martin gale

Martin Gale
Seamus Heaney


The American poet Theodore Roethke used to be represented in anthologies by a poem called Dolor, which began ‘I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils’. Pencils? I never quite knew what to make of the line, yet I could never altogether dismiss it, especially when the poem went on to evoke ‘Lonely reception rooms, lavatory, switchboard, / The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher’.


But why, the moment I sat down to write about Martin Gale, would Dolor immediately raise its far-off, problematic head? It’s not that a Gale painting could ever be described as sorrowing or sorrowful, just that there is often an intimation that something akin to dolour (with a u. our own native, familiar, un-American sort) has to be allowed for. And yet while the canvases do exhale a certain ‘sadness’- all those brimming ruts and empty crossroads, that backyard greenhouse and those deserted marquees- it is hardly an ‘inexorable sadness’: over and above the loneliness and pathos of such uncannily exact representation, his landscapes convey a sense of what Philip Larkin called ‘unfenced existence’. There may be clouds in the sky, clods on the ground, but there will usually be light on a far field and a gleam on the puddles. In fact, when Martin Gale looks upon the earth, he - like the One who took the first look - is inclined to find it good.


Not that he is painting Eden. The overall vision is far from pastoral, if there is pasture, it is for grazing. There is nothing prelapsarian about his furrowed fields and tyre-marked headrigs, his pick-up truck parked in the cart road, his glimpse of a flyover at the horizon or a digger with its jaw dropped, facing a pile of screenings. At the same time, the pictures don’t have designs upon us. They register injuries to the land and incursions upon it, but they don’t insist on these matters as ‘issues’: his paintings are ‘green’ right enough, but in an older, grateful, grass green sort of way. They say- or rather they silence us to the point where we think- ‘Still and all’. They invite us to look twice, then to stand still looking until we begin to wonder if there is such a thing as innocent bystanding. They hold in a single, steady, local focus the reality and anxiety of the times.

Seamus Heaney.