Near Window 9

Caribou, confinement, and the coming of spring

“It is spring, that is to say that it is approaching THE BEGINNING”

Scrolling through Twitter at some god awful hour this morning I saw a green and yellow painting of daffodils. Mottled grey blue of sky and brown thatch of distant trees reminiscent of the arrival of spring in William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All :

Under the surge of the blue

Mottled clouds driven from the

Northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the

Waste of broad, muddy fields

Brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

David Hockney, confined in Normandy, has painted the archetypal spring view, reminiscent to me of Lent fasting, of school holidays, of spring fairs. Of the becoming and the returning of the spring; new and old at the same time. He’s called the painting Do remember they can’t cancel the spring. The painting is joyful, yet there’s a restraint in Hockney’s iPad stylings that isn’t usually there, a pared back response to the view he’s been presented with. Hockey in confinement paints in starker, more drab colours. There is no true joy in the coming of this uncancelled spring. The joy of yellow cannot combat the sadness of brown.

I went out today, into the quiet of a Parisian morning, cold edged air like the cracking of an eggshell. The streets are deserted as they never have been, everyone inside and fearful, but the morning is as glorious as any one I’ve seen. The sun barely up, the sky itself pale with its own becoming. I had that familiar loosening feeling, of the ending of the long winter, and the upward spiral into spring; and then I remembered I had one hour within which to move around, to buy bread and loo roll and milk and then turn on my heels for home. I was unreeling from my insides, but tethered to the safety of home. Out on furlough for eggs and bread.

A few weeks ago, pre confinement, Matt @xenogothic tweeted something about Caribou’s new album Suddenly, that resonated with how I felt about it: full of spring bops, but tethered to an innate sense of melancholia that seeps through the alum with every subsequent listen.

The album stakes its emotional territory lyrically, and through the clever use of windy samples in “lime”, or Sunday morning soul in “home” to place you in a memory, whilst making the moment of that memory happen in the present. In a google hangout yesterday my friend was talking of the semantics of nostalgia making the memory always already present, so its tatters to the past become meaningless almost in the act of remembering. Another friend with whom I’ve been writing letters has written some questions to me about this to, like :

How do you know what was real? How do you protect memories from new feelings that will ultimately twist it? How do you travel in time throug memory without altering the memory?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I don’t think it’s us who travels in time, but the memory. We’re always on the surface, weathered by the ghostly returning of past/future moments: spectral weathers (if you’ll let me name check my own book?)

Suddenly is suffused with memory, with a retrospective glance inward, and feels, when listening to it, like an album made inside someone who’s been listening in on pop music and has made an album that orbits it: not part of it, but born of it. Apologetic soliloquies to sisters, mothers humming lullabies, the four to the floor of the club still reverberating in your bones as you lie in bed waiting for the room to stop spinning, an elegy to emotion, and rawness. Dan Snaith (the man behind caribou), when he sings, seems to me like he’s whisper singing in the confessional, or right into my ear. The fragility of his voice caught in close miced glory, and more often than not without reverb or delay. Dry, soft, and conversational, like whispering in the night to keep anxiety at bay.

I especially get this feeling in “Sister”, the albums opener, where Snaith whisper sings:

Sister, I promise you, I’m changing

You’ve heard broken promises, I know

Like a conversation had late at night, in response to a sister saying they’re worried about you. The rolling progressional chords and steady heartbeat like rhythm seeming a metaphor for revolution, and not the kind of revolution that overthrows governments or changes the world, but the kind that turns the world again, continues the revolution of a cycle. It feels like a mirror held up to life in confinement; the beating of my heart, the tick of the clock, and the cyclical shift of the sun as it revolves in the room. 

“You & I” has a sense of the opening approach of spring, the synth chords warm and bouncy like the first day you can go out without a coat on. The arpeggiated chimes that punctuate the verses and chorus sounding like sunlight through freshly grown leaves, calm and calming, yet its chorus and outgrown derail this feeling of warmth and comfort by pushing us into a feeling of high tempo anxiety, discordant rush, snatches of voice. The end feels like the upcycling of a Bond climax, all running and car chases and guns and thrill. A final sampled “Hey!” Echoing into the void before opening into the inherent melancholia of the opening of “Sunny’s Time”. The piano warped like an old record rattling on a gramaphone that you’ve left too long in the garage. The speakers are damp, and it sounds as though the sound has to travel through time to reach the present moment; from the becoming of its recording, to the moment of its hearing. 

Spring whilst seeming like the happiest of new awakenings, freshness, beginning again, it also seems to be suggested with the melancholy of endings. There’s an old English folk song I heard sung once in my local pub by a man with no teeth that caught, for me, that sense of euphoric release; albeit one that knows it cannot last. 

The primrose blooms, the cowslips too,

The violets in their sweet retire,

the roses shining through the briar,

And the daffodown-dillies which we admire will die and fade away.

These lines, in acknowledgement of the temporary nature of the coming of spring are reminiscent of the scant lines sung by Snaith in “Sunny’s Time”

It all found me since I’ve been gone.

I’ll be back when this is all done.

“Sunny’s Time” slides itself into “home” with a relative danceability. It feels like coming throug the door with a baguette, and an avocado and a box of eggs, the coffee on to brew, windows flung wide to let in the new spring breezes; but with the bitter sweetness of wishing there were someone there to spend that morning with you, and a particular someone at that. Like the first lonely Sunday morning after a breakup, when you’ve gotten past the getting drunk phase and your friends have deemed that you could do to be left alone a bit, you wake up with not much to do, and a wish to do not much with someone that isn’t satisfied by eggs on toast. It’s the beauty of a good morning undercut with a lonely melancholia; like putting on happy music that only makes you cry. This is further compounded by the sample of Gloria Barnes singing “Baby I’m home, I’m home, I’m home”. The final time you hear this sample, it’s cut short with a gothic cut off, sending an echo like a door slam into the following guitar chords, pitch shifting like a memory. It’s like someone’s last words, like they’re ready to tap out: baby I’m home. 

Perhaps this melancholia is part and parcel of spring, a cruel season, in that it rips us raw: raw winds, on new skin. This is how the wasteland starts, 

Breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

Like parents whipping us up and pulling back duvets to get ready for school, the world outside the cocoon of duvet is still too brutal, too cold, and too concrete. Winter, though brutal, is the season for dormant dreaming. I spend the three months of hibernation waiting for the spring, though – dreaming of bluebells. Is it as Emily Brontë says: that “there’s a spell in the purple heath” that burrows down inside us, “to wildly; sadly dear” that yearns for its partner found in springtime? Brontë mourns the coming of spring when she is without it. The “cold sun” with its “chill” beams, the “dreary sky” is “frozen”. The long winters make me feel this way, too. Chilled to my bones, warming myself at the first few rays of sun, almost kissing the daffodils and bluebells when they first show their bright faces above the mud. It’s driving me mad to be so separate from it. Yet even Brontë notes the “transient brilliancy” of spring, and of spring sunshine sliding swiftly over the garden wall. Spring is beautiful in its ephemerality. The Hauntology always revenant whose joy in arrival is tempered and haunted by the knowledge of its passing. 

In “Never come back” the lines “and you never come back, and you never come back to” are repeated ad infinitum, it’s the feeling of losing the spring once it’s come, like being at the afters , intertwined on a sofa in someone elses’s house whose name you don’t know. Early morning sunshine beaming behind closed curtains, a sliver of dust filled gold breaking onto a table littered with beer cans and ashtrays.

In Williams’ spring and all, “dazed spring approaches” almost unaware of itself, with “the stark dignity of entrance”, dually reminiscent of Hilary Duff standing at the top of the stairs in A Cinderella Story, and of the procession of the cross at the beginning of mass, leading the priest from sacristy to altar.

“Magpie” from Caribou’s Suddenly is reminiscent of this duality, and of that tethered freewheeling sense I had walking to the boulangerie this morning; a loosening of the self, whilst still being tethered to home. The song wheels in circles, shining aurally like sticking an ear in a kaleidoscope. In a way it reminds me of the beginning of “Entangled”, the second track of Gensis’ A trick of the tail. At about the half way point, though, Snaith opens out the filter on the track, which takes it from 1975 to the present moment, and it releases you from the constraints of its first half. With the shift in tone, you’re released out into the depths of sound like into an ocean, or a huge crowd. The song de-isolates you, by disconnecting you from the self and connecting you with something outside of yourself, something that sleeps back to you, and almost cradles you.

The mood of Suddenly is almost entirely sweet, the chord progressions are so warm that, listening in my bed under a square of sunlight, I slip in between the grooves of the songs and hang there. Strung out on synths. Snaith’s control, and measured pacing, and restraint almost feels like he’s in confinement too. Like there’s something holding him back from unspooling himself into the tracks. That’s the feeling I had with some of the tracks on Our Love and Swim. In reality I feel like he’s in a space as small as mine, with the front door locked and the windows open only a crack.

The final track, “Cloud Song” is the only song that really embodies a release, a slack in snaith’s tight control. It opens with the close miced voice that seems to characterize the album, just him singing in my ears as the synths return to that cyclical pattern as found in “Sister”, the album turning and returning to the beginning as the chord progressions do. “When you’re alone with memories”, he sings, “I’ll give you a place to rest your head.” The place to rest your head is here. Not to be away from memory, but to converge in a collective practice of remembering. Dan Snaith’s personal traumas are writ large upon this album, but sung softly and quietly. His traumas become our traumas, and the act of opening them out allows us to share in them, and share ours within them.

The cyclic return of the chord progression is as smooth and azure as the water on Suddenly’s cover. Kaleidoscopic and rushing into the build of “Cloud Song”, the music slides in between me and the world: trills of synth like birds calling, or radio signals clogging the airwaves. Dissonant in repetition. Sliding.

He sings:

“Nothing’s granted an eternity, nothing lasts it all will fade.

And yet it always ends too early.”

The spring outside the window rises like a Gershwin clarinet solo in response, so clean and clear I feel I almost pour out into it. What of the spring un-sprung, of the world unturned? Rather, what of the world turning without me, and me unable to break the winter chrysalis. Spring playing out there, and orchestra without audience – an unheard soliloquy – a film with the sound turned down.

The first spring of a new decade, unexperienced and lost. A necessary loss, one we must do, but a loss all the same.

In a way Caribou’s Suddenly is 2020s perfect spring/summer album. Seeking an escape, but confined. A spring sounding elegy to lost moments, lost memories, lost things. “I wish that you were here by my side”. “Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” I listen to it and I hear all the moments I won’t have, and I hear all the moments I am having, and all the moments I have had and will have, all existing in the cacophony of now.

In my apartment the spring turns his shoulder and shifts his weight away from the window, sliding himself into another crisp March night. The north wind blows chill through the window, and I close them. I put on “Sister” and begin the cycle again.

And yet, it always ends to early

LossScapes

 

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.