Particulate Matters

An unmade bed with mint green duvet showing an open notebook,hot water bottle and dressing gown

It was the morning I had decided to stop living as if dust wasn’t the primary community in which I sobbed and thrived, daily, towards dying. I spent Tuesday night in a frenzy trying to discern what particular dust or pollen (animal, vegetable, floral) had triggered my allergies anew, what baseline materiality had exploded in my small room its abysmal density. All recommended air filters had sold out online in the midst of other consumers’ presumably asthmatic dust panics; the highly desirable Vax filter seemed sold out across all channels, and I eyed up the pre-owneds of eBay with lust and suspicion, through a fug of beastly sneezes. A friend recommended the insufflation of water as a temporary remedy: ‘I drop some drops on my chopping board, get a straw and snort it up like a line of Colombian snow’, he texts me. I sneeze at the thought, but have to admit that the promise of clearing one’s nasal cavities with water is somewhat appealing. For isn’t water, like sneezing, a force in itself? Some kinds of sneeze come upon you as full-body seizures of will; so that to sneeze repeatedly you must surrender an hour or so, sometimes a full day, to the laconic state of being constantly taken over by this brute, unattractive rupture. ‘Sneezing’, writes Pascal, ‘takes up all the faculties of the soul’. My soul is in credit to the god dusts, who owe me good air. It’s why I am always writing poems (the word air meaning song/composition). But maybe I need good water, a wave of it. 

In Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (1990), the philosopher Catherine Clément characterises sneezing as an instance of ‘syncope’: a kind of ‘“cerebral eclipse,” so similar to death that it is also called “apparent death”; it resembles its model so closely that there is a risk of never recovering from it’. My muscles ache; I eclipse myself with blood, cellular juices and water. What kind of spiritual exhaustion results from being cast into eclipse repeatedly? Quite simply, one becomes ghost: blocked, momentarily or otherwise, from the light of consciousness. One becomes lunar and attached to the dark bright burn, the trembling red of their inflammation. Those who suffer respiratory allergies might better glimpse what Eugene Thacker calls ‘a world-without-us’. I sneeze myself to extinction. It is the hyperbole of a felt oblivion. I do this on random days of the year, at random times; it is beyond my control. But can I derive pleasure from it, as one does the other varieties of syncope (orgasm, swoon or dance)?

From Spirited Away (2001)

Let me admit, I have always had a fetish for those moments on television and film where a character is administered, or self-administers, an intravenous dose of painkill so sweet as to enunciate this ecstasy simply by falling to a sweet slump, their eyes rolled back accordantly. The premise of silencing the body’s arousal so completely to blissful inertia (suspending the currency of insomnia, hyperactivity, anxiety and attention deficit) is delicious. The calmness of snowfall, as if to swallow the durée of its full soft melt. From quarantine, I fantasise about having adequate boiler pressure as to run a bath and practice the khoratic hold of hot water’s suspension. This is not what I text my landlord. 

Recently, my partner spent several hours unpacking boxes from the attic of their parent’s house, in preparation for moving belongings to a new flat. The next day, I found myself suffused in the realm of allergy: unable to think clearly, or articulate more than three words without the domination of a sneeze. On such days, I am held on the tight leash of my own sensitivity: I tremble pathetically, my blood temperature rises; my nose glows reindeer and no amount of fresh air, hydration or sinus clearance will appease it. I am not ‘myself’. The body has enflamed itself upon contact with the ambient and barely visible. I feel an intimate, but non-consensual relation to the ghost trace, the dust trace, of all boxed things — finally been given the attention they so summoned or desired in dormancy. I mourn with objects the passage of time and neglect so betrayed on their surface; I never ask for this, but my body is summoned. Dust presses itself upon you, even as you produce it. I’m scared to touch things because of the dust. What is it but the atmospheric sloughing of something volatile, mortal — the grammatology of our darkest spoiler, telling the story of how bodies are not wholly our own, or forever. 

Sneezing disrupts and spoils nice things; it is an allergic response to both luxury and decay. Cheap glitter, rose spores, Yves Saint Laurent. Sneeze sneeze. ‘When a student comes to class wearing perfume’, admits Dodie Bellamy, ‘my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do. When the sick rule the world perfume will be outlawed’. Often I have this reaction too. It prompts a fury in me: Why can’t I have nice things, as I used to? During my undergraduate finals, I developed phantosmia: a condition in which you smell odours that aren’t actually there (olfactory hallucination). Phantosmia is typically triggered by a head injury or upper respiratory infection, inflamed sinuses, temporal lobe seizures, brain tumours or Parkinson’s disease. Often I have tried to conjure some originary trauma which would explain my condition: did some cupboard door viciously slam my head at work (possibly), did I fall over drunk (hm), was I subject to some terrible chest infection or vehement hayfever (often)? Luckily, my phantosmia was a relatively benign and consistent scent: that of an ersatz, fruity perfume. It recalled the pink-tinted Poundland scents I selected as a twelve-year-old to vanquish the horror of body odour raised by the spectre of Physical Education, before graduating to the exotic spices of Charlie Red. I was visited by this scent during intervals of increasing frequency as I served customers at work, cooked or studied; I trained myself to ignore them by pinging a rubber band on my wrist, or plunging my nose into scented oils I kept on my person. Years later they returned at moments of stressful intensity; the same cryptic, sickly smell. 

More recently, phantosmia, under the umbrella of a general ‘parosmia’ (abnormality in the sense of smell) is associated with Covid-19. Not long ago I realised I hadn’t been smelling properly for months, despite not testing positive until very recently. Had I, like many others, a ghost Covid that went undetected by symptom or test? Drifting around, deprived of olfactory sense, I felt solidarity with the masses of others in this flattened condition. I eat, but when was the last time I truly enjoyed food? My body doesn’t register hunger like other people’s; unless it is a ritualised mealtime summoned in company, I eat when I get a headache. Pacing around the flat, I plunge my nose again into jars of cinnamon, kimchi, mint tea bags, bulbs of garlic. Certain things cut through the fug: coffee, bleach, shit. I remember a friend, who was born without a sense of smell, telling me long ago that the absence of that sense made her a particularly spicy cook. Often she wouldn’t notice the over-firing of a chilli until her nose started running. What does scent protect us from? What does it proffer? Surely it is the unsung, primal gateway to corporeal desire itself: the gross and indescribable comfort of a lover’s sweaty t-shirt, the waft of woodsmoke from a nearby village, the coruscation of caramelised onion to whet your appetite. Scent is preliminary in the channel of want. Without it, I feel cast adrift into anhedonia. I begin chasing scent. Still, I sneeze.

Dust gathers. Is it yours or mine? Can we really, truly, smell our dust? How does dust manifest as material trace or evidence? In Sophie Collins’ poem ‘Bunny’, taken from the collection Who Is Mary Sue? (2018), the speaker interrogates an unknown woman on the subject of dust: 

Where did the dust come from 
and how much of it do you have? 
When and where did you first notice
the dust? Why didn’t you act sooner?
Why don’t you show me a sample.
Why don’t you have a sample?
Why don’t you take some responsibility? 
For yourself, the dust?

It would be perhaps an act of bad naturalisation to read the dust allegorically, or metonymically, as a figure for all kinds of evidence we are expected to produce as survivors of violence and harm. This evidence is to be quantified (‘how much’, ‘a sample’) and accounted for temporally in terms of cause, effect and responsible agency (‘first notice’, ‘act sooner’). The insistent repetition of dust produces a dust cloud: semantic saturation leaves us unable to discern the true ‘meaning’ of the dust. That anaphora of passive aggression, ‘Why don’t you’, coupled with the wherewhen and why of narrative, insists on a logical explanation for the dust that is apparently not possible. For anyone summoned to account for their trauma, the dust might be a sort of materialised psychic supplement: the particulate matters of cause and effect, unequally distributed and called for. It seems as though the speaker’s aggression, by negation wants to produce the dust while ardently disavowing the premise of its existence. The poem asks: is it possible to have authority over one’s experience when others require this authority to take the form of an account, a story, with appropriate physical corroboration?  The more I read the poem, the more ‘dust’ becomes Covid. But it could be many things; dust always is.

‘Bunny’ also reveals the process by which testimony is absorbed into a kind of white noise, a dust storm repugnant to those called upon to listen. As Sara Ahmed puts it in Complaint! (2021), ‘To be heard as complaining is not to be heard. To hear someone as complaining is an effective way of dismissing someone’. Collins’ poem performs the long, grim thread of being told to ‘forget’, bundling us into a claustrophobia whose essence, the speaker implores, is ‘your own / sense of guilt’. Does this not violently imply (from the speaker’s perspective): as producers of dust, we take responsibility, wholly, for what happens to our bodies? I take each question of the poem as a sneeze: it is the only answer I have. I feel compelled to listen.  

As she is asked, ‘Why don’t you take some responsibility? / For yourself, the dust?’, the addressee of the poem becomes conflated with the dust itself. I often think of this quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), where erstwhile sweetheart Buddy Willard announces to budding poet Esther Greenwood, ‘a poem is […] A piece of dust’. Poems can be swept away; they are miniscule in the masculine programme of reality. They are stubborn, perhaps, but easily ignored by the strong and healthyy. In ‘Bunny’, the addressee’s own words are nothing but dust, ‘these words, Bunny’: the name ‘Bunny’ hailing something beyond the colloquial term, dust bunny — a ball of dust, fibre and fluff. The invocation of the name a kind of violent summons: you, the very named essence of you, are nothing but words and dust; there is no proof. The more I say the word ‘bunny’ aloud, the more I become aware of a warm and tender presence; this entity who has lived so long in the house of language — under the stairs, on the mantel’s sentence. Bunny, bunny, bunny. Clots in syntax. Dust can be obliquely revealed to all who notice; it coats the surface of everything. It is in the glow of wor(l)dly arrangement, the iterative and disavowed: a kind of ‘paralanguage’ Collins writes of in her nonfiction book small white monkeys (2017):

similar to ours but that is not ours […] when a writer manages — nearly, briefly — to access this paralanguage, we get a glimpse of what could be expressed if we were able to access this other, more frank (but likely bleak, likely barbaric) reality. 

Running parallel to, or beneath ‘Bunny’, is the addressee’s reply, or lack of: the dust of her permeable silence, or inability to speak. It catches as a dust bunny in the throat. So how do we speak or listen, when faced with the aporetic knots of a hidden, ‘barbaric’ reality that is glimpsed in various forms of testimony and written expression? ‘Citation too can be hearing’, writes Ahmed. The title of Collins’ poem cites implicitly Selima Hill’s collection Bunny (2001), which she writes of extensively in small white monkeys as a book ‘I am in love with’. This citation opens ‘Bunny’ through a portal to the household of trauma that is Bunny: documenting, as Hill’s back cover describes, ‘the haunted house of adolescence’ where ‘Appearances are always deceptive’ and the speaker is harassed by a ‘predatory lodger’. Attention (and reading between texts) offers us openings, exits, corridors of empathy, solidarity and recognition. Its running in the duration of a poem or conversation might very well relate to the ‘paralanguage’ of which Collins speaks, in the oikos of trauma, grief and counsel. If poems are dust, then to know them — to write them, read them aloud and listen — is to disturb the order of things, one secret speck at a time. But the sight of each speck belies the plume of many.

The morning I tested positive for Covid on a lateral flow, having assumed my respiratory problems were accountable to generalised allergies, I decided to blitz my one-bedroom flat of dust. In the hot panic of realising my cells were now fighting a virus, I vacuumed my carpet and brushed orange cloths over bookshelves. I was really getting into it. Then my hoover began making a petulant, rasping noise. I turned off the power and flipped it upside down. To my horror, in the maw of the hoover’s rotating brush, I saw what can only be described as dust anacondas: huge strings of dense grey matter attached to endless, chunky threads of hair. Urgently donning a face mask, I began teasing these nasty snakes out with a pencil, as clumps of dust emitted from the teeth of the hoover and gathered on my carpet, thickly. All this time I was crying hysterically at the fact of my having Covid less than two weeks before my PhD thesis was due, the hot viral feeling in my head, and of having to deal with the dust of my own flesh prison: the embarrassment, shame and fail of it all, presented illustriously before me. 

From My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

If only I could have purified my air! Forced to confront my body’s invasion (this time coronavirus, not just dust), I try to settle into the ‘load’. I make lists of the smells I miss, research perfumes online (aerosols glimpsed from the safe distance of text). I sneeze a lot, cry a lot, wheeze a lot; and then my sinuses go blank. Is this breathing? I imagine the cells of my body glowing new colours from the Omicron beasties. I re-watch one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, My Neighbour Totoro (1988), which features anthropomorphic dust bunnies known as susutarawi, or ‘soot sprites’ (which also appear in Spirited Away (2001)). The girls of Totoro, Noriko and Mei, initially encounter these adorable demon haecceities as ‘dust bunnies’, but later they are explained as ‘soot spreaders’ (as per Netflix’s Japanese-to-English translation). When the younger girl, Mei, gingerly prods her finger into a crack in the wall of the old house she has just moved into, a flurry of the creatures releases itself to the air. She catches one in her hands, and presents it proudly to Granny, a kind elderly neighbour who reassures her the soot sprites will leave if they find agreeable the new inhabitants of their house. When she opens her palms, the sprite is gone, leaving just a smudge.

An absent-presence in My Neighbour Totoro is Noriko and Mei’s mother, Yasuko, who is in hospital, recovering from an unexplained ‘illness in the chest’. Mei’s confrontation with the animated dust mites, or soot sprites, acts out the wound of her mother’s absence. With curiosity and panic, she and her sister delight in the particulate matters of the household, of more-than-human hospitality. What is abject about history then, or even the family, its hauntings, is evoked trans-corporeally through the trace materials of a powdery darkness, dark ecology (see Timothy Morton’s 2016 book of this name) that is spooky but sweet. (S)mothering in the multiple. My sense of smell now is consumed entirely by a kind of offbeat metallic ash; I’m nostalgic for cheap perfume. I’m not sure if this essay is a confession or who is speaking; it seems increasingly that I speak from a cloud of unknowing coronaviruses. And so where do I end or begin, hyperbolically, preparing my pen or straw? The ouroboros of my dust anacondas reminding me that I too was only here, alive and in this flat, by tenancy and to return from my current quarantine having prodded the household spirits for company, with nothing for show for it these days, except these, dust, my words.

Review: CAIM Collective – An Orkney Odyssey

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The word odyssey, like journey, is of course a literal and figurative force. We might have many journeys in our lives, real or imagined, actual or wished for, but how many attain the status of odyssey? What memories, eras and changes must pass for a thread of narrative to thicken as odyssey? Joyce, in Ulysses, showed us we can have an odyssey of everyday life. If you scale things close enough, the simple act of going out to buy a bar of soap is rich with the complexities and diversions and conflictions of odyssey. Wandering the city streets, akin to being lost at sea. Perhaps odyssey itself is more about a sustained act of noticing, looking backwards while intently in the present. Dwelling in memory’s rich oscillations; when we are aware of our lives having epic proportions, imbuing our actions with this freight of consequence. Maybe the more aware we are of our fragile world, or our fragile existence on this world — how proximate we are to a world without us! — even the simple life, so-called, seems massive, significant, difficult.

But I am not here to talk about the Anthropocene, which we are already passing through, wearing within our skin. Finding the label as though a sticker on an apple, formerly known as, familiar variety almost forgotten through ubiquity — well pressed on various surfaces, deferred. It was a Thursday, the day after Storm Ali wreaked havoc on Glasgow, tearing down trees and scattering leaves, stealing what green of summer was left of leaf and letting it blow forth upon roads of concrete — you might say free, if leaves have an internal stammer for separation, a need for self-definition. I’m not sure the beautiful, connected things do. A foliate thought unfinished. I guess I needed to be free as well, there was a lot of text, swimming around me all morning I couldn’t quite fathom. A thicket of text. Dwell upon ellipsis and offline symbols. So I slathered oil on my creaking bike chain, cycled along the Clyde and found myself at South Block studios for a new exhibition, An Orkney Odyssey, by the CAIM Collective. An Orkney Odyssey features the multi-disciplinary works of Ingrid Budge (photographer), Alastair Jackson (haiku), Moira Buchanan (handmade booklets) and John Cavanagh (sound installation). I recently returned from my first trip to Orkney and was eager to immerse myself in something of those islands again.

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South Block studios is a white room, part café, a place smelling pleasantly of coffee. The rest stop between things, east of town. I’ve been here before with a friend, when we were discussing the early days of a new publication. It feels clean, airy, a place of potential. The exhibition consists mostly of Budge’s photographs, presented along the wall with Jackson’s poetic snippets beneath. I say snippets, because one gets the sense that all these impressions and snapshots are fragments of a broader story, a grander drama. My own time on the Orkney islands was limited to the mainland, but as the ferry curved round past Hoy, I sensed that to really experience life here, you have to think in archipelagos, rather than discriminate, bounded islands. A multiplicity of coastlines connected, reflected, glimpsed across these strips of tide. I experience each piece as both separate and connected: they resemble a sort of Instagram post, the supplementary clue to a world elsewhere, a stop beyond. The possible scroll, the anticipatory mirage of other places, beckoning like hyperlinks.

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Looking at these images, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Susan Sontag’s On Photography: ‘to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’. Many of these photographs capture landscapes from a skewed perspective, a step away from anthropo-familiarity. We may be unsure where to place our gaze, looking for a horizon or coastline. Sometimes there is a blur, a smudge of cloud and beam of light; a looming mass of weather. An almost unnatural colouring. We are forced to think in terms of diurnal shifts, glitches in time, moments of elemental transition. They are nothing like the picturesque of the brightly saturated tourism brochure, the pamphlets I flicked through idly as I waited for the ferry to Stromness. These images are ghostly, strange, a little ‘off colour’. They challenge my own memories of the unique, misty and windswept atmospheres of Orkney. Budge experimented with different cameras — digital film, iPhone, pinhole — and various chemical processes to capture a sensuous, personal perspective on her native island. She exploited the apparitional potentials of lumen printing, in which objects are positioned on light-sensitive paper and exposed for hours, never quite fully developed. Rather than ‘capturing’ or stilling, rendering her subjects, Budge allows them to unfold in their own way, symbiotically in tune with their luminous environment: stealing its shadows, imprinting a smudge, a glow of time in process. It is almost as though, in taking those photos, she performs a material empathy with climatic change on the island: the shifts in light, all external markings of geologic time and the time of seasons. I am allowed to read into this, because the images abstract from subject, they ask us to find psychic states amid landscape, they do not fetishise the specifics of locality. They do not simply state: here is a field of sheep as we, as humans, see it. They challenge us to rethink perspective, authority, subject and photographic temporality.

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Jackson’s poems, which each accompany one of Budge’s images, really draw out this elemental drama of perspective, time and abstraction. Instances of familiar infrastructure become the tuning posts or sounding board for the dead, ‘Ghosts of past talking’ through telegraph poles. Attuned to the nuance of island soundscapes and landscapes, Jackson deftly parses the aesthetic reactions of one object to another, using anthropomorphism in the strategic way suggested by Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: ‘We need to cultivate,’ she argues, ‘a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’. Anthropomorphism can draw out the multiplicities of sensory experience, crossing the phenomenological ‘worlds’ or ‘zones’ of various enmeshed beings and species.

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The haiku might be an appropriate form for ‘capturing’ the Anthropocene because it flickers into being like a sound-bite, it contains a certain authorial anonymity, less of the singular lyric ‘I’ than the lyric I’s environed chorus. Not to mention its traditional association with ‘nature’ as such. Presented like a sort of Instagram caption beneath these images, each haiku seems a transmission from elsewhere, sparking into presence. There are several kinds of aesthetic overlay, a synaesthetic experience of scenes: ‘Glissades and rolls of eighth notes / On a summer breeze’. The smooth legato of wind stuttering up into quavers, could this be birds or the stammering tide where it sloshes in breakwater, interrupts all smoothness of lunar rhythm? I’m reminded of Kathy Hinde’s 2008 work Bird Sequencer, where she worked with Ivan Franco to scan videos of birds resting on telegraph lines into music, after noticing how much the positioning of the birds on the lines resembled a musical score. Each bird would trigger a note or audio sample from a music box and prepared piano, in the manner of a modern step-sequencer: Hinde was literalising a form of nonhuman aesthetic attunement, surrendering compositional control to the whims of the birds themselves, their arts of arrangement. That Jackson’s poetic vision parses the elemental landscape through musical metaphors says something of our ecological inclinations towards attunement. As Timothy Morton puts it:

Since a thing can’t be known directly or totally, one can only attune to it, with greater or lesser degrees of intimacy. Nor is this attunement a “merely” aesthetic approach to a basically blank extensional substance. Since appearance can’t be peeled decisively from the reality of a thing, attunement is a living, dynamic relation with another being.

Since music is our strongest metaphoric apparatus for noticing strategies of ‘attunement’, its poetic invocation allows us to access those processes of intimacy, coexistence and agency at an aesthetic level. The aesthetic level where, as Morton puts it, causality happens: an operatic voice shatters a wine glass, a match smoulders and eats up a piece of paper, the BPA in plastic seeps into the water, alters its chemical makeup, affects the food chain.

This is a fairly minimalist exhibition, despite its multisensory components. It opens space. I can take almost whatever time I want in front of the plainly mounted images and text, the white card a sort of beach I can linger on, skirting the image. These are dark and striking scenes, mostly of nonhuman subjects. I get to share in ‘time’s relentless melt’ as it happens at the pliant, archipelagic scales of an island, stripped away from the carnivalesque rhythms of urban leisure, or capitalist imperative.  

Crucial to all this, of course, is Cavanagh’s sound piece. Keen to avoid the bland oceanic ambience of New Age relaxation CDs, Cavanagh makes things weirder. This is the sea but not quite the sea, nature more than nature. Composing or rendering ecological soundscapes requires more imagination these days, a keen ear towards plurality: as every ocean is inflected with both danger and precarity, a poetics of toxicity thanks to our dumping of marine plastics, there has to be an affective current underneath, a mixing of human and nonhuman rhythms, forces, pleasures and tragedies. A force of both presence and loss. Place is no longer one thing, but stamped with the stains of elsewhere. ‘Here’, as Morton puts it, ‘is shot through with there’. Living in a time of hyperobjects means that we can’t think of, say, the seas around Orkney without thinking about the pollution that comes from mainland cities, the energy generated in these waters subject to political decision-making further south, the marine populations around these coastlines affected by agricultural, infrastructural and consumption processes going on elsewhere.

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Upon entering the exhibition, I’m handed this beautiful piece of hardware

It would be easy to respond to this collision of times, spaces and places with a sort of abrasive, dystopian mix of disorder. Cavanagh, however, responds to the sonic challenge with degrees of beauty, humour and playfulness. His soundscapes swirl around the spoken words of Jackson’s poems, anchoring us vaguely to a sense of present as we pass round the room, viewing the images and poems. Sure, I can hear the waves, the howl of the wind, but these are mixed with a certain distortion akin to kitsch, electronic warp and reverie that glistens with past times, feels retro. This operative aesthetic is achieved with the piece’s main component, an EMS VCS3 synthesiser from 1973: a model familiar to fans of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. Cavanagh’s music literally ‘translates’ Jackson’s poems and Budge’s images, themselves translations of Orkney scenery, by plugging the syllabic layout of Jackson’s haiku and the locational map data accorded to Budge’s photographs into a patchbay which generates from number sequences a variety of different rhythms, instruments and delay effects. Cavanagh’s ‘authentic’ or ‘raw’ field recordings from Orkney’s landscapes are thus programmed around the audiovisual, semantic stimuli of Budge’s and Jackson’s work. The act of remixing nature in this way exposes nature’s very artifice, a cultural construction dependent upon our aesthetic representations. I think of a very beautiful line quoted in a recent Quietus review of Hiro Kone’s new album, ‘“Nature sounds without nature sounds”’. As a challenge to passive eco-nostalgia, there is an active pleasure in this exposure, in realising the multiplicity and material vibrancy of a term we once took for background and static, mere sonic wallpaper for mindfulness meditations.

Faced with something as ineffable as the Anthropocene, we often respond, ironically, with lyric excess. The Anthropocene, it gets in edgeways, it knows we are porous. Whose odyssey is this anyway? Exhibitions like this are important because collaboration and innovation are vital means of tapping into the processes by which we, as human observers, might access nonhuman processes, glimpse the scales of time and place in a world where our significance dwindles into material trace. The fossils of future capital, always already fossils. What might a sonic fossil look like, sound like, a ghost trace of retroactive reverie, a broken sonogram, an elegiac bleep of machine or sea? An Orkney Odyssey, for all its portent towards the epic, is actually a rather humble exhibition. It offers the human perspective of memory and affect, holding wonder for these geographies and scenes, but there’s nothing too showy or sublime about it. And the micro focus is important too. Moira Buchanan’s handmade booklets draw us back to the beautiful details of wildlife around us, the simple pleasures in the act of binding and stitching the evidence of our everyday ecologies. She names in her booklets various species and places, prints poems and photos, mingles materials. There’s a real material enchantment here. Rather cutely, I wrote of these booklets before in a post on Buchanan’s 2016 exhibition, All Washed Up:

I think in today’s world, where global warming feels like something vast, incomprehensible, beyond our understanding, it’s so important to focus on the little things. The material details that remind us that we are part of this environment, that the ocean gives back what we put into it. There’s a feeling of salvage to the pieces, whose composition seems to perfectly balance the artful openness to chance at the same time as reflecting a careful attention to arrangement and applied form and texture.

I was still grappling with the Anthropocene with a sort of innocence then. I mean, I was still calling it global warming. The booklets in South Block catch the light of a late September afternoon, luminous in the window. Taking pictures of them, I can’t get the angle or the light right. I can’t quite translate, my iPhone proximate to its physical extinction, stubbornly refusing photographic clarity. During my trip to Munich this year, I was given a five-leaf clover picked from a lovely Bavarian meadow. I pressed it between the pages of Lisa Robertson’s The Weather. That, I suppose, was an act of salvage also. Symbolic recycling. A little token of some unspoken odyssey.

Unsure of the rest of the night, what to do, awaiting replies, I cycle through rush hour, heading south with only vague destination. Peddling hard, I cross the water as though crossing the sea. Later I will fall asleep with electronic sounds rasping my headphones, mixing with the wind outside which batters the window, until sleep becomes its own causality…

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Exhibition Details:

Venue: South Block, 60-64 Osborne Street, Glasgow, G1 5QH

Exhibition Continues: 14th September – 5th October 2018 (Mon Fri 9-5).

Nicotine Dreams: On Smoker’s Time, Desire & Writing

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I’m walking home, stuck on a narrow pavement, hemmed in by parked cars. Two men are dawdling ahead of me, both of them huffing cigarettes. They’re dirty fags, definitely Marlboros, a stench that’ll take out your lungs like a morning bloom of toxic frost. I feel nauseous as the smoke blows back in my face and it’s a struggle to breathe; I’m striding fast to get ahead of them, not caring at this point whether it’s rude to push them aside. My heart-rate is up too much, the bodily reaction palpable.

I’m in a friend’s flat. It’s July and we’ve been awake all night and now it’s 4pm the following day, three of us watching videos, drinking rum with blackcurrant cordial in lieu of food. Somebody rolls every hour or so; two of us smoke out the window. It’s been raining for weeks but today the sky is blue and the daylight sparkling. A warm breeze comes through. I’m reminded of the night’s shimmery feeling, a glorious cocktail of chemicals and dropped sugar levels producing slow-release euphoria. The cigarettes are neatly rolled, thin and compact. They don’t take long to smoke, but the two of us—not being proper smokers—relish and linger the moment of supplementary respiration. They don’t taste of much at all, a very faint tobacco flavour that twirls down our throats, the thing we’ve been craving all night. We take turns to gaze at the street below, a couple of lush-leafed trees, passersby offering glimpses of the reality we’ve temporarily dropped out from. Everything has that vaguely pixellated feel of the virtual. Sideways glances at each other’s faces; at times like these you notice the colour of eyes, the shape of noses. We’re listening to dream pop, hip hop, lo-fi. We gossip to forget ourselves, spark grand discussions on topics ranging from astrology to engineering to ghosts. There’s a certain ambience we’ve made out of pure haze, a hilarity of mutual laughter meaning nothing in particular, resounding through abyssal chains of meaning. It’s one of the most blissful afternoons of my life. I go home, hours later, still tingling with nicotine. I lie on my sheets and let the scenes flicker by like beautiful lightning.

Like many people, my relationship to smoking is a little complicated. I’m a Gemini, my loathsome desire always cut into halves. I find myself disgusted by the dry sharp smell and residue taste, but somehow addicted to the presence of cigarettes in narrative, their signifying of time, their eking of transition between moments. It feels natural that such action should then manifest in real life: the disappearance outside after a talk or song or reading, buying yourself time to mull things over, return anew—snatch chance interactions with strangers. I know a friend who started smoking at university purely for the excuse to talk to girls outside nightclubs. I guess it worked well for him. The universal language of the tapped fag remaining a perpetual possibility, footsteps approaching the rosy garden of your smile and your smoke, your contemplative aura. Veils over nature. This is nothing but nothing; this is just the vapourisation of time and space. Smoke gets in your eyes and reality feels smoother. Less needs to be said; intrigue can be held. You add that plenitude of mystery in your walk, your dirty aroma of cyanide, carbon, tar and arsenic—an edge above the vaporous plumes of sweet-smelling e-cigs. With a fag in hand, there’s less impetus on you to talk. With a vape in hand, people want to know about your brand, juice, flavours.

A Smoker’s Playlist:

Mac DeMarco: Viceroy
The Doors: Soul Kitchen
Nick Drake: Been Smoking Too Long
Sharon Van Etten: A Crime
Simon & Garfunkel: America
Oasis: Cigarettes and Alcohol
Otis Redding: Cigarettes & Coffee
The White Stripes: Seven Nation Army
My Bloody Valentine: Cigarette In Your Bed
Tom Waits: Closing Time
Neil Young: Sugar Mountain

Smoking is an object-orientated approach to daily existence. A way of distilling the Bergsonian flow of time into its accumulative moments, paring apart the now from then in the spilling of ashes—slowing and building anticipation by the mere act of rolling. Appropriate that Bergson should use a rolling, snowballing metaphor for temporality. To roll a cigarette is to accumulate a fat tube of tobacco, to acquire something that smoulders, continues, then what? Flakes off as snow, delays. So you interrupt the flow, so you start again.

Denise Bonetti’s recent pamphlet, 20 Pack (2017), released via Sam Riviere’s If a Leaf Falls Press, explores the temporal and bodily effects of smoking. The title itself relates to a deck of cigarettes—twenty once being the glut of an addict’s indulgence, now the standard legal purchase—but of course you can’t help thinking of a deck of cards. Especially since the numbered poems are all out of order, starting with ‘20’, finishing at ‘1’; but by no means counting down in order in-between. I think of Pokemon cards, Tarot cards. We used to play at school and you’d always ask how many in your opponent’s deck, like “I’ve got a 20 deck, want a match?”. With Tarot, I don’t think we understood that only one person was supposed to have the cards in hand. We probably triggered some real bad luck, doing that. Bringing two realities, two predicted futures, into collision. Messing up the symbolic logic. I always flipped over the sun card, savouring the dry irony of Scottish weather and clinging to that vibrating possibility of future joy. We swapped velvet tablecloths for the scratchy asphalt of playgrounds. The older kids drifted on by the bike sheds, wielding cigarettes, watching us with scorn and suspicion.

Smoking has a lot of symbolic logic: ‘the faith in the liturgy the telling of a story / the pleasure of knowing what’s coming’. This is a whole poem from Bonetti’s collection: number ‘4’.  A liturgy being a religious service but also a book. Cigarettes are made out of layered paper, scrolled possibility, something to become enslaved to. You just smoke your way through them, the way you might blaze through a novel, find yourself drifting on down a webpage. What thoughts roll round your mind in that moment, churning as soaked clothes in a launderette? You rinse them by the final intake, stubbing the line out and switching your mind like a refresh key. Take it off spin cycle and have a breather. Knowing what’s coming is that sweet anticipation, first cigarette of the morning, of the night or the shift. Remember what’s good for you. Physical relief disguised as imminent pleasure.

The poems of 20 Pack are quite wee poems, thin poems, poems with space inside them, milling and floating around the language. Punctuation is often erased to allow lingering where one pleases. These poems negotiate geometries of thought and situation, honing on imagistic visions which score upon memory: a seagull’s beak, swimming pool tiles, a gold leaf or ‘terrible sequin’, the sun and moon, ‘cyanic peas’. There’s the oscillations of desire, an almost mutual voyeurism that invites the reader within this intimacy, controlled as the cold celestials then warmed with a little wit. Each cigarette is tied to these ‘songs’, lamenting ‘the self- / replicating minutiae of days, / nights, encounters’; ‘An act of anachronism’. Every cigarette involves that mise-en-abyme of re-inhabiting each moment you once smoked in before, a concatenation of places and tastes starting to merge together with the first inhale. This is the seductive literariness of cigarettes. As Will Self characterises it, ‘it’s the way a smoking habit is constituted by innumerable such little incidents — or “scenes” — strung together along a lifeline, that makes the whole schmozzle so irresistible to the novelist’. Maybe also the poet. Easy to make necklacing narratives from the desire points instated by the gleam of a lit cig on a cool summer’s night. The worried observer or reader, clicking the beads together, watching with interest for events to slide into effect. The imminent possibility inherent within the duration of a smoke: what happens next? The loose stitches of a poem you pull apart for a better look, a glimpse of the future. Is all poetry a signal from tomorrow, that fragment of what comes next in the rolling tapestry of the present?

Simultaneous acts: 

A tobacco impression between two movies,
Fingertips brushed in the exchange of a lighter,
Expendable tips,
The thick lisp of silver foil,
Dark cigar husk of Leonard Cohen’s voice,
Where we hid from the rain, making miniature glows.

In Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), a novel set in New York, poised on the brink of various recent storms, streetlights provide a sort of talismanic portal into other dimensions. The text’s obsession with Back to the Future plays out the film’s time-travelling logic of multiple temporalities colliding, but it is light that figures this as fiction’s possibility. Embedded within 10:04 is a short story titled ‘The Golden Vanity’, in which the protagonist is struggling to write a novel, an echo of the narrative arc of Ben Lerner’s text. The protagonist pictures his protagonist standing at the same ‘gaslight’ beside which he stands in Ben’s (10:04’s narrator) fiction: ‘he imagined […] that the gaslight cut across worlds and not just years, that the author and the narrator, while they couldn’t face each other, could intuit each other’s presence by facing the same light’. The vicarious union of all these writerly characters, standing at the same gas lamp in different points of real and fictional time, enacts this sense of immanence contained in (re)iteration. The lamp embodies this externalised marker of being—resembling the narrative I that cuts across the novel’s page.

We might think of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing the appearance of a shadow, a ‘straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I”’. It’s difficult not to think of the extra implications here: a straight dark bar is surely more than just a crudely drawn line on a page? Maybe also a heteronormative public space in which strangers meet under gloomy mood-lights, exchanging phone numbers and slurring words? There’s the association between the male voice and the act of smoking. How many times have you seen a male writer smoking onscreen, or in a novel? Is smoking an act of masculine dominance or, as Bonetti seems to suggest, a more fluid ‘act of negotiation’? Woolf writes: ‘One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it [the “I”]’. Like the emanating smoke of a cigarette, the literary I dominates context and setting with its insistent perspective, its rationalised display of determined personality. How can we see the fading moors, the elaborate trees, behind the I’s lament? What is it that recedes beyond the smoky planes of our everyday rhizomes, stories trailing over one another with a certain lust for narrative, precision, suspension—self-perpetuating molecules of thought? In poem no. ‘8’, Bonetti relays a ‘text from max: “i can’t stop picturing my first fag break splitting into a chain of identical fag breaks, each reiteration carrying a fainter trace of the initial reason”’. The pleasure of focus dwindles like a tiny dying seed, until all that’s left is this black, Saturnal kernel, reflecting outwards the rings of former moments.

Things people have spoken to me about in smoking situations: 

Family problems,
Sex and relationships,
Hunger,
Literature,
Politics,
Parties,
Mental illness,
Makeup,
The ethics of cheating,
Shared memories with deeper resonance beyond initial palpability.

Like some subtle, truth-telling elixir, cigarettes invite a space for confession. As Self argues, cigarettes are great for novelists. Not just because of their magic ability to garner stories from others, but because of their Proustian resonance. Gregor Hens, in his beautiful memoir essay Nicotine, describes the focus of smoking thus:

The chemical impulse initiates a phase of raised consciousness that makes way for a period of exhausted contentment. Immediately after the first drags an almost unshakable focus on what’s essential, on what’s cohesive and relatable sets in. I often have the impression that I can easily link together mental reactions to my environment that serendipitously arise from one and the same place in the cortical tissue during this phase. This results in associative and synaesthetic effects that help me to remember, along with the dreamlike logic that is the basis of my creativity.

The ebb and flow of a cigarette’s biochemical culmination prompts a certain rhythm of consciousness conducive to the rise and fall of creative impulse. Little flash-points of mental connection are made with each spark of a lighter; while joining the serotonin dots the nicotine rush soothes us into a mental state of dwelling, which allows those perceptions and expressions to take shape from the swirls of smoke. Consciousness lingers thirstily in the moment.

With an existentialist’s recalcitrant cool, Morvern Callar inhabits her eponymous novel by Alan Warner by describing the scenery around her, narrating her actions rather than inner feelings. Frequently she ‘use[s] the goldish lighter on a Silk Cut’—the phrase is repeated with little variation at least 30 times across the text. It’s a touchpoint of continuity in her turbulent world of suicide, secrets, solitude vs. claustrophobic community and most importantly the whirling raves of the 1990s in which you shed your identity. The rave scene itself ‘is just evolving on to the next thing like a disease that adapts’, as one of the ‘twitchy boys’ on her Spanish resort relates. Cigarettes are perhaps the little quotidian landmarks, the tasteful eccentricities that lend temporal solidity in a late-modern universe that warps and sprawls like some viral code, recalling the human ability to transmogrify base materials. Turn manufactured product to curls of paper, smouldering ash. Cruelly ironic, then, that they cause cancer—the terrible cells that twist, coagulate, balloon and elude.

Every cigarette recalls a former cigarette, the way you might look into the eyes of a lover and see the ghosts of all those who came before. That uncanny glimpse of deja vu that is human desire, the algorithmic infinitude of selfhood. Cue Laura Marling ‘Ghosts’ and sit weeping youthfully into your wine, or else think of it this way, as William Letford writes in his collection Dirt: ‘If you’re lucky you’ll find someone whose skin / is a canvas for the story of your life. / Write well. Take care of the heartbeat behind it’. You might never find a single soul whose skin provides the parchment for your ongoing sagas. Maybe you will. Maybe they smoke cigarettes and so you try to tell them to stop, thinking of their poor organs, struggling within that smoke-withered body. Maybe you’re single and lonely, writing as supplement for the love that’s trapped in your own ribcage like so much bright smoke waiting to be exhaled. There are many mouths you try out first. Poems to be extinguished in a crust of dust and lost extensions. Maybe you don’t think of it at all.

On average, romantic encounters triggered by a shared cigarette: 

3/5
+ one arm wrestle,
a distant sunrise,
a song by Aphex Twin,
a bottle of gin,
a fag stubbed out drunk on the wrist.

We tend to think of cigarettes according to the logic of ‘first times’. Again that elusive search for origins, innocence. I remember doing a creative writing exercise long ago where we had to write, in pairs, each other’s first times. Others tackled drunkenness, kisses, flying, swimming. For whatever reason, the two of us (both nonsmokers) chose smoking. My partner recalled being at a festival, aged sixteen, being passed a rollup by her older sister. She remembered the smell of incense, coloured lights, the little choke in the crowd that signalled her broken smoker’s virginity. I slipped back into the dreary vistas of Ayr beachfront, sheltering from the sea wind with a couple of friends. This tall girl I looked up to in ways beyond the physical realm passed me what was probably a Lambert & Butler and I remembered being so pleased that I didn’t cough, but probably because I swallowed the smoke greedily and didn’t know how to inhale properly.

It took me a while to learn how to breathe altogether; when I was born I almost died. The first smoke feels like an initiation into identity and adulthood. It was like coming home from somewhere you never knew you were before. That little spark, a doorbell deep in the lungs. You purposefully harm yourself to establish a cause, a chain reaction. Realising the strange, acidic feeling flourishing in his stomach after smoking his first fag as a child, Hens suggests that ‘in this moment I perceived myself for the first time and that the inversion of perspective, this first stepping out from myself, shook me up and fascinated me at the same time’. It’s hard not to think of the bulimic’s first binge and purge, the instating of shame and pleasure whose release enacts this sweet dark part of the self, an identity at once secreted and secret. Feeling the little spluttering sparks or tingles within you, you realise there’s a thing in there to be nurtured or destroyed. As the bulimic’s purge renders gustatory consumption material, a thing beyond usual routine or forgotten habit of fuelling, the smoker daily encounters time in physical context, the actuality of habit, transition. From the perspective of his spliff-huffing protagonist in Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), Lerner puts it so eloquently:

the cigarette or spliff was an indispensable technology, a substitute for speech in social situations, a way to occupy the mouth and hands when alone, a deep breathing technique that rendered exhalation material, a way to measure and/or pass the time. […] The hardest part of quitting would be the loss of narrative function […] there would be no possible link between scenes, no way to circulate information or close distance […].

The cigarette is Jacques Derrida’s Rousseau-derived dangerous supplement, the elliptical essence of what is left absent but also implied. The three dots (…) or flakes of ash left on the skin from another’s cigarette. Are we adding to enrich or as extra—a thing from within or outside? Derrida describes the supplement as ‘maddening, because it is neither presence or absence’; ‘its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness’. We find ourselves entangled; we smoke because we want to write, move, kiss, drink or eat but somehow in the moment can’t. Yet somehow those actions are imbued within the cigarette itself, the absent possibility making presence of that motion, the longest drag and the wistful exhale. Consciousness solidifies as embers and smoke: becomes thing; fully melds into the body even while remaining narratively somehow apart. The supplementary cigarette instates that split: even as smoking itself attempts a yielding, there is always a temporal logic of desirous cleaving. This is its process of transforming…the literal becomes figural—a frail, expendable ‘link between scenes’—the smoker dwindles in memory, stares into distance through a veil that is always there, then faintly dissipating…

The idea of melding with the body, melding bodies (O the erotics of skin-stuck ash), is compelling for smokers because there’s a sense that the cigarette becomes more than mere chemical extension. Like Derrida’s pharmakon, it’s both poison and cure: a release from the pain of nicotine deprivation, but also the poison that reinstates that dependence cycle within the blood. When smoking, you slip between worlds of the self, oscillate between freedom and need. All the old cigarette ads liked to tout smokers as self-ruling souls, lone wolves, Marlboro men who could conquer the world in the coolest solitude. The truth being really a crushing weakness: have you seen a smoker deprived of their vice? Tears and shivers abound, as if the body were really coming apart, the spirit melting. The cigarette becomes synecdochic mark for the smoker’s whole self. Think of Pulp’s ‘Anorexic Beauty’: ‘The girl / of my / nightmares / Brittle fingers / and thin cigarettes / so hard to tell apart’. Fingers and fags merge into one, when all that’s indulged is the un-substance of smoke.

I have certain friends who I could not imagine without their constant supply of paraphernalia; every interaction involves the punctuating rhythms of their trips outside, or desperate searches for lighters, filters, skins. I have seen them smoking far more times than I’ve seen them eating. The very nouns connote that sort of fleshly translucency; it’s a sense that these flakey tools really do mediate our experience of time, space and reality. There’s a horror in that, as well as a remarkable beauty. I have had many epiphanies, watching my friends smoke, the way they stylishly cross their knees or flip their hair out the way or cup their hands just so to protect that first and precious spark. There’s a sort of longing for that ease, that slinkiness; an ersatz naturalness of gesture which is itself a reiteration of every gesture that came before, the muscle memory of a million screenaging smokers always seeking that Marlon Brando original. The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005), lusting after the way Robert De Niro so effortlessly sparks up a fag, as if each motion was the freshest, the purest expression. Authentic. The compulsive abyss of the Droste effect in advertising, mentioned by the young Sally Draper in mid-century advertising drama Mad Men: ‘When I think about forever I get upset. Like the Land O’Lakes butter has that Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?’. To smoke is to wallow in that loop-work of fractals, feeling each replicated gesture slip past in the artful skeins of the next.

10:04’s protagonist, Ben, observes his lover Alena smoking a post-coital cigarette: ‘“Oh come on,” I said, referring to her cumulative, impossible cool, and she snorted a little when she laughed, then coughed smoke, becoming real’. There’s an uncanny sense of removal in that: the notion that in playing character, channeling gesture, Alena becomes real. Observing her smoke, Ben is able to achieve a more sensitive awareness of his material surroundings, his attuning to nonhuman objects. He also feels as though the smoking transmits a particle effect that draws his and Alena’s being closer together, as if those tiny motes of poison were causing a mingling of auras, a certain transcendental longing nonetheless grounded in the physical: ‘We chatted for the length of her cigarette […] most of my consciousness still overwhelmed by her physical proximity, every atom belonging to her as well belonged to me, all senses fused into a general supersensitivity, crushed glass sparkling in the asphalt below’. The little chimes of assonance betray that sense of mutual infusion, which can only ever be fictive possibility, the poetic conjuring of words themselves. Later, after feeling the disappointment of Alena’s ‘detachment’ towards him, Ben sends her a fragmentary, contextless text: ‘“The little shower of embers”’. While he regrets sending it, it speaks of our human need to talk desire in material metaphor, often enacting the trailing effects of synecdoche. Here is my (s)ext.: my breasts, my cunt, my limbs. Extensions or reifications, lost signals or elliptical read receipts betraying aporia…We offer a glimpse then withdraw our being. What remains is that transitory passion he cannot let go of, while she so easily finds it extinguished in the sweep of her day.

For Ben, ‘the little shower of embers’ lingers. It’s difficult not to think of the street-lights again, the punctuating markers of spatial trajectory across the grid of the city, twinkling in millioning appearance on 10:04’s book cover. I’m reminded of the street-light ‘Star Posts’ in early Sonic the Hedgehog games (we used to call them lollipops—appropriately enough, another supplement for oral fixation) which you had to leap through to save your place, so that if you lost a life you’d revert back to that position in the level. They’d make a satisfying twanging sorta noise when you crossed them, and sometimes if you had enough rings the Star Posts could open a portal into the ‘Special Stage’. Even the virtual contains its checkpoints of place, the long thin symbols of presence not unlike those Silk Cuts, the I, the anorexic fingers. A sense of these moments that flicker, the length of the cigarette marked as physical duration and spatial decay. A Deleuzian fold or cleave in time. In the new Twin Peaks, Diane is an entity stretched across dimensions. No surprise that she smokes like a chimney, and every time someone tells her to stop she yells fuck you! The implication is a laceration, quite literal. There’s a violence to that delicious rip, the cellophane pulled off the packet. Then there’s episode 8, where the universal smoker’s code—Gotta light?—acquires the bone-splitting currency of horror in the crackling mouth of the Woodsman.

Associative moments lost in time: 

She gave up drinking and started smoking on the long flat dirty beaches;
People who burned bright & were extinguished young;
A neighbour whose house smelt so badly of stale fags we used to play in the garden instead;
His fingers shivering like leaves;
The reciprocity of this loose tobacco;
Taste of aniseed skins from Amsterdam, watching the film version of Remainder;
Broody Knausgaard in The Paris Review, admitting his continual addictions;
Smoking on the steps of my old flat saying everything will be okay—but what?

To smoke is perhaps to enact a kind of haunting, owing to the ghostly flavour of the former self performing the same action over. A poststructuralist elliptical supplement or sincere act of nostalgia. Masculine desire for luminous females, or the complicated politics of vice versa. A strange deja vu which mingles identity’s presence with absence. The fictive act of smoke and mirrors. In Safe Mode (2017), Sam Riviere’s ambient novel, the recurring character James recalls a phantom encounter, shrouded in imagined memory:

One summer at a garden party I danced with a girl in a green dress. I remembered her from high school, and built afterwards in my mind a certain mythology around the events of the evening…I discovered the next day that she had died a few months earlier. It seems I had been dancing with her sister. Almost any encounter can alter its configuration through the addition of detail or, more traditionally, a death.

In Safe Mode, problems may be troubleshooted as the brain or hard-drive enters a twilight zone of reduced consciousness, minimised process. The addition of detail: supplemented ornaments of thought, the drapery of memory or retrospective chain of events. What shatters through desire is the gape of that absence. A similar thing happens in 10:04, as Ben recalls his younger self falling in love with a girl he erroneously took to be his friends’ daughter: ‘She became a present absence, the phantom I measured the actual against while taking bong hits with my roommate; I thought I saw her in passing cars, disappearing around corners, walking down a jetway at the airport’. Always at the corner of his vision, she becomes an elliptical presence, diminished to the dotdotdot of memory attempting to make the leap. I think of binary code, the stabbed insistence of typewriter keys. In actuality, nobody else remembers who she is. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. What essence lies beyond or within that phantom appearance? What real need is channelled in the flimsy aesthetics of a lit cigarette, a girl in a memorable dress? We fashion narratives to make reality…what is this deep mode of operation; in what state of mind may we dispel rogue software, the signifying virus of niggling, unwitting desires? What jade-coloured jealousy of movement spins like an inception pin, stirring its quiet tornado of dreamy amnesia? How do we pick up our lost selves without cigarettes, what Self calls the usual rebirth of the ‘fag-wielding phoenix’?.

The mysterious ennui of Francoise Sagan’s chain-smoking heroines will always haunt me. Don Draper in the inaugural episode of Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, lingering over a Lucky Strike, will haunt me. Those moments of waiting for soulmates to finish cigarettes outside pubs will haunt me. Sitting by the sea on a picnic bench watching a friend smoke, talking of boys, will haunt me. The man who kept bugging us outside the 78 about ~The Truth~ will haunt me, even when I gave out a light to shut him up and tried to quote Keats—‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—losing his features to the veil of smoke as I myself drowned in chiasmus. Every teenage menthol enjoyed in clandestine fashion, on long walks up the Maybole crossroads, will haunt me. My clumsy inability to roll will haunt me. The cigarettes of stolen time behind the gym block at school will haunt me. The erotic proximity of those curled-up flakes, the crystal possibility of an ashtray haunts me. Frank O’Hara’s cheeky smoker’s insouciance haunts me. The way you stroll into newsagents and sheepishly ask for the cheapest fags will haunt me. Those dioramas of gore on each new packet will haunt me. The foggy spirals of facts and platitudes, health warnings and reassurances haunt me. The way you light up to kill time will haunt me. The dirty, morning-after coat of the tongue still haunts me. My own slow longing for breath will haunt me, I’m sure, in some other dimension where I start smoking and finally find the special addiction. For now, I choke behind strangers, stowing old packs in neglected handbags, writing as supplement for the first delicious drunken fag. Without that fixed, poetic, smouldering duration—Bonetti’s ‘comma between phrases’—I’m meandering through sentences, essaying in mist, waiting as ever for the next scene to begin.

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Short Story: Selkie

(A short story I wrote back in March, knee-deep in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, handfuls of Romanticism and longing for the sea. It’s about an oil spill, a young boy’s strange obsessions and his very indulgent Daedalian poetry)

Selkie

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He’s become obsessed with making lists of optical properties. Qualities of light quantified on a complex scale he devised at midnight, drunk on a month of insomnia.

His father is very concerned. He comes home and pours amber from the bottle, watching his son pore over homework. Sometimes a storm shatters the sky through the window and they are both oblivious; the father is a terrible farmer. He keeps just a small herd of cows. A local girl comes to do the milking because he is incapable sometimes, and he won lots of money on the races which pays for her wages. He’s grown sick of the jelly-pink udders.

The boy draws lines, draws a series of overlapping ellipses. This is his expression of despair in the face of algebraic equations. He has grown quite fond of receiving those sweet red Fs.

The community is idyllic as any island could be. The school is offshore, on the main island. Every morning, he gets the ferry with the rest of them. They move as one great shoal of fish. Sometimes he watches it happen from afar, the torrent of school uniforms dissolving through the mouth of the big white ship. On such mornings he turns away and walks further inland, hoping to find comfort in the hills.

He never does. It is only the sea he loves.

[…]

Once, the milking girl tried to make a move on him. She used to wear her hair in braids stitched together across her skull, but that day she came in with it long and loose and wavy.

“Will ye not get it in the muck?” the father asked, secretly admiring her golden tresses. She smiled at him. She waited for the boy to come down from his room, eking out time with every pull of the milk. He saw her bent over like that, the hair dripping over her shoulders. He was holding a tattered textbook.

“I love that you read,” she murmured, to no one. The sound was drowned by the cow’s impatient grunt.

“Easy girl,” she said, thwacking its flanks. The boy stood there watching and she mistook that for desire. She turned to look him in the eye, letting the left strap of her top slip down her arm. That one white breast would haunt him forever, like an immature moon. He averted his gaze.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. He sat in the straw, slumped to the floor, and wept. She had never seen someone so pathetic.

He would stand in the shallows of the sea and feel this ache that was deeper than any pain he had ever experienced. It wasn’t pain exactly, but it was a thing that gnawed at his chest, so much sometimes he could hardly breathe. The grey green waters would shlock around his ankles. In the distance they darkened to purple, to wine. His soul was scorched by sunsets. He picked up shells and held them to his ear, listening for the ocean’s distant, groaning radio.

The old woman in the village store told him she sensed his misaligned chakras. She had a bracelet for that, studded with seven power gems.

“You should wear it day and night,” she warned him.

“I have no money.” He studied the trinket with interest. The citrine and carnelian were pretty, but it was the clear quartz and amethyst he liked best. The tiny crackles inside reminded him of waves, preserved in time.

He hung it back up on the stand, alongside the crystal pendants and the celtic knots they sold to tourists.

“I’ll have a postcard instead.”

“A postcard? Who on earth do you have to write to?”

He sat on one of the picnic benches by the shore. The wind kept threatening to blow everything away so he had to pin the card down as he wrote. It was a picture of some white boats against a flaming sundown. Utterly cliché.

Dear mother, he began. What else was there to say?

Sometimes he would walk for an hour right round to the other side of the island. There was a cleft in the rocks you could find for safety at high tide; it was sufficiently above ground to protect one from the flailing salty waters. He would nestle in that cleft and compose lines:

The vitreous lustre of the sea turning starboard
in tidal cycles, an errant moon
throwing zephyrs across the still bright sound. 

Oh mariner, how you have travelled
so deep in the blood of the world! I miss
the sense of your stories, sharp as whisky

in bars where the girls did sing: how lovely
is the newborn day! There are precious
few elements as vast as you, I should

dream only of your strange motifs,
a darkening glass against turquoise air.
In the morning I plot 

my passage to the mainland, sullied
with the effluvia of island living,
drunk on the salt and the still bright rain. 

He would never show his words to a soul. He rolled the thick pages, torn from his father’s ledger, and stuffed them in the empty tubes that once held his teenage posters. The woman in the café served him strong black coffee, and never once asked him why he wasn’t at school. He left her a £1 tip, excess change gleaned from not eating lunch.

Sometimes he would stand on the edge of some cliff and let the wind buffet his body so hard it was perfectly possible that he’d be torn from his mount and hurled to the sea below, stirred up and strangled in its milky swirls.

A week after the milk girl quit, there was a terrible oil spill. Nobody was quite sure who was to blame. People skipped school and work to go down the shore and watch the slow undulations of the oil on the water. It reminded the boy of something oozing in his dreams, a black thick sweat that covered everything. He wrapped his father’s jacket tight around his shoulders. Flecks spattered the silt and shingle the way ink sprayed from a burst pen. They were waiting for experts to arrive.

Some of the islanders wore oilskins or workmen’s gear and went down the next morning to help clean up. The boy had spent half the night on the safety of his favourite rock, watching the oil thicken and coagulate in the shallows. A few birds washed up, unidentifiable. They looked like lumps of hematite, shining in the new full moon. Sometimes the sight of that black shining oil was so much that the boy could hardly breathe.

It was a job that went on for weeks. The oil just kept coming and coming. People from the news arrived with fancy cameras and started interviewing the locals. They said it was one of the worst offshore spillages in a generation. Old folks tutted and blamed the greed of the mainland.

“They might as well have fountains in shopping centres, spraying this stuff around, for all they abuse it.”

The boy kept a diary of the oil. He tried to write about it purely aesthetically. He wanted a thousand words for black, thick, inky, viscous.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 13.45.45.png

The words brought temporary distraction but deep down they sickened him. He longed to put his bare feet in the sea again. His father scorned him for not helping with the clean-up. He had to do double-shifts with the cows, now that the milk girl had quit.

“You lost your chance there my son.”

The boy started stealing his father whisky. He knew where the weak point was in the distillery warehouse. His father left him alone after that, asked no questions.

The boy noticed that the light on the island had changed with the coming of the oil. Before, it was all stained glass, watercolour: bright and airy. Greens and blues refracted through each other, sparkling. Now the oil cast strange shadows; there were colours on the beach that the boy could not name. He tried to make sense of them with numerical scales to measure the gradients and shades. He kept his notes in a new journal, whose edges were already curled with dried rain, spattered with sea oil.

The sea reveals its fleshly skin of jade,
the green that makes flickers of the water
shiver among those darkling fish, to fade
inexorably among its daughters,

the girls of the dawn with their wet sea fur.
Five generations have known such deep love
as to carve loud bones from the ocean’s whir,
still spinning the buoys at their broken hulls. 

We wait on the rocks for the siren’s call,
laying our bodies to waste on the sound
while the immature moon makes fools of all
who believe in the beautiful, who drowned

Easy as sailors on a summer’s day,
Bloated with salt, time’s lustful decay.

Sometimes his language was so cloying he literally fell violently ill. It was as if he were at sea on a ship, rocked back and forth by a bullying tide. His father found him curled over the toilet.

“Have you been at the whisky my boy?”

“No father. I’m sick at heart.”

“You’re in love?”

“No. It’s the oil.”

He could not eat. He could not sleep. Night melted into day, the hours sat atop one another with the stagnant sense of that oil on the water.

Once, walking along the shore at night, he fancied he saw the milk girl. She walked naked across the sand, her body waxen white, as if carved from the moon. He felt so dreadfully solid in her company. The gooseflesh prickled his neck. She was singing an old song they had learned at school.

From the old things to the new
Keep me traveling along with you

He’d once hated the song, finding it a trite and gooey hymn, but the way she sang it made his heart sting. He realised then that he was no longer a child, that he’d no longer have the innocent luxury of hating something the way he used to hate that song. He thought of the days when he played in the sea until the sun sank behind it, spilling its fiery peach light across the water. How he used to come home with jellyfish stings, salt in his pores, sunburn from the hottest June afternoons.

There was the flaking, turquoise paint on the hulls of abandoned ships. The colour of rust, the old iron chains that oxidised fast in the saline air. The abandoned, unravelled feel of the old yard where the dead ships waited to be repaired. The salt sped everything up, made objects fade eons before they should.

The sea howled. Storms came in quicker than they usually did at this time of year. There was a brief shortage of food as the boats struggled to get offshore, beyond the oil. People were irritable and the cows yielded badly. The boy found a beautiful starfish washed up in a cove. It was jet black, encrusted with oil. It looked like some kind of exotic ornament, worn by a rich lady in a Bond film. He kept it on his windowsill, admired it as the minutes ticked long and slow on the clock.

When the seals started washing up, choked and black and dead as bin-bags, things got serious. Their mouths were bloodied and dry and choked, splayed open as if caught in a final howl. Did seals howl? Could they?

Specialists from the mainland arrived in helicopters to help with the cleanup. There was talk of the island receiving huge subsidies and pay-offs from the petrol company responsible for the spill. Teenagers snapped pictures on their phones and posted them online, tagging them with things like: #shocking #awful #evil #gross #capitalism #darkaesthetic.

The boy realised his peers were wiser than he thought. But they did not know the real damage, the agony he felt sloshing in his chest every time he lay down. There was the sea. It was always there, but once it had been a brilliant cerulean, mottled with orange and heather, grey and jade. Everything smelled of dull and stinking petrol. He wrote in his journal:

It is our world’s first beautiful disturbance. All disasters must entice the eye. 

He thought of 9/11, watching the replays on the television screen while his father drank steadily on the sofa beside him.

“There’s evil out there, my boy.”

“But what about the evil in here?” The boy pointed to his own chest. His father laughed.

“I don’t think you’re going to take down buildings any time soon.” Clumsily, he helped his son with his tie. “Now get yourself to school.”

That isn’t what I meant; it isn’t what I meant at all. 

Sometimes on the rocky plateaus the remnants of oil ghosted the overflow of water, left swirling patterns of rainbows. He checked the internet and saw that people at school were posting lots of photos again. A girl in his class said she was doing her art project on the oil spill. He wanted to tell her to stop, to tell her she knew nothing about the changing colours and the way time was caught in the turgid undulations.

“Father, when will you tell me about mother?”

“What is there to tell? She left when you were still a babe.”

“But—”

“There’s things you won’t understand til you’re older. Now go and play.”

He had not played for five years. He was old now, he was wiser than anyone thought.

He lugged empty bottles across the road to the dumpsters. He now knew the clinking was conspicuous; he could feel the eyes on his back as he smashed each one through the hole.

Once, he dreamt of the milk girl, lying on one of the hillside fields inland, her hair plaited with cowslips. She was humming a tune because it was his birthday. She drank from a bottle of cherryade, the miniature Barr ones you got from the island store. He saw how her tongue was staining red. He woke up feeling very ashamed.

The raven-dark sea made a fool of me,
those tides of black crashing waves in the night
against the harbour wall. I miss the green
abstracted aqua light, playing so bright

amid those blues, those waters clear as glass
who sheltered the glossy ribbons of fish
to swim in the shimmers, burnished with brass
by an old sun that loves life like a wish. 

And now, if I were but a lonesome child
making his way to the soar of the sound
would my young mind find soon such passions wild
inside lagoons, whirlpools, tide patterns bound?

Son to the slippy, cerulean sea,
I rise forward in time to what will be.

When he saw the oil-stained peat of the rocks, the blackened beach, he kept thinking of those towers collapsing. It was like someone had the bright idea of symbolising how everything was falling apart with one fell swoop of a global, terroristic stunt. He asked his teacher if the sea could go on fire, now that it was coated with oil.

“Some folks say that’s the best way to deal with it,” she told him.

“So why haven’t they?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.” But the boy was sick of not having answers. There were so many creatures out there, wailing with pain beneath the surface, and no one was listening. The ships went out but all they seemed to do was swirl the oil round and round, gathering it thicker. Nothing disappeared. Nothing. 

One day, he came home from school to find his father rifling through his papers. While his files were normally organised, shut tight in a drawer, now they were scattered all over his bedroom floor. His father had let a glass of wine spill on the carpet and now a horrid red stain accompanied the places where cigarettes had been stubbed, where coffee had seeped into a forest of fibres.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“This stuff, son, what does it all mean?” his father looked at him with tears in his eyes, a sight which struck fear in the boy’s heart. His father only wept on Sabbath days, and even then, only in the early morning when he thought the boy was still asleep. But of course the boy heard him through the walls.

“It means nothing,” the boy said, furious, “absolutely nothing.” He swept up all the papers and slammed the door in his father’s face. That night he would burn the lot, then take a bath in the masses of ashes.

Dear mother, he wrote. He was in the island café and his tea had gone cold. It was three o’clock—the dead time—and the waitress hummed a lonesome song as she swept clean all the tables. He was writing on the back of another postcard. It showed the standing stones, the ones in the centre of the island. He’d only been there a few times.

I don’t know where you are or what happened to you. How many times is it now that I’ve written to you? I wonder if somehow your spirit catches these words from the ether, even as your body is absent from their possibility. I hate myself, I hate my words. 

He scribbled out the last line.

I want to get back to you. Father is worse. He drinks like a fish, a seasick sailor. I think he misses the sea more than I do. I think maybe he hates being a farmer, hates the land. Its demands. The sea demands nothing. It doesn’t need fed. But now we’ve fucked up so bad. We’ve poisoned the sea. And maybe you’re out there somewhere watching all of this on TV. The birds are so sticky with oil they lie down without flight and never get up. Some drown. Imagine that, drowning in the black black oil? The feel of it choking in your throat, sickly as molasses. I can’t help feeling it’s somehow my fault. My blood feels poisoned as the sea. Everything is slow and sluggish and heavy. I hardly want to get out of bed. I can hardly breathe. 

His handwriting grew increasingly minuscule, so that a passing glance would reveal more a black block of tiny, pressing shapes than actual words. There was something satisfying about seeing all that ink crushed together; it was a bit like the oil itself, taking over the whiteness of the page.

The boy left the café just as it was closing, as the dusk was settling into the sky over the sea. He took the winding path down to the beach, stones crunching beneath his feet. He took a detour to pass by the recycling bins at the end of the street. The café stood alone, its lonesome sign buffeted in high winds and often hurled across the beach, but it wasn’t far from houses. Each one painted a different shade of pastel, to hide the despair of the residents within. The bottle bank, as always, was overflowing. The boy chose a slender, clear bottle, labelled for gin. He picked up a lid from among the street rubble and luckily it fit. Down by the shoreline, he rolled his postcard tight into a tube and posted it through the bottle’s neck. Screwed the cap. Hurled it far out into the waves, where it bobbed for a moment, before the gathering night tides stole it from sight, swirling into darkness, distance.

Her milk-sweet cheeks…

He scratched that one.

 The open lungs of the still-breathing sea…

Trackings of light from west to east:
Time co-ordinates; forgotten detritus
Blended mermaid’s purses, lemoning
pale and lovely skeins of flesh
in the gloaming, a moon’s first milk
making cream of an evening,
the curdled settlements of a westerly tide. 

My mother, my mother.
Your presence vectoring the harsher
veins of the waves in clearer photons
which press their coastal scars on the canvased
skin of a virtual reality, electromagnetic
stirring of the heart. 

There is a scattering, a donut-shaped diagram
shedding the chintz of its skull off
in dullish flakes, blueish as fish food. 

(…What are you writing son?
Nothing.
It does pains to lie; come on, show me.
I can’t.
You’re always so far away when you write.
Like mother.
Yes, I suppose…)

I ask father, could the sea go on fire? Like,
if you struck a match to the black black oil?
He said the water was alcoholic, sloshing
with secret poisons, a formula
for ending its own incantatory eloquence
that spreads in the waves such messages
as to embrocate the flow of blood
diseased in the world’s great spleen.

He said nothing of the sort; he was cold
and mean. The tumorous lumps
puffed at the pores of his torso, unfurling
like chanterelles, yellowing the gorse
and scrub of a forest. I knew then
that his pain was utterly edible.

A molten pot of onyx, a knot
shaped like a pretzel, the twisted
wire that snarls in the dark
of his heart. Father,
he was a sailor once,
a man of the deep
black waves.

He remembered the milk girl used to sing to the cows. She cooed at them, sickly sweet, then struck up some old folk melody he recognised from the songs they sang in primary school. Songs about the changing seasons, the inevitable cycles of nature. She knew how to keep the animals still, to tame them to her softening will.

Once, he made eye contact with a seal. He was sitting on a rock on the island’s easterly side, hoping for shelter from the autumn wind. The black shape had rose, dark and smooth, from the choppy grey waves. Its eyes had flashed back at him, uncannily human, green as his own. Green as the sea in the sweetest shallows, made greener still by heaps of seaweed. His fingers brushed the briny rubber, popping the sacs of air. Is it time yet?

In the café again, he was listening to the old waitress as she stood by his table, hands beating powdery flour on her apron. Her accent had thickened over the years, congealing into the island’s broad dialect like salt crystals fattening in the cracks of a cliff.

“They say half the men on this island lost their hearts to the beasts of the sea. I could tell you many stories.”

“My father?”

“Torn asunder, you could say.”

“By whom? A childhood sweetheart?”

(and if the candied dawn brings tastes luxurious…)

“Yer mother, stupid.”

“He still loves her.”

“She found her skin elsewhere. A better fit.”

“Liquid.”

“Yes.” She rolled up her sleeve. He saw how her arms were covered with an elaborate craquelure of scars and burns and etched-in scratches, as if the flesh were readying itself for sloughing off, the mottled pattern of a snakeskin.

Of all the animals in the marble menagerie
I choose you, silvery moon wisps of limestone
streaking the fault-lines
of my sparkling heart, its sacred burial
beneath the midnight billows. Funereal,
sweetening the crumbling aura,
you see underwater, sharp as a seal’s
dilated vision. 

The love notes meant nothing, were for no one. Sometimes, he forgot the original purpose of everything. He kept quantitive records of the weather, the changing seasonal light, the pathways of the lighthouse beam as it cut across the bay, endlessly searching. He missed the special quality of innocence that the place had lost after the oil spill. Even with the cleanup, traces of the disaster remained. The sea birds had quit the agonised sea and even the crabs were shrivelled carcasses, washed up on litter-streaked beaches. The council had all but given up, now that corporate control was hardening its narratives of the wreckage.

What if the gin bottle remained, bobbing in one place, the current thickening around it, enriched by the stasis of oil?

the shadowy slosh of gelatinous babble /
like molasses i stretch long and sweet in your mouth /
i imagine the darkness inside you, a sable
annihilating the spill of me /
your gluey skin sticks to me with the tarry promise
of future absence / a terrible,
sickening lubricant

Sometimes, he wrote what he considered to be filthy, erotic poetry, forgetting to dot his i’s.

Everything he wrote brought him closer to the water. He felt his words surrounding him like cloying blots of oil, swimming in his sleep and spreading out through daily reality. His grades plummeted and his soul found solace only at twilight, bearing cold feet to the dusky waters.

He knew the milk girl came out sometimes to watch him. He saw her emanations from across the bay.

The cows were milking very badly. They grunted with inhuman fury whenever the boy’s father tried to draw from those shrunken teats. The boy ate very little and the father even less, chomping his way through stub after stub of cheap cigarettes.

“My gums are sore,” the boy complained.

“Lack of nutrition,” his father replied. He asked for a slice of lemon in his tea at the café. The waitress said fruit was scarce; she’d have to knock on 50p to his bill.

“That’s okay.”

A few nights later, he woke up to a pillow covered in crusted blood. His mouth was the same, darkened with black clots. A gap in his gums. The lost tooth reappeared beneath the sheets, a little white stump of ivory, knotted at its roots with a tangle of red, seaweed sinew.

“Goodness son,” the father said when he saw what had happened. “That’s one of your molars.”

Terrified he would lose the rest of his teeth, the boy ate only liquids, or else the slippery fish they served sometimes as specials at the café, depending on what the men could bring back from the boats, delicate in silver lamé. Sometimes the fish tasted of petrol, but nobody voiced this opinion.

The boy placed his tooth in an old spice jar and hurled it out to sea, an offering. Sometimes he felt the wind whistle through the gap it had left in his mouth.

The rock pools were finally back to a greener colour. Good healthy emerald sea lettuce, the tawny rust of cystaphora, tangles of Neptune’s necklace. Salt crusts formed round the edges. The boy dipped his fingers in to feel the warming water. Was spring coming?

There was the milk girl, ghostly in a tangle of cowslips.

“How are you, it’s been so long?”

I love the seals and the way their skin
is a rippling film of oil, the wrinkles
like sexy black outfits on tv
stretching and spreading for the flesh
of human hungriness. 

“These diagrams,” he told her, “chart the changing luminescence of the dying ocean. Tide patterns spread the moon to buttery swirls in different directions. See where this ellipsis meets the horizon’s curve?” But she had no interest in his geometries, his Venn, his equations. She wanted to talk about the people at school, the films you could see on the mainland cinema, the new dress she had made from an old white silk.

“Do you believe in mermaids?” she asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Women are not so callous.”

“If you come to the field I can show you my skin.”

“The strawberries will be out soon, a bed-sheet studded with dewdrops of blood.”

“My skin is white. I am white as the moon.”

“I believe sometimes people breathe underwater.”

“You’re so mysterious. You speak like somebody much older. I had an uncle once…”

“I’m not sure I love you.”

“That’s okay.”

He might have gone with her, might have watched as she shed the magnificent white dress, cast it into a crumple like the cape of an angel. He followed the trajectories of her limbs, watching the shadows move in rhythmic repetition against the pale grass, felt vaguely the rubbing of skin like the way it feels to walk barefoot through fresh, juicy mounds of seaweed.

“Do you miss her?”

“Well enough. I know she’s out there somewhere.”

“Is that really enough?”

“Sometimes it’s all there is.”

The island was gifted a grant as compensation for the oil spill. The village was cleaned up and the shopfronts repainted. The rusting boats in the old dock were going to be towed away to make room for new ones.

The boy and the milk girl started playing a game. They would jump off the harbour wall, hand in hand, utterly naked at the darkest point in the night. In the cold black water they would scrabble down as far as they could, holding their breath, waiting for the exhilaration to rush through their blood. They tried to prolong the time before resurfacing, scrabbling for weeds and stones to tug them downwards. Soon, however, the tide buoyed them upwards and they were gasping for air in the midst of pure darkness. A single light from someone’s cottage spilled gold on the water’s surface. The girl’s hair was blonde and the light was gold; everything else was blackness.

Our bodies slippery as bladderwrack
beating the tide in the stillborn black,
a bolt of cold struck deep in the veins
where poisons gather their listless death. 

Everything he wrote was awful now. Soured by the thing that had come between him and the milk girl. He slept all day, wrote by twilight, cast his notes to the wind on his least favourite side of the island. The place with the graves, the place where the air was warmly rich with spirits. It unsettled him.

“You’re missing a tooth,” she said once, poking her fingers round his mouth, where the gums were soft and rubbery.

“Yes.” He clamped down hard on her fingers and she yelped, playfully, like a pup. They went back up to the farm and helped out with the milking, so that it was done in triple time and the three of them could have a meal together, big cups of cider and a shared loaf of bread. She sung into the twilight and the men listened in silence.

The boy took down all his diagrams because the milk girl told him they were freaking her out. He wanted her to sleep in his bed but every night she insisted on going down to the harbour. What with the daytime milking and the nighttime swimming, the boy was growing very exhausted.

“What are we trying to prove?” he asked, folding her shining body to his in the moonlight.

“I want to know, I mean, I need to know.”

“Know what?”

“Can we be creatures of the sea?” He thought then of the seal who had stared at him long and hard, like it had known him forever. He shivered.

“Maybe it’s better not to. Then we can just pretend.”

“You miss her, don’t you?”

“Who?”

“Your mother.”

There are different types of orphans. Some are split irrevocably from their origins, by death or neglect. Others are tied to this primal region of their life by a gossamer thread of dreams. The milk girl seemed to have hatched from the sky, on a pure and cloudless night.

One time, they were night-diving down by the harbour and she disappeared. One minute, they were together, tangled in the gruesome depths of the harbour; the next, he could not feel her body at all. All was rock and weed and jellyfish. The tide was high, it had come sloshing up the walls and with it all manner of ocean debris. As the elders always said, the sea hurls back what gets hurled into it.

After swimming around in the churning currents, trying to make out a slender white shape, the boy gave up. He climbed the rusted ladder and promptly vomited onto the concrete, mouthfuls of seawater and silt and evening coffee. Shaking a little, he stood on the edge of the wall, looking for the gold-blonde head of his little seal. Maybe she just swam away from him, following some milky highway of moonlight back to her nebulous origins. But he could not help but think of how she had just vanished, torn away by some invisible current, her body ensnared by terrible kelp.

She never returned, and he realised that nobody noticed that she was gone. When he asked his father about the milk girl’s parents, he said something vaguely ominous and strange about how she was an outsider, “an immigrant to the island’s soil, born from luminous loins.”

Enough of the hoary midnight mist
that tricks me into feeling.
I am old as the sand, a grain
of the past, and I
am willing to die for that.

He found the dead starfish in his room, still crusted black with oil, as if it were a strange piece of jet or coral. He took it down to the beach one evening, when his bones were aching from all the walking he had done lately, scouring the cliffs for signs of the girl. The starfish looked so vulnerable, but in its black outfit seemed completely strange, a being from another world, resplendent in PVC. He returned it to the dark waters, slipping it under the shallow waves, waiting for it to be pulled asunder. He realised then what a fool he had been, to think he could take something from the deep of the sea, even to hold it and love it. The oil had gone and so had the sea’s suspension, now released into a churning, awful hunger, the cycling time and crazy waves that kept the boy awake—night after night, day after day.

The Many Moons of Jupiter

I was just five years old when my Dad first took me to see the stars. In the museum downtown they have this observatory room with a great glass ceiling displaying the night sky. A kind of visibility you can’t get in real life; you can’t help staring and staring for hours and hours, just staring at that bright jewellery case of stars. The blackness in the background, that velvet sheet they use, seems deeper alongside the purplish blueish hues which streak behind the twinkling chips of silver. I would sit on the floor of the observatory and stare up at those stars until my neck hurt. There was a makeshift telescope too, which showed up tiny coloured planets. You could check everything you saw against The Book of Celestial Details which was lying open on the glass table. It gave me an immense satisfaction: checking up on those stars, learning the constellations.

It was always Dad that took me to the observatory. Saturday afternoons I was his responsibility, and the easiest thing – the thing I begged for – was to visit the museum. We would go out to lunch afterwards, me leading the way down the familiar streets with the bustling weekend crowd, people weaving in and out of each other like threads from a harlequin fabric, trailing smiles and shopping bags. We always went to the same cafe, where they sold chocolate milkshakes and beans on toast for a fiver.

Dad is a landscape gardener. He digs up piles of mud and lays down square rolls of soft grass and puts in fancy plants that people order from catalogues. He does things with precision: cutting up his food carefully, watching everything I do with his observant eye, following this kind of persistent rhythm. He hated if I got food around my mouth, if I made a mess of the salt shakers or the scraps of food I left on my plate. In the cafe he talked to me about school and how I was getting on and what I liked and if my friends ever got into trouble. One thing we never talked about was Mum. Dad didn’t know how to talk about Mum.

My favourite planet is Jupiter. The biggest planet in our solar system, made of flaming greys and yellows and oranges, patterned with swirling lines which sweep around its diameter. After the moon and Venus, Jupiter’s the brightest planet in the night sky. Of course, I’ve never seen it in real life, only the simulated museum version – the version that flashes up onscreen and floats around in orbit. I always dream of that beautiful hologram, but all those pixels get mixed in with the Saturday city buzz and the taste of milkshakes. I don’t know what I’d do if I stumbled upon it one day, walking in some clear crisp countryside and seeing it up in the real night sky. I think it’d be pretty scary, not very real at all. I always wonder about that giant spot, the storm that’s raged for centuries on its surface. I’ve zoomed in right close to that Giant Red Spot like I was looking into the eye of a god. It’s like my way of praying, staring into that spot, feeling very small as I read about its greatness.

In the cafe, Dad asks me about the future.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” he says. He asks me this just about every week, like he’s forgotten how I answered before. I have a list of things which I reel off for him: astronaut, astronomer, artist, builder.

“Artist? Builder?” he sounds confused. He doesn’t understand what I mean by that. I mean, I want to draw planets, to make planets come to life out of pencil and paper. I tell him I want to build things which will last like the planets, that will exist on the earth as the earth exists in the solar system. I can’t put it quite into words; it’s a feeling I have. Eternity. The rings, faint and reddish pale, that surround some of the planets – it’s sort of like that – the feeling drifts out to you, faint and pale. I wonder what it’s like to glide along one of those rings, feeling the chaos of gravity, shafts of light shooting right through you. Like playing Mario Kart, whizzing down a rainbow highway and picking up gold stars.

The problem is, I don’t think I’ll ever be an astronaut or an astronomer; I’m no good at maths.

Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever grow up at all, because Mum and Dad won’t let me.

“He doesn’t like toys anymore!” Mum shrieks at Dad when he buys me a train set for my birthday, or a Gamecube for Christmas. “He’s too old, for God’s sake!” She stares at me with her eyes on fire, wanting me to say something, to agree with her. Sometimes she throws plates or tips the dinner all over the floor, or literally shoves my father out the door. They fight over everything.

What’s confusing is that I can’t tell sometimes whether they’re making up or being mean; whether they hate each other or love each other. There is a small red wine stain on the carpet by the sofa, and I stare at it when they are arguing in the living room in front of me; I stare at it like it’s the Giant Red Spot of Jupiter. I want to dig my nails into the carpet and peel it off like a scab. They hurl swear words at each other, and Dad always shrinks into silence. It’s Mum who creates disorder, swirling her self around the room, her voice getting louder and louder. I sometimes have nightmares about this: the way she goes from shouting to crying, her red face blurring into something indistinct and terrible. I close my eyes and think of comets, shooting endlessly over the night sky.

She says I’m getting too old for museums.

“Help him with his homework instead,” she nags to Dad as we leave on Saturday mornings to get the bus into town. Her plea is lost to our backs as we step out of the house. Sometimes, late at night, I hear her come into my room and tuck me in. She stays there for a while, hanging over me and breathing softly – breathing warm tufts of fire. She touches my face and I pretend to be asleep as she slowly starts to cry, still stroking my cheek. All I want to do is shout: Mum, stop! but I can’t. I lie there, still as a shop floor dummy.

She listens to me sleeping, but she doesn’t listen to me talk about the things I like. She doesn’t listen to me when I talk about the sun and the solar system, the many moons of Jupiter. She just switches off, shutting you out with this kind of supernatural force.

How amazing it would be, to escape among the stars! I watch the science channels and see the space ships and the shuttles hurtle away from earth. They always interview the astronauts after they’ve landed: How do you cope with not seeing your family for so long? Don’t you get lonely? What can you eat out there? but they never ask about the things want to know:

Were you good at maths at school?
Do you need to do algebra to be an astronaut?
What is the square root of 395,691,324?
What do Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s Red Eye look like from Space?

I always turn off the tv when I see their smug faces, when they take off the space helmets like they think they’re in a movie. Plain old human faces are as boring as my parents’ arguing.

Nowadays, they fight about anything at all. I don’t understand it; they’re like kids – and even Dad shouts now. From the top of the stairs I watch them through the gaps in the banister, wishing I could go down there and make them stop, make them shut up as fast as a hurricane tears up a city.

“Don’t forget we love you son,” Dad always says afterwards, “no matter how Daddy and Mummy feel about each other.”

But he never answers when I ask if they are getting a Divorce. It’s like I’ve whispered a secret I’m supposed to keep quiet, the one special code word that holds us back from chaos.

Now that I’m older, we don’t go to museums anymore; we get lunch in the pub. Dad loves fish and chips and Fosters lager. He also loves the slots.

Saturday afternoons he stands in front of the puggies while I watch the bartenders pouring pints and count how many times they spill things. Sometimes I go over and watch him play: I like to see the flashing lights, the colourful fruit symbols glow as the slots fall into place. Simple, persistent, like the bubbles in a glass of lemonade. Dad buys the drinks and tells me to go sit down. It’s a weird thing, watching him at the slot machine; like he’s in control of everything, like he knows when the slots will align the way he wants them to. Often, he pounds on the plastic shell of the machine, curses. We walk home in the purple dusk, past the city shutting up, and he tells me about anything – a song on the radio, the size of his shoes, the hat his mother used to wear when he was a kid – anything but how much money he’s lost.

The other day, I found Jupiter in a textbook at school. I guess I haven’t really been thinking about planets and stars and space for awhile, and now it stood out from the glossy pages like a face smiling from the darkness. A familiar face.

This girl sitting next to me, Layla, leant over my shoulder.

“What’s that you’re looking at?” she asked in that bright, tinkly voice of hers.

“Jupiter,” I said. I ran my hand over the smooth page where the clouds patterned themselves across the surface, like the wisps and eddies of smoke leftover from a fire. In my head, I rehearsed the names of all the elements that drift on through those clouds: carbon, vapour, neon, sulphur. 

“Is that your favourite planet?” Layla whispered, a lock of her hair spilling over my cheeks. I nodded.

“It’s the biggest planet there is. It’s so big it could swallow up all the other planets.”

“And one day you’ll live there like a king?” she smiled. She was teasing me.

“Nobody could ever live there, it’s too cold.” I closed the textbook.

After a while, I turned to look at Layla, thinking she would be facing the front again, watching the teacher scribbling sums on the board. But she was still looking at me. In her eyes I saw the glass darkness of another kind of space, where stars come forward like shoals of beautiful silver fish rising to the surface of the ocean. I glanced back at my paper and wrote down a perfect equation.

It was winter and after class she cornered me in the snowy playground and for fun I kissed her, just like that. Her lips were cold and wet with snowflakes and everything felt very still around us, like we were caught in a hullabaloo. It was all just luck really – that was the exciting part. I told her it’s a beautiful world and she laughed, like I had just said something funny and random from a movie. Like we’d made up the world ourselves and now we were powerful.

When I got home, all Dad said was: she’s left us. He looked around the room with this blank expression on his face, like the air itself was different, like something in the particles around him had changed. I poured a glass of milk and thought about it for awhile, but then I remembered the stars and the cool night sky that was only a few hours away, waiting with equations and gorgeous auroras. And yeah, I guess I felt okay.

(This short story was written for the GUCW Summer Short Story Competition 2015, under the theme of ‘Chaos’, and is republished from http://gucreativewriting.wordpress.com).