The following text was published as a postface to All Particles and Waves, David Spittle’s first full-length poetry collection (Black Herald Press, 2020).
Between the ages of six and eight I lived in America and when at school (yellow school bus included) I wandered the concrete schoolyard at ‘recess’. Joined by an equally enthusiastic child, whose name I can’t remember, we would imagine ourselves to be detectives. Our clues were whatever had been left behind, non-specific ‘trash’ littering corners: the crumpled, thrown-away or lodged-in-branches, the discarded and wedged-in-fences. All clues to more clues. Whether it was a sheet of torn paper, a flag of ripped polythene, or the metallic light of a wrapper, we would consider the occult geometry of that ‘find’ as a coordinate. Then, with seriousness, we would confer on which way or direction the newly found coordinate implied. We imposed on each of these finds the significance that would lead us to the next; from the compass of an ice cream cone to the miniature coastlines of gum, fossilized in the chewed-up and spat-out constellations beneath our feet. Where it was that each clue might be leading us, or for what purpose, was unclear but the whole process was undertaken with a near-conspiratorial belief in its own importance. The dedication of playing without a game, the reason for continuing only in the movement of our search for that reason. So, apart from the constraint of the school bell to mark the start and end of recess, we lost ourselves in a coded dialogue between ice cream cone and pockmarked concrete.
[I]n this unnatural, dreamy state the objects you have been contemplating take on a life of their own, in and for themselves. It seems to you that you are eavesdropping and can understand their private language. John Ashbery
It was much later, watching the films of Guy Maddin in my twenties and while researching the poetry of John Ashbery, that this dialogue picked up once again. I ordered the DVD of Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2008), a self-mythologizing/city-confabulating archaeology of dream and drift. I remember watching My Winnipeg on a visit home between university terms, appropriately retreating to my childhood bedroom in a nest of covers, the film glowing in a lazy midday dark of drawn curtains. A lovingly damaged artefact, snow across the screen, the covering and uncovering of dream and memory jogging sleep in a train carriage. Mythologies of childhood, family and place, each a ghost of time’s gossip in playful séance; absurd and melancholy histories found and unfounded in departure and homecoming. A film directed in the mumbled contours of a sleepwalker’s map. The creative blurring of what is dreamt and what was, or is, or might be, a somewhere that is encountered – to quote the poet Robert Duncan – ‘as if it were a scene made up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place’. It felt like watching a film through the experiences of watching a film: through memory, through sleep, heard through the wall, seen through this way of seeing and through the interruption of that sound, the disruption of another transmission reached through confusion and recorded over, rain on the window, the itch of aerials, between late-night TV static, of amnesia and nostalgia, one in the other, necessarily misunderstood: a slacker’s phenomenology.
It was through Guy Maddin that I then found the writing of Bruno Schulz. My copy of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles became a kind of talismanic companion (as well as Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, both originally published in Polish in 1934 and 1937, and later translated into English by Celina Wieniewska). Each reading seemed to invite me further into buried corners of hushed atmosphere, as if recalling a quiet miracle. In reading any one of the stories that number, like dimly lit windows, the strange house of his creation, I feel a kind of trembling possibility – not only in the linked worlds of Street and Sanatorium but in my own world, renewed after reading. Textures of the intangible are ushered into shy midnight communion, huddled in an attic, under a table, or behind an old wardrobe. An overlooked kingdom where the frail king (the always dying father) is on the ever-brink of leaving; the control or logic of paternity forever suspended, present only as the imminence of its departure. Schulz’s ornate prose suggests a pre-emptive haunting at unseen thresholds, somewhere or time in which shades of night will be, and have been, held in the hand. The reader feels each tale as if straightening the creases in time and mood, each sentence becomes a ritual of folding and care around the precious or exhumed. Entering this unique space, philosophical while humble and reserved while opulent, reading dreams itself in a kind of consecrated whim. An atmosphere and attention changes through encountering this writing, the scuffed furniture of living rearticulates itself:
The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself.
‘Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies’, Bruno Schulz
This brought me back into conversation with the curled litter on the pavement, or, to use Schulz’s phrase, the ‘astral dough’ of stepped-on chewing gum (granted, for him, that phrase was in reference to ‘the borderline between body and soul’, but somehow the resonance holds). I discovered comparable vibrations of this terrain in the arrangements of the American artist, Joseph Cornell, and evoked in the meditative and healing perambulations of Ashbery’s Three Poems (1972). When reading Schulz and Ashbery or when looking into the symbolism of Cornell’s cross-indexed shadow boxes, constellating the objects of memories and sensations, this was primarily how I came to write ‘Dust Choirs’, all the while busily dreaming through the lens of Maddin.
Sometimes I feel caught between the insight that, of course, it all connects – that smile on that face like my smile on my face, as I’m thinking as they are thinking, together thinking, and the tree beside that house, how it is the leaves move and how this sadness and that cloud or the memory or the cloud of the memory spreads in overlay of now looking forward – and other times, each moment snaps off like a brittle twig or uselessly rises into view like the vestigial nub of some decision that was never truly made, the connection lost, another digression in a gallery of reversals that at once constitute living and appear to be nothing more than a distraction from its direction…or that the ‘direction’ is only ever in distraction, or as distraction and, like an inverse-epiphany where everything that had previously held meaning drops away to reveal itself as the flat-pack construction of a film set: a low-budget exploitation film caught in a scene in which you find yourself, over-dressed and under-prepared in a badly-painted ‘cowboy town’ – it blows over to reveal a sweating panic of wardrobe assistants and huddled technicians, nervously downing coffee in the desert.
I bought my brother the Blu-ray of a film called Samsara (2013), mainly because it was photographed on PANAVISION SUPER 70 (*gasp*) and looked like it would be visually impressive. It was directed by Ron Fricke, the cinematographer on the first and most famous of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982). This film, a follow-up to Fricke’s Baraka (1992), was made over a five-year period in 25 countries and, like the much earlier Koyaanisqatsi, aspired to spirituality in a mode of globally panoramic spectacle fond of time-lapse and slow motion. Samsara ambitiously investigates Earth and Civilization via the original concepts of its title – a Sanskrit word that means ‘wandering’ and ‘world’, connoting the cyclical birth/death/rebirth and wheeling sufferings of existence. Despite having bought the film on the shallow grounds of hoping it would, more or less, ‘look good’ I ended up feeling troubled by that and strangely nauseated by the viewing experience.
I am writing this in 2019, the Blu-ray is beside me and I was planning to re-watch it tonight before writing this but realised that – for this book and specifically the poem ‘Anti-Samsara’ – I need to write about how the film felt then. It felt like watching an over-funded, National Geographic screensaver; a planetary fantasia designed to advertise the capabilities of new screens. Whilst the stern reverence of Philip Glass’ score and the camera theatrics in the 1982 Koyaanisqatsi may have felt revelatory and experimental at the time, the general aesthetic of that experimentation is now ubiquitous as mainstream advertising or default in plush re-configurations of stock footage. Lushly hollowed hi-res images of non-specific tropical islands, canyons, glittering cityscapes and the time-lapse fireflies of traffic, intercut tastefully with ‘authentic’ still portraits of weathered faces staring out at the viewer to suggest the eyes as deep wells of common humanity…All of this might now be seen in an advert for banking or in a cloying video shared on social media.
Perhaps I felt the film portrayed a queasy presumption: that the best way to express ancient or spiritual (or both) concepts is in the peacocking of digital achievements; that the meaningful is best expressed in tandem with, or through, accelerations of a primarily western, capitalist incentive to update technology, and that this disjunction between a Buddhist principle and a technological drive seems to catch the film in a more hellish wheel than the one it was allegedly exploring. Or perhaps, those wheels were the same…endless and in need of transcendence: the film embodying what it was trying to overcome so as to wrap a plea around the opened Pandora’s box of technology and capitalism. Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy is clearly deeply invested in the pain that results in this inextricable spiralling of the human into, and even as, technology and the digital (later explored in more explicit detail in his 2013 documentary, Visitors). However, not knowing this, or even the context of the Qatsi trilogy, when I viewed Samsara, I was left with an insidious distrust and a kind of revulsion. It was as though I had witnessed a wordless and sweeping warning about a side to humanity that seemed to also be, hypocritically, integral to the film’s production.
The gesture towards a spiritual cycle, even one of suffering, also felt too close to structuring experience and I wanted to think instead about how all of the non-sequiturs of life arise, shuffle awkwardly, and disappear. The poem, ‘Anti-Samsara’, came out of trying to elaborate the betrayed feeling that life’s grandeur and the grandeur of failing to understand life’s grandeur had just been advertised to me in a film that seemed built upon what it warned against. I wanted to see badly shot footage of people failing in unremarkable ways, walking into rooms and forgetting why it was they came into that room, stubbing toes, absent-mindedly staring, or simply having things happen again and again and again without explanation or resolution; in a way, I did want to see a version of Samsara.
I realise now that my resistance to the film was also the result of a genuine desire for the transcendence it sought to promote, and that in promoting it had destroyed. It was a desire for what felt missing in how I was thinking, or what I thought thinking was or should be, and then, to be without thought, a questioning of what was left. How to experience that experience? Out of the analytical neurosis of cognition and towards sensation beyond the sensation of cognition. Felt / Thought. How to experience or express, one in the other, the movement of every moment as it exists, in and as movement? To be that movement or to transcend that movement? Between language and perception as they move throughand as and by each other, of each other, parting to re-combine and continuing as a phenomenology of poetics, or in the poetics of phenomenology. When and how do these movements move in on themselves as waves rolling over one another; the particles of each motion and the motion of each particle. I want to watch the film again.
© David Spittle, 2019