Sunday, 18 December 2011

underground


'Underground: the title of a painting of great beauty. It is before you now. Notice how the blue and red lines of light reach out in wonderful curves and ovals, while a great yellow circle completes the design. It is a masterpiece of formal fluency and, although the people of Mouldwarp are considered to be devoid of spiritual genius, there are some who believe this to be their sacred symbol of harmony. It is true that certain spirit names have been deciphered - angel, temple, white city, gospel oak and the legendary seven sisters - but the central purpose of the painting is still disputed'. (1)


'lines along the third dimension indicate
connections through time: here, the King's Cross fire
leads to wartime bivouacs on station platforms
and further still, to children singing on a sunlit hill' (2)


'The Guests are scattered thro' the land,
For the Eye altering alters all;
The Senses roll themselves in fear
And the flat Earth becomes a Ball' (3)

1. Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers, London: Chatto & Windus, 1999, 26.
2. Michael Donaghy, 'Poem on the Underground', Collected Poems, London: Picador, 2009, 196.
3. William Blake, 'The Mental Traveller' (1863). 

Images: Harry Beck's London Underground map (the original version was drawn up in 1935); and Simon Patterson's lithograph The Great Bear (1992), which places me in Max Wall, just along the line from Tony Hancock and Bernard Manning. For a detailed version of Patterson's lithograph, and some thoughtful perceptions by Maeve Conway Fried, see here. For short essays on Patterson and The Great Bear, see here and here. Thanks to Sebastian Groes, The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Monday, 5 December 2011

shadowlands

I have been reading Sukhdev Sandhu's brilliant book Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night (Verso, 2010), an Artangel commission exploring and articulating the experiences of some of those people who inhabit the city's nocturnal edgelands. Avian police. Cleaners. Samaritans in a Soho call centre. An exorcist. 'Flushers' in Joseph Bazalgette's drains below London. Mini-cab drivers. 'Graffers' (graffiti artists). Bargers. An urban fox-hunter cum suburban sniper-marksman. 'Sleep technicians' researching insomnia and apnoea in a hospital ward. And the nocturnal prayers of the nuns of Tyburn and a friar in Camden Town. As an ec-centric map of London, it provides a startling displacement of the familiar, exposing shadowlands and invisible under-worlds, and offering a compassionate critique of some of the day-world's blind spots.

"It's rare nowadays to hear anyone talk about 'night time in London'. That phrase, and its suggestion of a distinct, cordoned-off territory in which we may immerse ourselves in strange possibilities or make ourselves susceptible to off-kilter enchantments, seems rather old-fashioned. It has been emperilled by New Labour's vision of London - a blinging, pigeon-free, glass-fronted, private-finance-initiative-funded, cappuccino-sipping, Barcelona-mimicking, Euro-piazza festooned, Vanity Fair-endorsed, live-forever, things-can-only-get-better fantasia. The city in recent years has witnessed a bevy of real-estate moguls, foreign investors and film directors trading in a slicked-up form of commodity urbanism; equally, the 'London night' has morphed into, and been rebranded, as 'London nightlife'' (12).

Saturday, 19 November 2011

ghost flock (last song)

The images above are all from Ghosts of Gone Birds, a recent exhibition of outstanding contemporary work curated by Ceri Levy at the Rochelle School in East London (2-23 November 2011): both an activist conservation project involving almost 200 artists, and an attempt to 'breathe artistic life back into extinct bird species' through each artist adopting a particular disappeared bird. 

In addition, the exhibition aimed to raise awareness of and money for the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions programme.

The title of this post combines the names of two exquisite pieces of work from the exhibition: Alisdair Wallace's 'Ghost Flock', and Andrea Roe's 'Last Song: The Grand Cayman Thrush'. 

For further details of Ghosts of Gone Birds, see here.

For a fine blog post that sets Ghosts of Gone Birds alongside two other recent exhibitions - Katri Suonion's 'Bird Hospital' at the Kuopoio Art Museum in Finland, and Bill Burns' brilliant 'The Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals' at the Arnolfini in Bristol - see Sue Palmer's 'To the window flown' in her Inquiline here.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

nothing but theatre (for the time being)

‘And now in the twenty-first century, what we’re calling an age of terror, it would seem for the time being, which is the time of theatre, that the perilous tension is worse, even more ambiguous, with innumerable bodies dying […]. Whatever the reasons for it […] the paranoia is growing, what with tunnelled networks, stateless, like dreadnaughts spreading dread, with conspiracy theories and secrecies, homeland security dubious and everything out of sight. If you really think it over, how does any theatre, by whatever theatrical means, really match up with that, or the pervasiveness of seeming that, in the material world, not virtual at all, appears in actuality – now a perversion of seeming? - to make it nothing but theatre’
(Blau 2006: 243).

In recent days, as another year comes to an end and a new one begins, I have been re-visiting more than a decade’s worth of issues of Performance Research, from ‘The Temper of the Times’ to ‘Lexicon’. Perhaps inevitably this immersive return has stimulated a great deal of reflection: in particular, on performance and theatre (the latter so often constituted as performance’s shameful ‘other’, to be denied or repressed); on the nature of the ‘event’ and the im/possibility of its inscription; and on events in my own life and in the wider world that run parallel to and inform my evolving involvement in the journal and other sites for research, collaboration and purposeful play.

In this time of apparently ‘nothing but theatre’ in the theatres of international politics and war, nonetheless all sorts of other performative events insistently leak into embodied experience and histories from the policed parameters of pervasive and perverse ‘seeming’. The ‘nothing but’ in Blau’s ‘nothing but theatre’ knowingly summons the ghosts of ongoing anti-theatrical prejudice, from Michael Fried to Marina Abramovic (at least until recently with Marina). Like most prejudices, it unwittingly constitutes phantasms of the particular modes of practice being rejected, while overlooking other modes: in this context, other ‘theatres’ hosting their own critique, other economies of representation aware of the disastrous paraphernalia of pretence (‘To Hide, to Show: that is theatrality’, Lyotard 1997: 282), and of the enabling possibilities of playing or flirting with mimesis’s seams and its inevitable compromise. And it is precisely these other theatres in an expanded field of performance, in themselves ‘anti-theatres’, that Performance Research has endeavoured to create critical spaces for. The five essays that follow employ diverse modes of writing (into and after) the event, in order to unfold the ‘nothing but’ and touch on the particularities of some of these other practices, including work made by Boris Nieslony, Victoria, Forster and Heighes, Ernst Fischer, Needcompany, Einar Schleef, Christoph Marthaler, René Pollesch, Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke.

For my own part, in re-reading these past issues I am thrown back on memories of ‘temporary zones of meeting’ (Allsopp) over the past decade that ghost my psyche still; and they track me, dog me ‘in the material world’. Most of them are traces of encounter events in localised, ‘marginal’ contexts – catalytic flarings into appearance of the sublime and unpredictable, the anomalous and interruptive, the polyphonous and contradictory, the untimely in the everyday, the heart-quickening, the disorienting, the irrecuperable, the not-yet-known, the more-than-one, the so-much-more-than-me. If my enumeration of some of them here seems narcissistic, ‘nothing but theatre’, forgive me, my intention is elsewhere, far from ‘me’. As occasions of and provocations to identity and difference, interaction and exchange, the dramaturgies of these active vanishings seem to me to stage performative topographies of hopes and fears, desires and incredulities aplenty. ‘Seized with the promise of alterity’ (Kear), they ‘strike’ me, and prise ‘me’ open to the world. And the proliferative ambiguities, indeterminacies and oscillations of these momentary and momentous razor kites over the ‘mountain of dust’ (Deufert & Plischke) demand the fidelity of an attentive self-in-process.

***

Bush fires en route to the horses near Perth in Western Australia, the fireball that shot across the road in front of us like a missile and incinerated a small wooden bridge. 

Watching Australian Rules Football at the MCG in Melbourne with Mark M, who taught me to see artistry and choreography - to paraphrase the sports writer Richard Williams describing Zidane, to perceive the ways in which certain playmakers have the capacity to see ‘time and space and angles where we see only confusion’. 

Tracking Pete Goss’s astonishing catamaran leaving Dartmouth for the last time on its first and final voyage, flying jauntily past Start Point in full sail towards the horizon and its fate. 

Squatting with a group of others over a pavement-level grating in Barcelona to glimpse odd fragments of Boris Nieslony’s mysterious and profoundly unsettling actions in an underground space. 

Sliding a block of ice through the streets of Barcelona to Las Ramblas with Gregg and Gary, in an attempt to re-member the river that once ran down to the sea. 

The breakdown into a state of dis/grace finally triggered by Lars Von Trier’s film The Idiots, followed by a month of sub-Blakean wanderings, visions and encounters around Britain. 

Fainting during a question about ethics at the end of a paper on animals and the event of alterity that I had just presented at PSi in Aberystwyth. 

The humbling clear-sightedness and courage of Jane, Tom, Rosemary, as they prepared for death while their bodies were consumed by cancers. 

The ‘shock and awe’ of watching lumbering B52s taking off from a Gloucestershire airbase at dusk, en route to Baghdad to bomb the Iraqi people into ‘democracy’, our every move tracked by a night-vision-equipped soldier on the other side of the perimeter fence. 

Witnessing the extinguishing of a belching fire in an industrial workshop on the outskirts of Exeter during an early morning drift with the members of Wrights & Sites. 

Being herded with other audience members towards our seats by a gaggle of no-nonsense geese before a Théâtre Zingaro show at Aubervilliers in Paris. 

Holding the hand of a fearful friend as together we watched live feed images of the cauterisation of anomalous cells on her cervix on a colour monitor. 

The rolling thunder of the moon’s shadow, the umbra, racing across the Devon countryside along the ‘path of totality’ during the 1999 eclipse - it swept away my legs and knocked me to the ground, literally. 

The excessive responses to the foot and mouth outbreak in Devon, the pyres and mass burials. 

The uncertain pleasures of watching my 78 year-old father playing a disorderly drunk in an amateur production of a play appropriately called Kindly Leave the Stage in the civic theatre in Maidstone. 

Anne K showing me the scar tissue where her breast had been, in her luminous flat overlooking the West Pier in Brighton, not long before she died. 

Admiring the elegance of the way Pina Bausch smoked her cigarette outside the stage door of Sadler’s Wells. 

Playing a tape of a nightingale’s song to a lion in the Zagreb zoo, holding it to its ear on the other side of inadequate looking bars, then smelling its breath as it turned and fixed me with its eyes. 

Standing on top of a vast rubbish mountain near the suburb of Novi Zagreb with Croatian performance artist Damir Bartol Indos, as he conveyed his desire to make a performance right there atop the tip, amongst the methane explosions, feral pigs and gulls. 

Instinctively ducking to avoid a burning barrel bobbing towards me through the packed crowd on the back of a man running blind in Ottery St Mary. 

Hurriedly texting Alan Read and other Londoners on the morning of the London bombings, my mind full of dread-ful possibilities. 

A nocturnal electrical storm over the bay of Castellamare, west of Palermo, burning ephemeral images of coast and sea and sky onto my retina, and my failed attempts to photograph the lightning. 

Instances of the compassion, generosity, violence and pride of Palermo, its palpable sense of loss and possibility; and then the energy expended by so many Palermitans enacting Lampedusa’s paradoxical contention in The Leopard that ‘everything must change in order for things to stay the same’. 

The wide-eyed man in combat fatigues who burst into our living room late one night during Match of the Day, a bloodied kitchen knife held out towards me in his open hand, his jacket blackened with blood from his stab wounds. 

Throwing water over Gary’s torso, steaming in the cold Devon night air, while we sang: ‘Oooh baby baby it’s a wild world’. 

Shivering with Sue in the hide at dawn on the Somerset levels - then the sudden roar of more than six million starlings taking off, the blackened sky, the deafening vortex of this unimaginably complex, surf-like ‘murmuration’, and its gradual dispersal into silence.

***

In addition, perhaps these fragments and the following texts in this section relate to a performance epistemology of the kind outlined by David George in the very first issue of Performance Research:

‘As an epistemology, performance offers a rediscovery of the now; relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; a rediscovery that all knowledge exists on the threshold of and in the interaction between subject and object; a rediscovery of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do’ (George 1996: 25).

However, beyond or beneath the neat knowingness of this analysis, some genuine mysteries remain for me as to why these memories now, and what kinds of performance interventions they seem to invite. To quote the words of that celebrated cartographer of modes of knowing, former US Secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld:
‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don’t know we don’t know’ (quoted in Zizek 2004: 9).
As Slavoj Zizek points out in his book about Iraq, Rumsfeld forgot to add a crucial fourth term: ‘’the unknown knowns’, the things that we do not know that we know’ (ibid), in other words, the unconscious: ‘the knowledge which does not know itself […] the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not aware of adhering to ourselves’ (ibid: 10). They are uncontrollable because there is no awareness of their existence. Perhaps immersion in certain activities – talking, listening, writing, playing, dreaming, the eruptive event of encountering another, attention to ‘intensities and irritations’ (Primavesi) of all kinds – can generate frictions and short-circuits to unsettle or jolt them a little, to allow us to glimpse their dynamic contours out of our peripheral vision, to know something of them ‘feelingly’. If my engagement in Performance Research as an editor and writer has taught me anything, it is this: perhaps one can learn how not to know fully what one is doing and still keep on doing it, knowing that all sorts of provisional knowledges flicker and take shape, for the time being, and that ultimately the unconscious will always make a fool out of the expert.

References

Blau, Herbert (2006). ‘Seeming, Seeming: The Illusion of Enough’, in Alan Ackerman & Martin Puchner (eds), Against Theatre: Creative Destructions on the Modernist Stage, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 231-47

George, David (1996). ‘Performance Epistemology’, Performance Research 1:1 (‘The Temper of the Times’), Spring, 16-25

Lyotard, Jean François (1997). ‘The Tooth, the Palm’ [1977], in Timothy Mottram (ed.), Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary Thought, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 282-8

Zizek, Slavoj (2004). Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, London: Verso
___________________________________________

This text was first written in January 2007 as my preface to a group of essays on theatre to be included in an anthology about contemporary performance, A Critical Decade: The Performance Research Reader. Some years down the track, it now seems unlikely that the Reader will ever be published, although this text resonates for me still …

Photograph of starlings over Rome by Richard Barnes

Friday, 21 October 2011

the sea: wave 1

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The following sequence of texts - 'The Sea: 6 Waves' - were co-written a couple of year ago with my friends the artists and performance makers Cupola Bobber (Tyler Myers and Stephen Fiehn) as part of a 'Reading Companion' for their performance Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me, which toured internationally in 2009-10. Published in April 2009, the Reading Companion is an exquisite 24" x 36" double-sided colour poster in which the texts are laid out to take on the shapes of the landscape - Sea, Mountain, Cloud, etc.

Other contributors of additional texts in the Reading Companion were Ian Abbott, Alice Booth, Simon Bowes, Lucy Cash, Karen Christopher, Ezra Clayton Daniels, Zach Dodson, Jeff Harms, CJ Mitchell, and Bryan Saner. The poster was designed by Zach Dodson and illustrated by Ezra Claytan Daniels. 

To view the poster, and to order a copy, see here.

The collaborative writing process was simply structured and wholly pleasurable. Over a period of some months, Tyler and Stephen would send me a textual 'wave', and I'd respond, bouncing another one back across the Atlantic to their base in Chicago. A slow writing into and out of what lapped or crashed on to each other's virtual shorelines.

My heartfelt thanks to Tyler and Stephen for letting me post these texts here, and for inviting me to collaborate in the first place, in this play-fully dialogic way.
_______________________________________

We resolve to believe these people who eat their lunch in silence in their sea-facing cars arenʼt waiting for it to do anything in particular. They are not keeping watch over an unruly neighbor, they arenʼt expecting any event at all. They are just sitting at the edge and looking out precisely because nothing much will happen beyond the slow mechanical play of cloud, sky, and water. Speaking of fishermen who catch no fish, Sebald says, “I do not believe these men sit here all day and all night waiting so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass.” (1)

It should first be noted that I am speaking out of place and that I am not The Sea. I am an imposter with a blue suit on, standing in the middle of the Atlantic, yelling: “I am the sea too” at the passing ships. I have been here - listening - for quite a long time. I imagine that I will be here until my senses cease to work, The Sea has so much to say. Sometimes the gossip from town(s), about the crabs that tickle the belly, about so many clouds (they can be ornery), and ...

I will have you believe that The Sea has just whispered to me: “I have yet to find a home.” I will have you believe that The Sea has just whispered exactly that, and also that I have in return asked the following: “What do you mean? You are The Sea.” The Sea looked down and examined its shoe. It rubbed its forehead. Then it said:

“Iʼm not so sure I can answer that simply, but I will try. I am contained, controlled by gravity and other forces, I go where they direct me. But, I am constantly working to find my way beyond my borders. Sometimes I think I have finally broken through, but I always find there is a new shore waiting for me. There are some people who have built their houses close to me, and sometimes during the night after they have left I sneak into their homes, wet the pages of their libraries, wash over their cutlery, take the fruit out of the bowls sitting on their kitchen counters, wash the floor boards and retreat back to my side of the border that marks me. “

With a wistful note in this last, The Sea trailed off. I took my sky blue kerchief out of my jacket pocket (matches my carnation), and made it ready should it be needed (my manners are superb.) I asked: Why? The Sea started with a faraway look:

“Way out West, way out West, there …”, but then stopped. I readied the kerchief, but after a dramatic pause and a few false starts, The Sea continued:

“If there is a shoreline I will set myself to it, that is my lot. Several billion years of work, digging in the sand, moving it, putting it somewhere else. Knowing this, the men along the shoreline have built walls to protect their towns from me. They are also constantly working, building me new buildings of the same towns a little further west, something to look forward to. They dig and they build walls and I slowly grind them down to dust (wet dust), and then they rebuild their churches and stores and streets and towers, and I work away at it; and so on and so on. This is just what I do and I cannot speak for them. I am always on the move, I have yet to be at rest and feel as if rest will never come. Sometimes it may look like I am calm, or at rest, but I am still working. One would think that I would grow tired, or that my age would keep me from working, but I do not think in terms of tired or age or anything really, because I donʼt have the ability to know if I canʼt go on. Itʼs only that Iʼll go on. Itʼs alright with me.”

Noting a break in the monologue, I saw a chance to tell The Sea about the delightful little town of my childhood … there was the small “playground” that was a patch of sometimes muddy earth next to Mr. Cooperʼs store, and hide and seek with the two neighbor kids and their imaginary friends, and there was my father’s study and the set of encyclopedias, the 4th of July parades with the Indians with the muskets, the abandoned house in the woods where we dug out a fort, the bananas with honey and milk weʼd eat on the picnic morning in the new sunlight, the door jam with my height and corresponding year, the red toothbrush I got at the dentist office (the dentist office smelled like no other place Iʼve ever been.) Just then I noticed The Sea had stopped listening, so I carried on in my head but let The Sea have silence. I was lost trying to remember the layout of every house and apartment I had ever lived in when the sea broke in.

“I have found a set of steps on the coast just north of Blackpool, I believe they call this area Cleveleys. I spend a great part of my days trying to climb these steps. That is, to really climb them the way they were intended to be climbed (one step at a time.) It always goes like this: I step up three stairs, and just as I reach for the fourth, I am pulled back to my body. I guess that I cannot go anywhere unless it (all of it) also goes with me. Sometimes I imagine that I am walking up the steps and onto the land, and through the town past the church, through the pastures on the other side, over the privets, and up the mountain to get a look at what everyone is looking at when they are looking at me. Because I have no sense of it. Imagine, all eyes on you, and never knowing why. But, if I am on the mountain, what am I looking at?”

What indeed, I thought. I thought, can I short circuit my brain by looking at my hand? I watched The Sea. Concentrated on its face. Concentrated on the creases around its eyes, and they seemed to brace themselves for something; looking, but not outward. That look an old Wyoming sheep herder might give when asked if there is anything they regret about a life lived in a trailer in the mountains watching sheep. And their answer is the coffee. The Sea concluded:

“We all walk in mysteries. We are surrounded by an atmosphere about which we still know nothing at all. We do not know what stirs in it and how it is connected with our intelligence. This much is certain, under particular conditions the antennae of our souls are able to reach out beyond their physical limitations (2). These are the shores of dreaming.”


(1) WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, London: Harvill Press, 1998, p. 52.
(2) Goethe, letter of 23 July 1820, quoted in ‘The Writing of Stones’, Cabinet no. 29 (‘Sloth’), Spring 2008, p. 39.

the sea: wave 2


After a while, I started to describe my own dreams, and how this personal night-time theatre was regularly awash with a Sea bearing the flotsam and jetsam of stories and people and creatures of all kinds. The Sea’s words had stirred some sort of ‘antennae’ within me, and I wanted to share something of my own walks in mysteries, on unfamiliar shores.

“You are often there in my dreams”, I confessed, smiling a little shyly at this sudden intimacy. “So much so that sometimes I wake up drenched, my skin salty, the skin on my fingertips puckered and ridged like … prunes … or those little sand ridges that look like waves in the desert. Often when I sleep I swim, supported on your surface like a bird on a sea of air; sometimes I even walk through the forests and valleys and dunes beneath you”.

The Sea watched me for a moment, then closed its eyes slowly as I continued.

“Once while floating on my back – on your back - looking at the night sky, a zebra standing in a dinghy floated past. He was singing softly and rather beautifully from the Book of Common Prayer, from the section on ‘prayers to be used at sea’: “They that go down to the sea in ships: And occupy their business in great waters; These men see the works of the Lord: and his wonders in the deep …” When he saw me, the zebra stopped singing, and politely asked: “I’m a little lost. Do you know how to get to the Sea of Serenity?” “Um, I think it’s up there”, I replied, pointing to the moon. “Oh”, he said. We both looked up at the moon, a bright saucer of creamy blue. 

“Look, there it is”, I continued, “can you see? Between the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Cold. There are dozens of seas up there, as well as lakes and bays and marshes. Did you know? Beautiful names, my mother taught me. The Sea of Crises. The Sea of Fertility. The Sea of Ingenuity. The Sea of Nectar. The Serpent Sea. The Sea of Moisture. There are Seas of Islands, of Vapors, and of Showers. The Sea of the Edge is one of my favorites… And then there’s The Bay of Dew. The Marsh of Sleep …” “Oh”, he said, “oh”. Then silence as we both gazed upwards, our faces catching the light. 

After a while the zebra drifted off again, his quiet song slowly picking up again before trailing away on the breeze, little waves tapping out a rhythm on the dinghy’s hull: “For at his word the stormy wind ariseth: Which lifteth up the waves thereof. They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep: Their soul melteth away because of the trouble. They reel to and fro …” I watched his stripy silhouette dissolve into darkness, then the glow of his boat’s luminescent trail - a silvery line like a snail’s track, or a con trail in the sky, until it disappeared too”.

The Sea was barely moving, comfortable now. Another pause, then I started again, my voice little more than a murmur: “Once, when swimming far from shore, dazzled by all kinds of radiant fish that seem to acknowledge me as some sort of fellow fish, suddenly I realise that something is missing. A rope trails from my ankle. I reach down and pull it in, hand over hand. I can see through the water that there is nothing there. Just a rope with a frayed knot at its end. Now I know: I have no conception of where my boat is. It has gone, and I am alone. The sky seems vast, and so does the Sea. I spin and try to stand up in the water, to see further around me, but it’s futile. So I tread water, just my head poking through the surface. The rest of me forms a tiny hole in the immensity of the Sea, a hole in the shape of me in a place with no name, a place on no known map …

“In another dream, I wade through warm surf on to a white beach and find a wooden sign on a stake driven into the sand at the water’s edge. It bears the words: “BENVENUTO ALL’ISOLA DEI NOSTRI SOGNI PROSCRITTI. M. Polo”. Welcome to the Island of Our Forbidden Dreams. There is no sign of Marco on the beach. Just a huge bird, still as a statue, a gull of some kind, staring at me with eyes like wells. Around the bird, little eddies of sand – tiny eruptions like nervous whirlpools – fizz up for a moment then disappear”.

The Sea may well have been sleeping by now, it was hard to tell. It certainly looked peaceful, and the soft rise and fall of its waters suggested a deep-breathing ripple passing through its body. So I kept talking, thinking that somehow my words were a kind of lullaby, and that if I stopped the Sea would wake up startled at the absence of the sound of my voice – like a baby or a grandparent when the conversation suddenly ends or the TV is finally turned off. Or a bit like my friends who have lived by the sea for years; whenever they travel inland, they find it hard to sleep at night without the sea’s sounds – they say that the absence of its continuous russssshhh unsettles them.

“Once I even met a blind dolphin; she floated through the air several feet above the water’s surface, under a silk umbrella. Although she was blind, she moved straight towards me and hovered above me. She softly pressed her nipple into my mouth, and I drank her milk. Don’t ask me what it means.

“In one of the dreams I remember most clearly, and it’s a recurrent one, the Sea has vanished suddenly - and completely - and its exposed bed is dotted with people out walking, inspecting what it has left behind. (Perhaps in the dream you’ve gone to the mountain to look at what everyone is looking at? Maybe. If you have, I guess what you see from up there is just a sea of people where you once were …) Anyway, so the Sea’s vanished, and there are all sorts of people out there, bent over inspecting a patch of ground, or a piece of driftwood the size of a small tree. Or a bloated purple jelly-fish, scratching at the sand around it with their feet. I can see laughing kids with buckets and spades making castles and cities, and dads sculpting mermaids with shells in their hair, and writing messages in huge letters for the sky. Huddled figures have gathered beside a pool and they stare into it in silence, as though it is infinitely deep, or the plug hole through which the Sea has departed. 

As far as the eye can see, thousands of shiny fish pulse on the sand, clasping and unclasping like fingerless silver hands. Perched on some rocks is a wreck of a wooden schooner encrusted with barnacles, its cabin draped in fine weed, like Christmas decorations; its tattered sails slap and dance in the breeze. Closer to the shore a blue yacht lies on its side, its mast pointing to the sky at an angle of, say, ten o’clock; it looks like a weird oversized sun-dial. Elsewhere there is a beached whale and its cub, breathing heavily, with a man posing for a photo next to the mother’s soft eye: as the shutter closes, the whale blinks. The air is full of birds … 

I stand transfixed on the shore watching all of this activity, too frightened to walk out on to the sea bed and join the other people. For I’m terrified of the possibility of the Sea’s sudden return. Your return … Perhaps that low smudgy strip of grey cloud on the horizon is in fact a thundering wall of water hundreds of feet high … Nobody seems to notice except me, they just carry on regardless. I stand there, trembling like a hobbled racehorse”.

By now the Sea was fast asleep, as still as oil. Not a whiff of breeze to ruffle its surface, which glistened like an infinite expanse of beaten copper in the last of the sunlight. In the silence I became aware again of this mysterious pulsing life all around me. A primordial flux. With the moon now rising, I remembered that in Greek cosmology everything begins when Eros issues from the egg of Night, which floats upon Chaos. Something like that. I half expected the zebra to drift into view. 

Having got going, I continued ...

the sea: wave 3


“In the bedroom, laying, looking up, I watched as the sea moved in from one corner of the ceiling gradually filling the frame. A moderate breeze, small waves, becoming larger: fairly frequent horses. A memory floats across the ceiling in bits and pieces, along with the other drifters: the By-The-Wind-Sailors, the violet sea snail floating on its bed of foam, and the shipworm burrowed into a piece of wood. In their midst a whale bone floats to the surface, and on it a engraving made by an idle whaler during his leisure hours, struggling to battle the soul shattering monotony of the open sea by keeping his mind occupied with the work of his hands. And on it he carved a picture of an unfinished heart shaped room, and painstakingly rendered every tiny detail the he could remember. He worked on it for thirty years.”

What does this sea remember? At times, by the sound of it, the sea remembers quite a lot. At times its good memory does not make for a good story because it goes on and on with long lists of things that have passed through it, or troubles itself with correctly pronouncing the sound of every wave. Hereʼs what itʼs saying:

A red toothbrush, A set of encyclopedias with pages folded over at the corners, An Umbrella, A wooden chair. Sand. Sand. A Building built out of sand as if it were stone. Unread letters. And the parish churches of: St. Leonard, St. Martin, St. Bartholomew, St. Michael, St. Peter, St. Mary, St. Patrick, St. John, St. Nicholas, St. Felix, A Hankie, Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, Gilbert and George, Tree.

His heart beating to a memory:

A room,

a girl,

a quiet night after work,

away from the sea,

looking forward,

an adventure.

The Sea, now deep in sleep, mumbled something about when it was little, many years ago. Its mother a glacier, and its father the sun. Its twin, the desert (fraternal), and its godfather the moon who continues to look after it.

I closed my eyes, looking for sleep myself, and tried to breathe quietly. I let my body float belly up, my nose and mouth above the surface but my ears just below it. I listened to the now deafening sound of my quiet breath and my mind was full and moving frantically from one thought to another. To calm myself, I decided to make myself listen to the stories in The Sea (instead of me), and count them. Stories told by all the stuff people have given it, or that it has taken. All the things forgotten in it or thrown to it for losing. Innumerable cast-offs, messages, and yesterdays gone off on an adventure; those things finding some rest in its methodical movements and temperate depths.

These things and their stories drift by in the current, like clouds in the jet stream, headed somewhere the ocean is taking them. They are quiet, but you can hear them if you tilt your head just right and listen for the sounds of the water. I want it to be a lullaby, a drifting cloud atlas of things that once were, or things that are headed somewhere else with the delusion of purpose. Stories of doing things, making progress, something to look forward to. I counted the objects and the stories they told.

#1

The shaved off whiskers belonging to a wrinkled face, remnants of sideburns grown reaching for a remembered gait.

Had I forgotten where I started? Itʼs been so many years and Iʼve gotten good at getting by … but where was I headed when I started this? Now, the things that rile me, the things that seem to draw out the most of my tired emotion, are the things that have to do with how people are to me. Not about whatʼs said, or whatʼs done. I enjoy outright offense and let it pass for low, but search for offense and in those moments where it isnʼt clear enough, where I can pounce on it. Perhaps this is now my only skill? Pouncing where I can point to the slightest whisper of disrespect? Perhaps I would be further along in this if I instead suffered quietly. Instead bit my tongue and knew better. There is a pleasure in that. There is pleasure there?

#2

All three skipping stones you skipped.

Picnic, family, little ones, passing on the art of the skipped stone.

#3

A bingo card with two almost bingos, both needing the number 12.

A last dollar, a last hope. A delusion perhaps, but it seemed possible. It needed to be possible and things that need to be possible sometimes seem as if they are inevitable, that for the story to end right it must be the way itʼll go. Deux ex machina. The way things end. But, of course, the world is harsher than that. Rather, our delusions donʼt allow us the reality and so make it seem harsh, when really it is mechanical. It is. Our perception of it is the thing that is relative to our want. And money can help you make the world seem to be however you want it. One last shot, a last dollar, but the number 12.

#4

(Indecipherable.)

#5

A watch inscribed, “In honor of 50 years served. Thanks.”

End of a pier. Tears remembering a life adding salty water to salty water. A remembrance regretted from this new solitude.

#6

A box of childhood things. A floating casket of what was.

A doll, forced on me by my mother, then loved because of a perceived kindred suffering. A gum wrapper from a piece of gum that Tony (TONY!) gave me at recess one day (still smells of grape.) A magazine picture of a Backstreet Boy that had been in the back pocket everyday of grades 6-8. Half of a friendship necklace heart bought to share with Sheri Ross, the one I stopped wearing without explanation to Sheri, who only noticed a few days later in the lunch line. A matchbox time capsule made at school in the 5th grade. Nothing in it. Wanted to save the moment. Dad left that day. And mom was happy. And my older sister too. Everything was going to be okay.

#7

The rock you used to keep your book open that day.

The novel was a mystery, a who-done-it, and the day was partly cloudy. Clouds floating overhead, sometimes blocking the sun, making you chilly, sometimes not, making you sweat. You were half reading, half watching your lover out of the corner of your eye. Feeling lucky. To be here. To be here with them. To be happy. To have a fish to cook tonight. To have The Sea in front of you, plodding along at your toes.

#8

A worn and rubbed icon of St. Michael Archangel. Or maybe St. Anthony.

A Spanish sailorʼs gift from his mother, set off on an adventure as the sailor sank in the hull of a frigate. He was thinking about what heʼll miss, about the couch, about the smell of the garden in summer, about the way the bed sheets feel after a day spent with hands in soil.

#9

Boots, soles worn through. Money enough for five pair stuffed in the insole.

A bit of a breather. To see wind in their hair with sunshine. A little bit of sunshine. A few days time lived without soot on her face to mark my kiss. A few days time where she doesnʼt mention whatʼs needed, whatʼs been bought, and what isnʼt left. A few days time when they arenʼt embarrassed by their clothes, to see them look at the sky instead of the ground, to get to see the way the Big Wheel makes their eyes big. A few days where we can wake up together in the morning, and get some breakfast, together, no whistles telling us weʼre late. No Bolton sun rising and spreading us out. Something to look ...

Sleep found me there. Then there was the zebra, again, and an anxious search for the drain at the bottom. The place that leads somewhere else. My body was there floating, a By-The-Wind-Sailor, and my mind to, in the flotsam and jetsam of my mind. Was I looking for new happiness, or replaying old trauma?

I woke up and there was sun. The Sea was moving more than last night, but not violently, a sort of slow swelling and contracting that lifted me straight up and then gently dropped me straight down. I kept my eyes closed for a while. Feigning sleep. Wanting to continue this moment. Not wanting to break it.

the sea: wave 4


Noticing, looking up with my eyes still closed as I was, that the sky was above, as it is, and that the sky was something too. That it was like The Sea but with more uncertainty. The Sea’s reflection in a dusty mirror, the something on the other side of our conscious world, a world that only rises a few stories above the ground, a thin membrane covering this earth. Planes and submarines, fish and birds, our waste and our carbon dioxide. 

There is sand in this Sea, and it used to be a parish church, or some other thing, and there is dust in the air, and it used to be the sand that used to be the parish church. And that sand was in this Sea, and now that sand is in the air, and it’s moving around this earth and finding the folds of our Sunday best, the gaps in our windows, our momentarily open doors. It has not given up, it can’t, like machinery. And it has been everywhere … everywhere and elsewhere, seeking its place, and this journey isn’t entropy, this journey is the system. We chase out of our bedrooms buildings of the last millennium with a broom and a dustpan, their slow insistence on coming in. There are particles of sand, dust, everywhere. Breaking free of the corner stone with the help of the water, the other stones. Setting off on an adventure of currents, ground even smaller climbing some far off shore, seizing the wind, travelling inland. The grains struggle to remake the Sea’s image on land, drenching landscapes in the dryness of desert dust, homing in on our freshly built free radicals, the clock of timing the struggle started with the last coat of paint.

*****

Elsew/here the sand drawing is now complete. Over the last week, the shaven-headed monks in the saffron robes have patiently tap-tap-tapped millions of grains of coloured sand off the tips of crafted copper tubes into complex geometrical patterns. The sand flowed like liquid paint. White, black, and three distinct shades each of red, yellow, green and blue: fourteen colours in all. A pure experience of colour, and an elaborately imagined sacred space. While they worked, the monks wore linen masks to cover their mouths and noses, so that their breath would not disturb the sand. They have been building an elaborate spherical cosmic map from the centre outwards. Circle square square square circle circle, a spiralling form structurally similar to the petals of a flower. 

For the monks it represents a movement through levels of confusion towards enlightenment: an unfolding from two dimensions to many. In short, it is a cosmogram, its width the size of an adult human, with the emblem of a deity at its very centre. In this case, the deity is a goddess, both protective and given to explosive rage. It is said she is dark blue, has three eyes, and rides on a mule through a sea of blood encircled by the fire of wisdom. The sun nestles in her navel, a sickle moon arcs across her forehead. She is associated with healing through knowledge, and is consulted through a system of divination by dice.

The finished mandala is consecrated through prayer, chanting, meditation, and a series of visualisations. Each particle of pigment is charged to contain the image in its entirety, each fragment the whole, each grain a macrocosm, like the individual shards of a shattered hologram. One of the monks scatters a handful of six-sided ivory die to one side; the meanings of the numbers and symbols in this particular configuration are discussed at length. Suddenly, one of the younger monks sneezes massively, theatrically; the others laugh. 

Finally, in a ritual that stages the impermanence of all things, the monks dismantle the drawing by sweeping the sand into small piles. It’s a very practical dispersal of the image, almost casual. Four little grey piles are left, like tiny cartoon volcanos. The monks bless each of the piles, bag them up, and carry them on the short walk to the meeting point of river and sea. One final monotonal chant describes a teardrop shed into an ocean of suffering, and suffering’s release. Then four monks wade into the surf up to their knees and pour the sand into the water. Slowly, they release dry into wet, all the while visualising each coloured particle’s infinite possible trajectories, carried by the sea’s currents and flows to every corner of the world. They stand in silence, the ends of their robes bobbing on tiny waves like slopping pools of ochre wine in slow-motion.

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give. ‘Seesoo, hrss, rsseis, oos …’ (1)

*****


Elsew/here a fleet of steam dredgers removes tons of granite and flint shingle from the seabed beneath the cliffs to provide material for a new sea wall further down the coast. God-fearing fishermen with furrowed brows look on from their village at the foot of the cliffs, wondering what repercussions this might have, this ‘tampering with nature’, this modern arrogance to dream of ‘playing god’. No good will come of it, they say. Look at them: they couldn’t navigate a turd around a pisspot, they say. Some years later ferocious winter storms whip the sea into a frenzy, and the slate sky is thick with spindthrift, like a snow storm. As dusk falls, towering black waves blast away at the unprotected village. Never seen anything like it, they say, like the end of the world. 

Overnight most of the community’s buildings are devastated, gouged and pulped to dust by the walls of driving water. The whitewashed slate-roofed fishermen’s cottages, all of them decapitated and ground down. The small grey stone inn, its fireplace doused forever. The workshop for making lobster pots and mending nets. The stables and piggery. The chapel. The tiny Post Office shop. The village hall, for community meetings and wedding receptions and evenings of songs and shanties. (Remember? ‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by / And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking / And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking’). All dust now, carried away tirelessly by the sea. Even the beach is gone.

Every now and then deep in the churning bay, minute sandy particles and splinters fleetingly reconfigure to form the skeletal outlines of what they were once part of – a shed, a kitchen, the furniture of a bedroom – before a fresh undersea gust tears through these ghostly outlines, shattering them anew, and the grains disperse and disappear into the ocean’s depths.

On this journey, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.

*****

Elsew/here a ghost net drifts across the ocean’s surface, a floating island unconsciously gathering its catch. From a distance it looks like a small reef breaching the surface. Close up, it’s another story. Caught in the net’s mesh are seaweed, drift wood, plastic bottles, lengths of blue polymer twine, twisted drinks cans, a paint can half full of toxic sludge, empty crisp packets, an aerosol can, dead fish, various bird carcasses, a dolphin cub, and a fluttering tern, its feet caught in the fine nylon filaments: its wings are the only visible sign of life. 

This is how it happens. A length of pelagic drift netting, one of the instruments of choice for those barely-legal fishing fleets engaged in a kind of maritime strip-mining, breaks loose and floats free. As it drifts it entraps whatever it encounters, gradually ballooning until its mass of waste and putrefying flesh finally sinks beneath its own weight. Over time, this material then breaks down or falls free to allow the net to rise to the surface once more - and the cycle begins again.

Elsew/here dozens of rusting metal barrels dumped out at sea are washed on shore by a terrifying freak wave. Some of the containers carry the stencilled word RIFIUTI on their ruptured flanks; others carry a warning symbol that looks like a three-blade spinning propeller or fan, black on a yellow background. Nearby, a man with his head swathed in blue cloth and an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder stares out to sea; he chews his khat leaf and spits on the sand. (2)

Elsew/here an innocuous brown glass bottle is washed ashore on an island beach. Over the next three days, eight people from a tiny tribal community will drink from it and die. (3)

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.

*****

Elsew/here, another kind of sea far inland. The travellers arrive in ones and twos, sometimes a small van arrives in a dust cloud and disgorges an unsteady gaggle of people, shrouded against the sun. They carry light bags for the journey, just the barest of essentials. They have long since said goodbye to their families. Those that stay behind never say their son or daughter or husband ‘left’ or ‘migrated’; they refer to them as ‘the burnt ones’, those that have burnt the law, the past. At the meeting point in the dunes a man in sunglasses shows them the pre-fabricated kit from which they will build the boat. As he explains the process, he traces lines and swirls in the sand with a stick. Lengths of untreated pine are laid out on the ground; to one side on a white cloth, a variety of bolts, screws, two screwdrivers, a hammer, some bags of plastic ballast. The wood looks like the ruptured rib cage of some extinct beast, bleached by the sun, then buried by the tidal movements of the sand, and only now disinterred. 

Many of them have never seen the sea; with diverse images of ‘boat’ in their minds, they start to assemble this mysterious thing in which they will entrust their hopes and their lives. Gradually separate pieces are linked together and the boat’s outline emerges. Their tap-tap-tapping is sometimes interrupted by the low throb of a military plane scouring the dunes; they hide under camouflaged tarpaulins, or lie flat on the sand to try to make themselves invisible, just more fragments of unremarkable desert flotsam. When the boat is finished, they stand around it with a mixture of astonishment and trepidation. In silence they wait huddled against the cold night until dawn, unable to sleep, then at first light they drag the boat through the sand towards the sea. We go looking for our lives, they say.

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give. Soo, siessr, ssrh, oosees … seesoo, hrss, rsseis, oos …


(1) James Joyce, Ulysses, London: Penguin, 1992, p. 62.
(2) See, for example, Jonathan Clayton, ‘Somalia’s secret dumps of toxic waste washed ashore by tsunami’, The Times, 4 March 2005.
(3) See, for example, Sanjib Kumar Roy, ‘Bottled chemical on beach kills tribe members’, The Guardian, 12 December 2008.