Acconci hid beneath a wooden ramp in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery and masturbated while talking to visitors above. His actions often involved a public investigation of his own bodily sensations, even to the extent of inflicting injury upon himself.
— Exhibition Note
Ovid describes the palace of Fame as situated in the very center of the universe, and perforated with so many windows and avenues as gave her the sight of every thing that was done in the heavens, in the earth, and in the sea. The structure of it was contrived in so admirable a manner, that it echo’d every word which was spoken in the whole compass of nature; so that the palace, says the poet, was always filled with a confused hubbub of low dying sounds, the voices being almost spent and worn out before they arrived at this general rendezvous of speeches and whispers.
— The Spectator, Thursday July 24th 1712
A hot summer evening and I’ve come out onto the gallery steps to get some air. Standing there, hearing a distant roar of London traffic, the woman next to me looks disgruntled, something to do with the poems not rhyming. ‘But surely they ought to rhyme’, she says. I don’t have anything much to say and go back indoors. It’s the William Morris gallery, decorated with the motto taken from his works that the borough has chosen to adopt as its own: ‘Fellowship is Life.’ For years I’ve been teaching in this East London Borough and now I’ve been asked to judge the local poetry competition. I’ve read all the poems and I’m giving the prize to a man from Devon. He has come from Devon to collect his modest cheque, and when he does so he makes a little speech. ‘Poetry is a jolly good hobb...’ His voice trails away. He has suddenly realised, I suppose, that it isn’t quite the thing to say.
The Readings and the Competitions, the Grants, the Workshops, the Awards — and tonight it’s the prizegiving. The TS Eliot Poetry Prize. It takes place at the British Library, in ‘Centre for the Book’. What would an anthropologist make of it — you might imagine him, a West African researcher let’s say with a grant from the British Council who wanders in here, notebook in hand. Walking in off the Euston Road into the Library he’ll pass the giant statue of Newton straining as if at stool, then in through a gate marked ‘Readers Only’. On the way up he will encounter a giant wall of books stretching way above him; these are the Fathers perhaps, sulking in their leather bindings, safe now behind glass. And there just in front of him as he goes in is the dead poet’s relict, she who will be handing out the prize — there is that much-reproduced photograph of her husband, ‘Chairman of the Poetry Board’, with the two young poets, Hughes and Gunn, who had just been co-opted into the firm, one each side of him, both smiling shyly at the camera and this evening it is Hughes, himself recently dead, who is to be awarded the Prize, the book that gets it — and it’s the one that wins nearly all the prizes this year — being the sequence of poems about his relationship with late wife. Once inside there’s a string quartet playing while the runners-up skulk among the crowd — one of them will get second prize, a free night in a hotel in the Cotswolds. A couple of speeches and the Prize is handed over by the widow who gives it to the two dead poets’ daughter. It could all be seen as a healing of the rift. Because when the wife died the husband was blamed. The gravestone was defaced; disorder threatened. But now everything is being made all right. She is safe in the academy, her literary remains appearing, scrupulously edited, while he is winning all the prizes. But what on earth to make of it, such patterns of deference, such a preoccupation with succession?
The poetry press I had run for about twenty years was in abeyance but submissions continued to arrive and one day I got this:
To whom it may concern,
I am writting to you with the sincerest hope that you can help me get published as a poet.
I do already have work in six anthologies of unknowns, such as “The Mind Sees All” by Poetry Now and “Spread a Little Sunshine” by Anchor Book’s and I am trying desparately to get a book of my own on the shelves of bookstores.
I like to believe that at the age of 28 I am still a young writer and with my varied and occasionally somewhat radical views on life, I like to believe that I am also a diffrerent and influential one.
I write about a large spectrum of topic’s, including politics, romance and religion.
A while ago I let some friends and relations read some of my work, through their disbelief of how good they thought it was and that I had written it, I now have a small band of followers.
Virtually everyone I know has asked me to being out a book of works, and I have written to several publishers (58 in all) in the hope of doing this.
I know there is not a lot of money in being a poet, but mine is more of a recognition of being a writer, than a means of making a lot of money.
My two greatest ambiitons are, firstly, have my poetr taught as part of teachings of English literature and secondly to become poet loriat.
If you are interested in helping me get published, and with the notion that I am extremely different to most other poets, it could be a possibly good venture, then please contact me as soon as possible and I will be more than happy to send you a copy of my works.
I thank you for taking the time to read this letter and humberly await your reply
Well, my introduction to it all, when I was no more than eleven years old, was to witness at first hand the experience of rejection. His name was Barton, P.J. Barton, Latin master in a Sussex prep school in the early nineteen fifties. We are the ‘scholarship form’, only five of us in our own separate room in the old part of the building. Mr Barton is not a successful teacher. Maybe he is doing this job because there really isn’t anything else he can do. Mr Barton’s particular problem is a tendency to lose his temper. Every so often a group decision is arrived at: ‘Today we’ll get Barton into a bate.’ The class sets about it methodically and by the end of the lesson he will be shaking with rage, yelling and, quite possibly, attacking the furniture. This doesn’t happen in our little scholarship form, but it is the speciality of the form immediately below us. The thing is, Mr Barton is writing a book. He keeps us scholarship boys posted on its progress. One day he tells us he has found just the right title. It’s going to be called ‘The Bedside Book of Verbal Wit’. It’s an anthology of witty and amusing sayings — I can still remember some of them. There’s the man who lived in Norfolk and was renowned for his rudeness. One day at a cricket match someone asked him if he had a seat. ‘‘ Yes I’ve got a seat’ he said, ‘but I haven’t got anywhere to put it.’ In Canada, people who clean the street aren’t called road sweepers, they are called ‘highway sweeteners’. And so on. One day I tell Mr Barton about the little American boy I used to play with at home. He had a funny sounding name, ‘Stratatinko’. Mr Barton notes it down. I suppose he must have had a section on people with funny surnames. I was surprised actually, that he thought it is worth putting in, but in it went, into the loose-leaf notebook where it is all written out in longhand, on lined paper, in his careful, very clear, rather childish script. In due course Mr Barton posts it off to a publisher and in due course it comes back. The extraordinary thing is, he opens the package right there in front of us, and there it is, the loose-leaf notebook and his hand-written pages. He is standing at his desk looking stricken as he reads us the letter. ‘Some of the material is rather thin’ is the phrase I recall, from nearly fifty years ago — and I think it went on to instance one or two examples of thinness. While we sit there watching, polite, detached, in the godlike way of children.
A few years further on I am sitting in the school library. I’m on the edge of a small group of boys all a bit older than me. I am desperate to join in. I can’t remember exactly what the conversation is about, something intellectual, in an affected adolescent sort of way, as if trying on some clothes for the first time, and I want to be there, be recognised. But I can’t quite manage it. They are older than me, and I am that bit too unsure of myself. In the end I turn it round and it becomes something passive, as if I am in waiting and there’s a voice in my head saying, ‘Come on, you come over here, you recognise me.’ By then I was a member of the ‘Literary Society’. I was invited to join by Mr Murray. He picked them out, in my case on the basis of a piece of criticism, something he’d set the class and that I’d done very well on. But there was the ‘Original Contributions meeting’ coming up. This was in the 1950s, in the days before ‘creative writing’ as a subject or a part of the curriculum. At any rate it certainly hadn’t reached this part of the public school system in Wiltshire. I hadn’t actually written anything of that kind. I sat in my ‘study’, a little cubby-hole I shared with another boy, and struggled to compose. Eventually two things happened. I wrote a competent, banal little piece, a sort of very short short story which I read at the meeting and which went down well enough — and I wrote a poem, something deeply felt, that arrived seemingly from nowhere.
The Original Contributions meetings had a sort of hushed, embarrassed intensity. There was no immediate criticism — we just each read in turn, poems or prose. The secretary, one of the boys, did compile minutes where he commented on what was read, albeit in a mock-pompous, facetious style. Into these meetings blew other odd bits of the literary world outside. There was the time when Mr Murray said a real poet, who lived in nearby Savernake Forest, would be coming. I have no idea who this man was or whether he actually read any of his poems, I just retain the impression of a short, thickset, dark-haired individual dressed in hairy tweed and sitting in silence in an armchair. He may have been the first flesh-and-blood poet I had ever encountered. I imagined him as something of a different species living in a sort of hut in the forest roofed in bracken.
There was an odd convention when you published your poems in the school magazine — they appeared under a pseudonym, which might be facetious or affectedly learned or both, or at most you revealed yourself by appending your initials rather than your name, a sort of halfway house between authorship and anonymity which is what I did. But it was all there already when I was in my mid-teens, as if it had been lying in waiting for me — literary society, workshop, publication. . . I must have made a decision then. It wasn’t something I was conscious of, but something that happened invisibly, and all at once there it was, the writing, like a scar that has healed in secret, just resting there on the surface.
Our Workshop met every week in A’s flat in Hampstead. It started at the beginning of the year and ran through the summer. Afterwards we would go and have a curry and then I would walk home. I had a bedsitter in Kilburn and I would stride along in the Summer night, down the hill under the huge trees. Walking alone across a city late at night gives one a feeling of owning it. My room when I got home had a balcony from where I could look up towards Kilburn. At a reading once a poet read two lines of Hafiz that he’d translated and used as an epigraph: ‘The book of grief is closed. It is the night of power.’ That was something like how I felt. Word-power. Looking out over the city I could contain it all, contain it and body it forth. I was writing unrhymed sonnets — the arbitrariness of the form, however vestigial, as a container. For the several months that the workshop carried on — it met once a week and was intense — I existed in a shared verbal exaltation. Poems could be made out of all kinds of specialist vocabularies. I opened dictionaries, textbooks, and words fell out. It was like re-living the excitements of modernism, a feeling that anything was possible. There wasn’t anything new about it — modernism all happened quite a long time ago now. Indeed it can feel as if we are all living in the aftermath of some such explosion. People come along, much later, picking bits out of the rubble, dusting them down, polishing them, carefully mounting them. It gets to be like those stones and interestingly shaped bits of wood people pick up on the beach and leave lying around the house in a careful sort of muddle. It makes me think of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. This was the home of the collector Jim Ede, and is now a museum, kept exactly as he left it. The same pictures are on the walls, the thirties art magazines with their austere black and white photographs are ‘carelessly scattered about’ on pieces of interesting modernist furniture, their pages, yellowing now, ruffled by a summer breeze blowing through the open windows. It’s charming, seductive and disturbing at the same time, as if you could be caught up in this, trapped in it.
On the shelf next to where I work I have a collection of elderly ‘little magazines’ and when I get one down it gives off such an aura of expectation, like a hopeful ghost. Some of them are very frail — well they were, inevitably, very cheaply produced. Here is ‘The Little Review’ published by Margaret Anderson. The issues I have are from 1917–18. MAKING NO COMPROMISE WITH THE PUBLIC TASTE it reads on the front page. It summons up the ghost of Ezra Pound — he’s there on the front page too as ‘Foreign Editor’, this eager young man making for the soft underbelly of Edwardian literary London, and behind him the nurturing woman. But now the little magazines are like fading tombstones. It’s either that or their entombment in the glass case in a museum, heroic monuments to ‘the modern movement’ being carefully protected from too much light.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, French, 1891–1915. Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914. Marble, 35 5/8 x 18 x 19 1/4 in. (90.5 x 45.7 x 48.9 cm.) RDN and PRN Foundation, Dallas. 1988.A.08. Shown: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Ezra Pound: A Friendship, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1982. Image courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St. Dallas, TX 75201 USA, Tel 214.242.5102 Fax 214.242.5104, NasherSculptureCenter.org
In d’Offays Gallery, Dering Street, just round the corner from Oxford Circus, Gaudier-Brzeska’s ‘Head of Ezra Pound’ stands on the carpet plumb in the centre of the room. There are no other exhibits in there. A large piece, the head leaning slightly back, it’s reminiscent of an Easter Island sculpture, something found in a remote spot and lugged here into the drawing room. Nearby in another gallery is an exhibition of paintings by the American artist Cy Twombly. In the catalogue introduction reference is made to the painter’s ‘preference for painting in large, white rooms overlooking the Mediterranean’ where apparently ‘he has made his exile’. Poussin is ‘a painter with whom he has much in common’ for, let us not forget, ‘he is a classical painter, classical in the sense in which Picasso and Braque were classical’. All sorts of other people are brought in — Pound and Eliot are there, and Kline and Motherwell and Black Mountain. On the wall is a photograph of Twombly seated in a pastoral landscape. There are some expensive-looking books in a glass case. Back upstairs the girl behind the desk is interminably on the phone re-arranging her lunch dates. A man comes in with a portfolio and slides. The girl is off the phone now but is occupied talking to the young man seated next to her who has just informed her that he is off to New York, on an art course. She barely breaks off this conversation to acknowledge the presence of the man with the portfolio. She picks up one of the slides and holds it vaguely up to the light. The young man picks it up too but does not actually look at it. The painter hovers for a while before gathering up his things and rejoin the flow of empty-eyed international shoppers out in the street.
Back in d’Offays, in a small room off at the side, there are Gaudier-Brzeska’s charcoal and pastel sketches. This room is empty and silent. The drawings appear to float between mount and glass. One has the marks of drawing pins like faint scars in each corner. Their immediacy and freshness are an affront to passing time; as if embodying the optimism on the Modern Movement on the eve of the First World War, the war in which the painter lost his life. Outside, the sluggish West End traffic; down here, the uncut lemon and the untipped jug, the nudes strutting and posing. It is all so immediate and yet so remote. On the way out the Head of Ezra Pound resembles an abandoned cult objet. People come in from the street to peer at it; other people are employed to guard it, to dust it, to write about it. In due course some people will come and throw money at it in a sort of perverted libation. In the end it is the feeling of incongruity that persists, something obstinate and impenitent and a sense that nobody quite knows what to do about it.
The thing about literary memoirs is the position the writer writes from — which is a position of being more or less comfortably inside something. Obviously the writer writes about a particular segment of it, ‘his’ or ‘her’ literary world, but behind that is the idea of the life of it, and in a way the purpose of the writing often seems to be to show the reader — to show himself perhaps — that he is safely inside there. He draws this life comfortably around him like a coat. Being there of course is often a matter of being near where it is, of witnessing the performance of it at first hand and being able to say, ‘Yes I was there. I knew so-and-so and so-and-so.’ There was the Frenchwoman who, between the wars, paid promising young writers to write her letters, so that she would garner an interesting correspondence. But what it you feel uncomfortable, and the coat never seems to fit? And you’re still that schoolboy on the edge of the group, saying ‘What about me. Look at me.’
At the age of twenty Roussel had his first book, a novel in verse, published at his own expense. For some months he experienced ‘a sensation of universal glory of an extraordinary intensity’. He told the psychologist Janet: ‘I shall reach the heights; I was born for dazzling glory. It may be long in coming, but I shall have a glory greater than that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon. . . it will cast itself on all the events of my life: people will look up the facts of my childhood. . .’ The complete failure of the book plunged him into a despair from which he never fully recovered. Roussel’s ‘gloire’, this euphoria — the possibility of being recognised. Re-cognised, not having been properly ‘cognised’ the first time round perhaps? But then it vanishes. He goes down into the street and no one notices him. He is left with a desire to recover it, an impossible hope.
And to say, of X, he has ‘arrived’. Arrived where? Where was he before? Now he is ‘recognised’. What is recognised? It is implied that now he will known for what he really is — so what on earth was he before that? It implies a centre — everything tends towards this centre . Once you are there you have ‘arrived’; and once there you will be connected to everyone else who is also there, and everyone else is outside looking in. And what a joy it would be to be in there. And the self-referential nature of being there, at the centre, mirrors the self-referential nature of the activity itself — inside ‘the art area’. What’s it like to be on the outside looking in, nose pressed to the glass, like in that Hockney painting of Kasmin, ‘The Dealer’. You go there to be seen. Once I was on the tube, a couple of weeks before Christmas, and I became aware that the Asian man sitting opposite me was looking at me attentively and seemed to be writing. Or was he drawing? As the train drew in to the next station he got up, reached across and handed me a piece of paper. It was a drawing of me signed with his name, A. Govindan. ‘Happy Christmas’, he said as he slipped out of the station. He looked melancholy. And me? Had I been ‘recognised’?
The poet reading his work, who stands there out there on the edge of himself, to make himself visible. The fact that he is rather drunk gives the thing a sort of edge. He is leaning over the balcony signalling wildly. There was one, an American, who got up there at a poetry festival in Cambridge and stayed on stage, for several minutes, without ever saying anything. He seemed perpetually about to start — faint throat-clearing noises, rustlings and re-orderings of the sheaf of papers he was holding — but, as if unable to scale the hill of himself, or whatever it was between him and us, never read a word and in the end simply walked off, back to his seat. Afterwards I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing.
The launch reading takes place in part of a nineteenth century hospital that is now a museum, ‘the old operating theatre’. When I arrived I thought the place was deserted. But I pushed a door open and went up a narrow twisting staircase, and then was aware she was behind me, one of the readers, someone I know but now have an uneasy relationship with. We gather among cases of alarming medical instruments and then go upstairs to the operating theatre itself. The seats are steeply raked and we look down at the operating table, a slab of wood like a butcher’s block. Someone comes out to introduce the readers, taking out a case of knives as she does so and putting them down on the block beside her while describing the history of the place. There are not many people here and they all seem to know the poets being launched. Indeed they all appear to know one another, apart from a couple of young men who leave at the interval.
Well no, I’m thinking, I’m really not sure about this work. It sounds too much like a series of writing exercises — look here’s an interesting and relevant subject, let’s write a poem about it, using lots of interesting and vivid language. It’s efficient, and it gets respectful reviews. But it’s all so much part of a process, the being published and doing the readings and the workshops and being part of all that. She keeps moving forward, away from the butcher’s block and towards us, looking up at us and smiling, backwards and forwards, as if between two poles; a kind of ingratiation at this odd uneasy interface between artist and audience. The interval. They talk about Heaney as they tend to do. Then it’s all readings done, comparing venues, workshops. ‘I was at Harvard’. Two workshops and a reading. O yes, a good audience’. They are all being nice to each other and nice to the audience. Is that the point, to be here, just here, here where it is and it out there? ‘We think it’s because he’s missing his children’, one says about a well-known poet, who has come back from America where he went when he left his wife. This ‘we’. All living in each other’s pockets. You write in order to be seen — and fame is the hope of being found? Just what am I doing hanging around here on the edge of it? To feel part of something I know I’m not quite a part of? To reassure myself that I don’t really want to be a part of it — but that all the same I can be there, at the event? I am trying a bit too hard to make conversation, and it feels like climbing across a sheet of glass. Once years ago I looked across the room at one of these events and saw this person, now a very successful poet, one of the few who is well-known outside that small world, who was looking across the room as well but in the direction of a well-known poet and reviewer, and it was catching the look on the poet’s face, that look of raw need and longing, desperate to catch his attention, to be seen by him. A sense of disappointment — it infects so many, even the apparently ‘successful’. You might become a connoisseur of all the inflections of disappointment, going round sniffing it out? There could be something voyeuristic about it.
But what is the pact you make, leaning over towards the audience like that? They’re not really visible from where you are — as if you are a blind person trying to strike a bargain with someone on the other side of the table. The thing is, you can’t be sure there is anyone on the other side of the table. So who do you strike this bargain with? Perhaps that what they are muttering about in the interval. On the way home the tube is crowded but I’ve got a seat. I get a book of poems out. Then the girl sitting next to me gave me a slip of paper. ‘Do you mind if I give you this?’ It was advertising a poetry reading.
It’s another launch and they are having the Plath conversation. When I first encountered this man twenty years ago, it was the Plath conversation, and then he was an eager young man giving us the inside story. Will it ever go away? This time it was about Emma Tennant’s memoir ‘Burnt Diaries’, evoking Notting Hill in the 1970s, and her pursuit of Ted Hughes, the melancholy encounter, the unsatisfactory love-making in a cheap hotel in west London. The blind poet is here as well, a survivor of the 1940s, when this part of London was a genuine Bohemia (if that is not a contradiction in terms.) And here he is sitting beside me now, more than fifty years further on. He is immensely tall, and is sitting very upright and, still standing, I lean over to talk to him. His breath smells extraordinarily sweet. He is translating Sulpicia he says, the only Roman poet who was a woman of whom anything is known. A handful of poems only. I imagine tracking them down, the poets from that era who have ‘disappeared’. Ronald Bottrall, Ruthven Todd. There is the wanting to be there, and there is the wanting to have been there. In my case it’s something to do with that sense of an ever-hopeful setting out, and a sense of nostalgia for it. Sometimes it’s no more than a single poem you come across in the dusty pages of an old poetry magazine that seems extraordinarily talented and you wonder why you never heard of this person again.
The thing has a certain reach, that I would like to believe. Luisa is Angolan, half Black and half Portuguese. She was at school in Lisbon and now, here in Leytonstone in East London, I am teaching her English. She knows about Pessoa — she read him at school in Lisbon — so I have brought in my dual-text edition of the poems and she reads one in Portuguese. Pessoa, master of the heteronym — he created half a dozen different pseudonyms, different identities. That hanging about on the fringes of literary Europe in the twenties, in the outer reaches of its modernisms. Yes, somewhere right at the edge of it all, imagine you are in a cafe sipping your drink and leafing through a newspaper before returning to your negligible job in an office somewhere — commercial correspondence, Invoices, Receipts, Bills of Lading. It is a seductive picture in its way, as if you take possession of the city by merely drifting through it, by exercising an odd passivity — and now, by this curious route, via the Angolan refugee girl, he finds his way almost a century later to this corner of London. It’s all the waiting, simply waiting for it to happen, for the revelation to descend like a dusty angel, you open your arms to it and here it is, the poem, entire, yours. Cavafy is perhaps another, the way I imagine him floating around Alexandria, possessing it. He too had a negligible, clerkly sort of job. His family had an import-export business but in Alexandria he took a job as clerk in the ‘Irrigation Service, Third Circle’. One day two of his underlings decide to spy on him, this poet. I mean, what does he actually do. They crouch down and peer through the keyhole and observe him pacing the floor of his office muttering to himself. . .
Looking back I feel a certain nostalgia for this person who believed he could write it all down. That year at the end of the Sixties when I was living in Lyons I wrote a long poem. It was the product of roaming about the city, especially the Vieux Lyon, the Renaissance city crammed between the Rhone and the Saone, and the Croix-Rousse, the hill above the river where the canuts, the silk-weavers, used to live and work. One hot afternoon I picked up a book on a second-hand bookstall in the old town and I read that the literary career is une affaire de longue haleine. I suppose I found this reassuring. I mean it was bound to take time. Before I left London to come and work in Lyons I had finished an enormously long poem I called ‘The Children of Light’. I associate it now with my tiny Islington bedsitter and a sense of hopefulness — which was not succeeded by a crashing sense of disappointment when, apart from one or two sections that appeared in a magazine, it didn’t find a publisher. In fact I never set it round much, and I think only one editor ever saw the whole thing. There are all those other earlier poems, files of them neatly labelled, unpublished — well I wouldn’t want to publish them now and there they lie like an accumulation of silence. But where did the voice in these poems come from? Maybe its timbre was that hopefulness. The image of ‘the city’ — always that the — recurred throughout; it was something to be approached, entered and taken possession of.
This Lyons poem was in rather the same vein. Not as long, it was like another brief flaring up of the same conflagration. I think of the end of a Sunday afternoon, I am crossing the busy road a short distance from the flat I shared with another of the teachers at the Language Centre where I worked and I hear a blackbird calling as it shoots out of some bushes by the road. I have always associated that alarm call with the city and with this time of day, and it finds its way into the poem. It’s like a sort of bracketing, a set of inverted commas around the experience of the writing. While writing this I had a dream about the flat I lived in during the year I spent in Lyons. Nick had already been living there for several years. He was a gruff, shy man, who found an escape in occasional bouts of heavy drinking. He told me once how, when he first lived in Lyons, he had lodged with an elderly woman who had had a bad time in the war. Sometimes he would come in the evening and, finding the house in total darkness, assume there was no one in, but then would discover his landlady simply sitting there in the dark. When I came in the evening I would sometimes find Nick reading in bed, the bedclothes tangled up and a frowsty atmosphere, a half-drunk bottle of red wine beside him and his beaky face buried in an enormous French dictionary propped up on his knee. He did have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the French language and would munch his way quite methodically through the dictionary like this, as if words were the ultimate wealth. In my dream I was planning to go back to Lyons and all of a sudden I remembered the flat. Yes, I owned a flat in Lyons and I’d forgotten all about it! It had been there all these years — how on earth had I come to forget about it like this? And how had I paid for it? It didn’t seem to have made a dent in my finances. It was all very exciting, suddenly coming upon it like this. But there was something a little bit sinister about it as well and when I woke up I made an association with a story I’d read in a French paper when living there, about a man living alone in a block of flats in the city who had died and whose body had not been found until seven years later. And Nick’s story of the depressed landlady came into it as well. But another dwelling, something you’d forgotten about, it must surely represent an opportunity, something previously overlooked, but all the time there, waiting for you?
There was a man I met no more than two or three times, more than thirty years ago now, in Dorset where I often used to stay with a friend. This man had spent most of his life working in a bank in the Iran, and was now retired. I had one longish conversation with him about poetry, when we went round to his home for drinks. He took himself very seriously as a poet, although so far as I could see he had never published anything at all, and appeared to have no personal contacts with other poets. He did refer briefly to a local poetry competition he had entered? Or was contemplating entering? Maybe he had done one reading locally? I remember him saying to me with a kind of modest certainty that he was convinced his poetry would ‘survive’ and be known after his death. He gave me a bundle of manuscripts to look at. I didn’t get back to him, which I regret now. The poems were actually not all that bad. After his death his widow had a collection privately printed. I only know because when I was staying with my Dorset friend many years later, I saw several copies on a bookshelf. My friend gave me three or four copies. I donated a couple to the Poetry Library at the Festival Hall. So a man disappears into his words, closing the door on himself for the very last time, and there it is. And is the writing-self happy?
If I came back it would be at just this time, an Autumn morning with this particular slanting quality of the sunlight, the way it fractures and blows about as it strikes through almost leafless branches and clumps of plants. I see myself walking through near-deserted streets of terraced Victorian houses to arrive at this room. The room is, I have decided, a studio. It feels like the place where all my beginnings were. But I cannot work out what is going on here now. Is the studio being taken apart or is it being assembled?
I remember the Exhibition, the promise of those faces as I walked round on my own, faces that looked that little bit different, that little bit foreign and filled with a particular kind of intelligence, and I felt as if there were something that lay in wait for me — or had it already slipped past? Later, art made it a comfortable sort of distance, the pictures all safe on the walls, and these street scenes that he painted so vividly, so obsessively, were the city streets I walked through so many times notebook in hand, the paintings like an echo of my arrival. But the pictures, with their reckless titles, seem to have all been taken down and the gallery floor is covered in leaves. There is just one left: ‘Primrose Hill Autumn’. It hangs there on the wall like a haunting.
So two people might meet later that same morning, have a coffee together and talk about it all. Or perhaps like Rimbaud you could pass right through it and out the other side, into the ‘domain of the real’. Leaving here, I said to myself there is still time, time to make new journeys into the consolations of seeing, walking in the city — and perhaps I will find it out there on the very edge of nowhere, as if it descended from me and is now something entirely separate, once and for all the complete thing.
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