Tilting the world

As a child, at some point and many points, I watched my father making something; and I commented on and asked about what he was doing.

For example: "Dad, why do you saw the wood slightly to one side of the pencil line?" or "Dad, why do you drill a hole that is slightly too small?" And he would explain.

He told me about things that one did in all similar circumstances. Rules. If A then B. By so doing, one achieved repeatable results.

He had learned these things by asking, by watching and by experiment. Once he learned it, he tried to follow the acquired rule, without variation. He was, in that, sometimes a trial to my mother, because he applied the principle to eating as well. He had decided that he knew the range of appearances that food could take and he didn't run any risks.

My mother experimented on me, but she was reluctant to divulge too many culinary secrets to a male. Her knowledge was in her head, most of it learned from her mother and little of it, to her, explicable, though she was highly intelligent, they both were. You did what you did and it worked. She measured by eye and with the palm of her hand as a scale. She calibrated these systems internally by some means which seems not to have relied on abstract numeration. She preserved, she made pies and soups, she plucked and pulled chickens - intermittently we got rabbits and various fowl from a bloke in Kent and they arrived in the state they died in. One very old recipe book, she had, aimed at making the most of wartime rations; and a kitchen craft learned from her mother whose kitchen craft had been learned from her mother.

"What's that for?" I asked, as she put something in something. "Give it some flavour," came the reply, before, perhaps, she dashed the bowl briefly beneath a 5/12ths open cold tap. I found a measuring jug in her kitchen after her death. I never saw her use it. I had never seen it before. She had a limited repertoire of dishes, with discouragement to expand it. It was always good.

Routines of labour were followed by two bright people whose universe was closely bordered by mystery, but known and mechanical within. It was quite an animal response. You do what you do. It is good.

Her chores done, when they were done, my mother talked to whomever was available; or she listened to music on the radio and remembered her dancing days. When she talked, whatever the subject, it was in a series of stories, each with its own reactive flow. One fragment of her mother's, which she told once, started its own life in seventeenth century Ireland... another, that she picked up in a grocers on Old South Lambeth Road, told of Regency London. Illustrative moral tales, sometimes; but, usually, telephone exchange bundles of picaresque oral rambles, each with a folk surreality and a risqué edge which belied her propriety.

She had her boilerplate phrases, but she hardly ever actually repeated herself. She could recall long conversations verbatim; she could mimic with cruel accuracy; she appropriated whatever she heard.

She rarely wrote anything except a shopping list - though she was highly functionally literate and taught me to read and write to a considerable extent before I went to school - but pencil-sketched effortlessly and fluidly. She could sit at a piano and play a tune at one hearing, then vamp or vary it. The piano was pockmarked by cigarette burns, cigarettes she forgot once she got going on the keyboard.

On all such occasions, she was changed. Weariness left her; and, when it had arrived, age left her. She became slightly unrecognisable to me, though I recall now and understand my father's recognition.

And he, too - he would sometimes stare into a middle distance and find another person of and in himself. He'd draw something on a scrap of paper; then he'd stare ahead again; or he'd go and change the oil in his car, far away mentally and deaf to my mother's call that he be careful of his suit. A day or 2 later, he'd be late home from having been plugging this into that to see what happened. He invented, in such states, a number of things which, had he registered them, might have earned; but they earned for his employers whose little factory was a tangle of my father's prototypes.

I didn't see that intuitive side of my father often, but it was always there, like a low fire banked in. He, too, was verbally agile, with a good sense of humour; and the two of them together could generate puns and complex daft jokes tied together with wit and tangles of unravelling stories that, if they never quite finished, always seemed to have started before you were aware of them starting.

In my teens, one morning, he came into the living room, not expecting me to be awake, and greeted me, which is more than I deserved for some years. He had a tea cosy on his head. We both kept a straight face. Then, he took it off before I could speak. "Oh that, that's my chauffeur's uniform. I was trying to drive to work, but I couldn't get the bed started." I asked why not and he said "Your mother wouldn't believe me"; and in came my mother, looking about 12.

If you want to know about my writing, that's probably all you need to know. That environment is where I learned most of the little belief in any value I still retain; except that I have read more books than circumstances allowed them to, and that I have met some very remarkable and clever people from whom I have tried to learn.

Repetition and slog deliver a lot, but things get most interesting when one rides on the insubstantial, like Douglas Adams' idea of throwing oneself at the ground in such a way that one misses... Or: writing a poem is like carrying a full glass or taking a crumbling path; one can only do it easily when one is not really aware of what is going on. Know what it is you are doing and the flair goes out of it and you spill the glass or yourself.

Poetry as a set of greatest hits is not as much fun as pop music... I'd rather watch a comedian than poetry as a comedy routine... Poetry is a defence against the repetitive and the known and the drive in them to make everything repeat and have everything known. It is a participation in exstasis, in tilting the world till it feels straight, intercourse rather than mere communication or insemination, an attempt to step through the same river once.

[This story started out as a draft statement for the anthology On Word. Most of it is inappropriate for that purpose, and I have made a new statement. However, several paragraphs - the ultimate and penultimate and part of the antepenultimate, which I felt I could not improve upon, are shared between that statement and this story.]



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Copyright © Lawrence Upton, 2000

awrence Upton, 2000.