Monthly Archives: March 2009

Not myself

‘I’m not myself today.’ Pregnant phrase. Who then?

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To change myself

I write partly in order to change myself; it’s an instrument I use.

— Susan Sontag

Real work

What was your real work? You asked the question so often without answers that the question itself became a form of work. You found yourself tunnelling through a mountain of words. Then out of the tunnel you came smuggling your dubious hoard, over the barriers and across the fields, and looked around, halfway between your destination and everything you left unfinished.

An epiphany of absence

So, there were those long walks of unravelling, where you went out with no fixed purpose, no special destination, seeking the space that is yourself. Maybe such vacancy was all you sought to lose, then find, your wish being to move through the city simply as a presence, stepping free of intentions and timetables, as if invited to a secret celebration.

On some days it was too beautiful for you to be able to say anything at all, like foliage trapped behind glass. Until this February morning as you stand at an upstairs window, while all around a certain quite definite silence waits. Then it comes, that sense of being here and not here, all things chiming at once in an epiphany of absence, and for a moment you are quite lost in it.

— John Welch, from ‘There and Back’

The string

What happened next was that, rather than go off and have a life like anyone else, I walked very carefully to the sign at the end of the town, and, to ensure I didn’t get lost, secured a piece of string to it (the other end was tied to a children’s toy which, for sentimental reasons, I kept in my pocket, though pretended not to acknowledge). Then I sat down on the stile there, and it must have made a very good seat, because I stayed there for fifteen years. During that time there was one question which kept coming back like a cat to sit on my lap, and, like a cat, I felt I had to keep shooing it away, namely: Why I was doing this? Was I unhappy? Had I decided to become unhappy? Did I want to be a failure? But no sooner had I accepted the questions than I felt a kind of panic at the world, as though something had got a hold of my meaning and was grinding it away between its teeth. By now I had realised that, secretly, the string stretched as far as my thoughts, and I was still free, if I chose to be so; but I did not want this freedom; I did not want to be brought face to face with the continents I had failed to cross; I saw that it was too late, already, and it had always been too late; it was too late even before I learned to walk, and everything I did later only compounded the problem. I was only a small person; I had neither the space nor the time for regret, and, more importantly, I had no idea how to govern a future based upon it — the continuing to live, whatever that might mean, with full recognition of the loss. And so, instead, I lived a life which cannot really be described. Or, if it can be described, it cannot really be explained. I was waiting, as I later put it, for all this to become unbearable, and realising, with growing disenchantment, that I was stronger than I knew; the world could not break me, and, because it could not break me, it could not relieve me of responsibility, either. And so, while the others went their separate ways, I found myself living without living, living nowhere in particular, but without the romance of wandering, or even the decisive stigma of being lost. Particular images from that time come back to me now, just as they did then — fragmented images that were never parts of greater things, but all of which seem rich with potential, nevertheless.

— From ‘Circewards’

What drives us?

What drives us? I don’t know. To determine that very thing might leave us without reasons to continue. As though the real need were for something implacable and opaque.
   I would say we had an appetite for malice or martyrdom; either way, we wish to exhaust ourselves in an object. At heart, we aren’t happy with having been born, and we will never be more than nodding acquaintances with who we are. We don’t like, in brief, to be.
   We want something we can’t have, and that is art — both its method and its object. We are like eyes without a body, which is why we don’t care so much for ourselves. We don’t want to be where we are. Wherever we are, we don’t want to be there. Being here is very specific, so, by implication, being anywhere else must be very generic. But there is no ease in this for us, so very hard we find it to reach beyond ourselves!
   Perhaps an artist then is not really someone special, in the sense that the artist does something anyone else cannot. Rather, the artist is the one who uniquely fails to achieve something everyone else finds trivial — the act of transcending herself and her situation. The artist is what is left over from the failure to become. As an exception, she unwittingly becomes a legend, and the very flaws within her a different kind of inspiration.

No Answers

A mug’s game

As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

— TS Eliot

The new hope

Hope bespeaks the possibility of what escapes the realm of the possible; at the limit, it is relation recaptured where relation is lost. Hope is most profound when it withdraws from and deprives itself of all manifest hope. But at the same time we must not hope, as in a dream, for a chimerical fiction. It is against this that the new hope appoints itself. Hoping not for the probable, which cannot be the measure of what there is to be hoped for, and hoping not for the fiction of the unreal, true hope — the unhoped for of all hope — is an affirmation of the improbable and a wait for what is.

— Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation (trans. S. Hanson)

I used to be an artist

I have long begged off the question of my albums reflecting where I am “at” personally. There is more inaccuracy in that approach than accuracy. I tend to hope people will meet me halfway. The “halfway” point is, “here’s some music, forget about the particulars of the feller before you, let’s listen to it and see what happens.”
   But there is the half that gets left off, the half that never gets told. There has definitely been a transition of some sort, an upheaval, which started three or so years ago. You’ve come at an unfortunate time in that I am still trying to sort it all out. I cannot tell you exactly what is going on now. I look at my hands and I don’t know what they wrought in the past. Are they the hands of a bad man? I used to be an artist. I don’t think I am right now. I don’t know if I ever will be again. I am something else. I was a student of personal strife. I ran with the wrong crowd early on. I tortured myself for a song. I thought it was the way. These things changed many years ago, but those stubborn barnacles remained buttoned to my cape. In shrugging off the cape of Smog and running — I am still in the giddy and running stage, where you can’t believe how easy it was to shrug off. I figure I will be giddy and running for another album or so. I’ve got six different sketches for albums that lay ahead of me. Usually how it works is something will come in to usurp all of those plans at the last minute.

Bill Callahan

What you are asking is your treasure house

   Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
   “Enlightenment”, replied Daiju.
   “You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
   Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
   Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
   Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”

Zen koans