For many years I have taught the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, regarded by most to be a textbook example of a villanelle. I have discussed the use of refrain lines with my students, and the importance of getting two that stay in the mind, that can withstand repetition, so that they carry the poem forward, both musically and thematically. I have analysed the poem – written when Thomas’s father was on his deathbed – read those words over and over. But I realise that I have failed to comprehend the poem. I am a careful reader, I’d like to think, so the failure isn’t so much in my understanding, as my inclination to be moved. Sometimes words are simply words until you allow them to have the ability to strike you, like an axe to break the frozen sea within us, to quote Kafka. So much poetry relies on joining a secret club, having shared whatever crucial life-changing moment or emotional epiphany the poet is revealing. We enter the poem once we have entered the experience. Since the recent loss of my mother, only now do I get it.
Because the way to really understand ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ is to watch a parent in his or her last days. Thomas is imploring his father not to die, to fight against it, despite the impossibility of winning, to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ (it could be said he neglected to take his own advice – intent on his self-destruction, he died only two years after the poem was written, at the age of 39). The word ‘rage’ appears eight times over 19 lines, as well as ‘fierce’ and ‘rave’. Thomas is spitting with anger – death makes him angry, its useless waste, its unnecessary suffering. Death is not gentle, nor, I suspect, for Thomas, is it a ‘good night’ (although ‘goodnight’ also means ‘goodbye’). For the most part, it is not peaceful, nor dignified, nor pleasant. It is not the Victorian damsel waiting for the guy with the scythe to come and get her, nor is it the noble lady of the manor stretched out in her canopied bed in all her finery. Nothing fine, nor noble, about it.
As I have mentioned before here, my sister-in-law gave me Ariel for my fifteenth birthday. It was, as they say, a damascene moment. I realised Plath was speaking to me directly from beyond the grave, telling me to write my anguish. Of course, I had nothing to be anguished about, but it was an attractive subject. I returned to Plath over the years but never with the same youthful vigour as I encountered her as a teenager, with her sharp tongue and curt turn of phrase. The more I learned about poetry, the more I understood her technical gifts (I teach her too now), the way she pares her lines to the bone. My mother’s last illness coincided with the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death (and made me realise they were near contemporaries – there is a photo of my mother when she first arrived in New York that could do for a cover illustration for The Bell Jar). I found myself going straight from the hospital one night to a reading of the Ariel poems at the South Bank. Sitting there in the dark, listening to the voices of various poets and actresses reciting lines that I had once to heart, I found myself getting annoyed with Sylvia, her appropriation of death as an art, as a piece of theatre. I am not denying that she was a very troubled and unhappy woman whose death was tragic, but there is something in the poems, a bravado, a seduction (perhaps a way of fooling herself into health?) that suddenly bothered me. I thought of my mother, who had lived a long and happy life which she valued, and I measured that against a woman who, in poem after poem, seemed to make death into a fetish. This is a gross simplification, I know, but in my fragile mood, it was how the poems struck me, for the first time, and I thought her selfish, willing death to make her ‘pure as a baby.’ I thought of the way I have romanticised death in my own poems, naïve as I have been, and I resolved to treat the subject with greater respect. It may have been another damascene moment.
I find this is the poem that gives me comfort at the moment. It is one of those poems handed down from generation to generation, from stifling classroom to dog-eared anthology. It has become so familiar that perhaps it has begun to lose its power. But now that I am ready to hear it, it is my axe.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo returns from his voyages to regale Kublai Khan with stories of the many and varied places he visited in his travels. But as his narratives progress, the ruler begins to question the reliability of his young adventurer. It becomes clear that the numerous cities Polo claims to have visited are merely different facets of one city – Venice, Polo’s home town. What to make of these ‘imagined’ cities once the truth is known? The book becomes not a travelogue, but a work of psychogeography, an imagining of many possible experiences within one urban centre, where buildings, people and ritual come together:
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls …
I remembered Calvino when visiting Julie Mehretu’s current exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey. It was not my first encounter with Mehretu’s work, having seen her paintings first in Venice (making the connection to Calvino more overt), then in Kassel. Two very different urban experiences: I have written about both cities here on Invective, and it strikes me now that both Venice and Kassel are appropriate sites for Mehretu’s project. Venice represents the meeting of east and west, a strange confection of ornate palazzi but also brooding corners and dark dead-ends. Kassel is a palimpsest – a city that will never shake its complete destruction, even through its reconstruction.
Mehretu’s cityscapes, like Calvino’s, are unreliable. You cannot move freely through the streets or chart a route between two places. Through a layering of architectural drawings – showing features such as columns and porticos – and city planning documents, Mehretu builds a place of frenetic energy and multiple diversions. Over these layered architectural elements, she creates a series of smudges and lines – almost destroying her creations, in the same way the wrecking ball levels buildings everyday (slow to erect, fast to collapse) – and over that, she paints coloured acrylic flourishes, long arcs and stripes, like graffiti (the unofficial street art that she cites as one of her influences). She says of these ‘marks’:
I think of my abstract mark-making as a type of sign lexicon, signifier, or language for characters that hold identity and have social agency. The characters in my maps plotted, journeyed, evolved, and built civilizations. I charted, analyzed, and mapped their experience and development: their cities, their suburbs, their conflicts, and their wars. The paintings occurred in an intangible no-place: a blank terrain, an abstracted map space. As I continued to work I needed a context for the marks, the characters. By combining many types of architectural plans and drawings I tried to create a metaphoric, tectonic view of structural history. I wanted to bring my drawing into time and place.
She calls the finished canvases ‘story maps of no location’, every city and no city at once. The idea of stories, of narratives, of characters, brings us back to psychogeography, which is concerned with the emotional responses of the individual to a city. Recently in this blog I mentioned Rebecca Solnit’s alternative mapping of her home town, San Francisco, and her definition of places as ‘stable locations with unstable converging forces.’ Mehretu’s approach is similar; she says:
I am interested in the potential of ‘psychogeographies’, which suggest that within an invisible and invented space, the individual can tap a resource of self-determination and resistance.
Her recent ‘Mogamma’ paintings contain overlaid images taken from 31 different squares which became centres for revolt and conflict during the Arab Spring. These are ‘charged places’ for Mehretu, and even post-revolution, they hold the turmoil of their association to these events in their very bricks. Mehretu herself fled a place of conflict – Addis Ababa during the Ethio-Somali war – when she was seven years old. In her work, she is placing herself back in the centre of conflict, asking the question: ‘how do I look at myself in this moment? How do I exist in a larger social and historical moment?’ The crisis, as a human being, globally, environmentally, politically, is always to consider how much power the artists’ mark has in our time.
I’ll end with a poem by Weldon Kees which seems to chime with Mehretu’s project:
To Build a Quiet City in His Mind
To build a quiet city in his mind:
A single overwhelming wish; to build,
Not hastily, for there is so much wind,
So many eager smilers to be killed,
Obstructions one might overlook in haste:
The ruined structures cluttering the past,
A little at a time and slow is best,
Crawling as though through endless corridors,
Remembering always there are many doors
That open to admit the captured guest
Yet in spite of loss and guilt
And hurricanes of time, it might be built:
A refuge, permanent, with trees that shade
When all the other cities die and fade.
Every writer could use a good tower (or at the very least, a top-floor study). I think of Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee or Joyce’s Martello in Sandycove (the subject of a blog post over a year ago now). A tower gives you perspective, the ability to see the full landscape. This morning I looked out the window of my tower and found myself eye to eye with a gull (which was perched on the top of a telegraph pole). The gull was looking for breakfast, and I was looking for a poem; the gull flew off, but not before he’d made it into what I was writing.
When I say ‘my tower’, I mean the South Lookout on the beach in Aldeburgh, which is on loan to me for the weekend. The tower is owned by the gallerist Caroline Wiseman, who invites writers and artists to use the space as a creative stimulus. The only proviso is that you must sleep here for at least one night. The ground floor area (which is a gallery space when not occupied by those creating the art) is rustic and spartan, as it should be, with a folding camp bed that I have placed near the open fire (there is electricity, and I’ve used one of the sockets for the bar fire, and the other three to charge my computer, Blackberry and iPad respectively – so much for ink and quill). There is no plumbing in the tower, but Caroline’s house is a few feet away (I remember hearing that Thoreau’s modest shack at Walden Pond was less than two miles from the family seat – writers do need creature comforts, even in the attempt to be closer to nature). Caroline’s instinct is right: there is something about waking up to the sound of the sea and the wind, knowing you are right on the beach, in the middle of the elements, that sets you off in a way that could not happen in one’s own bed.
I rolled up on Thursday to glorious early evening sunshine, but woke on Friday to bleak rain-soaked skies. Although the sun that greeted me on my arrival was lovely, the grey, leached East Anglian landscape (of Crabbe and Sebald) is the one I’ve grown to know. I started Friday at the very top of the tower, which is accessed from the outside of the building, up a narrow spiral staircase. The view, even rain-soaked, was fabulous, and I wrote my first poem of the day (after the meeting with the gull). But then the skies closed in, and the eerie became cold and oppressive (no heating up there!) so I moved to the middle level, which has just been officially christened the Laurens van der Post Room (opened by his daughter, Lucia) where the writer came to work every day for 30 years. That was my spot for most of the day, and where I wrote a further three poems.
This kind of concentrated experience has proven to be the sort of stimulus I would not have elsewhere. It normally takes me months to do what I’ve done in one day, just by being quiet and isolated in a little space with no distractions or disruptions, apart from watching for any activity on the beach, and charting the constant movements of the sea.
On Saturday, I will put my poems up on the wall, along with some photos of the beach, and invite people to come into the Lookout to see what I’ve been up to. And Saturday evening, I’ve invited some fellow Suffolk poets along to read poems about the sea. It should be a wonderful evening, even if it rains.
During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).
To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.
This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.
Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).
Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.
So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:
Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.
Apologies to followers of Invective for the radio silence. It’s been a busy time. Here is a link to a piece on the Poetry School blog: a discussion between myself and Julia Bird on the recent Poets After Dark performances at the Hayward Gallery
To Matt’s Gallery to see the new Susan Hiller installation, Channels. I have always been a fan of Hiller’s work, for its curiosity, its humanity, its obsessive cataloguing of objects associated with the activity of living. At her Tate Britain retrospective several years ago, I became fascinated by her Homage to Joseph Beuys, a collection of bottles of holy water which Hiller patiently sourced from locations around the country, labelled and placed in a cabinet – like a medicine cabinet, but the ‘medicine’ contained in it was more about faith than pharmaceuticals. Hiller said of this piece:
When I collect water from a holy well or sacred spring, I’m in the process of trying to turn banal tourism into a quest or pilgrimage. The waters supposedly produce powerful effects for believers, but what I treasure is the special mental space created by searching for them and thinking about them. These little bottles of waters are more than just souvenirs; they are containers of an idea about the potentials hidden in ordinary things and experiences.
Yes. Isn’t that what a poem is too, a container for an idea that finds its source in ordinary things and events? I found myself imaging Hiller on her journey, carefully bottling those precious wells, in turn thinking about the people who come to them for solace.
Hiller’s new piece is also about faith, or at least an examination of what happens to the human spirit when it faces the unknown. In a darkened room, a bank of analogue televisions form a tall wall. They are all tuned to nothing, and hiss their white noise into the silent gallery. From their flickering screens, a series of waving lines emerge, then disembodied voices that speak at once. One voice takes over, and begins a story of a near-death experience, the televisions registering the voice as a single green line that pulses with speech. Each voice introduces itself, and begins another tale. These experiences are remarkably similar – at the moment of death, the speakers would often hover over their dying bodies, or find themselves inexplicably in the company of strangers or long-dead family members, who are there to tell them it isn’t their time yet, before they regain consciousness. The voices tell their stories without emotion, but we find the emotion in ourselves, the listeners. Hiller’s act is to record them.
In my previous post, I talked about James Merrill’s epic poem, ‘The Changing Light at Sandover’. Merrill was the great chronicler of the other world, sensitive to our brief time here, our longer time beyond. I was put in mind of the other voices he ‘channelled’ sitting with the Susan Hiller piece, not just channels we watch, but also channels we follow – directions, paths, divergences.
I will end with Merrill’s poem, ‘Lorelei’:
The stones of kin and friend
Stretch off into a trembling, sweatlike haze.
They many not after all be stepping-stones
But you have followed them. Each strands you, then
Does not. Not yet. Not here.
Is it a crossing? Is there no way back?
Soft gleams lap the base of the one behind you
On which a black girl sings and combs her hair.
It’s she who some day (when your stone is in place)
Will see that much further into the golden vagueness
Forever about to clear. Love with his chisel
Deepens the lines begun upon your face.
I have spent the last couple of weeks in and out of the Hayward Gallery, in anticipation of the Poets After Dark event in April. I am one of the ‘dark poets’ – ten of us in total – commissioned to write a new poem inspired by the Hayward’s current exhibition, Light Show. The exhibition brings together artists who work with light in various ways: there are minimalist works from Dan Flavin, an immersive piece by James Turrell that plunges you into darkness and then confuses your concept of space, a wild strobe-lit ‘night garden’ by the Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, Katie Patterson’s single bulb which simulates moon glow, Leo Villareal’s waterfall cascade of LEDs. The overall effect is to remind us how light (and sometimes the absence of it) effects our moods and minds, and of course, how technology (sometimes very simple or antiquated) creates the ability to make work that moves and changes before our eyes like a magic trick. The whole show is about magic, and illusion, and disorientation.
But even before I went round, I had an idea of which piece I would choose. I have been a fan of Cerith Wyn Evans’ work for some years now, and when I discovered that the piece for the Hayward took as its starting point a line from a poem by James Merrill, it seemed the natural choice. Merrill’s line, ‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill’, is from the epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, a 500-plus page formal exploration of his experiences with his partner, David Jackson, summoning spirits through the Ouija board. In their years of occult searchings, they managed to contact Auden, Yeats, Maya Deren and a Roman sage named Ephraim, to name a few. These voices appear throughout the poem as dramatis personae, and serve to guide, and sometimes chide, their mortal hosts. The overall effect is impressive, if not bonkers. One might dismiss Sandover as eccentric (if not formally accomplished) ramblings, and quite a bit of it is. But it also serves as a vehicle to record Merrill’s thoughts about mortality and afterlife, and the here-and-now life he led with Jackson. In ‘The Book of Ephraim’, Merrill talks about ‘one floating realm’, the other world, as opposed to ‘one we feel is ours, and call the real.’ And within the real, momentous events occur, which the poet attempts to process:
We take long walks among the flying leaves
And ponder turnings taken by our lives
Wyn Evans’ piece is not about this realm – the real, so much as the other – the floating. The work comprises three standing columns made out of obsolete incandescent strip lights, the harsh lightscape of classrooms and public-sector offices. Wyn Evans says of these columns: ‘They are in suspension, between heaven and earth. They have a life of their own.’ Indeed, they do – I have spent several hours sitting in their presence, watching then flare to light, and to heat (suggesting the presence of the physical body) then fade, with a bluish quivering after light, into cold darkness. The effect is haunting, moving. I can sit for some time, not writing, just watching their hypnotic movement (and watching other gallery visitors approach them, holding out their hands to catch their warmth, as if they might embrace them). I’ve jotted down a few lines in my notebook in an effort to try and work out what I think they are: columns, circles, towers, amusement arcades and how they work: elements, visible wires, like a magic trick exposed.
My poem is forming itself slowly. It started with a line from Merrill, which I’ve now removed, as he felt too strong a presence (perhaps like his Oujia board party guests), although Merrill seems to be hovering over it, a benign ghost. It feels like a slow unravelling, which is perhaps appropriate for the vastness of the subject. One line of Merrill’s stays with me:
A whole small globe – our life, our life, our life.
Information and tickets for Poets After Dark here:
Rip it up and start again
The German artist Kurt Schwitters arrived in Britain in 1940, after fleeing Germany, where he was labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and then Norway, after the German invasion of that country. Schwitters’s practice was to make new things from the fragments of what had come before: refuse, found materials, abandoned scraps. To describe this work, he coined the term ‘Merz’:
I call[ed] my new manner of working from the principle of using any material MERZ. That is the second syllable of Kommerz [commerce]. It originated from the Merzbild [Merzpicture], a picture in which the Word MERZ, cut out and glued-on from an advertisement for the KOMMERZ-UND PRIVATBANK [Commercial and Private Bank] could be read between abstract forms …
Schwitters was always interested in words, but not necessarily in their meaning. Like all of his Merz works, he liked to cut up words, reconstruct them, present them in fragments, so a glimpse of a phrase might catch your eye, divorced from the rest of the text around it. He liked the shapes of letters, and typography, so he could find pleasure in the simple grid of a bus ticket or the bright graphic of a candy wrapper. What strikes me about his collages is that they construct a narrative of his movement through Europe – some of them contain texts in German, Norwegian and English – so that they become emblematic of the urban experience, not just in their frantic energy, but in their mix of words: a kind of artistic melting pot.
There are also his ‘sound poems’, which when viewed on the page look like Finnish on acid but are actually not a recognisable language (which made me wonder if the Icelandic band Sigur Rós had come across them when inventing the language of their lyrics). The greatest of these is the Ursonate, or sonate in urlauten ( which translates as ‘primordial sonata’ or ‘sonata in primordial sounds’). Schwitters left instructions for reciters of the 30-page work, mainly advising on the correct pronunciation of the letters. Perhaps the most important of these interpreters is the Dutch poet Jaap Blonk. But we also have recordings of Schwitters himself reciting the poem, sounding like a deranged exotic bird:
How to process the world he had known, the destruction of Europe through two catastrophic wars, the experience of being made homeless and turning up in a foreign country, grappling with an unfamiliar language, always being alien (for even in Germany, he was different)? Perhaps the Ursonate is the only acceptable response – the world is nonsense, impossible to fathom. We just have to make sense of it as we can. And, to paraphrase Eliot, we must shore our gathered fragments against ruin.
Schwitters ended up in rural Cumbria, creating a Merzbarn (he would have liked the fact that after his death, part of it was lifted away and transported to Newcastle – a very Schwitters-like intervention). But he also painted conventional landscapes and portraits to earn a living – these are completely ordinary, boring even, without a hint of the concerns of the more radical artist and thinker. In that respect, perhaps he did understand what he had to do to settle in and become one with the English. A collage work created in this period is interesting in that it is one of the few in which the text is meant to be read and understood: these are the things we are fighting for.
The Ursonate in full here: http://www.costis.org/x/schwitters/ursonate.htm
Schwitters in Britain is at the Tate until 12th May: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/schwitters-britain?gclid=CJrd7tzRu7UCFabLtAodEFoAuA
Various discussions over the past week have triggered a preoccupation with the concept of home. As readers of Invective already know, I have made my home in London for the past 26 years, having spent the previous 21 years in New Jersey and New York. When I first moved here – with no particular plans, and probably no clear intention to stay – I found I was writing poems about my childhood in America, as it seemed I had gained the necessary distant to do so, not just physical distance, but also mental distance. At a certain point, when I started to establish a life for myself here, those American poems stopped. If it can be said that the majority of my poems are situated anywhere, it is London, or at least an urban location resembling or based on London. In my favourite poem by Cavafy, he talks about the possibility of ‘finding another city better than this one’ but the reality is that:
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city.
Cavafy’s poem is relentlessly negative, concluding ‘As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.’ So the city becomes a metaphor for his failure, which he is fated to carry with him forever. Although I would contest his conclusion, I agree with Cavafy that a place you have spent much of your life becomes engrained in you, and any other place you visit is held against that dominant place, the place you call ‘home’. You do carry your city with you everywhere you go, like a garment you wear against your skin. But for me, that is a comfort rather than a burden.
‘Home’ is necessarily complicated for me, in that I consider London home, but I also recognise that I am not a Londoner. This is my adopted city, and perhaps for that reason, it is always precious, and I have never taken it for granted. If you think of writers like Conrad or Kundera or Nabokov, it is their otherness, the fact that they were from one place, and made a decision to reside permanently in another (and give up their mother tongue to write in the language of the place they made home) that charges their prose with a quality of surprise and energy. I have just switched from one kind of English to another (sometimes mixing my poems with both American English and British English, as I do in my speech). I think of myself as Anglo-American, and, like Plath or Eliot (if I could even begin to compare myself to them) my poems reflect the dual nature of who I am.
At the recent Place: Roots – Journeying Home weekend at Snape Maltings, the discussions began with Benjamin Britten and his commitment to place (in his case, Suffolk) in his music. The beginning of Peter Grimes just sounds like the beach at Aldeburgh; it makes sense of the place entirely, so that no other music can represent it so well. This idea of being firmly rooted was carried through to a discussion by Patrick Wright of the German writer Uwe Johnson, who, like Sebald and Hamburger, ended up in eastern England (Johnson rolled up in Sheerness, which even he thought was a dump, but somehow that awful place added a quality of stark alienation in his writing).
Wright made the point that ‘roots are also routes’, which makes me think of writers such as Bishop who was always searching for a home, and laid down roots in many places, only to uproot herself and start again. I always think of her line (in Questions of Travel) ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ every time I embark on a journey elsewhere, impossible as it is to take away with you the ‘folded sunset’. It seems that lately I have returned to America, not physically (I have only been back once in the last six years), but psychically. When doing readings from The City with Horns in 2011, I found myself telling audiences that the New York I depict in my Jackson Pollock poems isn’t the New York I remember, but the New York of my parents’ generation, a New York that filled my early years with stories of glamorous book launches and classic cocktails. And now I am trying to recreate the New Jersey suburbs of the 70s in my novel – thinking of Cheever, and Rick Moody, and Tony Soprano, and my own childhood.
I’ll finish on this poem by Larkin, which Anne Berkeley and I were discussing during the Snape weekend – the definitive statement on home:
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
When the photographer Tessa Traeger was a child she knew two brothers, Thomas and Godfrey Batting, first cousins of her grandmother, who ran a chemist shop in Tunbridge Wells. They remained bachelors (although both proposed at various times to Traeger’s widowed mother, who refused them). They were keen astronomers and avid collectors (and, by all accounts, great hoarders). Tom bought paintings at the local auctions, but Godfrey, an amateur photographer, collected cameras and early photographs (including the works of Dr Francis Smart and Thomas Sims). Their shop supplied all the photographers of the town with cameras, tripods, glass plates and darkroom materials.
When Traeger made the decision to train as a photographer, Godfrey was appalled, and wrote to Traeger’s mother to say that it was ‘no profession for a woman’ and that she should keep it as a ‘pretty hobby’. Despite that, Godfrey left his entire collection of photographs and equipment to her, as he knew no one else in the family would want them.
That was in 1971, and although Traeger used many of the items in the collection in her work (mainly still life photography for magazines such as Vogue) she knew that the vast collection of glass negatives would need to wait until she had the time to work out what to do with them. Now in her seventies, she has begun the massive project of sorting through the negatives, creating new work. Traeger writes:
What interested me was that some of the negatives are in excellent condition and yet others were crumbling away in the most colourful chemical and fungal displays … The fungus is usually more pronounced in the dense parts of the emulsion and almost non-existent where the negative is thin, thus convincing me that it is flourishing on the silver gelatine emulsion. I started to photograph these decaying emulsions digitally … by using lighting and mirrors I was able to enter the mysterious world of the very beginnings of photography with the strangest narratives playing out before me never fully understood …
The results are the most haunting images I have seen. I’m reminded of spirit photos, which were popular in the 1860s, and which claimed to capture ghosts or spirits of the dead. People believed in them; they wanted proof that their loved ones still existed, even in ephemeral form.
But these spirit photos were created through double exposures, one of the first experiments in photographic manipulation. Traeger’s photos are not frauds, or studio inventions – they come to us through the process of decay and corruption, their subjects sometimes just visible through a haze of chemical erosion. The erosion is a rainbow of blues and greens and golds, spreading like a lovely disease; a ship sails into a cloud of evil poison, a face crazes like a broken porcelain bowl. Accident and damage, yes, but beautiful and frightening and moving in equal measure.
An early advertisement for photography admonished its new customers to Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade, Let Nature imitate what Nature made. Traeger’s project is not so much about securing the shadow before the substance fades, as showing that fading itself. Her new photos from the old negatives remind us of our own mortality, how even science is fallible, how nothing is permanent. Traeger says of her images:
They are a hymn to the layered mystery of time and light in photography, and to the miraculous work of its pioneers. I have picked my way through the lost garden of old prints and negatives, discovering new ways of seeing the forgotten walk on the beach, the boat leaving the harbour, the church door swinging wide on a vanished afternoon.
Traeger has only skimmed the surface of Godfrey’s legacy. Her project is to continue capturing what is left of these images before they fade away completely.
Tessa Traeger: Chemistry of Light is on at Purdy Hicks Gallery until 21st February:
Liz Jobey’s article about Traeger’s work in the FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/a417beb8-5f75-11e2-be51-00144feab49a.html#axzz2JN5WHa00