Not just year’s end, mind you, but world’s end, if you believe the Mayan prophesy: tomorrow marks the end of the 5125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar, so we will either undergo a spiritual transformation (and enter a new era of development) or face cataclysmic destruction. On the radio this morning they were talking about dates which possess a magical alignment of numbers, such as 12/12/12 (which, if I can remember all of two weeks ago, was a relatively normal Wednesday), or today, 20/12/2012 (a perfectly pleasant day, but in no way transformational). What does all this counting, this numerological grasping to make some kind of sense of it all, give us? Depending on your outlook, either a feeling of control, or a deathly dread. In 1965, the Polish artist Roman Opałka started painting numbers. In the top left-hand corner of a canvas he began with 1, and continued, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on, number by number, in perfect horizontal rows, until he had filled an entire canvas. Each new canvas started the count where the previous one had left off. Each canvas was exactly the same size, each crammed with tiny, perfectly-rendered numbers. After each canvas was completed, Opałka photographed himself in front of the painting. Each painting was accompanied by a recording of the artist speaking the numbers aloud as he painted them. In 1987 he wrote: Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance; we are at the same time alive and in the face of death – that is the mystery of all living beings. The consciousness of this inevitable disappearance broadens our experiences without diminishing our joy. There is always the omnipresent idea of nature, of its ebb and flow of life. This essence of reality can be universally understood; it is not only mine but can be commonly shared in our ‘unus mundus’.
Opałka said, all my work is a single thing, the description from number one to infinity. A single thing, a single life. A life’s work. He died on 6th August 2011. The final number he painted was 5607249. I move through time to November, 10/11/12 to be precise, the final day of a thousand hours, the potter Edmund de Waal’s installation for the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. Of the show, de Waal wrote:
‘a thousand hours’ has at its heart a meditation on time, both the time it takes to make something, and the time it takes to see something … I have made a vast installation of a thousand vessels housed in two great vitrines, placed so that you can walk between them. There are pots below you and high over you. Some are easy to see and others disappear into a haze behind opaque glass, out of reach. They are uncountable. I hope it records hours of pleasure, tiredness, exhilaration: my sense of the fleeting moment and its afterlife.
The fleeting moment and its afterlife: as the year begins to disappear, the new diary already opened to the first clean week of January 2013, I try to gather those fleeting moments, which might at some stage reappear as lines of poetry. What Opałka started as an exercise in counting became a way of recording his existence: the paintings wouldn’t mean quite the same without the photographic record of the artist – at first a young man, aging as the numbers grew, until he was old – and his voice, speaking the years. With de Waal’s project, counting is translated into object – the vessel – which represents a period of making, the physical act of sitting at the wheel and bringing the object to life. The potter says that the vessels are brought together to slow down time, and walking through them, between two vitrines, I could see what he meant. I felt as if time had halted as I stood in the middle of the piece, surrounded by vessels behind their hazy glass, caught in memory, out of reach.
I end with an image by Jasper Johns. Invective will take a short break for the holidays. The next post will be in the new year, assuming we survive tomorrow …
is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).
In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon
will not be there.
The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.
Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.
Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February: http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/literature-spoken-word/tickets/formerly-1000346
Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:
Rebecca Solnit: http://www.rebeccasolnit.com/infinitecity
The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson
The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting
It is a tale of two giants in the art world, Thaddaeus Ropac and Larry Gagosian, squaring up to each other as only giants can, by each opening massive spaces on the outskirts of Paris at exactly the same time, and filling them both with the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whose epic themes and equally-epic works bust the conventional four white walls of lesser galleries.
Vici and I had wanted to visit both Ropac Pantin and Gagosian Le Bourget. Ironically, both new spaces are in the Northeast reaches of Paris, beyond the Périphérique. Although we know the centre of Paris well enough, this was certainly new territory for us. But after consulting the Gagosian website and google maps, we concluded that getting to Le Bourget, although not impossible on public transport, would be challenging. Once out of the RER station, there was a 3.5 kilometre walk up what looked on the map like a dual carriageway road – not very pedestrian-friendly. The fact that the gallery is actually a former airplane hangar in Le Bourget airport should have given us the clue – if you don’t have your own plane, too bad. And that’s because this new Gagosian enterprise isn’t for the likes of me and Vici, it’s for other giants who have giant wallets and giant walls vast enough to accommodate a Kiefer or two.
Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly. There are lots of places in London which are difficult to get to unless you have a car (London being vastly more spread out than Paris). But there is a difference of approach to the two galleries which is notable. While the Gagosian website had very little information about Le Bourget and the current show, Ropac’s website says this:
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is delighted to announce the opening of its new exhibition space in Pantin, located in the northeast of Paris, in October 2012. Formerly an early 20th century ironware factory, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin will allow for the display of large-scale works alongside a programme of related events. “We created this new space which will give the artists the opportunity to realize their vision without the usual restrictions of space.” (Thaddaeus Ropac) The architects Buttazzoni & Associés who already redesigned the existing Parisian gallery in the Marais have worked on the redevelopment of the new space in Pantin, where they have preserved the historical character of the listed buildings. The site has eight separate buildings allocated for exhibitions, performances, private viewings, archives and offices … The project also includes a multimedia space for performance, dance, lectures, conferences, screenings and other activities that complement exhibitions and attract a wider audience.
And it’s not that difficult to reach. Pantin is on the Metro, and then it’s a 15-minute walk through rather characterless light industrial country. But Vici and I are always up for a journey through the more charmless bits of cities. And anyhow, the gallery was signposted, and once there, we felt the hike was worth it.
Kiefer’s work is always ambitious, reaching. Some find it bombastic (and perhaps the fact that he has become embroiled in the clash of the art titans will not help this perception). It is true that the work is very dense in its field of reference, taking on mysticism, alchemy, history. The Holocaust is ever-present in the work, a dark line that runs through all, and the poet Paul Celan sits on his shoulder, the imagery of the Todesfuge present in Kiefer’s motifs, the dug earth, the black milk. I don’t always understand his references, but I feel the same way when reading late Stevens – there is something so complicated being grasped at, an understanding of the world and its deeper workings, not just physical, but psychic, cosmic. That sounds a bit new age, but I feel I don’t have the vocabulary to describe how Kiefer works, without falling into the grandiose, the abstract. If I try and express it in imagery, it’s like there’s wide field before you, sometimes cluttered with the rust of our discarded machinery, sometimes flat and reaching into a distance you can’t see. The landscape is dead – it is winter here always. I think Kiefer is saying that’s where we are, as a people, standing in this barren field with our rubbish all around us. Nothing can grow here; it’s our winter.
The other great artist who is present in Kiefer’s work is his teacher, Joseph Beuys. In another building on the Ropac site, there is a display of Beuys’s work related to his 1969 performance piece, Iphigenie. Seeing the work of both artists together made me look again at the motifs and materials they share: ash, rust, stone. While Kiefer remains outside of his work, Beuys is always the subject, the conduit for change and protest.
It was disappointing not to get to Le Bourget, perhaps a journey for another time. Kiefer’s work is so important and vital that it’s a shame it won’t be easy for many people to make the journey. But I was glad to have made the effort. And I look forward to future trips to Pantin.
A late posting, after spending the better part of the last two weeks in Suffolk. There is something about that odd bleak coast that gets to you after a while, particularly as autumn shifts to winter, and the trees become ghosts of themselves (some so windbattered they morph into lanky-haired witches turned to wood by some conjurer’s spell). My last post came from that most mysterious and haunted of locations, Orford Ness, and as poems begin to appear in my inbox from the Mendham group, the echoes of that excursion remain.
It was perhaps appropriate then that those echoes were picked up for me at the opening event of the Aldeburgh Poetry festival, which paired the poet Jackie Kay and the artist Maggie Hambling in conversation. Both poet and artist have been influenced extensively by place, Kay by the Glasgow of her childhood, and more recently, by the Nigeria of her birth father. But it’s Hambling’s fascination with the Suffolk coast, which I am just beginning to feel might be my coast too (having traded in the Atlantic coast of my childhood), and what she had to say about her process as an artist that extended the conversation I had with my fellow poets out on the Ness.
Hambling has been working with the wave as an image for some time, and she explained that she begins her working day with a walk by the sea (or by the Thames when she is in London). Although her wave paintings don’t always resonate for me, I think they are part of a larger project, which is about finding continuity. Hambling said that the purpose of art is to make people stop for a moment (she mentioned the poem’s ability to halt us as well). And maybe those wave paintings are her way of trying to halt the sea, to capture it in different moods and seasons, a sequence of waves, all distinct but from the same source. In relation to this, she talked about the limitations of photography: ‘a photograph can only ever be the record of something – a painting is a live thing’. Her waves work best for me in unison, each singing its moment, like a motet.
Hambling talked about the artists she values, who ‘speak in paint’: Rothko, Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, and why we revisit certain paintings and artists again and again (as we do certain poems), because they are living, because they carry on a dialogue with their viewers, tell us different things at different times. And that’s why we engage with certain places, keep returning. The Suffolk coast has become one of those places for me, familiar enough now, but still new.
Which brings me to the scallop, Hambling’s monument to one of Aldeburgh’s greatest sons, Benjamin Britten. It is a work of public art which has divided opinion vehemently, so its opponents and supporters might be locked in a bitter political election or a religious war. It comes down not so much to Hambling’s sculpture (which is certainly more effective than her ‘sculptural bench’ dedicated to Oscar Wilde outside Charing Cross station) but its position. On the side of the detractors, there is this articulate response (as opposed to some of the other responses) from Humphrey Burton, which was published in the Guardian when the sculpture was first unveiled:
I am on the side of the supporters (and plucked up the courage to say so to the famously-irascible Hambling herself as she was leaving the talk last week). I disagree with Burton about what he describes as ‘casual violation’. The scallop is firstly not ‘casual’, in that it has been very carefully designed to be seen from many angles and distances, to have an impact from afar as well as up-close. It has become well-worn by the countless children who climb on it (and public art that doubles-up as climbing frame can be no bad thing – the fact that it is not cordoned off or prohibited from being touched is the very thing that makes it truly democratic, truly ‘public’). It is neither purely figurative, nor completely abstract, but somewhere in between, which should appeal to many, and also somehow captures Britten himself, whose music occupied the middle of the twentieth century, and brought together the traditional and the experimental. The scallop’s edge is inscribed with a line from the libretto of Britten’s most famous opera, the one which is most situated in Aldeburgh, Peter Grimes: I hear those voices that will not be drowned. In that way, it is also a tribute to that older generation who made their living from the sea, and to Aldeburgh’s other great son, the poet George Crabbe, in whose work The Borough the tragic Grimes first appears.
As to violation, well, this is more of an issue. As one of my fellow poets asked as we approached it, following our trip to the Ness, ‘it comes down to this: who owns the beach?’ A number of long-time residents, including Burton, somehow felt the beach had been ‘spoiled’ by the scallop. Burton suggests the sculpture could be moved inland, which would somehow make both its subject and the inscription invalid. It was designed to face the thing that obsessed Crabbe, and Britten, and Hambling equally: the sea. It could be nowhere else. I can understand that it upsets those true Suffolkers who like their flat surfaces flat and their big skies uninterrupted. Perhaps I am not a good judge, coming from an urban location, where views are changed all the time by what’s erected, what’s torn down. But this is not just a piece of public art, happily freed from the four walls of the gallery, it is a celebration of the sea, those who thought and wrote and sang and captured it in various ways. And so it needs to face its subject, to make us stop for a moment, and really observe the way the sea moves and changes.
I’m very late to this debate, started as it was in 2004. But in my short time in Suffolk, the scallop has become one of my favourite landmarks. That’s what it is, a landmark. Here’s the full quote from Montague Slater’s libretto:
But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.
We embarked for the Ness on a boat from Orford Quay early on Saturday morning. The sky was grey, the sea darker – the colour of mutton-fat jade, as in Bishop’s poem ‘The End of March’. Our group had read the poem the night before, and discussed the various endings being marked, not just the end of winter, but also the end of wanderings (thinking about the pun in the title) – Bishop had travelled the earth, but her only wish was to retire to a little house (the proto-dream-house in the poem) where she could do nothing:
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, on foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
(We didn’t really believe her. That restless, active imagination of hers could never still). It is also an end of life poem – Bishop died two years after it was published. In a way it’s her version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; a poet at the end of her career, not so much worried about the exit of imagination (as Yeats was) as almost willing her imagination to cease. How exhausting it is to always be thinking of the poem in every situation, the imagination working overtime.
But back to the Ness, where we had come expressly to write poems. It is a place where you can’t stop the imagination from running off in all directions. It makes us question what it was like to be there in those heady secret days of code breaking and bomb making. It is a place of extraordinary contrasts: beauty and barrenness, an abundance of life amongst symbols of death, a frail ecosystem in a place that still contains unexploded ordnance.
When we arrived on the Ness, Silke, a National Trust volunteer, gave us the usual speech about staying on the paths (due to the aforementioned unexploded ordnance), where to find the information building and the toilets, but then broke into a moving and completely unrehearsed eulogy to the Trinity Lighthouse, which has stood on the Ness since 1792, and has survived storms, machine-guns and bombs, but will not survive the sea. The lighthouse will be engulfed in the next few years (in 2011, the section of the coast where the lighthouse is situated eroded by 200 meters). It has already been decommissioned, its light turned off, its mercury removed. Another ending. Silke suggested we all go and hug it one last time.
Before we took off to explore, I read a passage from The Rings of Saturn, in which WG Sebald describes his arrival on the Ness:
The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. Perhaps that was why I was frightened almost to death when a hare that had been hiding in the tufts of grass by the wayside started up, right at my feet, and shot off down the rough track before darting sideways, this way, then that, into the field. It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me. I still see what occurred in that one tremulous instant with an undiminished clarity. I see the edge of the grey tarmac and every individual blade of grass, I see the hare leaping out of its hiding-place, with its ears laid back and a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided; and in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it. Not till half-an-hour later, when I reached the broad dyke that separates the grass expanse from the pebble bank that slopes to the shoreline, did the blood cease its clamour in my veins.
These days, now that the Ness has reinvented itself as a nature reserve, that sense of fear that Sebald describes has perhaps dissipated. Midas Dekkers talks about the ‘benevolent silence’ that reigns over military ruins. Is that sense of benevolence more relief on our part that this place has passed into peace? Or are some places always tainted by association, the very earth poisoned by the associations of its past (on the Ness, this is a literal tainting, if we consider the undiscovered bombs that may lie just below the surface)? Sebald gets this – he could never really go anywhere without excavating the layers of the place and finding all the glittery trash of history and memory. And now the Natural Trust, who acquired the Ness in 1993, operate a policy of ‘controlled ruination’, which is why the lighthouse is being allowed to fall into the sea. Christopher Woodward writes about this in his book In Ruins. Apparently, the NT originally thought to demolish the bunkers and sheds:
It was Jeremy Musson, an architectural historian working for the Trust at the time, who first argued their value as ruins. The Ness of shifting shingle, he said, was a palimpsest of twentieth-century history, from the wooden huts of the First World War to the Cold War’s Pagodas. In a new and hopefully more peaceful century the ruins would crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by Nature.
I guess if Sebald were still with us he might argue against the possibility of the last statement. It is true that Woodward’s book was published before September 11th and the new wars of the 21st century in which destruction is orchestrated largely by computers. And even Nature has turned against us, in a way, with the threat of Global Warming and ecological crisis. So maybe Sebald was right to embrace fear.
Later, after we returned to Mendham Mill, the well-manicured and picture-pretty birthplace of Sir Alfred Munnings (you couldn’t imagine a greater contrast to the landscape of the Ness), we read poems about ‘secret landscapes’ and ruin. I chose Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, written in the 70s, around the time that the MoD was clearing out of the Ness, and Northern Ireland was at the height of the Troubles. I have mentioned this poem before on Invective, loaded as it is with all the terrors of the century in which I was born. It’s worth quoting the whole poem, but I’ve found this, a recording of the poem read beautifully by Kevin Porter:
Hugh Haughton writes of Mahon’s poem:
it remains a haunting instance of the way a forgotten place — not an archaic, pre-historic place but a modern place full of historical rubbish — might become a place where thought might grow. The site of a new kind of poetics of commemoration.
Haughton could so easily be writing about the Ness in that passage, ‘a modern place full of historical rubbish’. But it’s Sebald I will finish on, as no one has written so meaningfully and so articulately about what it is like to stand on Orford Ness, with that huge sky lowering, and think about how it came to be:
My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.
More images and poems from the weekend at Orford Ness will be posted on the Mendham Writers site. My thanks to Rochelle Scholar at Medham Writers: http://mendham-writers.com/news/
To Middlesbrough, for my workshop on Poetry and Memorial, occasioned by Julian Stair’s extraordinary exhibition at mima, Quietus: the vessel, death and the human body. I have been a long-time admirer of Julian’s beautiful urns and sarcophagi, and my poem ‘The Firing’ was based on his work (here it is, along with some other poems from the book Fetch, on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site: http://peonymoon.wordpress.com/tag/tamar-yoseloffs-the-firing/).
It was a glorious day, and the sun beamed brightly into the education room, where we spent the afternoon reading poems and talking about that most taboo and difficult of subjects: death. We started with some thoughts on the title of the show, and the meaning of ‘quietus’, a word we’ve lost in modern grammar, but charged with multiple meanings: a release, a calming, and perhaps more accurately for Julian’s show, a place between life and death. The word comes from the Latin quietus est = ‘he is discharged’, as from a debt. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126, all the meanings of the word come together in the final line:
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
We pondered the ‘missing’ couplet. Is this a deliberate silence, to echo the silence of passing? The 12th line feels like an ending, a closure, but Shakespeare is too great a master of the sonnet not to be hinting as more by the absence of lines 13 and 14.
We moved from Shakespeare, to Sir Thomas Browne (readers of Invective will already know of my love for his essay ‘Urne-Buriall’) to Sylvia Plath’s haunting and strange ‘Edge’, the final poem she wrote before taking her life. In it, she talks about the dead woman as ‘perfected’, and compares her to a classical statue:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
Does the last line refer to the blackness of night, and by extension, the total blackness of death? Some critics think that ‘blacks’ could be mourning clothes, a stiff taffeta gown, as donned by a Victorian widow, another kind of costume the woman might wear (like the toga). Others think that ‘blacks’ are a reference to stage curtains, perhaps a pun on ‘it’s curtains for her’ but also evoking death as an act of theatre (which takes us back to ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’, the poet’s audience, her witnesses to the attempts she made on her life).
We read ‘Child Burial’ by Paula Meehan, a painful and terrible elegy about the loss of a child. And ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson, where death is a suitor, a kindly gentleman caller willing to pick you up in his carriage and take a you on leisurely drive out to the cemetery. And then we had a break for lunch and a walk around the galleries.
Although poems are normally two-dimensional objects, there is always the hand and heart of the poet behind them, and so I can’t help but picture the author, at his or her desk, in the act of writing the poem. I always think of Plath’s desperate last days during that cold London winter when I read ‘Edge’, and it makes the poem even more unbearable. There is something about Julian’s pieces that are at once personal and public, like poems. They often take on human forms – as Julian points out, the terms for the parts of pots are taken directly from the body:
The concept of anthropomorphism is central to the identity of pottery. We use bodily terms such as neck, shoulder, hip and foot to describe the constituent parts of a pot. And the very nature of the vessel as a container, a holder of things, is analogous to the idea of the body as a physical container for the soul or spirit.
The Reliquary for a Common Man is a single jar of bone china. To say it contains the ashes of Julian’s uncle, Les Cox, does not describe it fully – some of his ash was used in the fabric of the jar itself. Perhaps the best way to think of this jar is as an ‘auto-icon’, a memorial that contains physical remains of the subject. Most reliquaries contain bones or other fragments of saints, so this is not a new idea, but somehow one which has become alien to us at the beginning of the 21st century. The room where the jar is displayed contains two screens, one showing home movies from the 50s and 60s, the other a series of still photographs which trace Les from childhood to old age. A recording of his voice plays into the darkened gallery. The effect should have been ghostly, but actually, I felt Les’s presence very strongly, his living presence – and I have never been susceptible to spiritualism or stories from beyond the grave. I was in the room with him, not only his image and his voice, but also some small physical fact of him, absorbed into the jar. Isn’t it true we become something else when we die – the shape and scale of us no longer exists. Maybe this is what Plath was striving for in ‘Edge’ – to take a different shape, to make herself into something else.
The other piece that especially moved me was the Columbarium – a word I’ve always loved, which comes from the Latin for ‘dove’, because the shape and compartments resembled a dovecote, but also makes me thing of the dove of peace, the holy spirit rising beyond the body. Julian’s Columbarium consists of 130 pots which create a tower, to suggest a community, the way we all come together democratically in death.
We came together again after lunch to share our poems, which were all extraordinary statements on the process of remembering and honouring. The whole experience was, surprisingly, joyful and life-affirming.
Julian’s show continues at mima until 11th November:
Well, not exactly the sea – but a view of the dreary Mersey, like a slab of wet concrete, through the window of Tate Liverpool. But we find the sea inside, contained in vast canvases by Turner and Twombly, turbulent, swelled by storm; the manifestation of the Sublime, as Ruskin defined it, a perilous beauty inherent in what is dangerous, terrifying.
The sea is contained inside us as well; Ruskin talks of ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings’. Both Turner and Twombly depicted the story of Hero and Leander, star-crossed, storm-tossed lovers, as a illustration of the Sublime. In Turner’s painting, the towers of Abydos fade in the twilight gloom, while the Hellespont gleams under a crescent of moon; its glow is casts long corridor to Sestos on the opposite shore, which is not visible, but we know that Hero is there, waiting (we also know that Leander will drown trying to cross the sea to her, and when Hero discovers her lover is dead, will throw herself from her tower into the sea to join him). To the right, there are nymphs or angels emerging from the water, almost water themselves – ghostly in the dim light. I don’t know if Turner would have known Keats’s poem on a Leander gem, where he evokes ‘sweet maidens … with a chastened light / Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white’, for whom Leander is ‘a victim of your beauty bright’, but Keats could be speaking directly about Turner’s extraordinary light effects, and Turner could be realising Keats’s maidens in paint.
Twombly knew Turner’s painting, he knew Keats’s poem. The first panel of his quadriptych shows Leandro being tossed in the sea, a manifestations of his churning passion; the next two panels show the sea overtaking and erasing his passion, his presence – the triumph of nature over man (and of the processes of nature over human emotion), until the final panel leaves us with nothing, apart from the final line of Keats’s poem: he’s gone, up bubbles all his amorous breath. A very Twomblyesque notion – there is nothing that remains of our passion and fury once we are silence and ash. Just words, paintings.
Twombly said ‘painting is a fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’, his take on the Sublime perhaps. That makes me think of Turner’s contemporary,Caspar David Friedrich, and his painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (not the actual sea, but a sea of fog, a haze of confusion and doubt).
I think of Byron swimming the Hellespont in honour of Leander, which makes me think of the Louis Edouard Fournier painting of Byron attending the funeral of Shelley, drowned in 1822 (which we had just seen the same morning in the Walker Art Gallery).
Shelley is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with Keats, who died the year before him; and Keats’s epitaph reads: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
We arrived in the village of Aubeterre on a Monday afternoon, the place pretty much empty, even of tourists. Aubeterre is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is a not a value judgment so much as a brand, with strict regulations the local Town Council must adhere to. To be considered for this esteemed title, the population of a village must not exceed 2000 inhabitants, and it must have at least two protected areas (picturesque or legendary sites, or sites of scientific, artistic or historic interest). Apart from its cobbled streets, its restored public lavoir, its pristine white houses and hanging baskets of flowers, it boasts one of the most remarkable churches I have ever seen. The monolithic Église Saint Jean was carved out the limestone hills that surround the village. It dates to the twelfth century, on the site of an earlier burial chamber. You enter the church along a wooden gangplank which brings you into the nave, a cave-like chamber 20 meters high, and then ascend along a spiral staircase to a horseshoe-shaped walkway along its upper ridge (for someone who is prone to vertigo, like me, the walk along the top is spectacular but terrifying). The floor of the nave is honeycombed with tombs, like an elaborate maze. Pilgrims would stop here (and still do) en route to Santiago de Compostela – walls throughout the village are studded with scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage. It is an austere and imposing place, in odd contrast to the bright and postcard-perfect village.
It was my first visit to the Dordogne, and although I was assured that the region is heaving in peak season, it seemed sleepy, cut off. An ideal place to spend a week writing – as readers of Invective will know, I’ve made a recent decision to revisit the novel I started last summer. Although writing prose is a slow business for me, my new setting perhaps enabled a sort of release. I found myself typing quickly to keep up with my pace of thought. I sat on the terrace, under a vine humming with wasps and hornets, overlooking the field beyond the house, where a kestrel hovered, wings fluttering. The air was still – warm, but with that slight edge that signals shorter days, long cool evenings. Everything felt suspended, including my usual life back in London. Place has always had a profound effect on my writing, and so it might have been expected that the landscape would enter my narrative. But I found that I was reaching back, writing about an entirely different place – the manicured lawns and strip malls of my childhood.
I have a difficult relationship with the place where I grew up, which is perhaps reflected in the novel I’m writing. I have chosen to live in another country, thousands of miles away. I feel at home in my adopted city in a way I could never now feel at home in the place I left. How was I able to conjure that place so vividly while situated in a place so vastly and wholly different? Perhaps that difference, that alien quality, was what freed me; a place that has no associations can act as neutral ground. It takes me a long time to assimilate a new landscape; I have only recently starting writing poems set in Suffolk although I’ve been spending extended time there for the past seven years. So perhaps my poem set in the Dordogne will arrive in about seven years …
I was pleased not only that I could reconstruct that landscape from memory, but that it felt, for once, relatively easy. There are lots of analogies for the process of writing, often borrowing metaphors from hard labour; I like Seamus Heaney’s comparison of writing to digging, the ‘squat pen’ like a spade, the earth yielding words (and of course Heaney found all those early poems through archaeological excavations, resurrecting bog men and their ancient tongue). And that makes me go back to that monolithic church, the sheer impossibility of the feat, overcome perhaps through the devotion to complete it. I am lazy, I don’t have that sort of faith, and I punish myself for my various shortcomings constantly. I have no stamina, no staying power; that’s what I tell myself each time I pick up and then put down something I have not succeeded in finishing. But I have come back feeling quite positive; in my small way I’ve set myself a task, a little space that I must not so much ‘carve’ out as ‘fill’.
I was speaking to a fellow poet recently about the issues of shifting genre. We agreed that poets generally make very frustrated novelists. We had several theories as to why this is the case. Poets write incredibly slowly, labouring over every word, agonising over whether they need that comma or not. In the time it takes me to finish one poem, a proper novelist might have 20,000 words. It is easy for me to think I’m striving for quality, not quantity; although my favourite prose writers seem able to achieve both. In addition, poets have short attention spans. Poetry suits those who are restless, unable to concentrate on one thing for too long. I’m not one of those writers who is able to abandon myself to the task for hours on end; I am easily distracted (more so by the electronic world than the actual world, although both hold their attractions). I have trouble holding too many things in my head at once, which makes structure and plot over a long piece of writing tortuous.
But, like many poets I know, I have an unpublished novel to my name, languishing at the bottom of my filing cabinet. It took me five years to write, and it weighs in at about 82,000 words. Colossal, in my opinion, until a novelist friend of mine said, oh, so it’s quite short. I didn’t enjoy the process of writing it; as a result, I produced loads of poems as a diversionary activity. Although it has to be said that my poetry changed as a result; I became interested in the narrative sequence, and how you could apply certain fictional techniques to writing poems.
I wrote my novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing, and although the structure and supervision (my supervisor was the poet and novelist Matthew Francis) were crucial in its completion, perhaps because it was an academic assignment, routinely assessed and critiqued, it became a chore to write. I’ve never felt that way about writing poems. However, without the demands of the degree hanging over me, I doubt I would have finished. When I wasn’t writing the novel, I was writing a critical study of other novels that had influenced mine, such as The Blind Assassin and Atonement, and when I held mine up to those, I could see all its flaws and shortcomings. I made a half-hearted attempt to get it published (which, at the very least earned me lunch with an agent who told me that although the first chapter showed promise and flair, I would never get it published; he then proceeded to tell me that literary fiction was dead and I should try my hand at a vampire novel) and then consigned it to the filing cabinet. I dug it out earlier this year, with the intention of going back to it; with hindsight, I could see exactly what was wrong, but I wasn’t sure if I was capable of mending it. I’d made the whole thing so difficult, with two first-person narrators, one of whom was writing a novel set in the seventeenth century (at one stage I promised Matthew I would do some research, the extent which was a quick trawl on Wikipedia for facts about witch hunts and some cursory consultation of Pepys’ diary). I realised after reading it again that whatever fired my desire to write it in the first place has gone. I tell my students to put their more difficult poems aside and come back to them in a few months, but this is different. To fix it I would have to be in love with it, and I’m not. Not the way I am with a poem when I’m trying to get it right, thinking about it all the time, playing lines in my head, holding words on my tongue, measuring them against my thoughts.
But I refuse to see the first attempt as failure (at the very least, I got a PhD out of it, even if it remains at the bottom of my filing cabinet). So I’ve started another novel. I still feel frustrated with the process – the slowness of it, the plod of words on the page. I’m impatient, I want to get on, but I don’t write as fast as my mind thinks. With poems, that’s not such a bad thing, because you are trying to pin something down, but here I need to be expansive. Having said that, the narrative is simpler, stripped back, more personal. It doesn’t feel like ventriloquism, like the first one did; I can hear my voice in it. Writing fiction will always feel for me like visiting a foreign country, but at least I can say that I’ve been before, I’m beginning to know my way around.
Still no vampires though …
One of the great highlights of my recent trip to Kassel was a visit to the Museum für Sepulkralkultur, which is, surprisingly, a bright and airy modern building housing the most incredible collection of objects associated with death, funeral practice and mourning rites. How pleasant it was, as the sunlight streamed through the windows, to be walking amongst coffins and skulls, so beautifully preserved and cased, like precious objects. Because these things are precious, they are the stuff of us.
The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (a truly wonderful internet resource) says this about the phenomena of the ‘death museum’:
The fact that the museums are relatively new or still in their founding or building phases seems to indicate a changing attitude toward death and dying. Questions about dying with dignity, modern forms of funeral services, or an adequate way of mourning and remembrance are more insistent in the twenty-first century than they were in the 1980 … These museums primarily foster a culture-historical approach related to the public interest in history, culture, and the arts. Therefore, collections and exhibitions focus strongly on the impressive examples of funeral and cemetery culture, pictorial documents of these events, and curiosities.
But the idea of a museum of funeral culture would have come as no surprise to Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century physician and philosopher, whose essay Urne-Buriall is still one of the most eloquent and moving considerations on the disposal of human remains:
When the Funerall pyre was out, and the last valediction was over, men took a lasting adieu of their interred Friends, little expecting the curiosity of future ages should comment upon their ashes, and having no old experience of the duration of their Reliques, held no opinion of such after considerations.
But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered? The Reliques of many lie like the ruines of Pompeys, in all parts of the earth; And when they arrive at your hands, theses may seem to have wandered far, who in a direct and Meridian Travell, have but few miles of known Earth between your self and the Pole.
The way Browne introduces his subject in those opening lines moves his readers from a consideration of ‘men’, i.e. ‘mankind’, through a series of rhetorical questions, to face themselves, through his direct second-person address, as he asks them to imagine holding the relics of the dead, like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.
Thus, the museum of death is a place that each of us should visit, not only as a way of coming to terms with our own fate, but as a way of preserving those who have come before. In my previous posts, I have mentioned how Kassel is a place that never lets us forget the past, and so perhaps it is a particularly appropriate location not only for such thoughts, but also for a building that gathers historical and cultural archives about how we honour the dead, established for the purposes of education and research. We will never be able to examine the subject completely dispassionately (as, apart from birth, it is the one thing that all of us will share and experience) but instead of living in fear of death, perhaps we can make use of it, as Browne says:
to preserve the living, and make the dead to live, to keep men out of their Urnes, and discourse of humane fragments in them, is not impertinent unto our profession; whose study is life and death, who daily behold examples of mortality, and of all men least need artificial memento’s, or coffins by our bed side, to minde us of our graves.
photos by Amy Stein