For over six years now, our Adult Programmes team has worked with the award-winning poet Pascale Petit on a range of poetry writing public courses inspired by works of art in our collections displays and temporary exhibitions. This online anthology is the creative outcome of the Poetry from Art: Starting Poems – Writing course that ran over six Monday evenings at Tate Modern in February and March 2012. 

Twenty-one course participants, from all walks of life, had the opportunity to explore and directly respond to works of art by Alighiero Boetti, Yayoi Kusama and Catherine Yass. 

In their encounters with often challenging artworks, the participants discovered new thoughts and experiences that spoke directly to them. We are delighted to share these poems with you. 

The next poetry course begins on 11 June 2012.

Alighiero e Boetti Mappa (Map) 1989
Alighiero e Boetti
Mappa (Map) 1989
Embroidery on fabric 227.7 × 117.5 cm

Anne Welsh

after Alighiero Boetti

Today I could not find your country
on the map. And I knew if I asked you

to point to where you came from,
you’d indicate the exact coordinates

of the South London hospital
in which you were born; know too

there’s no way to fold our maps together
without taking an Imperial measurement,

or your black, yellow and green flag
drowning out my saltire, pale as winter sky.

Instead I focused on the waterways,
the trade routes; tried not

to calculate the distance
and the islands in between.

Natasha Morgan

Map of the World
after Alighiero Boetti

A map, in silk, slubbed in parts,
so fine it will slip through my ring,

printed with every city, mountain,
seas all rippling and compact –
a headscarf, a comforter, a waist band.

One day, by mistake, it goes into the wash
and comes out rinsed of green.

One day a thread catches
or someone spills soup
and the world loses its blue

or moths over-winter in its liberal folds
and spring finds it a mass of windows.

Caroline Vero

The Richness of Maps
after Mappa by Alighiero Boetti

Ripples of thread weave each country
to the next, borders bonded by silks
that pull and shape and take
control. The fixed lines of politicians
and wandering mountain divides
held in check by delicate fingers.
The precision of a coastline marked
by waves of warp and weft
for eyes that never see the sea.
The eye of the needle through which
the whole world has been pulled.
Women laughing in their small world,
running the colours of joy
in the journey of their hearts,
through all the patchwork planet.

Jane R. Rogers    

Missing Stitches
after Alighiero Boetti’s Maps

Anonymous, we worked hard,
filled the waiting material,
coaxed taut threads to the edges
of countries, indenting islands,
stabbing fabric and skin, until we made
that final stitch – cast-off at the jagged
black border of your nation’s flag.

Later, I feel something is missing.
I select a sumptuous white silk –
not ordinary white, but a ghostly
no-colour for an invisible continent.
I resume work. Push needle against
these new stitches’ reluctance
to join your world design. I listen
for the songs of ownership, hear
polar winds drown out all claims.

I persist in stitching the vastness
of Antarctica. Even though the violent
whites are painful to my eyes,
I am patient, skating the embroidery
through my needle’s eye:
the strange journey of ice-silk
through fingers, pristine as it glistens –
weaves its own map.

Andrea Robinson

Mettere al Mondo il Mondo (Bringing the World into the World)
after Alighiero Boetti’s Maps

I too want to name you
down to the last river, lake and creek.
Each homestead, town and city –
I will give the same name
to every rag-riot of your lower limbs,
your stars-and-hammer patches,
your veil of ice floes –
you wear so many colours to draw me in.
I shall call your beaches, and your deserts,
your mountains, fields, your grasslands
city halls, skyscrapers, abattoirs,
sheds, schools and shrines.
I name each drop of ocean,
each pinch of dirt.
I call you home. I strike my claim.

Angela Dock

after Mappa by Alighiero Boetti

Stitch cadmium red and ochre
on the parchment of my skin
like fields of poppies.

Chain-stitch my escarpments
the colour of wild olives.
Knot flags where

stars and moons collide
with hammers and sickles.
Weave meadows of mimosa

over my deserts.
Then follow my veins,
back-stitch them to borders.

You’ll find
that eyes of needles are not blind
to the stitches that unravel lives.

Ann Holmes

A Map
after Mappa by Alighiero Boetti

North America’s large beak stretches
way beyond its Canadian eye,
and little Britain floats above
the face of Europe,
but I love the dots,
the countless specks of colour,
too small to classify,
just lying there,
quietly defying the mapper’s urge
to contain and label life’s messiness.

Yayoi Kusama posing at her Aggregation: One Thousand Boats show installation in the Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York 1963
Yayoi Kusama posing at her Aggregation: One Thousand Boats show installation in the Gertrude Stein Gallery, New York 1963

Claire Booker

Artist Obsessed
after Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show by Yayoi Kusama

The world is buttered thick with phalluses –
somehow you know she’ll never lick the knife
because Daddy did something he shouldn’t,
turned her into a fisher of men’s whitebait
afloat in her ghost white boat.
Dickety dick goes her fierce little needle
counting the stitches it’ll take to mend her –
stabs into softest winceyette,
moulds them, names them,
these gorgon heads that turn her to stone,
cock-a-hoop girths that flop on the rowlocks.
What a haul of men’s cods.
Only once she lay in the boat’s open mouth,
let the netted snouts snaffle at her bleeding places,
felt each clean, uncluttered oar.
She will row herself clear: cut through the black water
of a lonely vigil.

Tom Cunliffe

after Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show by Yayoi Kusama

breaking water
she falls upon her oars
legs apart
how deep the warm sea is
how faint the horizon

Adele Ward

‘I carry my mother on my back’ – Yayoi Kusama

I carry my mother on my back
in an infant sling, she weighs me down,
always close.
Sometimes she curls around her pain
in the pit of my belly.
Her story has become my story –
she planted a seed inside me
before I was born.
Now life has freed her,
let her tendrils blossom,
uncurl to the tips of my fingers,
the dead ends of hair,
where she resides in splendour,
luminous as a carcinoma
beyond the biologist’s lens.

Beyond the biologist’s lens,
luminous as a carcinoma
where she resides in splendour,
the dead ends of hair
uncurl to the tips of my fingers.
Let her tendrils blossom
now life has freed her.
Before I was born
she planted a seed inside me –
her story has become my story.
In the pit of my belly
sometimes she curls around her pain,
always close.
In an infant sling, she weighs me down –
I carry my mother on my back.

Vanessa Gebbie

A carpenter carves ice in a boat on a rough sea
after Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show and The Clouds by Yayoi Kusama

With a grappling hook he brings growlers to the stern,
lifts them with a rope – a hangman’s noose –
holds them, lays them to rest on a tarpaulin bed.
His fingers raw as grief, he wields a saw,
a chisel, an axe, the point of a rusty nail.

He makes a monster of the first, a dybbuk’s face
with budding horns, no fins, a snake of a thing
he cannot abide, throws over the side
before it is done. It sinks, rises again
to watch the fleeing craft with a blazing eye.

Of the second he makes a fighting ship,
a square-rig four mast, gun ports agape.
In the crow’s nest a lad lifts a spyglass
to a sightless eyeball frozen in his face.
The carpenter heaves him away into the waves.

The third, a clear six-footer by one-foot-six,
serves as a mirror as he bends in the coming night
to shape a beard, the wildest of eyes,
matted hair, seal-fat and tallow covered cap,
mittens, sailor’s garb, sodden boots.

Tarpaulin-bound ice, Monte Christo shroud,
balances on the stern as the carpenter howls
at heaven, You stilled the chaos of the primeval seas,
flings words into the spitting wind,
tips his own image into the dark, the deep.

Yayoi Kusama The Clouds 1984
Yayoi Kusama
The Clouds 1984

Kim Booker

Us and the Clouds
after The Clouds by Yayoi Kusama

The day you left, the clouds above the house
fell out of the sky and hovered over the decking.

Some looked like fresh snow. Others like melted wax.
They shook slightly next to each other, but didn’t touch.

They bobbed above the wood planks like white islands
in the evening sun. It was as if you had sent the clouds

to keep me company. I chose the plumpest one
and took it inside for a pillow.

That night I rose up
                                  in a floating house.

Kaye Lee

But Nothing
after I’m Here, but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama

This morning the mirror couldn’t see her.
Its blank eye pulled in
sparks from the place
where she’d stood draped
in a fractured prism.

The mirror turned its back,
escaped into the next room,
took all the colours with it –

what remained was her name
scrawled on a white sticker,
a row of polka dots like stars
that faded in the dawn.

Elizabeth Horsley

after I’m Here, but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama

Standing in shadow,
I can feel the walls flow
like shoaled herring,
silver and black.
The mirror’s glass
holds up the room to me,
framing the TV,
the sofa, table, chairs,
the vase. All there.
But when I turn,
they’re gone; I’m
left looking down
at my feet, through my shoes.
Such thin white bones.

Cath Kane

after I’m Here, but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama

She grows wild wings
under the dinner table

where fields of begonias flower.

Thoughts of escape
are flies

travelling from the television,

each word
a confetti petal.

Bea Colley

after I’m Here, but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama

She came to see me that night, when breath crackled
like static in my chest, sat her solid weight on the bed.

She sang to me in her sweet wavery voice, snatches
of old songs, Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.

As limbs began to twitch from fevered sleep, I drifted
to the surface, felt her rise like dough and the mattress exhale,

her small square back disappearing into the darkness,
the trail of a song like smoke on the air.

Matthew Paul

High Wire
after Catherine Yass

On a good day, which, by the sunrays
bending through the cumulus, this could be,
when my toes reach along and my heel
presses down to finish the foothold,
my thoughts sometimes wander
to what I might have for lunch –
fine dining at La Pesca with the crew,
or the remnants of yesterday’s fennel risotto –
and how I ought to buy a new pair
of red-and-white wire-walking shoes,
custom-made in Milan; but today,
when I step out from the small door
on the thirty-first storey’s breeze-block roof
and balance upon the beautiful tautness
stretching my mind, I sense
after just my seventh tread,
and know for definite on the eighth,
that three-quarters of the way to the other side
the banshee winds which scrape my face
would send me plunging like a gannet;
so I devour consciousness
as if it’s the last and greatest meal of my life,
arch my toes upwards
and ghost the eight paces backwards
to a frosted shot glass of grappa.

Zillah Bowes

after High Wire by Catherine Yass

Time to step out now
onto the high wire,

test my apprenticeship,
let birds grace my hair.

Here, cars are wind-up mice,
soundless and manageable,

like all the anty people.
I can be of this up-world –

take off my shirt,
lie down on the wire,

pull out my newspaper
and eat my sandwich.

Easy, and look, I am doing it.

Sonia Jarema

New Kid on the Tower Block
after Catherine Yass

Balletic, you tested each stair
with toe, pad and heel.
Your hand glided the banister
as you stopped to shake sunshine
into the dark staircase.

Your shirt held clouds
you’d clung onto on the rooftop.
I could see the skyline
in your legs poised like cranes.

That evening you brought in             
the dank brook on your trousers.                  
You told me how the water
drank you as you waded her length
to find the unfamiliar way home.

Beatriz Echeverri

The Air Dance
after High Wire by Catherine Yass

He set off for a walk on the high wire,
between the tops of tower blocks.

His feet gracefully slid along, hands
easy on the balancing pole.

His silhouette shadow-danced
against the unwieldy clouds.

The wind, at first his partner,
leapt and whirled with excitement, then

like a sudden stranger, pounced,
roaring in his face.

Step by step,
he had to journey backwards

away from its embrace,
blindly aiming for the point of departure.

Helen Adie

Living Sculpture
after Marisa Merz

Limbs are cold slack hanging, sleeves
still shaped to the warm skin
they held, and in all the aluminium pleats,
the rustle of light, the bent play of water.

They are not frozen, but huddled as in
a rumour-battle, tall chorus of borrowed
sarks and helmets, looped together in the dark
under-place, an elephant graveyard.

They breathe, little metallic exhalations
that ridge the flanks, the concertina trunks
send ribbons of notes up to the high netting.
Through the gaps, a clarion plays the sinking
armour down. Only the absent water
knows the shadows’ listless serenade.

Pascale Petit’s fifth poetry collection is What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo. She has had three books shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. A Next Generation poet, she has been Poetry Editor of Poetry London and was a founding tutor of The Poetry School. See Pascale Petit's website for more information.

Foreword by Sandra Sykorova, Assistant Curator: Adult Programmes