ONE: The branch will not break
I want to start this section with a poem by American environmentalist poet James Wright.
I came across this line after reading Wright’s book which is titled ‘the branch will not break’. I think that in this instance, in the context of the poem, called ‘Two Hangovers’, here is a sense to the idea that this metaphor should be considered as something self-inflicted. The branch not breaking suggests the capacity for the branch to absorb the change in weight distribution of the blue jay (perhaps a conduit for the mental/physical process of the speaker of the poem) and then to bounce back, much like Wright suggests in the subtitle of this poem ‘I try to waken and greet the world once again’, he will bounce back from the hangover.
I’ve found this as really useful metaphor for understanding the oft overused term ‘the human experience’ - well at least MY human experience. To me, the idea that a branch, a natural thing has an unquantifiable capacity to bend, adapt, to be malleable is so similar to the way that we humans are so readily able to surpass our own perceived limitations and to adapt to change. We often underestimate our carrying capacity – such that if someone were to ask us what is possible, we would not know unless we were within that experience to be able to test or have real knowledge in order to say one way or another what was possible.
Are we able to forgive people who have wronged us? Are we able to love people that we didn’t think we had the capacity to love? Are we able to overcome injury, heartache, loss, guilt? In short: Are we able to adapt to different circumstances?
Morbidly, I think that the break is death; the break is breakdown. There are only two states – broken and unbroken –and so much of our lives (in fact all of our lives) is lived within this unbroken state. There are gradations of unbroken-ness, but only one stage of being broken – there are many states of being, but only one state of non-being. I guess this idea for me feels like the best way of understanding human life, as this physical thing, which obviously has a mental/spiritual aspect, but in some way we can reduce it to saying, at whatever stage one’s life is – it’s bending somewhat, but not broken. If we’re still here we’re not broken.
I thought about this after a friend of mine was talking about how she was dating two guys at once, and after I asked her how that felt, she said, it felt fine – but if I’d asked her before she’d tried it out, she wouldn’t not have been able to tell me. I think in this way she was able to make the branch of her own life bend without it breaking – she recognized a new carrying capacity for her own experience. I think that this has implications in my own world view – not toward polyamory – but more so toward the conceptualization of things as being just at different levels of unbroken-ness, the bend is possible to create, but we have no idea just how much something will bend before we start bouncing up and down on it, or putting things on it to test it out. I think for a long time I had the opinion that it was possible to look at a branch and say: that’s not going to hold. Whereas now I feel quite curious about the way that our experience might surprise us – Q: how can we know? A: We can only try, we can only bend.
And so ‘the branch will not break’ has become a bit of a motto for me; I’m less calculating about things – I’m just interested to see how my own expectations can be surpassed. I’m concerned with reserving judgement, avoiding preconceptions and trying things out – hopping up and down on the branch. This approach might be more dangerous, but requires confidence – that this branch will bend, and is always bending – but will not break. This I find quite liberating.
As a caveat, and because I can’t stop thinking about it – the whole Trump President thing, makes me think, ‘stop pretending like it’s the end of the world – giant proclamations about the end of the world are all very well, but remember instead, the branch will bend, the branch will not break – life will go on and people will adapt, and this will create a new status quo and a new parameter for which people see things to be tolerable. We don’t know our own carrying capacity. And as a slightly less developed tangent to this idea, I also don’t think we know our capacity to recover and rebuild.
TWO: I see right through the ground. (The real)
I want to start this section with a quote by Jack Kerouac, taken from a lecture he gave in 1958 entitled: ‘Is There a Beat Generation?’
What got me thinking about this quote, was walking along the footpath in Ubud, where I am at the moment in Bali and seeing right through to the ground beneath the footpath – realizing that underneath this path, there is an endless flow of rainwater, junk, detritus. While Kerouac says that you can see through the ground and there is no world – I would argue that you can see through ground and there is nothing BUT the world: where these gaps appear, there is only a shattering of illusion. Trying to watch my feet and dodge these huge holes in the footpath; gaps where one false step and I would have a broken leg, or would fall two meters into running water forced me to think about the reality of this fall and what the consequences of this would be, in so far as I realized I was no longer protected by illusion.
This follows on from what I was saying about the branch breaking just before – when we understand the breaking of the branch to be ‘death’ then what I am concerned by here is the idea of confronting the break. This means establishing a full and frank awareness of what Slavoj Žižek and other contemporary philosophers have called ‘the real’.
As a consequence of comparison, walking through the streets of Ubud made me aware of our very comfortable society in Australia – where a gap in the footpath would be covered by cones, or tape. Who would even think about what’s happening underneath the ground, under the road, under the footpath? Here I confronted reality, but this was by confronting extremes.
I’ve tried to explain this dichotomy in a poem – it doesn’t have a title yet, and it’s only a few days old.
I think my point here is that it is possible to have a greater experience of one’s own life when in full awareness of the limitations of that life. In the poem I talk about things that shouldn’t work together working together – the idea of paying homage to the good spirits as well as the bad spirits is this. The way to keep life balanced is to maintain an awareness of extremes. A good life is dependent on a healthy amount of thinking about death – As WB Yeats said: ‘Sex and Death, that’s all there is.’
THREE: The past is a foreign country.
I want to start this next section with a quote by LP Harvey. The following was the opening line from his 1939 Novel ‘The Go-Between’.
I came across this quote when I was waiting at the airport and trying to pass the time by reading through a collection of the best 100 opening lines in novels. I had read The Go-Between when I was younger, maybe 16 or so, but I couldn’t remember much about it. Yet when I read this opening line, I think about what this means in terms of how we are able to relate to the past.
Firstly, I think of why Hartley would have said ‘a foreign country’ and not just, an unknown place, or a faraway place. There is a suggestion that it is a ‘State’ where people live, they act, they have lives – in this sense, he advocates a “cultural relativity” of the past: meaning that the morals, rules and ways of thinking that we have in the present are not sufficient to apply to the past – they do things differently THERE.
This quote has functioned as a central part of a work that I have begun with Kaspar, where we are writing a ‘Manifesto of Hybridity’. Kaspar has a desire to do away with mono-culturalism and to set up a world within a world where everything is only allowed in if it is the hybrid of something. We are playing with the idea of how place relates to time in a hybrid creation because culture is both a time and a place. It is not just something from one culture and another, but something from the past and the present moment.
An offshoot from this point is that living in a developed Western country like Australia, we are continually complicit in thinking that foreign countries are the past – because people do things differently where they are, there is a sense that they must be backward. Yet, there are other circumstances, where travelling to a foreign country opens us up to how things are being done better than they are in Australia. In this way, the future is also a foreign country. Nonetheless, it is a strange frame that we apply to difference; that there is a temporal aspect to how people live in other countries.
The line, and its significance within a novel, means that there is a shift from the past which has now become obvious – so much so that the past no longer feels familiar at the start of the novel. Therefore, this suggests that the story will not only be talking to the past but also to the present. There is a suggestion implicit that in order to understand why the speaker believes that the past is a foreign place, they will first need to outline how the present is the real place.
And this leads me into my final concept/section.
FOUR: Home. This Must Be the Place.
This fourth section involves a comparison between two texts; two texts that I am confident have never been compared to one another before. The first is a poem by a Slovak poet, Milan Rufus. He was born two years after my grandfather in the same region of Slovakia and he passed away 2009. This was a poem written in his final years, and is followed in his final book by only one other poem, which is called ‘a farewell to literature’. So the title ‘Testament’ should be understood in the sense of a ‘will and testament’. My grandfather is still living and I asked him to help me translate this poem into my own version using the original Slovak version of the poem and the standard English translation which had been quite poorly translated.
The second thing that I’ve quoted here is of course, a song by Talking Heads called ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’. I see that these two pieces of writing, both which repeat the word ‘Home’ by itself, are able to create an angle on the idea of place. That the place is only relevant in the present.
Compare Rufus’ line ‘Home like the right word at the moment of understanding’ against Byrne’s ‘I’m just an animal looking for a home / And to share the same space for a minute or two’. These both suggest that home is something simple – as simple as being awake and being present. It moves with you - it is wherever you are at the time. It is not always easy to remember this – compare standing ‘on the edge of a mountain’ in Rufus, the uncertainty of this unstable position, with the repeated ‘I guess’ in Byrne’s lyric – ‘I guess that this must be the place’ & ‘I guess I must be having fun’. Sometimes living in the moment is the hardest thing. But in that moment there is nowhere else you COULD be. Home ‘Is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there’. Even if it is the ‘wrong place’ it MUST be the place.
This idea came to me when I was running an ultra-marathon (even if that sounds ridiculous). When I was running along this trail, there was not a lot of signage. Every now and again you might see a ribbon tied in a tree, but every 6kms there was a drink stop. It was pretty easy to get lost. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion, the dehydration or the endorphins, but I couldn’t help thinking every time I saw a ribbon along this path that, ‘oh well this must be the place’. As much as the metaphor of the path is so ubiquitous and overused, when I was actually at the mercy of a path that I was literally/physically navigating, the idea of place and where I was in relation to that place became really important. When I stopped at a drink stop and spoke to the volunteers, I would slow down and say, ‘Oh, well this must be the place’. I think they were used to seeing weird disoriented people by this stage, there were 500 other people in the ultra-marathon, but my brain just felt very economical. That seemed like the only thing that I wanted to say: this MUST be the place.
I guess how this ties in with my other points in the mixtape;
1) The branch will not break: so we have a set up where it doesn’t matter where you are, wrong or right, you must be in the right place. In that way, lost or not, you have the ability to adapt your carrying capacity to accept wherever you are. Even if you’re in a strange place, you can bend, you can accept it – in fact much like putting weight on the branch, the branch has no choice but to bend around it – such that it forces the conclusion – the branch MUST bend, and this MUST be the place.
2) Seeing right through the ground: I think that both pieces of writing, Rufus and Byrne talk about the challenge, or the acceptance of the real extremes. Rufus writes, ‘You aren’t shy of love or anger’, emphasising these two emotional extremes. And Byrne writes, almost desperately: ‘love me til my heart stops, love me til I’m dead’. Rufus begins the poem by saying ‘Don’t let yourself be misled’, and this suggests the illusion that I was discussing in this section, that when you don’t accept the real, it’s easy to remain comfortable without the extremes of life and death: ‘Home is the place for you / where it is easier to live – and to die’.
3) The past is a foreign country: I think that the most important sections of these poems are the acceptance of the necessity of the present. Byrne writes, “If some asks, this is where I’ll be. Where I’ll be”. Home is spatiotemporal. It is where you are at the moment. The ‘this’ in this must be the place, or in ‘this’ is where I’ll be’ is a relational property. It is malleable. It is relevant only where it is spoken and performed. The past is a foreign country. The present is wherever you are. Home is supposed to be something simple. Therefore the present MUST, this moment, this place MUST be the place.