It is New Year’s Eve, a darkening afternoon, and I have pulled my two young children away from a gleaming fire because of my impatience to visit a lighthouse. The temperature has fallen below freezing. When I look back now at that time, six months after my husband died, I barely inhabited myself. I was as ghostly as the ghosts I never encountered. I had left, as he died, something of my own body behind.
The fire burns low as we walk in the white-skied town. The lighthouse has a red eye at its tip. There is something mute about it — mute and muted, its cauterized silence. Today, in the late afternoon light it stands there like an unstruck match waiting to flame. The lighthouse is being memorialized. There are folk art lighthouses painted on driftwood, a sepia postcard in which the lighthouse rises from the redbrick Edwardian terraced cottages, beside a pub, the SOLE BAY INN. The picture has many frames. It is a copperplate etching with seagulls, boats, the rooftops all in proximity looking out towards the sea, the pier in the left hand corner. It is an oil painting with a boldly-brushed blue sky. What am I remembering, seeking, reinventing as I insist we walk towards it? I think about Woolf’s great novel, an elegy to her parents as well as a poem on art’s transformative power and vision. It is ‘glued’ together, (those are her words), with poetry. ‘Into the valley of death’.
It is years later, and – like a haunting that only the future can apprehend — I return again and again to the image in The Interpretation of Dreams
of the father who wakes to the sight of his child aflame. In his dream, the child has called to him. Father! Can’t you see I’m burning? But, long hours before, the child has already died; and the father, too exhausted (too much in pain?) to stay awake alongside the corpse of his young offspring, sleeps in the next room, no longer watching over him. What happens
figure the lyric through this trauma, this movement in time between the workings of our unconscious/ imagination, our connection with the moment of perception, being alive, and real? To whom does the child who is already dead speak? And who speaks through the child? What is the stillness, what are the woundings of this dream/song to which we wake?
Like the after effects of trauma the fires keep returning, re-igniting. I chance upon a late unfinished poem by Elizabeth Bishop which recalls an incident in her infancy as she watched the nearby town of Salem being consumed by flames. ‘A Drunkard’ is a poem full of repetitions, verbal doublings —
‘clearly clearly’ ‘reprimand reprimand’
a particular tic in Bishop’s work, which appears to occur at moments when the ‘nagging thoughts’ that cannot quite be understood poke through. It is a traumatic repetition, a sort of musical signalling of what Christopher Bollas calls ‘the unthought known’. Full of typos and mistakes Bishop slowly becomes aware in her poem that things are going wrong. Performance of drunkenness or literal drunkedness? Mistypings and misspellings. The poem starts to question the authenticity of narrativising and interpreting trauma. And it fails. Its interpretation, in fact, is too linear. In its narration it fails, as Freud might put it, to overinterpret itself. The music that might make it a poem does not happen because it is in fact ‘burnt out’; intoxicated by its own thirst it can never quench itself, its analysis of its-self instead becomes lost in the monotony of its repetition.
As I think about Woolf and Bishop, two writers whose mother’s absence played such a part in their lives, a story I heard on the radio rises from the back of my mind. A woman who had fostered children for over thirty years tells of a boy (abandoned by his family) who lived with her. One day he set fire to a chair in her hall. His usual response to his unbearable pain is to self-harm. At some level, in creating this fire, she tells us with relief, he had chosen not to harm himself. And so they arranged the building of future fires (poems?) – safely, out of sight, amongst the trees, far away from the house.
In her study of mourning and melancholia, Black Sun
, Julia Kristeva points to a dynamic which operates in the writing of the French novelist Marguerite Duras which she identifies as moving between an ‘aesthetics of awkwardness’ (l’esthétique de la maladresse) on the one hand, and a ‘non-cathartic literature’ on the other. Ultimately for Kristeva, Duras’ writing fails ‘because it offers nothing artistic in response to the pathological states in which it originates – only unerotic ravishment and undiluted expression of suffering’; it does not ‘analyze itself by seeking courses in the music that lies under the words’ but looks instead to a ‘confrontation with the silence of horror in oneself and in the world’.
Concentrated and erotic, or something
in the spaces between?
Born in 1914, the same year Bishop stood at her mother’s knee watching the Salem flames, Dylan Thomas writes in his short story, ‘The Burning Child’, of incest, rape, a baby on the hillside surrendered to the flames. He was twenty-two. Years later, in 1945 he writes of ‘Fire green as grass’ as he elegizes his childhood. I think about my own brother, stillborn, in a city still marked by the bombed out landscapes of the postwar years. Buried in an unmarked grave, the baby has never for a moment left my side. Lines drift back. After the first death, Thomas writes elsewhere, there is no other.