By JOHN WILKINSON.
THERE IS A violet tuck running through my life, suppressed and undiagnosed, a weal that has now been given a name, not venereal although a stain similar to gentian, not localised, a stain that unlike potassium permanganate shows neither intricate structure nor the structure of One, neither the symptom nor the instrument, it is a tuck in disinherited memory, shapeless, not tucked in, not a fringe nor a gap so much as a hypertrophic absence, as this sentence itself shows.
This tuck or weal I have known when meeting another in a shock of recognising what was never before known, impossible surely, and have repeatedly done so but never connecting it with previous recognitions, either the unfathomable familiar or a scarcely discernible play of light, an iridescent flash. How to recognise the never-yet-named, beyond detection? It is through the feeling of being forgiven without preceding fault or guilt. Such forgiveness sounds like an enfolding asylum, and if I write about it poetically, its analogue is an asylum of sound. For all that, the violet tuck is not an asylum, even if an asylum, a structure of corridors, a structure of echoes giving onto locked rooms, looms across the mnemonic moat or ridge. ‘Giving onto’ implies a prospect in the eighteenth-century sense, but this paragraph’s echoes give onto blanks or muffles.
If I should search online for violet tuck and asylum, what any search that includes ‘asylum’ now pulls up are reports of freedom denied, or people turned back in leaky boats or detained in a no-place of suspension. I might succumb to an invitation to think such denied people are tucked into a place of absence, tucked away, if it weren’t that being ‘tucked’ conjures a child tucked in at bedtime by mother once she has turned back the covers. Inviting this isn’t. Asylum as a measure of care and humanity seems destined to transfigure, as the most charitably endowed and progressively managed Victorian lunatic asylums did, into a place or even a placeless zone of the forgotten and brutalised out of sight out of mind. A violet tuck, turned back. And stapled.
You would imagine violet tuck even pregnant in its absence could not produce offspring, but apparently it’s left a mark in me like a streak of aniline dye, most likely mauveine, aniline purple or Perkin’s mauve – invisible in some inaccessible interiority. A nineteenth-century English chemistry student, William Henry Perkin, was assigned during his Easter break the project of making quinine from aniline as a cure for malaria, and, in his failure, he synthesised a blue purple dye he first called Tyrian purple and later mauvine or Perkin’s mauve. In 1862, Queen Victoria made an appearance at the Royal Exhibition in a silk gown dyed with it, oddly vulgar for an empress to wear the purple. At least the eponymous Perkin did leave a memory trace, although his name now attaches to but one alternative, according to Wikipedia, for a particular offspring of Perkin’s mauve used or once used in the food industry, rosolan, violet paste, chrome violet, anilin violet, anilin purple, Perkin’s violet, indisin, phenamin, purpurin and lydin. Seeking a violet tuck, I arrive at a colour swatch – of one colour and many names.
‘Lydin’ however is now a trade name in India for the antacid ranitidine, a drug recently withdrawn in the USA after traces of the toxic NDMA were discovered in pharmacy samples. NDMA presents as a yellow liquid, and was once manufactured into an ingredient in rocket fuel called unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, a usage discontinued after high NDMA levels were found in air, water and soil near a rocket fuel plant. It is a virulent carcinogen. Enough to turn the stomach. Yellow is the colour complementary to purple, in this connection prompting thoughts of bile. If I shut my eyes after looking at absent violet I see absent yellow. Absences blank out in mutual cancellation to produce these entered, positive keystrokes.
Or perhaps the violet dye concerned was Crystal Violet aka Gentian Violet, at one time used in fingerprinting and still used in body piercing, markers of identity both voluntary and involuntary. This particular violet concoction, Crystal Violet, tells you who you are, you are unique, you show you are unique; Crystal Violet isn’t in itself a mark of identity but an agent for exposing or proclaiming identity, although at the same time it belies a claim to uniqueness through matching a prior trace or announcing an allegiance to mother or gang, much as this tuck, this hypertrophic absence unfolds what now loosely gets referred to as my DNA. Or this writing’s anyway.
What was the dye chosen by Nazi guards when tattooing camp inmates with numbers, effected by a fearsome instrument like a weaponised file-punch? Concentration camp numbers seem in photographs to be blue-black, but clearly the cloth triangles worn by Jehovah’s Witness inmates were a vivid violet. Who supplied the dyes used? The full official name of the infamous manufacturer of the genocidal gas Zyklon B, IG Farben, translates as ‘The Community of Interests of Dye-making Corporations’. As it happens, the headquarters of IG Farben had been built on the site of the so-called Bedlam Castle outside Frankfurt, demolished in 1929; this lunatic asylum had been part-financed by the Frankfurt Jewish community and was the first in the area to accept Jewish patients. Bedlam rises on the horizon.
Many labourers in the aniline dye industry died from bladder cancer, yet in another twist, like a rope of currents in a fast-moving stream, the pioneer immunologist Paul Ehrlich used aniline dyes for stains that enabled understanding of red blood cell development and of leukaemia, and went on to synthesise effective agents against syphilis. Eventually chemotherapy agents for cancer were developed out of aniline dyes. The ironies around dyestuffs resemble the ironies around asylum but with the ironic compass turned in a more positive direction. As a child I fiddled with a microscope and slides and with potassium permanganate crystals and my fingers were empurpled. I left my fingerprints all over. We approach the stain, start to distinguish blood cells.
My father married a Violet Tuck when she was 19 and he was 32, and she was later committed to an asylum according to scant family lore. They were not divorced until twenty years after the marriage, although presumably long separated. About thirty years after marrying, my father died of bladder cancer, having worked, in some unspecified capacity, with aniline dyes early on. Late in life he married his secretary, in an uncanny parallel to T. S. Eliot’s first and then late marriages, but whether the distress that led to Violet’s detention in an asylum had much in common with Vivienne’s distress I don’t know (a relative assumes Violet was bipolar). Neither do I know which asylum received her. Vivienne Eliot (a name in which Violet is tucked) was committed to Northumberland House, a private asylum in Finsbury Park which my father might not have been able to afford. Since he and Violet lived together (for how long?) in North Road, Clapham (in South London), Bethlem (that is, Bedlam) would have been most likely, possibly the notoriously decrepit Cane Hill. Brackets introduce everywhere in this paragraph. Inexplicably, Violet Tuck is recorded as having died in Vancouver, bracketing all other information.
With Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, the violet hour recurs as the eventide bringing into sharp and estranged focus, activities and settings which otherwise are banal; they become endowed with significance in the way a carefully-framed black-and-white shot of a bedsit becomes emblematic of a life’s shrinkage – unless captioned as the home of an artist who would go on to become famous, or had notoriously endured neglect or ‘reduced circumstances’. But Eliot’s violet hour is usually glossed as referring to Eliot’s marriage to Vivienne, to the dreary automatism of the day whereby a typist, returning from her automatic production of words not hers, remains an automaton in returning to her domestic life – the violet hour itself ‘lays out food in tins’ while her half-heartedness shows in breakfast things left out through the day. What writes? Who speaks?
This essay could finish with a vial of violets cracked open, spilt or distractedly dabbed under the ears, to leave a lingering scent. But there is not so much evidence to go on. In Shakespeare’s late play, Cymbeline, Imogen sleeps, her eyes weak from reading:
She hath been reading late
The tale of Tereus; here the leaf’s turn’d down
Where Philomel gave up.”
Her bedchamber is being investigated by Iachimo:
I will write all down:
Such and such pictures; there the window; such
The adornment of her bed; the arras; figures,
Why, such and such”.
Having had her tongue torn out, Philomela, whose story Imogen was probably reading in Ovid, will according to variable legend either dart silently as a swallow, flickering at the edge of vision, or visit on humanity her “plaintive anthem” as a nightingale.
Iachimo’s monologue is overheard by the audience but unheard by Imogen and so is a model of lyric. This essay too exposes a working engine of lyric, by way of hypertrophic absence. For a few lines later in the monologue occurs a line I took for an epigraph to ‘Birth Spasms’, a group of poems much tainted with aniline dyes, albeit a range of reds, in my book My Reef My Manifest Array: “To th’ trunk again, and shut the lid of it”. Most of what I have drawn on here was unknown to me when I wrote ‘Birth Spasms’, including the name Violet Tuck, here remembered and dismembered.
John Wilkinson’s recent books of poetry are My Reef My Manifest Array (Carcanet 2019) and Wood Circle (The Last Books 2021). His critical book Lyric in Its Times (Bloomsbury) was published in 2019, and a book of essays, The Following, by The Last Books in 2020.
Note: From another point on the spectrum, see also “Yellow” by Dan Coyle.