Griffades d’Ours, or, There Ain’t No Sanity Claws on the Evening Stage

Anyone visiting this site over the last few months could be forgiven for assuming I’d given up on it, whereas I’ve in fact been attempting to complete an entry – any entry – for months. The eternal tail-chasing of the writer with multiple responsibilities, which includes the decision as to which of one’s various tails one should, like a diligent mutant, pursue, was particularly difficult for the last six months of last year.

That old paradox, whereby the more duties one has to perform, the more creative work one finds time for – the creativity riding the wave of responsibility, while cutting across if not rebelling against its direction – has pertained to an extent, but the main manifestation has been a frustrating series of half-executed blog entries, and a lot of work – poetry, fiction, criticism – languishing in draft.

I was steadily employed in residency (Orkney!), competition (Wigtown! The Stephen Spender!), examination (an epic novel about China! Gao Xingjian!), etc, over the summer, and so the usual creative space – to read freely, to feed the imagination and develop larger scale work – never opened up. I was back to the familiar, actually rather comforting, pursuit of intense pockets of time, to what I think of as xenochronicitous composition. This led to my usual solution of bifurcating into other identities, other manifestations, this time the Tumblr site I’ve set up as Dundee Makar, and the collaborative creative blog derived from Twitter texts known only as Chimera.

When I look now at those blog drafts now through the fairly dense cross-hatchings of ideas pursued obsessively elsewhere, I’m reminded of a phrase in a book I’ve been reading recently while commuting, In A Trance: On Paleo Art, by Jeffrey Skoblow. This is a meditation on the earliest cave paintings – what we can know about their makers by visiting and experiencing them. He points out that the caves favoured by our ancestors twenty to thirty thousand years ago, had, for hundreds of thousands of years before that, been favoured by cave bears. In the places they chose, for whatever reason, to paint, there are sometimes already marks on the walls made by the claws of the bears.

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‘In some places,’ Skoblow writes, ‘the lines made by humans cross these griffades d’ours, which resemble one of the basic hash-mark patterns of the human engravings…’ The key factor, I realised, in the incompletion of those drafts, was undoubtedly deeper markings of this sort, indications of an ongoing grieving for my father that otherwise no longer seemed visible in my life.

After an initial inability to write anything, at least for public consumption, I had begun a reactive examination of that grieving process, and how it interacted with the tactics of creativity outlined above. After a few months, though, a deeper numbness began to assert itself, a tertiary stage. I was looking after my mother to some extent, I was keeping on at the job, and there was just less room for both mourning and creativity: those inner processes our responsibilities repress when they do not actively deny them.

My professional responsibilities didn’t really touch this inner realm, and my attempts at maintaining creative momentum were done, as it were, in the antechambers to that particular cave. To switch metaphors, it was like being stranded in a rowing boat and sticking an oar into the back of a sleeping whale: I made progress of a sort, but I certainly didn’t wake the whale up, nor was I sure I wanted to.

So there were at least as many unfinished entries as there were months between June and December, and at least as many false starts on new ideas. Some types of writing – essays, reviews, commissions, all duly appeared; and strange hybrid forms – half short short fiction, half prose poem, verse sketches, cartoony manipulated images aplenty – were completed, but nothing more, well, usual. The impulse to write poems was still down there, in the belly of the whale, in the darkness of the cave, waiting its time to be delivered up, or rather to be visited.

Meanwhile, a need for engagement with others, and with the political in its more personal and more public forms, began to assert itself. I try to speak about this in those hitherto missing blog entries (which I’m effectively introducing here), so will confine myself to saying I’m not much of a joiner-in, less still a sharer-of-opinion – indeed, I mostly go in dread of opinions, including my own. But I found I wanted to take more of a stand, to be more visibly involved in matters I’d previously shied away from, partly because I’m shy, and partly because I couldn’t justify a lot of such actions as socially meaningful.

In some way in my head my father’s gregariousness, his great gift of engagement, allowed me to be remote, to be disengaged. Essentially his adult-ness obviated some of the need for mine. Now he’s gone, I feel more exposed in all sorts of ways, and one of them certainly concerns the extent to which that separateness is an immaturity. It’s not a bad thing at all that I feel a need to work that out, even if I’m unlikely to change my politics (libertarian, anarchist) hugely.

So I’ll be revisiting the incomplete entries over the next month or three, trying to finish them where possible in the hope that I can put together some more of the components of this difficult stage at which I find myself without becoming even more introverted than usual.

But one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is another phrase from In A Trance. Discussing another cave, Skoblow points out, ‘Lines straggle this way and that. Some of them suggest anatomical shapes, but never depict the human figure as a finished or closed unit, with a bounding line separating it from its environment.’

This suggestion that there might be something innately human about incompletion, that our relationships, speech-acts, projects, lives, are rendered fundamentally incomplete by the way we exist and co-exist in time, intrigues and moves me. Our great urge to make things out of thought, whether that be the artwork or simply the concept, leads us into an absoluteness that may sometimes be wrong-headed. Failure to ‘complete’, to achieve ‘closure’, to achieve the assumed end or goal, to achieve at all, causes us to fall back into the baffled realm of the fragmentary. But what if this sort of closing off was premature, an eager but inexact urge for the exact? What if there were no fragments in this sense? As MacDiarmid hypothesised, ‘There are plenty of ruined buildings…but no ruined stones.’

What if our natural disposition within our perception of past, present and future was to be open and therefore incomplete? Trailing clouds, by all means, whether glorious or not, but also boats against the current, craning over our shoulders for a glimpse of harbour, even if the only signs we see are those claw-marks, ‘griffade d’ours‘: signs to which we cannot definitively assign – and yet cannot resist assigning – meaning.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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