Mother; Beautiful Things — Imogen Cassels

‘For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appal me. From the way I’ve been talking anyone would think that H’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself.’

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)[1]

It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.’

Denise Riley, ‘An awkward lyric’, Say Something Back (2016)[2]

My mother died this summer. I stumbled, blinking out of the gloom of my finals to the news of her re-diagnosis; went home; travelled back to my yellow-tinted university town to celebrate freedom with my friends; graduated, went home. A month or so later, we learned my mother’s treatment did not work, and she died within three weeks.

I was am my mother’s only daughter. (Grief is full of crossings-out, only sometimes of tenses). In her last few weeks, she talked me through books, music, motherhood, and her whole life; then, on a couple of quiet mornings, she gave me her jewellery, and the contents of her make-up bag. The day after my mother died, one of the hundred things I cried about was that I could not remember the age she was when she passed her driving test, because I could not bear to forget anything about her. What is lost most is the vital essence of my mother; her quirks, humour, cleverness, tastes, self, but, as is always the case when the people we love die, what we want back – the person – is the one thing we cannot have. Aside from a pile of scrapbooks and un-ordered diaries, the only physical traces of her voice, my mother is quite gone. What we recollect of the dead in order to remember them – memories, warnings, wishes – are mostly not things; mostly not beautiful things. (Yes, there is a beauty in raggedness, handmade-ness, bad photos, other people’s diaries, your mother’s records of her life, but) I mean by thing here that which you can hold onto (like a child might hold a mother), and by beautiful both the easy tactility, novel luxury, sheer glimmeriness of new, expensive, pretty objects (or, what we are taught to call beautiful things), and – in a limping, dogged pun – the items by and with which women are expected invited supposed encouraged to make themselves beautiful. But beauty is in the eye! and so on. Yes, I know, and it is. Sometimes, though, I have found deepest comfort in retracting to what I know I am meant to think: the world I live in says a woman with a well-done face of make-up is beautiful. What’s more, a woman with a well-done face of make-up is luxurious, glimmering, expensive, pretty – that is, she is a beautiful thing.

When I panic that I do not know how to grieve, when I cannot sleep, when I fear that when I tilt my body my heart will simply roll out of me like a ball, I want to be a beautiful thing: insensible, and held.

In the years I knew her, my mother was religious in her not-wearing make-up. Just as it is common in many families for mothers to pass down the mysteries of beauty to their daughters, so it was a well-kept tradition in mine for mothers to do little of the sort. My mother’s mother hardly wore make-up, so never taught my mother; my mother was never taught, hardly wore it herself, so never taught me, in a happy, unconscious evasion of beauty. My mother’s make-up bag was untouched; full of gifts from a charity supporting women with cancer, given to her sometime during her second diagnosis. So, my mother’s only girl-child, I inherited her make-up, as a kind of first-and-last-ditch mother-daughter lesson in beauty.

Since my mother died, and even in her last weeks, I have become obsessed with make-up, and that thing called skincare. Mother, you are dead and my skin has never looked so good. Over the course of this summer I have spent all my money earned by reading and writing poetry on make-up. I go and sit in the chairs of department store beauty counters and let the women there make me up, then buy beautiful things from them. Even the whack of consumerism around this professional making-up (the knowledge that these women are simply doing their jobs and selling me things I don’t need from an industry that rests frequently on women’s unease) can’t quite cut through the romantic notion that these women are doing a kind of mothering on me. I encourage this. ‘I’m quite new to make-up’, I tell them, or, ‘I’ve never used one of these before’. Bianca at the Chanel counter offers to make me up whenever I stop by, and spritzes perfume all over me. Sitting dumbly before them, letting them wipe my face, do for me what I ought to do myself, teach and persuade me, is a kind of childliness. If it can be called a mothering at all, it is an unsettling phantom of a mothering I never had – an education my own mother never gave me, and which I never missed.

587px-Lautrec_woman_at_her_toilette_1889

Of course I do not want any of this. I want my mother back. I want my mother back. I do not want to be writing this essay, or to have inherited her pearls and expensive lotions and sheepskin boots. I would like my mother back, now, please. Make-up is not a surrogate mother; make-up never had anything to do with my mother in the first place. In three days – the 7th of September – it will have been a month, and I am still consumed by the sense that she will be back soon; that she has been away on holiday, or that this really is all one terrible dream. My mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was eleven; she made a full recovery, then was re-diagnosed when I was seventeen, and recovered again. It returned just after I completed my three-year degree, this time in her liver. Some people live for ten years with cancer in their liver; my mother lived for a little under three months. The fact that she had survived cancer twice before makes it all the more difficult to believe she did not survive it this time; after all, why shouldn’t she? Why this time unlucky?[3] Even when she was desperately ill, I kept expecting her to turn a corner and recover; in the world of modern medicine, this is what ill people normally do. My friends who had also lost parents told me grief was not linear:  this is true. I don’t know about denial but I know about bunching my brother’s carpet at 2am, unable to believe that the fibres were real. I even bought a notebook to write to my mother in, to say Come back, come back, come back, come back. Why have you left me alone with these beautiful things.

It is ironic that I don’t never even liked grief writing. Grief is so obviously tailored to the relationship between the griever and the grieved that I assumed any writing you might do about it would be half-cliché, half-intensely personal reflections. Still, when my mother died, I read books I considered ‘grief writing’, because reading, at least, is something I know how to do. It is another cliché that language does not know what to do with death.[4] ‘Died’ is blunt; I do not believe my mother has ‘passed on’ or ‘over’ because I do not believe there is anywhere to ‘pass on’ or ‘over’ to; she is not really ‘lost’ (I know what happened to her and where she is); I do not like ‘passed’. I like at least the almost-casualness of ‘passed away’ – ‘Passed – where?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know – away…’, complete with shrug and vague hand gesture. She is somewhere I am not. I know and I don’t know where. She is not real anymore; she was real, but she isn’t, now. Language is to death what a shroud is to a body; it covers up, resists tailoring, is general, functional, convenient, euphemistic.

We do not know very much about death so our language does not know very much about death. And besides, the shape of a mother’s body leaves a hole in your life too exquisitely detailed for language to fill.

So I do not try to fill it. I do not know why I have become obsessed with make-up. I might well be filling my mother’s gap with whatever is the nearest comfort, whatever’s close to hand and mind – in this case, make-up. But I suspect it is more various than this. After all, we talk about putting on a brave face in hard times. I look so good you’d never guess my mother hasn’t been dead a month. I know myself well enough, too, to appreciate a kind of defiance in my new interest; in spite of my mother’s death I have a desire to be aggressively put-together. In his Lover’s Discourse (1977), Roland Barthes notes that, in order to cover his weeping, he ‘put on dark glasses to mask my swollen eyes’, but that, ‘[t]he intention of this gesture is a calculated one’:

I want to keep the moral advantage of stoicism, of ‘dignity’ […] and at the same time, contradictorily, I want to provoke the tender question (‘But what’s the matter with you?’); I want to be both pathetic and admirable, I want to be at the same time a child and an adult.[5]

Barthes’ manipulation and metacognition are simultaneously those of a high intellectual and of someone who wants to be held – why else would I he be writing this down? Dark glasses in grief, or a too-flawless face of make-up, draw attention through quirks and quietness. People, after all, are curious, and things are even more so.

There is something teenage in this, a girl’s embarrassment at her mother’s strange behaviour. Emily Berry’s 2017 collection Stranger, Baby presents the voices of a daughter with a dead mother; in the laconic ‘So’, she observes, ‘embarrassed’,

is
it
not
so
terribly
gauche
to
die[6]

There is no question mark, or final punctuation; Berry’s arch syntax hangs in the air, unanswered. But make-up, of course, can be ‘gauche’, a word which comes from the French for ‘skew’, or ‘left handed’, and denotes that which is ‘wanting in tact or in ease and grace of manner, awkward, clumsy’.[7] An untrained child applying her mother’s make-up might do it gauche-ly; Berry’s poem, with its one-word lines and lofty turn of phrase (‘is it not’) plays simultaneously as the pinnacle of cool teenage elegance, and the gaucheness of a child bidding for adult airs and graces, and trying too hard. After all, make-up is, or can be, gauche; loud and ill-applied, it is the pinnacle of cartoonish womanhood. And, by the same token, gauche is not always bad – I think you are allowed to be a little gauche when your mother has died. Well – have you been reading what I have been writing? In ‘Girl on a Liner’, Berry notes, ‘This is the body’s way of handling emotion […] Something kitsch could break my heart so thoroughly’, and the poem ends with its speaker ‘standing / on the edge of nothing, with a handkerchief, / in a ball gown, and I am waving goodbye to you all’.[8] Like an abstracted heroine from an overwrought Victorian tragedy, Berry’s speaker’s body handles emotion with this final submission to kitsch and cliché. Cheap things break the heart too; it should matter more that my mother will never meet her grandchildren than that she will never see me in my wedding dress, but I am disinterested in distinguishing the two pains. Kitsch is not quite gauche, but the two are not far apart; ‘kitsch’, Celeste Olalquiaga writes, is a ‘failed commodity’, which ‘continually speaks of all it has ceased to be’: it can be nostalgic (invoking a specific memory) or melancholic (marking the ‘continual flight of life into death’).[9] Theodor Adorno suspects that kitsch ‘lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth’; grief, we know, is full of crossings-out and re-writings, and so, apparently, is kitsch.[10] We have to switch our tenses, mend our ragged hems, and the prosaic objects of our ordinary lives are liable to turn kitsch, or at least banal: what we once loved seems empty and trivial or purposeless, while things which once limped about their daily business become nostalgic or melancholic – how shall we ever eat the lemon drizzle cake Mum put in the freezer some months ago? Kitsch is as much a comfort as it is unsettling; funeral services, with their gothic fonts and frankly hideous coffins, are kitsch, stuffed with tokens of Victoriana (top hats, gothic fonts, processions) which serve only as a weak echo of our cultural perception of what a funeral should look like. The business of death is overly-traditional, hideously formal, un-modern, but it is ritualistic – and ritual, even kitsch ritual, is comfort.

Millais_-_Das_Tal_der_Stille

I have always maintained a zealous distaste for the phrase beauty ritual. Shaving my legs isn’t a ritual, it’s a pain, and it doesn’t make me beautiful anyway. But rituals are habits we believe in: I don’t believe that stripping a razor up my legs every few days does anyone any particular good, but I believe that putting on a moisturiser every night will be good for my skin, and I know that the scent will comfort me. The thought that I am more attractive with various powders and creams on my face does not comfort me, but I cannot quite help believing it; besides, in these difficult time, it is good to have a brave face to put on. In an interview with Lucy Mangan, the beauty columnist Sali Hughes describes making-up a face not as ‘colouring in’, but a kind of ‘tracing’ of the face’s already-present architecture.[11] Hughes’ ‘tracing’ clarifies and illustrates – it makes definite what might previously have been blurry, over-lined, changeable or soft. No more looking in the mirror on weary nights wondering whether your face really looked so different yesterday. Good make-up standardises the face without totally eroding individuality. In grief’s haze we want certainty, even control – not the bad dreams in which my mother is still dying – and the power to trace our faces (which, of course, we never see directly with our own two eyes, but only through the various distortions of mirrors, cameras, portraits, and so on) so that they might seem more real. The internationally renowned make-up artist Mary Greenwell praises Hughes’ face for ‘responding’ so well to make-up, changing according to her application without somehow becoming wayward – Hughes’ face in Greenwell’s hands emerges, traced and sculpted but still hers, not jolted strangely out of proportion.[12] I want my face to respond well to make-up, to be pliant and submissive at the same time as it remains characterful; I want Mary Greenwell to approve of me; I want to be effortlessly lucky. You use make-up to fix your face in more ways than one; a carefully curated face cannot wander off: I am thinking of death masks, often casts taken of the corpse’s face, but, more glamorously, the gilded faces that rested on the bodies of wealthy Egyptians. Everyone has seen Tutankhamun’s death mask, made in gold and lapis lazuli, complete with kohl details – even death masks can be made up, but, what’s more, they fix you in time: they record a version of your face and keep it. In grief, when I am willing my face to stay still, to be in the mirror what it is in my mind, I want the comforting restraint of a mask. In make-up I slip back into what society wants women to look like, with all the tight cosiness of a well-made bed, or a mother’s embrace.

In Dear Boy (2013), Berry writes ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’. In it, the speaker is ‘ke[pt] corseted twenty-three / hours a day a day. Any less is a waste of time’.[13] The corset in the poem is irresistible – even Berry’s ‘waste’ invites a readerly pun with ‘waist’ – and the reader is coaxed into the form as the poem closes on her like a corset: ‘Now / that I wear a fourteen-inch I use only the top half of / my lungs; there’s just room to breathe. I’ve still got / more than enough. I’ve realised how little we need’.[14] ‘Need’ and ‘breathe’ rhyme (or, okay, half-rhyme), but do not meet each other at the end of their respective lines; we suspect nothing of ‘breathe’ when it appears halfway through the penultimate line, and only realise what we have been laced into when the poem ends on ‘need’. ‘Don’t be afraid of restraint. // Pain is the spine of life. It holds you up. / I wear a corset for these reasons’, Berry’s speaker notes.[15] I have always willed this to be true, and have always found that to relapse back into the restraints of societally-enforced femininity is perversely comforting. After all, as Berry notes, there’s still just room to breathe. Grieving and breathing are another convenient pair of half-rhymes; a teacher once told me that ‘grief is as natural as breathing’. There’s just room to grieve. Restraints (such as a chic face of make-up, stemming a flood) hold things up; Berry’s poem suspends itself through tight-laced puns, half-rhymes, and jolts of rhythm, as a kind of formal corset. Breathing is a kind of rhythm; grieving is as natural as breathing; we grieve in ritual, which is a kind of rhythm. If grief is carried out in rituals, if it is like breathing, it is rhythmic.

There is no getting out of rhythm, like there is no getting out of breathing, or no getting out of grieving. Rhythm happens to you with the insistency of breath or grief. And in difficult times – in times of grief – we settle back to old habits and rituals, lacking the energy to resist. (That is not to say that grief has rhyme or reason). The poet Amelia Rosselli, in her essay ‘Metrical Spaces’, observes, ‘Reality is so heavy that the hand tires, and no form can contain it. Memory rushes thus to the most fantastic enterprises (spaces, verses, rhymes, tempos)’.[16] Poetic form, for Rosselli, is the result of the poet’s ‘tir[ing]’, but is also a ‘fantastic enterprise’: a luminous and transporting invention, as much an escape as an inevitable submission. But when we lapse into formality, it is more than the unfathomable resurgence of some primeval rhythm: the critic Clive Scott points out that ‘when traces of regular prosody are found in free verse we should imagine them not as structures chosen to inform utterance, but as structures remembered in the act of uttering’.[17] Moments of rhythm or rhyme which float to the surface of our writing or speaking are memory in action, or – perhaps – even specific memories – abstract nouns, or, not-thing-things. That is, when I exclaim ‘Oh I say!’ in mock surprise, I am repeating and so remembering a beautiful thing my mother did. And, of course, we can point at a moment of rhythm in a poem and name it as a thing: trochee, iamb, dactyl, and so on. A poem (a word which, it is now cliché to recognise, comes from the Greek πόημα, a ‘thing made’ – poems are makings[18]) is a thing, but it is also full of things; Jack Spicer, in his After Lorca (1957), declares: ‘I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste – a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper’.[19] Lorca’s imagined poem is a ‘collage’ or patchwork of things, or objects, and yet it is not as fanciful as it sounds. Poetic form invites us feel things, but, more fittingly, it can be used to replicate formally the semantics of a poem: think of Berry’s constrictive quatrains. So Lorca might not be able to print lemon zest into his poems (although you can write – invisibly – in lemon juice), but he can write poems that are bitter, or that sting, with a formal suddenness which mimics the joyful sharpness of a lemon.

You can make a poem a memorial, but you can also make a poem out of memorial things, and, ultimately, out of memories, in the form of Scott’s rhythmic bites. And memorials (like, say, English church monuments – which are frequently superbly kitsch) are, like Spicer’s lemons, full of whimsy, but also full of frippery. These most apparently solemn of things are, from just another angle, ridiculous. Alan Bennett’s Irwin, of The History Boys (2004) quippily observes:

It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.[20]

Irwin is, of course, over-sensational if not mendacious, and his words are provocative and crude, but there are grains of truth in them: mourning traditions are frilly, and disguise what we do not wish to see. Solemn memorials are, in the end, just more ‘stuff’, and no kind of ‘stuff’ can bring back the dead: Barthes writes that, of the past, ‘we tolerate only the ruin, the monument, kitsch […] we reduce this past to no more than its signature’.[21] Memorials are kitsch; they are melancholic by their very nature, but nostalgic too, both in the nostalgia they might conjure for those who knew the grieved, but also an embodied nostalgia for the traditional forms of monuments past, all popery or high Victoriana – memorials are engaged in a self-referential interplay with their own artistic history. And yet, as if by magic, their sentiment goes uninterrupted by their kitschness. So mourning leads us not only to despair, but also to kitsch, nostalgia, play.

Grief, form, mourning, ritual, as we are taught them, do not traditionally lend themselves to play. You are not supposed to find the formality of funeral directors faintly ridiculous. Life is silly, grief is silly. It is silly that my mother is dead and I began an essay with make-up; but, as Judith Halberstam proposes (in The Queer Art of Failure, 2011, a text which employs the ‘low theory’ of Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit and The Bee Movie[22]), we might

consider the utility of getting lost over finding our way, and so we should conjure a Benjaminian stroll or a situationist derivé, an ambulatory journey through the unplanned, the unexpected, the improvised, and the surprising.[23]

So, to ‘Privilege the naïve or nonsensical’ (like make-up, for example) might well be a radical, as well as useful, act.[24] Play is vital, and, of course, we play with things: our mothers’ make-up, words, forms, traditions. Mutlu Blasing notes that ‘[r]hythm is the crux of language acquisition’: that is, our childhood wordplays are central to the development of the personal languages we speak now.[25] The poet Denise Riley’s 2016 collection Say Something Back reflects, in part, on the sudden death of her son, and her poems echo and play with the clichés and clunks of language in grief: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum’.[26] Riley’s sentence begins as that of a scolding mother (‘you daft bugger’), but quickly falls into dull monosyllables; ‘glum’ and ‘mum’ are perfect rhymes, but ones which occur next to one another, without the breathing space of being on alternative or even consecutive lines. Grief, like rhyming accidentally, stops your poetry stone dead. Later, in ‘Cardiomyopathy’ Riley writes to the heart: ‘Unlovely meaty thing […] brute pigheaded muscle wallop[ing] on’.[27] ‘It is’, she says, ‘a pump, impersonal in its lub-dup shunt’, but also ‘a pump that stops itself’; Riley’s assonance and half-rhymes, which occur erratically across her lines, invoke the rhythm of an irregular heart – that is, a heart suffering from cardiomyopathy.[28] And, like her self-figuration as a ‘glum mum’, Riley’s language is deliberately awkward: ‘Unlovely meaty’ half-rhymes accidentally as phonemes stumble over each other, so piling up writer, words and reader as all struggle to cope with the sudden ugliness of language in grief. Riley chooses to fail, but it is a self-knowing, even playful failure, and a playful failure that makes something: poems, a book.

Max Eastman, in an essay on ‘American Ideals of Poetry’, notes that ‘the essence of what we call classical in an artist’s attitude is his quite frank acknowledgement that – whatever great things may come of it – he is at play’.[29] Great artists play; what’s more, this is ‘classical’, worthy of even the most marble-clad figures in literary history. Playful formality has pedigree, whether it is with villanelles or make-up kits or funeral practice or just things – it is worthy. Eastman is full of praise for play:

when we have arrived at a mood that is really and childly natural – a mood that will play, even with aspiration, and will spontaneously make out of interesting materials ‘things’ to play with, and when in that mood we give our interest to the materials of reality in our own time, then perhaps we shall find that we have arrived also at a poetry that belongs to the people.[30]

This is the mood ‘that loves with a curious wonder the poised and perfect existence of a thing’; Eastman’s language speaks of serendipity: ‘spontane[ity]’, ‘child[like] natural[ity]’, and even ‘mood[s]’, which come and go of their own accord, all of which combine to play, and, as if by happy accident (‘we shall find that we have arrived also’), settle on Eastman’s ideal of universal poetry.[31] Like Barthes’ sunglasses, rhythm makes us child and adult all at once. Eastman’s ‘curious wonder’ tempers reverence with fearlessness; things (iambs, lemons, lipsticks) might be ‘poised and perfect’, but, played with, might lend us their timeless poise in the form of jolting enjambment or a classical red lip. In grief I interconnect things, because I need pattern: the regular application of make-up might be called a rhythm; remembering my dead mother every time I wake up is a rhythm, if only another kind. I am yoking these disparate things together because, even in grief, I am asking you to play.

Eastman is writing about rhythm, not only in poetry, which, he says, ‘only naïvely acknowledges th[e] ecstatic monotony that lives in the heart of all rhythm’, but perhaps more vitally in prose:

Prose is a civilized sublimation of poetry, in which the original healthy intoxicant note of the tom-tom is so laid over with fine traceries of related sound, that it can no longer be identified at all except by the analytical eye of science.[32]

Rhythm is not discrete, and neither is grief. Memories assume the form of things, which leak into poems and bleed into prose. Idioms (things) are cultural rhythms, just as my mother’s sayings (things) are personal ones. If, by now, you have not guessed that I am playing as I go along, making-up a face to tell a story I am willing to be true, then you ought to get out and play more. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m slowly going somewhere, complete with Eastman’s subconscious tom-toms lurking in my prose. The poet W. S. Graham recognises the fact of not-knowing-where-you’re-going in grieving and writing: his elegy, ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’, with its awkward enjambment, opens testing the balance between speaker and subject:

This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
You died. You will realize
What a position it puts
Me in.[33]

‘You’ and ‘Me’ are given the infinitesimal but distinct pause of a line-break; when someone you love dies you tell yourself they will live on in you: if this is true, then a distinct ‘You’ and ‘Me’ fade into uncertainty. Graham’s formal manipulation, too, keeps subject and speaker from sharing the same line; they are two people no longer on the same plane. But there is a gentleness in Graham’s delicate awkwardness, and a humour; his question to Wynter, ‘Anyhow how are things?’, omits the comma we might expect after ‘Anyhow’, producing a stuttering repetition (‘how how’) with all the uncertain, childlike lost-ness of a griever writing to the grieved, making it up (in stops and starts) as he goes along.[34] Graham’s poem is a beautiful thing; it was the text set for my admissions interview, and so, I have gathered since, is pretty much wholly responsible for me receiving an offer from the university I have spent the last three years of my life at. I have returned to it often since first reading it, and am familiar with it to the extent that it behaves as one of Scott’s ‘structures remembered in the act of uttering’; its turns of phrase inform my everyday speech before I realise what they are doing. Most of all these lines:

Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.[35]

If I write to my mother in the diary I bought specially, it is functionally the same as writing to someone who is alive. Then I close the book and she is not. I am writing to her now. Can’t you see that? The absence of the desired reader is the stress words bear; like Graham’s pronouns, they dance along the knife-edge holding reader and writer, speaker and spoken-to in balance.

The French writer Victor Hugo addresses his daughter, Léopoldine, in his elegy, ‘Demain, dès l’aube’: ‘Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends’.[36] Hugo’s phrase is awkward: in English, a rough translation would be, ‘You see, I know that you wait for me’. Léopoldine’s ‘You’ sandwiches Hugo’s ‘I’; she watches him as he knows that she waits for him. Hugo’s construction is tricky, but, like Graham’s slippery pronouns, it reflects the anxiety of grief: Léopoldine doesn’t actually watch Hugo, but he still feels her gaze, whether external, or from within himself. Then there is nothing to do but go (or write). I don’t know what to say say the innumerable cards on the kitchen table, which, by the fact of their writing, still cannot help saying something. Graham’s lifelong correspondence with Wynter stops for no-one, not even death. Indeed, Barthes notes, ‘language is born of absence’: ‘Absence persists – I must endure it. Hence I will manipulate it: transform the distortion of time into oscillation, produce rhythm’.[37] We write to make things up, to play for time as well as with it, and the freedom derived from absence facilitates this play at the same time as it is heart-wrenching. Well, I would not be writing this if things were happier, or otherwise. So, language’s apparent desperation to avoid addressing death (manifest in its lacunae and slippery tenses) is nonetheless countered by the realisation that, although the dead might not read, they can still be written to. Like Spicer’s Lorca, mother, ‘you are dead and the dead are very patient’.[38]

When I write to my mother she is alive and dead at the same time; when I apply a full face of make-up I suddenly have two faces. Duality is native to grief; when I returned to university to celebrate the end of exams, knowing that at home my mother was undergoing chemotherapy, I found myself in two places at once: there, I knew, was sad, but here was happy; here is real, because that is where I am; but there, where I am not, is somehow real too. Blasing observes that ‘[t]wo different kinds of language [such as form/content, sound/sense, materiality/reference, signifier/signified] are at work simultaneously in a poetic text’; what we read when we read a poem is not two different things, but it is not just one thing either – like a face made-up, it is a paradigm of William Empson’s ‘n+1’, mystically, mysteriously more that just ‘n’.[39] In make-up, as in writing, reading, playing and grieving, we find ourselves in two places at once. William Empson points out how Marcel Proust,

at the end of [À la recherche du temps perdu], having convinced the reader […] that he is going to produce an apocalypse, brings out with pathetic faith, as a fact of absolute value, that sometimes when you are living in one place you are reminded of living in another place, and this, since you are now apparently living in two places, means that you are outside time, in the only state of beatitude he can imagine.[40]

Proust’s idea, even tempered by Empson’s arch cynicism, is infectious: where we are can remind us of where we are not; the things we own remind us of the things we not longer have. Halberstam’s ‘low theory’ is borrowed from Stuart Hall’s notion that ‘theory is not an end unto itself but “a detour en route to something else”’.[41] So make-up and rhythm are hardly synecdochic of my mother: they are not of her, they do not represent her, they are where she is not. Language cannot help but approximate grief, but in this approximation, perhaps more things are found than lost; in Riley’s words, this essay is ‘a very late form of love’.[42] Barthes understood when he wore dark glasses: it is a way of being in two places at once; of bearing a grief that is stoical and a grief that streams. Suddenly there are two places to hold onto rather than just one. If there is somewhere she is not, there is somewhere she must be. And out of play, rhythm, making-up, some sudden, readerly, daughterly faith, these things I love – even things my mother never did – can jolt me back into beatitude, to mother; beautiful things.


Imogen Cassels‘ poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the London Review of Books, Ambit, Blackbox Manifold, Datableed, and on the London Underground. She studies in Cambridge, and tweets @imogen_cassels.

Featured image: Photo of Monumento a la Madre in Mexico City near Reforma and Insurgentes. The inscription translates to “To her who loves us before she meets us.”.

[1] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 16.

[2] Denise Riley, Say Something Back (London: Picador, 2016), p. 53.

[3] People do not like to think that cancer is about luck; it is. But there must be something you can do. You can smoke your whole life and live to a hundred; many do. The National Health Service’s oncologists are so extraordinarily and universally excellent that the only variable in whether you survive cancer is luck: how early you find it (and whether it a form of cancer that can be detected early); whether you have had it before (and thus which treatments you can or cannot have); whether it is in a place that is treatable; whether it is a strain that is treatable; how rare it is; your age; your medical history.

[4] Well, the English language, at least.

[5] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 43.

[6] Emily Berry, Stranger, Baby (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), p. 26.

[7] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘gauche’, adj., definition 1.

[8] Berry, Stranger, Baby, pp. 34-35.

[9] Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), p. 28, p. 122.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 312.

[11] ‘In The Bathroom with Sali Hughes Part Two’, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cF6v9jZgh1E&gt; [accessed 11th September 2017].

[12] ‘Sali Hughes: Pretty Honest, the Natural Look’, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTzJCw-kEnw&gt; [accessed 11th September 2017].

[13] Emily Berry, Dear Boy (London: Faber and Faber, 2013), p. 8.

[14] Ibid., p. 9.

[15] Ibid., p. 8.

[16] Amelia Rosselli, ‘Metrical Spaces’, in Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. and trans. by Jennifer Scappettone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 247-252 (p. 252).

[17] Clive Scott, A Question of Syllables: Essays in Nineteenth-Century French Verse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 175.

[18] OED, ‘poem’, n.

[19] Jack Spicer, After Lorca, in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. by Robin Blaser (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1999), p. 33.

[20] Alan Bennett, The History Boys (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), p. 25.

[21] Barthes, p. 177.

[22] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 2.

[23] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[24] Ibid., p. 12.

[25] Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 53.

[26] Riley, p. 6.

[27] Ibid., p. 54.

[28] Ibid., p. 54.

[29] Max Eastman, Colors of Life: Poems and Songs and Sonnets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918), p. 34.

[30] Ibid., p. 35.

[31] Ibid., p. 37.

[32] Ibid., p. 33.

[33] W. S. Graham, New Collected Poems, ed. by Matthew Francis (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), p. 258.

[34] Ibid., p. 258.

[35] Ibid., p. 258.

[36] Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations: Aujourd’Hui, 1843-1856, 5th edn, on Project Gutenberg, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29844/29844-h/29844-h.htm&gt; [accessed 6th September 2017].

[37] Barthes, p. 16.

[38] Spicer, p. 15

[39] Blasing, p. 10; William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Chatto & Windus [1930; 3rd edn, 1953] Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), p. 159.

[40] Empson, p. 158.

[41] Halberstam, p. 15.

[42] Riley, p. 58.