More thinking about memory and beads

Maybe this is what we are trying to do all the time; to catch a memory by the tail and get it down on paper. This is maybe what MM means about using language as a means of observing memory. As a result of reading Eternity’s Sunrise I seem to have been pulled in by the wind and tripped over the light to find myself in a new space. I am writing down what I remember that is significant. I had already started to do this when working with Katherine Gallagher last year produced a poem about the war. I have written several since and it is a rich ground to explore. It has led me to look quite differently at both the first and second World Wars; it’s a strange place for a pacifist to find themselves. This is partly because of living in Normandy I think, where there are so many ‘war’ relics and where I feel often presences in the ditches, in the old barn, when an empty road winds away into a dusty distance.
Also working on Ha Noi 2000 – the long poem I am currently trying to write. I was always uneasy in Vietnam, it seemed to me that the war had never gone away, and when I read more Vietnamese writing and comments I realised that it was a lot of wars, stacked up piles of bodies of war, that I was responding to. The Ha Noi Hilton was one example and finding out how originally it had been Hotel Central – the French prison and torture house. I tried to write tourist memory but what has continuously risen up is the unconscious understanding of a country where the war has left blood stains everywhere.
I am enjoying reading about war, watching Foyle’s War on television (Brilliant scripting and plot and absolutely meticulous attention to detail in the visuals) and, of course, serendipitously I find no end of ‘war’ incidents in the newspaper, reading books, talking to people. I realise what an important experience it was a small child. I am still trying to tease out some of the ends and see where and how they relate to my aging self.
Today I have put up maps and written a long list of memories. There is Chitral and the surrounding areas of Ghizer and Northern Swat. Gilgit and Hunza, Shigar and up towards the Chinese border, and what triggered it all off, remembering Baltistan and the fort in Khaplu that we visited and where my travelling companion, Mehrdad, suddenly went into a long reminiscence of himself as a child visiting the English wife of the Raja and being given chocolate. Extraordinary! And I suddenly realise the privilege that I have had of travelling through the Himalayas in such company, of the wonderful places that I fetched up in, of the people, particularly the women that I met on the way. Suddenly I am urgent to write about it all. So – the maps, sorting through photographs; next I’ll need to look and find my journals for the different times that I went there and to try and map out the visits that I made. At the time I was so face up to it all – glaciers, moraine, forts, hill villages, schools and children – they were just an amazing part of my journeys over four years. Now I want to stretch it out and see the shape of it all. It feels a bit like the skin of an animal that has been cured and stretched and now, suddenly, is softening and ready to be shaped.
What has really provoked all this too has been my morning reading of Kathleen Jamie. First I read Findings again – having lost my copy and then found another on Amazon. Now she has a new collection of wonderful, poetic, intense pieces of writings (essays seems too formal a term for writing that invites us in so closely and so intently to listen and to look). I am only on the third piece of Sightings but it is wonderful. I like Kathleen Jamie’s poetry very much and I travelled in the Himalayas with ‘On Golden Peak’ the book she wrote about her travels in the same region. She inspires me.
On the back of the inspiration I intend to write my blog at least once a week, and to consciously think about markers along the way of things that I want to say. I am still really excited when I get a response from people.



Filed under What's happening?

5 responses to “More thinking about memory and beads

  1. Go to it, Brigid. I shall read every word. But can I ask a favour? Please could you break up the slabs of text a bit for my old eyes.

    A blog you might enjoy is a lady living in Sri Lanka:

  2. Hi – in vietnam we went to Dien Bien Phu where the French surrendered. Travelling towards it, the breathtaking stupidity of the French position was very apparent. They were in a basin, surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and mountains. Everything had to be helicoptered in. They were completely trapped. The Vietnamese carried every single piece of materiel up and over the mountains and then dug tunnels. We wandered over the tops of the deep trenches, went down into the tunnels and cave like rooms into which the Vietnamese penetrated into the French strongholds. Most of the visitors that day were Vietnamese. Some were very old men, very frail, wearing their uniforms, now baggy over their tiny frames, and all their medals, lovingly being prevented from falling into the trenches by their grown up, well nourished children. I longed to be able to approach them and ask them – what? – but how could I possibly presume? Our guide, a Black Hmong young man, was sick that day too, so I couldn’t ask him if it would be possible. What memories they must have had, those tottery old soldiers, with their loving children and grandchildren fussing round them. In Hue, we sailed down the river to the monastery where the monk who burnt himself to death had resided. They kept the car he died beside as a shrine. The flames had scorched its hub. You could see the shadow of his death there. The town was full of Australian men with wives in tow, remembering their war.
    In Hue we also went to the imperial palace, and the building that was left blackened and pockmarked with bullets, with the Red flag still flying over it, next to the deep tank full of lotus flowers, such deep sunlit peace. Don McCullin’s iconic photos in my mind – the shooting of the Viet Cong prisoner, the little naked girl running across the bridge, the American marine photographed in a doorway throwing a grenade…
    We also went to a prison where the French incarcerated the Vietnamese. Tiny, black holes, no windows – they died in scores and hundreds of malaria and other insect-born diseases, if they didn’t die at the hands of French torturers. Cells were hierarchical – the more grievance the French had, the worse your cell.
    We went to the childhood home of Ho Chi Minh, his father a school teacher as well as a scribe to the last monarch. The young Vietnamese men who took us there on hired motorbikes waited while we looked round a two room hut, the only visitors. Simplicity, scholarship – here are his pens, here is his writing desk, his narrow bed, here is where the school children would sit, the guide respectfully indicated. I thought of Ho Chi Minh washing dishes in a steamy hotel kitchen, studying hard, writing the revolution in French.
    In Hanoi, walking round the lake, inside the never ending swirl of motorbikes like an outer ring of particles round Saturn, one became surprisingly conscious of the manhole covers. People in Hanoi would take cover in the manholes when the sirens went. We didnt go to the Mausoleum and look at mummified Ho. We went to the Palace of Culture and heard pleasant ladies pluck unusual stringed and percussive instruments. I thought of Denise Levertov’s poem, published in Voices, that groundbreaking anthology of poetry for school children. Do you remember it? I read her list of questions, didn’t understand her responses, couldn’t feel the anguish, Surrey girl, hearing about a war on television, hearing the shouts of protestors in Grosvenor Square, going to see US, a play at the Royal Court, the release of butterflies, yes there, not when Mick mourned Brian in Hyde Park.
    How long does it take for a country to heal? In the tropics, the vegetation grows quickly over the trenches, the discarded hardware, the smashed planes.

  3. Yes, Vietnam. How long does it take a country to heal?
    Hue. We sail down the Perfume River to a monastery. “Get out here, please. Please visit the Pagoda.”
    In the Pagoda, we are ushered to look at a car. What’s so special about a car? It’s the car in which Thich Quang Doc drove to his self-immolation in Saigon.
    Iconic black and white photo number 1. It’s 1963. In the foreground, in a sea of gasoline, you can just make out a seated figure, shaven headed, cross legged, composed. In the middle ground, the gasoline container. In the background, the car, its boot open.

    We enter – peasant gawpers – the Forbidden Purple City – its complete annihilation restored to tidy blank blandness. The lotus flowers blossom in the water tank. A deep, sunlit, peaceful space.
    Iconic photgraph number 2. The flagtower at the Imperial Citadel is blackened and pockmarked – the Red flag flies high above its forbidding fortress walls in a typical Chinese dramatic flourish. That’s now. Then it was 1968, the year of flower power; while I did my homework in front of the television, it showed helicopters, burning jungle, reporters in tropical suits speaking about something they called the ‘Tet offensive’. In the next shot, people were shouting a lot outside an Embassy.

    Burly Australian men in shorts – with their wives along – make up the majority of visitors at the hotel. Remembering their war.
    Iconic black and white photographs numbers 3, 4, 5. Don McCullin – a little girl runs naked across a bridge; a North Vietnamese prisoner flinches just before he is shot in the head; an American Marine is photographed in a doorway, his body beauteous as he throws a grenade.

    In Hanoi, we find ourselves surprisingly concentrating on manhole covers in the pavement as we walk round the lake. Round the outside swirls an outer ring of motorcycles, like an asteroid belt round Saturn.
    Iconic black and white photograph number 6. A row of about seven manholes along a tree-lined pavement, each populated with a Hanoi citizen waiting for the all-clear. In the one closest to the camera, her father gazing calmly into the distance, a little girl’s head peeps up to look at the photographer.

    In Dien Bien Phu, the final stronghold of the French forces was peopled today by Vietnamese visitors. We all walk about aimlessly, climbing over and into the trenches, peering into the cave like offices, looking out at the surrounding jungle-clad mountains towards Laos. Among the crowds are frail old men dressed in their uniforms that hang baggy on their wasted frames, long rows of medals on their chests. Their children and grandchildren fuss lovingly around them, prevent them from tottering into the trenches, listen respectfully as they point and gesture. What memories did they speak of? One couldn’t presume to ask.

  4. Remembering too Denise Levertov’s poem, What were they like? that was anthologised in Voices, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield, and published in 1969 – that iconic poetry book for schoolchildren. Reading it as one of those school chidren, its remote but urgent presence in my life – remembering it now – and your question – or was it mine – how does a country heal?

    Did the people of Viet Nam
    use lanterns of stone?
    Did they hold ceremonies
    to reverence the opening of buds?
    Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
    Did they use bone and ivory,
    jade and silver, for ornament?
    Had they an epic poem?
    Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

    Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
    It is not remembered whether in gardens
    stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
    Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
    but after their children were killed
    there were no more buds.
    Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
    A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
    All the bones were charred.
    it is not remembered. Remember,
    most were peasants; their life
    was in rice and bamboo.
    When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
    and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
    maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
    When bombs smashed those mirrors
    there was time only to scream.
    There is an echo yet
    of their speech which was like a song.
    It was reported their singing resembled
    the flight of moths in moonlight.
    Who can say? It is silent now.
    Denise Levertov

  5. Sorry – first draft has now magically appeared on your blog! Sorry to have swamped you with it all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s