Mourning and Monsters, 1

(As Christmas and the year’s end approaches, you begin to adopt Janus’s regard: looking forward to what is shared and anticipated, while reflecting back on what is lost or appears to be completed.

I’ve been considering the links between the absence of my father, especially felt at such times, and the movement of the imagination through its duties and its – equally necessary – irresponsibilities.

The bereaved slowly become familiar with the ways grief keeps evolving, and, just now, the strange, strangely fascinating thing for me is how such juxtapositions of pleasure and loss relate or can be related to those images discussed in previous posts – totems, mascots, cartoons. Hopefully these couple of posts can tease these links out as we head into the Daft Days.)

1
A couple of weekends ago, after a very long delay – more than three years after his death – I stood at the grave my father shares with my maternal grandparents, and looked at his stone. It has taken this long to be put in place for a number of reasons, but I think the principal one is that I couldn’t bear to complete my filial duty.

Initially, there had been a family discussion about whether to replace my grandparents’ existing stone, with its frame of Celtic knots symbolising my grandfather’s love of history and Scottishness – my grandmother, as always, was too self-effacing to express any desire for symbolic representation. But we came up with a solution: to place the old stone on a plinth with a sloping surface for my father’s inscription.

Then there was an even longer ‘drafting’ period while I tried to design a stone where two symbols from my father’s life could frame that inscription. I wanted a compass rose, such as sits on a number of ships’ captains’ stones in the old Broughty Ferry graveyard by the River Tay, which would mark his early, formative time in the Merchant Navy. And I wanted a watch, symbolising his long years in Timex as a precision engineer.

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But the photos I took were not precise enough – the compasses too degraded by lichen for a laser printing onto the new stone – or, by contrast, too stark: his last watch’s face looking strangely isolated. At some point it dawned on me: what time would we set it to? I couldn’t think of an answer I could live with for the rest of my life.

I dithered and swithered too over whether to include the short poem he’d written during a serious illness and given to me. Was there room? Would it balance with the plain text of my grandparents’ stone or not? Eventually, I realised the hesitation was, like all these questions, a delaying tactic, albeit an unconscious one.

While the stone remained uncarved, he remained within emotional and imaginative reach. It was like the little dint still in the leather armrest of his favourite chair, caused by him digging in an elbow as he leant forward, whether to speak, change channel, or, increasingly, to cough. He was gone but the mark of his absence was still there.

In the end, we settled on a plain inscription, emphasising his wholehearted commitment to family, and an image of him from his last ten years when he was at his healthiest and his happiest: on holiday with us all in a favourite restaurant in Crete. Even that, I was secretly thankful to note, seemed to take the stonemasons forever to produce.

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Because, the truth was, I was not getting through the grieving process. I’d raced through the first year on automatic pilot, fuelled by work commitments, festivals, and travel. I’d even managed to keep writing, finishing the canto promised to N.S. Thompson and Andy Croft’s Byron project. But a year later I found myself in Shanghai on the anniversary of his death.

I was staying in one of those skyscraper hotels that overlook the Yangtze, with a room-wide window fifteen or twenty stories up, and I was there for just a couple of days – barely enough time to get over the jet lag, in order to do a festival – which actually turned out to be a teaching stint – and to meet up with an academic from Fudan University to talk about translation. At least that was why I told myself I was there.

What I realised, peering out of that hotel window at the great clog-like barges heading downriver, piled high with pyramids of raw materials at all times of the day and night, was that I was in Shanghai to get away. Not to get away from his death: the moments and days leading up to that instant when I realised he had gone kept replaying in my mind. Not to get away from him: for that first year I continued to speak to him in my head as ‘you’, noting with horror the point at which I first thought of him as ‘him’. But I wanted to get away from that world where not only life went on, but my fatherless role in it had to go on too. At least in Shanghai I was far away from that kind of continuity. I saw this wasn’t as much about grief as it was about me: I missed him because at some level I needed him in order to be a functioning version of myself.

As this pattern repeated itself the following year – work, trips away, grieving and fretting about grieving – I also realised that my appetite for poetry was drying up. I still wrote the ones that impelled themselves upon me, responded to commissions, produced at what I expect would be regarded as a respectable rate, but I could see that there were more there, in those strange shadows which both are the poems, and that which conceals them (or key aspects of them) from us. I knew that they were difficult, and that it was taking me longer than usual to get into the space to write them. It was a toss-up between not wanting to force the writing, and not wanting to force myself to go there.

It’s not unusual, especially between books, to have to rebuild the writing self from scratch. This felt more difficult, because I understood that, like the rest of my family, I was also attempting to put a life back together. But I knew that you have to sit these relative doldrums out, attempting what you can, weighing up what’s possible, reflecting on what’s not yet within your grasp.

I turned to prose, and to the interstitial art of short texts: phrases that sat between verse forms and narrative, or between literary genre and cartoon caption, between the comic and the uncanny. I used social media as something between sketchpad and notebook, so that I could sidle up to my concerns, find those forms that might sustain the effort of elegy, and allow me to place it alongside or amongst the rest of real life. I tried to find my own angle to rejoin the continuity.

2
Why did I feel so vulnerable? My father died aged 77 – hardly an unusual event according to brute statistics, and he was chronically ill for years before, so, although it was a shock how quickly the event of his death unfolded, it was hardly surprising. I was in my early fifties, busy to the point of overwork, yes, but not without support and opportunities for creative expression.

My immediate family was, if anything, stronger and more stable than me: in 2016 my daughter went to Australia for an intercalating year at Sydney University, and not only matured, but seemed to thrive; my partner’s magazine and latest novel did well, she found time and energy to organise renovations – something I remain clueless about – we could finally afford an extension. We even got married, telling ourselves it sorted out our tax status re our daughter, but understanding it symbolised a near thirty year commitment.

In the last year the relentless nature of my administrative workload has suddenly eased. I got leave, I and my collaborators got grants. My new wife and I began to look forward, just a little: how soon could we balance the idea of retirement with having enough money to write? I began to imagine I was decompressing, and yet a sense continued of being somewhere, in my depths, destabilised.

I grew up as part of a small family unit – mother/father/child aligned to my long-widowed maternal grandmother. Since my paternal grandmother’s death, and the death of a maternal aunt, we gradually drifted apart from the wider range of aunts and uncles on both sides. Then my wife and I unconsciously reproduced that small unit – mother/father/daughter, this time, slightly isolated in Newcastle. These familial units and their divisions or roles and functions loom large in my sense of personal identity, and my father’s role in particular was to be responsible for a whole way of interacting with people and place so that, in a sense, I didn’t have to.

He could know everyone in and everything about Dundee over the last seventy years; he could see the world as a Merchant Navy engineer, experience childhood poverty and illness, ‘for’ me; he could be the Catholic, the businessman, the man – and I could go to university, reflect upon all this and write things down. I could even emulate his voyages as long as someone met me at the airport. I could be the weird nobody son as long as he was there to be the good father.

Without his presence, even in the diminished form of his final year, I began to see how much of whatever I am was shored up by an idea of what he was. Crucially, I began to see how much of what I am creatively was shored up by a sense of having been given his permission to write.

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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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