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

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Orwell's Café

Sitting with The Drowning Man
over empty glasses
his concomitant friend
finally spoke
though, when they came,
he never recognized
the words he had been
waiting on those years.

He simply stared at her breasts,
and remembered:
a line from Beckett
and a scene by Warhol
and a photo he'd kept
of a woman he'd never met.

She offered him sanctuary
and he fumbled for money.

27 April 1986

chestnut tree cafeThis is the third of The Drowning Man Poems. It’s set in the Chestnut Tree Café from Nineteen Eighty-Four. I was thinking about the end of the book and imagining the scene where Winston meets Julia after they’ve both betrayed each other only now I check I find they actually met in “the Park, on a vile, biting day in March” and, after a few minutes with her, all Winston wants to do is get back to the café where he sits alone and drinks Victory Gin sweetened with cloves.

The line from Beckett is from his short story ‘Heard in the Dark 2’: “Your gaze moves down to the breasts. You do not remember them so big.” I don’t remember which film of Warhol’s I’m referencing. No doubt I’d seen a clip in a documentary, probably one of his Screen Tests. The mention of the photo is odd because years later I did find a photo of a woman and it’s still in my wallet alongside photos of my wife and daughter.

A lot of the material from this poem has crept into the new book:

Only you, my concomitant friend, know what I am trying to say and only you can assess its true worth.

As she stretched the covers fell from her breasts; they were quite magnificent actually. He couldn’t help but stare at them.

Once, in the middle of the pavement, he’d stumbled on a passport photograph of a young woman and had nearly been ploughed into the ground as he bent to pick it up by a harassed nanny with a pram before her and an irascible three-year-old anarchist in tow. He still kept the picture tucked away in his wallet

There are nods too to Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Two and two can make five. Orwell knew that full well. So why did Winston find it so hard to grasp? Every day we reject the logical in favour of the illogical. Every day. Ten times a day. Fifty. Five is more than four. Why would we settle for four?

and Andy Warhol:

I got served up my fifteen minutes early and piping hot simply because no one was writing any catchy songs that week, or skiing down any precipitous mountain slopes or baring any parts of their anatomy that were bigger, better or weirder than the general public had seen before.

In 1991 I wrote a follow-up, ‘A Return to Orwell’s Café’ (#730) but we’ll get to it in time, probably about March 2017 at this rate which also means I’ve enough poems to keep going until August 2020 if I’ve done my sums right and assuming I write nothing else for the next five years which is unlikely.


Kass said...

You seem to have such deep reserves when you plumb the depths of your frames of reference, or do you have hyperthymesia?

I like this poem, the idea of waiting on words and then not recognizing them when they come.

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Kass, from what I’ve read online, “Hyperthymesia is a phenomenon in which some people maintain an exceptional memory for events in their personal pasts. People who experience hyperthymesia have a superior ability to recall specific details of autobiographical events, and also tend to spend a large amount of time thinking about their personal pasts.” That is most definitely not me. I was looking at the next poem I have to write about and I haven’t the slightest idea what prompted it. Sometimes the poems help me focus but far less than you’d imagine. My memory was never exceptional but now it is dire. A friend wrote to me a few days back, a guy I used to work with. It’s been a few years since I heard from him. Of course he wanted to know what I’d been up to but my mind went completely blank; what had I done in the last three or four years since I heard from his last? The 1980s were a lot different to now—my life was full of other people—and yet it’s that very clutter that’s the problem. I can remember bits and bobs but struggle to place them in the correct place in my timeline or remember where they sit in relation to other events.

This is a poem about expectation. Expectations are dangerous things. They spoil reality when it final decides to make an appearance. The words most of us long to hear are, “I love you.” I’ve no idea when F. first said she loved me. It’s the kind of thing I should remember. But then I can’t remember what her boobs looked like either. She, of course, was not the first person to tell me they loved me in that way. Shockingly though she would only have been the second. (My first proper girlfriend said the words when I pressured her to but later on said she didn’t mean it so I’m not counting her.) You would think I’d have been desperate to hear them again, to reassure myself that I was loveable in that way. And yet could it be that I no longer trusted (recognised as in acknowledged) those words. My first wife loved me—at least she said she did and didn’t take it back—but then she left me because, somewhere, somehow, she’d stopped loving me or perhaps she’d been mistaken in the first place.

Kass said...

The past is a curious mixed bag of recollections for me, but you seem to have sporadic specifics when you write. Perhaps there is no term for this phenomenon.

I really enjoyed misreading, "... I can’t remember what her boobs looked like either. She, of course, was not the first person to tell me they loved me in that way." - Her boobs loved you?.....of course, they did.

As for your last paragraph - there's no way we can access what love means for another person, whether they verbalize it or not. I believe people are inaccurate about 'falling out of love.' I think it's their own fault for not being curious or inventive enough. The love we carry is ours and therefore, our responsibility.

Jim Murdoch said...

What you’re forgetting, Kass, is I was writing about what was going on in my life as it was happening. I really don’t spend much time wallowing in the past and I’ve burned a lot of bridges in my time. Writing has always been a means of working out things. They're little life equations. Like all writers I write about what interests me and that can get boiled down to one word: people. People are perverse is so many ways or at least it comes across as perversity. I always liked Asimov’s short stories featuring Dr. Susan Calvin, the chief robopsychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. In every story we’re presented with robots doing seeming illogical things but the underlying reason always turns out to be logical and reasonable. You just had to look below the surface.

Love has, for a long time, been my whipping boy. It’s not the only emotion that doesn’t play by the rules—I don’t think any of them do—but it’s the easiest for people to relate to. With F. I was looking for reassurance. Which I got. But it never lasts. You need to be reassured again and again and again. It’s not enough to state your love, you have to prove it. If love is the right word. In my first look I talked about cathexis which Truth says is, “… love, too, but it’s more a what-can-you-do-for-me kind of love rather than a what-can-I-do-for you sort.” Love is not needy. I was needy. It’s like I wrote in ‘Urban Retreat’ (#523):

        We substituted sex for love
        and never noticed the difference.
        Just like the real thing.

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