Cover for WOUNDING, published by Bluemoose Books on the 24th April 2014.
Cover for WOUNDING, published by Bluemoose Books on the 24th April 2014.
Just recently I had to fill in a ‘biog’ for my publishers – you know, listing major life events that may or may not be of interest to journalists, readers, etc. and it was strange, as an exercise and in the reading back of this story of self that could be interpreted, as one person pointed out, as a tale of redemption and self-improvement. And whilst I can see why someone might think that, and yes, my life has taken some interesting and unexpected turns; this made me uncomfortable. It made my scalp itch and my throat sore. Why did this idea piss me off so much? What’s wrong with ‘doing well’?
Well, it’s because I’m not a progressive ‘narrative’ leading towards a happy ending – better educated, better employed, better spoken, and all the other tropes of improvement that imply a leaving behind, a shedding of skins, an outgrowing of identities too paltry, unworthy, ugly or squalid to endure. I find this ideology of progress or teleology even, offensive to say the least. I haven’t left my previous experiences behind – I’m not ‘better’ now. Language and its dualist structures doesn’t help. I am this, I was that… names, nouns, fixed in place, ossified, judged. And so what those experiences might have been I’ll resist naming in order not to pin myself down with a classification slapped on my forehead. Fuck the biography. I am involving not evolving (as Deleuze might say) I’m a series of folds and overlaps, undoings and redoings; enfolding, enveloping identities, neither this nor that but many, few, maybe. It isn’t simply a matter of moving on, away from, leaving behind. I won’t be fixed as an example of meritocracy in action or any other call that binds me as recognisable, a subject in a happy ever after – therefore knowable, demystified, ripe for targeted marketing, expectation, and radical exposure and eventually, censure. We are all complicated, all evading simplistic taxonomies of being. Perhaps that’s the way forward – avoiding announcing my forms as nouns, but as gerunds, performative, , changing, doing, being, in flux, interlinked, exchanging… an infinite verb – so I’m still stripping, stealing, loving, learning, mothering, sleeping, shitting, fucking, singing, screaming, bleeding, breaking, laughing, breathing, breathing, breathing.
Wounding addresses this issue – it’s about secrets, and social/cultural expectations and pressures. How do we cope when we don’t ‘fit’ into the roles and ideals available to us? Do any of us fit? Of course we don’t, how can we? If our messy, hideous, fucked up, gorgeous, non-conforming selves were entirely acceptable and lovable, we might be impossible to control, it might just be impossible to sell us the commodities that will ‘improve’ us, fix us, make us happier, younger, fitter (have I just referenced Radiohead?). Call me paranoid, but a society of contented, self-accepting (and therefore, tolerant and empathic) individuals doesn’t make for profitable business or fearful, passive and malleable citizens. So I’m involving, not evolving, I’m loving, loving, loving.
It’s hard to know
The word for it, because
The repeated no, leave off, stop it
Were too quiet
If, because they’d history
She’d invited him in
The heavy body
He’d walked her home
That the word
She felt, like sand under nails
She had, no bruise, no swelling, was alright
Except for the blind thudding in her chest
And the sense
That her voice had been balled up and chucked away with the dirty sock
He’d used to quiet her tongue.
Cut, fold and make poems with me x
A little poem gift for you guys… a poem maker x
Just print, cut out and fold following the instructions (borrowed from Wikipedia) and collaborate with me in making poems, allowing the different combinations to produce many poems.
This project is, of course, about my primal relationships – those connections that have and continue to – form and shape, cut and tie, transform and stultify. In that case then, I have to write about my relationship with animal others. Specifically dogs… The animal other has been a feature of human artistic consideration since the first cave paintings, philosophers and writers have pondered our relationship with animals and whether or not animals are ‘conscious’, I am currently writing and researching on the subject and organising a conference that addresses the animal other in contemporary culture. But that isn’t what I want to think about today, I don’t want to theorise or describe the implacable hierarchies of being that cling to Kantian notions of being, or transcendence or Animal rights or the ‘face’ or even, the ‘plane of immanence’. I want to think only about my connections and affection for both the individual animals I’ve known, but wild animals too.
In ‘Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights’, Levinas writes very movingly about a dog called Bobby*, a stray who’d entered the Nazi concentration camp in which Levinas was imprisoned and who, every morning at assembly and every night when the prisoners had returned from their work, would leap up and down and bark with delight at the sight of them. Levinas tells us, that in world in which he and his fellow Jews were considered ‘subhuman, a gang of apes’, Bobby recognised him and his fellow prisoners as men. The text is of course, a sophisticated and fascinating mash-up of biblical criticism, autobiography and philosophy, but still this tender evocation of being seen, of being recognised as existing and of being worthy of greeting and reciprocal affection stands out as profound moment amidst the horror of the holocaust.
As a child my dog, Kerry, was the only being I trusted. She was a rescue dog, a golden retriever, placid and intelligent. All the humans I knew, in my rather limited experience, would hurt you eventually, sometimes profoundly. Either way, only Kerry didn’t hurt, only Kerry offered affection and loyalty without demands, only Kerry sat with me at the dinner table for hours while I tried to finish all the food on my plate (admittedly this was for scraps, but she was there, I wasn’t alone), only Kerry kept all my secrets and only Kerry tried to protect me when my stepfather was violent.
Animals have always been important for me, reminding me that there was another world beyond the human, a world in which I could be safe, at least from the intentional and perverse cruelty of my own kind.
I’ve been very lucky to know and love and live with a couple of amazing dogs, Bessie and now, Rose. Bessie was my first ‘adult’ dog. My dog. She was a Retriever/Lab X and was another loyal, patient friend. She too looked out for us and we looked out for her. It was a privilege to know and love her from puppyhood through to her dotage.
Last week, on a walk with Rose, we happened to pass a group of four or so men, I hurried past, nervous of men as always, and as isn’t an unusual event for any woman, was rewarded with ‘catcalls’, to put it politely, and one of the men had gotten up and taken step towards us, gesturing to his groin area and making obscene remarks. Rose made it clear, in the manner of her species that his attentions and insults were not welcome and would not be tolerated. I must add, no one was hurt, merely warned in no uncertain terms.
Rose and I walked on, me shaking and upset, and Rose stayed much closer than usual, not nosing off in the undergrowth as usual but instead, nosing my hand every so often, not leaving my side. As I write this, she is lying by my chair, as she always is. It is only with my dog companion that I feel safe. Something I think other PTSD sufferers can identify with.
As I write this I’m aware of a creeping sense of defensiveness, that writing about my relationship with my dogs is ridiculous, absurd, after all, Deleuze was pretty derisory about our ‘sentimental relations’ with our pets; but for me, the dogs I’ve shared my life with have provided a bond of companionship, trust and mutual care that has been the most enduring and rewarding in my life.
‘Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god’ Wrote Aristotle in his Politics (1.2) Benjamin Myers’ third novel, Pig Iron (Bluemoose Books), asks this question of his protagonist, John-John Wisdom. He delights in the teeming solitude of the woods, his ‘green cathedral’ and seeks the ultimate solitude of being nameless, unfathered without any filial connection, entirely singular in a world of others -in other words, a god.
But the violence he encounters and even engenders suggests that he is a beast, despite his gentleness and compassion. We discover however, that John-John is nothing so Manichean, as either/or, he is both and neither beast and god. He is a traveller, born ‘under a bad moon’ into a world of bare-knuckle fighting and honour, burdened with a mythic history and his father’s name. He was fashioned in the green light of the woods but the name he bears is anvil heavy, a beast’s name written in blood and sealed in dirt.
When I first met my father I was 14 years old. He was tall and strong and wore a version of my face. He had long hair pulled back in a stringy ponytail and wore a loose linen suit. He also drove a sports car and his girlfriend had been a model. She was thin with dark hair permed into a curly frazzle. Her sister was a famous page 3 girl. I thought they were the most glamorous people imaginable.
John-John Wisdom has done his time in a young offender’s institute and on release has got himself a job driving an ice-cream van. But his attempts at going straight are undermined by his lineage and he is bound to the fate bequeathed him by his father like a Nietzschean hero, subject to what seems to be an eternal recurrence of violence and rage producing the same miserable end. It seems John-John must settle his father’s accounts.
This genetic inheritance is measured in his pulse, in the tap-tap, tap-tap, beat of his heart. It sounds out his name – Wis-dom, Wis-dom. An Iamb. The meter that limps, dragging one heavy foot. It proclaims him, his being. I am. I am. I am Wisdom. The crippled foot-steps of his father drum out the rhythm of his life force. He longs to be nomadic and yet is fixed in place by that name.
I chose my own surname to free myself from the tyranny of lineage, to belong to myself and myself alone. At birth I was given my mother’s maiden name as my father wasn’t around – my birth certificate states father unknown. It was then changed a couple of times with each new ‘daddy’ that came and went and each time I felt further and further isolated from the shifting family I was supposed to be part of.
Myth stalks Myers’ text, though perhaps its better to say that our human lives form uncanny continuities with mythic narratives. John-John is an Adonis, sprung from nature, begotten unnaturally, a deity of rebirth and vegetation. Like Adonis, John-John is entrusted to a maternal figure not his mother. The novel itself seems to produce and comment on the knots and ties of literature, it reflects back the lineage and incestuous couplings that narrative and storytelling undertakes. And it’s those incestuous couplings that interest me here; in particular, father/daughter relations of which literature and myth describe in abundance – from Zeus and Persephone, Cinyras and Myrrha, Lot and his daughters to Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, DeMaupassant’s Bel-Ami, Lolita etc.
The relationship is objectionable – and in many of these narratives (Lot, Cinyras in particular), the daughters aren’t necessarily innocent victims (though one could argue against this) – but there seems to be an acknowledgement of the complex and sometimes unthinkable nature of desire. Leaving aside (for now) the obvious accusation of paedophilia and the corruption of minors, why might a father be attracted to his daughter and vice versa?
Perhaps, if the couple haven’t met till the daughter is already grown, the incest taboo – reinforced by nurturing a young baby, watching her grow, establishing the filial division/connection between them – isn’t present and the man meets with a woman he is unable to consider as a daughter. Perhaps, she looks like her mother, a woman he was once attracted to. Perhaps she is ‘just his type.’ And perhaps the daughter wants her father’s attention and love so much she interprets this as reciprocal sexual desire. Perhaps she has believed that one day her father would come and protect her and right all the wrongs in her life recasting him in the role of Prince Charming.
For whatever reason, the father desires this woman – his daughter. He tells her that she looks just like his own mother and this complicates things even further. He tells his daughter that her boyfriend looks just like him, and that delights the father, proving that she wants him but is too scared to just come out and say it. He takes his daughter and her friend out to a bar and asks them to kiss each other, so he can watch. He tells his daughter intimate details and asks her to share the same. The daughter is always wary, but despite this says nothing. She worries that this is her fault.
He never touches her, however. The relationship is not consummated and yet, the daughter grows more afraid of him and eventually shuts him out of her life. He rages about this and refuses to accept her decision, calling and texting, shouting and sending abuse until finally, he writes to her to tell her she is dead to him. That he is done with her.
She should feel relieved. Free. But like John-John Wisdom she will find dragging herself clear almost impossible. She is molecular, inextricably bound – a beast.
Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers
Published by Bluemoose Books ISBN 978 0 956687661
A box arrived in the post today. Pretty big, a couple of feet wide and a foot deep, it was taped shut, the corners perfect, no ragged edges. The address was written out in a small, curling hand. I have no real interest in graphology, but the handwriting suggested the script of someone kind and gentle. I read too much into things. Of course. I opened the box, tearing at the brown tape and released a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, furniture polish and lavender perfume; the scent of my grandparent’s home, my childhood home. They died a couple of months ago and my aunt and uncle have been clearing out the house, emptying it of all the objects and detritus that made it a home; slowly, laboriously they are reducing it to a house. They’d sent me some of my grandmother’s dresses and some costume jewelry. Her things lay there, folded and packed carefully, torn loose from their proper place. I closed the box and went to work. Still unable to confront my grief, I prefer to side step it, as if it were an obstacle that I could pass by and forget.
In A Berlin Chronicle, Walter Benjamin* writes about drawing a diagram of his life and that he knew exactly how it should be done, initially his diagram was of ‘a series of family trees’ however after losing that piece of paper, he realized when trying to reconstruct the image in his imagination that rather than resembling trees, more properly the diagram would be a labyrinth. He writes about the ‘primal relationships’ that make up this confounding tangle that produces him.
It’s this Labyrinth, the dead-ends and blind corners of memory and relation that this project is about. It makes sense then to start with the first relationship we mammals have. Though in my case (as it is for many others) that’s not straightforward, my mother was a teenager when I was born and so we lived with my grandparents and her younger brother and sisters – So I was mothered by aunts, my Nanna, Granddad, as well as my mother… But it is my grandmother – my Nanna – that I remember clearly. Her patience, her tender care. I remember being loved and cherished. Safe. A psychiatrist recently told me that it was my relationship with my grandmother that enabled me to survive my childhood and teenage years; years spent living with my mother, away from my grandparents.
Not long ago I watched a documentary about Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of us all, the woman from whom ALL modern humans descend. It imagined her making an epic journey across Africa that resulted in spread of her offspring across every continent. I don’t know if it’s believed that she did make that journey herself, or if it was a metaphor for the future proliferation of her offspring, but it was comforting to think about the connection to her, a mother I imagine to be a benevolent mother, untroubled by complex language perhaps, and therefore incapable of the cruel and excoriating criticisms and barely concealed disappointment that I inspired in my own mother. The caustic, dangerous or neglectful mother is hardly unusual, or new, despite the mythic image of the angelic and altruistic mother with whom we are said to experience infinite plenitude and a lack of all lack (I forget if it’s Freud or Lacan or both that we should thank for that observation), with poster girl the Virgin Mary and her unfailing devotion to her holy offspring (a displaced libidinal urge perhaps?) as the unassailable standard for maternal behaviour.
In European fiction, the fecund female has often been associated with monstrosity and deviance. This characterisation was established with the creation of Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey: encoded as an emblem of lust, the fecund female and her squawling, parasitic progeny evoke the seemingly uncontrollable nature of femininity, and unsurprisingly, the image functions as a locus of disgust with, and fear of, sexuality and reproduction. The Christian tradition continued the negative reading of fertility; the female body as the site of reproduction is the sign of sin, for reproduction evokes, if not reenacts, the initial fall from grace. We have the evil stepmothers in fairy tales – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and the mothers whose own needs come before their children’s – Medea, Gertrude, Addie Bundren, Mrs. Bennett, Corinne Dollanganger etc. etc. etc. And then there are the vain, over-weaning, possessive mothers that love just that little bit too much – Sophie Portnoy from Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, is the perfect example.
The most dreadful mother in literature to top all others is, for my money, Erika Kohut’s mother, the protagonist of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. For Erika K, her mother is the epitome of the law. ‘She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognised as Mother by the State and by the Family.’ (PT, 3) Erika internalises her mother’s endless cruelties and uses self-harm – cutting into her own flesh – as a release, or perhaps as an expression of rage, or just to do the job of harm for herself.
Jelinek writes ‘By not encouraging injuries, a mother avoids having to close wounds later on. Erika’s mother prefers inflicting injuries herself, then supervising the therapy’ (PT, 9). Erika’s mother is a vindictive and controlling sadist and the sadistic mother is perhaps our most primal fear, our trusted caregiver having infinite power over us – literally over whether we live or die.
Deleuze places masochism directly under the auspices of the mother, rejecting the classic depiction of the dominus as phallic or father figure. The three types of mother figure encountered in Deleuze’s maternal scene are the Oral, Uterine and Oedipal. The Oral mother is perceived as nurturing and providing nourishment (in the Imaginary scene of reading, text and reader could be said to constitute a maternal unity), the Uterine mother describes a prostituted and public sexuality that is available to all and the Oedipal mother is perceived as the didactical disciplinarian. The perfect or good mother is a balance of the three archetypes; when she is damaged, by her own experience of poor mothering, or poverty, violence or mental illness (or all of these factors), the balance is lost.
Wherever we turn it seems the mother figure gets a rough time of it, blamed for all our personal and social ills. It appears to be another stick to beat women with, another demonization (or over-simplification) and for most people their mothers are ‘good enough’ to use Winnicott’s phrase. Ordinary and loving, providing ordinary care. The mother is a person in her own right after all, doing the best she can with what she’s got. But while I shrink from adding to the tradition of maternal blame and its undercurrent of misogyny, this untangling of self, of following the shadows of memory through the labyrinth of relation, has to deal as honestly as possible with my remembering. The question I keep coming back to is this: what kind of mother was my grandmother to her own children? Was my experience of receiving tenderness and unconditional love from her very different from that experienced by her own children? How else do I understand our family’s history of abuse and cruelty?
In the end, I’m hostage to a simple phrase, from a simple, ordinary scene. A mother is alone with her daughter. The girl is around 17 or so. Perhaps they look alike; perhaps the girl is a little taller. They are watching TV.
The mother turns to her child and says –
‘You are very, very difficult to love.’
And it’s this that stays with the daughter, fixing her in place, like a beast in a tar pit, struggling for release.
** Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” Masochism trans. Jean McNeil, (New York, Zone Books, 1991), p.196
First, there is the push from the bank, feet flat against the mud, slipping, wrong-footed, legs braced, toes curling around stones, fixing in place, hands gripping the vessel, body flexed, shove and counter shove, eyes fixed on the the direction of travel, the false start, half-in, half-out, sliding back into the dark, before trying again. The rough surface confirms our presence. Another try, the pulling back to reset, regaining our grasp, this time the boat moves forward, accepted by the lake, one final heave and we are in, sitting firm in the balance.
Words determine our direction like waves. The words move us along, tied to the current, a tide of language that unsettles the horizon, the landing spot. Birds call in an unknown tongue; light deciphers what we see, and what we see we pin to the page with the sharp point of black type. The slip slap of fish, the cradle rock of the boat lulls and sickens and our hands, rough-edged and smooth-tipped make signs that ask for an answer. Mapping the journey we take, over land and sea, through synapses and memory, accompanied always by the words, fixed, breathed words precise but diaphanous; made of air and ink.
We cast messages in bottles over the side; materials merge, ink, water, flesh and air. Answers come and go. Words return like ghosts.
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