Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Searching At Rock Bottom

On Sunday I attended the opening of a new exhibition - Searching for Peace in Poona - at the ArtsMill, Hebden Bridge, curated by Alison Darbrough and featuring poetry by Madhuri ZK Ewing, along with sketches by Cyril Mount, and excerpts from his journals.  Madhuri, who was born in California,  lived for 30 years in India, and her poems at the exhibition reflect on the days she spent living in ashrams in Poona and in Oregon, and form the theme of her latest collection, The Poona Poems.

I bought a small gift card from Madhuri, patterned in swirling colours like rain-swept blossoms, and the exhibition provided a brief oasis of tranquility as I try, and fail, to make any sense of a fraught world.  After the nastiest election in living memory, I find myself in the odd position of being one of only six or seven people in the Disunited Kingdom who voted for someone other than Conservative or Labour, and looking on from a distance at the contrasting fortunes of those parties.  Both "main" parties are currently tainted morally, and I was hoping that as neither could be said to have "won" the election, and as the last week has produced no resolution, it might be a chance for both to replace their leaders.  After all, many were keen to stress they were voting for a party rather than a leader - most Labour candidates did not feature Corbyn in their literature, and some, including my own Labour MP, were essentially anti-Corbynites.  But instead, we look sure to endure a further few years of polarized tittle-tattle between two sour-faced leaders and their parties.

 The arts world has, as ever taken well defined sides in these times of discord, and the poetry environment has become increasingly dominated by narrowing narratives. Nationally, I have noticed a growing trend of sensational arguments without evidence, and a tide of generalization and intolerance towards certain groups and races expressed in readings and boycotts, and sometimes cannot help but feel the world of poetry is no longer a place for me.
In a few days' time, my film A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years - premieres at Halifax central Library and when I think of my own faltering starts in poetry and publishing, my struggles to hold down an ordinary job without becoming, like Branwell, tangled up by bureaucracy and regulations, I can't help but draw parallels between myself and the beleaguered Branwell, whose afternoons as a clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway were often interrupted by impromptu wanders around the local countryside. Branwell was a keen student of nature, and also loved geology - indeed was known to traipse the country around Sowerby Bridge with the vicar Sutcliffe Sowden, inspecting the geology of the area, which reminds me of how, when asked as a child what I would most like to be when I grew up, I would often answer "a geologist."  Intoxicated by the arrays of stones donated to me by an eccentric and well traveled friend of my mother, I would pore over amethysts and malachite, quartz pebbles and small fossil-like rocks, dreaming their histories and folklore.  Perhaps, instead of poetry, I ought to have stuck to the world of stones.

It was in this mindset that I took the train yesterday to my home city of Leeds, bound for another exhibition, this one being a Degree show at my Alma mater, Leeds College of Art and Design, from the Printed Textiles and Surface Patterns course, taught by my friend Emma Hayward.

Emma and I were students at the college between 1997-99 - the last A-Level cohort of the Twentieth Century - and I paced the pavements around Blenheim Terrace under the gaze of the University which surveys the vicinity like an enormous god carved out of white seashells feeling an odd confluence of being "back in the moment" while simultaneously aware of the glaring passing of the years.  Studying English and Theatre Studies, I had been determined to attend the Art College because of its reputation, and the closing years of the century were a wonderful time to have done so. I left school the day John Major was replaced in government by Tony Blair's New Labour, and it is very easy to forget now the optimism of that period, and the profound sense of being present on the cusp of genuine, positive global transformation.  When I first hit a sort of rock bottom in my life around this time last year, I could not focus on anything approaching poetry or creativity, but it has been an up-and-down roller-coaster since then, and I have often found myself coming to new understandings or perceptions of the past through the prism of poetry.  Flicking through my unpublished poems this morning, I came across this piece, written about a decade ago, which recalls the long hot summer of 1997, and the merge into autumn:


Bees puffed up with pollen
skimmed the thorns and lavender,
sunbeams split the flags, melted tar
and glazed each window pane in light.

At night we sat out on the wall
or strolled through air fizzing with summer
talking of exams and colleges
and why the latest war was wrong.

Autumn crept in like a spider on the skirting board
as the mornings slipped into a silky shiver of thick-crusted frost
diamond white and piercing as fresh mint.

 I am  an infrequent visitor to Leeds now, and it has altered so much in the last few years that it is like visiting a foreign city.  The area around the University was mainly vibrant and friendly, full of international students, and the exhibition was beautifully laid out and full of diverse designs for fashions, wallpapers, and furnishings. There were exhibits arrayed like batiks, citrus-coloured fabrics hung with silvery insects, bumblebees, and birds of paradise.  Geometric media looking like the works of Gerhard Richter woven in felt.  Majestic tapestries of rainforest scenes or supernatural, sci-fi landscapes.
It is nearly ten years since I last visited the college, so I spent some time browsing around and drinking in the painful nostalgia which reminded me of the irreversible differences between the dreams of twenty years ago, and the harsher realities of today.

 After calling at some bars drenched in the ghosts of yesterday, I passed through the department stores, which seemed to have shrunk and felt more like depressed thrift stores, assistants gazing glumly into space.  There is little time for luxury in Maggie May's Britain, and the ubiquity of hulking half-finished structures for planned new precincts was offset by boarded up shops, half derelict arcades, and empty pubs.  I found my way to the cavernous Dark Arches, a network of tunnels cut beneath the railway and alongside the Leeds Liverpool Canal, where throughout most of the early 90's my mother ran craft stalls at the market-cum-bazaar, and where later in that decade I worked in a shop selling Indian fashions, statues, "legal highs" and jewellery.  Bathed in incense and 1960's music, we were one of a swathe of international shops along the cave-like row of bohemian units, now all gutted out and left for dead - or, worse, turned into car parks.
I walked past the disgusting burger bars, which stank of death and slavering families fat on their own greed.  I passed supermarkets whose entrances were patrolled by guards, and I wondered what had happened to the world when the average Tesco Extra required the presence of security.  I passed through myriad crowds of people plugged into devices, talking seemingly to themselves, and I noticed that apart from a single Waterstones and HMV, all the book and music shops appeared to have gone. None of the gay bars was yet open, but I found a minute coffee shop on Vicar Lane, and watched through the window as a sad succession of single mums, puffed-out pensioners, stressed businesspeople, gamboling Africans, young lovers, students in slashed clothes, a homeless man with a dog, went traipsing by, while behind me through the speakers Nick Cave was singing his beautiful way through Into My Arms.  Rain was slowly streaking the window as a humid afternoon lapsed into evening.

Back on the street, I ambled around Briggate, and found much of the city centre a sterile facade - a glut of chain stores and bland cafes.  I was oddly relieved to find the outskirts of the city were still very working class and defiantly unchanged by the march of modernity. The market was crawling with bad-tempered looking gangs, and as I dodged the drunks along the decaying sprawl of Kirkgate, past its crumbling pubs, dank alleys, betting shops and the neon seediness of Amusement Arcades, I felt just as likely to be jumped or mugged as I had done twenty years back, which strangely cheered me up.

I left Leeds in the rainy twilight, just as the railway station with its escalators stretched and revolving like the limbs of some schizophrenic insect, was filling with the rush hour crush.  At such times, the station becomes a place devoid of all humanity - a stinking pit of selfishness and haste as the zombied mass of a people physically and emotionally destroyed by offices and banks come pummeling through the concourse and onto the cold platforms and bridges, ranged above our heads like the bars of a space-age prison.
I sat beside a woman in Islamic garb, our bodies separated only by the thin borders of man-made clothes, but the, equally man-made, gulf between us stretching farther and more insurmountably than any wall.  A sense of absolute isolation was inescapable as the train drifted through the bricked-up fringes of south Leeds, blocks of flats jutting above the skeletons of long-abandoned factories, the glass checkerboards of riverside apartments oozing golden light onto the drizzle-prinked waters of the Aire.  Industrial estates trailed out into waste-ground.  The lights of the city faded as we shunted through the council estates of Bramely and Armley, and towards the smaller town of Pudsey, the car park of its flagship shopping precinct studded with innumerable cars, roofs glistening in the rain.
Drifting in and out of sleep, I was no further to resolving my sense of disconnection from the world of poetry, or of finding my place amid its unwritten rules, hierarchies and structures. Making this journey away from the city of my birth, back towards the place I cannot yet call "home," images wheeled through my mind, of the fantastical tableaux and rainforest birds of the textile exhibition, images of the old Leeds with its hippy shops and evening markets, images of depleted towns and shut down shops, empty arcades and broken homes and lonely people, and images of India, and the art work in the mill, of my friend Madhuri, her cards, her pictures, and her poems.
Geologist, by Madhuri ZK Ewing.

At rock-bottom is love.
At rock-top is rock.
Deeper are weeds.
Weedlets and weed-roots.
Scrap, scrabble layers.
Peel each’s skin.
At rock-bottom is love.

Do not see it
until you bang your chin
on glaciated substrata
of warmstuff laughing.
Doubt yourself and everything.
Wait, and be dusted with dust
like powdered sugar on crust.

Rock-bottom is love –
you’ll not find it, or if you do
you’ll have to give it up
a thousand thirsty times.
Thirst like bones in bracken,
like bones on racks.

It’ll find you –
or so say they.  They
but here am I in the leaf-woods
wanting.  Damp with heat.
Panting.  I see leaves, shagged carpets of them
beneath the trees.  Oh geologist,
at rock-bottom is love.

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