Henri Matisse The snail
Henri Matisse 'The snail'

The Arrest - on Seeing
Matisse's Painting 'The Snail'

  James Berry


Green has a place like the heart
More shapes of colours take
attention, at the centre.
They look hung out like washing
of mostly handkerchiefs
in motion, going circular.

Underneath, a patch of white
is papered on like sky
on a base of sun-earth. Then
this level offers other happened
shapes, like apertures or windows -
all views you would have
if flying, or crawling
or walking or standing still.

Now the colours are pools
of emotions –tones
that make an alphabet of moods.
They could be musical sounds
that left bodies of tones
and shapes in a precise order
but appear spontaneous.

You are toned up.
Sources are exposed here,
arranged, in these pieces
of colours, these offsprings
of the sun, that have
their family difference richness.

An expanse of blue is meditative.
Strangely, an earthy-red becomes
a field like a vast bed.
You sense renewal
in a mask of sleep.
an awareness of purple robes
passes, like a breath-wave of wind.

The picture is a language.
It will not yield up everything.
You question yourself about
an interpretation of a coiled
movement. And, really, how
does snail-shell appropriate
such a range of tone?

You walk away. You wake up
in a warm rain. You see
that milked from sunlight
the pieces of colours are segments
hanging out a vision – a life's
circle that crept, into a spiral.

Henri Matisse Odalisque 1921
Henri Matisse Odalisque 1921

James Berry was born in a Jamaican village but has lived in Britain for most of his adult life. He has won prizes for both poetry and his prose writing. Recent publications inculde an anthology New for Babylon (Chatto & Windus) and Chain of Days (Oxford University Press). He was awarded the OBE in 1990 and in 1991 received the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry.

Henri Matisse Odalisque with Magnolias 1923
Henri Matisse 'Odalisque with Magnolias' 1923