Nomas*Projects invited me to help reflect on the Incarnation with a joint exhibition with conceptual artist David McCulloch. The exhibition is entitled: PROMISES PROMISES.
It is exhibited at 9a Ward Road, Dundee, Scotland from December 1st-31st.
My contribution was an experimentation with writing a ‘concrete’ poem, which is displayed between David’s contribution: two marble squares inscribed (one forward and one reversed) with the legend: ‘WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS ELSEWHERE’.
Here’s the poem:
Too sm- all, too po- or, too eth- nic, too an- cie -nt. So- Ph -ie won’t claim it. The Stab won’t touch it. They can’t see it and refuse other- wise to feel it. Yet it burns like stars on the whorls of their fingers and lingers like a burnt offering in their no- strils and like ash-into-beauty on the -ir tongues. Dig ears to see. Dig eyes to h -ear. Let so- ul cov -er fle -sh lik e s- kin an- d l- ist -en in.
I was privileged to play a small part in this short film project. The film piece is called ‘of the’. The poem you hear me reading is ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (1927) by T. S. Eliot.
A few notes on the ‘theory’ behind it: The filmmaker, Guy Phenix, wanted to focus on Eliot’s life at the time he wrote it, that he was changing his citizenship from the USA to Britain and his religious affiliation from Unitarian to Anglican. Hence, the double or split screens. (It was filmed through a really cool DIY contraption involving a mirrored viewfinder, which you can see at his website.)
I too wanted to play a bit with transatlantic identity, so I initially tried to do the reading in direct contrast to Eliot’s own adopted (he’s originally from Missouri) posh English accent with which he reads the poem. I attempted a hardboiled Philip Marlowe detective type voice for the reading, drawing on this for two reasons: one is that the descriptive language reminds me in a strange way of Raymond Chandler’s own noir poetic prose style and the two authors were living and writing in the same era. Furthermore, it’s a little known fact that Chandler too had a rather complicated transatlantic identity: at age 12 his divorced mother moved him to London and he eventually became a British subject, only regaining his U.S. citizenship in the 1950s (you learn this kind of fascinating info when your wife listens to BBC Radio 4 every day). So for all intents and purposes, having been latterly educated in Britain, he would’ve been quite the English sort of chap. Yet his crime fiction has become iconic of a quintessentially American diction, just as Eliot’s poetry comes across very English.
Of course, this all hits me personally, since I have my own transatlantic identity: having moved to the UK at age 28 and having now been married longer in the UK than the USA, and having had two of our five children in the UK (the youngest with dual British and American citizenship). The Marlowe-esque reading got pretty emotional at points and I really liked it. Unfortunately, it was too uneven. I couldn’t pull it off consistently (being no voice actor) and at moments is sounded hilariously silly, whilst at other moments rather moving (to me). So the reading in this film is not the hardboiled one, but rather a fairly straightforward take, though I think a bit of Marlowe lingers unintentionally. It’s one of my favourite poems and I’m pleased to have its incredible images and rhythms coursing through my mind and soul this Christmas, and having thought through it all a bit more and being quite surprised to find that it touches so personally on my own life story.