Artwork| Gary Hume, Water Painting, 1999
Out of life comes death
and out of death, life,
Out of the young, the old,
and out of the old, the young,
Out of waking, sleep
and out of sleep, waking
The stream of creation and dissolution
An archival approach is common to conceptual art, but rarer in literary spheres. I piece together prose and poetry found in notebooks and diaries, in scraps and fragments, the work forgotten or ‘not quite good enough’, to create a fabric chronicling personal and artistic growth. What arises is a narrative polyphony (‘my life’s a fugue’) of love and love lost, memory and reality, and the bridging of the individual and the collective.
by Fred Baxter
A fence stood near the power station at Llanarfon. Huge and silvery topped with nests of scutts wire, it reflected in the metal the leaden grey-blue sky that stretched across the landscape. It was not quite Winter; trees still burned with apricot and ruminated sleeplessly, fluttered, fell. Autumnal velveteen. Beyond the fence and the empty headland strewn with seaweed, tireless hills rolled back to the forests and mountains. The bottom of them was almost purple with heather growing in the furrows – too was the sapphire of the foaming river on Mynydd Bellargedd. Left of the beach the metal skeleton of the power station sank into sand and snowdon lilies growing out of the mud. Sealed off, broken, a collapsing hole in the reactor, massive grey plated towers. The song of seagulls moaning is always interrupted with its electric buzz. Greyish water endlessly heaved the shingle, almost touching the landscape, but never quite reaching.
The shape of Llanarfon sloped round between the sea and the sky and the mountains. The sea, the sea. It lapped the empty beaches again again, and the gritty sand littered with shells.
So, an old man limped through a gap in the fence. He looked back at the hazy white of Llanarfon past the beach (it may not be the same beach, it’s summer – the flowers are blooming, look) and the abandoned beach huts stripped with flaying paint, clutching his painful stomach as the seaweed tickled his feet. The water was warm, ‘unusually hot’ he muttered, smiling at the frothy spume on the bed of shells below. All down his legs were blue marks hot to touch. His forehead throbbed. With a pain at his knees that he ignored, he sat on the stones and looked out at the immeasurable blue of the sea. It wasn’t real; it’s just paint, an illusion, he thought. He wanted to touch the blue, to feel it gliding over him and the blue to seep into his skin, to taste the salty azure underneath his tongue. He wanted to swim into the horizon and touch the line between the sky and sea, to feel the countless waves over his back. The old man left his copy of Beowulf and his walking stick on the shells. Again he dipped his feet in and his legs now; the water was up to his swimming trunks. ‘Shouldered him out to the sea’s flood…’ he recited under his breath. ‘They decked his body no less bountifully with gold, far-fetched treasures on his back…’ His head went in, deafening the beach and the waves. Standing on a crag, he opened his bloodshot eyes and he could see the underwater visions of fish surging as one through the mass of blue. His head came out of the water and his hair was shrunken and gritty with salt. He should get back home; he could feel his temperature soaring. He made a step but with a pain all over his body, he felt a rush of numbness to his brain and his heart racing in his chest. Just seeing his little village next to the station as he was submerged by the water, he could feel blood pummelling his arteries and the beach folded into nothing. Unconscious, he fell back onto the shore, his empty head hitting a rock on the pebbles beneath. The sleep of the sword, he slopped and floated like the ocean’s leavings… trusting the ground with treasures of the earl, gold in the earth…
It’s Autumn again, and it’s raining. And there’s another old man at different times and in different seasons, but he’s walking along the chalk path that runs along the fence, he’s not in the water. Wrapped in a raincoat and a scarf, he is holding a cassette dictaphone to his mouth and recording notes for a lecture he may not give. He can’t see the grey, raw landscape, he can’t see anything; the fence hides the green of the mountains and the beach. ‘Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out across the sky like a patient etherised on a table.’ he says with a smile to check the dictaphone works. The man walks around the fence to the beach. It’s really starting to rain now; the wind is sweeping up the sea sending sheets of white water crashing down against the grooves of rock by the ocean. But all he can see is the highland… Like toy mountains, glistening in the rain. ‘The fence, the wall, the barricade, rampart, palisade, this is the true symbol of the ascent into knowledge and truth.’ he dictates in Welsh. ‘The fine lines between tutelage and freedom that appear across the canon from Plato to Beowulf to Dylan Thomas. Indeed, the fine lines between order and chaos, freedom and responsibility. The fence shields all from reality: death and life itself.’
[the body of an old man washes up on the shingle. barren, sterile. he’s naked except for a pair of trunks. his skin is churned and pink from the grating of the ocean, with deep cuts gashing his forehead. old and new blood swills around him. another old man noticed him bobbing on the shore whilst walking.]
The old man walks down to the shore. There is something in the water, red, heaving bloodlike tideagainstthesea. Walking down into the waves the flickering watery reflection foams over his shoes. Blood, raven-harvest bobbing in the water; dominion of death under the windings of the sea.
Much later, two figures emerged from the gap in the fence, holding hands. It was late evening; a purple chromatographic sunset emerged from the horizon, and asteroids burnt up and glowed with shooting pink embers across the sky. There was a thin white starline upon the mountaintops. The two women, no, one man one woman. They walked on the soft clatter of shingle at their shoes and looked out at the stars pinned across the black of the night. Bible-black. Invisible starfall. Darkest before-dawn dewgrazed stir of the black. ‘Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table’ Dorian recited, the man with the sandstorm in his blond hair. Llewelyn said nothing, likewise the curls on her tawny forehead. Almost by accident, it was all wrong. They had argued the day before and spent the twilight beside eachother in brooding silence whilst their bodies did all the talking. Llewelyn then saw the child in Dorian, the self-absorption and the conceit. ‘Something Manichean about sunsets. Beautiful yet terrifying.’
(Llewelyn smiled weakly.)
[The old lecturer walks home on silent cobbles, the images of the drowned man flashing into his vision. They bore his pyre to ocean’s billow, the smoke by the sky devoured. Processional salt slow musical wind. He carries her with him (he carries her in his heart). Dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds under milky woods.]
[The old man is kept naked in a marbled morgue cold and stony. Stone cold.]
‘I was thinking of maybe doing something on fences, walls. Like, control, division and everything.’ Dorian said.
(Nothing. She wished he would stop talking.)
‘I was thinking the other day about how we’ve mapped everything, every road, field, everything. The chartered thames. What would it have been like in the middle ages and only knowing one village your entire life? There was this book about refugees or borders or something, and there was a footnote running along the entire thing, breaking down all the walls it was talking about. Don’t you love that?’
Llewelyn hated that and she hated him. She hated his pretension. She hated his golden golden eyes. Turning to Dorian away from the sky, she squeezed his warm hand tightly and let go.
‘I was reading about how it’s really a symbol of the body and the soul, the cage of the body, the ecstatic ascent of the soul. About love.’ she said to show off and hoped he would understand the subtext. She hated the sound of Dorian’s voice.
‘No, that’s what’s beyond the fence. The actual fence is division, control,’
‘Only when you decide that. There are some perfectly nice mountains and deserts that seem to get in the way, but no one’s saying that they’re controlling anything.’
They looked in eachother’s eyes. They knew this was now arguing.
‘Why is everything with you always about all that Platonic crap?’
Llewelyn laughed. ‘That Platonic crap? Are you serious?’
‘Fence, walls, apartheid, Israel, that jungle in Paris, and you’re talking about the ascent of the soul? Yes, I’ll pop to the gymnasium and contemplate the beauty of a gorgeous young boy I saw the other day and then off I’ll go in my space-chariot and know all about the fence. The real one.’
‘Obviously the chariot stuff is a metaphor. You don’t have to be quite so self-absorbed.’
‘Self-absorbed?’ Dorian’s voice rose to a shout, ‘You didn’t speak to me before because you had to work some stuff out, and you were focussing on your work and you’re telling me I’m self-absorbed?’
‘I did have to work stuff out. You wouldn’t understand.’ she said, staring right through the face-shaped hole she bore in him. The shells, under-sand, receding fence.
Everything was silent for a splitsecond except the rippling of the sea and the nothing of the sunset. ‘Why do you have to turn everything into an argument?’ Dorian said.
Llewelyn screamed in frustration and grabbed two invisible tennis balls. ‘Why do have to turn everything into a fucking lecture?’
Llewelyn stood with the moonlight painting silvery impasto blotches on one side of her face. Dorian longed for her touch. But he said nothing, he couldn’t say the words. She stared at Dorian with tears in her eyes. She had once been drawn to his golden skin and his perfect smile. Now it was arrogant and blistering. She turned her back and began to cry silently. Words burst from Dorian’s mouth, ‘Why is everything about how you feel? Why don’t you understand what I feel, that I can’t express it, that there’s no point expressing it? That people go around saying things, doing things, but never meaning anything? Actions speak louder than words, Llewelyn.’
Llewelyn turned round. Tears fell down her sunsplained copper face and felt like acid in her throat. Every memory of him flashed in front of her like newsreel footage. [he lines up at the swimming pool oblivious to everything and the pain he causes; he’s staring at me with that irrigative smile from across the dinner table; he’s holding me when Dad drowned and his golden skin presses against me and his fingers run through my hair and the age-old warmth from his blood seeps into mine] ‘Show me,’ Llewelyn whispered. Tears cracked her voice. She had started the argument irritated, wanting to be alone. Now she wished and wished, would cross her fingers and her toes if he wouldn’t laugh, wished he would speak.
Dorian couldn’t say anything. Her eyes were like little pinkish buds, she was everything to him, too much for words. She would never understand.
Llewelyn turned her back once again and walked away on the shingle. The sunset lighting up her face purple and orange and tears in her eyes, she walked and walked, and wished he would shout or follow her, grab her arm, run after her. Her and the fence (the stars).
Down by the power station, there are buds shooting up from the mud and the heather. The winding fence glints for the last time as the burning purple sun just slips under the horizon. Far away, thunder rumbles from the mountains. At home the old lecturer is dreaming about the stars. Look at them twinkling.
Fluttering at the window
And a thrush mews, a tractor churns,
Every elder burns
And every leaf
Falling onto nests where you lay.
Remembering your voice
The landscape burrows,
Harvesting, digging you up
With muddy fingernails,
Past the little fishing village the beach glimmers against the sky. The golden sands glitters up to shore, the water foams with golddust. Deep blue sea. Bottom of the deep blue sea in a squeaking child’s voice. The sky peels in bright orange, the Sun burns with purple spots firing across the horizon. Flowers on the ground, digging up the earth. Wales. Deep green. Dropped into the mountain river, heather in the bushes. Shrivelled, waterlocked. They are brown, looking out to sea, dipped in golddust.
The school bus wrenches through the mountains. The windows are steamed and open with the heat. Olly sits near the back, the orange light coming through and dancing on his forehead, resting under his eyes. Orange, sparkling. Your skin. There’s an old-ish woman reading the news on her tablet. His eyes flit through the article. Global, panic, warming, water levels, G20 summit, international. Your skin.
A woman walks from a bus stop in a street in a town at a time in a place. She walks through a gate to an old-ish cottage. The garden is kept immaculately, with a neatly trimmed lawn and all types of flowers bunched together on the grass. It’s homely; she knows it well. All her time treading the earth, saffron from Cuba, her curls from Argentina, she stills calls her father’s little house her house. Dad answers the door. Still called Daddy. Never ‘Father’ or ‘Harry’. ‘How have you been?’ he says.
‘Well, that’s good.’
There’s an awkward few seconds where the nothing of the question is overrun by their knowing both are broken, heartbroken, lost, and neither can truly answer it.
She comes in for a cup of tea. Don’t get the album out, she thinks. Don’t get the album out. ‘You know the other day I found this wonderful picture of you’ he says.
He slowly reaches for the photo album. He shows her a colour picture of her and her brother, chocolate covered over boy’s face, girl laughing.
‘Andrew has my hair,’ the old man says gently.
It’s grey now. Grey and rough, gritty underneath. When was the last time there was a blond hair on his head?
A languid afternoon, a playless September, when the clocks go forward, that old bookshelf, when Andrew wet the bed when he was eleven, the marmalade. The rain. What was it like when it rained? She doesn’t remember what it was like. Only that it rained a lot. ‘What will we do with all the umbrellas?’ she remembered someone on Question Time asking the Prime Minister. Before that horrid orange consumed the sky, before the sea went ever further, before Dad’s plants all died one summer.
Olly gets off the bus and walks home. Literally golden. He looks up at the deep fire of the sky and he can just about make out the moon. The silver speckles of moon hovering above the sea. Ever rising deep sea. Deep blue sea in a squeaking child’s voice.
The grey mists gather by the horizon like billowing silks, the sky still dark and sleepy with morning. The thrushes whistle their twittering aubade, the first melodies across the marsh. Matutinal psalmody. All around him and the half-sunk faces of gravestones, crumbling or furled in moss, and the church bells whisper. He has been here before, in the sudden light, the dainty strong-hold rose; the bells beckon, the dewy mists.
Having wandered a sullen reconnaissance of the churchyard, he approaches the heavy door, and heaving its clunky bolts steps inside. Inside, the morning light falls in, splintering through the jewelled windows, and the birds are just muffled. The arches, the stone, they are like skin. Golden sandstone perfectly crafted, softened, hollowed by the feet of a thousand years of pilgrimage. They are listening. They understand his footsteps, their staccato rhythm; they hold his every memory, a photo album set in stone.
He is alone, and he is old. His knees creak as he sits down at a pew. Take a pew. He does. The old wood mutters. But he was breath in him, a heart full to bursting with a life of song. He looks toward the choirstalls and images flood his mind, drown the morning in memory. The golden fleshy arches disassemble. The church falls as if blown by the lightest of winds. He’s somewhere else, another time …
Now, the quire’s in sunlight and the church is full. Choristers strangled by white ruffs chant out lazy melodies, yawning silken harmonies; this morning, the songbirds conversed in the same. The old man is here, there. Here. He’s young, still damp from dew. His head is still full with his first love. The service ends, the choristers process. He’s looking for someone; his eyes dart from left to right on the marsh. The mists of sunset begin to gather, again/again, and the winds just begin to whine evening. She’s not here, he thinks. Blackbird and thrush were silent; did you not hear her? Song floods his tears, and he walks home on snoring pavestones while the stars begin to fall into the night …
The night, it runs away with the winds, it’s morning again. He walks out to the marshes, moments rushing in his mind. That evening in the churchyard, after the last overtones of the organ eddied away, when the moon was bigger than he had ever seen. And he remembers the walk up the hill, his first lost love. And the old man was full of tears.
Stalk the same
The stain-glass copses,
I am erasing tidbits
The stealthy data of the heart;
Ears bend for the sound
Of characteristic fricative,
Across forked town-centre:
I love-love-love you
It says, spun like a
Bark of apple stalk:
Loves me, loves me not,
Loves me, loves me not
Curling in my hot fingers.
In the dim echoes
Your shoes go clickety-clack,
And trammelled by red,
You smirk at the vestige
Of a long-burnt cross,
Of eternal ash-grate.
Your assessments, I’m sure,
And in the bright languor,
A vault of legs-extended gold,
Your words beckon me
Through the gritty indoor gloaming,
Heralding new insufferable mornings,
In their hot curled fingers.
did it tell me?
the singular arrangement
the lifeless elbow-arms
did they tell me?
the post-exulting exhalation
neon arm-thigh capped polo
or the famous escapade
our drawn-out picaresque
how it resounded
all of a few seconds
enough for me to de-stair,
de-scene the moment
until it locked on another,
paternal, fraternal perhaps;
he was a questionable musketeer
at the very least.
yes, that told me
the darkening tableau
the red, or the white.
the next was sure to tell me
(a luminal liminal
an intra-vestal oversight)
as they all reminded me
in the bare-remembered
books of the poster-cladding.
‘‘Had I known,
Had I known,
Had I Known
While the bells wallow,
I wouldn’t have cared
About the music’’
is how it went –
I didn’t listen.
did the silent walkings tell me?
surely not. That and the
or the insistence
in the arches
or the archness
or the drumming heart
or the reddening,
they wouldn’t have told me.
or the worlds that were made
or the rooms we dismantled
of the snatching view,
or the patching blue
the hilltop turnaround
none of these.
not the substitute
but the wholly new
the titular postboxes
the gardening raiments
utter, proclaim, brandish;
indite, dedicate, inscribe,
the arms are vocal
perhaps I’ll give you one,
on the variants
speak, speak, change, flow
embellish it, change the face
the subject never changes
my life’s a fugue
love’s a riverness