Phorgotography, 2

iv mitherboard
Mitherboard imagery: street I grew up in till I was 6 (Peddie), but no the richt bit o it – we bided further up on the right. Street roond the corner whaur thon shop is (Corso) is whaur meh granny lived, and whaur I went for my denner every school day till I was 12. Hillman in foreground no the richt Hillman (we had a Minx no an Imp but never reflected on these tricksterish titles). NB reflection o gull captured for aye i the rear windae.

v the xenochronicity (again)


(I had just about finished an entry on Facebook in response to this image of myself, Helen Kidd et al in front of The Unicorn in Dundee harbour, when a casual flick designed to take me to the top of the entry lost the whole thing. I’m therefore obliged to attempt a re-creation here while the memory is still almost fresh. The irony of attempting this with a discussion of what we do with our memories will become increasingly apparent…)

Such is The Xenochronicity that this image appeared only a day or two after I had been writing about Helen anyway, thinking about the point a few months earlier when I had dug out a Laurie Anderson track, ‘Walking and Falling’, as a way of reflecting on my stumbling running practice (due to misaligned lower back, post-broken toe-ness, and the same general slowness in the morning that set me off writing this in the first place). I was therefore propelled into thinking back to our long evenings as a poetry gang in her house in Kidlington, eating drinking smoking listening and talking, endlessly talking, and how much she had loved this song’s weird lucidity, as well as how that had related to our shared engagement with the weirdness of lucidity (by which I do not just mean general 1980s gourdlessness).

That had been followed by the anniversary of the release of ‘O Superman’, and a strange episode of Newsnight in which Kirsty Wark had attempted to interview Laurie Anderson, but LA couldn’t initially switch off some software which meant a silvery avatar (or the figurehead of an otherwise invisible ship) appeared to be delivering her side of the conversation. This came over as a sort of completion of the Zoom meme ‘I am not a cat…’, by adding ‘…I am a free performance artist’. How we (would have) laughed.

This caused me to stumble onto one of the key elements of grief: that realisation that you once completed with the lost other a circuit of shared thoughts, engagements, and understandings that did not just describe your relationship but, augmented by all the others and the particularities of that time and place (pre-Internet, mid-Thatcher, postgraduate, shared-house Oxford) amounted to your milieu.

I understood that, previously, in her absence and in the absences of those others, I had assumed, sentimentally, that this connection continued, albeit at a distance, and I relied on the supposition that her role in this remained largely unchanged over decades. I seem to spend a lot of the time I’m thinking of others just picturing them going about what I remember of their business, my mind fixating on the configuration of their rooms, the routes to and from their streets, the remaining sense of their skies and open spaces. In other words the simple fact of her continuing existence reassured me because it enabled me to keep her in (a specific) place: the leafy not-so Oxbridge outskirts of Kidlington.

This compensated for not being in contact nearly as much as I should have, so it came as an actual comfort when, at her funeral, Helen’s daughter, Frances, told me how fondly she had always spoken of us all. I could imagine, however guiltily, that the circuitry had indeed been unbroken.

Since her death, as the resurrection of this Effbook image revealed, I had been redirecting this relationship with Helen to that aspect of her which persisted in my memory rather than to my equally-partial projection of her in the mere world. This underscored how these imperfect avatars of those we lose continue to have a form of existence in our unconscious, as encountered in such moments, and in those dreams which ingeniously explain away their actual deaths…

(Here followed a final sentence I can no longer recall, which therefore takes on an air of greater insight and finality than it probably possessed. But of course it is my involuntary application of that sense of greater veracity to the whole lost draft which turns this recreated text into a type of the very substitution that the final paragraph attempts to describe. Each attempt to write about grief pushes the person being grieved a further stage into the Great Interior where forgetting keeps approaching our concept of death as a seemingly absolute loss of data.)

vi a little elegiac distich

While the heart may not pause, we must fit more and more

     into the groaning space between its beats.

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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