Friday, 27 August 2010

The Way to a Murderer's Mind is Through his Stomach

The first copies of Dinner and a Rose are bound for Dundee, to take part in Poetry Beyond Text: Vision, Text, Cognition, an AHRC-funded project to investigate how readers respond to visual aspects of poetry.

Many of the book artist Sarah Bodman’s works conduct dialogues with existing publications. The Flowers in Hotel Rooms series, for example, documents tributes to the books she has read while travelling. So when Sarah was commissioned by Poetry Beyond Text to create an artist’s book, she decided to work with The Talented Mr Ripley and other novels in the ‘Ripley Quartet’ by Patricia Highsmith. Sarah is intrigued by the culinary theme Highsmith employs to chart Ripley’s greed for the good life: ‘his relish – both for killing and the fine food he would have if he could afford it’. Ripley’s character is defined by the food and drink he consumes, from devil-may-care martinis in Mongibello to penitential hot milk in Rome.

The first of many pages in an early listing of Ripley's meals by Sarah Bodman

Sarah asked me to provide poems for the book, and inspired by Poetry Beyond Text’s interest in experiment, we decided to recreate Highsmith’s menus in a live performance. Sarah prepared a delicious, if macabre, dinner, for twelve guests, with a thirteenth place set for the absent Tom Ripley. Every food mentioned by Highsmith was served, from cold chicken in aspic to sole veronique, and every drink mixed (even Dubonnet!). The dinner lasted over twelve hours. The conversations around the dinner table had unexpected synchronicities with the Ripley novels, including the perils of impersonation, the ambiguity of beauty, death by water and passport forgery. All the night’s conversations were recorded and I used the transcriptions as collage material, creating a series of eighteen poems. Sarah photographed Ripley’s setting for each course; these images and the poems partner each other in the finished work.

Collage proved to be a good choice for writing about food and crime. In its visual form, collage has been associated with food and drink since the Cubists’ still lifes on cafe tabac tables, which are in turn reminiscent of earlier, and more sinister, vanitas paintings.
Marjorie Perloff, in a lively survey of collage and poetry for the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, quotes a caustic review of the Cantos by W.B. Yeats. Yeats claimed that Ezra Pound had ‘not got all the wine into the bowl’. In other words, Pound’s collage technique led to poems as incoherent as the ramblings of an old soak. Perloff writes that ‘collage has been the most important mode for representing a “reality” no longer quite believed in and therefore all the more challenging’.

Above left, ‘Still Life with Checked Tablecloth’ by Juan Gris. On the right, a still life from Dinner and a Rose by Sarah Bodman.

Dinner and a Rose is published in a signed limited edition of 20 copies, priced £100.

Sarah and I are delighted with the project’s success and plan to make the ‘novel dinner’ an annual event. Next year’s book will be The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

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