Memory Maps: 'Clouds of Memory' by Lisa Appignanesi
Sometime in the spring of 1971, I travelled to Essex. It was a long journey. I came from New York, from dank east village streets where the young runaways clad the oily pavements like strange blossoms and gave off a heady whiff of decay. I came from the nightlong noise of sirens along Amsterdam Avenue, and skyscrapers so tall they were only visible from the sky which was itself hardly visible from the ground.
The campus with its four towers, small lake and old manor was bathed in sky and an activity of cloud. The rest felt very quiet. My heels on the paving stones of the first square set up an uncomfortable stir.
The interviewing committee gave me a job in spite of it. Or maybe the noise helped. During that last year in New York, I had learned that to be heard you had to speak up and career across your high octane neighbour. But maybe it was the jet lag that did it. It pulled a switch and had me saying anything that came into my mind. Or maybe it was the woman on the panel. Back then, there weren't many women on panels. Or even on staff.
I arrived at the University to take up my post a few months later. It was a time long ago. A time before the triumph of central heating and Tesco's Superstores, before mobile phones and Google Earth. Before everyone in Britain had an accent, and you could emphatically tell the difference between the voices of miners and the BBC. It was a time when names were always a variation on Brown and Blair. I told everyone simply to pronounce mine Smith. In Essex I was distinctly foreign. It wasn't a place that liked me. Maybe that's one of the reasons I've managed to forget so much of those two years.
The four local skyscrapers gave the place a boxed flatness. It was neither town nor country nor suburb, but a thing unto itself, a campus, a briefly strung together community which staff left to students at night.
I had an office overlooking a quod. It belonged to an absentee, but the space it offered was a good space. Light flanked it on one whole side. I stared at the light. It was always filled with water. On the dull days, its grey lack scooped away at the edges of things. The students came. They were new. Shy. Just a little shyer than me. We were almost of an age and we sat opposite each other thinking about Baudelaire and Brecht. There was Shakespeare, too. One of them said, the problem with Shakespeare was that he used too many words.
I remember that and the light and Robert Lowell. He was already a legend. The Poet who in 1967 had marched on the Pentagon, marched against the Vietnam War and in aid of draft resisters, with Noam Chomsky and Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. I had read Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night. I had even read Lowell:
… I sat in the sunset
shade of their Bastille, the Pentagon,
nursing leg-and arch-cramps, my cowardly
foolhardy heart; and heard, alas, more speeches
though the words took heart now to show how weak
we were, and right.
But the Lowell who had seared himself into me was the Lowell of the Life Studies: young as I was, their agony came to me as romance. In my early twenties, I felt I could share in 'The Woe that is in Marriage'…
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
And hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
Free-lancing out along the razor's edge…
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust…
It's the injustice…he is so unjust -
This figure compounded of myth and genius appeared in my life from nowhere. I can't remember who introduced us. It was in one of the corridors. What I do remember is the largeness of him. He was both vast and strangely vulnerable, a big angular clumsy man, with a white mane of melancholy hair and eyes to match, unless they smiled in sudden mischief from behind his glasses. He was kind to me, oddly kind, unnecessarily so, chatting, taking me in, making me feel less of a stranger - or at least creating that complicity of outsiders between us - both of us misfits, somehow, in this world of the English campus, which threw back our strangeness at us. Neither of us could quite hit the right note or laugh or gesture. He strode above the strangeness. I beneath. Or that was my unspoken fantasy of it. One scene stands out from the flow.
We are sitting at a wooden table outside the pub. Pint glasses deck it. Mostly empty. Lunchtime. The sun, having been absent all day, shows itself. In the distance there's the rat tat tat of gunfire, the mournful staccato from the army practice range which punctuates campus life. It's cold. I can see myself from behind which is mostly the way I see myself in memory, since that me is rarely me. I'm wearing fur.
Lowell unfolds the slouch of his length, a little hunched, mournful, unsteady. Then towering to his full height, he stretches his arm out in a great prophetlike panoramic sweep of a gesture which seems to embrace field and sky, which seems to travel to a far-away coastline and beyond, even to America. His voice with its slight stammer, as if language and speech weren't altogether his to master, holds a chuckle. 'Just like sunset in Kansas,' he pronounces. 'Lunchtime in Essex is sunset in Kansas.' He grins and grins, and the 'we' I can't remember all laugh, laugh uproariously, laugh because the sun and light have gone and it's barely two o'clock and we're in Kansas.
On the plane to Italy wishing more memory of the kind that attacks the senses, I conduct a Proustian experiment. I try to remember by not remembering. I try to wait without waiting for some kin of the madeleine to explode in my mouth and wing me back to an Essex which simply doesn't want to be there. I doodle. I glance at tiny reproduced images of Constable trees and weather, the visual signposts in the Essex memory map.
Outside the light decides to dazzle with the sun's rising. Banks of cloud, thick as snow emerge below me, scooped and ridged by invisible wind ploughs. In the distance, little snow cloud hillocks rise. When I was small we used to roll their likeness into the base of snowmen. I can almost see the small brown rubber boots with their metal clasps plodding through the snow, leaving whorled tracks. For a vertiginous moment, the world develops tangible layers. This is no metaphor of mind. I know there is another world beneath this bright snow. That buried archeological stratum holds houses lining streets, eventual hills, an airport, its own time. But they have vanished utterly. They might as well be memory and we up here are in a separate snowy vastness with its own sun.
It is when the earth breaks through, that I do, too. The loamy mud brown of it forms a cubist flatness of squares and rectangles, fringed by green. The colour is that of a field in winter. A lonely field in which a tiny twinned cottage suddenly takes shape. I spent the cold Essex nights in a cottage like that. That wind-racked winter field, the old stone cottage on a road to nowhere was where I lived. There was one bar of heat, and an open fire I didn't know how to lay. I wore my arctic fur to bed and then to breakfast. I wore it after I had washed my hair and combed it out in front of the single bar. I wore it while I waited for a lover on his bicycle and thought of Mariana of the moated grange, though being quite sure of Proust, I had never really known what a moated grange might be and thought this might be a good likeness. In the morning the clouds through the half frosted windows might show a fluff of white cloud, of the kind that Constable painted when he was rehearsing. I was happy in the iciness of that cottage.
As the plane floats closer to the mud brown, my eye pauses on another in the tiny strips of images I have taken with me in order to ponder my memory map. Through flattened perspectives, a restaurant of sorts invites. Warm honey wood and red. And I remember something which feels as if it bears the discomfitting embarrassment of real emotion. Yes. The trouble is that I don't know if it's true. My mind may be playing tricks on me; playing with images, transferring emotions, performing a photoshop on the visual clutter of memory.
I am in a restaurant. I think it's in Wivenhoe. I'm with my parents. 'Jolie,' my mother says. My father says nothing. He doesn't like villages. Didn't like villages. He's dead now. They're both dead now. As is Robert Lowell, who died in New York in 1977. He is with us, though I hadn't remembered I had introduced him to my parents when they came to visit, all the way from Montreal. Maybe I didn't introduce them. But the memory is there. Why would I do anyhing so lethally embarassing.
My father who prefers not to speak, since English isn't and only silence is his natural language, cuts into a British version of steak. My mother, who speaks all the time in a charming siren's babble of words which sound like French whatever the language is and is certainly Parisian in its accompanying gestures, is saying to Lowell who seems charmed by the blue of her eyes,
'My daughter, my daughter… First it's South sex, Now it's East sex. England is funny, non?' She laughs and laughs. And Robert Lowell laughs too. As if such vagaries had never struck him and weren't beneath the Brahmin of him
I know I will sink beneath the honey pine bench and die of embarassment. I am at the age where I can still die of embarassment.
And as I do so on that plane bound for Italy, my student daughter leaps into my mind, almost the age I was then in Wivenhoe with Lowell and his puppy-like grin and my embarrassing, distinctly foreign parents. And she scowls in fury, scowls as she always does when I attempt humour with her friends.
And I know, as the generations tumble through me and time folds into Essex that I have made all this up. Or it has made me.
© Lisa Appignanesi