The pleasure of ruins

Someone came up to me after a reading once and said you’re obsessed with abandoned buildings. Until then, I’d never thought about the disturbing number of poems set in ruined or desolate structures, but once it had been pointed out, I decided to explore the reasons. I don’t know how common this is, but I have a recurring dream of returning to my childhood home, in the dream in ruins, although I know the layout of the rooms intimately, as if the map of the house is ingrained in my feet. Gaston Bachelard writes about ‘the land of Motionless Childhood’, contained in the house we grew up in, which is 'physically inscribed in us … each one of its nooks and corners a resting-place for daydreaming.’ I suppose I didn’t start having the dream until I was well into being an adult, until the house was long-closed to me. The house is still standing, but much altered, and I suppose I wouldn’t really like to go back. As Bachelard says, 'the first, the oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows’. And besides, the house stands in another country far away, a country I hardly visit these days, a country I haven’t lived in for over twenty years. A country which is foreign to me. So the fact the house is a ruin in my dream may have to do with the old cliché of 'burning bridges’, the brutally true statement of Thomas Wolfe’s: you can’t go home again. But Bachelard says you can, through dream and memory, the way we carry aspects and angles, scents and shapes with us always (for Bachelard, it’s a deep cupboard which retains 'the odour of raisins drying on a wicker tray’). Also, there is no denying that the poet has hit middle age, with all its threats and petty gripes; if the circus animals haven’t deserted me yet, sometimes they seem to be just visible through the haze, bobbing up and down on the merry-go-round in Asbury Park that I used to ride on as a child.

Asbury Park was already crumbling when I was little, once a thriving seaside resort which eventually fell out of favour and was left to decay. Although it was in no way romantic or imposing, like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, I loved the air of somewhere forgotten, somewhere that was hard to love. That may be why I like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of ancient storage silos and water towers (as a child, I was also obsessed by water towers, the old-fashioned wooden ones you used to find near barns or atop buildings, the kind that Rachel Whiteread recently immortalised in New York), always in black and white, suggesting an industry which had been superseded. Asbury Park was always a sad place, even when the sun was shining. And that sadness was extremely attractive.

I’ll return to this subject, obsession that it is for me, very soon … in the meantime, links to sites which feature the work of the photographer Camilo José Vergara, whose book American Ruins is one of my favourites:

photo credit of 'Tillie’, on the side of Palace Amusements in Asbury Park:       Andrew Mills/ The Star-Ledger