Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lost beginnings 3, the end (of the beginnings)

I've known from the outset that I possessed a certain amount of the notebook's early entries -- the parts that followed my daughter's dedicatory note -- because I plundered those first few pages when I was setting up my MySpace page for the Poet to Poet project. I stripped out those entries which (sort of) filled the boxes MySpace sets for its profile. When I went back and stripped them out from that webpage, something occurred to me which relates to those 'lost' books.

I have a great deal of unpublished poetry from the eighties I never quite got round to finishing off or sending out (the tentative volume Poetry in Unglish), partly because the work was inferior or uncompleteable, partly because I was trying influences on for size, discarding some, amalgamating others, and moving on. By the end of that period, one of the styles I'd settled into, alongside the pieces which went into my first books for Bloodaxe and Arc, was montage, where I'd borrow phrases I found and liked the resonance of, and create an amalgam of these with phrases I was generating anyway in a fairly continuous manner.

This wasn't a fifty-fifty split: the proportions would vary wildly from just an epigraph, to an almost completely collage of 'foreign,' though the challenge of course was to create a voice which was itself slightly foreignised. Both Ashbery and MacDiarmid were behind this mode, and I suppose I grew out of it as slowly as I grew out of them, wanting to bring other elements into the work to roughen up its technique, resisting perfectionism and repetition. (Though repetition has its role.)

Anyway, when I abstracted from MySpace those entries I'd already removed from the notebook, I was reminded of that process of assemblage as digestion, drafting as rehearsal for the voice. No doubt, eighteen years or so ago, I'd have been dividing and reassembling these phrases, trying them out in couplets, tercets, quatrains, improvising parallel or contrasting lines based on tone or image or rhythm. No doubt to some extent that's exactly what I continue to do, just as these have lost some reference points only to begin to gain new ones.

One of the things I think I'm engaged in at this point in my writing life is a reassessing of the selves, consecutive or otherwise, an attempt to integrate those ways of working and thinking into a bundle, to echo Yeats, that is both coherent and incoherent in characteristic ways. I'm trying to see what has to be in the painting alongside such self-portraiture, and to accept that this composite self is a much smaller part of a larger multiplicity of patterns than these previous selves assumed.

I already know that its supposed integrities are much challenged by those patterns. I'm curious what the consequences of this is in terms of new work, but I suppose I'm equally curious in relation to old, 'lost' work.

Lost beginnings 2, the middle

I am seven-sixteenths Cherokee.
None of these sixteenths is inside my body.

I don't have the time to be as obsessive as I would like to be.

It is only by not being able to do anything right
that I have ever got anything done.

I am a Time Peasant (if only I could remember
the past or indeed the future in any detail).

I am relieved to know I am not a Golem.
Nor, apparently, am I the King of the Echo People.
(Though this may go to tribunal.)

The great thing about nowadays is that you can talk to yourself
in public and everyone thinks you're on the phone.

I've got a fever and the only prescription is COWBELL.

I used to shave elephants.
Elements. I used to shave elements.

My favourite was fire, because
the red hot stubble was immediately ash.

With water I only got that brown foam
that washes up on non-Blue Flag beaches.

Air didn't care, but I only took
its oxygen molecules.

If you shave earth you get chocolate.

I'm totally mired
in that portion of the soundscape occupied
by non-human creatures.

The long-maned stumpy horses eating grass
between the yellow mini-pylons
arranged in a grid before runways.

An old schoolfriend with a moustache
where his teeth should be (that's right,
growing from the otherwise empty ridge of his gum).

Men who buy the model aeroplanes
of the planes they are sitting on
in the hope of completing their collection
(of model aeroplanes of the planes they have sat upon).

Jelly Ibrahim! Hands of Shine!
Babies that double up as cameras and MP3 players!
Thomas Jones: a great painter of Mediterranean walls!
Captain Crinkle: imitation without an original!

Lost beginnings 1, the beginnings

Every night, when I attempt to re-imagine the notebook, I project myself back into the summer, when it sat beneath my Greek pillow; I remove it and look at its cover (the spine repaired by a black masking tape with a slight thready pattern on it, moleskine's black elastic band holding it shut). I open it and pass over the empty space on the first page where the address should have gone, turning instead to the first entry, a note to me from my daughter.

Her handwriting is growing more oval as she enters her teens, but eighteen months ago it still had a childish roundness that's echoed in a few of the phrases. She still calls me 'Dada,' a nomenclature I encouraged past its usual sell-by date because of its echo of Dadaism, and she concludes with my affectionate title for her, 'Best Bug,' the origins of which even I can't quite remember. In between, however, the message has her characteristic insightful maturity.

Although I can't remember the words exactly, I know what their content was: 'this is for you to look at when you're away from home, so that you feel comforted by the thought that I, we [I can't remember whether she includes Debbie in this or not] are thinking of you and love you.' I was touched and reassured by it throughout the time I was able to look at it: it did fulfil a function of bringing my imagination back to my family when I was, sometimes, very far away.

And it still performs that function now, each time I (partially) recall it, before I turn to the last entry, the phrasing of which I can never quite recall, and have to rehearse; then turn to the crucial missing section in the middle, picturing the drawing of Twisty Jesus from Komsomolskaya, remembering how I went through the entries drawing a circle in pencil around each station, so that I'd be able to find them quickly when I finally got round to transcribing them. I was already thinking of each entry as little sketch poems, like the ones I made the first time I visited the Uffizi, later setting them out in lines.

That reminds me that there are other, more subtly misplaced pieces of writing that I still claim to possess:

That journal I kept when I went to Italy for the first time with James Lloyd, with whom I recently got back in touch after a gap of almost thirty years. I typed up its pseudo-Kerouackian passages and called it Travelovel, circulating it around a few friends, one of whom, James Meek, still assumes I keep diaries with that degree of detail. The 'poems' were immediate reactions to the paintings, something I did in approximately the same manner in Rome, though fortunately those were in my pocket sketch book.

That verse play improvised directly onto an old electric typewriter called, ludicrously, Pannini, based on the painter of Roman scenes that montaged Classical ruins and contemporary scenes for the eighteenth century connoisseur market. There were a couple of canvasses in the Ashmolean by him that fascinated me, and the play, such as it was (it was like The Draughtsman's Contract, but with less happening) arose initially from speeches by the statues and bas-reliefs, before adding monologues by Pannini and dialogues between him and his patrons.

The novella Virtual Sideboard, which I wrote on holiday in Lanzarote whilst drinking cheap Spanish market brands of whisky and staying up all night, which consisted of extremely convoluted sentences about the onset of responsibility anxiety in a new parent, and fantasias-within-fantasias, retreats into the world inside the old sideboard that sat for decades in my grandmother's living room and now languishes in the asbestos-roofed garage of my parents' house. Somehow, I never quite got round to typing this up.

These unfinished, unpublishable, never-quite-relinquished pieces of writing are supposedly among my endless heaps of paper. Pannini turned up, briefly, when I got a young writer in to help tidy things up, and I imagine Travelovel is recoverable, not least because the original journal it was taken from still exists. But I haven't seen Virtual Sideboard for years, rather like the synopsis of a verse novel I mislaid when we had to move out of the lighthouse so its floors could be rehung, and never located again, and therefore can never quite get on with writing.

(The atavism of my compositional process lies close to the heart of this project: how can I proceed if I don't have those very scraps of paper?)

There was an incident which still gives me the cold shivers, when I found my research assistant throwing out letters from the 80s because they wouldn't be of immediate interest -- there had been one day previous to that when I hadn't gone through the material being dispensed with, and I keep thinking 'What if?' in a most unjust and ungenerous panic.

So how do these effectively lost pieces compare with the actually gone notebook I try to reconstruct in my dozing mind's eye? How will the piece of work I'll have to produce without it compare to the pieces I could produce if I were to find and edit those missing items?