In 2019 Naoko Matsubara, a renowned woodblock artist, presented a selection of her works to the Ashmolean Museum. It was a significant gift: a hundred prints spanning different periods in her career. They demonstrate her characteristic, precise vocabulary of colour, her sympathy with the grain of the wood.
Naoko often works with writers, and had collaborated with the poet Robin Skelton on a series, In Praise of Hands; but at his death in 1997 the project remained unfinished. To commemorate Naoko’s gift to the museum I was asked by Clare Pollard, the Curator of Japanese Art, to write new poems to accompany the 30 prints.
I’ve often written about museum objects, and I spent three years as an employee of the Ashmolean. But I was a little nervous. (Thirty poems about hands!) I holed myself up in the Study Room and, white-gloved so that my own hands were anonymised and innocuous, opened the first Solander box of delicate papers.
A glance told me I needn’t worry: there was plenty to work with. Naoko’s hands are individuals – they speak their own language. Hands communicating to each other as they tangle themselves in a game of cat’s cradle; hands applauding, speaking of others. Sleights-of-hand producing doves or revealing an Ace. Hands at work, hands in play. That glorious grammar of colour.
The poems suggesting themselves to me were short, often featuring an element of rhyme or wordplay. In Naoko’s ‘Conversation A’, a pair of hands, one red, the other predominantly blue, lean towards each other in persuasion or confrontation:
No matter which side of the divide
you find yourself on, come closer.
There is more of me in you than I thought
and, I’ll warrant, vice versa.
To accompany ‘Woodcut’, which depicts hands in the act of cutting a block:
Wood, cut from wood, negates the gulf
between a cipher and the thing itself.
In April, Naoko got in touch. (Typing that phrase reminds me again how much our hands say.) She wanted to produce a print in response to a new poem. My mind at the time was very much on the recent, unexpected, loss of my mother, who was a prolific gifter. In front of me on my desk was a pebble she had given me some years before, which she’d painted with a tiny fox.
My mother handed me a gift.
‘Close eyes.’ I took it in my ready palms.
It was lighter than I would have thought.
In slipping it from hand to hand
we’d traded more than its small weight.
Some ancient magic touched us
as it tipped from hers to mine; we
changed position, expectation, tense.
I’m here, and looking at it still.
This little thing her clever hands
made happen is more precious
for the growing space between us –
more vital with each passing
hour. I watch it closely now.
Naoko’s resulting print shows a joyous meeting of hands, one pair in the moment of giving to the other. It’s both matter-of-fact and moving.
‘I thought of you and your mother so strongly while I was creating the woodcut’, Naoko said, emailing from Ontario. I opened her message in a locked-down Yorkshire. Our collaboration was surely a way to ‘hold hands among the atoms’.
Penny Boxall, November 2020.