the past are revealed
in the colour and spark that have long been revealed
we perform for the lens a historical part
but this isn’t the purpose and scope of the art
it’s to enter ethereal worlds that are styled
by elaborate tricks to belong to a child.
There are rooms that I wouldn’t exactly call mine
which contain the results that our muses design.
When they’re printed, the photographs live on the wall
behind glass and in frames (and for me very tall).
In our house, in museums and houses beyond
the results are displayed to let people respond.
What we did in the home, both as work and as play,
is transferred to a world where the sentiments stay;
from our intimate stage monumental effects
are attained and reviewed as the public reflects.
Every photo enjoys an elastic reception
that reaches beyond my creative conception:
that’s good, because people can also invent
further theories beyond what the pictures present.
I don’t follow the delicate points that they make
nor decide if they’re true or a pious mistake;
but whatever they say, they have entered my world
where the backdrops, performance and film are unfurled;
they take on the oblique and judgemental condition
of characters questioning Alice’s mission.
The artist and actor are questioned alike
for the people they are and the things they would like;
they protest their ideas that seem earnest and grave
as if finding some aspect of logic to save
from chaotic or wanton or mad inspiration,
unauthorized signs of undue maturation.
But much that they proffer I can’t understand.
As with Alice, our journey had never been planned.
Like Mock-Turtle, the Griffon or cool Cheshire cat
or the person who wears the exorbitant hat
our interpreters sometimes perplex me with questions
that don’t have an answer but rampant suggestions;
and none of this bothers me. Why should they not
when the mystification belongs to our plot?
So this room is perhaps the most magic of all
as the place where the pictures beguile and enthral,
where the subtle caprice of a whimsical tale
brings bewildering tricks from the treetops or dale,
entertaining the riddles and making them last
with fantastic personae augmenting the cast.
Thus our pictures acquire an additional life
as spectators contribute enjoyable strife,
finding crazy ideas with elliptical speech
which is far far beyond my diminutive reach;
and my being a child is enhanced and expressed
through encounters where adult intentions are guessed,
where authority strives for superior force
but is tangled in knots that big words reinforce.
I adore these impressive and learned reactions
and know that they serve as the best of attractions,
exploring the works with intelligent clues
that each layer of consciousness carefully construes.
There is space in this room for another room yet
for a loop to continue to spawn and beget,
reproducing imaginary logical lines
that the powerful discourse of adults defines;
but within it, I’m free in the space that I know
as a child on a stage where I’m destined to grow.
Robert Nelson, April © 2004