James Byrne's new collection The Caprices (Arc, 2019) is a poetic response to Francisco Goya's 1799 series of etchings and aquatints Los Caprichos. Goya's use of the term echoes similar usage by artists such as Botticelli, Dürer, and Piranesi, so we're invited to think a bit about the connotations of the word. Faddish whims or fancies, perhaps. Or, more likely, and more specifically, the faddish caprice of those privileged enough to be able to afford to indulge their whims without fear of consequence? The kind of characters who people some of the eighty aquatint plates Goya produced under intense political scrutiny towards the end of the eighteenth century - images which give the word a satirical bite almost as acidic as that with which he etched his copper plates. Byrne first encountered Los Caprichos at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in the winter of 2014, developed an obsession with it, and then began to encounter the work serendipitously again and again during the following years in gallery spaces ranging from South America to Madrid. The resulting book features eighty eight-line poetic responses to these plates, each octave sharing a page with the corresponding image from the original Prado mansucript.
Goya's own caprice is that of the artist asserting the primacy of imaginative vision: less whimsy, more impulse - the irrefutable urge that makes an artist speak truth to power, unmindful (or unheedful) of consequence. The kind of caprice that between 1794 and 1798 made Goya, deaf and dyspeptic as he was - and working against the backdrop of The Inquisition and a reactionary ruling class who feared revolutionary philosophical influence from France - produce a series of satirical plates whose publication he survived only because he still enjoyed the capricious favour of the tetchy monarch presiding over those febrile times.
But there's Byrne's artistic caprice too - that of the poet moved by a powerful encounter with another artist's work; that ekphrastic urge to write in response to the exhibition that haunts us long after we've left the gallery. Byrne prefers the term 'echopoetics' to 'ekphrasis', and it's a fair distinction. He's not responding to the plates in a directly expository or descriptive manner, and neither are they springboards to his own musings, or even allusions that get swept up in the backdraft of each poem's momentum. There's something else going on. He's using the plates as a lens through which to view our own inquisitions, our own tetchy rulers, our own febrile times.
Byrne shows a committed interest in being a close observer of the historical particularities of Goya's work, while simultaneously exploring the underlying structural forces that gave rise to them and which cause similar atrocities to recur across geo-political contexts. So, the poem in response to Plate 43 'The sleep of reason produces monsters' is aware of Goya's Spain and its establishment's fear of Rousseau, but it also invokes the 43rd POTUS, under the sobriquet Clownstick, and opens with a line worthy of Goya's bitter satire: 'Now that the state legitimises hate.' Similarly the poem in response to Plate 63 'Look how solemn they are!' gives voice to a Weinsteinian character called Cocksnook: 'He tells her, tell no-one / If you are my friend, I am your friend'.
There's a dsypeptic tone I warmed to. It's partly Byrne's attempt to channel the spirit of Goya and partly his own righteous (but not to my ears pompous) indignation. So, while Plate 26 'They've already got a seat' depicts a woman being forced to balance a chair on her head as some sort of absurd and demeaning entertainment for the men surrounding her, Byrne's poem also considers the age-old requirement on the part of powerful men to require the performative obedience of women. But in doing so it also alludes more specifically to Theresa May's excruciating first meeting with Clownstick by observing both that 'she is quiet at the clownstick laughter / of the vulgarian', and that 'obedience is seatedness'. Byrne is keenly alert to the position of women in Goya's images, referring in the poem for Plate 2 'They say yes and give their hand to the first comer' to 'the masked ball / that is marriage', and in the poem for Plate 5 'Two of a kind' he evokes a cynical vision of a courting couple performing the routines laid down for them by society, honing in on the 'synchronised clocks of their faces'. But he also extends these concerns to the position of women in our own time, howling against the 'arrival of those who are freighted in' only to be 'pimped to college boy and pisshead' in his response to Plate 21 'Poor little girls'. Similarly, the octave for Plate 8 'They carried her off' begins in eighteenth-century Spain but ends with a devastating reference to the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram in 2014:
Before the schoolgirls in Chibok
were carried off to Sambisa forest,
all those wearing trousers were shot.
In other responses we remain firmly in Goya's Spain. So, in Plate 12 'Out hunting for teeth', we're shown a woman plucking teeth from a hanged man. She's a believer in the folk-myth of the efficacious medicinal power of the body parts of executed criminals, but she and the hanged man see 'each / as othered' and we're reminded that she's also destined to lose her personhood, to become 'someone fleered on the / scaffold block as a common witch'.
This is an ambitious and timely collection. Byrne's engagement with Goya is an attempt to find a way of making his own caprices cut through our hideous times, of making his words do more than merely 'resound like a cry inside a wood'.