Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 8 July 2015



"I don't have to do this," she said,
as she was led into the room,
in an almost spoiled voice –
implying concession –
but she was not corrected.

As there was no screen
behind which to undress
she asked for the lights to be doused
and hid in the long shadows.
6 November 1982

I find this a very uncomfortable read and it’s one of several poems written about this time I’m not sure I could write now or would want to write. I remember Ian McEwan saying much the same about his early short stories. Like ‘Old Walt’ (#514) it leaves eyeeverything to the readers’ imaginations. It’s about dignity. A woman who has clearly lost control of her life is still trying to hang onto something.

Beckett once recalled an occasion when Sir Ralph Richardson “wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” I mention this because this is also true here. I have no idea who the woman or girl is, where she is, why she’s there or what’s going to happen to her although I suspect it’s going to be unpleasant. I’m sure this admission will sound odd to non-writers (and many writers who create lengthy backstories that never end up in their novels) but I’ve never needed that. I think this is because I know my characters are cyphers. They’re not real. No female got hurt or demeaned in the writing of this poem.


Anonymous said...

"my characters are cyphers"—by which I think you mean they are what they are in the moment offered by the poem. Yes? So we're all cyphers, then, at least to others, often enough to ourselves. I'm sure you've done or said something and wondered, "Why did I do that? Why did I say that?" The "I" being the cypher you put forward in that moment. Maybe what we call our "character" is just a pattern of cypher-moments. I read in my Oxford that "character" derives from the Greek "kharaktēr," meaning "a stamping tool." This fascinates me. The character is not the stamped image, but the tool that stamps it. I don't know where I'm going with this, or whether there's an "I" that's going, or whether "going" is the right word. And yet ... your cyphered woman is there, I can almost see her (filling in the details around her stamped image). One of the many things I love about your poems: the way they invite us to participate in the fulfillment of the characters. We have to put ourselves in their place. How I wish I could write that way!

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, oh, that is so interesting, Joe. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of ‘character’ and ‘stamp’ being connected—“So to have God’s name written on your forehead would indicate that you have his character stamped on your mind”—but on checking I learned this:

The ultimate source of character is Greek kharaktḗr, a derivative of the verb kharássein ‘sharpen, engrave, cut’, which in turn came from kharax ‘pointed stake’. Kharaktḗr meant ‘engraved mark’, and hence was applied metaphorically to the particular impress or stamp which marked one thing as different from another – its ‘character’. The word came into English via Latin character and Old French caractere. Characteristic followed in the 17th century.

This is what I both love and hate about words, the fact that they are so imprecise. Why do we bother with them? But either way you’re right, a character is the tool and not what is produces irrespective of whether it’s stamped or scratched. The word ‘character’ appears in my current novel 157 times—it’s a hard one to find synonyms for—and now I really want to graft in something about engraving and/or stamping so thank you for that.

By ‘cypher’—Middle English, from Medieval Latin cifra, from Arabic ṣifr empty, cipher, zero—I meant ‘encoded’: you have to fill in the blanks. But it’s never a simple matter of decoding. The best example I can think of is the Tetragrammaton YHWH and just look at the fun people have had over the years trying to work out what vowels go with that. Is there a right answer? God alone knows. In my book he’s called ‘Joe Hoover’. Close enough.

I’m not sure why you think I’ve got something to teach you. Your Vander Meer book does exactly this. Why you can’t see this is possibly because those blanks you’ve left us have already been filled in your head. You know what the poems mean.

Kass said...

You know I am drawn to your poems, especially as they tell a story or make me uncomfortable.

I was helping my 101-year-old Aunt undress last night at her assisted living home and noted how odd it was to see her bare chest. It never would have happened in our previous relationship. She was a little odd and distant and very proper. How terrible it must be to have your body so compromised that you have to give it all up to be helped. Before he died, my dad used to say of his decline, "Oh, the ignominity (sounds better than ignominy - more syllables) of it all!"

Jim Murdoch said...

My wife has described a similar experience, Kass, in dealing with her elderly father (he’s in his nineties) who’s suffering from dementia, is incontinent and becoming increasingly helpless. It’s unfortunate that the reproductive organs and the excretory organs are so close together; you can’t really deal with the one without coming in contact with the other and no matter how much you try to distance yourself from what you’re doing the moment you realise you’re cupping your father’s balls in your hand must count as one of life’s most surreal and uncomfortable experiences. I never had to go through any of that. The only comparable experience I had was when I was in the garden pulling weeds from the lawn. My mother (who was in her late seventies at the time) insisted on coming out to help. So there we were the two of us bent over pulling weeds and I turned around and thought I was looking at my mother’s knees. It wasn’t. It was her breasts hanging down from under her top. My mother was a wee woman but she had enormous breasts, like two torpedoes. That was fun asking her to sort herself out. Much to my surprise she shrugged the whole thing off. I thought she’d have been mortified or even angry with me but no.

Kass said...

Oh Jim, I love your small, busty mother.

When my dad was in the hospital and close to death, I was the only one available to hold the wide-mouthed quart container to his groin, after positioning the necessary equipment into it. It was an out-of-body I understand how Carrie must have felt.

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