My brother was most certain when he was most mad. Wrapped only in a thin, orange patterned sarong, he would leave our house, turn left and walk the fifteen yards into the three lanes of traffic on the A4 westbound. Cars hurtling along at forty miles an hour were no danger to him. The horn blasts and braking, swerving and swearing were all part of the plan. He was in control. Those of us who didn’t believe him were the fools, myopic unbelievers, drone like doubters; we hadn’t been gifted with the knowledge that he had: the third eye. In his digging down into the depths of his psyche, the human self - flimsy, fragile, loveable - had collapsed. Doubt had been banished and certainty was king. I wished it were true: rather than tremble and weep as I tried to coax him out of the road, I could have enjoyed his dance with two thousand kilos of metal and fuel.
The psychoanalyst Darian Leader, in his humane, insightful book What is Madness, writes:
The absence of doubt is the single clearest indicator of
One of the “everyday torments of the neurotic” is doubt. He offers numerous examples of the certainty laying the path to psychosis:
A woman who knew that her doctor loved her when one
day she felt a pain in her arm while doing housework: he
must have sent her this pain so that she would return to
We may laugh at such magical thinking but those holding such certainties are, perhaps, in their deeper reaches, often perplexed, frightened, trying to make some significant and comprehensible sense of the world that places them at its centre. Spending time with my brother when he was at his most convinced, I was aware of a terrible fragility within him. Initially I was seduced by his certainty, like most neurotics , as Leader says:
drawn towards someone who knows exactly what they
want, who insists on some knowledge or truth with
blind determination. Doubt gravitates towards certainty.
Once I’d regained my imbalance, I felt that my brother’s delusional certainty was a powerfully constructed, impenetrable wall that was holding back all that would make him disintegrate, but I wasn’t sure.
Ayad Akhtar in his beautifully riled Homeland Elegies, which I read last week, celebrates complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity. The book topples traditional boundaries, slipping between novel, essay, memoir and state of the nation exploration.
When asked about how much of him, the Ayad Akhtar in the novel, is in his work: Did he, like the character in his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced, think America got what it deserved when the twin towers were attacked? He muddies the freighted question. Born in America as a child of Pakistani parents, people clamour for Akhtar to make his opinion clear. Having heard Trump and his contentious statement in 2015 that he’d seen Muslim’s celebrating in Jersey City, Akhtar gives only what he can:
The sentiments expressed in the play had of course come
from somewhere, but how to express the complex, often
contradictory alchemy at work in translating experience
into art? The only thing I could put simply was that there
was no simple way to put it.
Putting it simply: words fail me. They often do. When I sit down to write doubt often pulls up a chair beside me. He sits there, small, pinched eyes, thin lips twisted into mocking grin, watching my fingers tap at the keyboard.
Sometimes, it’s the familiar fraught relationship that an artist has with their material: you have an idea, a vision, a hope and scrabble to bring that into shape. You dig for words, change them, nestle one next to another, change a word, put a comma in, take it out and repeat and repeat and repeat; or you have a hunch you are getting close to what it is you are after, the inexpressible thrumming on the edge of expression; or in more prosaic terms: something that might stand up to your own self scrutiny, some measuring of what you have built that passes for good enough.
Sometimes doubt rides in as you read the crafted lines of another, their words shaped into something truly wonderful. Can your hands, heart and mind turn them with such gracefulness? Awed. Overwhelmed. Fertile ground for doubt’s flourishing. Reading Akhtar’s extraordinarily eloquent Overture to America which opens his powerful novel (?), I know there is a lot of work to do.
Then there's the world. Always unstable, uncertain but there are times when it is more nakedly so. The turbulence of today - war, the future of the planet, political impunity and the consequent apathy, viruses, - is raw, brutal, bewildering. Our human frailty exposed, it's easy to go scrabbling for certainties. Fear making us forceful in our beliefs.
At the end of Homeland Elegies Akhtar writes Free Speech: A Coda. He reveals how when he was invited to speak at a liberal arts college in Iowa, he was deemed 'an "unsafe" presence on the campus.' Despite not having read him, no doubt in their mind, many in the college thought he should not be allowed to communicate. The woman who invited him Mary Marconi, a former teacher of his, had travelled through her own despair when students had refused to read certain writers' work because of beliefs held. Fortunately, she moved beyond her enervating gloom to a compassionate understanding of how their rigidity rose from a foundation of fear.
So what to do with all this doubt and uncertainty?
Doubt paralyses, but it can also make you playful. If nothing is certain and you don’t know where you’re going you might test the water, seek out some hidden pleasure. Doubt leads into unexpected crannies.
From a recent doubting, in which I was fretting and fumbling with the material and the matter of the world, I went playing: fashioning the words of others - some of my favourite poets - into a poem of my own. An A-Z. The form, a cento, meaning patchwork, is a collage. You may doubt it's mine, but here it is...
At the empty windows set in the tall house
where fear leaps up inside me
bathed in such unkindly light
my body’ a sack of bones, broken within
unfaithfulness no longer hurts
in the lull before monsoon or typhoon
but like bright light through the bare tree
is a portmanteau of scream & babble or scrap
and here I am turning your trophies to scrap at an illicit viewing
but you do not have to forget
mourning and mirth are two extended wings
teetering on walkways that disappear
I have given up all hope for what was whole
the vacuous garment that limps at my heels as I go
like a medieval painting’s kindling
and with so much carrion in this graveyard for the sharp bones of my memory
to turn my teeth to knives
made out of soot, soup out of rust and,
we try to understand things, each in our own way
as an alchemist knows how to win your
sixty trillion cells, all drunk
with the live substance of a kiss
polished and repolished by the hands of strangers
they are frozen
when there is nobody on earth who hears
nothing — you heard nothing.
[An A-Z through poetry. Sources in order of lines : Lot’s Wife, Anna Akhmatova/ A monologue of Prince Myshkin to the Ballet Pantomime of The Idiot, Ingeborg Bachman / The Fish, Billy Collins / His Picture, Elegie V, John Donne / No, never have I felt so tired, Sergei Esenin) / International Bridge Playing Women, Mark Ford / Vespers, Louise Glück / I’d played silence but later realised my word, Terence Hayes / Past caring, Mick Imlah / But you do not have to forget, Juan Ramón Jiménez /Lament 9, Jan Kochanowski / The Duckboards, Michael Longley / Migraine, Sinéad Morrisey / Whoever intends me harm, Pablo Neruda / The Haircut, Sharon Olds / A Musical Hell, Alejandra Pizarnik / ode to new money, Noel Quiñones / Daydreaming in the midst of spring labours, Aleksander Ristovic / The Silence of Plants, Wisława Szymborska / Wherever you are I can reach you, Marina Tsvetaeva / A drunkard, Ko Un / The Footsteps, Paul Valéry / The Divided Child, Derek Walcott / Empty Chairs, Liu Xia / A Father’s Ear, Yevgeny Yevtushenko / Siren and Signal, Louis Zukofsky]
Memory Lies in Dreamland
My memory lies in Dreamland. Not that all my memories are phantom, but the most potent remembering I have experienced was at a fun fair in Margate. I remember little, especially of my childhood, but, a couple of years ago, standing in Dreamland before the wooden roller coaster of which I was terrified as a child, I was overcome with a physical sensation, returning me to my childhood with such vivid immediacy, I thought I might start shrinking. Words were locked inside a somatic experience. The leg weakening excitement and dread of the four year old me coursed through my body. Collapsing, onto the ground or back inside myself, were intoxicating possibilities. This felt like living inside a memory rather than recalling or redrafting it.
For the past year as the pandemic has writhed and retreated and writhed again, I have been meeting with M once a week. We - him, my eighty three year old father-in-law, and me, with a life long interest in ageing - explore the ideas, feelings and experiences around getting old, memory loss and how to spend the declining years as gracefully or, perhaps more importantly, as fully as possible. The enforced isolation of Covid has ravaged the lives of many of the elderly, and M is no exception to that. M comes alive in the company of others and, for most of the last two years, no company has been had. A conversationalist, his tongue has been stilled, and with it something essential to his existence lost.
My mother, in her late seventies, was living alone in another country in which she does not speak the language when lockdown was enforced. She was untethered from her routine: her daily lunches in a local restaurant and the regular gathering of friends in a bar in the early evening. Silence descended on her life. And, with that silence, a retreat into an internal space unattached to others, to concrete ideas, to time. Growing old and covid: a disastrous cocktail to wrench hands from a hold on life.
Simone de Beauvoir in The Coming Of Age, her fascinating philosophical exploration of ageing, and its resonances for individuals and the societies we construct, argues
There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our
former life and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a
meaning - devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political,
intellectual or creative work.
Isolation enforced, despite the supposed connectivity of the digital world - a world my mother has never set foot in -, is a sure fire way to sever ties, to unmoor meaning. To paraphrase Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, being alone together is a poor substitute for being together.
Alongside this, there is the battle against tiredness, the shrinking motivation, the sloth that an ageing body can induce. As Voltaire wrote almost three hundred years ago,
The heart does not grow old, but it is sad to dwell among ruins.
What else can a sad heart do but follow the body into decline? Unfortunately, these ruins are not readily visited or attended to by those who clamber over the Acropolis or the Colosseum. For a society that champions youth and independence, these ruins are, at best, hidden away, or if they are out on the streets, in cafes, restaurants or bars, they are rendered invisible.
Simone de Beauvoir
Memory falters with the body. The slippage of short term memory, threatening the bulwark of long term memory, is fought against, or strategies are manufactured to bypass the forgetting. A forgetting captured in Billy Collins brilliant, plaintive poem Forgetfulness , which begins with the early disappearing nouns:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
and continues to
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
M and I continue to take our weekly stroll on the banks of Lethe, talking as the water splashes over his shoes. My mother has begun to paddle in its shallows. Her hands hold the rushes that line its side. I try to lift her attention from the waters racing beneath her with questions, attentiveness, love, to keep her at the river’s edge. But, as My Mother Weeps below reveals, the waters are rising.
A necessary companion
Before Covid compounded the isolation and loneliness of the elderly in society, that of M, my mother and many, many more, I read Nicci Gerrard’s profoundly beautiful, and inspiring, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love. At the core of the book, alongside other heartrending stories, is her father’s ten year struggle with memory loss, his loosening of self and the damage done by negligent care. Tears may fall, but Gerrard's determination to bestow dignity and love on those that can no longer bestow it upon themselves is rousing. The book is a necessary companion, a boon for anyone journeying into the uncertain terrain of a loved one being plunged into forgetfulness. For Gerrard, and the throng of dedicated people she meets working with those shredded by dementia, Validation is crucial along with a patient determination to find (and hold on to) the unique and precious person who may be obscured by their dementia.
Both Gerrard and De Beauvoir write about how their societies treat the old, and neither France in 1970, or Britain in 2019, come across as places you would want to grow old in. What both advocate, in their very different ways, is a reframing of how we view, care for, accept and celebrate being old. A place most of us will get to without heeding how we treat those already there.
Gerrard, visiting a ward, watches a fleshless, frail, elderly woman "immmobile... only her bony hands fluttering." At her bedside is a framed photograph of her as a young woman on a beach, paddling. holding hands with a young man and smiling. What Gerrard comes to, is that within this ailing frame the young woman, seemingly buried, is alive. Our histories are contained within us, and whether we can recall them or not, or others can reach to them through touch, song or a favourite food, we should be treated in a dignified way that celebrates all that we have been. This hopeful, smiling woman in the photograph is the same woman who lies unattended in her bed. She may not be able to recall, or redraft that memory, but it is living inside her. She "housed both the old and young self and everything in between."
Sign of the Times
My mother weeps
My mother weeps
My mother weeps like a small child. Her shoulders shake. One hand rests on her face covering one crying eye. It shields half her forehead, a cheek, half her mouth, lips and chin. It is a strange image, and, as I hold the other hand and offer reassurance, I am struck by its unnaturalness. The hand, the half face, the weeping.
My mother weeps. My mother never weeps. Her weeping now is not my mother’s weeping. My mother is not my mother.
My mother weeps. I cannot remember the last time I saw her cry. She has not cried for at least thirty years. She sits in an armchair in our living room and sobs. This is a deep, momentous and fearful outpouring. Her body convulses, the words she is trying to get out are swallowed. Gasps for air, the only accompaniment.
My mother weeps
My mother weeps. She has lost who she is. A woman who never weeps and this weeping does not belong to her. It belongs to a woman who cannot remember why she is here, where she lives, or what has been happening to her. The unknowing of all has brought tears. These tears will not stop because they cannot be pulled in to a history. There is no drying comfort of "It will be all right". The "It" has been severed from the continuous thread.
My mother weeps
My mother weeps and I have to hold back my own tears. She is the frightened child that I once was. The confusion and the despair and the terror shakes her whole body. Steeling myself, so that I am not taken by the waves, I comfort her, tell her that I will take care of her, that she is surrounded by people who love her. Through her tears she manages, Don’t put me in a home. Please don’t put me in a home.
My mother weeps
Detail from Water of the Flowery Mill - Arshile Gorky (1944)
For a writer the one thing you must do is write. Reading is vital, thinking beneficial, but where the craft is honed, and where your unique and particular voice takes shape, is in the writing. Stendhal, who scratched at the skin of realism in an age of romanticism, advocated a minimum of “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Harry Matthews, one of the few Americans to be a member of the OULIPO group (writers and mathematicians who looked for new literary forms, game playing and all), took him at his word. Stendhal’s call to action was an attempt to finish the book he was working on. Matthews “deliberately mistook his words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page” and ended up producing a fascinating book, 20 Lines a Day, with reflections on writing, raking leaves, phone calls, friendship and much more. Since 2017, the twenty line dictum has driven my writing through the first coffee.
This twenty line sprint is one of many ways to get the writing day started. Throughout lockdown, alongside playing a daily writing game exploring form, I combined my desire to write about visual art with this daily sprint. What follows takes off from a line of Arshile Gorky's which I came across in the brilliant biography of this troubled artist, Black Angel by Nouritza Matossian. Gorky, who had escaped the Armenian genocide in 1915, died alone when the weight of circumstance finally overwhelmed him. His work lives on and so does his legacy which shaped American painting from the 1940s onwards.
Detail from The Leaf of an Arichoke is an Owl - Arshile Gorky (1944)
"One artist could bang his hands against the table and years,
even centuries later, another could feel the rhythm."
- Arshile Gorky
One artist could bang his hands against the table and years, even centuries later, another could feel the rhythm; pulsings, gentle or violent, rippling through a new work, riffing on the driving beat of former melodies to make new meaning. Searching for a voice amidst the vocal outpourings of a lustier or loftier throat calling, follow me, and follow me, until you can find your own path. My footsteps will be tip-tapping in your ear but you will be dancing to your own tune. Drunk with a desire to make you stand upon the table, let that rhythm penetrate your soles. Climbing through shin and groin, your flesh will move to a newborn beat. Beating down the shrill voice that screams all endeavour is meaningless, you will dance, tap out your tune, regardless of whether others will take your hand, your lead, or any notice of you at all. Dance with your body, your body, your life, your heart. Your head left looking backwards as you shimmy into an oiled sunset. The sun also sets you know Hemingway. Its day spent in a descending rhythm that drops into darkness. An empty dance floor that has no light. You can dance in the black of night. A nighttime rhyme of black blackening, blackness. Dressed for death but too much to do before the bony hand leads you away. Life lends you its drumsticks, beat out that tempo, shred skin with your pounding, A pounding that has stolen money from the masters. They wont mind, being dead, but a small breath may touch their cold lips, kissing farewell in the earth’s loam. Thank you.
I will dance until I die.
One eye kept on you, my still and silent friend. You do not hear it but it will carry me across the dance floor, the maple, the canvas, the country and the strains of this senseless life. I will dance until there is nowhere left to dance on. Your rhythm is ceaseless, like a wave that cannot find a shore. A surefire sound that syncopates the pulse, echoes in my strut, and smothers the canvass’s cries for help. Do not let the paint dry, do not let the stroke end. The end is the edge of existence and paint cannot adhere to nothingness. Dance and drip, smudge, smear and stroke this feeble brain into action, an answer: When will the rhythm fade?
Eye-book (Rachel Clare)
“Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
Words matter. The words we choose - we do have a choice - to use and the way that we organise them says so much about who we are, who we want to be and our hopes for the world that we live in. Writers - journalists and artists - work with words, they know that words matter. Politicians use a lot of words but rarely are they handled as precious materials. Words that may have been used in rhetorical flourishes to garner votes are forgotten, redacted, or hoist into shiny new configurations to ‘clarify’ what was really meant. This week the power of words, their consequences and their failings, have been strung out before me as I’ve stumbled from Baldwin to Biden to Khashoggi
Last weekend, I took a walk through the recently published Begin Again with Eddie S. Glaude JR, who takes James Baldwin as poet guide to find his way to hope amidst the rubble of American democracy and race relations. This wonderful exploration of the failings of the United States and beyond sees Glaude navigate a troubled America: an America that repeats itself, an America that seems incapable of learning, an America that has been stolen. His pockets stuffed with the words of Baldwin, hands grasping rage and love, he takes you with him, along a tightrope hovering above the racial hatred, unnecessary deaths, the ongoing narrative of which Trump is not an exception merely an example. After traversing such a desolate landscape, it’s a miracle that he has almost made it to the other side with the wounded belief that “we will risk everything, finally, to become a truly multiracial democracy.”
Glaude framed Baldwin’s words so articulately, so beautifully, so insightfully that he drove me to my own meeting. Raoul Peck has used Baldwin’s essays to narrate his 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, (Curzon Home Cinema), with the idea and words from Remember This House, a book on Martin Luther King, Malcom X and Medgar Evers, that Baldwin never finished. Peck, using rich, rousing, and harrowing archival material, weaves a story that stitches the civil rights movement to present day America. Baldwin emerges as poet: poet of pain, poet of fury, poet of hope.
Hopes though are easily dashed. Fortunately, as Baldwin and Guade embody, hope, crushed, mangled, scarred, can be nursed back to health and stand once more, hopeful. For many, as Joe Biden, having got the poetry out of the way at his inauguration, sat down in the Oval Office, hope seemed to be crawling back into the light. This week Joe, springing from his Peloton, dimmed the switch.
Powerful words - aired on The Daily (The New York Times' podcast) - poured from Biden’s mouth when he was seeking the Democratic Party nomination, none more so than those used to describe the current Saudi regime as having “no redeeming social value.” No poet Joe. But someone, maybe even Mohammed bin Salman, known universally as MBS (not much of the lyrical in abbreviations, though it does bring to mind, mine at least, major bowel syndrome), would have some consequences to face for the premeditated and violent murder of an American resident. Sadly, politics and justice are uncomfortable bedfellows and this week Joe bottled it. The geo-political interests of his nation swept any remains, any hope of redress, under the White House rug.
MBS has been blowing a lot of hot air westwards but, as scathingly shown in Bryan Fogel’s new documentary The Dissident (Glasgow Film Festival 2021), the concocted breeze of modernisation cannot hide the bloody hands of a repressive regime. The Crown Prince knows the importance of words, so much so that he has spawned a grist of ‘flies’ to spew pro-regime messages on Twitter, covering any critical voice in a coating of MBS sludge. If you want to separate yourself from your phone watch the sinister sequence on what others might be doing with it whilst it's in your hand's grip.
The late Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qasim, also knew the power of words, he was imprisoned for his. He despaired, in an interview with the Yemeni writer Abdullah al- Udhari, “it is really unbearable to live under a regime which is afraid of a poem”. I first came across his chilling poem, Slit Lips, in a book, They Shoot Writers, Don't They?, assembled by Index on Censorship’s then editor George Theiner, in 1984:
I would have liked to tell you
The story of the nightingale that died
I would have liked to tell you
Had they not slit my lips
Hope rises and falls. Some forty years later Al Qasim’s words echoed in the fictions of Syrian writer Osama Alomar's collection Fullblood Arabian. I read about the work of this remarkable practitioner of the Arabical-qisa al-qasira jiddan, the “very short story ” when reading Lydia Davis’s book of Essays, a boon for any writer looking for guidance and inspiration. His When Tongues Were Cut Off reached back a generation to clasp the pen-wielding hand of Al Qasim.
When Tongues Were Cut Off
The dictator flew into a rage at his people’s incessant call for democracy. When he asked where democracy could be found they only hung their heads in silence. Finally, he was so fed up that he cut out their tongues to weave a carpet out of them. He was convinced that democracy could only be found in their furrows. As he walked proudly on the carpet woven out of severed tongues, he spoke to his people saying, “I have finally brought you democracy. See how beautiful it is!” No one protested.
Speaking in Tongues (Rachel Clare)
I do not live in a dictatorship yet. I do not fear arrest for anything that I write. Neither of these mean that I do not have to choose my words carefully. Or, that those words might not be twisted. Hope rises with freedom of expression. Artists, writers, journalists must be allowed to speak, whether they are agreed with or not.
As writers all we have are words. These are mine in memory of a man who only used them. Words that were powerful enough to have a “kill team” sent from his own country to suffocate him, then hack his body into parts with a bone-saw in a consulate in Istanbul. As Jamal Khashoggi’s friend and fellow dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, says in Fogel’s film, “Your voice matters. Your words are important. I learned that from Jamal. He does not have a weapon. He’s just using his words.”
If you follow the silk road
If you follow the silk road
don’t look down or back
or, to your side
keep your eyes straight ahead
or better still, close your eyes
and let the idea, the silk road
enter through your feet
Do not stop to look at
the woman outside
that building into which
her fiancé has entered
the potted saplings
flanking the entrance
beyond the steel maze of safety
threaded with bold blue words
Polis Polis Polis
to shade the minotaur
she waits, patiently
at first, before the excitement
is drained and love
and hope are dismembered
a dream of future things
hacked into little pieces
the bone of marriage
she waits outside there still
unseen by the men
attentive only to their suitcases
and the business of the world
keeping the silk road smooth
covering the stains
with more flowing silk