On the Eve of Words

A writer is working when he’s staring out the window.

— Burton Rascoe

I have been staring out of the window for a while.
With grace, have faith . . .

 

be quiet say nothing
except the street be full of stars

— Pablo Picasso

except the canals be full of evening
and our hands full of lamplight
the sky the colour of irises

— Adrian Henri (from Spring Poem)

 
 

City: Partial Study in Self and Mass

Cities are a fascination. They have mass to write about. They have their own gravities. There’s too much and everything all around and I can’t fix my place and space within it all. Cities are endless. They spiral in and fall on top of themselves. It is the swill, the vortex, the conflagration of air. Where do all these people come from? Where do all these people go? Perhaps they exist just in these spaces as I pass them by.

Cities are greasy great hubs of flesh and stone, metal, mesh and the technology of the times. They feed on chemical electrical interaction, on digital densities of us. They suck us dry. We can’t help but move. It is the urban jet stream to manipulate us on and round and through the open doors and moistened tunnels, along the garish lightways. Nothing stops because nothing can. There is centrifugal force that spins us in and deeper down, somehow.

Cities have a filthy grace. They have love the shape of pride of place, but coloured by fingers stained with secrets, stroking stringiness into hair. Cities whisper with a flavoured breath: all the fancy trinkets you need are yours here. Everything shines, but only now because you let it shine. Cities wrap you in their wings. You let your whole be overwhelmed by sound and light and heat because there is nothing else you can do here. Cities breathe around you. You breathe them in.

Cities are deeper than you can ever know. Whispers weigh and forces pull at edges, and the spin a city’s in and the stream that twists and stretches round in invisible convolutions, the everything this is, spirals in depths above, below, through and in between. It’s all a blur, it’s all a stir. It has every speed at once. Even the rows of buses, waiting, are waiting in the swill of time and darkness; even the slightest gaps between the metal tubes of trains are laden with the squeezing of the air; even the masonry presses insistencies on the glass and steel of structures close and closer by. Everything has weight and mass.

Cities are galaxies of infinite gravities pulling inwards, outwards, downwards, mindwards, timewards. Even the sounds exert their presences on all around: an ambulance screeches in a long-pained wail around the Escher-engraved scratched streets; trains lumber in sudden imposition on iron girders up above; there is an endless drain of metal blood around the channels of the tarmac floors of arteries and veins. The city sucks at the balancing ear with its sudden exclamations and with its constant siren songs in streams and streams.

Cities are a fascination. An aeroplane hangs in the air, and I watch it as I trundle into the mausoleum of the station. The aeroplane just hangs, and gravity is arranged in other ways. I am disgorged and swallowed. There is weight and mass here; there is too much and everything. I let it all fall over me: it’s all I can do. The urban jet stream picks me up and takes me on and on. I am fed upon, pressed deeper down and in. There is a blur, and even the stillnesses appear to move. They aren’t stillnesses at all. I am breathed upon and I allow the city to tug at my balance and my sleeve.

Cities are deeper still than I have words for here.
 
 

Some Subversion Deep Below

Once, in a future world where great metal trains ran underground in long snaking tubes that criss-crossed under the mass of the vast city above, something of great and small significance took place. One man saw: though it can’t be ascertained if any other citizen of the place took note. The city-world had reached a stage of insouciance, and citizens weren’t citizens at all — in the old-time sense of it all: citizens were dwellers of the caves they’d found, and every other soul had Medusa’s eyes.

Up above, in the constant throng, the city was a glass array of screens, and virtually every existence was not an existence of the space and time of the place itself: virtually everyone lived elsewhere, had their punch-drunk minds locked into other realms, such was the state of the state they were in. It was a sore world of small segments looked upon. No-one saw the sky. Life was millions of individual paving slabs wide.

Down below, in the catacombs of the tubes that writhed, one man saw an accidental sight that maybe wasn’t permitted any more: a woman sat locked into her own small segment still, opposite him as they trundled by and by and through and through, riding the central line core of the subterranean realm; yet her segment slice was lightly dusted with the gritty glitter of something wondrous but dangerous. She pushed a heavy finger along the insides of the object in her palms. Her lips moved, but it didn’t matter: the man was mesmerised.

Here was a deviant: a subvert who might easily be hauled away and flogged for her flagrant disregard of the modern ways. She held the thick, large object open and it was clear she’d had it for some time. No-one else saw, or chose to see: or, if they did, they didn’t seem to realise what it was she held. The man knew it as a book. It was real and crisp and loved and dense with words. There was paper still, after all. He wanted to reach out and touch it, have it, hide it away.

The woman scraped her hair behind an ear and kept her eyes down. What courage and naivety; what immersion and foolhardiness she showed. To think, a book, open and in full sight, even if in the tubes that writhed under the city mass above. Up there she surely wouldn’t dare. Down below, at least the dwellers of the caves might be dulled enough not to raise their neck hairs in fear. The man wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had to leave, yet he wanted to stay.

The doors slid apart and the fleshtide swept him out into the dank, warm, moist air. The woman and her paper book slipped away and into the dark. He wondered if she’d have time enough to hide her love, somewhere down the line. Out and up in the city mass, the heave of the modern future world swallowed him whole again. Down below, deep down where eyes can’t pry so well, or where thoughts don’t rush because of dullness, a real thick book exists: read in actual time and space.
 
 

One City Haibun Arisen From a Kiss

A kiss is never to be taken lightly — so write it in everything.

We can write literally and we can write with other material in mind. It’s no longer late, and I’m no longer moving. Moving makes the world slide by, smears it colourless, and what we do not see we do not taste. How we perceive the world comes through our eyes, but how we love it passes over our lips: I tell you secrets when I whisper them; we need no words when my lips touch yours.

I’m no longer moving and I see the world’s slightest movements. I tell it secrets when I watch it, and then I need no words.

It is as if I’ve pressed my fingertips to my lips when I finally write: there is a trace of the world on my skin, slightly salted.

It is not desire or any other base I write, when I finally write: it is the warmth of the kiss that being still and seeing is . . .

On the tube train, not thinking, just drinking coffee. A girl gets on. She’s maybe twenty. She’s an individual: dyed blonde-red hair; carefully chosen clothes for impact; black star make-up on her upper cheek. She has her head down at a screen. She has her earphones in. I think she must be pretty underneath all this attention-to-detail-look-at-me. She looks up. She has pretty brown eyes and a clear face.

I leave the tube train: stand on the platform to put my bag on my back, my coffee on the floor. I see the train go out till it disappears around the curve of the track.

city city city
only one person
watching
 
 

Words of the Middle World at Hammersmith

I’m in Hammersmith where, on the surface world, in the surface streets of London, the place is just one big cross-flow of cars and buses sweeping away to other realms; of people — plugged into phones with screens, or earpieces, e-readers and other distractions — sluicing between the aperture of one opening of the Underground onto the road to another such aperture. It’s a surface tension.

I have time. I emerge but don’t feel the immediate need to fall out into London. I stay in the liminal labyrinth between the tunnels and the street. I need coffee. I need a coffee house. I know if I find the right one that magic can seep, even here. So I reject the wrong ones: the clinical ones, the empty ones, the coffee houses without possibility, whose definition I maybe can’t describe. Here is a place, deep in.  I step inside.

Immediately words accost me. Hammersmith, out of sight beyond, is an anvil of a place: it’s an iron heart with concrete valves; arteries are tarmac-clad and clogged. Here, in the liminal coffee house, odd denizens pause. Where are they all going from and to? Ten million strangers buzz about us; thirty or forty aliens gather in the hissing and the clinking hollow at the very back of this aperture, which spills out onto the street, somewhere. There’s light out there in the city. Here, for half an hour or so, we gather. I watch as I perch at a corner of a seat, taking in a long glass of vanilla latte.

There are drifts of conversations floating up and sinking down. I can’t hear any exactly and for sure. It’s a steam of words, though not loud. It’s at the edge of perception. I should write this, I tell myself, I should. Where’s my pen and notebook? I commit images and inklings to memory: they’re scraps of photos in my head, strips of audio files. Words accost me. They fly about the place; they’re in the molecules.

Hammersmith is a multi-layered affair: languages, accents, skins and sins perhaps, if we believe in such creations. It’s an affair of thousands overlapping. In the coffee house, I see in between the slots of people’s lives: it has this affect, here in the hiss and steam. Out on the street, or on the Underground, squeezed into tubes, we slip by one another, are absorbed by each other’s energies. We’re oiled. In the coffee house, the process of the pause allows the reader of the place to see between the percolations.

Two young women, neither with drinks, talk and take up a sofa and no-one’s keen enough to tell them; an older couple read newspapers with the table pushed right up to their knees, protecting them from dragons or the like; a coven of witches hordes the middle tables, cackling and swapping spells or emails or maybe e-spells; men in business suits are conducting covert operations; there are Italian, North African, Indian voices and faces; some people are hiding from Hammersmith, some are gathering their thoughts or plans or shopping lists, perhaps, some are hatching eggs.

The coffee house is a dark brown and cocoa butter smear, lit in artificial gold and other substances. Words hide here and paste the walls in thin veneer. They flutter because I see them. Other denizens of this place just talk. Words catch in my hair. I shake them free, but some burrow down to the follicles and cling to the warmth behind my ear. I am their route out of here.

Why do you want to leave? They don’t say. I find them still on my skin, after days and washes. My vanilla-streaked glass is empty and the city is calling. I can hear it coming down the concourse in strands of breeze. At the counter I offer my empty glass back to the man with the thick Italian accent, but this is London and it stands unattended to. I pull on the rucksack that’s been blocking the way to the witches’ circle.

The threshold to the concourse might well ripple as I step back into the other realm. I’m through it and the colour and the sound and the taste of where I am, a few inches beyond, shifts immediately. Through the plate looking-glass window I see the dark smear and its exotic array of denizens therein. I’m peering into an otherness.

I wait just a little while before Hammersmith sucks me to the street, and the place outside explodes around me. I push my way back into London’s surface tension. Words stick to me, here and there, pressed against my skin. Perhaps they’re shivering.
 
 

Hidden Stories

Last night I was at the theatre watching stories unfold. OK, so I was actually watching a pantomime, but there were stories there. The actual show was predictable enough, of course, but this story is not the one I found myself focusing on. I’ve always suspected that there are stories everywhere, in the smallest of places. They can pass you by, like neutrinos, if — momentarily — you take your eye off the possibility of them taking place.

So, in between the outrageous over-acting and necessarily exaggerated body postures, whole stories began to play themselves out. The actors were really close to us in the small auditorium, on the narrow stage as they were, and I imagined Vaudeville scenes. I started thinking of the audience and other plays unfolding inside my head.

In the wings, just out of view, I thought of how the backstage crew were readying the next scene’s props; how the actors swung off-stage with painted smiles or evil frowns, and how those expressions might be changing in their flouncing just beyond the stage lights. I thought of costume changes and twisted fabrics, frustrated dressers, and lost props and minor panics.

The actors on-stage contorted their bodies and stood in unnatural positions. I thought of the director and his or her agitations, and of their cajoling, lecturing and dismay at the actors’ inabilities at understanding how to stand, or stand this way, or stand here, or say this like that and with this fling of the hand.

When the audience heckled and the actors lost their place in the script, ad-libbing furiously till they found their way back — as if by following along a string of thoughts — I thought of those actors as characters themselves: aspiring or delusional, board-weary, angry, secretly self-loathing.

The set painters had their stories, so too did the stage-hands and the make-up artists and the light rig crew. Every ‘flat’ created as backdrop had its story; every end-of-season-weary prop; every tiny mistimed curtain drop or blackout of lights before the actor had fully delivered their line, or their exaggerated face-pull, or wiggle of a backside in a ridiculously over-sized skirt. I imagined scoldings for overzealous, itchily-fingered backstage crew by artistes, in costume, who harboured pretensions and delusions of their own grandeur.

I watched the faces of the audience members around me: the way they lit up at dance routines, stared when beautiful genies and princesses came on stage, lost themselves in parts of the performance. There were stories forming here too.

I didn’t really follow the story of the show. I didn’t need to, but I couldn’t anyway: there were too many other small stories starting to show themselves in all the tiny dark places of the theatre.

Stories hide behind the shows we think we’re seeing.
 
 

Rise and Write Against the Photographic Hegemony

A writer’s eyes are the only camera lens he or she needs. This morning (a clear warm day in December, where the mist rose off the dips in the hills by the side of the motorway), I drove and turned off that part of my brain that tries too hard. Its place was taken by my writerly camera obscura, that box I am: the image of the landscape projecting itself onto some screen inside me. Writers have no desperate need for the physical camera, I’m proposing.

Years ago, whilst in the huge open plan architectural studio with our tutors, who were dressed head to toe in black, smoking thin cigarettes with their legs crossed and with artfully mournful expressions wafting from them in great deep sighs, we were advised not to succumb to the ‘Kodak spot’. On field trips we were frowned upon if we dared take our cameras anywhere near the worn-down spot that ‘tourists’ chose. We were young: what did we know? We took our photos on clunky old pre-digital machines, amazed by the view over the Seine, or by the fact that we were drinking beer in Frankfurt’s old town, only thinking we were artists. Our tutors must have shook their heads in disdain, that night, every night, drinking wine in their black turtle-necks and leather brogues, sat in some back street bar listening to Georges Brassens. This is how I imagine them, at least.

Now, my art has shifted. Artists don’t die, they just shift conditions. Someone wrote this. I forget who. Shifting, shifting, and stories now come of travel . . .  

I was in New York City the year before the Twin Towers came down. We walked down Wall Street, a deep channel where the air floods through like a giant air conditioning system. We found ourselves at Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seventeen months later and the air conditioning system was deep in ash.

In Turkey, dizzy from the sheer claustrophobic heat of the day, stupefied by the mad intense spin of the huge and canopied bazaar, my travelling partner and I heard the door of an empty carpet seller’s shop shut quietly behind us.

Once, in Barcelona, I sat and watched my Spanish friend just melt as he listened to the voice of an Argentinean waitress in a bar off La Rambla. He told me I would never know the beauty of her accent.

Another travelling partner and I paid homage to Jim Morrison: we trekked our way up to le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris and found a small bead-festooned and squalid shrine. We weren’t alone.

At Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, I sat on the sparse wooden boards of a little house. We were crammed into a small upstairs room. Outside, we’d walked down Pusher Street to get there. I smiled at mischievous old hippies who, with some small yet tangible amusement, explained to the assembled group of pilgrims that the town was not one built on the foundations of worship at all, despite its name.

In Venice we chased the golden floats of the festival parades down the Canal Grande, and there were people strung along the quays and bridges and stood on the ramshackle tiny wooden jetties, all under the aching white-blue eggshell sky.

We live in modern times, I appreciate: we have the photograph and we have the capacity to ‘film’ all that we see. These objects created often do evoke a remembrance of experiences past; yet they are always framed. What exists beyond the frame, we will never know. Photographs and other digital recordings won’t ever capture and preserve a time and place the way that words can.

Only words can evoke the mad euphoria of a Venetian parade; the clammy uneasiness in a small room in a Danish ghetto; the sad peace of a Parisian graveyard; the utter hypnosis of love, of sorts, in a Barcelona backstreet; the surreptitious click of a door and the taste of iced tea, in forty degrees, in a Turkish bazaar; the cool portent of wind on Wall Street, one April before the world changed.

A picture can tell a thousand words, it’s true, but a thousand words can break the edges of the frame.
 
 
This article was first published, in part, at www.writersdock.com under a pen name.
 
 

Shining Moments

Inspired by a recent post from LilyPetal, I’m thinking about moments of beauty that have stirred me to write. Happiness breeds happiness, and words can shine from one writer to one reader. What are the moments that shine?

Once, there was a girl who said ‘I love you’ and she whispered it, and she knew it; children played in between the jets of fountain sprays, on the huge display of metal squarely put down, on a plinth, at the airport; a winter morning burned the frost from the fence panels, up in slow graceful coils; at the back of the Greyhound bus (like Kerouac, I told myself), spiderwriting bouncing along, one Sunday, sliding into Manhattan, looking up at the silvertooth-tipped Chrysler building, thinking ‘this is easily the most beautiful building I have ever seen’; two kittens tumbled over one another, up the stairs, sat on the bed where one swiped the other, distracted, sneaky as it was; those places where we sat and talked, or the places where we just sat and looked at one another because words were impossible, or unnecessary, or too dull — on the beach; in your small kitchen where your children darted around like fish between our feet; in the field, years before, which I later wrote as an ocean, where you kissed me because that was all that we could do, under the sea; that delicious closeness, that dangerous proximity, with you, another you, on that bus in a foreign country, waiting, waiting, we both knew; earlier, your body sang, you stretched but not because you were tired; that short small letter, mis-spelt as children sometimes tend towards, pressed into my hand, that evening in the garden when we said goodbye, and this was how you said ‘I will miss you’, sadly but beautifully now; one evening, once, before you called me ‘love’, or words to say not ‘Love’ but ‘I see you’, I walked in and you stood there, your hands together at your thighs, and you smiled and I knew about you there and then; a mother took her child to the rose beds and there they smelled the flowers — she bent one down for the girl to press her nose to; one man stopped me on the street, saying ‘I’m the street poet, let me give you poetry’; a child, who didn’t talk, stood with me in the garden of the nursery, and we looked down for time that may have been all day, perhaps, looked down, smiling, laughing, the two of us, at the cracks between the paving slabs . . .

All of this and more. Everything that shines embeds itself inside, is love of its own accord, becomes a story in itself: each finds its own form. I tell the stories time and time again.
 
 

Be Here Now

Be here now. It is a mantra because we live in a difficult world. Plans and possibilities, frustrations and desires pile up on us. This screen we peer into sucks us in. Out there, out in the world, is today. I sit with my notebook because the page is immediate; the screen is removed from reality. I sit and watch the way the characters of the world go by. It’s a form of leaving the self, and all its struggles, behind.

I concentrate on the woman and the small child. He’s straining at reins she has him strapped into, like a dog, as she’s distracted by a conversation on her phone. The child pulls and leans and wriggles for some escape. I think what it’s like to be him. I watch the long tree shadows that stretch across the grass. A woman in a fur-brown shawl and hat is laughing. She’s large and bear-like. I feel the winter in my legs, sitting on the bench.

A woman, who may be a witch, stops yards from me. She has her back to me, her long black cloak reaching to her shins. I’m focused just on the ferocious shoes she wears: pointed, heeled, dangerous. I think what can make her choose to wear these precarious improbabilities. The cathedral grounds are quiet, but there’s a constant flow of people not doing anything pressing with their lives. There’s an old man with a stick, dressed neatly, moving carefully. He has secrets here.

I quite forget everything that presses on me as I sit and watch. Be here now, be here now: it is a mantra for writing and for the modern world.
 
 

The Manifestation of Characters

Writing every day also involves trying to squeeze as much pity out of others as is humanly possible! These days of austerity, and waiting for cash flows to resolve themselves neatly, sometimes result in pride suffering small demises: I accepted the hand-out of beer money (it had been my birthday recently!) and excused myself to the pub. I often take my notebook on such excursions. You never know what might transpire. As it happens I’ve been feeling itchy about writing again: fiction, that is. I’d been walking, thinking, trying to catch the name of a character I wanted to write. Until I knew her name I couldn’t place her anywhere. It would all unfold after a name. Other fictions, placed in reality, took hold though.

I sat with the paid for beer, writing the unfolding as it came. There is a pause for thought here:

There is only one trait that marks the writer. He is always watching. It’s a kind of trick of the mind and he is born with it. (Morley Callaghan)

The man at the bar had clearly been drinking most of the day. He skewed his face up at me. It wasn’t an aggressive stance: some people are affected in benign ways by alcohol. He wandered over, paused a few feet from me, opened his mouth, and then closed it again. Eventually he asked, ‘What are you writing?’

I wondered what I was writing. ‘I’m trying to find a word,’ I told him. It wasn’t a belligerent answer. He told me he could see that by the way my biro was held there, aloft in mid-air. We discussed some appropriate words. We sat and talked over more beer, albeit with a little slurring on his part: about Blues pianists; about mixing medicine and alcohol after failed root canal dentistry; about things men talk about in pubs and forget soon after. His eye began to wander around the place. Soon enough he’d made his excuses, getting up unsteadily. He wanted to go talk with the women who’d just come in.

‘Come on,’ he said, smiling at me. ‘Come on. Be my wing-man.’

I’m no wing-man, especially for others I’ve just met. I declined. He bounced his way around the bar. I watched out for him, mainly because a writer is always watching. Soon, in a flurry, he came bundling over with his finger pointed at me. It wasn’t aggressive. ‘Come on, my man. Let’s go. I need your help.’ I declined again. He’d lost count of how much beer he’d had, and which dentist-endorsed drugs he’d taken. He agreed that I was probably double figures in pints behind him, and so he bounced off again. I saw him peeking round the end of the bar, hoping out — perhaps — for me to come help.

The next time I saw him, through the fire place, he had sat himself down at the end of a table where two women were sitting and talking. He just waited until they’d acknowledged he was there. Now, I felt uneasy. The bar staff whispered to one another. The man waited, as was polite. Earlier, in a slightly less inebriated manner, he’d concentrated hard in telling me what he did for work: I registered the words ‘topology of computer . . .’ and then it all fell away into a mess of him trying to discombobulate me, and him trying to keep it all together for himself. So, the man was clearly intelligent, in ordinary circumstances. I wondered how he might see himself in the cold glare of day. He probably wouldn’t even remember. A little while later I watched him bounce out of the front door without a goodbye.

I expected to see him lying in the gutter, or wrapped around a tree some way down the road, later when I left the pub myself. He was nowhere to be seen though. I wonder if he got home the fifteen miles or so to the village where he said he lived.

We can start with fictions borne of complete imagination, such as characters who won’t divulge their own names easily; on the other hand, we can just take a notebook with us and sit and wait for characters to show themselves to us in other ways.