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Archive for the ‘Photographs’ Category

A Flower in Space

N. went out to the garden today and took some pictures. She took one of a rose, and as soon as I saw it, it reminded me of some kind of nebula, so I blackened the background. I love looking at it.

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Sketchy Stuff

I was drawing in my sketchbook today, something I do in fits and starts, and N. took a few pictures of me:

Then she came up with an idea: I should post the sketches on the blog. I don’t have a scanner, so I had to use a camera, which sometimes casts shadows on the page.


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The Book of Faces

I had been planning a post about Facebook, and wrote some thoughts down, but then a few weeks ago, somebody I knew in high school posted nearly 200 photographs he’d taken of people in the halls and in classrooms, and a second post emerged. I’ve divided them up, because they represent two different ways of looking at it.

1.

I find the faces of people I knew when I was a child or a teenagers. Sometimes the person I knew is hiding behind behind the skin, peering out from the eyes. We are all approaching 40, and all, to varying degrees, showing the signs of age.

I wonder what they think when they see me. I’ve put on a little weight, which shows in my face more than anywhere else. There’s a freshness gone from my skin, but generally I don’t think I’ve aged much in the past twenty years. I look at pictures of myself back then, and I just seem thinner.

But there are some people there I can barely recognise. And it’s not because their present faces don’t conform with the faces that had been frozen in eternal youth in my mind. In most cases I can’t remember how they looked back then. The only moment of recognition is when when I see their names. The faces are strange, someone else, barely the shadow of who they once were.

And yet others remain very much as they were when I knew them, as if they have only changed their haircuts. I wonder why some have aged more quickly than others. Have they not treated themselves well, or even abused themselves? Has luck been not as kind to some? Too much stress and worry can make them look old and tired and can lead to being overweight.

Have some of us refused to age emotionally too? I still feel as I felt 20 years ago. (I feel more confident and less anxious than I did then, so perhaps I even feel younger. Only my body feels older, more sore in the morning when I get out of bed. And there’s a bit of grey in my hair.)

I began to imagine a real face book, a sort of atlas of a person’s life, built up over time, where you could turn the pages and see on each one how a person’s face progressed and aged and decayed. Before I got my digital camera, I planned to take one picture of myself every day, to record those changes, the fluctuations in weight, or how my skin grew dark or pale through the seasons. But I never did. Or at least not yet.

I think I’m more interested in seeing change after it has passed unnoticed, in being surprised by it. I want the process removed, with only the results to show. A.W.’s father, a photographer, had come up with the idea of having all the residents of a street stand out in the front of their houses as someone drove down and filmed them all. The idea was to put the film away and see how many people were still there ten or 20 years later.

2.

There are faces of those I haven’t even thought about in years, faces I’d forgotten until I saw them again, but they are different now. It can’t be a trick of memory because my memory hasn’t been exercising itself on them all these years. They’re younger and fresher and more alive. Why would I expect them to be otherwise? Did I expect them to be pictures of Dorian Gray? Did I expect their faces to grow older on film as mine has in reality, in life, since then? I must have. Why else would I be so surprised to see them now?

Or is it because I felt so much wearier and older then (I’m sure we all did) that I’m surprised to see what fresh children we actually were on the outside? I look as deep into the eyes as I can now for signs of the corruption I was so sure was eating us up inside, but it’s not there. Just sweet lovely youth.

If those faces could see us now, if those children could see the 40-year-olds we’ve become, would they also be fooled, see age and weariness in our faces and think them a reflection of our souls?

It occurs to me though that it was all in my head; I had projected that sense of corruption on others. They would all say to me now, “What are you talking about? You’ve got it all backwards. We always felt young and free and fresh.” It makes me sad. I want to go back and get it right, to open the windows of my poor misspent youth and let in the light and fresh air, the light that I later followed here and which has come to fill my life. My face is not among those I see, but if it was, I would apologise to it. For years I had blamed my youth and said it was black. But wasn’t my youth — it was me all along. I was green and didn’t know it. I don’t want to go back, but I want to give myself happier memories. I want to put myself in those pictures among all those faces I wish I had known better.

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Lakkos

When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.

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Christmas in Crete

It’s been a busy Christmas break. We’ve had a lot of running around, looking at furniture, and cleaning the house (which we’ve taken to calling Wuthering Heights because it’s up on a hill and is very windy), but somehow I’ve managed to type up the rest of my novel notebook, and even do some writing. So far, the document runs to 36,000 words. I’m happy with the way things are going. If only I could hold on to that feeling, bottle it up for whenever I need it.

Here are some photos I took on the way down. The winds were 7 or 8 Beaufort, and there was a possibility that we’d be stuck in the harbour till it passed. The Festos is a big ship, and we didn’t really feel anything. The waves don’t really give you a sense of how windy it was out on the deck.

On Boxing Day we went for lunch to a taverna up on a mountain in the Episkopi region, near an evergreen forest that was planted some years ago. The food was very good, and there was a fireplace in the middle of the room. I took this picture of the valley below from the balcony, where tables are set in the summer.

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If there is a single reason why I’m living in Greece today, it may be because, about 120 years ago, next to a river in Ethiopia, a shutter opened in a camera for a fraction of a second and allowed the light to reach some film.

I don’t remember how I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I do remember that I bought the New Directions Season in Hell and later gave it to a friend before I could read it. I ended up buying another one, the well-thumbed copy I still have. That was about twenty years ago, when I was sixteen.

As an adolescent I was ripe for Rimbaud, except that I didn’t take drugs. I agreed with the principle of the derangement of the senses, or at least supported a metaphorical derangement of the imagination. Rimbaud himself renounced it in A Season in Hell, so I saw no reason to experiment with drugs just because he had (seemingly) advocated it.

Of course, when you’re sixteen, it’s hard not to become captivated by someone who had supposedly changed the face of literature at your age. I pored over A Season in Hell and Illuminations and Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins (the worst example of self-aggrandisement ever published, but I liked it anyway). I wanted Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, but for copyright reasons the book wasn’t available in Canada. A neighbour of ours had a sister in Ohio, and I sent her the money to order it and mail it to me. I read it so much that the glued binding cracked and entire sections of the book came loose.

Before I got the biography, though, I had one of the strangest experiences in my life, the only one I could really call mystical, although there was nothing religious or spiritual about it.

One of the things I found fascinating about Rimbaud was how, at the age of nineteen, or more likely twenty-one, he turned his back on literature forever and went to Africa to strike it rich. There were letters home to his mother and sister, but no one else in France ever saw him again. He disappeared. He walked into the heart of darkness and didn’t emerge till it had eaten him up inside. I was fascinated by the idea of an unrecorded, unwitnessed life (in this case the nearly unrecorded life, since there were the letters, and the accounts of those who knew him and worked with him in Africa), a life in which one did not care if any evidence of one’s existence was left behind or not. I imagined the lives of people like Verlaine, through whose lives Rimbaud had passed so tumultuously, how he had left such a mark on them before he vanished and became an unreal memory and two collections of poetry.

One day I was in Letters, the bookshop owned and operated by Nicky Drumbolis, and I bought the edition of Rimbaud’s complete works translated by Wallace Fowlie. When he saw that I was interested in Rimbaud, Nicky showed me some small French editions he had found in some bargain bins at a book fair. One of them was a biography, and was full of photographs and facsimiles of manuscript pages and drawings Rimbaud had made, and which others had made of him. I was spellbound by the wealth of material. And then, I turned a page and saw that there were two photographs of Rimbaud in his thirties in Africa. Before this, I had only seen pictures of the adolescent.

In one he was standing by a railing, possibly on a balcony, and in the other he was next to a river, his foot upon a rock and his hand resting on his knee. (I have searched online for the latter, but can’t find it. There is, however, another photograph that seems to be from the same time.) In the first photograph there were blotches on it, which I imagined to be spatterings of mud. In the second photograph his facial features were barely visible, but his skin looked as dark as tough leather.

I can barely describe what happened to me as I stood in the bookshop looking at those two photographs, which, by some miracle, had found their way out of Africa so that I, a century later, could see them. The fact that these had been taken at all was miraculous enough, but this was too much.

When I left the shop I walked along Queen Street, and everywhere I looked I saw traces of the nineteenth century: crumbling bricks on a wall by an empty lot; a faded, peeling sign over an abandoned storefront; upstairs, a dingy shade pulled down behind a grimy window. All around me was the romantic squalor of the big city. I felt as if I could walk into one of those rooms somewhere and find, as if hiding all these years, some Rimbaud or Verlaine, dressed in rags and shuffling yellowed papers with poems written in blue-black ink, poems that would be consigned forever to oblivion. It was like seeing ghosts everywhere. I felt partly in the twentieth century and partly in the nineteenth. All around the city, rooms held secret, unwitnessed lives, eternal and timeless. (I remember a line from a poem I had written around that time: “miraculous Mozarts anonymous among us”.)

After all these years, it is difficult for me to recapture and convey what I felt then and what private and personal atmosphere I carried around with me. I had become unstuck from my time, and I experienced a riot of the imagination. It was also a very isolating experience: no one else was privy to it. And it lasted for years.

I became very interested in old photographs, and especially the clothes people wore in them. For some reason, I often found myself focussing on the lapels in them. I started wearing tweed jackets and old overcoats I had bought in the vintage clothing shops in Kensington Market. Old barbershops and the smell of talcum powder, for some reason, were also particularly evocative for me.

Looking back on that time, I realise that those were the years when my iron was the hottest, when I had the greatest potential for becoming. I romanticised hardship, and I believe still that I could have endured a great deal of it. I sometimes think I could have done anything — written an epic, joined the Foreign Legion, got a tattoo.

Then, in the summer of 1987, while I was still deep in this sense of timelessness, I came to Greece for the summer by myself. I had been looking forward to it for months before, and felt I was visiting another time, and not just another place. I had been looking forward to the heat, too, which had figured so much in Rimbaud’s poetry and letters (“Women nurse those fierce invalids, home from hot countries.”).

That summer I came across the Greek version of the Georges Moustaki song “Le Meteque”, and I was convinced that it had been written about Rimbaud.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους.
Περπάτησα όλη τη γη μ’ ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους.
Μ’ αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα
κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή, αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη,
χαμένη μεσ’ το κρίμα.

Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό, από τον ήλιο τον σκληρό,
χάθηκα μεσ’ τη νύχτα,
κι ο έρωτας με πήγε εκεί πού ‘χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα.
Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή, περπάτησα σ’ αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω,
μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί, τ’ όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω.

Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό,
θά ‘ρθω ξανά κοντά σου,
μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή που σ’ άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου.
Θά ‘ρθω ξανά απ’ τα παλιά, σαν το πουλί απ’ το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω.
Θά ‘ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή, όλα θ’ ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ’ την αρχή θ’ αρχίσω.

Δημήτρης Χριστοδούλου

This is a loose translation, which does not pretend to be poetic:

Like a cloud alone in the sky, as a child I took to the roads. I walked the whole earth with a song in my heart and the rain on my shoulders. With these hands like wings that never felt joy I fought against the waves, and deep inside me was a wound, a love which never took root, lost in shame.

With a face made harsh by the fierce sun, I vanished into the night, and love took me to where I had a kiss ready on my lips, but I was all alone. With my heart a wound, I walked that piece of earth that it was my fate to walk, but they took away both my dream and the dawn, and I left again before I could begin.

Like a cloud alone in the sky, I will come to you again, in that same rain where I left you one morning, and my life was over. I will return from the past like a bird from the south to knock on your door. It will be a bitter spring, everything will be opening up on the earth, and from the beginning I will begin again.

Dimitris Christodoulou

The song captured all the melancholy (although perhaps melancholy is not a strong enough word) of Rimbaud’s story. It captured all the disillusionment, the sense of having lost everything that you held dear. Of course, it was the story any emigrant who was living in disappointment and was planning to return, but to me, back then, it was only Rimbaud. He never really returned, of course, but there’s nothing in the song that says the speaker will never return either.

(It is perhaps obvious to point out that in performance art, and in shorter literary works that can be read over again — I’m thinking about declarative lyric poetry — that future tenses repeatedly remain future tenses, but it needs to be pointed out because some writers can take advantage of the fact that if you return to the work twenty years later, the speaker will still be telling you about what he’s going to do any day now.)

This gave the song the same timeless, old-fashioned quality, the timelessness that had coloured everything around me after I saw the photographs in Letters.

When I came to Greece in 1987, it was only a few months after I saw the photographs, and when I arrived, I heard the song. The song was about a return that never occurs, about the unfulfilled desire to return, and I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d never been before, as I have tried to describe before. Greece has changed a lot since then, so that it no longer resembles the Greece of my febrile imagination of that time, but by the time I moved here in 1997, I had already invested so much of myself into this place that its changes made no difference. A major part of my sense of identity had become inextricably linked with leaving one place and never arriving in another.


PS While searching for photographs to include in this post, I came across one that was recently discovered by Claude Jeancolas. Rimbaud must be the one standing on the far left. It was taken in 1882 at Sheikh-Uthman, near Aden.


PPS Frankie the C. noted in the comments that a copy of A Season in Hell, signed by Rimbaud, was sold for over $600,000. He has sent me the picture of the cover. Strangely, Rimbaud’s name seems to have been scratched out. It must have been Verlaine’s jealous wife.

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Attic Light

I took a break from my work today to step out onto the balcony and take a few pictures. The sun was starting to set, it had been a cloudy day. I liked the contrast of the sky, the clouds, the buildings across the street.


I took a few in black and white to see how they’d turn out.

Later on, I was in the kitchen, making a pot of tea. I went into the living room again to change some music I was listening to, and saw an almost unnatural burst of colour in the sky. I ran to get my camera. Despite the brightness and vividness in the pictures, they’re still not as impressive as they were in real life. But then, that’s always the case.

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