10th NOVEMBER 1891
He swims from one world to the next. A pain as deep as the sea surrounds him, obsessing him with insatiable colours. Seen through a microscope he secretes in the depths of his mind, the cancer that spread from his limb to the rest of his body reveals itself as a garden of implacable flowers. Once more, he decamps... making space for an innocence that barges him aside.
Delirious, he states his destination and the world, amassed behind him like a squadron of signs, pursues him to the ultimate lighthouse. He feigns conversion, as an act of kindness, to throw his grieving relatives off the scent. For his one true god is adventure, his nemesis boredom. The nocturnal sky, his chosen blanket, offers its southern stars in homage.
His voice resounds to the vagabonds of my own time, to migrants whose knapsacks are splashed with mud - on the move through sunflower fields where newly-erected barbed wire shines. He was the first on the move, it seems, but only because of the words he wrote. They moved more rapidly than any that came before him - and continue to do so.
Nights in the temple. I recall the taste of your sweat, the way your mouth plunged into mine again and again. I was a lover but also an explorer and a scientist, discovering what the body could mean and that, just like the rest of us, I was immersed in a physical world whose dimensions preceded me. That to love and to die were clauses in the same sentence, a sentence conceptualised to the point of cliché. That it was enough to enjoy what the physical world had to offer, to pray to tangible gods and hold the charm in one's hands, turning it over and over until it spoke at the back of one's mind. That it was enough to construct a soundtrack to the vicissitudes of mortality, and to leave it behind for others to dance to. No, this didn't all come to me at the time, in bed with you that night at the age of twenty, but the seeds were sown and I couldn't go back to the spectral lure of the anima. And once more I plunge into the sweat of the nights of the tropical forest, descending through life to a delicious vacuity of sleep accompanied by the liqueurs of my dazzling blood... recalling the taste of your sweat, the thickness of your tongue, the pointlessness of work, ambition, and even art when faced with the directness of such encounters, the conditions of life made bare in a woman’s flesh on a night in a temple of sweat-stained sweet-smelling bedclothes.
You, I say to myself, can forget me if you want. For my part, my ecstasies are there to be made use of. The temple door is open, and death waits like a punter at a strip-club whose presence, with querulous grace, I accept.
On a mild November afternoon on the Cornish coast, in the tiny port of Charlestown, I locate myself in the digital photographs that are taken everywhere and in which I'm repeated, a random presence of tints and shadows, anonymous as leaves or a tide-mark on a beach. In those photographs - so often taken, like mine, in a moment of misplaced enthusiasm - I exist, unconsciously, in multitudes. I do so, of course, in photographs that seldom outlive their moment. Thousands are taken, almost all of them stored for a rainy day of recollection that will never come. How many of them would have existed in the not-so-distant past when there were twenty-five or forty exposures to a film? But, ignored on hard drives or on memory cards, they exist despite being overlooked and that is how I also exist within them. I sip my tea in shirtsleeves, on a mild November afternoon in the infinitely-replicable port of Charlestown, and consider my infinite replicability. It neither helps nor reassures but, nonetheless, I find it amusing that I am (at least potentially) ubiquitous.
SEALS IN STROMNESS
for Roderick Muncey
In a smashed-up whaling station recessed into the corner of a city gallery, we watch sleet fall as we feel it with our minds. That is cold enough on a mild day in British winter, when traffic merges with the grunting of fur seals that have taken over the dismantled fittings and rotting furniture. They forage pointlessly across the shambled floor, or lie in shadows gaping like dossers. They arrange themselves in formation on the beach, beside a crumbling pier, watching grey surf as sleet’s blown in. They lollop like Malone and the Unnameable. They move their bulk like cows, crossing a farmyard on the puszta. They investigate the wreckage like the Stalker and his companions. The world has ended and the aftermath is ruination, sleet on bare hillsides, an indifferent tribe of reindeer moving their sinews at the holocaust‘s verge.
We watch sleet fall, we stay for a second and third screening... amused and dazzled by the repetition. It is during the third screening that the salt princess appears with her retinue of short-term courtiers, showing them around the exhibition in return for her fee. She offers us a paragraph of her own interpretation but, no matter how eloquent her words, they are as nothing to the silence of the camera, the stillness of images that embody our extinction.
As if baffled by our indifference to her words, she withdraws her crocodile of eager families with the tart riposte - ’let’s leave those guys to their fur seals’. But the seals were only the psychopomps. There are still songs to be sung, as has again been proved, on the other side of humankind.
*based on a video by Simon Faithfull, shown at the Peninsula Art Gallery, Plymouth as part of the ‘Landscapes of Exploration’ exhibition (January - March 2012). This is Stromness in South Georgia, not the Orkneys.
Copyright © Norman Jope, 2017..