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Review: Screaming Steel, Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts

On the 16th October 2014, poetry fans gathered in Newcastle's newly developed Hatton Gallery. The year of this gathering is significant, being the Centenary of commemorations made in honour of lives taken by the First World War. 

Warmly introduced by Bill Herbert, Dundee's first Makar and an NCLA representative, Screaming Steel was packed with superb new poems that spoke of, spoke to or reflected on artworks and writings by those who experienced the trauma of 1914-18 first hand.  Reading work in response to Issac Rosenberg, Next Generation poet Tara Bergin opened by telling us that Rosenberg's notebook is part of the current Hatton Gallery exhibition. The battered notebook stands as testament to writing as a means of both documenting and dealing with trauma. It is impossible to look at it without imagining the stiff brass buttoned pocket that held it, the shaking of hands that sharpened pencils and fingers that smoothed pages down to write what could, on any given day, be final words. 

Isaac Rosenberg, Self-Portrait in a Steel Helmet, 1916.

As Bergin reads Rosenberg's 'Break of Day in the Trenches', all eyes are drawn to the chalky self portrait of Rosenberg behind her. He faintly stares out, ghostly absent but viscerally present. Rosenberg chose to document his experience of war as both a practicing artist and poet. In such close proximity, I noticed how much the mediums lend each other, as if the self portrait itself were to open its tightly closed mouth and speak.

In response, Bergin read her poem 'Rosenberg: Self Portrait in a Steel Helmet, 1916'. Eyes glued to Rosenberg's, one line particularly struck me: a faithless rat, a milky flower/ a shallow tin hat, that has no power to save him. Bergin calls into question the divorced language that is often used in wartime and asks what protection Rosenberg's thin tin hat could ever offer.  On a later visit to the Hatton Gallery, I closely viewed Rosenberg's drawing and discovered the same idea in his technique. The gouache brim of his helmet dissolves into the parcel paper background as if it were smoke, offering him little defence. The poignancy of this receding brim was intensified upon the knowledge that Rosenberg died in action, on April Fool's Day in 1918.  In light of this ekphrastic experience of looking closely at the artwork, thinking about Rosenberg's poem and Bergin's response to the two, I felt a more intimate understanding of Armistice Day and like every year, pinned my white poppy to my coat as a symbol to honour all those who are lost to wars.  

Screaming Steel included more excellent readings from Christy Ducker, National Poetry Competition winner Linda France, Cynthia Fuller, W.N Herbert, Sean O'Brien and Ahren Warner. The Hatton Gallery exhibition runs until 13th Dec 2014. I strongly recommend a visit, perhaps with headphones playing this archival video of the reading to get a real sense of the importance of this event.



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