Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Morning After

At the end of a long project, waking up the following day feels like a strange hangover. It’s not so much a sore head as an empty head; more relief than catharsis. Charlotte & The Charlatan began as a poem about the Circus. Rather than just a random bunch of quirky character sketches, I decided to make the title-characters part of a loosely-threaded narrative. They both appear throughout the book, giving clichéd advice, unaware of their own foibles, failures, lies and misdeeds. Although I sketched nearly thirty tales, only 23 ended up in the book – a tiny, hand-stitched, illustrated art-book.

Throughout the process, I tried out the stories on audiences at spoken-word events in Edinburgh, and found that they worked well as performance pieces. People enjoyed their sinister humour. Next, I found background music for some tales, while others were specifically written to fit with music so that they could be choreographed for interpretative dance. My dance-artist was a major inspiration whose positivity pulled me from the darkness that threatened to drag me – and the book – into morbidity.

Another friend suggested recording the tales, with four voices playing various characters. Then video, slideshow, costume, illustration and other collaborations came into play, until the project culminated in a one-off performance exhibition which happened (depending on when you’re reading this) last week. It is not planned that this will happen again, so if you missed it: tough. The book is a limited edition art-book, and the recordings may appear on sound-cloud.
So “today” I am struggling with a weird and wonderful hangover. Charlotte and the Charlatan are no more. One of my favourite writers, Elaine Feinstein, said ‘All sorrows are borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.’ Actually, she didn’t say that; she was quoting from Isak Dinesen, the nom-de-plume of the Danish writer, Karen Blixen. In the spirit of Charlotte (not the most trustworthy sage) it doesn’t matter what is said by whom. It’s who you are, not what you do, that defines you.
I am a writer, musician, artist, playwright and poet. This means I am a liar, since ‘art is a lie that helps us to understand the truth.’ (That was pilfered from Adorno.) But at least I’m not a fraud or a thief.
There is no more grief and sorrow in the pages of Charlotte & The Charlatan than in the final story, ‘Invisible Alice.’ It is the tale of the worst possible day after, when The People awake to find that everything they dreamed of is gone, emptiness fills the air, and questions are barely-formed. When I wrote a poem about ‘the morning after’ this time last year, I didn’t imagine that, a year later, I’d be asking ‘Why.’
But thanks to my many true and wonderful friends (not least the beautiful, optimistic Melanie) this weird and surreal little sequence ends with the most conflicted sound we can ever hear: painfully positive, yet positively painful.
We ignore – or stop our ears against it – at our peril.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan

– and other cautionary tales


Invisible Alice

Something was awry in Charlotteville. The parks and streets evinced an eerie silence. For weeks there was an absence that a cliché would call deafening; a dearth of noise the local folk considered threatening.


            It glistened in the trees like trembling light. Those who listened heard far more than sight. For those who dealt with taste, it left a bitter bite. But if you choose to use your nose, olfactory intelligence told of a sharper sense that could be felt on lips or fingertips, or spied in ice so thick, or felt in furnace (for who can tell what lies beneath the surface) or heard beneath the ground, or in the echo of the dome above (for who can hear, alone, of love.)


            It was an emanating absence all could tell with more intelligence than sight or sound or smell or taste or touch. Nor head, nor heart, nor gut, could dare identify an   instinct. Yet everyone in Charlotteville, from low to high, was linked in understanding bordering on visionary: Charlotteville was in a thrall lacunary and nihilist. Some-thing was missing, but nobody knew what it was, or why they missed it.


            Tension grew like a major chord against a minor 3rd  suspension of a melody, heard within a harmony it could not fit (yet nature toyed with it.) The music of the soul sought resolution in a situation that refused to be resolved: the People longed for salve along a tightened string or taut skin of a drum; a sound to solve their longing, or dissolve   a fear that none could sense, yet all could taste and smell and hear.


            And some claimed they could see what wasn’t there. For those who thought they had the touch, it wasn’t up to much: a phantom presence that disappeared in thin air like an echo: repeating a noise that existed only in the memory and was, therefore, little more than unreliable imagination.


            Utterly deniable.


            There was something demonic, something monstrous: a juggernaut of thought, of passion more emotive or of motion uncontrollable that cast a shadow on a void. It employed both light and dark so no-one knew if they were looking though a glass or their reflection or projection of their image they could never see though nor observe where it might lead to.


            And as the tension grew and built in a crescendo, people gained an understanding that – ironic – darkness dawned upon them: an epiphany illuminating what was missing. Dismissing their own needs, their foibles and failures and lies and misdeeds, every woman,every man cried out and called for Charlotte and The Charlatan!


            But the Charlatan and Charlotte were gone. They called out again, but no sound was heard, nor glimpse construed. The air was imbued with empty wind, and from the ground the dust flew up like powder (was it talcum, chalk or sherbet?) On the wall, a palimpsest of new graffiti sprayed a message none, not one, could forget.


            Charlotte and The Charlatan were gone.


            Throughout the Principality, the People went from a sense of damp dismay to being drenched in some calamity for which they had no coping strategy or understanding. Those with energy sought high and low, while those of thought, demanding reason, found no wisdom. And those of raw emotion fought the tears of passion, empathy, aggression… all came to naught.


            The collective grief flowed through the stages any therapist could prescribe. A landscape painter would describe the scene as a vista: a broad horizon evanescing or inducing endlessness; a dim façade or perpetually rolling fen of melancholy.


            Time and space on senseless surge of tide on surf and shifting sand and coastal shelf and pointless blue dissolve of sea and endless sky that sucks the ocean up and yet the wet remains although the dry earth calls and enthrals as all the folk of Charlotteville, every woman, every man called out to Charlotte and The Charlatan:


            Why, Why, Why?


            A sinking, stabbing, throbbing realisation came to all. Were Charlotte and The Charlatan a figment of their fraudulent imagination? Was this just a reaction: to doubt their existence was foolish or futile, surely? Some thought it was purely a dream, but on waking discovered things were, indeed, exactly as they seem.


            In desperation, they gathered together and called out once again to Charlotte and
The Charlatan: 


            Why, Why, Why?


            But whether they called with the same intent, or even knew what the other – their neighbour – thought or felt or meant, not one could know or sense or say.


            Charlotte and The Charlatan were never seen again. Although the pain it caused the folk of Charlotteville,     long after their disappearance or departure would, in nature’s course (or time) reduce or dissipate, there was    but one excuse that would emolliate that wound, or scar,   or trauma (or whatever hurt is meted on a person’s flesh,  or heart, or brain.)


            Nothing is certain. No hours of contemplation, moments of passion, nor the steady plod of blood our organs push without cessation just to live, or be, or thrive: only one thing keeps us alive. It’s only one thing we are capable of giving. And only one thing makes our fictional life worth living.


            It was at the point the people called out ‘Why, Why, Why?’ that they stopped their senses and forgot – or failed – to listen for a baby’s cry.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Following a Faint Stain

The title poem of Ted Hughes’ early collection, Wodwo is a poem that has stuck with me ever since I read it. Using a mysterious creature, Hughes examines the questions of being and doing, what it is to exist, and how we see ourselves. I’ve cited this poem many times here on this blog, and wrote my own take on the Wodwo in my sequence An Imaginary Menagerie.

Facebook often throws up those funny questionnaires where, after ticking various boxes you discover, for example, which Shakespeare play you are, or what character in literature represents your personality. I came up as Atticus Finch, which was rather pleasing. There are other more serious character-analyses – in particular the enneagram,  and Myers Brigg. My preference for the former may be the reason I have not, until recently, done a Myers Brigg test.

Recently, however, I did one online, and discovered I am an INFJ. I was not surprised, as an enneagram Number 4, that emotions featured high, and intuition is a key factor in decision-making. I’ve mentioned before the introvert/extrovert dilemma as a writer/ performer, and how creative people tend to live in both states simultaneously. But the last category surprised me, even if I was on the cusp.

Apparently this is a rare type of personality. This fits with the Number 4 on the Enneagram, the ‘Creative’ whose self-ideal is of being ‘special.’ The tendency to want to help others more than self is common to both types, and can often cause problems. I know this to my personal detriment. It seems that the ‘Judging’ element sets these sorts of people apart, and although I was shocked to find that I fell on that side – thinking myself strongly perceptive – I can see how this makes sense.

Yet my inability to make decisions, or see things in black and white, would point to the P (Perceiving) element of this pair of letters, not J. I find shopping, whether for groceries, clothes, or train tickets, challenging because the options are overwhelming. Conversely, as a writer I spend a great deal of time observing people and assessing what makes them tick, which I guess is a J trait. My preference for the Enneagram is based on the idea that we can access all nine character-types, and using the ‘triads’ can travel around the circle.

Many of the Cautionary Tales in Charlotte & The Charlatan follow this idea. Head, heart, and gut appear throughout It may be poor literary practice, but I frequently describe things with triplicate adjectives. In my previous post, ‘Hannah and the Shadows’ describes the Jungian concept of the shadow-self (a feature of Myers Brigg) moving through the enneagram triads of cognition (head) emotion (heart) and instinct (gut) – developing Jung's 'archetypes.'. The next tale is an exploration of all nine character types of the enneagram.

Perhaps I am more like this character Thomas than I care to admit.

Having said all that, I still feel I am closer to the INFP than my 'test' came out. Who we are, and how others perceive us,  may be a critical question in our existence. Keep searching, Wodwo.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan

– and other cautionary tales

Unwatchful Thomas


Thomas was a people-watcher, but not a Peeping Tom. All day long he watched what made people tick; the expressions on their faces, the places they went.  Before he noticed, he’d spent hours engrossed in observations – avoiding conversations.

It was a form of empathy: he lacked a photographic memory and rarely remembered the people he’d clocked. He looked, smiled internally, then quickly forgot. His only recollection was of what each person might have been thinking. This was pure supposition – he couldn’t have an inkling of what was going on inside another person’s head.

His perception was a thumbnail sketch of a person’s personality from which he formed no judgement. “You can tell so much from people’s faces,” he’d say, then carry on looking for clues construed from first-opinions alone.

In the market-squares, streets and shops he never ceased to look at people’s attitude; their posture at the bus-stop; the way they queued at the till or the bar; their gait in the gardens and parks of Charlotteville. He never thought anything ill, whether they dwelled in the office, or work-site, or factory; nor wherever they stood in society’s hierarchy.

In the kitchen, the Head Chef and Chef-de-Party were in charge. Although one was The Boss, while the other relied on perfectionism, both were well-known for culinary schism. The Commis, the also-ran, washing endless pots and pans knew how detergent could foil the hottest temper by pouring soapy water on oil; making a molehill out of a mountain of plates: this was a character-type to which many could relate.

In supermarkets, shopping malls, and boutiques, there were many who wore their hearts on their sleeves. The Creative, who never donned the latest fashion but dressed with a trend that went well-beyond passion. The ever-helpful who, in the supermarket, reached up to the top-shelf for the shorter shopper, and let the pregnant mother get to the till before her. The high-achiever, while determined to finish her wish-list, never missed a chance to engage in conversation that would complete her ultimate mission.

In Libraries, Museums and Galleries the cerebral types could be seen. The avid reader absorbed informative facts with avaricious intent, while the museum-dweller indulged in artefacts, digesting a menu delightful and eclectic. Meanwhile, the loyal sceptic puzzled over pictures in every gallery. In her head, she knew it was ‘good.’ But in her guts and her heart she questioned: but is it ‘art.’

Thomas spotted the same types all the time, and plotted them on a pie-chart divided into nine. The defensive boss, short-tempered perfectionist, and smooth-talking negotiator; the selfless angel, aloof artistic creator, and list-instigator; the well-read wise owl, obedient art-collector and the epicurean curator.

In every visage, expression or face; from every walk or place or ban, Thomas would form an opinion as only a Watcher of People can. He spent his time without harming a soul, never thinking his strange predilection alarming; nor that others would see his acute observations perturbing, or in any way abusive or disturbing.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Harrowing Hell

Of the darkness in men’s minds

What can you say

That wasn’t marked by history

Or the TV news today

I fear that starting this entry with a Joni Mitchell quote is courting a spark, given her current state of health. Joni has been an inspiration to so many, including me, and I will return to her prophetic words later in this post. But for now, to engage with her spirit and philosophy seems appropriate.

It has been some years since I left the world of organised religion but, as I have indicated many times, I believe the Gospel story has immense resonance in everyone’s life, if they are willing to engage and understand the universal themes contained within this complex story. At the heart of it is a man who, for whatever reason the authorities and his society saw fit, was despised, rejected, persecuted, and eventually put to death after a cruel trial.

There are plenty of scriptural references to ‘light’ and ‘dark’ which suggest that the general human condition is to favour the latter. This, theology suggests, is why people refused to accept Christ’s raison d’être – to seek light in the darkness through love, redemption, forgiveness, and grace. But as the story has progressed through time and centuries this message has been corrupted and distorted.

The early church created a mythology which became, literally, its credo: a statement of ‘beliefs’ that Christianity was supposed to adhere to, and accept as its creed. There are only three sentences in the Nicene Creed that are indeed credible, or believable:

He Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was Crucified,

dead and buried.

We then get a strange episode whereby Christ ‘descended into hell,’ thus giving rise to an incredibly absurd depiction of ‘The Underworld’ that even Virgil couldn’t get his head around, as Dante points out in his Inferno. But The Church has the idea that Christ ‘harrowed hell’ to redeem all humankind, before rising to ‘new life’ – whatever the hell that is.

Last week, I was challenged by someone who said that she hoped the pilot, who appeared to have purposely crashed his plane, killing all passengers and crew, would ‘rot in hell.’ First, I said that I don’t believe in hell, so her hope was misguided. I next pointed out that the man who did this was already experiencing hell in his own life. I could not condone his actions, but I was not in a position to judge or assess what led him to do such a terrible thing.

Then I was offered another option: that if God exists (another pointless posit in the argument) then he would condemn this person as evil. Well, again, I must say I don’t believe that either. What I do know is that some very complicated states of mind lead people to do terrible things, whether they fly planes into buildings or mountains, or simply fly too close to the sun.


People will tell you where they’ve gone

They’ll tell you where to go

But ’til you get there yourself

you never really know

And when they crash, whether into buildings, or mountains, or beautiful foolish arms, we are all at fault for not heeding the alarms that were ringing in the darkness of our lives.

As I move further away from ecclesiology, I come to understand why The Church and its claims are flawed, and yet have so much meaning. Our secular society is missing a trick, given the deeper truths which the Gospel relates. When Christ was abandoned by his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane, it wasn’t because they didn’t love him. It was because they were human, and humans are scared, scarred, and – well, failing to find a third alliteration – wimps.

In my poetry, I have examined the feelings that Christ may have endured in Gethsemane in my sequence Walking on the Water, published here (see p 27). That Christ – and all who suffer – was harrowed by the reality of hell on earth is laid bare as the waters warp (to quote the Shakespeare poem mentioned in my last post.) Spring, at least here in Edinburgh, has been slow to arrive. And although my friends have not abandoned me, I have felt a keen wind.


Critics of all expression

Judges in black and white …

Compelled by prescribed standards

Or some ideals we fight

As Joni points out in this masterpiece, ‘Every picture has its shadow… and it has some source of light.’ So I took that line as a starting-point for my next Cautionary Tale, ‘Hannah and the Shadows’ and played with the idea that, despite our strange and corrupt attempt to dwell in the darkness of life, the light – however you perceive it – will bring you out of all darkness, into His powerful Light.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales

Hannah & The Shadows

Hannah loved the shadows. She dwelt among the deepest, darkest places of the mind. Hiding behind her public persona, Hannah chose to disown a reality that might reveal her personality.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            Standing at the brown brink of water it wasn’t the thought of her reflection; she had no predilection to sink or swim. It was the shadow upon the murky surface that pulled her in. And as she waded in by the weir, she didn’t imagine her fear would overwhelm or wash away the darkness: her shadow would stay whatever the time of day.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            As the sun set in the trees she saw the elongating shadow like a chimera; ominous and treacherous ephemera hovered over her neglected intellect. And yet she never let the silhouette of setting sun illuminate the prospect of another day. Hannah loved the darkness better than the light, but try as she might she couldn’t deny the source of her shadow was stronger when either the sun or the moon lingered longer.

            She belonged to the darkness. Hannah shunned the sources of light; the darkness addressed her; the forces malignant possessed her, indignant, held her in thrall; the fall of humanity was a calamity Hannah rejoiced in and concelebrated; the designated angels, cherubim and seraphim, standing guard, hard against the garden gate were there for hate and guilt and fault and blame: the same as those who sat in judgement over all their fellow human-kind.

            For it’s in the mind the deepest shadows fall. It’s not the yoke of light enthrals you. It is the truth appals and calls you to illuminate your mental state: Hannah would not, could not, see how others’ truth can illustrate her darkened slate. It was for her to scrape clean or to smudge or trudge the darkness in. It was her truth, within, within, within.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            She hid in darkened corridors, bidden by the doors that shut upon her, followed by another and another – but she never dared or bothered to allow herself to push against their closing – supposing she was trapped in tunnels of her choosing, in a maze of multiple emotions, in a crazy labyrinthine dream. Hannah wandered on unseen, hiding an emotional charade, chiding her façade, berating her competing with the self-defeating beating of her heart.

            A dark, foreboding fear prevented her from penetrating deeper, or of finding any exit whether self-perceived or outwardly-revealed. She conceived if any person wore a mask or sword or shield they could transport themselves in thought and word and deed into a life hereafter. But for Hannah, laughter echoed round that outer mansion in a gloomy reverie.

            Held in her own self-defining palindrome, a prophecy macabre was far darker than the shadows Hannah loved. For on that tipping fulcrum; in that swing of pendulum, within the shrinking gyre of hell-fire it was clear it was the shadows that loved Hannah. And Hannah loved the shadows not in any symbiotic mutuality, for in their grave duality lay a buried dependency; it was Hannah’s tendency to dig away at darkness.


            Hannah loved the shadows that loved Hannah.


            Hannah dug herself into the ground. And, surrounded as the sinking sand dissolved, swallowed by the earth that gave her birth; she wallowed in the peristaltic drag of soil until her turmoil was complete and whole. Whether it was rabbit hole, badger’s sett or foxes lair, it was to her a box that best prepared her for the logic she admired.

            So mired in sin and all things impropriety could pile upon her, Hannah longed for darkness. But as leaf and bark and bole dissolve and rot or turn to ash and dust; as if we must be re-composed with some resolve to prove or, deep inside, improve, that darkness is no darkness as the shadows lengthen… every picture has its shadows…

            Yet if through miracle, superstition, or imagination; or through moral, mythological, or pseudo-philosophical elaboration, clouds of darkness part and drench the fecund ground with light to end what Hannah’s plight – to slight her right to life – had led her into self-interred corporeal hibernation.

            And as the dry earth parted, and Hannah attempted to draw her final breath, it wasn’t Lazarus, Persephone or any resurrection myth, nor was it death that forced her rise from her deep sepulchre and thrive; nor even light that gave her life renewed vitality. It was the shade that shielded her eschewed reality.