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Alexandra Wallace Smith’s Idea of Privacy
My sister is striking. All the women in our family are. My Aunt Magdalene was extraordinarily beautiful too. They have spitfire personalities. Daddy, you know, you of all understand my hurried notes, the journals that I have kept from childhood continued to beyond, the journal, the rejected novel, the reckoning, the poems that I’ve scribbled, lost, that time and energy and ego forgot. Then there are the black Croxley notebooks. I am determined to keep that away from you, and from the rest of the world for good.
Muirhead wounded me. I think about all his women in the office space in Johannesburg before I came home to my childhood home in Port Elizabeth frightened to death of falling pregnant. Having a child out of wedlock. Becoming a single parent and raising a child on my own with very little money. I hardly made any money or had an income to support a child. How they protected him, laughed at his jokes, how they put him on a pedestal, how they worshiped him, how they sat opposite him in fancy Johannesburg restaurants drinking their cabernet or merlot. Thinking women, beautiful women, women with youth, naivety and sexual inexperience (although the sexual impulse, the sexual drive was there) on their side. How he winded hem up as if they’re electric dolls. I heated up the livers, mushrooms and bacon, the leftovers, scrambled the eggs and listened to the morning news on the radio. The bus coming in from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg had flipped into the air off the highway. There were no fatalities. The plums were juicy and sweet. I would save them for lunch. I sat at the kitchen table, buttered my toast, drank my lukewarm coffee, crossed my legs, scratched my knee absentmindedly and stared out of the window. The breakfast’s grease was stuck to the pan. I could forget about it. And the more aware I became of the sky, the environment, the internal, the more aware I became of who created the invention, vision, dream, goal, and end of this line of sky, of blue, of this writer, this tortured poet, this bird?
I felt his hand intimately as if it was a dream and then nothing. I felt ashamed.
The dream girl after leaving Johannesburg turned into a woman. She returned to the coast, to her father’s house, her mother’s kitchen, her mother’s wisdom and the thrones of her childhood continued, to the art of a heart undone. She returned to the coast where water could be found in wild places, where tides were subject to change, to the place where she spent magnificent blue hours staring up at the sky. She had her books. Her index finger would linger on the spine in her father’s grand study, his library, and his ‘London experience’. The house was dilapidated. It was in a bad way. The tiles were falling off the wall in the kitchen. The walls needed a lick of paint. The interiors were in need of repair. The whole house needed to be renovated. The dream girl had returned. The dream girl was also determined to change. She also wanted to be heroic, angelic and magical.
Writing about grief is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. Nerves I could fathom as I stood in front of them but what I really wanted to do was escape. Everybody always speaks about the miracle of life at a funeral. When death pays a visit there is no apprehension about discussing what music to play when the coffin is lowered, what hymns will be played, what verse will be read out of the bible, and who will make the potato salad.
Ocean of beads. Not meant to last long in this lifetime or the next. The people of South Africa are like that. My town is a dignified town filled with church people. In Central you will find the best girls in the world. They will detach themselves from feminism, and the tigers that come at night, their rivals in a finite time and place. They are moneyed. Drugs have destroyed the very art of their soul. Every gram of their spirits have wasted away. Muirhead. Flesh have come before you and after. The most brilliant parts of you portioned off like cubicles in an office space. Tell me everything you want me to be I would have said in my twenties. This doesn’t have to be the end of it but it is. It is. And still I say let it not be so. So comic. So tragic. I stand in this ice house. In this house from hell. Pale. The origins of smoke and mirrors, the cosmic bloodlines of my imagination, can be seen through the embodiment and timeline of my flesh.
Paper thin skating on ice is what I’ve yearned for my entire life. Not to fail, not to discriminate, but to create art in the landscape of suicidal despair and illness. All poetry and poetic justice seems to ask of us is to have a determined lust for life. I still need to familiarise myself with rituals that I found so comforting in childhood. Norma Jean where are you, where do you find yourself now, who are you and what is that golden reflection staring back at you? Is there anything more seductive than madness, than being blonde and being desired by the world at large, to be quiet about your philosophy on life, your starving ambitions to be a writer and a poet? To triumph like you have triumphed Norma Jean is to laugh in the face of men and women, of presidents, of feminists, to laugh in the face of the adversity that they have faced. No matter how brief, how solitary ecstasy is one can’t escape its urgency, its survival guide, that stain of love no matter how powerful and fresh it might be, how diminished it might make you feel in the end, you will discover that that experience was worth it. I left the madness and the heat of the city behind me in my early twenties. It will leave you beautifully grown now.
The universe is sweeter, purer, more honourable and I am less haunted, less ghostlike, less transparent, baffled by denial. I can’t erase the precious of life anymore and the fragility of it. How crushed and petrified my spirit once was. Am I, was I ever really loved? The women around me in life, in the workplace, in the sphere of immediate family were introspective cohorts. I am exhausted of writing about desire and that is the truth of the matter because in some way it is invincible like scrapbooking on anything on the inked tattooed patchwork planet that you live in. I’ve become a primitive woman in green spaces, green feasts of them, and foundations of winter trees of them. I’ve become an invention of a contemporary woman. The invention of the width of the thread of the other woman in a land that time forgot. What are the lyrics again to that song? What are the lines that time forgot in that journal on those cold, harsh blue, blue lines? I am tired of feeding the beasts galore but mustn’t angels always be defended? Who or what in essence defines an angel? An angel is the unseen, the invisible good and nobody can hardwire your brain like God can.
And what is desire really? Smoke and honey in the dance of anger, intimacy, duplicity and deception and the eternal obsession of all those things. It is meant for the gamine, the ethereal, and the otherworldly, the magical girl. The adolescent. Children are meant for women and what happens when you like writing about death. For me I value comments on death, on eternity, on the paradise of heaven, the consciousness-thinking in wishful thinking, the curious creatures that volcano people are and the many faces of saints. I’ve always believed in angels. The living keep on living while the dead turn to dust. There’s a gloomy aching, a canvas on which to play on, the haunting ache in my brother’s soul is the same ache which I have in my own. There’s a ghost nation in my head. The schools, the rooms, and all of the white walled interiors of my imagination. And if I close my eyes I can imagine all of our contours and the blue sharp light poured into the cages of the heavenly sky. The lover and the mother and the drowning blossom that was me. Dirt swimming-swimming in a watery spool gene pool of rubbish. The death of a pet and a poet painting this elusive world with lucid thought patterns.
Does decay, blood and the dark every get lonely and the groom with the unspoken passion he has for his bride? The bride in her wedded bliss. In her impossible high-heeled shoes. So I was there in spirit. If fish kissed oxygen they would surely die. Their pomegranate gills snuffed out of existence. What are the grains of poverty? Where do they lay? Are they sequestered? Their souls lie in South Africa, perhaps even take root there. Roots tapping into the life of the soil, the culture of the earth, tapping into the weight of water, or squalor (whichever it reaches first under the circumstances), preserving the fragility of telephones as life buoys, unspecified social media is the new sexy, tapping into spiritual poverty, the cemeteries of poverty, of the bone-tired. What sweetness! The unknown comes with anticipation. The anticipation of the awareness of surprise and the prying eyes of society. Where does my soul lie? It lay with you for a while I guess. Sated bride, uninvolved woman, beauty meeting the beautiful core of a masculine identity, and the physical body of a mysterious wellspring of the intelligence of the opposite of sexuality.
Alone, given way to religious abandonment, inhibitory nostalgia and the holiest of holies privacy, and with the solitude standing that comes with intimacy I think of you. You burnt through. You nothing but a burnt and melted fragment yet still dispelling radiance. You like the crested burnt end of a matchstick. Sooty cinders in the fireplace. Cinders from the coal. Cinders and smoke from your freshly lit cigarette. Give me mouth to mouth resuscitation so I can be brought back to life, your life. I think that the only thing that really mattered in the end, and that was made of a substance that could be harvested from the cells of a normal reality was in the steps of Jean Rhys’s haunting vulnerability. The haunting vulnerability of all women. I can see it in their eyes, their way they hold themselves accountable to shielding themselves from being put on display if it is not on their terms, the long road of their guarded pilgrimage into humanity, spirituality. Gods to be made of their reflections inside of the looking glass. I wonder how to stop stammering. How to escape into letter-writing. If I cannot escape into love, its poetic grace, mercy and use.
Into wincing at its threshold of pain and yet comprehending it at the same time. Comprehending the sun, moon and star fabric, the summer’s son and his empire. And so begins the letter to a brother in rehabilitation. Brother and anchor. The ‘filthy exotic’ ceramic little Buddha pottering around. You were the anchor that cemented me, my symphony, my instrument, my common goal, my oracle, my passion. You were my one route to follow homeward bound. What resides in the heart is this. The walls of a garden made of brick and mortar, stone and everything that is healing. Winter trees and Whitman. It is time for the show, finding Isaiah in the gritty switch of the loophole. Why didn’t you come once? Why didn’t you write once healthy specimen of possession, what is the tragedy of it all but are you happy, refreshed by all the seeds, roots, flowers and stems? I stared and stared at the photograph of him and wondered at the tragedy of it all. Speechless before the image evaporates completely something takes place and soon everything finds its place on neutral ground, in gravity, on earth or in soil. There is no promise in the dying of the sun only the angelic, the whispers underfoot.
There is new life in flowers, in love, in empathy and the passion that humanity has for empathy. Everything frail before it is lost. Lost to the dark. What is black and what is dark? Is it one and the same? The smell of cinnamon and bark. Salt and light. The colour of the day, dawn breaking into fragments. The stillness of the air. What are you made of Mr. Muirhead? Skin and bone, flesh and tissue, a succession of the physical melting away around you in your immediate environment? The noise in your head, in that rush, can you feel it in your blood, that illustration of possession. Where to from here from following a road map into the complex intrigue of a sheltered childhood continued, and there I found love. In the behaviour of an artist at work, the source of conversation, the self-portrait of human capital, everything heightened when it’s illuminated for example visions of the cosmos disintegrating, collapsing under meteors on film. Drawings of earth’s destruction, the bride of technological advancements, using the psychological framework of what came before the humanity as we knew it as children and as we grow older, become people with our own ideas to back up our values we change, and we change the world around us. We have Sci-fi to thank for that, Kubrick and Spielberg.
‘Do not lecture me. You don’t know anything about my scars.’ My brother tells me. He says it with his eyes too and I see a wild blue sky. Its journey is electric where its routes have become as important as the destinations of a diamond in the rough. Through the looking glass’s façade comes the first hurt, the poetry of my early twenties. Every family is dysfunctional in their own way. We live in a traumatic society. I seem to have been born with this intuition to be thoughtful and sensitive, understanding and caring to others who seem to be in a less privileged position than I am but it has come with a price. My brother with his cigarettes, stale smoke and moustache and the young woman on his arm who herself is a fragile beauty. They are both caught up in contemplative noise. They have found themselves only to fall amongst the stars. So I am left in mourning for what has been lost for both of them. A childhood.
‘But I love you. Please don’t do this.’ I say in return and I see a revolution taking place within him, the unbearable heaviness, and the uncivilised nothing of an echo vibrating like a shell casing. Something is let loose and communicated to me. Something bittersweet and sour.
And so I return to love, loss and the elated respect I have of both of them. There is something within both the innerness of the tools for eternity (there is no physical body required for eternity, only the spirit, the soul, and kindred). There’s an equilibrium in the territory of the emptiness sometimes found in a human vessel after the sexual transaction and a symphony. Rhys’s transactions and now I have become somewhat like her. I think that I have lost myself in the final analysis the desire to become desirable. What would Moses do? I wouldn’t be able to pick up the telephone and call him up. He would pray in the wilderness history he found himself in. There was nothing else he could do in the circumstances he found himself in. He had a flame within himself that burned bright. Romance well what can I say besides what a harsh experience that was. It was hellish. Love is a posed interlude, a pause between two acts, oh how it changes everything about a bleak world experience, materialism, values, poverty, and that prime commodity of spirituality. You will be as beautiful to me now as you will be in old age. I will remember you, hope for you, and that this romance will go forward and go on and on but my soul lies in South Africa where the pain of the mind can be more devastating, felt more acutely than the pain of the body. What taints the pain of a child feeling that another sibling has taken her place, overshadowed her. Let me now investigate that distillate.
Daddy would read my journals.
He would read them with the savage intent of a beast. What on earth was he searching for?
He read it over and over again furiously. With the-passion-a-father-has-for-his-daughter. With-a-kind-of love-medicine bordering-on-incest-in-our-ghost-house. You never completely grow out of searching for longing (I think here I was playing-the-same-mind-game my father was as he was looking through my thick black scrawl, my scribbling) you never completely grow out of that either like playing bingo or scrabble. I knew that my mother and her sisters, the-Johannesburg-people, (my mother was the youngest out of all of them) treated me differently.
A child can feel the onset of the lack of mother-love like the early death of men in the faces of their fathers, their older or younger brothers. The world is always different for beautiful women. Nobody asks of them. And what of the illumination-of-pain, its identity-death-kit, and what-of-the-roast, what-did-you-do-with-the-giblets? It is not as if they sit and think about the psychological analysis in the cerebral cortex of Ingrid Jonker’s black butterflies or Ingrid (still a beautiful woman) as she would have been in the autumn of her years surrounded by family, her family, her daughter, her grandchildren, manuscript after manuscript published and unpublished.
Once she was a daughter who lived for a short while in exile in Europe. But what is Europe? What is the London, Austrian, German, Parisian, the Scandinavian experience? Lonely cities every one although lovely but lonely especially if you have no one to share it with. The sights-the-sounds, everything illuminated, every image an illusion, accents, the aroma of coffee, freshly baked bread wafting in-the-air. Even the night glare is different in each city as different as it was for Carson McCullers as she set out to write her autobiography. Why is it that women, that it is female poets who are touched with an almost self-imposed exile in the hours leading up to before they end their life? I mean all the greats were like that. The great female poets, writers. The-English-the-Afrikaans-speaking and the American-Russian-European-paper-tiger-empresses.
They’re the source of inspiration for male writers, for their female contemporaries, for the generation that wants to live forever, for posterity, recorded in the annals of time for researchers who can be found behind the spires of university gates. Who want their poetry to be published in slim volumes, sold to their families and friends? To be criticised would be the death of them. For their poetry to be held up to the world, to a critic in jest would be the death of them. It would mean the end of that ode, or that sonnet, or the territory of the haiku, their beautifully-handwritten notes forever about the joys and the feast of autumn (here I think of Keats, the oh-so-talented and beautiful Rupert Brooke, the Romantic poets, the stunning verses of the war poets, old men, young men, the talented, the not so gifted but who find it within themselves to see the world and to write about it every day). Rolling hills through their beautiful eyes will be as soft, gentle, and voluptuous as a beautiful woman.
Her skin will be as rich and creamy and thick as thick slices of bread and butter, and the sea will eventually become breadcrumbs dusted off the kitchen table (useless, used over and over, described in hundreds of ways already and would have died a hundred deaths as well. I mean isn’t there only so many ways that you can describe the sea, its dreamy reality, its fishy airs-and-graces, fish with blinking-eyes that can only conjure up plankton, fish with bleeding gills like slits, the waves, all of their brilliant power, magnificent symmetry, imaginary and not imaginary sea-green brutality-against a drowning man or woman or shark-infested-waters). The woman, the angelic goddess-muse well her skin is ripe, her flesh, blood and the throne of bones that her cells rest upon will become as rich as tea to him. Watch out for them, these poets for although their hearts long for solitary life they will need the laughter and screams of children around them, a woman’s conversation too.
They think (a grave error on their part) that their personal space must be filled with a great amount of sacrifice, loneliness, that to be a poet they must only think pure thoughts. Thoughts of wuthering heights, and that they must have little writing rituals even though they think they are mocked by their peers. They think they must suffer to be a poet. They must live somewhere out in the countryside and always write and think with a brilliant clarity of vision. And the best of them unfortunately think a lot about living in poverty, not having a stable income and not being able to provide for a wife and a family, finding a house.
Most especially they think that they are about to fail miserably even before they attempt to write a masterpiece. A man’s poetry well their stems will be rewarded. They will grow, they will find their own journey, their own routes to follow and be nurtured and be peeled from the sky. But it is much easier for a man to find solitude, to find peace and rest, find a little piece of heaven for the roots of his poetry to take. A man will read voraciously, eat voraciously, have a quick temper if his friends do not find his ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ up to scratch and of course they, the male of the species must be free to travel to obscure places, ‘oblivion’, to leave if he pleases.
He must drink a little too in the spirit of things because it is in every poet’s nature, that and to fall in love too. And the best of them well they will sink into despair. They will think that everything they write is a failure. They will hide from the world, seek the company of other men because this is what all men do with notebook in hand and hands stained with ink they will want a stamp of approval. They will want someone to say there is depth there. And the best of them, the brightest star amongst them, and the cleverest will take their critics to heart and just sometimes it will crush him and his epic consciousness.
A drawing in the sand was never enough for me as a child. I was a child who wanted to be like Keats, an angel from another realm. I was an Alice-in-wonderland chasing after her white rabbit. I was a collector. Scattered-heaps-and-brushes-with-dandelions, earthen-potpourri, picked up (investigate-them-first-then-clean-them) shells on the beach, gulls feathers, pieces of driftwood, I tampered with stamps, ephemera, postcards, letters from overseas, from pen pals, school certificates (I shone with success, merits and excellence), notable stage roles (leads and supporting), photographs of family dead and alive, healing and in recovery, ribbons and barrettes for my hair just like Sylvia Plath when she was at Smith. I saw the miraculous healing power, instrument and hand of God in everything that I touched, stole, hid away from painted sight, and that I looked at in my treasure box (an old shoebox that used to be filled with Sunday school shoes with buckles.
I used to wear them with white school socks). I needed a network of dead poets around me, female poets, mother-figures (please don’t try and psychoanalyse me on that one because I think it is quite obvious). There was life. A life to live for and to die for. My mother entertained me or rather I entertained her like a circus-freak I think. Is it horrible, is it awful to think something like that, that your mother was a monster? Because of the way she treated me she educated me (I was Alice. A girl who became a woman overnight planting seeds in a volcano-garden. I grew up very quickly in that house with no visible address marking it on the outside. It was also not listed in the telephone book. Pinkish-light-streaming-through-my-curtains-on-a-Saturday-night-the-telephone-that-never-rang-for-me-on-a-Saturday-night. I needed to talk to the dead. I must write I felt about what I was being taught to feel, think, and wonder about the world around me by the women-around-me-the-female-greats-I-discovered.
What was I seeing? Poverty, poverty of the mind, Dambudzo Marechera’s cemetery of the mind, spiritual poverty, children, smiling, laughing, screaming children living in poverty. There had to be an explanation for putting on a fur and then getting into a car, turning, twisting the key in the ignition and then inhaling the fumes of carbon monoxide. Anne Sexton. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Live or die she said, she growled, she moaned, she hissed under her breath. There had to be an explanation for a woman who lives to save the lives of her children and then sticks her head in the oven. Sylvia Plath.
And then there was Ingrid Jonker who drowned herself. Beautiful women. Sad women. Women who suffered. Women like me who felt terminally like Alice-in-wonderland. How do I explain that? I was a child. And I was a strange child. I was reading D.H. Lawrence in primary school. Not age-appropriate. Not that I could understand very much of it. My parents were very over-protective. My siblings and I lived a very sheltered existence. In school I was infatuated with Holden Caulfield and then when I became older even more so with the elusive Salinger. I yearned for mother-love. Perhaps that is why I write today.
I sell my slim volumes of poetry to my father’s family and friends. I don’t think that this world knows what to make of me. Poetry to me is a wilderness-history. I love it there. It’s so organic. I am the creator embroidering chain stitches, and there’s not a dead thing about them, they’re so elegant, leaving me feeling satisfactory, pure and wholesome. When I write it’s as if I am operating under the direction of another. The connection is permanent. Fingers weave silver linings, active, endless imaginings like clouds. Nothing is wasted, even the wild has a certain sweetness rough though it is. Thoughts are like skin, faintly in the beginning they are haunting and secretive, damning, larger than life, winter in my hands revisited again, and again ravishing me. They never touch my physical body though. Those fingers. There is no voice. Believe me it is easy for a child to think if she writes down the words on paper that roses are red that she is communicating with the dead.
The adult in me wants a room.
A quiet room in the sun and that receives a fair amount of light. An artist’s room. Artists need light like they need their workspace and their muse, their models, their inspiration, their entourage and of course a wife who would also function as a wonderfully efficient housekeeper. The room must only have the essentials. Of course like in Vincent van Gogh’s room there must be a bed and a desk. I have no use for an easel.
From my room I will watch the world go by and think of girls dancing in the pale moonlight arm-in-arm with their boyfriends or their husbands-to-be like my mother once was. She forced, dragged my father to go to dancing lessons. He was so terrible, always stepping on her toes. In the end it’s the ghost of my grandmother’s sea that saved me really if I have to be honest. I gave myself up to the tenderness in the dark but I could feel them in my childhood-bedroom, that I was always at their mercy, that they (other poets ‘life drawings’, my companions for life) needed me a little too much. In the end it’s the ghost of my paternal grandmother’s sea that saved me really if I have to be honest. She was a maid, a domestic worker who also did washing and ironing and raised five children and my grandfather worked as a barman. He would go down on his hands and knees, a grown man and scrub the floors of that country club. At night he would eat his leftover plate of grease of meat and potatoes. A plate of grease. Gosh he had beautiful hair. Of course he had also gone off ‘fought in the war’ in Kenya and when he returned to Port Elizabeth, to the suburb of South End (before the forced removals, the Group Areas Act, Europeans only understand, and apartheid seized the hearts and the minds of the white minority) he was given a bicycle (a bicycle you understand) and a coat. And when he died they gave his medals to my father. The black sheep of the family. You see, that I don’t understand at all. Guess what? I gave myself up to the tenderness in the dark. I could feel them. I was always at their mercy, that they (other poets, my companions for life) needed me a little too much.
I guess the grief that they had carried throughout their own lives had not been enough for them, to silence them. Even in death they thought out of the box.
The voices. I promised them everything will come out in the end for the good, for the good, and that I will permit it.
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