Each month, Tate Etc. publishes new poetry by leading poets who respond to works from the Tate collection. Poet George Szirtes has written a poem for Tate Etc. on John Latham’s painting,The Observer IV (1960) of the book relief series that relate to Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov

Leading A Charred Life: Seven Short Songs

by George Szirtes

1. I had thought to have been charmed Not framed: Had thought to be disarmed Not blamed. But life hangs fire as if suspended As if it had been slyly ended.

2. We cannot altogether escape the fact. The facts are something that can’t be quite escaped. But something is wrong in both thought and act: The act is thought, and act and thought are shaped.

3. Had I behaved better than I did… Had sky been lighter, detail more compact… Had escape ever been possible… Had I but thought, were it still feasible to act…

4. Someone is raising a hand at a bus stop. Someone is waving to someone on the other side. We watch the smile light briefly on a face. We watch our loved ones make their way through space, Then space rolling in like a tide, Entering a bus, a house, a shop.

5. Sometimes the beauty of wood is overwhelming. We love that which seems warm yet indifferent. So things burn down, so wood turns to coal, So coal begins where trees are rife. So we survive. We lead a (haha) charred life.

6. There is the terrible vehicle of darkness That runs over us in hope. There is my hand, there are your fingers. We hang by our fingertips. We cope.

7. If poetry were just a matter of the air Playing around the heart We’d feel a powerful gust beneath our lungs And call it art - And art would do, or be, at least, a start.

John Latham, The Observer IV 1960. © The estate of John Latham (noit prof. of flattime), courtesy Lisson Gallery, London. Plaster, resin, books, wire, metal and spray paint on canvas and board. Dimensions 2440 x 1830 x 380 mm

About George Szirtes

George Szirtes was born in 1948 in Budapest and came to England as a refugee following the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.  He trained as a painter in Leeds and London, and is author of over a dozen collections of poetry. He lives in Norfolk where he teaches at the University of East Anglia. Reel (2004) won the T S Eliot Prize. His New and Collected Poems was published in 2008, and his latest book The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) was also shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. He is also a noted and prize winning translator from Hungarian.