Everything’s broken. As one of the characters in Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the Good Squad, reasons, ‘Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!’ All because of digitization – its effects on production and the economic ramifications of free downloads, the question of truth, value and the new uncertain models of the culture industry.
Looking at Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency again in 2011, I can’t help but notice its similarity to Facebook – of this, now common, act of flicking through someone else’s photo album. On Facebook you can set your security so only friends or friends of friends see your pictures – in the beginning that’s how it was for Goldin – she took photographs, first sharing them physically with her circle in Boston, the drugstore prints passing from hand to hand, or pinned to a wall, then later as a tape-slide projection with musical soundtrack shown at the very same places where some of the shots were taken, and watched by many of the people whose images were shown. Like a room filled with mirrors endlessly repeating the faces seen and the faces watching.
Once upon a time photographers (back when they weren’t busy calling themselves ‘lens-based artists’) were distinct from the rest of the camera owning population, because they took the whole business seriously, and this seriousness might be defined by its economics. A photographer, as opposed to a snap shooter, had more expensive cameras, paid for better film, bought a whole array of gadgets – tripods, flash units, lenses, filters, studio lights, darkroom equipment and so on – this meant that generally the images they made was of a better quality than those who hadn’t invested as much.
Philip Roth once said that real life was so extraordinary that no fiction could compete with it – if a writer invented such outlandish plots no one would believe it. Thinking about this, it strikes me that among the chaos of the life lived; a fictional world is eminently more controllable, more safe. I think I have always written in order to explore what motivates people to do the things they do – in particular the small cruelties, the manipulations and then the self-justification that follows.
I was never much of a reader as a child, so I jumped straight from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Edna O’Brien and Sylvia Plath. The choices were arbitrary – based on chance and my immediate reaction to the first pages more than anything.
Falling under the long shadow of Plath the dark dreamer, good scholar and perfectionist was silly. I couldn’t have been more different – a lazy, lousy scholar, impatient, messy, feckless – but there was Sylvia, her tape-recorded voice, that clipped bitter delivery of the words, the strange nasal accent, the nursery rhyme rhythms beating out the poems including ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ to a group of young students. We were doing a foundation course in art and once a week a post-graduate student from the university came to teach us what was loosely called ‘Liberal Studies’. As I remember it, he gave no introduction to the recorded poems, but after said, ‘This poet took her own life just months after writing this work…’
We were then invited to discuss our reactions. One young man began by condemning Plath, saying she was cruel, irresponsible, selfish. I was shocked by the level of his anger. I found myself speaking up for her, defending her.
Is that why I write?
Years before that afternoon in Art College, when I was fifteen and staying with a friend at her aunt’s house in Brighton, I had been lounging on a bed when something whispered my name very close to my ear. On opening my eyes I saw that my friend was over on the opposite side of the room. Later that night and on subsequent nights something was scratching at the walls of the same room – scratching and fluttering and seemingly trying to get to me. When I returned from the holiday I discovered that my mother had given a necklace of mine to a psychic who did ‘readings’ from such intimate possessions. When I met the woman she told me that I was like her – I had the power to be a seer. Three years later I retold this story to some friends in a pub. One young man was scornful and angry. ‘Go on then,’ he said, ‘do your mumbo jumbo!’ I was reluctant but the crowd egged me on. The psychic had told me that to do it I should just quietly hold the subject’s hand, close my eyes and empty my mind. I did this. There was nothing. Nothing at all, but then I saw gently lapping water, tall reeds and sandy banks. Something like an estuary.
‘Well, come on, then. What did you see?’ he said with a sneer.
All eyes were on me. ‘Oh, nothing really, just water and reeds…’
At this he was furious. Frighteningly angry as he stood up and stalked out of the bar.
Someone then told me that recently his flatmate had been depressed and had drowned himself in a nearby estuary.
Is that why I write?
It is not uncommon when reading the biography of someone like Sylvia Plath, to fantasise about saving her from her final act of self destruction. Depressed as Plath was, it is easy to imagine her getting through that last terrible winter and awakening to a spring that heralded a very different world; one that, casting off the last shackles of post war convention and conservatism, she would have embraced.
It’s been suggested by many people that putting her head in the gas oven was a cry for help – that a new au pair or mother’s help was due to arrive the next morning – early enough to raise both the alarm and Lady Lazurus from the dead. If that was the case then it was a deadly gamble.
The idea of saving Sylvia is of course pure speculation – as useless as staying Dylan’s hand as he drains his last glass of whisky dry.
Two poets then, who died too young; one directly by her own hand, the other indirectly – though the reckless self-destructive drinking, smoking and general self neglect is just as efficient, just as final.
I can’t remember when I discovered that Sylvia Plath attempted to meet Dylan Thomas during her Bell Jar month in New York. Possibly it was in Linda W. Wagner-Martin’s 1988 biography, but the reference was unemphatic, so that it slipped by, a vaguely interesting fact that was actually a non-event and non-events by their nature gather in multitudes and must be set aside as meaningless. I must have read further references to this in other books, so that the non-event gained weight and the heft of it seemed to drag on the tightrope of fate, creating a sort of bulge – a kink in time.
What if she had met him? The more I considered it, the less it seemed a random coincidence. Just the fact of their being in the same city for an overlapping period of 24 or 48 hours between her arriving in New York on the 31st May 1953 and Dylan leaving on the 1st or 2nd June. Cyrilly Abels was the key who made the possibility of their meeting less random. Sylvia worked directly under Cyrilly Abels and Abels knew Dylan Thomas and during that period was ardently pursuing him so that Mademoiselle magazine could publish the new play Under Milk Wood in its entirety (which it eventually did in February of 1954).
Sylvia Plath’s image is often at odds with her writing, but strict conventions (such as those imposed by Mademoiselle) demanded hats and gloves and evening gowns, disguised the bitch-goddess behind the smile.
And again I return to what if they had met – might they, like comets colliding in deepest space have thrown each other off orbit so that their respective fates were altered. Might there not be a grand event in Cwmdonkin – a joint birthday party for two elderly poets this October 27th 2014 – Sir Dylan Thomas a hundred years old – remarkable! And Dame Sylvia Plath, 82 – a grand old lady of letters, numerous collections of poems and several novels forming her lifelong achievement.
If they had met I can’t imagine them in love, despite his stature as a poet she wouldn’t have fallen for him, but perhaps falling in love was not what either needed in order to be saved – that is why as I began to create my story they merely sit companionably side by side in Central Park. The park, as all parks are or are meant to be, creating a refuge from the hustle and bustle of real life, an Elysium field, a serpent-free Eden for our poets – outside of space and time.
And if the two are sitting there what could be more natural than for Sylvia to give the horse an apple (which appears out of nowhere as if she’s plucked it from the sky in one of Magritte’s paintings).
And then along comes Vivian Maier, nanny and utterly unknown photographer, whose work was only discovered in 2007 after the contents of her storage unit were auctioned off – all those paper wallets of cheap drug store prints, undeveloped film and more than 100,000 negatives, that formerly only one person ever saw as a body of work – the photographer herself. As the hoard was split into small lots some images may have been lost and so it’s perfectly possible that Vivian (in the imagined place of my story) did photograph the two of them together, not knowing who they were (Sylvia was unknown then anyway) but just liking the composition, the way the light fell. It crossed my mind to put Diane Arbus into this story too, but my research couldn’t quite pin down her whereabouts during the crucial period – like Maier she wandered through Central Park taking pictures – but any photograph she chose to print would have rendered Thomas and Plath freakish and strange – so the gentler, more mysterious and nearly invisible Mayer better suited the story.
Finally there is the scene of their meeting at the Hotel Chelsea. Outside on the sidewalk, like a desperately hungry soul that has transported itself miraculously across the Atlantic, waits Dylan’s daughter, Aeronwy. She stands there aching to be noticed, to be with her father, but he sees her, blinks and she is gone. Then suddenly it is 9 year old Sylvia waiting for her father, wanting to get back to him. The two bereaved daughters are like mirrors of one another, hurt and helpless, like dreamers who cannot wake from a nightmare.
Finished a first draft of a new story titled ‘Word Made Flesh’ which is a reinterpretation of a work by Arthur Machen collected in ‘Story: The Library of Wales short story anthology vol 1.
This was commissioned by Wales Arts Review http://www.walesartsreview.org/wales-arts-review-3-22-the-welsh-nature-issue/