I have just returned from a weekend in London. I don’t live there anymore, because for a while I couldn’t handle the threads of connection that seemed perfectly positioned to trip me up, entangle me, and not let me go. My histories were bleeding through and, in not having any defences left to keep them at bay, I became absorbed within them. I was raw, and I felt like I had lost any hard shell that might protect me from being affected by memory. I was grieving, for a loss I had experienced 16 years prior, and I wasn’t doing very well at it. Anyway, in going back, I re-experienced these places without feeling raw – and I found that I was almost unaffected by them – memory wasn’t tugging at the edges to try and come through – and it got me thinking more about the ways in which we process grieving, by attributing our feelings of loss to particular places.
Linguistically we refer to grief almost entirely spatially. It’s not a feeling of loss within ourselves, but rather a feeling of loss in the perceptible outside world. When someone we love dies, we lose them, they have ‘gone to a better place’, ‘passed on’. This is fascinating to me – the creation of an unforseen place where those we have lost have gone to and can only be reached by getting lost ourselves. An ‘outside’. Even ‘lost’ has a spatial connotation – to have journeyed somewhere and strayed from the well known path, unable to be found again. I wonder if this is because our environment is so key to understanding our relationship with others. We begin our interaction with discussing the weather, or the state of the roads. I am reminded of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, where Mrs Dashwood’s advice to Margaret is ‘if you can’t think of anything appropriate to say you will please restrict your remarks to the weather.’ Relationships are defined spatially, too, our nearness and closeness to others needn’t be geographical, but that is still how we define them. When someone close to us is lost, that closeness feels somehow false – there is no way to connect spatially at all, they are outside of it. This is true, too, of people we didn’t know well either, for the potentiality for connection is lost as much as they are.
John Clare’s poetry is saturated with this kind of palpable loss, a grief for something missing in the landscape, and the grief of not being able to connect with others through it too. Paul Farley, in his introduction to Clare’s poetry wrote that ‘landscape and place are so important to an understanding of Clare, because [he] ended up so ‘out of it’ – he somehow exited known places, and was lost. His first terrains, sliced up and changed irrevocably by the 1809 Enclosure Act, produced in him a grieving that goes further than the nostalgic ache for childhood lands. Further to this, when he contracted Tuberculosis and needed to be admitted to a sanitorium and leave his home for a town only a few miles away – this displacement produced a further loss. He was like a fish out of water, a bird in the wrong climes. Environment, it seems had so much to do with how Clare related to others, and to himself. The later poems are full of it, that desolation of one displaced.
Thomas Hardy, too, filters his Wessex landscapes through trauma and loss. I find this most arresting in his poem ‘The Shadow on the Stone’ written after his wife Emma died. In the garden, in which Hardy is in repose, stands a druid stone upon which ‘the shade of a well-known head and shoulders/ threw there when she was gardening.’ Almost in response to his reminiscing, the garden itself produces her shadow for him offering the sense that she is standing ‘at his back’ and, upon attempting to speak with her, hears nothing ‘but the fall of a leaf’ and, ‘to keep down grief’ he leaves, without turning to see if she is truly there. This, to me, is the closest to explaining the presence of absence. The surety, that somehow by their not being there, they appear through hole – some strange spectrogenic hologram of moments gone flickering through – a final apparition.
I have felt this; not wanting to turn to find that the space which feels occupied, is empty. Or, sometimes, I wonder if I didn’t want to turn and look just in case it was full.
Which would would be worse?
In not looking, they are both there and not there. A Schrodinger’s cat of remembrance. Were they to appear you would be mad, were they to not you would simply be lost again, and they would simply be lost again, and the wound would be fresher somehow, as though you had picked at the scab.
I was born in Tottenham, to the right side of the High Road when looking on a map, and entered Bruce Castle Park through an avenue of trees when I went to play there with my family. I remember it, now, when I think of it, in High Summer, or early autumn. Dappled shade spread out over the grass, and the path that cuts through it. Running along, with my arms open to catch the wind as though I might able to fly, and my family smiling. I am smiling. In my memory of those places, we are always smiling. Even if we weren’t.
Some twenty years later I returned, having moved to the left hand side of the High Road in the conservation area. I have never felt more alone than I did when I made that move, I was desperately lonely – though I felt surrounded by my friends. I had been writing about loss and landscape for some time then, and completely and utterly started understanding grief and loss through place, I think I always had done, but I had been through a process of opening up old wounds and so the barrier between my loneliness in the present, and the blissful feeling of running open armed into feeling loved was worn thin. Time was resolutely ‘out of joint’, and I felt that in returning to where I had begun my life, I was weirdly trying to begin it again. I was an odd kind of ghost there myself – a revenant, trying to begin, again, by coming back.
I was fine, I surmised, so long as I didn’t cross the high road at any time. If I went into Bruce Castle Park, which I did and thought I didn’t remember it so well, I went in from the left through the playground and I didn’t venture to the other side. I left memory to fester.
One morning, around 5am, after coming home half drunk and feeling sad I took myself off for a walk. I walked to the High Road and, feeling too cowardly to cross it walked up past the church we had gone to every Sunday as a child. It was high summer, and the sun was peeping over the football stadium, casting it in liquid gold and slowly breaching the roofs of the houses. The traffic was light, the air felt like it shined, and yet I felt like I had been unclipped from some kind of safety harness. I couldn’t get a line from Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ out of my head: ‘there’s a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline, and sometimes when I’m falling, flying, or tumbling in Turmoil I say “woah. So this is what she means.”’ It’s how I felt, untethered in the early morning air, listless and listing, taking on water, at threat of going under.
I turned left to walk home and surprised myself. Here, I was walking a familiar path. The tops of the houses burnished, and the top windows winking reflected sunbeams down to me. I felt four years old – the street stretched wide away from me, little victorian terraces seeming huge either side. I felt like my dad were walking ahead of me, as though he’d just turned the corner up ahead and if I walked quicker I might catch him.
I walked on, and in breaching the East entrance of the park it hit me like a wave of recollection that these trees, this avenue through which I was walking was one I dreamed of and knew well. High reaching oaks, or Plane trees – I don’t remember which now – open handed leaves impeaching crystal skies pale with morning, and creating a similar effect in me, pale with mourning. Behind me, I could have sworn I heard a step. In between the row of trees, just out of my sight I felt as though my dad, with whom I must have walked this little path countless times, were standing there just out of sight. The day was so still, and I felt as though the traffic of the High Road, and Lordship Lane were on mute. I could hear birdsong and the frantic beating of my own heart. I could, if I wanted to, walk around the tree. But I didn’t. I felt like Orpheus, as I’m sure Hardy did. Charged with not looking incase I should dispel this shade away by turning. I felt like I had been displaced, and returned – but in returning I had come home to an empty house, and I couldn’t turn my keys in the lock. I was alone, and yet I didn’t feel like I was, and that made me feel more lonely. Part of me thinks I went mad that summer. Part of me knows I did.
Joan Didion described grief as ‘a place none of us know until we reach it.’ A physical place which we inhabit, and yet I don’t know if grief itself exists as a kind of spacetime in concurrence with true time. Constantly hovering over our environments in a kind of miasma, waiting for us to know it. Which, in time, all of us will. I wonder if this is embodied in the landscape itself, already a cyclical production of birth, growth, life, death endlessly turning in a myriad of different cycle-lengths. Grief itself is similar to this. A cyclical returning to locations of, or thoughts of, grief and loss – and the potentiality for a rebirth through it. At least, I hope this is the case. For Jonathan Bate, though, ‘the price of this intoxication with spirit things is a definite break from the human community.’ The more we delve into the holes created by grief, and pull up ghosts from its depths onto the surface layer of the landscape, the more divorced we may become from the surface’s human inhabitants, the more divorced we feel from our actual lives.
Or, perhaps, the ghosts themselves are a definite break from the action of being human. They are suspended. Always young, always as before, unchanging and unchanged. I am reminded, again, of Paul Simon – I listened to ‘Graceland’ on repeat that summer, ‘my travelling companions are ghosts, and empty sockets.’ They were, there. The ghosts of my life, of myself, appearing through empty sockets in the surface.
or something like that.