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Ken Bolton

(Two Portraits)



      amongst this pile of books by the bed
the bottom of a magazine sticks out, as it
has for some weeks now, announcing ‘Chuck Close’
— an exhibition — & consequently, if briefly, I think of him,
a career I know almost
nothing about: one portrait, that resembles

the IRA’s Gerry Adams, but which resembles
more, presumably, Close himself. Also by the bed
another’s portrait, someone I’ve met, almost
diaphanous — evanescent — in the photo: I met the poet it
depicts years after it was taken. It seems therefore magical & fictive, like a fable
          about him —
a fable he has been cast in — relative to the solidity of the few facts
      that, for me, constitute Close.

A more recent image of Chuck Close
has him in a wheelchair. He is painting, & it resembles
that same portrait, so I take it it’s him —
done in grids, pixellated in appearance, looming over artist, wheelchair, bed,
table-with-brushes — though (in greys) it could almost,
or easily , be a drawing. It

suggests some struggle, heroism . . . It
is something I hadn’t known about Chuck Close.
For seconds each night, regularly almost —
though subliminally until today — which , irritatingly, resembles
suddenly the day before it, in that again for some seconds this morning, in bed,
unwillingly I entertain my only two images of him —

they ‘pop up’: & I dwell on them — on him —
(or don’t) momentarily. It
is my memory’s almost empty file on Chuck Close — &, in bed,
it comes to me. Normally it wouldn’t, and thinking of Close
I think pretty immediately of Thomas Ruff, whose work his resembles —
the German photographer, in large format, of faces & streets. While I have almost

never thought about the American I have thought about Ruff — who almost
came to Australia, I think. Michel Snelling phoned to ask should we bring him.
Out of regret that I didn’t push harder I’ve attended to Ruff ever since. All of which
            in no way resembles
my feelings for this other portrait — a poet whose work I love, so that it
is pure good faith, this relationship. The ‘‘cool’’ of the early Close
I found unimpressive, & ugly — in a fashionable way, whose fashionability I wasn’t
          buying. Chuck’s by the bed

by accident, a name only. The poems’ place though, by the bed, is permanent. It
is the poet’s Selected, out of print. On it Towle resembles other pictures
          I have seen of him,
though it is the most curious. He might almost have borrowed the coat he wears.
          He will regret, amusedly, his hair. The guileless heroism of the smile,
          the eyes, he will not regret. But the poems I keep close
Tony Towle he might have wanted more for. Granted Close
the pathos of the new works — though I have only experienced it via
magazine pages, one or two pictures . . .
Then, Minimalism & Pop ‘had had their day’
as things new & imperative. I didn’t find them
(or him), in 1974, inherently compelling. Not the way

I found about the same time, say, Tuckson, Robert Ryman. (This is the way
guilt maintains a close connection between me and a particular sub-set
          of art works. As close
or closer than between me and works I’ve liked probably. I remember them
ruefully: a history of opinions (mine), via
mistakes I might have made.) Literalism was my big thing. Will the day
come when it is not? I’m not sure it still isn’t. Though the pictures
on the back of Towle’s books regard me quizzically as I say it — pictures
in which his face has altered from a kind of resolute simplicity, looking the way
David would paint Napoleon say, towards a more casually raffish, day-
at-the-office, pose: open collar, hair tousled, the close
New York weather (tho Larry Rivers’ artwork suggests a Via
dei Carrottieri, Via del Corso . . . a coffee shop or bar on one of them,

Tony Towle

— or an Italianate church or library as setting) plasters strips of hair to the
          forehead. Near them
the hand upon which the head rests, & looks at us, amused though withdrawn.
          The pictures
never tell us who is in that gaze — though of one we know, via
a poem he wrote, that he wondered would people assume — as they made their way
past him — he was famous, would the smoke appear, as it blew close
by (from left to right, I guess, as we look at the photo)? It doesn’t. One imagines
          him that day

stepping out of his office for the portrait — unfairly less certain of fame, or knowing
          that one day
his name would make one of a minor configuration of names. People would read them
and a certain New York charm, wistfulness, way of life would be evoked — the close
of the century, the American century perhaps. Of all the various pictures
I have of New York, mentally, those I like best are intimately architectural, way
more domestic than skyscrapers, say. (Footpaths. Leaves. Shop-fronts.) Images
          gained via

TV shows — but also my one trip there, and Tony Towle’s poems. The connecting
          shots, where we move, via
the coffee shop, to Jerry’s apartment, to Elaine’s new boyfriend’s. Night in Towle
          pertains always to New York, for me, but day
can be either New York’s apartments, streets . . . or a kind of dazzling, elating,
          studio-lit clarity — that plays over Tiepolo’s clouds, de Chirico’s white
          horses, over crazed senators, way-
laid armchairs, pillars & pilasters — neoclassical, absurdly ornamented. While
          this is true of them
they are also restful, airy. Poems immensely civilized. Noble, grandiloquent &
          amusingly indirect as method. Like Close’s pictures
they are large, but they are gestures of self-effacement, miming a kind of huge
          Romantic pathos: self-directed irony — but a fictive self, the formally
          preserved reticence as to the real self its single enormous gesture. Large
          like the Close

portrait with its squared, detachedly close-rendered sheets of detail, the big
          identity conveyed via
isolated fragments, all attention to technique. The artist’s single pictures locate
          one seeming moment of a day,
typically the moment that begins or ends it, in a mirror. The poems say more, do
          more, pass lightly, even, over the moments of portraiture or exaggerate
          them terribly. Except on the back cover, the poet, to be seen, looks away.



John Forbes (left) and Ken Bolton, c. 1976

John Forbes (left) and Ken Bolton, circa 1976
Photo copyright © Anna Couani, courtesy Denis Gallagher

The two smaller portrait photos are of US poet Tony Towle.
From Jacket’s Tony Towle author notes page, you can link to half a dozen or more Jacket pages where his work features or where he is reviewed or interviewed.


Formerly of Sydney, Ken Bolton (born 1949) has lived in Adelaide, South Australia, since 1982 where he is associated with the Experimental Art Foundation. His Selected Poems appeared from Penguin in 1992 (now available from ETT). Wakefield Press published his Untimely Meditations & other poems in 1997. He edits Otis Rush magazine and Little Esther books.


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