Nathaniel Hawthorne

You can't go home again (?)

The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne served for four years as US consul in Liverpool. During his time in England he wrote the following:

The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.

My mother used to carry this quote inside her wallet, which is when I first came across it, long before I had myself become an expatriate. My mother would not have known when she cut it out of  ArtNews Annual in 1966 (where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery in an article about American painters in Paris) that she was to spend the last five years of her life in London. But something attracted her to Hawthorne’s words, perhaps a sense that she was in some way an outsider, especially during her childhood in Newburgh, New York. She found the invigorating air Hawthorne talks about in Manhattan, a place (with a Native American name) that doesn’t really belong to America, international and cosmopolitan as it is. And I found that invigorating air in London, so I’ve never really believed Hawthorne’s assessment. For years now I’ve maintained that I become more foreign each time I return to the US, and to a certain degree this is true. My accent puzzles people, they can’t place me, can’t work out where I’m from. But in my 28th year as a Londoner, I feel as if Hawthorne’s words are pertinent, and I am going through an identity crisis.

This came to the fore during my visit to SUNY Fredonia, where I had been invited to give a talk and a reading of my work. The students seemed especially curious to know how I ended up in London (most of them were around the age I was when I left the US), if I found British words and expressions creeping into my work, if I thought I had a different view of London than those who’d been born there. During the reading I found myself darting between New York (I read a number of poems from my Jackson Pollock sequence) and London (characterised by Vici’s Formerly photographs). London is my home now, but there is something that continues to draw me to my birth country, especially now that the ties I have to it are increasingly diminishing.

My father would have been 100 earlier this month. I started my trip at his grave, with a copy of Christina Rossetti’s Selected Poems, a stone to lay, and some of my mother’s ashes to scatter. Rossetti has been a poet very much present for me over the last few months. If Rossetti has a ‘theme’ (and I believe most poets do) it is mortality and remembrance. It has struck me powerfully in recent days that once someone is permanently gone from your life, your memories are all you have left; selected and constructed from life, but still edited highlights, and therefore often unreliable. I have always loved this poem by Sheenagh Pugh, which for me captures perfectly this condition:

Times Like Places

There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.

And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.

Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat’s wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn’t talk
in sentences any more: didn’t need to,
each knowing what the other would say.

The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory

is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion’s three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.

It is that idea that place, as much as the people who occupy it, also vanishes with time. With this in mind, my husband and I took a drive through Colts Neck, the small township in New Jersey where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. My mother had a framed picture of our house on her wall in London; the house is still standing, but it is much altered, and I found myself wondering if we had come to the right house, even though I knew for certain it was the one. I would have stayed in the car, but Andrew, curious about the place I’d talked about for years, got out and rang the bell. And someone was home, a woman who had lived in the house for the past 26 years, which immediately cheered me – someone loved it enough to invest a good portion of her life there. She asked if I wanted to have a walk around the grounds, and I said yes, even though part of me wanted to drive away immediately. What was strange was the sense of confusion I had in a place I thought I would always be able to navigate, as I knew every blade of grass. But that is because my childhood home has been sealed in memory, and in the land of memory, nothing ever changes. But the memory bank for the house closed thirty years ago, and in real time, much has happened, people have got on with their lives. I found the only way I could really navigate the familiar alien terrain was by certain trees that were still standing; many had gone. But I came away thinking that as much as I remembered, I was not remembered. The house was not sentimental, it would hold whoever occupied it, the same floorboards would creek under different feet. The windowsill in my old room where I’d carved my initials had been certainly painted over years ago.

In her years in London she missed America terribly, the familiar air. As much as she always loved London, her memory of the city stretches back to the early 50s, and the many years she came with my father. The London I live in was sometimes difficult for her, as most cities are when you are older. She used to love the towpath along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where she walked for many years. As I walked the towpath for the first time in many years, I thought about why we love places, why they become important to us. Canals are interesting places, a man-made intervention in the landscape  created to connect one body of water to another. Longtime Hopewell resident Paul Muldoon has written about the canal, making the connection between himself, the Irish poet living in America, and the Irish navvies who dug the canal (many losing their lives in the process) nearly 150 years ago.

My mother just thought it was a pretty place to walk. And it is – the long towpath separating canal from river, so you feel as if you are on a island, isolated from the busy world around you. But it is also a place of connections: land to water, water to water. She didn’t know she’d be making the long journey over the ocean so late in life. I realised as I scattered more of her ashes on the towpath that I was bringing her home, to her invigorating air.

Time being

On the occasion of Linda Karshan’s retrospective at the Redfern, I wanted to post an essay I wrote about our collaborative project, Marks, which was published as a limited edition artist’s book by Pratt Contemporary Editions in 2007. Linda’s show features work from 1992 to 2010 and is on until 16th October.

23rd February 2005

A threat of snow. The sky’s light grey, strangely empty. Linda and I meet in the Oval late morning, each in our serious heavy-duty coats, go for a coffee near the station. We talk about real North American winters, the sort of cold that enters your bones, real snow. Not like here, where everything grinds to a halt with the first flakes. We talk about how artists and writers come together, sometimes easily, sometimes with difficulty, and decide we don’t want to plan anything. Nothing should be forced.

We drive south; through Brixton, Camberwell, Dulwich. The landscape changes from urban tower blocks and concrete, to 30s houses that dream of suburbs; that terrain which is so familiar to us of well-cared-for lawns and doormats that say welcome. Linda has mentioned before that she can identify with the childhood in my poems. America is about childhood for both of us now, since we have lived our whole adult lives somewhere else. I think of a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne:

The years, after all, have a kind of emptiness when we spend too many of them on a foreign shore. We defer the reality of life, in such cases, until a future moment when we shall again breathe our native air; but, by and by there are no future moments; or, if we do return, we find that the native air has lost its invigorating quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents. Thus, between two countries we have none at all, or only that little space of either in which we finally lay down our discontented bones.

My mother used to carry that quote inside her wallet, the paper brown and brittle, and so I knew it from very early on, before I had any inkling that one day I would be an expatriate, as Hawthorne was, as Linda is. I always wondered what it meant for my mother, who is 76 and has always lived in America. Could she somehow sense my future in it? She must have cut it out of an article published in ArtNews Annual in 1966, where it was in turn quoted by John Ashbery, writing on American painters in Paris. Later, driving home, Linda will tell me about her year at the Sorbonne, the excitement of Paris in the 60s, the time of the painters in Ashbery’s article, and how she knew it was the place for her, and I will remember that same feeling of arrival in the late eighties, when I first moved to London.

But that’s later. We park on a tree-lined residential street, Sunray Avenue (like Cornell’s Utopia Parkway) and I can’t guess where Linda is taking me. I follow her up the driveway of a family house with a bright pink corrugated metal garage door. It tilts open to reveal chairs, a mirror, a bicycle, a filing cabinet, stacks of boxes. It is a surprise, but later it makes sense to me, that you should have to pass through that space of memory and nostalgia, the contents of a family’s life, to get to Linda’s studio.

She takes me through another door, and we are in a small white corridor between the house and the back garden. We open another door and head up the garden path. Through the window, I can see into the kitchen of the house. Cluttered, with a big pine table. A woman is seated at the table, drinking her coffee, watching us. We walk past a trampoline, a child’s model fairy castle. There is snow lying on the tree branches, a light frost on the grass. At the end of the garden is a plain wooden building, with a small porch, like a Scandinavian hut. It looks at if it has travelled through the sky, landed here.

Linda opens the last door, Alice negotiating Wonderland, and we are in the studio. It’s like one of those spartan New England churches. Linda had mentioned the spiders, and how when she had arrived in the studio Monday morning, she found their webs matched one of her grids. And here are the webs, cross stitched into the beams. Linda had been wondering what she wanted me to see when I first walked in, and when she arrived in the studio Monday morning, she found what she wanted to show me was already there. And here are the pictures, the clean white of the paper against the studio wall, a halo of pinpricks around them, from other pictures that have occupied this space.

But I won’t talk about the pictures. What I write will talk about the pictures.

Linda pulls out other drawings from thick stacks in the corner, explains how one led to the next, which led to the next. Everything is chance. I tell her I’m reading Molloy. She has mentioned his sucking stones in her writing, and I’ve been trying to make sense of the reference. I get it now—the comfort of doing something you understand, you’ve done often. Something primitive, almost childlike. I pick up my copy, read her the line:

If you think of the forms and light of other days, it is without regret.

I already have an idea that this will be my beginning, as I look at the bright grey light that fills the studio. Everything is chance.

We spend the morning talking, looking at drawings, books. Feeling our way in. Thinking about progression. We drive to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to have lunch. There is snow on the lawn. We talk about Soane and how his buildings look like mausolea. Solid, irrefutable. Soane wanted to control space, the relationships of things inside a room. What Linda does is like the blueprint, a way of reading space. A map of the interior.

We go back to the studio, with Soane’s symmetry in our heads, read Donne’s ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’ which ends with the line:

Thy firmnes makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne.

Then Linda starts to draw, and I watch her make the line down the centre of the paper, in her rubber gloves, like a surgeon halving the body with a scalpel. The precision of it. I know that this image will go into the poem, that moment of beginning, of entry. Here’s my beginning… Linda talks as she draws, she counts silently, she taps her foot. She tosses a drawing to the floor, it floats like a sail. She crosses the room, leaves her footprint on the paper as she passes. She takes up another paper, the same motions, the lines traced and retraced, she turns it over, finds the ghost of the drawing beneath, begins to trace the lines again. As I watch her, I am writing, just randomly, things I’m thinking, things she’s saying. The writing is coming out in short lines, almost following the motion of Linda’s hand. This feels right to me.

Before we go, Linda shows me a folder of work done by children who visited her Soane exhibition. They were asked to describe her drawings. One of them wrote:

There were spaces. They were made out of space.

We drive back north, through London in rush hour, but I am thinking of space, how difficult it is to leave the studio, return to the world of things. Linda makes this journey every day, from her home to the studio and back. A to B to A. The way we navigate our places, the way we move through space.

Something else one of the children wrote about Linda’s drawings:

The whole earth is like that.

Yes, it is.