Sean BorodaleSee all fellows >
UK | 2018
Sean Borodale was born in London in 1973 and lives in Liverpool and Ireland. He works as a poet and artist, making scriptive and documentary poems written on location. He was Resident Artist & Writer at Bluecoat, Liverpool, 2016-2017 and was Creative Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge from 2013-15.
He was selected as a Granta New Poet in 2012, and his debut collection Bee Journal was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Costa Book Award in 2013. Mighty Beast, a documentary poem for Radio 3 won the Radio Academy Gold Award in 2014 for Best Feature or Documentary.
His topographical poem ‘Notes for an Atlas’ was recommended by Robert Macfarlane in the GuardianSummer Books 2005. It was performed in 2007 at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, directed by Mark Rylance, as part of the first London Festival of Literature.
Borodale’s second collection of poems, Human Work, was published in 2015. Among many projects and residencies to date he was Northern Arts Fellow at the Wordsworth Trust in 1999, and from 2002-7 he was a teaching fellow at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL.
*Photo by Alessandro Moggi
A Key to a Legend
One day, following the well-known Goldman walk through the forests, I ascended from the shade of trees along the river and stepped out into the dry shimmering heat towards the edge of olive groves. It was the middle of May. I felt my bones glinted like pieces of scoured rock and the Apennines were just in sight in a far distance; not snow-covered as they were when I had first seen them on a springtime before this. Back then, the forests contained violets and primroses; but in this drier heat, I could hear the energy of a thin immersive noise. I walked on until I reached a row of beehives. On each hive, on the face above its landing board was painted a diagrammatic image: each different. Bees complicated the air above. This array of unexplained images fixed my attention and I drew each of them, eighteen in all, in the same order in which they appeared on the hives into my notebook.
The thought of a symbology – a set of symbols as essential nodes, the markings on a map – evolved as I continued my walk back to Santa Maddalena. I arrived in time for lunch. We ate under the scent of wisteria. The roses in the garden were budding but not yet flowering. Their deep soft petals and scents would arrive later. In the final twists through the trees, the air above the road had been heavy with bee flight. A siphoning noise which lifted me up through my head. As I descended from the stand of cypress trees below the hunting lodge on the whitened road towards the house, I could hear the omnipresent transparent pitch of bees thickening at certain corners. The robinia-tree flowers, white and lupin-like, had the sun ghosting them, and were the attention of the bees.
The hives that the bees would take this nectar back to stood, it felt, not in the clearings alongside the forest road as they do, but in my own thought-pattern clearings. These parallel, inner beehives were book-like, and likewise hid the provenance of their contents: places of treatment, distillation, of architecture, grammar, punctuation, arrangement. Words in these hives, I imagined, were constructed out of encrypted pure energy inside sentences, along paragraphs, within pages and spines of beeswax. Beehives can be found in natural hollows, like grottoes, or trees, but for such sites to be portable, it is easier to build a box. The portable equivalent as a theatre for voice-gathering were the books I was remembering …
… as I scanned the shelves within the darkness of the library before dinner I was sustained by a memory of the light of a sunset scattering between oak leaves before the mountains which encircle the tower. I had glimpsed this – as it exposed me – through a small oval window in the tower bathroom. The movement of light had fallen across my face as I bathed in the abrasive bath in that room of painted leaves and birds. Its warmth made me feel like a body of honey thickening in the cell of a comb; a honeycomb of writers at different times. Somehow, all times feel simultaneous; the time-image of life immeasurably vaster in time than it is in the dimensions of space. From the outside of the tower, I imagined this ellipsis of the bathroom window visible as a portrait; a framed miniature containing only the luminous image of my head and body suspended in darkness. I imagined other writer-bathers at other stages of this time-continuity, suspended in their own cells inside the tower, in ellipses of isolation. At sundown before the sharing of the evening meal, we are all present; we can all be found, one way or another …
… in the main house stored in the rows of books – not us, precisely, but the gatherings we have worked; we, the writers who have written, made the journey down the cobbled white roads – to situate, be, write, converse, sleep, eat, drink, bathe, walk, swim, write, listen, re-write, escape, love, return, argue, embrace … publish.
I dreamt of bright white stones in the forests that night and when I woke in the darkness an owl was calling outside the tower. It was at the height of my head. I could hear owls further and further in the depth of distance answering or relaying the sound. A constellation of calls taking the cry of that first owl – perhaps it was not the first owl – like public speaking in days before amplification. The speech of one carried further by other speakers. A collective act of publication: a sonic symbol of the owl broadcast through a moment of darkness. What did the first owl say?
The diagrams on the beehives evolved into symbols. I could imagine them across a map; like small organs constructed of stars in the night sky, or hieroglyphs, describing the essence of an owl cry going from tree to tree, or the sound-site of a wolf, or the falling place of a leaf, or passing of a vehicle, or small crisis. Like this beacon tower passing its fire through an aperture of the fourteenth century, the beacons of voices, each specific, topical, present. Orion. The Great Bear. The Pleiades. Eternal symbols travelling through the commonplace mystery of the air over the forested earth. But also symbols for Resistance fighters hiding in the woods; for fables of the invisible; for the ultimate extreme deep thinker in isolation, like Gramsci in his prison cell far away, writing, too. Like Wilde, writing in the dim light of Reading gaol. Or Chatwin, at this table, in this totality of all towers …
The beehive-images transmuted into symbols, the symbols constructing the legend of a map … A map not entirely in the reasonable space of shared geography. A map slightly unhinged, unsettled across the dream space of a mythography or meta-topography. Resembling in the forests, mountains, river valleys around Santa Maddalena – sites of the mind, acts of the imagination, extended like fractals into the dimensions of topography; contours not of altitude but of authorial intensity. This reality of Santa Maddalena, such as it is, can only exist, pictorially, on a map of symbols of the process of authorial voice, sites of reckoning with the spirit of writing; such as it is, the spirit of storytelling, one way or another, for the simple reason that anyone passing through these forests or taking a tour of the house and garden, would miss altogether the total map of its procession, its hauntings, its moments of presence without searching for those hidden acts of writing.
This legend is personal, too, standing for the way things are now. The word legend suggests there is also an old story, a core myth, lurking on vases, in tapestries, or irrationally, under the immaculate vapours which turn the ridges of forests at dawn into splinters of island. It is very possible to look out of the tower’s upper windows before the first light of day and to wonder what crawls in the gloom underneath the bright surface of clouds that have fallen inwards towards creases in the earth. What will adventure beyond this vision into the eroded future of our own past; pasts when we turn back and see ourselves at the epicentre of this shared vision-forest? Writing, writing, writing; in the tower, or on the bench close to the pyramid, or in the darkness of the white room in the house (where Beatrice’s grandfather still rides the photograph of his horse towards the image of his lover), or along the white and ochre forest roads, pacing behind the bars of cypress tree shadows which are like black flames.
Once, one morning, at 7:09 precisely, I felt the tremor of an earthquake. This was an alchemic unsettling of the world I had left to come here; everything briefly was re-tuned and lost the rigid measure of its molecules; briefly, for a few seconds the universe was otherwise.
And the symbols of Santa Maddalena’s meta-beehives concretised into a set of meanings – as if I had briefly known all the mysteries of the universe – and seemed suddenly to present a less futile reality. I worked, blindly I must add, to write out their facets. I tried to cut them like a gem cutter – I felt new at my job.
In cutting the first facets of these symbols, I made this observation, which anyone can make: it is the fact of fiction. All of the works written here, surely, contain small elements of observed energy, pieces of the place; Santa Maddalena lurks, it must be wondered, under many of the sentences and lines of the works of authors who have resided here, like small slips of shadow under leaves scattered across the ground in the autumn; shadows which survive into the vast, deep snowfall age of winter.
These symbols describe a cosmology of eighteen moons; they are a processive community, a zodiac; they declare that this countryside contains a fortress, a graveyard, a court, the world’s smallest autonomous citadel, a joker, a death-warrant, a birth certificate, a gift of love; various nodes in what has been described before as ‘the world republic of letters’. Mysterious, mischievous, these symbols describe the elements of a rogue state, each symbol cut like a jewel whose light casts a set of revolutionaries in miniature across the table, like a camera obscura cast from the light of a candle passing through a cut glass goblet of red wine which is the staple of conviviality each evening, and called in the parlance of the house ‘ammunition’.
Poised always in defiance, and in terrible pursuit of contradictory desire for acceptance; the elements in this legend make leanings towards places, moments, events in the landscape, its raw materials. Though they point to stages and confounding problems in the process of writing, the measurements, the energies, the conductive traits are all specific to Santa Maddalena, and are built – in the way that icons are built – out of discarded bird bones, wallow-hole muds, sounds of insects, owls, the moment of a rose flowering and its corresponding scatter of withered petals, the footsteps of dogs, the wind moving the new leaves and the corresponding later sound of the wind moving old leaves. The night-time sound of the tributary river of the Arno which can be heard from the tower. The slowly crumbling yellow sandy soil at the road’s edge. The beam of the moonlight over the sound of a distant train. The and, and the and so on …
The writer might report: I’ve been writing in fragments but writing each day. I go for walks down into the valley early in the morning. There are tree creepers on the oak tree outside my window. The owls make a great noise in the night. The mountains give off a wobbly heat in the late afternoon. Lizards shift in the grass. Ants are everywhere. I wake up with them in my bed. They move from the desk onto my arm and up onto my neck, over my head, into my nose. I think they are causing me much anxiety. The moon grows bigger, whiter…
Or: I can hear the opening out of space below the tower when the owls call. I notice the ants less. Here, in the recess of this bed, the building fades into an abstract. I fade back into legends. The ants have eaten my body…
Or: I’ve stopped writing. But reading goes on: you just listen, they tell you a lot, books, they give you attention; it’s fascinating how a book works, it’s a way to hear something from far away in the world, a kind of conversation in which you don’t have to speak, though you do of course, each page you have spoken, but if you don’t want to it keeps on giving you a form of attention. It’s curious, the act of reading a book. And it’s just the book as a total, undisturbed presence, even a kind of intimacy. It’s dark here now. A day has passed, the sun came, it went, I had my photograph taken. I wasn’t reading when it was taken. I saw a version of a man appear on a tin plate somewhere in 1848 looking slightly tougher; perhaps his journey has been harder than I can remember; somewhere in a more distant place, his journey has become another’s.
At another time, the writer might report: It’s beautiful, a thing in itself, a personal project to make a space for writers to write in. But it dawns on you slowly, the writing is the thing, the most present aspect – everyone writes – and yet it’s the most invisible thing. Many of the books written here you might suppose, one way or another, will emanate out across the world translated into many languages. It’s a place that holds open another part of the twentieth century. The people Beatrice has known, they must be gangsters, writers, artists, actors … a jackal. They go back a long way. Some of them will go into a future, too. I leave my windows open all night. In the morning I can smell the dampness of grass drying among the olive trees where it has been scythed. At eight o’clock in the morning I can hear bells; a conjunction between mythology and wild texture.
My feet crunch on my daily walk along the road to Santa Maddalena. It is a truly broken road. But under its surfaces are the old cobbles of a robust, nineteenth century road. The road to Santa Maddalena breaks away from the road from Donnini to Reggello. On the white road, where I am walking, each foot shadow darkens it. This is the way in that almost everyone visiting Santa Maddalena will have taken. I am on foot, for I have left on foot and I am returning from a walk, a loop, on foot, anticlockwise. It is hot and storms are drifting in, which they do first as vapour, hazing, dimming the air, in wreathes, and there is something warming about them, these frail clouds catching the body, but beguiling too, as if they won’t amount to anything.
I have emerged from the forests, the cool density of yellow shadows and bee-sound. I pass by the uprights of the cypress trees. One holds a squirrel, or the squirrel holds it. The squirrel moves down the tree or it stays on the spot and the tree lifts up taking the whole earth with it, a few feet.
I am walking parallel to Santa Maddalena, out of a crease at the head of the tributary which flows under the ridge on which the house sits, under the ridge on which a Moorish castle I do not know the name of yet sits. I am remembering that at night I can hear water noise rising up to the windows of the tower where I sleep and where I wake, beyond the olive trees whose crowns are alive with white roses. As I emerge from the forest, I am bathed in the dust of the white sun, passing a mulberry tree; and there are the eighteen beehives in a row, bearing their symbols – enigmas, which I have noted.
We are welcomed here, warmly, but we also have to welcome ourselves. And very soon, though we are hosted, we, too, become the host. Once upon a time … I heard a wolf’s howl, I explain to Beatrice, who replies: ‘Owls, you mean owls.’ ‘No. Howls, not owls. I heard a wolf.’ I have brought a piece of wood in from the forests and placed it on the fire. Because that is a relationship, here. The forests come into the close, intricate spaces of thought where work happens. The wood burns. And when it burns, something is lost, but it gives out light. Last year is so different to this year. Last year we had candles. This year, not. The ornamentations within the rooms are not paintings, sculptures, objects, books, but the ever-changing lantern of days, nights, questions to be answered; a scansion made of the silent process of hours.
… Mountains. They can be seen from many places. Small glimpses of parts of the spine of Italy. The windows of Santa Maddalena are a clock without time or pattern except that of the writer looking up from writing. Each of these moments of contact with the drama – it is a kind of drama – of the mountains and the plants and the elements of the weather of this precise location – has gained a resonant force in the writings of many books, punctuated by the clock-numerals of views which are present. All at once.
One day, I was sitting in a small segment in time of absolute serenity. Nothing was moving, I was far from the fragments and rubble and hastes of an everyday. The sound of a river, of bees, of a movement in the forest hypnotised me. I had paper and pen – always here I was trying to appear as a variant of the writer archetype – my face felt changed, my hair felt denser, I sat by a pyramid. A mirage of people hovered unsettling on the far distance, stood across the distance until they dissolved and I saw the ground falling away. Here. The rhomboid – because it was at an angle – of this experience, was left, a small corner of it, a fragment like a hologram twitching on the corner of a leaf on an ilex tree in the forest below. Likewise, walk in any direction from Santa Maddalena in May, and the bees draw your head up, as if they are magnetic, or have magnetised the trees with their sound. As you pass underneath along the road you are lifted and swarm, perhaps, in many small pieces of noise of your own, until, as it fades, where the flowering ends, you fall back into the pattern of yourself.
Once, the thunder caught me in the woods. I stood for a long while in the shelter of a tree until I was soaked through and my boots resembled medieval leather bags of water tied to my feet rather than boots made on a cobbler’s last.
Or, the writer might report: It is a landscape of progressions of similarity. In the time you will stay here, everything will change. The room’s shadows will turn about through small portals, those clock holes: the sprocket holes of the house and tower. The winding mechanism of the spaces is time; the chimes are the conversations at lunch and dinner. The words that you will write – we write – are the silent, immeasurable teeth of cogs that invent themselves at each moment of turn. It is time for lunch.
Or: The vertical exists in the climbing of the squirrel, moving up and down the cypress tree on the corner of the road, at the junction which leads three ways. The squirrel is the creature hiding what it finds. Perhaps it attests to a fact that in some way we all – most of us must – bury something useful for the end of winter when food – nourishment – is scarcest. Hearing the hum in the robinia trees above, I am reminded bees do this: they, too, busy themselves collecting and burying the transformed nectar of flowers – but the earth into which they bury is constructed. An architecture, pure though it is, pale and sharp as the purity of an alphabet newly carved into clean, faced stone – exists in the darkness of a place they have chosen to spend time. The darkness of a room…
Standing at the branch of three roads, I choose. The road I follow leads left towards the house of Ricardo and Nila. The rough heath of the forest is heather-rich. Christmas box shrubs scatter the ground, sharp leaved with bright red berries. Behind the verticals of trees I can see Donnini. The horizontals are narrow. I feel them across distances – but often I come upon them where they fall away. It is time to turn back. The loops of interval draw me like a magnet in the heart of an ocean. Between Scylla and Charybdis, a glint in a storm eye. What does a wisteria feel, growing and being pruned – edited.
… what will I find which is not here already? It is time for lunch.
Or, looking up at the air, as the writer walks towards the house: The rind of mountains is around us. A circle of crags and jagged lines, which stand up as rocks do. The big storms bang and echo within the cauldron. We are boiling too, all of us, being thrown upwards in bursts of energy and dropped down in the convections of our voices. What do we do all day in solitude? All the while, a parasol mushroom was opening in the garden; like a mask in a small Noh theatre.
Or: When the eye reaches the tower on the hilltop in the middle distance, it learns that this is a place where the geometries of interior space are not fully expressed. What is learnt by walking is that the road leading here to this tower from a ruin by the river is steep and ruined. We can almost believe – and in a way it is true – that some nodal points of significance still emanate from sites of meeting within the far-flung regions of this map. Noticing that the ferns’ small beaded tongues of leaves enchant the banks. A grass snake can be seen slithering upwards towards the tower … almost the same green as the ferns … it is like. The image or simile for this point of the map is a single black jewel … it is the silenced tongue of a giant in an Italian folk tale.
I was almost myself when I wrote: I found another guide in the tower, and that guide led me directly back into my own past, to a time when I was working in a foundry in east London, casting monumental sculptural bronzes of artists such as Barry Flanagan, Anish Kapoor, Gavin Turk, the Chapman Brothers, Tracy Emin. Of these the most important is Barry Flanagan, because when I was taken up into the tower here for the first time, I recognised in some sculptures the handling of the clay – the way that the finger and thumb had once impressed a sculptural quality, a silent language, a trace. In the evening light that fills the upper room of the tower, I saw fired clay that had been marked by the hand of an artist for whom I had buried great affection – for the silence of his conversation, the quirk of his poetry made of sand and hessian and folded cloth, the mischievousness in his later monumental sculpture, and in the small pieces, bronzes of hare-like forms which bore the same sense of touch that I was this evening, far away and newly, unexpectedly, seeing. An indelible trace. A futurity somehow. These delicate pieces were made at a nearby potter’s by Flanagan on an early visit to Beatrice and Grisha in his days as a struggling artist. And this is a commonality at Santa Maddalena: the understanding that artists struggle, and in that period of struggle, which might be at any stage of a life – a community is a place of untold solidarity; through the simplest of means: convivial space, solitary time. And, like ourselves, the cooks, the cleaners, the generations of people tending the ground, keeping the clock parts smoothly running in this awesomely shared dialect of time devoted now to the spirited voice – there is a radical space – like a stretch of road that is currently being resurfaced it has received so much use – for we all, and the provisions we require, and the artworks which inhabit the edges of our hours – have travelled the white stone road. Barry Flanagan collected white stones from the river. The words of authors. I reach the river and I pick one such stone up from the chatter of the water.
Like Beatrice & Grisha did for Barry’s hoard of stones, I will fly this stone to England. Its small artwork will contain the statement that the day I selected the stone was one of three days of storms. Later that day I would walk again and stop under a tree to find the waters of the air finding me – I would stand as in a shower – soaking, cleansing years of dust from my arms, face, soaking my mouth, eyes, filling my ears with a patterning of rain and river, tracks flowing under my feet. I would feel as if I had lifted up a part of my lightness – and carried it across the water myself, across the milky puddles forming in the woods; a trembling, vibrating forest, smelling of clean, sweet earth. The birds singing through the rainfall and thunder.
Flanagan’s early struggle as an artist perhaps gave him a form of empathy. He is dead now, but I once worked on his work. I laboured, toiled; it is hard work to produce a bronze sculpture. I am here, caught in a web of light in the top of the tower. The shelves in the top tower room are quiet and hold deep long shadows like held breaths.
The same writer will stop in the forest and note: The cobbles are an archaeological record. I think my white stone contains the elements of a toad, or a white frog, hidden like a sculptor’s image inside a material to be carved or pressed or chased away. There it is: the inside image. And, when the mouth touches this image – which means to say the bearings of the lips, throat, the tongue, the wetness of voice, touches the image – then the bright prince appears. A guide flourishes. The immaculate inner awakening of pure love that Dante saw and wrote about in Florence appears. Which I can see from here because the tower, that beacon tower up there where I live for now overlooking the mountains, was there when Dante left the city with the pages of the Inferno unwritten before him. And in such mystery-sites, you might just need other objects of mystery to see by. The lines between beacons existed ready to make signals across gulfs of watched air; the latent, live, relayed parts of a story were made ready to unfold.
As the lilac bleeds scent, the dripping evening scent is the coal tar scent of lilac in flower. The writer writes under the first star: The evening light on the lilac leaves is like the waxed surface of bronze. I am terracotta here, tonight; fired, shelved on the bed in the centre of the room. Re-diagnosed: I am air inside the chemistry of clay. Below me is the pyramid. I am balanced. I begin to connect corners, points, a trigonometry of haunting; to a graveyard by the tower; to a graveyard in the garden. I, too, sepulchral. The Apennines are my distant memory of a far thin crust of white before the snows have melted.
Fennel can be picked along the verge and chewed.
Porcupine quills can be found.
Oak apples can be found – useful for making ink.
What wakes everything is the sudden huge cry of an owl.
The wreaths of vapour hang so that across the forests there are white flowing silk lakes of suspended water. The slow, still, tall tower of stones is afloat – I am a cargo crossing the world.
The patterns move.
‘The brain begins at the retina’ – wrote Calvino.
And there in the night: an island of light on a sea of vapour: the castle of Sammezzanno whose name I now know, like a larvae containing inside its cocoon – which is like a mantelpiece clock – derangement of scale – peacock colours like Newton’s mystical seven strands of split light – inner fragments of geometry in this dense forest. The sound of the river barely reaches the clock face alternative to cycles of moons, night-trains, owls, barking dogs. Does the clock serve the writer, or the writer serve the clock? In the spinning shadows under olive trees and the connecting rods of shadow that revolve their long lines around an axis in the rows of grape vines at the nearby casa de Boca is another time … near Reggello, in the province of Florence, forty kilometres southeast of that city, a place … not far from Milton’s Vallombrosa, where autumnal leaves strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa …
We come here with our mosaics in pieces. Everything is hallucinating into writing. Thin brooms of shadow on the road dispel malign spirits. Yes, the trance is one of serenity, of slow time breaking apart the racing anxious structures of time elsewhere. Time here is ground into the cobbles as you walk. Anxiety falls, dripping into the air around rose petals where as scent it falls with the cooling air in the evenings, and drifts as vapour over the tributary into the Arno and, eventually, flows through Florence, with other vagrant, mixed-up shades, malignities, unresolved spirits of stress. Dante caught some of their energetic strands and wove them via acts of memory around the spindles of his inferno … The ruins under you are in synchronicity: both the falling scars of cliff, the trickling sands from the banks of the roads; the ruins of insect bodies scattering the garden; the ruins of your texts.
Sometimes, in the evening, the top room of the tower will contain the winding-ticking of a death-watch beetle; and with the death-watch, both a sense of having the prison roof slowly hurled down from above, and of the morbidity of the death-watch beetle winding through free time will occur. It is the act of writing, perhaps, which best imagines for humans the roof timbers giving themselves back to the forest. Or the stones of the tower throwing themselves back to the hill. But the ticking is resolute, present, as if this single death-watch beetle, calling out its courtship, holds a much longer view of the forest’s imagination. So too, the symbols on this map of Santa Maddalena have evolved from ruins; and I sketch them here, in the order in which they appeared on the beehives on that first walk.
The first symbol is either an hourglass or it is the fata morgana of a pyramid atop a pyramid, one of the central emblems of Santa Maddalena. Its tip channels down the fusion of the stars and that of our own sun, as well as the grey rays of the moon. It is like Yeats’s double cone, in essence, but more extended to the possibility of afterlife. It wicks up the warmth and hidden nourishment, but also the toxins, the minerals, the raw chemistry and inner fire of the earth; and of course, it is the symbol of the buried and the inverted symbol of the hierarchical pyramid, which is that of the upturned or revolutionary moment. It is both a seismic symbol, but also a symbol of precariousness of balance; a large body inverted on a small point or nib, which is the essence of transcription, the flow of the cosmos through a small channel planted into the constituents of the written.
The second symbol is either the peak line of mountains, or an irregular heartbeat, or it is the winding of the rivers and the roads in the mountains. It is the winter journey of foxes, and the wolf, too.
The third symbol is either that of a fir tree, which could be construed as a cypress, but it might also be the double aligned arrow of self and voice, or body and voice. It is the reached-out-to, which draws away by a propulsion into the distance, or a commitment into the uncertain, moving light and shadow of the dark paths which are old in these forests, and which meander under the violet veils of dawn and amber veils of dusk.
The fourth symbol is the beehive itself, but is also the symbol of the casa, the house of writers, and of the honeycomb, which is the library, and of conversation – voices evaporated of their breath, stored in the darkness of the rooms.
The fifth symbol is a pool of equilibrium, or it means the triangulation used by mapmakers to take readings from the dimensions of space; but its centre, the triangle, is the pool into which Narcissus, or the equivalent condition of perception, stares.
The sixth symbol is that of the figure seated on the log, headless, or of the thinker seated on his/her head. The head is the seat, in other words, of the figure in repose.
The seventh symbol is that of the cloister, or monastery, which is a way of walking the horizon; inwardly, circularly, turning a right angle four times to correct the tangent-line around a continuity of emptiness. It is also a symbol of the four corners of the tower, which is the compass-axis of the geography of distance.
The eighth symbol is the single arrow of the hunter, which is to say the search, or research, and is the symbol of darkness that the writer places sheer trust in; the hunch.
The ninth symbol is that of the black star, which is the negative of the bright star. The guide through the darkness requires its dark beam, since the voice has no means of register in light. It is the symbol of pure sound in darkness and contains all the specimens of sound, cry, talk, which are the owl, fox, wolf, night-insect. It is also the symbol of the footstep planting itself on the surface of the forest floor, or onto the white road. It represents the inverse of policed thought, as the un-policed act of written speech.
The tenth symbol is an abstracted form of balance, akin loosely to the ying and the yang, but specific to the writer. It is the open eye and the closed eye; the open way or channel and the closed way or channel. It is also the symbol of a choice, not between right and wrong but between journey and journey, which may be the same journey via a change of perspective or a shift in state or condition.
The eleventh symbol is of the concentric circle minus the central axis. It is the spreading out of the word around the central figure who in this instance is not important; it is the symbol of the world’s reach, the sense of the world touching almost the skin of the witness; though of course, in the dark space at its centre, the pupil in the eye, the hole in the ear, the witness is implicated. It is the symbol of the difficulty of absence, from which the writer turns into words.
The twelfth symbol is the hourglass of distance, or space, rather than that of time, or the experience of space.
The thirteenth symbol is that of the fracture or breakage of underlying strata and is that of the earthquake, or the unsettling.
The fourteenth symbol is that of the erosion of the ridge, or body of the ground around the path taken, to a point of near total exhaustion. This aligns very closely with a real experience of the roads around Santa Maddalena, and the deep ochre sub-strata, which support the house and spaces in which writings have been made. It is also the symbol of the wild boar’s wallow, the place at which the body of the creature through gradual succession and repletion wears out a scallop, or concave shape in a specific locality, doing with agitation and pleasure what weather and the cycle of the years does to cliffs in the locality.
The fifteenth symbol is that of the stepping stone, and of two feet precariously balanced, which derives from the stones in the Arno tributary; it is also the symbol of the impassable bridge, due to the presence of stubborn obstacles or of two wishing to pass who oppose each other, blocking the way; but it might also be seen as the symbol of the three roads meeting, or of two foundations balanced precariously on an uncertain standing.
The sixteenth symbol of the arrow linked to the circle is that of the exit of a creature from a hole but it might inversely be taken as the symbol of the opening at the exit of a mouth precipitated by the tongue. The reality is that in this landscape it is the moon casting a beam into the forested spaces, and showing its exertion on the mind, the strange corner of the brain perceiving or receiving such instances of attention – for the moon here in the depths of the forests and the mountains governs the sense of a self with a weight close to that of intimate attention, though it is commonplace, and shared equally. It is a moon-beam cast into the cross section of an eye, rather than the corner of a room, though sometimes the two can be conflated.
The seventeenth symbol is that of forestry, of felled and cleaned poles of timber, ready for haulage to sites of treatment and construction. But it is also the symbol of planting as an aspect of forestry, a plan for the long term, and the stands of cypress trees that give architecture to the far flung landscape of this region act as a form, also, of punctuation. It is both the symbol of a grid and a prison, and is echoed in the spines of books as they are found standing along the bookshelves in the darkened library at Santa Maddalena; each of which contains a real experience of time, regardless of the evocations or limitlessness of its content. This is the symbol of a real experience of time, behind the bars of the hours.
The eighteenth symbol is of the glitter of stars that are seen passing over the place at times of darkness, a sky of space in which each star is a node passing invisible currents of strength to other nodes, casting the shapes of constellations for unknown futures. These are the stars of pause, of quite voices, of intimacy, of drawing together or of staying alone under the big, wild, eerie vacuum of space itself. Each star is a moving compass of beams of gossamer light that never fail to pierce the moment that the path from the house to the tower is taken. The glints are also to be found in raindrops hanging from the olive trees at twilight. And the glints of firelight in glass. The green of the wine decanter at the table sends these splinters of direction out over the …
Oak leaves are a measurement of time, from their first delicate leaves to the stiffer leaves that blacken over the weeks. Starlings appear with shards of dark light in their frock coats, glinting like pieces of black glass from a cut glass compass. Distant dog barks splinter in the night. They too are sound as a form of black glass. Suddenly affronting. A shower of sound upwards, suddenly splintering against your ear; but this affliction is also a gift. Everything here is a gift, a prompt, a question, a space, a realisation, that there is a way of inching forwards. The time-path of paper is metaphysical; the stones of the roads, hidden image … but you see, I do not describe a landscape, a big picture, to myself or to anyone. Experience falls through details, small mortise and tenon joints, segments of array, sequences that peter out or lose concentration. In dust rising. In stories transcending, being reabsorbed into the fabric of silence. The stones, the resins of cypress, the dry crackle of heather shrubs with their pearl white ling flowers. Where the slow scent of heather is a place of realisation, of dawning access to the intimacy of flowers that, in a morass, a vastness, a form of numeracy, share or emanate a symbol for the gift of presence …
Who is its witness? I know that these symbols are useful. I do not know how. So here is a legend, or a key to a legend, for this broad, intimate landscape which has played host, been stage to numerous acts of writing, authorship; which has trickled out into combined shapes of words, in letters, books, poems, play scripts, in film scripts. The silent architecture, the silent geometry, the silent topography in which writers sit; the tower, the white room, the lawn, the gazebo, the bench by the pyramid, in the mythical spaces that have become – like a small city, with a market, a graveyard, a church, a library, a news-room, a public bath, a chapel, a wine vault – yes, the world’s smallest city.