In Focus
Wrestlers 1914, cast 1965, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

ISBN 978-1-84976-389-9

A Poet’s Response

S.J. Fowler

The poet and wrestler S.J. Fowler considers here the ‘kernel of realism’ in Wrestlers and the relationship of Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculptures to the poetry of Ezra Pound. Included is a suite of ten poems Fowler wrote in 2012, which were inspired by, and dedicated to, the original relief and its nine casts.
It is the process of abstraction, rather than abstraction itself, that interests me in poetry. I have often been drawn to the manner in which the language of communication becomes the language of poetry, and how the subjective ‘I’ in poetry can mutate. Thus, it is not surprising, in retrospect, that I was drawn to the kernel of reality, the actual wrestling move depicted within the Wrestlers relief as I have chosen to perceive it, as the foundation with which to begin understanding my aesthetic experience of the relief.
My first thought, however, was not one that lay within the realms of the aesthetic. Instead, I was immediately made aware of a personal recollection and, beyond that, of the observational realism within the relief – in other words, its ability to illuminate and capture wrestling, its motion and its dispassionate vehemence. In and of itself this sense of the ‘reality’ of the Wrestlers, knowledge of the physical act that bound its instigation, is personal, almost technical. It depends upon my experience of wrestling, of the sport itself, and of the affect the sport has had on my perception of physical human interaction. Since childhood – and without choice, I would venture – I have viewed the phenomenology of contact through the auspices of balance, positioning, the interaction of limbs and body language through the modes of grappling. So to trace Gaudier-Brzeska’s work to a seed of realism through this knowledge is to acknowledge that most will not be able to do so, and that I have a somewhat unique perspective.
It was no surprise for me to learn that the relief was the result of first-hand study, and that this study was an act of personal interest, if not passion, on the part of Gaudier-Brzeska. It is this act of study for which I feel an immediate kinship. The moment he chose is not a single moment in aesthetic terms: it is a conglomeration of perceptions, reflecting the nature of what he witnessed and wrote about so enthusiastically (‘They fought with amazing vivacity and spirit, turning in the air, falling back on their heads’, he wrote in 1912 to his companion Sophie, ‘and in a flash were up again on the other side, utterly incompressible’).1
However, in wrestling terms, it is precisely its singularity as a moment, its actuality as a technique, which captivates me. It is a single leg takedown defended with a body lock and an attempted sprawl. This is a core of realism not faithful to a po-faced idea of the real (namely, physiology) but one that seems to exude an admiration for the subject first and foremost, even a sense of responsibility to the energy or true impression of the thing in question, that is, wrestling. It is Gaudier-Brzeska’s affinity for the fury and fluidity of grappling that strikes me so powerfully.
When I first viewed the Wrestlers relief, I recalled a mixed martial arts bout that took place in January 2009. B.J. Penn versus Matt Hughes, in their second fight, with Penn, famous for his flexibility, defending a takedown from Hughes, equally notorious for his wrestling and his strength. The moment is vivid because of the remarkable flexibility Penn displayed in defending a wrestling takedown. Hughes attempted to take Penn to the mat, to place him on his back, while Penn attempted to get his upper body weight onto Hughes’s while pushing his hips away in order to foil the attack. But Hughes managed to hold a leg as he drove forward and in normal circumstances, by pulling this leg into his chest and through his driving motion, Penn would fall to his back, his hips pulled from facing down to facing up. What made this moment so remarkable, and aesthetic, is that Penn was so flexible he was able to remain hip down, body on top even with his leg held beneath the body of Hughes. It was the equivalent of touching the inside of one’s right knee to one’s nose. It seemed as though his hip and his knee would have to have been double jointed in order to maintain this position in comfort. It was a remarkable posture, rare but real: a technique that should have been successful was countered due to remarkable body conditioning, leaving a transient moment fixed and sculpted in my mind.
The above is almost an exact description of what is happening in the Wrestlers relief. The nature of this position, a scramble for the takedown, is not yet completed and the outcome not yet decided. Gaudier-Brzeska fixed a moment in time, the grapple within the grapple, a battle for a single human leg. He found within this frenzy a moment of clarity, a composition of bodies, learnedly unnatural without superimposition of aesthetic ideal.
In writing about the sport of boxing I have always stated that it is a fundamentally unnatural fighting art, and in saying so, I have paid boxers a compliment: it is one of the most technically demanding sports to master, and very much against natural instincts. By contrast, wrestling appears, in its crudest form, a given. When children squabble, they entangle, they grapple. This is true of animal behaviour, too: animals clinch and maul between their bites. The act of grappling is ever present in human cultures, an almost universal pursuit but dramatically under-represented in art. When it is depicted in art, it is normally within the realm of classicism, as though wrestling itself were antique. What Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers realises, more succinctly than any other artwork I can think of, is that wrestling makes the body a tool for manipulation. The ability to embrace, operate and bind other human beings, to control them and to adjust their gait, their stance, body position, and balance – these relations of potential are brought to light for wrestlers when wrestling. And they are also illuminated in Gaudier-Brzeska’s relief. As a poet, it leaves me with the realisation that it has achieved something that perhaps words simply could not.

Gaudier-Brzeska and Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound’s poetry has been an immense influence on my own work, both in response and in rejection, and his work in general casts a huge shadow over the entire last century. He showed that all is matter for poetry, returning poetry to its true scope, as the register in language that does more than communicate. For Pound this inclusivity takes in everything from the Tang dynasty to Greek myth. Moreover, the strength of his ideas cannot be escaped, or gently hidden behind the achievements of those he shaped so forcefully like T.S. Eliot. He cannot be contained because of the judgements of hindsight. His arrogance and his enormous stupidity that ran alongside his genius are as inspirational as the beauty and profundity, and admirable complexity, of his work. Pound’s relationship with Gaudier-Brzeska fascinates me because of what I perceive to be an immense theoretical, or perhaps methodological, divergence between the two that yet produced artworks of a similar momentum and timeliness and fused them together as friends.
Gaudier-Brzeska seems to me to have chosen the medium of sculpture precisely because he wished to capture the momentary, and that he achieved what he did precisely because of this paradox. He was an intense, fierce and instinctually impetuous man. Pound’s ferocity, however, seemed of a wholly different mode – self-conscious, contextual, wrought and eloquent. He was the last great poet whose production was slave to the nineteenth-century yearning for systemisation: the tragedy of Pound was that this intractability was coupled with an understanding that fragmentation in poetry is the only possible way to represent the fragmentation of experience, and this must be accepted at the outset of writing. His vision for his life’s work was absurd and naïve, even impossible, given the nature of the twentieth century. But the way he pursued it was eminent and vital. So while it is true that his ambition, rendered through an obsession with historicity, language and the vignette, was fundamentally corrupt, it was realised breathtakingly.
In 1914 Gaudier-Brzeska sculpted a large portrait bust of Pound in marble. As Pound sat for him he said, ‘you understand it will not look like you. It will not look like you at all. It will be the expression of certain emotions which I get from your character’.2 If Gaudier-Brzeska was of the passing moment, Pound was of the past moment. In the suite of poems I have written in response to Wrestlers I have drawn upon the moments within Pound that seem close to Gaudier-Brzeska’s mode – those phrases of motion that preoccupy themselves with their present.

Nine Poems for Nine Copy Casts. A Tenth for the Original

I

Damn pity he didn’t
(i.e. get the knife into him)
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XI
love of binds disappear         like the drained flower
an embrace or a hug becomes a wrestlers bind
a straightjacket form of grappling
a deep step, twist, penetration & tumble
a dogfall, & so up love begins again
love is twitching the new century
noble peering through in an instant
a blue & grey sweat, like sick, welcoming new owners
of ward number 9, the anonymous bayonet
a family of new years, made on the continent
a soft velvet resurgence of friends, friends who make it better
they will save chambers, a ball orchid
lost in the jungle, unmapped even now
before falling into the doubting Thomas, streets
of nighttime London, where is black is not really black
humour is everywhere on our walks at night
not married walks, but walks of lifetime partnership
where chisels meet Russians
where wrestling is massive, where it came in from Chechnya
and foul became sweet smelling
just like our joke somewhere, bought in a firsthand store
like a fox walking into a farm
to mend the fences
I confessed there is no threat of Tartars or Cossacks
but there are jays and jars, and pickpockets
and routs and stabbings and card games
and unkindness in every lurch, every street
covered with hobbling masses
and here we are talking of casts and copies
and the renditions of these lithe men
but what else is there I suppose, one third
is for balance and so I remain at home
Sophie is not that third, she is a study of man’s
government, a refutation of suffragettery
independent of any man she has met but my own
self that I would not call a man’s but a choirs
and I don’t even remember when I am hungry now
I miss the gym, with both eyes
with my dialect I miss the fencing and fairplay
the clouds are no consolation
they barely wish the fight
                                                                        – – –

II

that the body of light come forth
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XCI
the courtesy
of their spine
multiplying, into 9
does not reveal the smell
of the gym
but the topography
is odorous
& so honest
these are matched
at night
this is where
a pit is covered
nor manholed
they must, just
fight it out
without
blows
                                                                        – – –

III

ultimate urinal, middan, pisswallow without a cloaca,
      r less rowdy,        Episcopus
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XV
the training is pain, this is to be remembered when considered;
a wrestler, conditioning endlessly, skipping rope & pressing kettle hooping
you do not see the crimping ache – his thighs, and today, Tuesday, is Indian club day
water in the estuary, the shower nose held above and below
before and aft (for no man, a sparmate, appreciates the sick – any more than his wife will)
yellow wings are ill wings
there is always a tougher man rounding the next corner
a banker’s meeting to say he nearly fell over him, to blow on him, he bleeds
a hooker, a catch, a stretcher and fearsome, the ripper
a fishhook made when a finger is flexed to teethline which hurts enough!
and dipped into the sidelip and touching teeth, is hooked, and pulled
and then a man is to smile forever
ready to murder Rodin but he’s not here, just frog in the corner with coal
wapping a paper every fall or quicker than that, hands like a devil
like a conversation between intelligent men
they sell he’ll sell any man into putt, carve him like a photograph
but all fruit with a copper like a Yid polite enough, his eye isn’t in the penn
not pretending to be reception, not making out as a dandy, or wise
or a worker, fair, without slippers and he knows what’s good for him
drawing, not wrestling
what cannot be overemphasised is the habitation of physical pain
& its pleasure as an end
so this is not a moment for sadness, not to dare the word defeat
this is joy, the winner living, the loser dying, the opponent worthy
                                                                        – – –

IV

philosophy is not for young men
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, LXXIV
‘it was my children
who taught me to wrestle
& it is their
children
whom I teach’
I am a teacher
free
a charity
to anarchy, to piped bomb
& dust moth
that burns a throat
Scottish
I am unshrunk
in the face of belly shakes
battle
& fearswings
I’m readying for a bath
this is why I sketch
so rapidly
only matched for speed
by my subjects
Jack Penney
& his double-hammerlock
& his lad
shrunk like a Samurai’s
pock sacketed
for battle
back carried plumage
fallen grapes
scouting like a whippet
yes, he changes levels
faster than our hands can move
but this will not have me
give up on trying
for nothing I have not learnt
                                                                        – – –

V

the enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent
shoulders
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, LXXIV
he just cuts it out of putt, like a maggot with a wand at the haunches of a daft bullock
those suave eyes, not dusky, but windy, edged with a spackle brush and pointer
with a knife, plain and sharp, glinting in the reflection of the silver crucifix
it is as if the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève had come to live in London, moved
brick by brick to lead a London group, made up of skirt twice his age who loves him
loves him into blindness without a whimper but within an orange phosphorus bang
coming out of them together, entwined in eyes, like black cable, in sections, like logs
he has a white hat, tall and pointed, but he is no chef, he is a ghost, breeding into 9
calligraphy of when Lucifer fell into London and even he began to sweat nettles
and went to the fights, to take in the lights, hand in hand with a French boy, blooched
the colour of nature, red, and white somewhere lower beneath, but mainly red
spilling, sending back the bullet to the Victoria & Albert museum because it was not
named, a coward’s bullet, openly weeping as he listens to the story, he is showed
the sea and then apologised for his lack of heart, and he will not give in again
he will take another bout quickly, and carve more, sculptures of what? fish? or man
locked in his eternal piracy, that is tradition, known as these proportions and
was a monster wrestler ours? it was, it was English and French and all the tiny flags
of the middle continent, where the moon barges over the silken thread of water
in favour of land, forget food! remember drink, the moon is here, and snow is rare!
London is the light of fire brought forth to give birth and the issue is a boy, soon to be
a man, of many nations, soon to die of illness, as we all are, so he is our boy! the peoples
march onward toward deadness, stillness and the maggot’s kiss, kissing sickness of the mind
but his hands are well enough, constance like a prepuce, like a hood of scop the sun’s silk
a lost kind of experience then, death before greatness, but well enough to pollute
a hundred thousand lonely dishevelled homeless coated men roaming around Dean and Poland
street way before it was a police station with rats in the basement ready for torture
his gift has waylayed many a child, a shame they did not see it live, in the flesh, in the wardrobes
of Elephant and Castle, there they would seen the secret. it is about two wrestlers, wrestling.

                                                                        – – –

VI

fish-scales over groin muscles
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, II
        a pair of home
made knuckledusters, seeking new friends in Soho
         single in the spirit of catch to find fights with hard
nosed oystermen I will meet my match
and hang you bacon, hang your dogsport
eyes of sooty Picasso
o here is the eyes of a boy, a new on the sport
         twisted arms and further
the gays have come out for their baths
a life drawing class priced well without the market
         the Slade is full of queers anyhow
so mat-rash volunteers have thousands of tiny beetles
like sea spray, itching and biting at their waists
         hips and crotches, their tressles of black hair
given away like the smell & hair foot of country
beasts onion ruddy in the shadow of a Dean street special
         a fat erection, now this you would not get at the Royal’s
come and search around in me, plants will grow in homage
to your dark work, soft minded like a brat, like a seadog
         a fowl, kissed on the forehead by a foxing dog, renouncing its tool
 a merman, your colour that of grape’s sulk
the boys are out again, purple lipped, the one boy you fought
         they are singing against you – to go home
get knotted back to France and your library, where there is soup
waiting they will wait forever and only serve to make you harder
readier for the first mass, where bows are free
         and you have all day, feeling well, to take your time
in stone. for my part I have told you of how things
         were underwater during this time
                                                                        – – –

VII

Faces smeared on their rumps
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XIV
the cut, instead?
this madness you have unshelved
& asked for
to look        you need not a map
if you are a man
in the meantime
despite the deception
of living social
this has pleased me;
promise
a tiger on his shirt
collar
tell me the seller!
for my lover
it will be a cold
winter
otherwise, letter received
you are not doing so well
but free marbles!
& a leather pouch too
two of them
like Chinese dumpling
dangling like the testes of a ghost
o hooray
happy henri, for all alone we sleep
                                                                        – – –

VIII

but it is made to sell and sell quickly
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XLV
a soft quarry in the skin
on form, on time, dispatched
with all due respect & courtesy
flicked the triangle of eyebrows
to nose tip taught teet, soon ugly,
gushing with praise for 9 never casts
that were and will be more
each block cut so smooth
it is rough, like each man
who cuts the stone
like the defloration of Sophie
a baddy, like a cocker
full of spaniel
we are left with a penetration
then, & muck about our lingering
you’d think him a demolition!
with tongue as dry & educated
as paper, but for all his street
his ‘you mate’ paper seller
he is a lamb, against nature,
for sin & nurture, chased
like a robber baron, he barely
pops it in in it!
rock comes to market
but plaster comes to town
makes off with wives
of all colours, to spurn them
for just one, who barely lets him romp
the doe who smashes windows
and lobs bombs, and punches
like they were candle shots
he can’t even hath his ends away’d!
                                                                        – – –

IX

The French are a singular people
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, CIII
smelled something crushing
   that reminded him of women or his sick mother
 when he had to care for her
so wrestling
   was her last days
 & perhaps her sons first
abandoned
   to fighting
 free
is wrestling
 rippled without formal
         training
 a filthy mock clawing at the sinew of his manhood
  mate
   biteless, eyeful, throwing & rolling
 staining his bottoms green
   if only he had been schooled
   in the grape fancy!
       no broken collar bone
       no palsified jaundickery of the mind, & death
   he would have tossed that kid
            like a brick falling
   touched bases with his fingertips
        changed levels
        duck stepped into a double leg
     & run the pipe
        to a hoist
             a lift
         & clearing the puplegs
   driven that sack of potatoes
   into the dirt
   skipping his legs
   around the cubbled corpse
          to kneemount his shellacked rind
       & feign blows
    so that chip would yelp
       not a pound more
              & reach out his flailing paws
      but for Gaudier, the litter,
    to seize
    upon a limb
                         spin, topper’d
                      into a flex, an armbar, shins riding the
                       toothline into screaming warbles
                     perpendicular about his bepinned torso
                   feet-on-toe, primed like a sprinter
                         & arms snaking around
once soon will be nearly was a limb
    thumb-of-boy
    down
   some clowning of an emperor
  then the hips
       are as a fulcrum
 as if his penis had disappeared
   driving fore while pulling heft
    so the creaking of the joint
            the gasp like drowning
          screaming for protection
 awash a watery soap
     face to earth like a native
    at one with black soil
       before breaking
           hard         a cracked arm
   at the elbow
                  & a never never using that arm
                                      the same
                                        again
better this than his death
    butter
    oiled like a rude black
                           beak
prolonged men of once were boys
     strap stretched
     reaching to pull
   his nipper back
     from clouds of cement fog & pea
                                                  dusk
    dying & killing & being sick
                                 in the basement
             where the practise mats are
          knowing he might not be in heaven
                   for they forgot to get it christened
               they all
                  underestimate
                         how much pain is involved
                  the last red wrestler
                       spring legs like frogs legs
                             shoulders like buboes
                          hard ankles
                              worry
                          soft brows & dry
                                        brows
  & lather
        dogfights in the gym
             hindu squats & hindu pushups
           by the minute & not the repetition
       such pain! but a hardening
       a casement
                 like a racist nutshell
         & worthy for a growing boy
              while a war of wars is afoot!
             liver gripping
                 billy clubs
                lie dormant in quarters dusted
    as does a kettle bell
          all in clear
                 granite
       now       when unwell
at work, carbon
   carving a ripe memorial
   but it doesn’t have the smell, does it?
    or the stress
    or the grip
    like a snapping turtle
     this is the picture of the before
           he has captured the training
             not the fight
                                                                        – – –

X

and if the wind was, the old man placed a stone
Ezra Pound, The Cantos, XLVIII
let’s just finish           saying the thing;
the single leg shot, possibly charmed off
a collar & elbow tie (might have been a double
shot, but he has only one leg tied) or hit from
far outside is countered by a sprawl, & a bodylock
in hopes of a hoist. the top wrestler has sprawled
uneven, left his left leg too deep in, or the shot
wrestler has chained quick as a flash off the sprawl
to turn two into one
the knee is not distended just extended
turned in at the hip, the femoral, up, like a thumb
yet it is clear. his knee is more flexible than most
but this is not unusual, these are shooters!
and with the body lock synched, the upper man’s
hands locked with a palm on wrist grip, we have
a stalemate.
the lower man can suck the heel further into his chest
and vitally he must round his feet out at an angle
to gain purchase on the hip motion of his opponent
then at the most perfect of moments, he must release
his left hand to extend his grip, the left ankle still
firm in his right hand’s grip, to capture the freestanding
right leg of his opponent, at the ankle, at the knee, or
stiffening his back, like a cat, arching up from arse
to spine, he can even take the hip and then sweep both
pegs away across his legs to right side, finishing hard
always finishing, always driving, always finding angles
never staying still, never caught in this stalemate
the man on top, having somewhat successfully stifled
the power shot of the man below must know he is not
the initiator but he may be the victor! if he can free
his left leg by hipping in further and deepening his sprawl
he can pinion the man’s head down to the floor below
him and take a front headlock or even switch the skip
behind the pancaked man and thus assume dominance
but if he cannot free his leg he must act quickly, even
with the bodylock sunk, for the lower man will change
angles and round his body, patiently moving up his torso
if his legs are somehow pulled flat beneath him and
eventually the bodylock will break and be for nothing
try the leg! try the sprawl! if not, it is all in! a sacrifice
throw, sit his heels down short and sudden, drag into
a void the vacuum of his foolish overeager forward
motion and plant the posterior while leaning back
and stay in a straight line, do not allow him angles of
attack, but in a row, like a plough, and tug!
with all his power and leverage and the boy will go over
he will be piledriven and induced to make a headpoint
forward roll onto his back, and then the legs of the
sacrificial man are scooted out and a top side position
is taken
ah, he must have wanted to join in

Notes

1
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, letter to Sophie Brzeska, 3 December 1912, quoted in H.S. Ede, Savage Messiah, London 1931, p.218.
2
Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound, London 1974, p.183.

How to cite

S.J. Fowler, ‘A Poet’s Response’, in Sarah Turner (ed.), In Focus: 'Wrestlers' 1914, cast 1965, by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Tate Research Publication, July 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/gaudier-brzeska-wrestlers/sj-fowler-a-poets-response-r1142398, accessed 09 February 2016.