Writing Oneself Home
Writing Oneself Home
This paper is a response to the topics we were invited to explore in the roundtable discussion on the final day of the RHOME conference 2023: we talked about ‘writing oneself home’ and also the importance of breaking silences, hearing the unheard voices…
The theme is so rich and vast and complex that I hardly know where or how to begin. Well, maybe I could tell you about the day when my husband and I were in the city of Oxford, visiting a famous museum of anthropology called the Pitt-Rivers Museum. The museum is stuffed full of cultural treasures from other countries and times – from cooking pots to sealskin waterproofs, from dolls to feather headdresses and hunting spears. Of course, there’s a strong sense of the colonial appropriation and predation that lie behind the displays, and this invites us to think about the kinds of journeys the objects and artefacts have made.
And then in the evening of the same day my husband and I attended a performance of tango music and dance in our little local theatre – tango, that fiery passionate dance of couples, full of intrigue and risk. During the night that followed, these two experiences came together in my mind with the roundtable themes. Let me try and illustrate those connections with some of my own poems.
First, the tango – this is just a short extract from a book-length poem I wrote (Periplous: the Twelve Voyages of Pythieas, Shearsman Books 2016) about ocean-going exploration and migration. In the following few lines, I was thinking about the way tango evolved in southern America as an amalgam of African, native south American and European dance forms. To begin with, it was the dance of the port areas, where men would dance together:
we docked for a while
in the tall shadows of a sprawling port city
to dance in the arms
of other men.
We found our feet on the uneven floors
of tenements and bars in a trance
of intimacy, guitar and barrel organ
on the dark side of town
waiting for work, for women,
for the wind to turn.
The tango performance we watched started me wondering about what is portable. Not the piano or double bass, which need at least a large corner of a room to themselves and cannot travel easily. But the fiddle and the bandoneon: they can be slung over your shoulder, they can make an itinerant musician of you. As an emigrant and an immigrant, you take or bring with you what you can, whether it has been long in the planning or through sudden exile.
And then I recalled that I had made some purchases in the shop at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – my eye had been taken by a ceramic ocarina and an anklet sewn with bells. Perfect for travelling, so portable: with the ocarina in your pocket and the bells round your ankle, you can make music all the while you are walking along from here to there. And this reminded me that music and song are cultural artefacts, and for that reason may be expressions of an identity under threat. I tried to express this in a poem I called ‘The Song Smugglers’:
Singing was in our blood.
When autumn came, we lived
on berries, grew slowly taller
and thinner, rougher-skinned
and sharper-boned. We slept
in sheds with spades and sacks,
or in barns where we listened
to the soft coughing of cattle,
their flanks like the blank sides
of houses whose hearths still held
the dusky breath of the day’s fires.
In winter we ate the black tongues
of our boots along with muck
and stubble, shook with chills, drank
from streams and wells and troughs
whose ice we smashed into stars
with our bare-fisted need. At last
we reached the river that was a border,
its double name on metal road-signs
that were bent and buckled as if
winded by the gutturals of a civil war.
But there was no-one on duty, no-one
impounding radios or counting sins.
At night like criminals as the mist
blew its cold smoke over the water
we slid sideways into the glimmer,
bearing our contraband of song like
a cloud of light around our shoulders.
So if you have not had time to pack your bag of belongings before you left, you still have your voice, the out-breath that carries your own sound, which is also the sound of your people, your home…
But what if your breath itself becomes endangered? We lived through such a frightening time in the Covid pandemic, especially in the early months when people were dying in their thousands, gasping for air, no breath left in their bodies. The heart-stopping alienation we experienced was internal and personal as much as external and collective. I caught the disease myself just before Christmas 2020. As I was recovering, I wanted to write what it was like, not just to record the experience but also as a way of starting to make myself whole (in Days of Wonder, Hippocrates Press 2021).
Fever, Winter, Particulars
I was a moth alighting on my own dreams,
to and fro, to and fro among the shadows,
an instrument of secret incremental damage
spinning cocoons of grey pappus between
layers of bedding, muffling the night-sounds,
the frowsty night-smells. Then I could taste
only moonlight, its metallic fume on my tongue
as the rain ran down through me.
I was my own burrow, not the passage
between here and there or from now till morning,
but where I hatched and hatched tiny multitudes
that lived off the leaves of me. I was a stranger
camouflaged as a familiar, a sickroom visitor
drawn to the dark lamps of my own eyes,
I was all eyes and the days flew on furred wings
and the nights trembled a little in the wind.
Our bodies are where we live; my body is my home. But sometimes it feels as if I have strayed into a stranger’s house by mistake. Writing, especially writing poetically, is a way of re-possessing, settling in, coming back to oneself, coming home.