The Thread

The Thread, as its title suggests, is a text woven together, produced as a response to the Write Here workshops held at Nottingham Contemporary and Bilborough Library & Community Centre during February 2011. Its form echoes that of the exhibitions by Jack Goldstein and Anne Collier from which we took our inspiration. Where those artists photograph, manipulate and otherwise reframe pre-existing material – magazine covers, sound-library samples, record sleeves, the pages of books and the MGM roaring lion, among other things – so these texts are re-presentations of material created by participants in the workshops, edited together from written notes, discussions and things more often remembered than written down at the time.

This makes The Thread a construction in which the sections are rooted in real memories, but recollections of memories that are not my own, building a mosaic of  layered fragments and details from four workshops and the words (spoken, written and collaged) of the 15 participants, as collected by myself, associate artist Jo Dacombe and Write Here mentee Aimee Wilkinson. The participants whose words and images are collected here are Maureen, Teresa, Albert, John, Beatrice, Pauline, Doris, Irene, Kath, Rita, Jayne, Gloria, Pat, Joyce and Dawn, and we thank all of them, as well as Nottingham Contemporary communities programmer Saima Kaur and Bilborough Library organiser Julianne Christou for their help in delivering the workshops and jointly creating these texts.

We will be presenting the texts at a final session in Bilborough on the morning of March 22, and a very limited number of copies of a bound chapbook will be available for reference at Bilborough Library and in the Study at Nottingham Contemporary after that.

The Thread

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

David Jones: Preface to The Anathemata (1951)

 

The leaves turn on the path, grass white with frost
where the library breaks the cold horizon
on the edge of a car-park. There is no way to know
what a book contains but by opening it wide and stepping in.
And as the doors slide open at our slow approach
the leaves turn over and over, speckled yellow with damp
like the pages of books in February’s rain.

*

She lived in West Ham. She was 14 when the war started in 1939. Her family moved to Essex to escape the blitz, living in a house right next to Epping Forest. Also in the forest then was an ammunition dump, put there as a decoy, and one night it was bombed, the forest on fire, flames rushing among the trees, crackling and spitting as intense heat and green wood burned into the night. But the forest survived, and still survives.

She remembers the beautiful things before and after: the flowers, birds, climbing trees. Tobogganing downhill in winter snow on a sledge made from the body of an old pram. She grew up near the church in her picture, sometimes rode a miniature train around the orchards and fields you can’t see here. The copper plate is beaten to hold the shape of a spire and bridge, running water and a willow tree, all leaning gracefully in the yellow light.

*

An eye needs good care: regular testing.
Smoking is not good for the health.
A wave is thrown up in stormy weather.
The girl with a camera for a head is nude,
her body beautiful (but a little bit cold).
Deep emotions show on a teary face.
Faye Dunaway is another camera girl
(she keeps her own head, her clothes on).
White cliffs are on a record sleeve,
a sun sets behind an orange horizon.
Someone is exhausted, lying on sand.
There is a potter’s wheel, a police guard dog,
a silversmith’s knife and Farmer Giles.
The lion roars but the film never starts.

*

She remembers the sound of the hoover and iron, the hum of a refrigerator. She knows only too well the sound the kettle makes when she fills it from a cold-water tap and boils it to make tea. She remembers the sound of the gas ring bursting into blue flame at contact with a lit match, the fruity scent of its first heat in the cold kitchen all those years ago. She’d sip tea, listen for the toaster popping out warm bread, ready for butter and strawberry jam. She’d dust and polish pans, move chairs to sweep dust from under their feet. All the time she’d imagine she heard the sound of water running down a calm green hill, over pebbles and mosses, something she saw every year when they drove out to the peaks and lakes. Even now, when wiping down tables or washing pots, when ironing a skirt or folding towels, she hears that water and feels her stresses pass.

*

My house is clean. I like it when the tiles shine,
when wooden floors are polished, warm as peach.
I like it with the rain outside and the fire on,
the oven warming a tea I don’t need to stir.
Whenever I’m here I think of being elsewhere.
When I am elsewhere (say, on a sandy beach)
I’ll look forward to seeing the plants and stones
at the edge of my path. I walk to the door,
stop and listen to familiar sounds before coming in.
I know I like my house, but want to leave again.

*

He remembers the desert wind, its sound as it rides low over the dunes, sculpting and moving them, changing their shapes. He can still feel the heat of that sun on his skin as he sits here. He is drawing lots from an envelope of cut-out phrases and random words, laying them out on a blank page. “Sometimes we meet, sometimes things happen and we go different ways for no reason…”

Always the words gather on the page: “…a peasant girl, in a hilly landscape on the Welsh border, a modest house dress, simplicity in all its grave dignity. Colonies in the clouds, a spider’s web, walking. The wolf and his brothers…” There it ends. We arrange the words as best we can, leave them be when we’ve found our stories there. The desert holds footsteps, shows where you’ve been, but once the wind comes, not for long.

*

Water, like a new species classified on a zoologist’s chart:
Water rushing, water falling, waves crashing.
Rapid water, frozen water, rising steam.
Pouring water, still water, the water in all our cells.
A teardrop, a raindrop, a rattle of hail on a tin roof.
Rush, splash, drip, creak – a faint whistle of air.
Each kind of water has its own form, makes its own sound.

*

The picture of the eye is good, but it could be frightening, too. The picture of the sea in an open book looks stormy, with wind and the waves as well. I am kind and understanding. The lady’s face looks as if she has been crying. The sea with rocks looks nice and very calm too. Then there are pictures of the sunset over the sea, and a blue sea, twice, and a man lying on the shore. There is a moving picture of a hand with butterflies held up against the blue in 1975, a film of a man jumping, as if on a trampoline, flashing with sequins and lights. There are pictures of the lion roaring at the start of films and a dog that barks. The picture of the knife is good, but it could be frightening, too.

*

In a record’s dark circle a forest burns,
its combustion hidden in the marbled grooves
like a house in a valley, a woodland copse
you might stumble into only by accident
when you’ve lost the way, watching sunlight flicker
among boughs and leaves like a mirrorball.

The ground is spongy as a trampoline:
pine needles scatter underfoot like rust.
All the moths and butterflies of spring are here:
Clifton Nonpariel and Oleander Hawk
alight their names and colours on each green fern
like feathers falling on a painted chair.

*

The radio was on, she says. What she heard was a song, maybe ‘Me and My Girl’ or ‘Good Time Charlie’, she can’t remember now, but knows she sang along, there in the kitchen on her own with the light outside shining and the washing drying on the line, the first time she’d been able to put any washing out for weeks, the weather being so bad.

She looks at the record cover on the table today, with its Hawaiian girl in a straw bikini, and thinks of Dorothy Lamour in the ‘Road’ films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope saying, ‘Hey fellas, I haven’t had a line for ages!’, something she says she thinks to herself and chuckles about whenever somebody’s talking too much.

Better than songs, even, is turning the radio off and opening the window to hear the birds. She’ll sit for hours like that, just listening. She puts breadcrumbs on the kitchen sill, where sparrows and blackbirds and robins peck away just a few feet from her chair, their feathers – what’s that word? – iridescent, yes, like mother of pearl or opal stones.   

*

She breaks up the word
‘contemporary’
and improvises,
writes out a score:

Cornet; tone; temp; rear;
Pore; tore; taupe; not;
Parry; poem; aeon; ear;
Bone; stone; met; men.

*

She is opening drawers, glancing into the caverns found deep in the earth: stalactites and stalagmites, columns of once-liquid stone that still move, too slowly for us to see. On this earth, as the mountains rise and fall, we must be like butterflies landing on the boughs of oaks. That summer, in Chile, men were trapped for weeks, and she watched them lifted, one by one, in a metal tube too narrow (you’d think) to hold a man: each stepped out, sunglasses on, into the arms of wives, brothers, mothers, sons.

Her husband mined, in his day. A hard job, he was proud of it, but she’s glad young men don’t have to do that now: too hard a job, for anyone. She often remembers the ponies. And there was a trick to remembering which was which, stalagmite and stalactite: the ‘tites’ hang down, like a lady’s stockings on a washing line, she thinks that’s right. The world underground is beautiful, but not a place you’d want to stay in long. Not without the sun on your skin, not with no fresh air and no way to smell the trees and grass. 

*

There was a grey wash of fields, a screen of bare trees.
The world peeled back like a banner of skin
on a dissection plate, the silver on a tarnished mirror
that flakes away, one glittering piece at a time,
to expose the under-paint beneath. There was the ice-field,
waterlogged, frost-white – all hemmed in by pines.
There was a lake frozen like a cracked glass
on someone’s bathroom shelf with a toothbrush in.
You’d see her, sometimes, through the cold birch wood.
There were twigs on the snow like crackled glaze.
She is drawing swans, now: tested gas masks, once.
Recalls young girls working in tiny rooms above Station Street
their faces dusted with pale asbestos flakes.

*

He is surprised by the building: from outside it’s like a tin shed, but he didn’t expect it to be like this when he got inside: young children looking at the pictures and films – the dog barking and lion roaring on the old projectors as they clatter away. He likes things to have colour, imagines a stone dropped in the water, ripples running outward like the grooves in a record, black and white, dark rainbows on its surface like oil in the puddle beneath a car. Visualise the harbour, a train running past, walking on pebbles and hearing the splash of footsteps in the sea. There are mirrors reflecting sunsets, the colours of light on the Atlas Mountains as they change then change again as he walks over them.

*

He knows the summer blue of sky,
turquoise seas, marble cliffs
and cypresses. On Bramhall Road
he was startled, once. No snake’s tail
whipped through the undergrowth,
no stones from ruins were piled like logs
at the sides of these English roads.

He was caught out by blinking –
a piece of glass on a kerb’s edge:
a first glance and sudden halt
quick blue flicker and flare of white…
It might have been a rifle-sight once,
a fighter plane turning overhead, he says.
Half a century on, that reflex stays.

*

“Ding Dong” she writes, inverting the stencilled words to “Gnod Gnid”, remembering Leslie Phillips’ impish wink at the sight of a pretty girl in some fifties or sixties film she’d seen, dapper in his jackets and bow ties, his moustache rakish on an upper lip. “I found my own words for things, always liked to play with the sound of words. Some words really get the imagination going. I think I just like words”. She remembers childhood games of I-Spy or inventing new lyrics for familiar songs, putting different words together to make new meanings from these ordinary things: Flash Dance for a sparkling ‘Jump’; the names of all the British moths that connect to the butterflies on someone’s open hand. “When you go into a forest the sounds change…”

*

The world is sewn inside us.
The eye’s in the wall, looking out.
A thought is revolving.
A storm is like a stream in flight.

The horizon is a knife’s edge.
I saw it first, says the artist.
Anagram: artist is nearly stare
(is: I start). There’s a twist.

There’s the eye, cut in half.
There’s the sea in shades of gray.
I am talking nonsense now:
I was fit, sir. Time for tea?

*

There is the owl, the giraffe and the beat of drums from a jazz band, two girls dancing on a white paper record sleeve. There are moments when blue teacups seem moored, like boats, on the edge of a page where swans and weeping willows are drawn, where a digestive biscuit takes the place of a sun in a desert sky. There are scissors, glue-sticks and pencils scattered across the tables, caught on a field of white as though skiers had left their poles and skis, their lipsticks and goggles and scimitars, then simply vanished into the mountains. Somewhere, an aural cue: the rhythmic thrum of the Tardis as it disappears, the splash of a stone in a deep pool, the sound of a plant stretching its soft leaves upward in a silent room.  

*

There are chess-pieces arranged on a wooden board,
the slant of angles, curves and a fixed divide
as knight faces tower, bishop pawn. King and Queen
both stand boxed in, their bases circles
enclosed in squares. The shapes don’t change
but only move and he likes the rules.
He strokes the wood, one finger tracing ripples of grain
and possible paths from square to square,
horizon to edge. A box fills pawn by pawn
as the field clears. A King falls: the game is done.
He puts the pieces back, says: shall we play again?

 

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