Four Sides Full review: delicate portrait that spills out of its frame
Fintan O’Toole on poet Vona Groarke’s elegant, moving meditation on the pain of lost love
Four Sides Full: A Personal Essay
Irish poets have an especially strong relationship to painting, from WB Yeats’s The Municipal Gallery Revisited, to Derek Mahon’s meditations on the Dutch masters, to Paul Durcan’s dialogues with works in the National Gallery, to Seamus Heaney’s responses to TP Flanagan, Colin Middleton and others, to Sinéad Morrissey and Medbh McGuckian’s contemplations of portraits by John Lavery.
The painting, with its promise of an image fixed forever in a frame, is a way of stepping outside history, a defined space that promises (even if it does not deliver) a refuge from the turbulence of time. But in her intriguing “personal essay”, Vona Groarke plays not with the painting but with the frame itself. What, really, does it define? How well does it live up to that promise to separate art from life, the image freighted with meaning from the threat of meaninglessness that surrounds it?
The book itself is, of course, a kind of frame. The chaos of the human life from which it emerges is contained and controlled within the covers. The covers of Four Sides Full artfully present us with two images that point us inward. On the front, there is a picture of the back of a frame – we do not know what the image on the other side might be. On the back cover, there is a reproduction of Eve O’Callaghan’s portrait of Groarke – which is to say a portrait of the back of her head. Together, the images suggest that what is between these covers is a kind of turning away from the messy life that surrounds it.
And, because this is the work of a subtle poet whose poems are always in flux between fixity and chaos, it is and it isn’t. The essay is a kind of disguised memoir, in which a consideration of the history and purpose of frames is also a way to deal with what is beyond the frame of its philosophical argument: the poet’s own life and especially the breakup of her marriage.
Frames, as Groarke thinks about them, are contradictory things. They seem to be about exclusion – they draw lines between things in general and this thing in particular, between the inside and the outside. They present themselves as “a high wall, keeping what’s inside captive, at a safe distance. But a frame is not a wall: it cannot be. The point of a frame is that it is not-wall. It is the un-wall.”
Frames are equally ambivalent when it comes to giving meaning to things. The frame says: look at this, this is important, it means something. The problem, though, is that (as avant garde artists discovered in the early 20th century), you can put anything in a frame – a used tissue, for example – and it will suddenly seem significant. The frame is not to be trusted. As Groarke puts it so nicely in the poem that precedes the essay, “every promise ever made/ was framed in a yellow frame”.
Multiplicity of frames
And though frames promise to divide art from life, life itself is always framed. Our bodies are frames, and so are our homes. We look at the world through windows and television screens, phones and laptops, all of which frame the images they present. We look at our past through photos on those screens. Our lives are framed by rites of passage: “Every girl crosses a threshold into puberty and out the other side in middle age. What’s between is framed in a grid of months, each one roughly equivalent, twenty-eight days, more or less.”
What makes Four Sides Full ultimately as moving as it is erudite and elegant is that it, too, spills out of its frame. It is not, after all, a wall that keeps “what’s inside captive”. It is, rather, a safe space in which Groarke can explore, with delicacy and restraint, the pain of lost love. The record contained in the family photographs that used to hang on her walls once framed her life. “And I dismantled it to move here, to learn to live alone. No wonder I can’t bear to look them in the eye.” But sometimes, as this beautiful little book shows, it is things seen from the corner of the eye, almost out of the frame, that move us most.