Invective Against Swans

This week I have been on a writing retreat in Oxford. I told several people before I left that I was going on a retreat, and the general reaction was one of bemusement. Why should that be, I wondered? Perhaps there is something about use of the word retreat that surprised them. In one respect, the definition suits my reasons and goals perfectly: a retreat is ‘a place affording peace, quiet, privacy or security.’ When not directly applied to a location, it is ‘a period of seclusion, retirement or solitude’ (I should mention here that I am not alone; part of the joy of a retreat for me is coming away with my regular workshop group, who are long-standing friends as well as fine poets). It is most commonly associated with religious contemplation. But other definitions bring in a more negative connotation: a retreat is an act of withdrawing, especially from danger, the process of going backward, conceding a position (as in the retreat of a military force). That suggests that a retreat, while being a form of escape, also takes into account the situation one has abandoned, which might be a difficult or unwelcome position. I think of my desk at home in London, and its usual array of paper piles: students’ poems to read, lesson plans, unpaid bills, invites, bank statements. In addition to that, the floor in the London study has now become an acceptable alternative for shelving; some stacks of books are specifically for future projects and teaching, but another is a secondary ‘shelf of shame’ (the poet Julia Bird’s term for a section of the library comprising recently-purchased but still-unread books). I look at my temporary desk in Oxford, and although my habit of creating little piles of paper activity has been continued, the piles are manageable, and they do not contain any documents which pertain to the life of work, bureaucracy or finance. This desk is smaller, a manageable space (almost, dare I say, monastic), a place on which I can concentrate on one thing: writing poems. In a way, the epicentre is my laptop, which is the real container of my life. On its hard drive is my collected works, nearly everything I have written since computers entered my existence. Which makes me extremely portable (most poets are, of course. Wordsworth didn’t have a Vaio, but I assume he carried a pen).

But being away from normal concerns forces one to concentrate on the present moment; London has entered the past (at least for a few days). In Oxford, I have already established a pleasant routine; I go for an early-morning run around Christ Church Meadow, then back for breakfast and a shower, and I am at ‘my’ desk by about 9:30. I have never been particularly disciplined in setting a daily routine for myself in London – there are too many distractions, interruptions, multiple tasks to draw my attention. I make copious ‘to-do’ lists, and I get great satisfaction in crossing things off them. But there are some distractions which for me are necessary. I can’t remember what my life was like before the Internet. You might think that Internet access would be against the principles of a retreat (one thing many people seem to want to retreat from is modern life), especially a poetry retreat. But Google is the great gift to poets – I can find a reference or the right word or term without leaving my desk. There is a danger of creating what some have coined the ‘Wikipoem’, a piece that wears its new-found facts in a blatantly obvious manner. Jenny Lewis, our host this week, is about to go on what I consider to be a serious retreat – a month’s fellowship at Hawthornden, the writers’ centre in Scotland (endowed by Drue Heinz, the American heiress who made her fortune in ketchup). There are strict codes of behaviour that writers are expected to observe (including a no-talking rule during the day) – I have nothing against such restrictions. But when Jenny explained that there is no Internet access, I found myself wondering if I could survive for a month without Google. I doubt it.

Ok, you may laugh. But I’ve written three poems since Wednesday, and I’m working on a draft of a fourth, which for me is an extraordinarily good rate of success. So as long as there is a broadband connection on that desert island, I’m fine.

The pleasure of ruins

Someone came up to me after a reading once and said you’re obsessed with abandoned buildings. Until then, I’d never thought about the disturbing number of poems set in ruined or desolate structures, but once it had been pointed out, I decided to explore the reasons. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a recurring dream of returning to my childhood home, in the dream in ruins, although I know the layout of the rooms intimately, as if the map of the house is ingrained in my feet. Gaston Bachelard writes about ‘the land of Motionless Childhood’, contained in the house we grew up in, which is ‘physically inscribed in us … each one of its nooks and corners a resting-place for daydreaming.’ I suppose I didn’t start having the dream until I was well into being an adult, until the house was long-closed to me. The house is still standing, but much altered, and I suppose I wouldn’t really like to go back. As Bachelard says, ‘the first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows’. And besides, the house stands in another country far away, a country I hardly visit these days, a country I haven’t lived in for over twenty years. A country which is foreign to me. So the fact the house is a ruin in my dream may have to do with the old cliché of ‘burning bridges’, the brutally true statement of Thomas Wolfe’s: you can’t go home again. But Bachelard says you can, through dream and memory, the way we carry aspects and angles, scents and shapes with us always (for Bachelard, it’s a deep cupboard which retains ‘the odour of raisins drying on a wicker tray’). Also, there is no denying that the poet has hit middle age, with all its threats and petty gripes; if the circus animals haven’t deserted me yet, sometimes they seem to be just visible through the haze, bobbing up and down on the merry-go-round in Asbury Park that I used to ride on as a child.

Asbury Park was already crumbling when I was little, once a thriving seaside resort which eventually fell out of favour and was left to decay. Although it was in no way romantic or imposing, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, I loved the air of somewhere forgotten, somewhere that was hard to love. That may be why I like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of ancient storage silos and water towers (as a child, I was also obsessed by water towers, the old-fashioned wooden ones you used to find near barns or atop buildings, the kind that Rachel Whiteread recently immortalised in New York), always in black and white, suggesting an industry which had been superseded. Asbury Park was always a sad place, even when the sun was shining. And that sadness was extremely attractive.

I’ll return to this subject, obsession that it is for me, very soon … in the meantime, links to sites which feature the work of the photographer Camilo José Vergara, whose book American Ruins is one of my favourites:

photo credit of ‘Tillie’, on the side of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park:       Andrew Mills/ The Star-Ledger