By SIMON COLLINGS.
SOMETHING STRANGE WAS happening — I could feel it. There was a pattern, the sequence of past events seeming in retrospect to have been predetermined, each unpredictable step planned out for me. Every move it seemed had led inevitably to the next, though at the time they had appeared to be only a series of chance encounters. When I tried to reason this through, to evaluate my options and determine the best course open to me, I found I was doing exactly what I had resolved not to do. Though seemingly choosing freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine. Events, I found, might at any moment take an arbitrary turn, evolving in new and unexpected ways. There was no logic or coherence to this, other than its foreseeable incoherence. I was frequently surprised, thrown off course, discovering myself not to be the person I had imagined, but someone capable of acts which I had believed alien to my principles, actions which left me wondering if I had any integrity at all. Was I merely the plaything of forces I could not control and only glimpsed indirectly, a trace refracted in my own response, viewed after the fact like a shadow passing, a change in the intensity of the light so quick and subtle I could not be sure I hadn’t simply blinked? I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power. When I stopped striving I was quickly overwhelmed by a sense of lassitude. Nothing buoyed me up, nothing took control of me when I ceased to struggle. I felt the existence of my restraints only when I tried to move, and the more I fought the more aware I was of my dependency. It was precisely when I was most convinced that I was acting rationally, according to my own designs, weighing the pros and cons of an action carefully, exerting all my mental and moral strength, that I became conscious of the fallacy of my independence and knew, from the evidence of my erratic conduct, that I was in fact the product of someone else’s imagination.
J WAS IN the car park below. I could see him clearly, his broad familiar frame braced against the driving rain. He had once been a popular figure, and I was something of a follower myself. The fatalism of his sombre poetry appealed to me in my youth, with its bleak indifferent landscapes, the relentless cycle of death. But his star had waned, his later poems deteriorating into something of a parody of his earlier work, and few people now appeared to read him. Out there in the night he looked a diminished figure. Arms spread wide, he seemed to be wrestling the wind, as though the storm were the monstrous script of a universal drama in which he was doomed to play a part. Yellow birch leaves streamed down around him, covering the wet tarmac. It was a titanic struggle, into which he threw everything he had. Finally, after an intense and lengthy tussle the wind got the better of him, lifting him off the ground and carrying him away over the slate-black roofs of the houses.
Delivered by hand.
I HAD THE misfortune to be in the audience on Friday night for the performance of A Gothic Parade – what a dull and ridiculous entertainment you make of my life! I’m portrayed as a sort of moody oddball, a man whose music resembled Debussy’s (farcical) but was not as good. A dyspeptic, cantankerous eccentric, unable to reconcile himself to failure. Mon Dieu!
The pianist’s tempos were much too fast – my Gymnopédies transformed into jaunty musical baubles, my Vexations (which inspired Cage and Feldman) presented as the outpourings of a wounded heart – absurd!
Can I suggest that next year you engage a pianist who understands my music, and perhaps have someone read from my actual writings (without any half-witted editorial interference), and give your audience a chance to hear my work?
At the end of the performance on Friday, I noticed that a few people in the audience declined to applaud. I salute them heartily! Bravo! It’s a pity a few of them didn’t have the courage to get up and walk out. I would have were I not dead and no longer able to defend myself.
‘SUCH PLACES HARBOUR unusual energies,’ Saffron is saying, ‘spiritual presences you might call them. They appear to people in visions or waking dreams, sometimes as human or animal figures. It’s the land itself that conserves these energies.’ This is the first time Jo has met Saffron and she is wondering why Martin introduced them as ‘fellow poets’. She glances around at the other party guests, looking for someone she might draw into their conversation. But everyone seems absorbed in animated discussion. Martin, their host, is busy with the barbeque. He looks up for a moment and waves at her. Jo waves back. ‘Of course it isn’t everyone who can tune into these energies,’ Saffron says. ‘Only people with the necessary sensitivity are going to experience those visions.’ Jo finds herself stifling a yawn, but Saffron seems not to notice. She’s talking about an archaeological site she visited in Turkey where she saw the shadows of figures moving about in the ruins, the trace presence of people who had lived there thousands of years before. Jo nods. Her glass is empty, and has been for a while. ‘I think I might go and…’ she says, but Saffron carries on talking. ‘You think I’m crazy, don’t you?’ she says. Jo answers ‘no’, that she’s been following with interest. ‘Well let me see,’ Saffron continues. She pauses for a moment as though searching her memory for something. ‘You’re working on a sequence of poems just now, about moon goddesses, is that right?’ ‘How on earth did you know that?’ Jo asks. ‘I haven’t told a soul about them.’ ‘I can’t explain how I see these things,’ Saffron says. ‘They just come to me. I suppose it’s some sort of gift.’
IN HIS ACCOUNT of the years he spent as a castaway on a tropical island, Robinson Crusoe claims that he sighted penguins.* We know the approximate location of Crusoe’s island was in the Atlantic ocean, off the coast of northern Brazil. Penguins are common on the western coast of South America, and are found in the Galapagos islands, but their normal habitat does not include the part of the world where Crusoe was shipwrecked. It seems improbable that he would have seen penguins, and scholars have long wrestled with how best to explain the anomaly.
The American academic Wendell G. Beresford appeared to have solved the mystery in 1903 when he put forward the theory that Crusoe had simply made a ‘slip of the pen’ in a moment of distraction, having no doubt intended to write ‘pelican’. Beresford provided persuasive orthographic evidence from a fragment of the original manuscript to support this claim, and for many years this was accepted as the obvious explanation. But the ‘evidence’ later turned out to have been fabricated.
A rival theory advanced by the British scholar, Richard Bellows, in a study published in 1920, hypothesised that unusual climactic conditions during the year in question had caused a number of penguins to migrate to Crusoe’s island. But this theory has now been discredited, following advances in the natural sciences.
Perhaps the most intriguing theory is that put forward by the Mexican meteorologist Claudia Nubes in an article first published in 1989. Nubes suggests that Crusoe may have been the victim of an optical illusion. In certain, very unusual, atmospheric conditions, a low lying band of heated air can act as a kind of magnifying glass. In Crusoe’s case, Nubes suggests, a much smaller species of seabird was temporarily enlarged to his view as a result of such conditions, and was confused in Crusoe’s mind with the penguin. Nubes’ theory assumes that penguins were not among the birds Crusoe managed to kill and eat, which the ambiguity of the relevant passage would allow for. The fact that Crusoe nowhere else mentions penguins also provides some support for this idea.
*‘Here was also an infinite number of fowls of many kinds, some which I had seen, and some which I had not seen before, and many of them very good meat, but such as I knew not the names of, except those called penguins.’
If this were a dream, a typical interpretation might suggest it is some aspect of myself I wish to destroy. So I contemplate for some time the option of cutting his throat with a carving knife. Stabbing him through the ribs is another possibility I toy with. Both actions are available as plausible narratives, and their being available suffices, it seems, to diffuse the threat of his intimidating presence. Carrying out the actions becomes unnecessary, it is enough to simply imagine them, and the substance of the menace, in fact even the existence of my aggressor, becomes questionable, as though the progress of events has irrevocably altered the nature of their beginnings, and what appeared to be a tale about conflict and violence is now open to promiscuous possibilities. I lash out. The energy and ferocity of my punches are enough to render invisible an enemy with whom I never make contact. The darkness before me is an empty void, my fists meeting nothing but air, the face of the fiend not even glimpsed. Or I rehearse again in my mind a kick to the ribs, to the head, of my floored opponent, admiring the balletic grace of my invincibility as if I were a spectator. I replay these highlights at will, watching in slow motion the jolt of his head as my boot connects with his jaw.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.