How to Frame Poems: Selima Hill and Oswald Tschirtner

I couldn’t claim to know much about poet Selima Hill; I know that she uses surrealist language and is interested in mental health, that she believes that ‘all poetry is love poetry'(1) and that Passion-Fruit  is one of my favourite poems. This limited knowledge left me utterly intrigued by the image that appears in Gloria, a collection of Hill’s poems.  Pictured above, ‘Bebende herzen in leide der hunde‘ (which loosely translates as ‘Quivering hearts in suffering of dogs’) by Oswald Tschirtner, sits where, in books about contemporary artists, an essay, interview or forward might sit.

It is unusual for a collection of contemporary poems to include similar interviews or essays. Publications of the work of long dead poets of influence are usually graced with extended introductions, but to gain an insight into a contemporary poem or a contemporary poet’s methods and motivations, beyond one’s own imaginings, we must seek out information in publications such as Magma, websites like the The Poetry Archive or blogs like I Don’t Call Myself a Poet. Gloria is no exception in this, there is a brief biography and set of acknowledgements and then one is left alone with Hill’s poems, or at least almost alone, as Tschirner’s drawing awaits you, poised like an eccentric butler ready to welcome you into the pages.

A brief sentence in the acknowledgments informs us that the title of another collection of Hill’s poems, ‘Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs’ (1994),  is a reference to Tschirner’s drawing, and that ‘Bebende Herzen In Liebe Der Hude’ is in turn a quotation from the poem Das Leben, by Ernst Herbeck. Choose to research Tschirner and Herbeck further and you will find that they were both institutionalized as a result of mental illness, and were both connected with Gugging’s Haus der Künstler, or Artists’ House: a facility for artistically talented patients, established by psychiatrist Leo Navrati.

So, appearing all the more significant for its second association with Hill’s poems, and its connection with the idea of poetry as medicine, can the image be read as a pointer to the poet’s interest in mental health, and her belief that ‘poetry can contribute to the understanding and treatment of patients'(2)?  Can it be considered a kind of wordless essay that tells us something fundamental about Hill’s poetry?

I’m curious now, not just about Tschirtner’s image, but about the possibility of an artist’s catalogue where a selected poem would stand, without explanation, in place of the usual essays and interviews.

(1) Accessed on 19/4/13.
(2)  Accessed on 19/4/13.

Posted by Anika Carpenter


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