Review: “Vermeer’s Corner” by Graham Burchell

Vermeer's Corner

Graham Burchell’s poetry collection Vermeer’s Corner is directly inspired by, and seeks inspiration from, the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer, the great Dutch painter from Delft, lived in the seventeenth century and is admired for his domestic scenes and his strong command of light.

The poems reflect Vermeer’s attraction to homely scenes by themselves spinning fine webs of household chores and situations. Burchell plays with this theme, however, and often directly comments upon some characteristic of the painting from which the poetry has taken its inspiration. In the House of Martha and Mary, the first of Burchell’s poems and inspired by Vermeer’s painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, the poem is firmly placed within the domestic scene of the painting. Consider this stanza:

nothing to serve it upon
so she rattles
fusses in brown Dutch rooms
until she finds her
lattice basket

We can see both the “brown Dutch room” and the simplicity of the character in these five short lines. Later the lines, ‘work work work / that is all I do / she jokes’, appear, reinforcing the domesticated environment and the low-born quality of Martha. And yet, near the end of the poem, Martha butts in with this interesting observation:

sees excitement in my eye
one bright white pixel
in the whole damned picture

It is clear, then, that the characters are aware of themselves as existing within the confines of a painting. This awareness is replicated throughout the poems, which allows Burchell the luxury to have his characters comment upon their own surrounds in a satirical and sometimes ironic manner.

“Seduction and Wine” is a wonderful short poem that captures with great authenticity the back-and-forth that comes from a young man admiring a clever woman. The poem is sensual without being explicit or even sexualised, and ends with a tinge of learned wisdom and melancholy expectation that belies its confident beginning.

These poems, like Vermeer’s paintings, seek to capture close, intimate moments in the lives of ordinary people. Burchell’s language creates flowers without being flowery, and remains consistent to the intellect, expectations and emotional abilities of his subjects without falling into the trap of condescending to his characters. He sits inside his character’s minds without pushing, allowing their feelings to come out in their own words. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is a sterling example of this as we are directly inside the girl’s mind as she ponders her husband’s reaction to the letter she is reading.

When reading Vermeer’s Corner it is well recommended to have a selection of Vermeer’s paintings on hand. It is easy to marvel at Burchell’s elegance in creating in poetry these scenes of domesticity that Vermeer has created with oils, but beyond that Burchell has taken his poetry to a level that utilises the techniques of, but is not swamped by, post-modernist expression. The characters in the paintings are aware that they are characters in a painting, just as they seem to be aware that they are creating poetry from their own portrayals.

Vermeer’s Corner is available from Foothills Publishing.

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Damian Kelleher (www.damiankelleher.com) is a writer based in Australia.