Time and the city (Middlesbrough)

Birthdays are always occasions to take stock of where a person is in life. On mine (one with a 9 at the end, which can only mean a milestone is a year away) I find myself in Middlesbrough, a city I seem to visit annually, at least over the last three years. Middlesbrough reminds me of Detroit – it wears its ruination like a moth-eaten evening gown. I remember last year arriving at the venue where I was about to do a reading; the sat nav informed me ‘you have arrived at your destination’ and before me was a scrubby bit of wasteland with a tethered horse. I was five minutes away from the main train station, in the centre of town, but ‘over the border’, the term for what I now know is the wilds of Middlesbrough (or as us Americans say, ‘the wrong side of the tracks’), once a dangerous and renegade part of town, but now attempting regeneration.

I started off at mima to see not only an amazing exhibition of later works by Louise Bourgeois, but also a group show of local artists entitled Chance Finds Us. The name, as you might imagine, references a ‘ritualised approach to making work’, to quote the curators Anna Vibeke Mou and Nick Kennedy (both of whom are included in the show), adopting chance operations as part of their practice. Many of the works are informed by travel. Rachael Clewlow’s diptych 133.52 Miles Walked, Key (Explorer 306/OL26) comprises one panel of densely-painted horizontal stripes, and another of spherical forms  which extend like a DNA model over a grid. The works are linked: both chart a series of colour-coded walks around Middlesbrough in which the artist records a new location every minute (a notebook covered in minute handwriting lists the destinations) carefully written out in the ruled lines alongside each stripe in one canvas – each stripe, a different location, is assigned a new colour – in the other, shown as a mapped grid of discs in corresponding colours.

The attention to detail is painstaking and obsessive – it plots a journey not by a map (which has its own specific coloured codes) but by a rainbow of possibilities – why go on this journey and not another? How might you chart the movements of one person over a given period of time?

As if to attempt to answer those questions, I participated on a walk of Middlesbrough’s cultural landmarks led by the local poet p.a. morbid. Morbid was brought up in the city, and brings not only his personal marking of the changes in topography to bear, but a growing assemblage of history and image, both official and unofficial, of the way the city has altered in the last 200 years. Again, the comparison to Detroit is apt – Middlesbrough grew rich on shipping, had a peak in its fortunes in Victorian times, and experienced a dramatic shift in fate from the end of the second world war.

What Morbid showed us on the walk was not what is – the things we could see around us – but what has been, what might be again. Story after story involved destruction – by accidental fire, by council ‘improvements’, by a misguided sense of what would be appropriate at the time. He was armed with a collection of black and white images of extraordinary and grand Victorian structures that stood on the sites of ugly 60s and 70s office blocks. The grand city could still be glimpsed in the old Town Hall (still standing but empty and derelict), the Customs House, the Empire Theatre. A lesson in what should be cherished and protected in case it is lost.

As we walked, the mima show was still in my mind, especially the work of Nick Kennedy. His piece for the exhibition, Timecaster, presents a gathering of clear-domed discs, each encasing a piece of white paper, an exposed clock mechanism, with a silver lead attached to its moving second hand. As the hand revolves, it leaves an intricate spirographic pattern on the sheet – over the course of the exhibition the marks will grow darker and darker as the second hand makes its sweep.

It occurs to me that what time does is darken our mark (certainly with each birthday). This can be seen as a negative: the darker the mark, the more it loses its intricacy, its definition, until we are left with just a solid mass of black. But you might also say this is positive: the darker the mark, the more indelible. The more we repeat our stories of place and what happened there, the more they become ingrained in us.

Death and Life in Middlesbrough

To Middlesbrough, for my workshop on Poetry and Memorial, occasioned by Julian Stair’s extraordinary exhibition at mima, Quietus: the vessel, death and the human body. I have been a long-time admirer of Julian’s beautiful urns and sarcophagi, and my poem ‘The Firing’ was based on his work (here it is, along with some other poems from the book Fetch, on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site: http://peonymoon.wordpress.com/tag/tamar-yoseloffs-the-firing/).

It was a glorious day, and the sun beamed brightly into the education room, where we spent the afternoon reading poems and talking about that most taboo and difficult of subjects: death. We started with some thoughts on the title of the show, and the meaning of ‘quietus’, a word we’ve lost in modern grammar, but charged with multiple meanings: a release, a calming, and perhaps more accurately for Julian’s show, a place between life and death. The word comes from the Latin quietus est = ‘he is discharged’, as from a debt. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126, all the meanings of the word come together in the final line:

Sonnet 126

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
( )
( )

We pondered the ‘missing’ couplet. Is this a deliberate silence, to echo the silence of passing? The 12th line feels like an ending, a closure, but Shakespeare is too great a master of the sonnet not to be hinting as more by the absence of lines 13 and 14.

We moved from Shakespeare, to Sir Thomas Browne (readers of Invective will already know of my love for his essay ‘Urne-Buriall’) to Sylvia Plath’s haunting and strange ‘Edge’, the final poem she wrote before taking her life. In it, she talks about the dead woman as ‘perfected’, and compares her to a classical statue:


The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

Does the last line refer to the blackness of night, and by extension, the total blackness of death? Some critics think that ‘blacks’ could be mourning clothes, a stiff taffeta gown, as donned by a Victorian widow, another kind of costume the woman might wear (like the toga). Others think that ‘blacks’ are a reference to stage curtains, perhaps a pun on ‘it’s curtains for her’ but also evoking death as an act of theatre (which takes us back to ‘Lady Lazarus’ and the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’, the poet’s audience, her witnesses to the attempts she made on her life).

We read ‘Child Burial’ by Paula Meehan, a painful and terrible elegy about the loss of a child. And ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson, where death is a suitor, a kindly gentleman caller willing to pick you up in his carriage and take a you on leisurely drive out to the cemetery. And then we had a break for lunch and a walk around the galleries.

Although poems are normally two-dimensional objects, there is always the hand and heart of the poet behind them, and so I can’t help but picture the author, at his or her desk, in the act of writing the poem. I always think of Plath’s desperate last days during that cold London winter when I read ‘Edge’, and it makes the poem even more unbearable. There is something about Julian’s pieces that are at once personal and public, like poems. They often take on human forms – as Julian points out, the terms for the parts of pots are taken directly from the body:

The concept of anthropomorphism is central to the identity of pottery. We use bodily terms such as neck, shoulder, hip and foot to describe the constituent parts of a pot. And the very nature of the vessel as a container, a holder of things, is analogous to the idea of the body as a physical container for the soul or spirit.

The Reliquary for a Common Man is a single jar of bone china. To say it contains the ashes of Julian’s uncle, Les Cox, does not describe it fully – some of his ash was used in the fabric of the jar itself. Perhaps the best way to think of this jar is as an ‘auto-icon’, a memorial that contains physical remains of the subject. Most reliquaries contain bones or other fragments of saints, so this is not a new idea, but somehow one which has become alien to us at the beginning of the 21st century. The room where the jar is displayed contains two screens, one showing home movies from the 50s and 60s, the other a series of still photographs which trace Les from childhood to old age. A recording of his voice plays into the darkened gallery. The effect should have been ghostly, but actually, I felt Les’s presence very strongly, his living presence – and I have never been susceptible to spiritualism or stories from beyond the grave. I was in the room with him, not only his image and his voice, but also some small physical fact of him, absorbed into the jar. Isn’t it true we become something else when we die – the shape and scale of us no longer exists. Maybe this is what Plath was striving for in ‘Edge’ – to take a different shape, to make herself into something else.

The other piece that especially moved me was the Columbarium – a word I’ve always loved, which comes from the Latin for ‘dove’, because the shape and compartments resembled a dovecote, but also makes me thing of the dove of peace, the holy spirit rising beyond the body. Julian’s Columbarium consists of 130 pots which create a tower, to suggest a community, the way we all come together democratically in death.

We came together again after lunch to share our poems, which were all extraordinary statements on the process of remembering and honouring. The whole experience was, surprisingly, joyful and life-affirming.

Julian’s show continues at mima until 11th November: