Somewhere overseas, more than a decade ago, I was among a group of poets, novelists and translators, who were visiting another writer at his historic home. Inside, before I could ask anyone about the house, its age and its style, I found myself knocking on a wall.
Days later, one of the novelists who had been there said, with a chuckle:
That is the difference between us—a novelist would begin by describing the house; a poet knocks on the wall to check that it is real.
In thinking about the topic ‘What I am Reading’, I was stalled for many weeks on the issue of temporality—What am I reading at the moment? Or on the day of writing my agreement to contribute to this blog? Or on the day I returned to reread what I had written about what I was reading?
Not only was I then stalled by that question of time, I was slowed by my mother’s suffering from a recently diagnosed illness, and the pandemic that was, still is, spreading across the globe like wildfire.
Saint Augustine wrote: ‘Time does not stand still, it unreels itself’. I read that a few moments ago in Garry Wills’ new translation, here in the suburban public library where I am writing this.
Like wildfire. On New Year’s Day I arrived back in Australia from the United Kingdom. It then seemed that the world was ending.
Maybe the world had started ending several times before that, and before this.
(The previous time I had left London was on the first day of Extinction Rebellion’s successful blockade of much of the centre of the city.)
Now I don’t recall whether it was at the end of December 2019, or earlier in that year, that I accompanied a friend, the poet and translator Stephen Watts, on a walk dedicated to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. It was being recorded for radio broadcast.
We met at Liverpool Street Station, the site of the character Jacques Austerlitz’s arrival by train as child-refugee from Nazi Germany. Stephen was one of two or three people who spoke about the book, the place and its various histories. If I am recalling correctly, Stephen also read one of his own poems just outside the doors of the upper entrance. It was the first of his poems that Max Sebald came to know. He had heard it on the radio one night while driving back to his home outside Norwich. Stephen told us that when they met through their work related to translation from European languages, Sebald had said, warmly, that he already knew the work of Stephen Watts.
That afternoon, only a short distance from the busy station, in the secluded, partly subterranean, paved area that marks the remains of an early church, Stephen read one of the corresponding parts of Austerlitz. I have been paging through the book to see if I could find a section short enough to quote here. Of his reading I most clearly remember this:
As for me, said Austerlitz, I felt at this time as if the dead were returning from their exile and filling the twilight around me with their strangely slow but incessant to-ing and fro-ing. (Trans. Anthea Bell)
I can’t say exactly what caused us, all of us in that small group, our heads down and intently listening, to be completely silent when Stephen finished reading. Certainly, I felt as if I had been mesmerised.
It wasn’t the timelessness of the literary text, it was an excavation of time itself. It was an exhumation.
I write this almost a year later, on the other side of the globe, here in Australia, conscious that death has swept through the world in a way that Sebald would have been well prepared to appreciate.
On my return here, I reread Stephen’s prose book Republic of Dogs/Republic of Birds. Being a poet’s prose, it is elusive, neither prose-poem, nor memoir, neither a simple account of one place, nor of one life. His writing is that of someone knocking on the surface of the visible world to see whether it is solid, whether it is at least as real as an echo.
While it is appropriate to read it both alongside Sebald’s Austerlitz and other writing about the East End of London, particularly that of Rachel Lichtenstein and the more visible Iain Sinclair, for me Republic of Dogs/Republic of Birds is better reflected on as the testimony of another kind of geographer, the roaming poet. It is true that much of the book describes life in that part of London in the Seventies, yet other important parts reinscribe Stephen’s experiences there in relation to his living for four years in a remote hut on an island off the west coast of Scotland.
In a way, his ‘islandman’, the protagonist of the book, lived in one of the world’s megacities as if he were still in the wilds of the North.
As I read—
Isn’t it strange, yet appropriate, that the past and the present tenses remain ambiguous in that verb?
As I read Stephen’s book, I returned to read certain entries from Derek Jarman’s diaries, those that were published as the book Modern Nature. I had read it first about twenty years ago, when I was working on my own diaristic account of several months I had spent in Sumatra.
At the time of his AIDS diagnosis and that pandemic, Jarman had found refuge from the urban world in his famous black house at Dungeness, an inhospitable stretch of shingle desert facing the English Channel. Lines from the poem ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne are recorded on one of its outside walls. Stephen had made the opposite journey, from the wilds to the city, about twenty years before Jarman wrote those entries. He had recorded his memories on a typewriter at more or less the time when Jarman began his own book.
I watched some of Jarman’s Super 8 films, and the beautiful, monochrome feature Two Years at Sea by Ben Rivers.
The Republics is a 16mm black-and-white film by Huw Wahl of Stephen’s book. I first watched it on my phone while I was away.
Here in Australia, when my mother had returned from almost a month in hospital, we watched it together on a large screen at her house. She was astonished by the simplicity of his life on the island: ‘No electricity or water! He is so thin! He must have been so cold!’ She herself was getting thinner and thinner, and found herself shivering even in bed.
My favourite scene was that in which we viewers were allowed into his studio/office, a room almost completely crammed with bookshelves. To my surprise, despite the extraordinary number of books, they were all arranged with a neatness conveying something greater than respect—a devotion to their sanctity. As Stephen stated in his book:
Books are beautiful, words are lovely. He remembered a dream from about that time: a static-image dream, a picture of a hall filled with golden books that shimmered on the shelves and were handled with alertness and wonder by plenty of people. A library full of books that were read for sustenance.
This is all the more striking because nowhere in his own writing does he remark on hunger, even though we can be sure that it haunted the narrator and most of his impoverished friends both on the island and in London. There are loving accounts of basic meals, some so detailed they could almost have been drawn from family recipes.
There is, too, at one point in the book the desperate consideration of whether the islandman should butcher for food a dead sheep that had washed up in the East London docks.
My mother’s health had deteriorated in near perfect parallel with the arrival of the pandemic in Australia. Daily I would drive to and from visiting her through deserted streets, and I would rush past the Covid Clinic set up close to the main entrance of the hospital.
To try to ward off despair, I reread one of my favourite books—Peter Handke’s Repetition. Nowhere else have I read such an invocation of a yearning for another land, the land of his mother’s birth. His description of the young protagonist’s arrival in Slovenia, his waiting in a train station’s restaurant until it is closed for the night, for some reason continues to move me. There is an innocence in this arrival. Behind all the strange arrogance of the public figure of Handke, there is himself as a young man whose mother would commit suicide.
I read, in a few hours, urgently, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, his account of his mother’s life and death.
I found myself returning to another, this time even slimmer, book. Was it my way of undermining the present?
In the poet and scholar Denise Riley’s Time Lived without its Flow, meditating on her living on after the death of her son, she wrote:
Unanticipated death does such violence to your ordinary suppositions, as if the whole faculty of inductions by which you’d previously lived has crumbled.
Note, she wrote, surely not erroneously, ‘has’ and not ‘had’.
For many months, due both to my mother’s illness and the evolving global crisis, I could read nothing other than parts of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a book that I’m surprised I didn’t know before. Donne writes of his own illness, likely to have been typhoid, at the same time that there were outbreaks of the Plague in London and throughout Europe. He evokes not only the fear of death that the ill and their loved ones have to confront, but also that special fear, and fearlessness, that medical practitioners need to enable them to persist in their work with the ill.
When I heard commentators on the radio and television repeat that during this pandemic we were living in ‘unprecedented times’, I found myself silently exasperated because Donne has described, much better than any other writer I know of, something akin to what we have been experiencing this year.
This is, I suppose, the curse of an historical sensibility. At the start of the pandemic a friend had emailed me from Lisbon. His email, revealing a particularly Portuguese sense of irony, was titled: ‘The Plague, again.’
During the worst of the Lockdown in Victoria, for several months, it seemed that the birds and a few homeless people were the only inhabitants of the city.
Now, not too long after the end of those restrictions, I am missing that silence, that unpeopled city—our absence.
I’m not sure when this year I read a translation of Bruno Lloret’s Nancy.
In the novel which is narrated by a young woman in Chile who is suffering from terminal cancer, Lloret uses X‘s as a kind of punctuation between the sentences and paragraphs. It’s an intervention suggestive of Christianity, error and death. But I remain struck, instead, by those three pages which display the x-rays which we readers are to assume ‘reveal’ her tumours, confirm her diagnosis.
That seems to me crude, as if the author needed to prove, graphically, his character’s pain.
What is the difference between poetry and prose, between the house evoked in language and the house knocked on to see, actually hear, whether it is real?
Some time after reading Republic of Dogs/Republic of Birds I realised that Stephen, despite his broadly encompassing love of literature, had nowhere referred to English writers or poets, while he does to the Scots, Irish and European. His own English is infected with Scots, in the way that Beckett’s early work written in English is with Irish locutions. Then there is Stephen’s fascination with the so-called minor languages of Europe and elsewhere, and his friendships with a range of poets, especially those Bangladeshi poets he came to know during his early days in London.
It could be that his twice self-exile, both on the Scottish island and on London’s Isle of Dogs, was not so much geographic as linguistic.
Then I was reading Crossing the Frozen River, the Paladin edition of the selected poems of Lee Harwood. He, too, lived for a time in the East of London.
Then I reread the legendary bookseller and poet Kris Hemensley’s Your Scratch Entourage, the poems describing his ‘commuting’—as he terms it in his biographic note—between the South West of England and Melbourne. In many poems there is a shifting back and forth in time, too, with some even having two dates of composition.
Then it was the work of the modernist poet, W.S. Graham, who lived in Cornwall. Many of his poems are invocations of his childhood and youth in Scotland.
Poets, it seems, want to test the reality of the world by taking language as far from its origin as they can. Then they want to knock on the bivouac of language to test if it has remained intact, and real.
Now I am thinking that this afternoon I should search through my piles of books to find Richard Zenith’s translation of the selected poems of the renowned Brazilian modernist Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
His poem ‘The House of Lost Time’, I seem to remember, describes a sensation similar to my own experience all those years ago:
I knocked on the doors of lost time. No one answered.
I knocked a second time, a third, a fourth.
The house of lost time is half covered
with ivy: the other half is ashes.
John Mateer is a poet, critic and curator. His latest books are Southern Barbarians, Unbelievers, or ‘The Moor’, and João, and (with Arvi Wattel) Invisible Genres: Two Essays on Iconoclasm. His novella, The Quiet Slave: a History in Eight Episodes, has recently been translated into German.