Poetic Cartography, Love, and Loss: On Piecing Together a Father
by Francesca Rendle-Short
published November 2014
Part of speech:
bit, slice, chunk, segment, end, example, section, lump, hunk, wedge, slab, instance, block, cake, bar, cube, stick, length; offcut, sample, fragment, sliver, splinter, wafer, chip, crumb, scrap, remnant, shred, shard, snippet; mouthful, morsel, smithereen
Part of speech:
assemble, combine, compose, create, fix, join, make, mend, patch, repair, restore, unite
1. Always shadow
In a volume of writing on the vexed subject of fathers, published by Granta in 2009, the editor suggests in his opening letter, entitled “The Men Who Made Us,” that the task of piecing together the various essays about different sorts of fathers and relationships for the purposes of compiling the volume was both “exhilarating and very instructive” (Clark 7). It is difficult for writers/artists to write the father, the editor’s argument goes, given the subject matter is “as personal and as necessarily complex as their earliest and often most intimate relationships” (7). Inevitably, you write subjectively; like writing any memoir, you write, or map the self: ego in relation to pater in relation to familia—and in relation to ego. There is a degree of permanency with these coordinates as elements, although happily there is not any one set narrative or superimposed fixed patterning. It will always depend on point of view, interpretation, and/or narrative/poetic inquiry.
Author of the praised Romulus My Father, Australian writer and philosopher Raimond Gaita, puts the task of the memoirist quite simply when speaking with fellow writer Drusilla Modjeska: “make the feeling true” (Modjeska 179). Voice is key. It draws the reader in, pulls the narrative together—voice as tone, rhythm, timbre, pace. Choosing well is everything—syntax, punctuation, language, and vocabulary. “The right voice can reveal what it’s like to be thinking,” says American memoirist Patricia Hampl (Wexler). In an interview with Laura Wexler she argues that memoir’s great task is “the revelation of consciousness,” making the point that this is the task of poetry too. Memoir and poetry have much in common, in terms of creating poetic voice, emotional truth, finding story. As does cartography, if we think in literary terms, or poetically—where the root words carta (meaning card or paper or document) and charta or charte (to chart or map) join with graphein from Greek “to write, to draw” (Harper). Memoir and poetry have long enjoyed and been engaged in employing cartographic language, metaphors, and subject matter (Phillips). Think Heidegger and his topology of being, the relationship between—the coming together of—thought, truth, and actual presence (12). In essence, the writing of memoir is a drawing of self—as both narrator and the narrated—a meld of memory, fact and imagination, all contours and shading, shape and size and pigmentation, arrangement and proportion, multivariate and relational. Perhaps this is what Jean Barrie Borich is hinting at when she writes: “In a fully conscious geography, the landscapes of memory loop into and out of the body like the Empire Builder, streaming into the West and back again, the whistle flowing behind like a farewell song, a constant circle of departure and return” (211).
But writing in this way is not without risk.
Brian Castro first introduced me to the idea of writing as an act of disinheritance in his essay “Dangerous Dancing,” as I have discussed elsewhere (“Getting Your Blood Up” 22). When writing matters of belief, loss, and shame—perhaps love too—you risk rupturing normative behaviour, tried and tested portrayals; you risk betraying family, “disowning the self.” This is what Castro means by dangerous. “As I write,” he argues, “I am already being disinherited…I am being disinherited because I write” (author’s italics). Strong words.
In setting out to write my father in the making of the experimental artefact that accompanies this essay, a poetic cartography in a series of photographs I am calling “A Matter of View: (From a Set of Annotations),” I too risk disinheritance. The six found photographs and accompanying postcard text chart the last days of my father’s life and my correlation to this event before he died in his nursing home on the Great Dividing Range in southeast Queensland, Australia. It is a precarious loop into and out of the body that I am making, return and departure, to evoke Borich’s description, but cartography I am intent on composing despite any perceived or hidden danger. Is it worth the gamble?
If we think of the word memoir being linked etymologically to the idea of mourning through the Latin memor meaning “mindful of,” and Old English murnan “mourn, remember sorrowfully” (Modjeska; Harper), then it follows logically that this poetic memoir or photographic vignettebecomes not just a means of recollecting and remembering the passing of a father but a composition or narrative for the repose of the dead, a requiem, in both metaphoric and literal terms. An apt genre to choose for such a project, you could argue. In tracing the juncture between artist and subject/object—in this case, conceived of by the dimensions of the space of a single room in a nursing home and the coordinates of the two bodies, the viewer and the viewed—the desire is that there is a chance for Hampl’s “consciousness” of experience to emerge and to extend this awareness in order to make the intrafamilial relationship felt more broadly in the interstices of a reader. To collectively hover in the space, hover over the bed. Restore. Unite even (as the synonyms of the verb piece suggest above). Fix. Mend. Patch.
Piece together. Selecting, plotting image.
Verbs and nouns. Making sentences. Syntactical arrangements. Grammar.
Mapping thesauri, parts of speech, lexical categories.
Parsing photographs. Fashioning voice.
And yet, as Maurice Blanchot argues, there is a fine line between image and object, there is what he calls an “edge of the indefinite” that is both “dramatic ambiguity” and “brilliant lie” (254). There will always be shadow. He writes:
Let us look again at this splendid thing from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself: he resembles himself. […] a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. […] It is the likeness, like to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvelous. But what is it like? Nothing. (258, author’s italics)
2. Hand gesture, stillness
To make this work, “A Matter of View,” I selected six images from a series of found photographs I took on my hand-held iPhone in the final days of my father’s life. I am no photographer—I am a writer—so these works are not technically proficient or aesthetically inventive. They were taken quickly, unaffectedly. Informally. But they do take me back to the confines of the room, its actual presence because of their rawness and vernacular energy, their intent. They document space, touch, closeness, and connection—love and loss—as a way to bridge the gap, bridge the silence present in the configuration of the room in which we both found ourselves, him on his deathbed, me keeping watch.
To chronicle the process of making, I begin by documenting an inventory, an inventory of this room he sleeps in as represented by these images. What I record is the components of my cartography, points of reference if you like, the raw material or coordinates of my narrative.
Selected inventory of six fathers:
- a view of books
- my father’s watch, stopped at 7:04:14
- books my father has written
- “The Child”
- “A Synopsis of Children’s Diseases”
- books my father liked to read
- “Death In the City”
- “Pollution and the Death of Man”
- “He Is There and He Is Not Silent”
- mother’s ducks quacking near the white gates
- metal bars of hospital bed to make sure he doesn’t fall out
- his one eye sleeping
- curve of his left forefinger
- long ridged nail
- veins visible beneath skin
- space on little finger where his signet ring used to belong
- darkness like a mouth close by
- fluids under the skin, epidermis
- swollen cuticles
- shadows and distortions
- my father’s sore head
- cerebrovascular accident
- scabs and scars and tissue
This inventory signals stubbornness, a commitment to remaining in the room—my father’s house—to being present within the domain of the image, a refusal to walk away.
Rather: to look. Notice. Digest. Watch him breathe.
It is a catalogue as a staged response in mapping a father. A way of making decisions as well as a means of deciding what decisions need to be made. The fact that this series of six photographs (six fathers) comes from my iPhone fits the aesthetic and strange pleasure of the making. They are unfussy; give me a sense of connection, closeness, proximity, and immediacy. That they were found on my device and later downloaded into my iPhoto library gives the sequence currency because I can locate the taking of the images in time and space—when they were taken they all had the date printed within the frame in gold lettering on the original. Working instinctively to compose this work as narrative, I doctored the photographs and took off those dates and covered up the erased area with a clone tool, not wanting to restrict myself temporally as things happened. I wanted to tell a more interesting story (raise anticipation, force readers into climbing the narrative with me, “muscles contracting” [Bascom 33]). I made an arrangement of my own making: a story of a bookshelf and its irony, of a body, a bed, the space of distance and close up, the claustrophobia embodied in my father’s poor, sore head suffering from Alzheimer’s (and bookend to his books), the ravage and inevitability of terminal skin cancers. I sought to map the complexities of emotions present in the actual physical space of the room along with the furniture, the bed, the hospital railing, the bedclothes, the pillow, paintings on the wall, and the little toweling square as protector.
(If you look closely you will also see my rather poor Photoshopping skills on display.)
I then arranged the six images into three parts, a triptych: three constrained frames to replicate the three beats of classic narrative—setting, rising action, climax or denouement. Step by step. Sequence, order, and shape. All managed by aesthetic, artistic, and writerly choices. A way of orchestrating what lies within the frame and outside it also, into some sort of composition.
These photographs are not merely illustrative, but the thing itself. Considering narrative in these poetic cartographic terms elevates my thinking about the possibilities of this series, that it is more than telling a story about these last days. More than a story of a single father and his daughter. Much like that of Sarah Sarai’s published poem in a recent issue of Fringe entitled “Maps,” it represents something more than a factual account of a room:
We’re always in a room.
So you can find us
there’s a window in this one
with a view in
of us struggling
not to be a satellite to life
but to be the thing itself
and tenuous connection
of renewal and loss, of us
meteoric and immovable …
The six images I have chosen and narrated in “A Matter of View”alongside minimal postcard text are the narrative, speaking in ways words on their own could not, given this particular subject matter and the heart of this meditation. They are the thing itself. The breath between. They give voice to the intangible, the unseen, and indefinable. They do tell a story, but bring us close…to something else. As Susan Sontag argues in On Photography: “only that which narrates can make us understand” (23). Even when that story is inconclusive, as demonstrated here; or when it disappears (falls away) into ellipses as above, in Sarai’s poem. Sontag contends that photographs are a grammar, that they show us what to look at and how to think, they give us an “ethics of seeing,” and in her words, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe” (3). Here, in this room on the Great Divide in Queensland, the grammar of this photographic story with its parts of speech, its verbs and nouns mapped out as wall and window, bed and body, rest, sleep, breath, hand gesture and stillness, also pain and the slow passing of time, is in the end something indeterminate: elegiac.
3. “Light, though impalpable”
So what of the material, the father in these images? What do I make of him? What have I made?
In setting out to write myfather, a fundamentalist, authoritarian man who for the most part of our shared life was absent except for key moments of intense, high drama—usually to do with explosive run-ins with my mother—I have been struck by how knotty it is to pin him down, to find him in a frame, to locate him for long enough and in reasonable enough focus to corral words to shape anything meaningful and cogent. In my recall and memory he is always missing, unavailable, away. (Interestingly, when we were young, it was he who always took the photographs in my family; he stood behind the camera.)
When I do manage to find him in the frame in either image or text, or in the kind of visual cartography I have described above, his appearances take the form of staged vignettes, such as essays (or the French essais, “to try”), half-stories or meditations, discontinuous fragments, installations, or exhibition poetry as improvisations. Comfortingly—given my father’s dogmatic views—there is always stillness in this making. Room for pause. Poise. Ever that, or I would turn away or flee; do something else, anything else. Truth is, I do not want to entertain his return gaze.
In this particular creative work the specific coordinates bring me into a very close proximity with my father, not just with a man who is dying but also a closeness to his concert of beliefs and practices, his defined and exclaimed-about ways, his set of fixed principles that he wrote about and argued for in a string of books on theology and creationism (aka Intelligent Design), that he then preached about from pulpits and podiums. For him, the “crucible of terror” that he writes of in the margin of his Bible and which introduces my photo essay “A Matter of View,” was tangible. It was very real to him.
I imagine, rightly or wrongly, this annotation was written in his messy handwriting in a flash-moment peppered with his personal brand of doubt and terror. He was persuasive, clever at bringing his thinking to life. He evangelized for a brand of Christianity predicated on a fundamental belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible—that Genesis is all true, that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, that Eve gave Adam the apple, that she was the first to sin—categorically, Eve is to blame—and so on. There was no room for compromise, even when it came to his children. The Man Who Made Me was on his way to Heaven to meet his Saviour while condemning his daughter to Hell for her so-called wayward beliefs and practices, for her art. Yet it is this art that saves her, the making of creative work, the very thing he admonishes.
Nonetheless, in the writing and making of this memoir, any nearness present in the work is excruciating. The drawing of consciousness embodied in the narrative terrifies me. There was never any hope of us, my father and I, ever meeting in any afterlife according to him (nor according to me, come to that). This was it. Time was fast disappearing. Finitus. The endeavour of this indeterminacy is unsettling, replete with not knowing, grief, and loss. It is a search for something that cannot be put into words—how could it be otherwise? Even here, I am trying to find words to express what it is I am trying to say for something where there are no words. In the end, it is the work that stills the heart. Gives pause, stops the clock, delays going forward. Form saves me. Form gives content and style and everything that needs to be said a home, a home as a living thing (Gunn). That, and the making of the work itself, also. Process is sustenance. Always.
Does it work?
Helping my father leave.
Helping me to stay.
Does this conjunction link what was before with what was to come? Join past tense to future to a kind of present tense—the present tense of making these sentences in writing right here? Is it a kind of bridge to an after-life (after-his-life) in aesthetic form? A way of making sense of this thing that we know as death—a method of assessing our own mortality? Could it open up possibilities after the fact as represented by these frames and words, by these contours and shading—after the fact of us being together in that small space in that room in the nursing home, in his final place of living on this earth? The fact of us breathing together, too. Holding his hand. Some sort of junction, like the architecture of this poem:
As you lay in sleep
I saw the chart
Of artery and vein
Running from your heart,
Plain as the strength
Marked upon the leaf
Along the length,
Mortal and brief,
Of your gaunt hand.
I saw it clear. (Bogan)
But aloneness too—there go I. “Despair: the word is too theatrical, a part of language. A stone,” Roland Barthes writes in “Notes on Mourning” at the time his mother passing in 1977 (“A Cruel Country” 26). Afraid of this intimacy. The certainty and nonfiction of a stone.
How close will I get before I must retreat? How quiet must I be before I am heard?
Also, knowing, that one day I would do something with this experience and with the field notes I was making and the photographs I was taking, even if it was raw and colloquial. It was inevitable. Art as a necessity: presence or “thingness,” disclosure and poetry, Heidegger’s alethia. But wondering what it would be like, what form it would take. What would it betray?
I have written about my father before—although it has to be said that there is no greater intimacy than showing these photographs of his body in these last days. For example, my first foray into writing a father six months or so before he died was in a photo essay entitled “My Father’s Body.” It explores my father’s relationship to creationism and his condemnation of Darwin, his theories of evolution, and the shape of my father’s declining years when he gave over to Alzheimer’s disease. In that essay, I ask the question: am I committing murder with this writing? Since then any father work has been flighty, transitory, fleeting, constructed out of scraps, remnants, and snippets. These experiments have fashioned themselves quite spontaneously out of the particular stuff of the moment. The chosen form of composition has developed and taken shape in dialogue with the material, whether that’s recalled story, scripted text, drawings, snatches of dialogue, books and papers, or the like. For example, in “A Little Book of Breathing,” the handmade, hand-stitched artist’s book developed out of nine drawings of my father’s body, his face, and his mouth. This work, as drawing, is once removed, an extension of the body as experienced through touch, pencil on paper. An enactment. A trace of the imaginary.
Then in another exhibition “Just Glad Wrap” the portrait of longing and desire takes the form of writing on the wall of a very large gallery—bold handwriting worked up from a script and anchored by two books wrapped up in plastic Glad Wrap that were stolen (quite literally like that) from my father’s library of books. This miniature library floats on its own small shelf in an inverted apex hovering like a bird. Once installed, the penciled words and phrases and punctuation written onto the wall made up of fragments and half-stories, non-readings and rubbings out, become more than a fraction and/or partial; they take on the complexion of a single being. It is shape and architecture, a poem.
And in one other, “A Field Guide to Writing a Father,” the idea of bird watching, naming, identification, and taxonomies underscores the intent and composition of the work. “This is my father; this is not my father,” I write (16).
So, too, with this new piece “A Matter of View”—this is not my father. Even though the likeness is acute (more acute than the likeness of birds), it is not him (I have to remind myself). Even though it is likeness “like to an absolute degree” as Blanchot would say, it is “nothing” (258).
Three beats of the three parts of this narrative-as-stone. Thinking out loud, as poetry. View, perspective, negative and positive space. Vistas of the body far, near, and nearer.
Still, there is solace in this exchange in Barthesian terms, a visceral bond here between the viewed and the viewer—the viewer and viewed back then, when taking the shots, and here in the now as reader and she who is read. It is, he argues, “a sort of umbilical cord” that joins us, something of the flesh of the body, animal. Barthes writes: “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; […] A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed ” (Camera Lucida 80, 81). A string (or skin) between of luminescence, dazzle, glow. Flæsclic (fleshly).
So it is that this story of desire by stealth becomes an intervention as paradox. A cartography of embodied leoht, leukos, lux. Light and its texture: of the body and carnal. Light, though impalpable: unbodied.
[click to read the postcard and images in another page]
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---. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2000. Print.
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Rendle-Short, Francesca. A Little Book of Breathing. 2010. String Books, The Left Hand Gallery, Braidwood, NSW. Exhibition.
---. “Field Guide to Writing a Father.” Overland 210: 15–19. 2013. Print.
---. “Getting Your Blood Up.” The Victorian Writer. March, 2012. 21–23. Print.
---. “Just Glad Wrap.” The Five Obstructions. 2010. Margaret Lawrence Gallery, VCA. 16 June to 10 July. Exhibition.
---. “My Father’s Body.” The Best Australian Science Writing. NewSouth Press. Eds. Natasha Mitchell and Jane McCredie. 2013.
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Francesca Rendle-Short is a novelist and essayist, and author of the memoir-cum-novel Bite Your Tongue (Spinifex, 2011). She is an associate professor at RMIT University and co-director of the nonfictionLab Research Group.