PRESEN C E | I SS U E 5
ISSUE 5: PRESENCE 2021 stillpointldn.com firstname.lastname@example.org Virginia Woolf Building, 22 Kingsway, Holborn London WC2B 6LE Editor: Lizzie Hibbert Arts and Features Editor: James Waddell Poetry Editor: Imogen Free Prose Editor: Sarah Collier Designer: Carys Howells Publicity and Events: Fabian Broeker
The Still Point Journal is published once a year with the support of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, Room 204, School of Advanced Study, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.
Introduction Lizzie Hibbert Part Two Esmee West-Agboola Sidney’s ‘stuff’: Poetry, Humanism and Masturbation Josh Mcloughlin
A Lisbon Diary Louis Klee footloose Roddy Howland-Jackson Three Photographs Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba Grief Embodied Inés García
20 Decameron and A Wet Sponge at One Blow
Conspiracy Theory: An Interview with Lucy Sabin James Waddell Wear and Tear and Gnomon Fintan Calpin Bermondsey’s Beer Mile: Gentrification and the Society of the Spectacle Emily Moore There, there Catherine Kelly Two Photographs Fabian Broeker Empty Space Niamh Gordon The Dinosaurs Jiayi Fang
Leaves, Alive and Otherwise Fiona Glen
Notes on Editors
Notes on Contributors
On or around March 2020, time stopped. On Tuesday 17th, the Daily Telegraph ran the headline ‘Life Put on Hold’ above an image of the prime minister, in Kitchener-stance, pointing just past the camera with his left hand, its pulled-back shirtsleeve revealing the face of a wristwatch. The grounding of flights, the suspension of public transport and the shuttering of workplaces fixed the world in place. But we were also fixed in time. Gone, overnight, were the conventional external markers of time’s passage: the working week, the academic calendar, the never-ending carousel of birthday parties, weddings and wakes. The age of acceleration was over: now was the time to wait and hold tight until we had weathered the storm. The past to which we so long to return is gone forever, we are told, and the future (for now) has been cancelled. All we have left, then, is the present. At least, that is what the endless stream of ‘how to cope with lockdown’ articles would have us believe. We must wean ourselves off our future-thinking and retrospection, the better to live in the moment. Go for a run and savour the burning in your limbs; feel expanding dough bubble beneath your fingertips; pay proper attention to the birds and the flowers. You must, at all costs, hold on to the present, because it’s the only thing left to hold on to. But solitude, sorrow and lack of stimulation can make time behave in unexpected ways. If attempting to live in the moment teaches us anything, it is that ‘the present’ doesn’t really exist. Try, for a moment, to make your mind’s eye focus on the exact moment of now, that razor-thin edge between the second that has just passed and the one about to come. It vanishes. The stop-start rhythms of the past year, punctuated by the government’s equally scattergun approaches to legislation and messaging, have amplified this effect. News stories, Twitter storms and public health statistics begin to feel ancient within days of inception, while, at the same time, your circumstances remain stubbornly unchanged. Now streams through your laced fingers like sand. How, then, Can we think about presence? The contributors to this fifth print edition of the Still Point journal have considered this question from every angle. For some, presence means being present to oneself. In the poem which opens Presence, Esmee West-Agboola’s ‘Part Two’, a woman is ‘skimming scissors through’ a ‘favourite’ dress in the present tense, ‘cutting stitches where the fabric gathers.’ She breathes and feels, untethers her mind: being present means loosening the binding ties to past and future, restructuring them to serve the present, as she repurposes the fabric of her favourite dress. The liberating effect of being present to 1
oneself is also central to Roddy Howland-Jackson’s ‘footloose’, but this time to disturbing effect. Focusing on the feeling of the tongue in the mouth, the speaker becomes increasingly agitated, as attention to the tongue makes it bigger, worse, more threatening. These poems both pay the kind of ‘special attention’ to the body’s ‘unconscious processes’ which James Waddell finds in Lucy Sabin’s Breathworks (2020). For Sabin, it is vital not to overlook these apparently singular physical experiences, because they are what, in fact, ‘connect’ us. The conflation of presence with connection also animates the many pieces in this volume which focus on place. Emily Moore’s essay on ‘Bermondsey’s Beer Mile’ paints a rich and discomfiting picture of the histories, things and characters which accrue over time in any inhabited place, whose presence is at once ‘incorporeal’ and ‘material’. Bermondsey is a space wherein multiple interests—and multiple truths—are simultaneously present; in a ‘transitional historical moment’ its streets hold ambivalent pasts and futures ‘locked in a stalemate’ within a finite area. Lisbon takes on a similar role in Louis Klee’s portentously dated ‘Lisbon Diary’: a ‘too cool’ city dressed in ‘old clothes’, where pop and ‘ecclesiastical music’ meet. Klee is attentive to the multiple pasts, presents and futures each individual carries with them to the places they inhabit. Through his Australian narrator, Lisbon becomes a gateway to bushfires ten thousand miles away, the ‘bad’ air from Canberra seeming to drift through his open window. In Catherine Kelly’s poem ‘There, there’, these threads, which bind us in the present to every time and place we have touched, manifest in a scarf St Brigid throws onto a map, ‘covering the whole world’. Still, in Kelly’s poem there remain spaces and gaps—‘hairline fractures’—wherein dwell danger and possibility alike. In his essay on ‘Poetry, Humanism and Masturbation’, Josh Mcloughlin is attentive to unexpected presences which slip through fractures in sense and understanding. Poets create their poems, as God created the cosmos, out of nothing, and yet still they are full of ‘stuffe’. ‘Stuff’, as Mcloughlin’s playfully bawdy reading of Sidney delights in reminding us, is the fertile possibility of meaning that ‘slip[s] idly’ into all (but especially poetic) language. Multiple truths are present in everything: they ooze into the gaps of everyday life and conventional understandings. In Jaiyi Fang’s equally playful photoseries ‘The Dinosaurs’, as in the Italo Calvino short story it responds to, a dinosaur seems to have fallen through a gap in the sixty-five million years since its species’ extinction, erupting like a revenant into modern-day London. Fang’s photographs are comical but also sad: the dinosaur looks lost; there is a flicker of recognition between it and its bird ancestor, who turns its back and walks away. In the final image, it holds on to the trunk of an ornamental tree like a baby to its cloth mother in the Harry Harlow monkey studies. There are unexpected presences—dinosaurs, pathos—everywhere. The making present—or rediscovering the presence—of things once thought lost is an impulse which also drives Inés García’s essay ‘Grief Embodied: On doing Psychoanalysis in Your Second Language’. It might be tempting to think of psychoanalysis, and of remembering in all forms, as an act of ‘retrieval’. But, as García shows, the tools multilingualism provides for the excavation of past lived experiences highlight that every act of representation is one of recreation. This realisation brings her to the use of extended ellipses in the piece, such as when she compares ‘prelinguistic memories’ to ‘ ’. To make the memories present by rendering them linguistic would be to distort them: best to leave them as they are. Fintan Calpin’s ‘Gnomon’ and ‘Wear and Tear’ are similarly animated by such productive gaps. He writes that we are ‘forgiven for thinking’ without being told what it is that we think; the speaker comes ‘later than’ we ‘think’, but we don’t know when. These absences keep the reader and speaker present together; to fill them in would be to burst the 2
ballooning ‘opportune moment’. Tierra McMahon’s dynamic image of sheep spilling onto the streets of Morocco in the run-up to Eid al-Kabir, destined for sacrifice, encapsulates this vanishing nature of the present—its aptness to burst. The photograph is busy with movement and full of life, yet we know these sheep must now be dead, the moment past. In reality the present to which we feel we are party died with the click of the shutter. In Fiona Glen’s ‘Leaves, Alive and Otherwise’, too, the passage of time means the continuing death of the present. The unusually hot spring of 2020 turns into summer ‘without change, it seems’, echoing lives which feel unchanging, occupied only with the restocking and consumption of ‘locked-down meals’. But death and decay are everywhere, everything getting worse in slow motion. The fall of leaves in spring brings none of autumn’s fecundity, only a reminder of the ways in which the planet is dying. By trapping the speaker and the reader in ‘stasis’, lockdown opens up a hole through which we stare— glued to Netflix and Hollywood and re-runs as we have been—at ‘the horror, the horror’. Pauses in time can have this effect, as in Leonie Shinn-Morris’s ‘Decameron’, where night opens ‘like the yawn of the world’ as the speaker, passively ‘sat still’ by somebody ‘holding [their] breath’, sees ‘dancers along the Rhine// in the 14th century’. Shinn-Morris’s poems are alive to the fact that the present is never just the present, but rather that ‘each loss is every loss’, everyone Aeschylus, and everything we encounter ‘a Rorschach splash’ in whose image we are liable to find ourselves refracted. Shinn-Morris’s speakers are haunted by the present’s loneliness, which is also palpable in Fabian Broeker’s two photographs of ‘M’ in London in 2019, a date which now, inevitably, stands for ‘before’. The woman in both photographs looks away from the camera and the person holding it, her gaze fixed on something out of shot and lost to time. She is consumed by thoughts, feelings and sensations as apparently inaccessible to the camera as they are to us, her averted gaze resistant to the lens which would seek to capture the moment and preserve it. We move through time side by side, these photographs remind us, but the present is not a thing we can share. Niamh Gordon’s ‘Empty Space’ makes the isolation we all experience in our own subjective present a source of horror. To the protagonist, the absence of a piece of her heart and the presence instead of a ‘sickly oozing wound’ is as evident as gravity — ‘you’d know it to look at me’ — and is so overwhelming it throws off her own ‘centre of gravity’. But the people around her do not know it to look at her. She is running out of time, the hole a ‘pressing issue’ and her demise ‘imminent’. It is a cruel irony, then, when Leah prescribes ‘years, decades’ as the cure to what ails her, as though any of us could speed up or slow down time by force of will. The fact, like it or not, is that we are all of us trapped inside a non-existent tense. By the time you are reading this, it will have been weeks, months, or even years since I wrote it. My use of verbs in the present is a white lie into which we are both eager to buy, to keep up the false appearance that we are present to one another. Perhaps it is three photographs by Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba which best encompass this predicament. Models are exquisitely posed like marble statues, before a blank but shadowed backdrop, as though in a space outside of time. Muscles tense, they are poised towards action—a bicycle kick; a relaxing of the arms; ‘Suckling Fish-Christ’—yet the images are peaceful. A man in diamonds cradles a dead eel as though it is something precious, drapes its tail over one shoulder like a robe. The photograph is the corpse of a long-departed moment in ‘flat 70’ last ‘October’ which nonetheless sparkles with life. An image of 2020, it dances on ‘on the verge’ of the present: both not yet arrived and already passed.
PART T WO
Today is my first day of rest. Today I am skimming scissors through my favourite Ankara dress that I last wore when it fit. As we speak, I am cutting stitches where the fabric gathers the reckless shades of an undefined blue, blood filtered orange, demon-green, and that mindless beige that lingers like a staring child. And here I sit, under the tentative heat of this english sun, years and years after the mother of my father also sits in the yard of Shola’s Castle and mouths my younger girl measurements to an old tailor. Only he sits under loud rays. Sweat contouring the light and age of his face, dodging the sewing machine he works before him. Legs crossed on the concrete, his heels brushing the dust behind the tiptoeing of young lizards playing hide and seek with God. The image plays in parallel with my reality. Here I breathe, undoing the placement of his hands on this fabric. But I can’t say I feel wrong. I loved that dress when I could wear it. It wore me by a high tide in Mallorca, where the rainbows of a possibility-facing sea swam in front, behind, through and inside my body.
Thoroughly and carefully caressing, with a delicacy I now miss standing barefoot in the puddles of my own messy waterfall. I think of me standing in that dress and blending in with relief itself. And so, as I cut every careful stitch that once sealed the spillage of a torn inside, I think “how funny...I am not bleeding. What a risk it is to cut you up, yet I am not scared?” I speak after action now. While I used the first morning of rest to sort through the earrings I was ready to let go, while thinking what I would do with this dress, I was reminded by my love that my mind is free. And so the fabric is not in a bag, but back in my room with me. Although now it is on either side of my face, it goes on mending. That dress now sits on the seabed of my mind, while these earrings will wash up to the beach for a while, I guess. Please return this moment to me when the waters change again, so that I may write the third part.
SIDNEY’S ‘STUFF’ Poetry, Humanism and Masturbation
What are poems made of? What presence do they have? What substance or trace of the poet might poems contain? During the English Renaissance, ‘poesy’, Rayna Kalas argues, was recognised ‘as techne rather than aesthetics’. In other words poetry, in this period, was an artisanal craft like any other. But for Philip Sidney, the poet’s peers are not glassmakers, tanners, or masons but other intellectuals: philosophers, lawyers, historians, and scientists. However, in his Defence of Poesie (1595), the poet is different. While ‘other arts’ ‘hath the works of nature for’ their ‘principal object’:
Only the Poet, disdeining to be tied to any such subiectio[n], lifted vp with the vigor of his own inuention, doth grow in effect into an other nature: in making things either better then nature bringeth foorth, or quite a new, formes such as neuer were in nature.
If poets don’t, like ‘other arts’, rework existing ‘formes’, but create ‘a new’, what are poems made of? Sidney explains that the poet ‘bringeth his own stuffe’ and ‘maketh matter for a conceite’. ‘Stuffe’? The poet ‘bringeth [...] stuff’ to make poems? The word strikes a note of bathos, puncturing a passage asserting the superiority of poetic making over ‘other arts’ and nature itself, which ‘neuer set foorth the earth in so rich Tapistry as diuerse Poets haue done’. The prosaic intrusion of ‘stuff’ deflates an oration modelled after Renaissance humanist panegyrics on the soaring power of the human intellect – what Christopher Marlowe would later satirise as the overweening ‘mind of man’. An early example of such an oration is Marsilo Ficino’s Platonica theologia (1482), which valorised man as ‘a sort of God’: a ‘semi-creator’. In his 1481 commentary on Dante, Ficino’s contemporary Cristoforo Landino said:
Poetry is a ‘middle term between “to create”, which is appropriate to God [...] and “to make”, which is said of men in every art when they compose something out of matter and form’.
For Landino, the poet is a semi-divine figure, somewhere between God and man, who ‘departs from making and comes very close to creating’ ex nihilo.
The idea of the poet as godlike creator became a commonplace of Renaissance thought. In Julius Caesar Scaliger’s Poetices libri septem (1561), the most influential treatise on poetics 6
in Europe, the poet is ‘almost a second deity’ who ‘seems [...] to create’ as God does. For Torquato Tasso, the poet’s imaginative world-making resembles ‘il supremo artefice nelle sue operazioni’. The most famous humanist panegyric of all, however, is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s, whose Oration on the Dignity of Man is almost as humble as Ficino and Landino. The exceptionalism Sidney claims for the poet over the ‘other arts’ recalls Pico’s distinction between man and animals:
The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.
That’s Pico pretending to be God, reminding us that wherever there’s humanism, there’s hubris. Sidney’s Defence appears to mobilise the same self-gratifying triumphalism for the poet. Where Pico’s man is ‘impeded by no [...] restrictions’, Sidney’s poet is spirited from ‘subiection’; where Pico’s man, ‘by [his] own free will [...] trace[s] [...] the lineaments of [his] own nature’, Sidney’s poet is ‘lifted up with the vigour of his own invention’ to create a world of ‘forms such as never were’. But the ‘forms’ in this ‘golden’ world of poetry are made out of... ‘stuff’. The word, as you can probably tell, bothered me. ‘Stuff’ appears more than 30 times in Sidney and Arthur Golding’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s De la vérité de la religion chréstienne, published in London in 1587 as A woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian religion. The title of Chapter 10 in Mornay’s original is: Que Dieu a creé le monde de Rien, c’est a dire, sans matiere. The translation reads:
‘That God created the world of nothing, that is to say, without any matter, substance, or stuffe whereof to make it.’
Here, ‘stuff’ is exactly what God did not need to create the cosmos. The poet’s creative manipulation of ‘stuff’, then, might not be as godlike as it first appeared, and this is the first clue that Sidney’s account of poetic making is no simple cut-and-dry panegyric in the Italian Renaissance mode. But ‘stuff’ had a range of meanings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. By 1568, ‘stuff’ was synonymous with ‘bombast’, a coarse cotton wool tailors used for padding. Both ‘stuff’ and ‘bombast’ originally denoted clothing material, either a base layer to be adorned or a cheaper, inner stuffing designed to puff up fabric and give the illusion of density, weight, and luxury. George Puttenham, for example, in his Art of English poesie (1589) compares poetic ornament to the ‘passements of gold vpon the stuffe of a Princely garment’. But ‘bombast’ was quickly repurposed as a metaphor to describe poetry or oratory padded out or puffed up with nonsense, redundancy, and pretentious ‘inkhorn terms’ calculated to dazzle and impress. The most famous example is Thomas Nashe’s attack on Christopher Marlowe’s ‘swelling bombast of a bragging blanke verse’. But this metaphorical sense applied to ‘stuff’, too. In 1579 Stephen Gosson was enraged that, in Seneca the Younger’s Hercules: Iuno crieth out in Seneca, Tellus colenda est, pellices coelum tenent; ‘Lets dwel in 7
earth, for heauen is full of whores.’ what stuffe is this? wantons in heauen?
In the context of poetry, then, ‘stuff’, sometimes with its partner-in-crime bombast, sometimes solo, meant poetry that was full of rubbish, hot air, flim-flam, all style and no substance. Looking again at Sidney’s poet, this reading of ‘stuff’ frames poetry as padded out with meaningless guff: a load of overblown twaddle. But the meanings of ‘stuff’ don’t end there. Shakespeare also describes a poet using the word ‘stuff’, adding further colour to this antipathetic sketch of poetry. In Timon of Athens (1604–5), Timon angrily tells the philosopher Apemanthus: If thou wilt curse; thy Father (that poore ragge) Must be thy subiect; who in spight put stuffe To some shee-Begger, and compounded thee Poore Rogue, hereditary.
Here, where Shakespeare’s reveals his puerility with a Jacobean ‘your mum’ joke, ‘stuff’ means ‘semen’, a sense corroborated in Gordon Williams’s glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. But what is he getting at here? Is it what Stephen Guy-Bray calls ‘the familiar reproductive metaphor’ used to imagine poetic creation, ‘according to which the author is the parent of the work and writing a text is like having a baby’, or is Valerie Traub closer to the mark in sayin g that ‘[Shakespeare’s] Sonnets are haunted by ‘desires for and anxieties about “sex without issue”’? Reading the relationship between poet and poem in this sexual sense, and reading ‘stuff’ as ‘semen’, let’s see how Timon frames the Poet’s textual production in Act V: And for thy [i.e. the Poet’s] fiction, Why thy Verse swels with stuffe so fine and smooth, That thou art euen Naturall in thine Art. (5.1.82-4) Poems swell with ‘stuffe’. But since the poet, as Sidney insists, ‘only, only bringeth his own’, the metaphor here is not reproductive but onanistic. The phrase ‘Thou art even natural in thine art’ might mean something like ‘your art proceeds from you naturally’. Taken with the Poet’s earlier description of poetry as ‘a thing slipped idly from me’, ‘a gum which oozes / From whence ‘tis nourished’, poetic creation starts to sound a lot like masturbation: a form of Traub’s ‘sex without issue’, rather than Guy-Bray’s reproductive textuality. Pico, Ficino and Landino’s orations are also acts of verbal self-love, but Italian humanism sublimates (if we are being kind) or represses (if we are not) bodily sexuality to celebrate intellectual fecundity: Faustus’s self-pleasuring ‘mind of man’. Sidney and Shakespeare’s ‘stuff’ goes the other way, turning the life-affirming, crowning glory of all human art and reason into an unproductive, issueless form of carnal self-pleasure. Coupled with the sense of ‘stuff’ as superfluous or overblown rubbish noted earlier, what first appeared an oration in defence now seems a damning prosecution of poets. In her 2017 book, On Not Defending Poetry: Defence and Indefensibility in Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, Catherine Bates ‘regard[s] the Defence as a 8
text terminally in conflict with itself’, in which two voices argue: one presenting the poet as virtuous and poetry as a morally sound and profitable enterprise; the other harbouring an incipient critique of capital and insisting on the poet’s deviance from normative values. At the risk of trying to out-Bates Bates, then, we can pursue this logic. Based on what we now know of Sidney’s ‘stuff’, the idealised poet becomes nothing more than a bullshitting wanker whose poems are made from the byproduct of masturbation. Sidney’s Defence, in the offensive spirit of satire, invokes Ficino, Landino, and Pico for a withering critique of hubris, attacking the self-gratifying bombast at the heart of the humanism’s self-image, and reminding the vainglorious ‘mind of man’ of its bodily origins.
In the annual lead-up to Eid al-Kabir [ in Morocco, sheep spill onto residential streets where they are sold and visited before being brought home for sacrifice. Their presence—and that of the shepherds who share space with them during their sojourns in the cities, often in rented garages as above—is celebrated or reviled, economic, religious, social, sensory, dynamic, undeniable.
A LISBON DIARY
At my window, texting Conor. He says Lisbon is ‘too cool’ for him. I’m not in the cool bit, I insist. More the district of elderly women and their pampered cats, where tourist bars play the same Fado every night. Sunday, so the bells are tolling snippets of pop songs and ecclesiastical music. The sun is out but it’s cold, and I am in a state of anxious absorption. A book on my bed is open to a long passage about waking up to sounds of vendors chanting on the street. One is calling about artichokes, tender and sweet, arti-chauts, and pushing his cart over cobbles on a winter morning that feels like spring, and I find my mind wandering again. This morning my Facebook is a large, messy anthology of distress and recrimination. Millie has posted: ‘You could give 10,000 people forced to evacuate because of bushfires $1 million to rebuild their homes and $400,000 in compensation, and still have $15 billion left over for fire and rescue services and environmental management. Each year. How? End the government’s $29 billion in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry’. Immediately below this, Lily has cropped an image of a sponsored, targeted ad for gas masks, KN95 standard approved. The caption says: ‘Save your loved one’s lungs from the Bushfire Madness for just $24.95. Price includes express shipping’. Then a quote from Walter Benjamin provided by Monique: ‘a man [sic] is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak’. And everywhere the same few videos and photos repeated: a magpie mimics the sound of an emergency vehicle siren; a caged lion paces by a circus tent on the side of the Princes Highway; the firefront seen from a helicopter goes on, seemingly endlessly, until it seems almost abstract — for six minutes green becomes black becomes red. Someone, in the midst of it all, is claiming a likeness between the sun in a photograph blanketed by clouds and the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Joel has posted a massive manic six-point plan of what is to be done that resembles leaked minutes from a board meeting; Gary doesn’t know if his house is still standing. He heard rumours of looters arrested in the valley. Esther has shared an album eulogising a family home lost in the Blue Mountain’s firefront. In one photo, her brother is on the sunlit decking, a violin beneath his chin. Adam is explaining how a vacuum cleaner might help remove smoke from inside a house, so long as it has a HEPA filter. The air in Canberra is so bad that the city is importing gas masks, my brother tells me. He already has his own. Rob has screenshotted a Tweet for me: ‘I can’t go on like this — That’s what you think’. People get used to anything, his message continues. If the sun didn’t rise they’d grumble, sure, but after a few days, weeks, it would seem quite normal. They’d get out of bed and scrape the ice off their windscreens with their credit cards and 11
commute to work in a dawn that lasts all day. Camille keeps posting a cropped page from a report from 2008 that is said to have predicted the whole thing. It observes that in 2067 there will be extreme fire weather in Australia for 300 days of the year. The building I am in now—nothing remarkable—was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755. On November 1, the morning of the Feast of All Saints, an earthquake followed by a tsunami and a fire destroyed Lisbon in its entirety. Eyewitness accounts are at best a jumble of chaotic facts that verge on apophasis. It was ‘as words cannot describe’. It was ‘not to be expressed’. It was ‘unutterable’. It was in excess of ‘all description’. ‘I must humbly beg your pardon, Sir, for the disorder of this letter’. Later, philosophers wrote treatises ‘On the Uses of Earthquakes’, a disaster that supposedly could cure us of the delusions of theodicy and the fancy that we could ‘better regulate everything to our advantage’, as if ‘fate had asked our vote on the matter’. For an hour, I bestow all my sober curiosity on this disaster, distant in time, hoping, I think, for some affinity that might illuminate this other, distant in space. Then I look down at a page of notes. ‘Thought’, I have copied out on a fresh page, ‘remains faithful to the idea of immediacy only in and through what is mediated; conversely, it falls prey to the mediated as soon as it tries to grasp the unmediated directly’. From my window, the noise of an iron shutter being raised on the street. It cuts suddenly through the busy murmur of people talking under the shabby frontage of a bakery that never seems to close. ‘Old clothes’, someone out there is saying, ‘any old clothes, old clo-othes’.
tongues don’t fit mouths they slump rudely on the palate always swollen always there a fat clammy slub and the jaw slackens to accommodate it but it’s still there in the space a cyst pregnant with your helplessness no you can’t ignore it you can’t do that it is you no matter what you do you will feel this groan this lipid scream a red ache blushing from the throat and it’s a tidal bruise a tepid glacier it’s always been there complicit and dormant like your toes which touch each other clamped by your shoes and socks and skin you can’t move them apart they’re fettered in flesh your flesh they howl limply in mute thralls but they slump they don’t fit
Black Boy on the Verge of Suckling Fish-Christ: Anthony Badu, Writer, Film Maker and Artistic Director of flat 70, October 2020
Anthony Badu, October 2020
Seyon Amosu, January 2020
GRIEF EMBODIED On doing psychoanalysis in your second language
The psychoanalytic process works through the defamiliarisation of emotions, mental states, and the words we use to describe them through fastidious attention to language. It is not necessarily true, then, that examining your head in a second language is more difficult than doing it in your mother tongue; linguistic encounters with the self are troubling and complex often beyond words. There is, however, a different kind of troubled iteration when one revisits life, past and present, in a second language. The mother tongue finds its way through inadvertent bodily forms. In the same way, perhaps, that grief remains alive, with memories untold. The paradox of a psychoanalytic treatment is that while no material is new, since everything is already within you — consciously or not — the attention you pay to your words exceeds your communicative abilities and renders those fifty minutes both extremely awkward and familiar. Doing psychoanalysis in your second tongue is but an enhancement of this phenomenon. How do you talk about yourself if your history is stored in your mother tongue and your mother tongue does not take place in the psychoanalytic process? Words are undeniably novel, but the narrative is an old one. Or so we think. Months into the treatment, I decided that a mother tongue is not only the words you spoke first; it is the ways through which you learned to be in the world, and is always irredeemably present. Sometimes to your own disadvantage. At times, the tongue tries desperately to translate whatever belongs to you in the back of your head – as if it was actually inside you. This sense of retrieval can feel like taking care of a vestigial organ whose decline would threaten the overall health of your organism. You would think that the mother tongue comes naturally to the mind, so it could be expected that lived experiences in the language you grew up with transpire easily. Retelling a story using the language through which it unravelled should restate it — except it doesn’t. Repeating a specific memory renders it spurious — like when you say a common word out loud, over and over until it loses its meaning, with the sounds we took for granted rolling off our tongue one by one. But ideas do not come to me in my mother tongue and wait to be translated; memories do not queue, even when an alien syntax demands restructuring. There is another kind of translation that is not necessarily, or not simply, from my primary to my secondary language: 18
it is that which transforms my bodily affectations into words that, regardless of their newness, feel no less . Sometimes my tongue tries to access memories that turn out to be pre-linguistic, like when . I don’t know if I couldn’t hear them because of the waves breaking on the shore or because they were silent. [What was I doing there?] Both the description of the scene and my questions around it are begotten in English. Constructing these is by necessity an act of faith on the brain. If the crystal-clear scene in your head has never been verbalised, how can you be sure that it took place, that you are not making it up like the dream you’ve been having since you were 6? [But are dreams something we make up?] Except that the scene is not crystal-clear. It escapes the same way the shadow escapes its owner. There is also the case of evident non-existent memories, expressions of affection and intimacy that should have taken place but didn’t. There is no space in the mind for both rejection and hope; there can only be one tyrant. Such realisation will come in your second tongue, restating the of memories that are not. A dear friend of mine once told me that the effects of psychoanalysis take place between sessions, not during the sessions themselves. Most times I disagree. Therapy is about one’s relationship with the therapist, especially transference focused psychotherapy. Or so my therapist says. Admittedly, without much motivation I recently remembered my mother taking some nerve-soothing tablets called “Lyrica”. Medical specifications read that pregabalin is used to treat pain caused by nerve damage. Was the damage beyond repair, the pain the only part of the body it was possible to treat? Did she die from genetic self-expression, or its unresolved attempt? Spanish is not my mother tongue. My mother tongue is my mother’s gestures and postures. My mother tongue is present when I speak English because I speak like her, because my lips learned to be pressed from looking at her, just as my legs learned to be twisted to the limit — twice down from the knees to the ankles. My mother tongue is her body, echoed in an attempt to relax that makes the neck breathe, opened in reflection for an instant, only to snap back to a geometrical second thought. My mother tongue is my mother’s body language. And my body/language is but an echo of my mother’s death.
DECAMERON and A WET SPONGE AT ONE BLOW
Decameron The night opened like the yawn of the world. And I am sat with you, things catching, watching capsizing on television and holding your breath — just like the dancers along the Rhine in the fourteenth century. If I write in capitals, can you hear me shouting? We itch together at the thought of those silken tributaries stretched out far ENOUGH — Can you tell my pause? Not to touch, but with these electric transmissions you could cut the blue with a knife? My lie in your eye and your lie in mine To shiver when someone walks over the grave of you
A Wet Sponge at One Blow Later we went to the museum, in terror whites and cold corners Inside a perfect cut ice cube vitrine, each on their own mounting, is every hair I cut from your head that day on the terrace each loss is every loss A balding man pushes up his spectacles and, looking down through them, studies infant follicle, licks a finger, and opens his guide. We move to a white column adorned with one soft, round conker passed palm to palm. In this light, it flashes shiny surface on shiny surface — don’t touch the skin. Mounted on the wall (each loss being every loss) is a piece of terracotta burst outwards, plucked on a Sicilian path. A woman coughs. Squatting behind a thin white wire is a Rorschach splash of wine spilled on your kitchen lino Aeschylus is ever us A long low case holds every birthday card you ever sent me, their legs splayed with pins to hold them open — Two notes there too for (assorted ephemera). 21
How we found in history the ones to hold us brown paper and bubble wrapped in the scholia of tissues each loss is every loss And you say you’ll buy the postcard.
CONSPIRACY THEORY An Interview with Lucy Sabin
For a few minutes, I am pausing to listen to the sound of breath. Not my own, but that of others: deep, meditative inhalations with birdsong in the background, then yogic chanting, then a baby yawning, then the slow, hollow rhythm of breath in an oxygen mask. Each is accompanied by an image—a painting, a photograph, or an abstract pattern—over which a circle of dots pulses and shimmers in time to the sound, like rippling water or the surface of a booming loudspeaker. I’m watching selected contributions to Breathworks, a participatory digital artwork at Modern Art Oxford which invited members of the public to contribute one image and one sound recording which they felt conveyed their experience of breathing. The project was initiated in 2020 by Lucy Sabin, then a Creative Associate at the gallery, and now an LAHP-funded PhD student at UCL, where her creative research practice investigates breathing, air and atmospheres. Breathworks was conceived before the pandemic, but grew into a year which brought this most inconspicuous element of our daily lives crashing into the foreground. A summer of anti-racist protests rallied around the slogan “I can’t breathe”, and an airborne virus which attacks the lungs forced us to shut down public life, in turn driving down levels of air pollution as global mobility ground almost to a halt. Discussing the intertwined quality of these events, Sabin wrote at the time: “I mention these diverse phenomena in one sentence (or in one breath?) not to demean or conflate their ongoing, profound and complex reverberations, but to illustrate that breath is a prominent theme of 2020; it is at the forefront of our collective mind.” When I interviewed Sabin this year, she told me it was this foregrounding, this special attention to unconscious processes, which had animated Breathworks in the first place. “The interesting thing about breath was the fact that it usually might get overlooked, because it’s invisible. And maybe we take it for granted, because it happens all the time. But it also connects all of us.” So the purpose of Breathworks was “to give pause; that it might be a moment in which the viewer would perhaps, also, be vicariously aware of their own experience of breathing”. For many, the pandemic was a moment of revelation, where the tide of normality and routine rolled back to reveal the underlying contours and currents which were already shaping society: strong solidarity and networks of mutual support, yes, but also structural underfunding of health services and racial disparities in medical outcomes. It strikes me that art and protest share this revelatory quality; this ability to foreground and make heard the invisible processes which underpin our lives. This isn’t to flatten or universalize, as Sabin is keen to emphasise. The contributions to Breathworks are diverse and sometimes conflicting: 23
some are breathing deep and easy, others fighting for air. Writing about the exhibition, Sabin argued that by “Attuning to breath/lessness across time and space, we pinpoint ruptures where access to breathable spaces becomes disrupted or denied along the fault lines of power imbalances”. Still, Sabin tells me, “breath is a really strong way of connecting people and creating empathy.” It’s also something that we (normally) do together. Taking cues from the anthropologist Timothy Choy, Sabin’s work picks up on the idea of “conspiracy”, from the Latin con meaning “with” and spirare meaning “breathe”, saying that “lately, I have committed to literally-figuratively conspiring with myself and others through creative practice”. The idea of breathing together seems to me (and probably to most) singularly unappealing at the moment, conjuring up those lab-made CGI models which periodically do the rounds on social media, showing aerosol particles moving around virtual rooms and engulfing animated stick figures. But Breathworks sought to recuperate conspiracy, and even contagion, as positive forces. Participatory art, inviting collaboration from everyone, seeks to blur the idea of an individuated creating subject, prioritising instead that which we share and co-create. In turn, this effort engendered the curatorial practices of Breathing Worlds, an art-research project in collaboration with Derek McCormack, Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Oxford. Breathing Worlds extended the ideas behind Breathworks into a gallery exhibition, culminating in a seven-by-three-metre “research wall,” drawing together interdisciplinary insights in images and text. The idea, Sabin says, “was that the viewer when they encounter it would be able to navigate through it in their own ways, like a cloud of research, and then they can choose which route they want to take. So you might make a connection between environmental health and public health.” Again, the work’s form mirrored its content. It was “designed to emulate how we imagined air to be, like you can think of it like water droplets in the cloud, or like particle fallout, or a molecular spaced out collage”. In turn, these practical formal experiments fed back into Sabin’s research, which is characterised not only by academic interdisciplinarity, but also by its close relationship to artistic practice. It’s hard to label this work: “there are so many different terms for, methodologically, how you would prioritise what the outcome would be between practice and theory... I call myself an artist researcher, because I don’t want to suggest a hierarchy between the two terms. I wouldn’t ever say I’m just working in the art mode, or just working in the research mode.” In addition to drawing on both artistic and academic practices, Sabin’s work draws on her own experiences as a yoga practitioner: “my own relationship to breathing has very much been framed by the fact that my mother is a yoga teacher, and I’m a teacher. Because, you know, that’s my own embodied experience. When I think about breathing, that’s the frame.” If breath is the animating connection which breaks the boundary between our inner and outer lives, or even between ourselves and others, in Sabin’s work it also becomes a test case for how we might dissolve the artificial barricades between different forms of intellectual inquiry: in a word, an inspiration (from in meaning “into,” and spirare meaning “breathe”).
WEAR AND TEAR and GNOMON
Wear and Tear
Annoying how the opportune moment balloons / or tanks / this confrontation taking precedence / in an expanding system of confrontations / or nearest offer / which will exhaust you / age or workplace injury / emolument / aliquot part / yet the Truly Abject / lop their wanton growth / reveal as in apocalypse / (one for drab philologists) / we could give / two flips for your wagers / if you pardon the ersatz imperative / to make plate / make bullion / make coin / blessed are the lyric poets / foremen of the senses / silence and slow time / o foster-child / o pencil-pusher / fair attitude of value / scriptorium / typing pool / gold farm / moderation / won’t you please / get back to work / ‘counter’ like kitchen / ‘productive’ qua fed up / from each within your odds / to each against the means / welcome to Chrematistics101 / none of you will pass this class / the homework / is network / is firework / is framework / is work
you would be
toil and craftless soiled gloves
by the bed
call it god’s
like the silence
the grass and
apple and sun
by the flowerbed what’s hung from the branch
toil and graft
of a cracked the space
later than you think I’m
call it god
in April the mind turns to cows
in April the mind turns
a cracked cipher
from the branch
the silence of
all dapple and
cool aura fills
leaves soil love
be forgiven for
BERMONDSEY’S BEER MILE Gentrification and the Society of the Spectacle
Flustered and rushing as I turn onto Enid Street, I check my watch to see if I can make it to work on time. It is Friday night and spilling out of the railway arches’ gaping mouths are the post-work pleasure-seekers, some still in suits from their day behind a desk. They travel here for the proliferating microbreweries of Bermondsey’s Beer Mile that steadily invade one arch after the next. They come from far away to immerse themselves in the charisma of Bermondsey’s unshakeable ‘air of exhaustion’ and ‘disorder’ (Ackroyd). And they are not comfortable. They sit huddled on the pavement against the dirty brickwork facing the Neckinger where locals return home with shopping, they rest their drinks on the crates of bottles necessarily delivered to the arches’ only opening, they lean on portaloos with an air of artificial artlessness. Such an inconvenient space; the dark, dank, noisy tunnels shaken periodically by thundering trains. A dear price to pay for being so ‘painfully cool’, for the ‘natural theatricality’ of ‘exposed brickwork’; for an inverted ‘aesthetic value’ never interrogated, where ‘charm’ is tied to ‘desolation’ (Culture Trip; Guardian; Ackroyd). These are affirmations from a distance, from the impalpable media sphere (in this case Culture Trip); an incorporeal space distinctly disconnected from the intense materiality of the arches, and one in which profit is made by pronouncing cool this brief encounter. What drives this aestheticisation of struggle, facilitated by the ever-present shelter of privilege to which these tourists of class can always retreat? What lies behind this colonisation, this fetishisation and displacement of working-class culture; of the necessary trappings of locals’ everyday lives; of Bermondsey’s particular industrial past with its repurposed and apparently easily-romanticised factories and wharves? A process that so many ironically bewail for its destruction of an area’s ‘character’? It is symptomatic of a desire to escape. It is the need to medicate the meaninglessness of modern-day labour whose fruits are never visible, whose processes are increasingly intangible, whose language is ever-more empty jargon. We are in the death throes of the malaise with which Debord diagnosed us fifty years ago. This finale of late capitalism is the society of the spectacle, where ‘work is being transformed […] into a realm of nonwork, of inactivity’ (Debord). This meaninglessness prompts a flight. For the alienated middle class, working-class life looks like reality. 27
The physicality of struggle is appealing, so this prompts their temporary engagement with it. They come to Bermondsey and drink in the rattle of UBREW or on the tiny pavement outside Brew By Numbers beside old car repair shops and opposite ‘vibrant’ estates, witnessing but not partaking in a culture they hope will cure them. But this flight is more than a desire to escape the mundanity of their day-to-day. In their choice of destination the jaded middle-class revellers unconsciously try to solidify the abstraction of their professional labour, undo ‘[t]he generalized separation of worker and product [that] has spelled the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of direct personal communication between producers’ (Debord). Driven by the increasingly uncanny immateriality of their working life, they seek to expose all elements of production in an attempt to counter the malaise of commodity culture where the product of labour has become ‘enigmatical’; the value of labour obscured and equated solely with ‘duration’ (Marx). Though not the actual producers of goods, this is an indirect way to rid their lives of this cloudy abstraction. This is why they choose to penetrate an ‘industrial space’. Why they value ‘artisanal’ products, ‘craft beer’. Why they choose this very ‘linear’ structure where ‘you can see everything going on’: all the breweries’ machinery (Tran). The enormous extractor fan, whose tunnel slithers along the roof pumping the by-products of production out onto the street. Deliveries of all kinds dropped by vans on the pavement where customers stand and drink. Everything is exposed. But this flight is itself being commodified, this taste of working-class culture is being packaged and sold. Comforted by the illusion that they are decommodifying their modernday lives, exposing the processes of production, experiencing a working-class reality, they return to the safety of privilege temporarily satisfied, but largely unchanged. Disguised, however, is the direction of this process. By burrowing into these alcoves, they are not exploding the system from within, but are crushed by the society of the spectacle that surrounds them. They are part of the government-ordained gentrification process that displaces working-class communities, Network Rail having refurbished roughly 1000 arches at a cost of more than £50m, increasing rents so the light industries housed by the arches must move on (Beecroft). The new residents’ personal, artisanal endeavours lie at the heart of a government ‘clean-up program’ that augments rather than diminishes commodification. All this indicates the society of the spectacle’s onward march. Like one end of a curving arch, we sit at a transitional historical moment: at the other end is the moment the workers necessarily became consumers, targeted because the middle class can consume no more; because ‘so great an abundance of commodities begins to be produced that a surplus “collaboration” is required of the workers’ (Debord). As a result, the leisure industry has boomed, as can be seen in these arches, which supported London’s first passenger railway (Beecroft). We now sit at a later stage in this development of over-production, of ‘augmented survival’, where both classes are saturated, seemingly having consumed all they can, cannibalistic consumption begins (Debord). The middle class consume the working-class experience. But as I walk on past these early-evening revellers, and reach the Eveline Lowe, I am reminded of Bermondsey’s peculiarity: its enduring resistance to being a truly ‘trendy’ area. Its colonisation has not sparked uproar like the ‘Save Brixton Arches’ movement because it 28
goes no further. Seeking their inverted aesthetic value that prizes ‘distressed’ industrial appearances, the gentrifiers will not penetrate the postwar estates to the south. The viaduct itself provides the barrier. They cannot colonise further. Forever ‘up-and-coming’ but never quite making it, locked in a stalemate, Bermondsey’s class conflict rages silently on, the arches marking its complex boundaries. Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter, London: The Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000) Beecroft, Gregory, ‘Refurbishing Railway Arches’, Structural Survey, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 349-354 Clugston, Harriet, ‘London’s Disused Railway Arches Get Back on Track’, Culture Trip, 17 November 2016, <https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united- kingdom/england/london/ articles/londons-disused-railway-arches-get-back-on-track/> [accessed 30 October 2017] Debord, Guy-Ernest, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994) Keddie, Jamie, ‘Negotiating urban change in gentrifying London: Experiences of long-term residents and early gentrifiers in Bermondsey’, April, 2014 <http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3086/1/Keddie_Negotiating_urban_change_in_gentrifying_London. pdf> [accessed 30 October 2017] Marx, Karl, ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Robert Tucker, (ed) The Marx Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), pp. 319-329 Tran, Mark, ‘Open for Business: the railway arches serving customers as well as trains’, Guardian, 7 February 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/07/open-forbusiness-the-railway-arches-serving-customers-as-well-as-trains> [accessed 30 October 2017]
St Brigid, when she was making the maps, threw a scarf that covered the whole world in consecrated ground now trembling for new foundations. From the air, from the land, roaming surveillance and metal detection. Somewhere between the birdsong and the time spent something real. Between the tissue and the document tanned and straining, letting some image of a backstreet, some monument to a soldier, fall through the hairline fracture, some spool of information missing but doing its best impression of a whole. We all have an ‘I’ like a thumb in our mouths. I will/you will/all of us will have to bear these duds of an anti-music music, the way you have to start to talk again about being watched, and being fooled, and being discarded
M, London, 2019
EM PTY SPACE
I have a hole in my heart and you’d know it to look at me. Some sickly oozing wound it is, some gaping wasted torn flesh, something rotten for sure. Ma says it’s just my temperament now but what does she know—she’s not the one with the hole in her heart. One recent morning I woke up and there it was, I could feel it right away. I ran to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with my top off hoping to see through the skin. I poked at where I thought my heart might sit, under my breast and ribs, trying to find the empty space beneath. It’s always bad on Wednesdays, which I think is something to do with the moon. It aches something awful, dull and persistent. On Wednesdays, I wake up late and lie in bed. I hold my right hand on my chest as if I could reach in and squeeze my heart in my palm to stop the ache. My left hand comes up to my face and covers my eyes. I lie there like that for as long as I can until I feel like there’s some air coming into my lungs. When I stand I am weak-kneed and unsteady. A hole inside you does something to your centre of gravity. Everything veers to the left. I go to the doctor and tell her about the hole. She is concerned. She’s not seen anything in my notes—did I have surgery as a child? I tell her I’ve only recently acquired the hole. She looks at me differently, asks, when did I discover it? I tell her I woke up seventeen days ago and there it was, oozing bold as anything, as if it had always been waiting to appear. She gives me a prescription for Valium, and I know for a fact that does nothing for muscle regrowth. Instead I’ve been drinking protein shakes, to rebuild the tissue. From my research I have deduced that the hole most likely resides in the right ventricle, just below the tricuspid valve. This is a very severe place in which to have a hole. It is quite likely that without immediate treatment I will die. Ma spoke to work for me and told them I was ill. She went out of the room for the call, so I couldn’t be sure she said exactly what I wanted. In the interest of clarity I wrote an email to Adam explaining everything, especially about the location of the hole and the likelihood of my imminent demise. Ma took the laptop away after that. I think she is annoyed that I have called her here to stay with me. Leah came to see me and wanted to know how was I feeling now that it’s been a month? I told her that I didn’t even realise it had been a month and that I don’t think about it much—I am too 33
busy dealing with the hole in my heart. That’s by far the most pressing issue. She said oftentimes it takes a really, really long while for this sort of thing to make its impact known, oftentimes it might take years, decades, before I realise, fully, in an emotional sense, exactly what it is I’ve lost. And that’s okay—for it to take a while—but she is worried about me. I told her she has good reason to be worried about me. I’m suffering from a very serious medical condition. I stand in the bathroom with my top off looking at myself in the mirror, one hand on my stomach, the other poking the pale skin where the hole is until a small bruise blossoms, and Ma comes up the stairs, and sees me through the bathroom door and stands there looking at me, as I look at the reflection of my naked torso. She comes over and hugs me close to her body, even though we’ve never really had that kind of relationship. My sweet baby, she whispers into my scalp, stroking my hair, and I take in a big shuddering breath. On the exhale I whisper it too.
THE DINOSAURS A Response to Italo Calvino’s ‘The Dinosaurs’ (1965)
LEAVES, ALIVE AND OTHERWISE
It carpets the pavement softly in uneven tides, like sand swept over the path onto a beach. The same misted green as the underside of mint leaves, this mass of leaves is turning gently to powder, ground down with every journey that two legs make up and down the trail to the local shops. Scuffed, split and splintered with every footfall, the million flakes of leaf with their sharply ragged edges are like the little cut-out negatives from paper-crafting. This powder banks so softly: undulating coasts of it with patches of bare, grainy concrete peeking between. Flour on a work surface. A showering of snow, sawdust, ash. Deathly dry and light as an afterlife. This spring is so dry that it acts like autumn, felling leaves from parched London Plane trees. Leaves fall, clatter-dry, to a ground as dry as insect casing. The spring became the summer, in fact, without breakthrough or bluster. Without change, it seems. Hot weeks without rain have bled from April to June, and here we are, still circulating the same neighbourhood, still in a gentle suspension, living well but small. We are lucky, if restless; content, if anxious about all the world beyond us. We traipse back and forth from the shop, restocking the bread, coffee and vegetables we plough through in stunningly short periods — a recent collective of six sharing three locked-down meals each day. I traipse to the shop: my turn. I tread, eyes in the leaf dust as it enters, little by little, through the slit in my right trainer along the ball of my foot. The hole grew month by month until it reached a form of stasis. I wear these favoured trainers deeper into dysfunction. There are the thousands of miles they have carried me through work shifts, foreign cities, nights on festival dancefloors. There are the plastics, labour, airmiles, and profit margins knitted into replacing them — my perfect justification to avoid doing so, letting rain, road slush and leaf dust be chewed into my socks through that strange sideways mouth. Since we cannot move far, I look closer, paying newfound attention to the tree arching over the communal garden. So upward-reaching — smooth and slender-trunked — I am surprised to learn that it is an oak from the elongated leaves with their rippling edges that tumble under the gate. My neighbours, the trees, are shedding everything in their thirst. A loss, when heaped leaves 38
should be a victory: a kicking, dancing place. Something to boot through, electrified by the tilting kilter of the earth. Something to hurl into reanimation: hot-coloured cascades catching in the fuzz of fabric and hair. Autumn leaves are all hallows returned and harvests harvested, orange vegetables bulging from earth. On wood-smoke and gunpowder nights, in junior school art classes, we learned the clockwork of the trees. Childhood schooled us in the seasons. Back then, in the years when I was still learning the scent of winter approaching, my stepfather and I would charge into the glen with the skitter-thunder of booted feet on leaf litter. Stuttering to a stop in the dip between the path and the riverside, we were relieved to find it still standing each time: a shaggy, oblong-shaped shelter, huddled at the foot of a great tree. Children wonder about where they will wriggle to amid phantom disasters — how they will survive with cunning and the fellowship of the wild beasts. I imagined volcanoes, floods and mythic wars, never crisis or disease. I was full of the fevered idea of wilderness survival, of living outside. Across the river, the shelter we built magnetised me. We visited regularly, lugging supplies and supports, as if to an elderly relative. We patched the roof with fresh ferns and dashed fallen branches against living timber to form new struts. Surefooted in the knowledge that running was more controlled than lumbering caution, we always crashed down the slopes on our way. But once we stopped. My stepfather held out an arm — crouching — as a family of roe deer ran from the shelter. A doe and three fawns streamed out into the unstill trees, backs rising and falling like waves, hooves nearly soundless over the forest floor thick with leaves. Leaves only speak in contact with some bodies, or in chorus with the wind. Close your eyes and call it to mind, the familiar throat-singing of the leaves: air setting branches frantic. Between your fingers, or in that mind’s touch, feel the skin-softness of a leaf. Or its tough, waxy veins. Its hairiness a-bristle with fibres. Its dust rubbed sticky in the grooves of your fingerprints: shaken sage billowing scent. The pastry-soft leaves of the forgotten – wilting, un-watered, sad dog ears curling their edges. The leaves of pot plants in cafes and nightclubs, quietly signifying something. The obedient drape of leaves from office shelves and the false, sharp edges of leaves on the plastic succulents in the dentist’s waiting room. Real leaves swelling with rain, with open pores. Leaves under glass roofs, undisturbed by the elements, and leaves thrashing in storms, under helicopter blades — you know the shot with the lamenting palms, descending into the jungle, Hollywood adventure. The horror, the horror, the woods at night, wet leaves clinging to the white arms of the running woman, leaves rotting black-brown on the cold, dead floor. Leaves thin enough to be blades or needles. Leaves made up of others: wood-pulp soup thinning into paper, leaves slipping out of books. Sheaves of tobacco rolled into cigars and sleeping-bag bundles of aromatic herbs. The fleshy leaves, the leathery leaves, the coin-shaped leaves of money trees, leaves as wide as decadent plates, leaves clashing loud like cymbals, leaves fronded like hair, leaves splayed like fingers. Tea leaves to read, fig leaves to hide, leaves to quake with — or whisper like the leaves, full of secrets and shapes. All those leaves, tumbling like beards, and in the distance, making snaking mirages and hard green mosaics. Scales and songs: all those leaves. 39
NOTES ON EDITORS
Sarah Collier is a LAHP-funded PhD student in the English Department at UCL. Her doctoral research explores masculinities in American literature, film and games from the war on terror. Her writing has appeared in USSO and Alluvium. Imogen Free is a writer and LAHP-funded PhD student in the English Department at King’s College London. Her doctoral research explores sound, and the politics of aurality & orality, in modernist women’s writing. Her writing has appeared in SPAM Zine, Eyot, Women: A Cultural Review and elsewhere. Carys Howells is a graphic designer & illustrator based in London. Her personal work reflects her own observations and interpretations of people and places, often with an element of the surreal. With her use of expressionistic brushstrokes and preference for simplicity, her illustrations say a lot in a few lines. Lizzie Hibbert is a writer, editor and LAHP-funded PhD student in the English Department at King’s College London. Her doctoral research explores deep time and the First World War in English fiction of the 1920s. She edited Charity Shop (2020) by Nell Whittaker and her work has appeared in Review 31, The Arts Desk and Last Post: The Journal of Ford Madox Ford Studies. James Waddell is a freelance writer and LAHP-funded PhD student in the English Department at UCL, where his research investigates attention and distraction in early modern literature and culture. He writes about books and arts for the Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, The Observer, Prospect, 1843, Elephant, and other places. He is a winner of the Telegraph/Benjamin Franklin House Literary Prize and the Art Fund writing competition, and was runner-up in the 2021 Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism.
NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Fabian Broeker is a third-year PhD candidate at the Department of Culture, Media, and Creative Industries, King’s College London. His research focuses on dating apps, digital intimacies, and digital cities. Fintan Calpin is a PhD candidate at King's College London researching contemporary poetry and Marxian theories. His writing has appeared in the Dublin Review of Books, SPAM Zine, the TLS and elsewhere. Jiayi Fang, also known as Frida Fang, is from Shanghai and currently based in London. She majors in MA Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College, London. She is also a photographer and enjoys writing stories. Her works are often inspired by films and novels, trying to explore the delicate emotions of human beings. You can follow her creative works on her Instagram account: fridafang_7. Inés García (Mexico) is a neurodivergent writer, translator, and third-year PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. Over the past three years, she’s been studying autotheoretical practices in women’s contemporary writing. Since a few years ago, her love of language and literature from an academic point of view has been transformed into her own writing, which attempts to dive into the complexities, limitations and possibilities of writing in her second language. Fiona Glen is a Scottish writer and artist interested in the critical relationships between beings and objects. She is a new graduate of the MA Writing programme at London's Royal College of Art, and has recently been commissioned to create media works for ICA/BBC New Creatives and Robert Young Antiques. Her criticism, essays, and fiction have featured in publications including Aesthetica, NOIT Journal, 3:AM Magazine, and Art & the Public Sphere. Niamh Gordon is a writer and interdisciplinary researcher from Manchester. She has an MA in Prose Fiction from UEA, and is an AHRC-funded PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include: narrative time and how it functions; representations of bereavement by suicide; postvention practices; Ali Smith; and experimental writing. She is co-editor of the literary magazine From Glasgow to Saturn, and her fiction has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and Return Trip. Roddy Howland-Jackson is a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge studying Modern and Contemporary Literature. He won the Oxford Festival of the Arts poetry competition in 2018.
Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba is a darkroom/fine art photographer and archivist with over twenty-five years of experience of exhibiting in museums, galleries and alternative spaces worldwide. Ajamu is also a radical sex activist, independent scholar and co-founder of the award-winning “rukus! Black LGBTQ Archive”. His work includes portraits/self-portraits, which unapologetically celebrate black queer bodies, erotic senses, desire, and pleasure as activism. He is also a leading specialist of Black LGBTQ history, heritage and queer cultural memory in the UK. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. Catherine Kelly is a first-year PhD student at King’s College London, studying lesbian feminist literary networks. Her writing can be found in the Cardiff Review, the Dublin Review of Books and Datableed.
Louis Klee is a writer of prose fiction, poetry, and essays. He was born in Canberra, Australia, and currently lives in Cambridge, UK. Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at UCL, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2019. His work is published or forthcoming in The Times, The Spectator, The London Magazine, The Fence, Review 31 and others. Tierra McMahon is a doctoral researcher in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her current research investigates the political economy of modernity in Morocco, with attention to three inter-related spheres of activity: sacrifice, sport, and street art. Emily Moore is a first-year PhD student at UCL in the SELCS Department. She is working on jazz and blues in the work of Gayl Jones. Lucy Sabin is is an artist-researcher interested in breathing and atmospheres. She is currently studying for a practice-related PhD with the UCL Department of Geography. More information is available on her website: www.lucysabin.world Leonie Shinn-Morris is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She writes about art and culture for publications like Elephant magazine, Four by Three, and Broadly, and is also currently the Head of Editorial at Google Arts and Culture. Her poetry has appeared in SPAM zine, close, and more. Esmee West-Agboola is a PhD student at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. Her research interests include intersectional Black narratives in UK Theatre and institutional constraints to their visibility. More broadly, she is influenced by the politics of diasporic belonging, temporality, Black time and the power of embodied knowledge.
Fabian Broeker Fintan Calpin Jiayi Fang Inés García Fiona Glen Niamh Gordon Roddy Howland-Jackson Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba Catherine Kelly Louis Klee Josh Mcloughlin Tierra McMahon Emily Moore Lucy Sabin Leonie Shinn-Morris James Waddell Esmee West-Agboola
Designed by Carys Howells
Issue 5 of the Still Point Journal, themed 'Presence'