Work > Articles

In a strange land Peter Levi 1988



Poems by painters are much more interesting than paintings by poets,

because poets fatally relax in paint, but painters achieve the condition

of poetry only by same mysterious change of gear; what emerges comes

at a strange angle and under pressure. Roger Wagner has been In a

Strange Land for many years. It is a country where mythology bears

fruit, and God geometrizes; indeed, the most important lesson he learnt

from surrealism was the power of geometry. I had almost written its

magic power, because there is a touch of the magical in the powerful

compositions of his mythological pictures. Things intermingle in his

work, the story of Elijah becomes somehow the four seasons. The angels

reaping in the corn were more terrible than death. The power station

at Didcot behind the crucifixion is like the most beautiful cathedral,

but the geometry of distance makes it as strange as it is passionate

and fresh.


Sometimes a voice enters the pictures; these poems are as strange as

the images. There is no doubt that we are celebrating a mystery, but

it is not the one we expected. The industrial landscape of the lower

Thames, as it used to be and for a moment still is, carries on a growling

dialogue with the words of the most groaning psalms, but Hosea's Song

is quite another dimension. I admire this book enormously. The

translation of the psalm, and the unlocked for poetry, are done in the

only way that they can be, perfectly directly. The emotion is not in the

moonlight that touches all this architecture with impersonal grandeur,

nor is it in the fleeing, dissolving procession of the clouds, but some-

thing far deeper in the mind, something that corresponds to geometry

and to poetry.


Roger Wagner is a sober and clear poet, and a remarkable, perhaps

a towering artist. Nothing could be less expected than his paintings;


they are completely careless of fashion. In some ways they are very old-

fashioned indeed, but in the most important way modem. There is

something disturbing and exciting even in his harshest and most

reserved work. He has the power to create a myth.


Peter Levi