He was burdened, preoccupied with a peripheral concern that threw his whole life into uncertainty. I knew him back then, back when he was attempting to “find himself again”, and each time I saw him he had drawn further into himself, the noose drawn tighter round him. And in some unconscious part of himself he was waiting for a miracle that never came: not at the right time, not at the wrong.
And when I didn’t see him, I would imagine him, burdened: by the need to keep his body in motion, to carry it each day from the job he didn’t like, to the home where the whole weight of the world waited for him, to the alley where he could breathe free.
He was writ large, but no one could read him, and so he would give his soft smile as always and leave, murmuring that murmured refrain about finding himself again.
In his latter years, it was his declining ability to express himself in writing that saddened him the most. His explanation at the time was that someone must have stolen his “self” and replaced it with one that “couldn’t tell poetry from oats”. And between truth and imagination he was searching for some way to get this self back.
That he’d lost his feeling for words, for the harmony of their rhythms, was something he couldn’t come to terms with; he would say that in any language, poetry was first and foremost rhythm, and after that came the image and feel. That what he’d lost first had been the feel, the instinct, and that this had thrown the rhythm of his words out of balance, affecting the aesthetic impact of what he wrote. And he’d no idea what he should write any more; his words were arid islands on the page, left high and dry after all his seas had dried away.
When he first encountered poetry, he had felt as though the words were erupting from inside him, and once he’d learnt how to control their flow he had become more confident of his ability to pursue poetry to the end—to his end or to poetry’s. Back then he’d thought of himself more as a poet than a person.
But he discovered that there was too much of the person in him after all, and all he could do now was track and hunt the worlds that hung suspended in the void about him, pelting them with stones in the hope that they might drop down on his page.
He was in love with folklore, full of tales in which the worlds of men and djinn entangle, and was fully prepared to throw in his lot—unconditionally—with any supernatural forces that came his way.
It was his belief that our reality needed some otherworldly force to set it straight, and so he looked and looked for any breach through which he might slip; for that enchanted world in which one might alter the unwanted things in one’s life.
More than once he thought that he had found the words which were the key, but the entrance to the cave eluded him, and so he hid the words away, kept them safe so they wouldn’t disappear while he was waiting for the chance which—so they said—might come only once.
Sometimes he considered making a list of the things he wanted to change in his life and everything connected to it. A list to help him work out what he wanted to discard. What he could discard.
To start with he would arrange a place where he could be by himself, out of the way for when the poetry came upon him, and for the particular privilege of being able to eat what he pleased and look at what he pleased. Where the sea would occupy the greater part of his day.
Just this: a lot of calm and quiet; a little melancholy; a great expanse at which he could gaze without interruption.
His attempt to form a family of his own did not last long, and his relationship with his own family fared no better. In the case of the first he chose separation, in the second, rupture. And in both cases all he gained were some scattered poems, which he wrote only to perceive the scale of his loss, to realize that oceans of poetry would never be enough to wash away this loss.
He found it difficult to determine the extent of his own role in this disaster, nor could he think of an alternative outcome that would have been any less disastrous. He accepted the results and drew further into himself. This all happened over a stretch in middle age, at a time when he still weighed his losses against his gains; just a few paces before the point when he would come to a halt and look at his life, and for the first time see the things he had lost laid out in an unbroken chain.
And it was then that his life became more about deliberation and contemplation than movement and action. Towards the end it was less contemplation than immobility.
He would say that what he was in need of was a long dream, a dream that would bear him away to another time and place. According to him this was not so much running away as a kind of protection for what in his life was now past, and for what remained of it, too.
But this dream required his first, lost, self.
Every disappointment he met with he linked to this loss. Initially, he believed this sense of loss was a species of escapism, a running away from his responsibilities, and he tried hard to shake it. But his attempts to pick himself back up all failed, and his forays into poetry brought just more drought on the blank page. So he decided to give in to the idea of loss; maybe he would be able to reclaim his self, his life, or at least lessen the taste of bitterness in his mouth.
He was turned so far into himself. Even on his way from home to work his footsteps followed the line on the pavement’s far edge. Avoiding the faces of those about him, ducking down less crowded alleys, avoiding certain streets.
In his office his field of vision extended no more than a few centimetres beyond the desktop’s edge, and conversations with coworkers were confined to the occasional word, no more than a signal that he was still there.
He was trying, first, to solve the problem of the space he occupied. The greater the space, he believed, the bigger the problems. And so he resolved to reduce it to the barest minimum.
Only when he settled down by the sea, did he stretch his body out and feel that he was restored to his true size, to a size that matched the water’s sweep.
He was forever slipping towards tears, but there was always a rock to halt his slide before he reached the edge: the point at which one feels the tears have come to the eye, but the channel out being closed they gather in silence, waiting to burst forth.
He was silent, discontent, sunk in a despair that afflicted him to the end. And the more of his life that passed, the more dirt it heaped over him, and his hands were no longer capable of pushing the dirt off, not even of distributing it more evenly over his body.
He would say of himself that he was too weak to move about on two feet, and when asked why move about at all, he would say that it was an additional torment to him, because he would sometimes remember the days when things were easier. You’d ask him, “So what now?” and he would give his soft smile and twist his lips, then close his eyes. “Maybe…” he would murmur: “Just maybe…”
At the entrance to an alley overlooking the sea he would sit, leaning against the wall. This place, he’d say, was the only place he felt secure. He had somewhere to rest his back and the sea before him, gently washing him clean.
The sea. As far as he was concerned going there was not a matter of choice. The sea: an end to the things that oppressed him.
“The sea is wonderful. It doesn’t ask you anything. When you are quiet, it speaks, and when you want to leave it doesn’t turn to you or say goodbye. You tell the sea you love it, but it doesn’t care. You enter the sea and tell it that it’s wonderful and it drenches you in its salt water and its iodine stink. Its waves push you back to the shore, but you return regardless, hoping it will treat you differently, will give some sign that it understands you.
“The sea is vast and it is salty, as though it’s telling us to take only a little. And if we’re not happy with a little, then the salt will take care of things. The sea teaches us a contentment we lost when we were born.”
It confused him that the world around him hadn’t changed; everything inside him had changed, he felt, and he found it strange that other people had not changed as he had.
“The feeling that you’re a stranger in the space in which you live can’t be captured by words alone. You need other languages to express it.”
He would say that security and alienation were mutually exclusive states. If one claimed you, you must relinquish the other. But he was unable to let his own alienation go.
“Sunk in a hill” was how he described himself. He had been like that for a long time, sunk in a hill, and he had no objection to this, in principle, it was just that the hill was in the wrong place, or that it had happened to him at a time when he was not ready to be so completely alone. He felt that, right now, he was on the hill’s sharp ridge, and it bothered him that he was forced to wound the things that came to him. He would rather the hill was smooth and round, that these things could gently reveal themselves to him. Right now, though, he had no choice but to hurt anything that came near.
His salvation, as he saw it, lay in achieving equilibrium between what he wanted and what others were prepared to let him have. A balance between what he was able to give and what others wanted from him.
“I don’t need a cave to hide in. I just have to close my eyes and I find myself in a deep, damp cave. Sometimes it’s a relief, but more often it destroys me, which is why I try to run from my dreams. Dreams are my last refuge and if I lost them I’d have nothing left. I have to keep what’s left of me in the frame, until I find my lost self. Then I can act as I please.”
When he wanted to point something out he would gesture with his head. Pointing with the hand, he’d say, carried an intention to kill.
His views on things weren’t peculiar, he was just more than usually precise. He would pick up on points that others missed or deliberately ignored. He would place great emphasis on the sentences he spoke, would fire them from his mouth like bullets.
He would say that the words we use constitute a gauge of how bad we are, and our use of certain words demonstrates the extent of our readiness to engage in life and with others. Few words gave an impression of trustworthiness, but also of being prepared to do without other people. Many words were a declaration of our desire to be absorbed into the mass. He would say that he couldn’t pinpoint his own place among words; he was still turning himself over, seeing if he could work out which side of the equation he fell. But he leant towards a third option, trying to fashion the frame that would hold him, to come up with a word for what he was: he was waiting for his self to come back to him, to see for sure whether he wanted to be classified as other people were, or whether he wanted to stand entirely apart.
He would say he needed tears to weep, tears to wash the blackness from his depths, tears for all the days that he’d been unable to understand, for all the days that he had understood wrong, tears to fill and cover all the breaches in his soul created by the gossip of friends and an ambition suited neither to him nor to his circumstances. Tears that might blind him to the sight of the long, hard road from his front door to the office.
But tears had abandoned him long ago, even before he had lost his self, perhaps, and so he kept this dream at a remove, and only summoned it to mind when the world was truly too much to bear, and make himself suffer a little; maybe a few tears might burst out from somewhere inside him.
His certainty with regards to what he believed was nigh unshakeable, and, whatever the temptation, he held fast to what he thought was true. Even in the quotidian details of his life he would frequently back down from a fight, would not stand up for himself, but these defeats never broke his principles, and loss did not cause him to relinquish his assurance.
He did not care to take what was rightfully his by force: “Force gives you rights you don’t deserve.” He regarded what he lost as rights that he didn’t deserve, and this belief never shifted, for all that he felt others had taken these rights of his unfairly.
Failure frustrated him: his own failure to bring joy, and that of others. He would say that his lost self had a part to play in this failure. Sometimes, without inflection, he would tell the story of his early joys. Without inflection: his tone devoid of yearning or delight. He had partaken of his share of joy in full, he believed, and he had no right now to be sad or happy on its account.
There was nobody by his side when he passed, so I do not know what his last words were, nor what he was thinking in that moment, but for sure he would have given his soft smile as always and departed, with that murmured refrain about finding himself again.