Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


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Via Artis

This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. For instance, he could no longer recall the wonderful Sistine Madonna he had seen in Dresden, try as he might, because Müller’s engraving after it had become superimposed in his mind

– W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

 

I must have walked this route a hundred times, have contemplated these walls, these fields so often that what I see is perhaps more memory than perception. Something was different this morning. Perhaps the storm of last night had blown the dregs of winter from the air, sharpening the spring light, recasting the terrain. Or perhaps something had shifted in me. Maybe I was more willing than usual to look without remembering, or without wishing the world into view. Approach each session without memory or desire was the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s advice to those who sought to learn his trade. This morning I looked through the familiar and the same things became something else, a brief outline of a story that began to be told thousands of years ago. Four stations along the via artis.

 

  1. Petrograph

 

2. Chiaroscuro

 

3. Impressionism

 

4. Abstract Expressionism

 

5. Epilogue: The challenge we face


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Waltz

 

D   E   A   D   W   O   O   D

                       O

                       O

                       D

              S   I   L   V   E   R   F   I   S   H

                       O

                       U

                       S

                       E


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The Colour of What Matters

The loss of a loved one alongside whom we have grown in physical rather than solely emotional space, someone like a father, is not the same as the loss of someone we have felt deeply about from a distance, like a writer or musician. The reason for this is what interests me.

When an admired songwriter or storyteller dies, all we ever had of them – their work – continues to be present in its entirety. It is true that something remains of a lost father too, since he has disappeared only from the physical realm, and I may go on hearing his voice, and replying in kind, long after he’s gone. But this conversing with the dead does not compensate the physical loss. I may conjure up my father in words, argue with him still, come to love him more than before, but something of my embodied experience of him is forever beyond reach: the smell of watch oil on his craftsman’s fingers; the skin on the back of his hands, as thin to the touch as tissue paper; the trace of his hard and brittle backbone in that final embrace. The words and songs of Leonard Cohen have long meant much to me, but the death of a ladies’ man last year did not deprive me of things such as these.

I thought of all this the other day while reading a book by John Berger. Since his recent death, I realised, he has become more, not less, present in my life, his work now occupying a little bookshelf of its own. I have gained, not lost. One of the things I have gained is a renewed curiosity in familiar things. This morning, while walking a stony trail through the scrubland to the west of town, I spotted my first wild poppy of the year. I crouched down to take a closer look and thought of what Berger says about poppies in the first few lines of his story, Once In Europa. How the hard shell of the poppy’s calyx is split open by nothing more than “a screwed-up ball of membrane-thin folded petals like rags”. Petals whose colour changes, in their unfolding, “from neonate pink to the most brazen scarlet”, the colour of my first poppy. “It is”, writes Berger, “as if the force that split the calyx were the need of this red to become visible and to be seen”. It is, I thought, crouching still, as if this red were the colour of what matters, of all that’s worth remembering. Tissue-paper petals, so delicate, such force.

 


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After The Storm

Arànsa, a hamlet high in the Catalan Pyrenees. On the covered wooden terrace of the hostel an old man sits staring out onto the little village square, his two hands, right over left, pressing down on the stubby head of a walking cane held straight between his knees. I step past him onto the street and there, in contemplation of the mountains, hear a voice speak to me from behind.

At the edge of the village, look for a wooden sign nailed to a tree with roots for branches.

 

Dare to follow the empty road

 

 

into the monochrome Zone

 

 

and you will find signs of life

sheltering among the stones,

 

 

flowing free towards the valley floor.

 

 

Press on, and through a crown of thorns

you will see streaks of blue

begin to lift the pallor from the sky.

 

 

Back at the hostel, the old man is nowhere to be seen, and my description of him draws no recognition from any of the locals.


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242

Her neck is scraggy,

and she needs help standing,

but how majestic she looks

with that fine head of broccoli hair.

A mother of pines,

wearing her age so well.

 

 

[The Pi d’en Xandri is a stone pine (Pinus pinea) that stands near the head of a path leading from Sant Cugat (Catalonia) into the hills of the Parc de Collserola, on the other side of which lies the city of Barcelona. Dendrological analysis suggests that the tree germinated in 1774.]