:: Article

The Idea of Building a Boat

By John-Paul Burns.

Out of all of our fantasies, there are a few that come back again and again. They seem to be infinitely appealing. One of the greats is the paradise island; the personal idyll and the escape required to get there. We all desire escape. Most of us, in some way, also like boats. Inherent in the boat is escape. So we must obtain, or ideally, make the boat. Inherent in the building of a boat is the design of your escape. So too, we must build our lives around this design; a life in which we can build the boat.

A Panel drawing–Plan I (2017)–from Helen Stokes’ exhibition A Boat for Peter (2017) shows a rough sketch of a standard ship-building plan incised onto a wooden panel covered in graphite. It has the feel of a found artefact, an offcut or scrap; a fragment of something larger. This subtle sense of whatever the something larger is is left incomplete; we know it’s a boat but, outside the drawing, the nature of this ship is uncertain; the planned boat did not arrive. Here we have a drawing of the idea of a plan of a boat.

All the pieces in this exhibition bare a mistiness; a sea-worn palette; an air of distance. There is an altered roll of pianola-music drooping silently on the wall; another plan or mechanism unfulfilled. We can’t hear the music of this score; only look in quiet. A series of Seascores, gently plotting the waves and the Interludes of the opera Peter Grimes are included. Beautifully minimal, quiet silences resembling literal waves on the shore. Here again, we as viewers must employ our aural imaginations to complete the visual record of the earth’s natural, kinetic music. The pianola score is both a written music–a sort of score– and a mechanistic design; to be played internally; originally inside the pianola, now inside the silent viewer. In a way, this is a gentle reminder of our essential isolation in all sensual experience, including the seeming universality of musical beauty; we sit in crowds but listen alone; we live in towns but we sail through our lives alone.

So Stokes’ work draws on Britten’s opera Peter Grimes; a tale of an isolated man. I had trouble in liking Grimes at first, both the character and the opera itself. By the time the words were coming through to me as a listener, the music also had begun to reveal itself; its tidal qualities, the sense of waves and changing states, storms, calms, currents; the character of the sea itself, also a kind of difficult man or God or spirit. There is a musical language of the sea–its shifting moods–mainly evident in the famous interludes. These are usually taken as musical portraits of the sea’s moods with titles like Dawn and Storm, but I wonder if there is room in them to be heard more as pictures of inner condition; soulscapes if you will. From dramatic scenes in the pub we flow out into turbulent seas of sound. Yet the rhythms of the characters’ Leitmotifs also echo the rhythms of the sea as if they were related; all have moods and identities of their own but share an essential quality; inner seas and outer seas. The jagged back and forth arguments of the characters slip into regular rhythms like the swaying of a boat in the swell; lifting to lyrical heights at key points like crashing waves; all connecting them to the waters; the storm outside flooding in; the storms inside shuddering out.

The more I have listened to this piece of music, the more obviously beautiful it has become. And as the music has revealed itself, more and more of the poetry has come to me. There’s something appealing about Grimes, something modern. In one sense he is an adolescent figure; an incomplete, impulsive man. He doesn’t give voice to his reasons if there are any, he merely fights for the integrity of his insularity. He can at times seem like a stubborn, selfish, prideful macho-man but the more familiar I become with the world that the opera chucks us into, the more Peter stands out. There’s a kind of odd sensitiveness and devotion to an idiocratic system of truth, always elusive to his society. Then what kind of figure is he?

In every society there are these people, one in ten, one in twenty, fifty, whatever, that don’t quite fit with the world in which they have found themselves or, at least, they develop a need to resist that world in some way. They could be the artists and the priests if they’re lucky; find a role in which they can make use of their otherness. There’s something in the few crooked folk that drives them off the beaten path. Grimes made me wonder about the people so inclined who find no creative task or divine purpose, no reason yet remain askance; the criminals, the madmen and the fishermen.

It’s true he seeks a peaceful life for himself and Ellen, but it’s a clear fantasy and it’s hard to believe that his naive placing of all his hope in wealth and marriage will fix his soul. He’s projecting, saving up his efforts; creating the task in which he can justify his overwhelming need to do things his own way. Isn’t that an artistic urge; to disregard convention and the opinions of others in favour of a personal truth? But there’s little influence for his sense of truth to develop; nothing to build on and no outlet for the scraps of strange truth he does find. The only thing he can get his hands on is the weather. He hurls himself into storms, seeking sublime heroics presumably. His mission is obviously doomed, but what’s important here is his instinctual certainty in what he’s doing. We don’t gain much sense of the life he finds out in the boat, but we know he returns again and again. There’s room for us to imagine this world, or essentially, this island, he escapes to where his meanings add up.

As well as Grimes, Stokes’ Plan I refers to her late Grandfather’s act of planning and building a boat. She used his designs as motifs in which to explore the metaphor of boat-building. Between this, the object and Peter Grimes, something from the cinema comes to mind; the 1963 Japanese film Alone Across the Pacific by Kon Ichikawa. The lead character sacrifices his money, job, friends and family all to manifest his obsession; his one man voyage to America. Of course he gets there and the alien culture he had idealised is oppressively strange in the flesh and he is made a spectacle. It’s ambiguous as to his true feelings in America–he lands only in the ending minutes of the film–but the life he had at home had meaning when he was positioned against it; fighting to escape it. He was removing himself, person by person, preparing for solitude. He was a devoted rogue, an oddball; he felt different and he had to do something with it. His ‘individualism’ of course stemmed from association with mass-culture Americanness but of course, in America he was the alien and presumably, couldn’t find whatever it was he was looking for; it was the task itself that held up the structure of his identity; the resistance was the meaning.

Another of Stokes’ panel pieces, Flesh, incorporates the ship-building plan motif, this time in a much rougher, naive style; seemingly held together with screws, staples and nails; the lines incised into a pink gouache covering, drawing out the imperfection inherent in the materials. This is the boat-building metaphor in the flesh; a deep human urge, to build a boat; a vessel in which to disappear. But where should we go? The ultimate image will always be the island; the private eden and virgin ground in which one’s self can be imprinted on the earth; a world of oneself be had.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

 I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

W.B. Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree incorporates the image of a personal island so beautifully as a kind of spiritual fact; an eternal notion, as he is so inclined to shape, but here I feel it rings true, to me at least. The escape and adventure preceding the actual promised land also must incorporate the spiritual trial that makes up the core of meaningful living. His isle follows him, a ghost heard in the night and around the troubling city corners. There’s no getting away from it and we’re always striving toward the distant foggy prospect of it.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film L’Avventura employs–and in fact itself embodies–a different island metaphor. His leisure-class characters depart for a brief tour round the beautiful and remote islands they’ve all seem to have been longing for. Yet on the way there, they seem aloof, distracted. The usual center of attention and protagonist, Anna, plays pointless tricks on them, impulsively and abstractedly cruel. All of them seem distant at all times. Landing on their island, Anna, soon disappears. The two new protagonists, Sandro and Claudia search for her for the rest of the film and gradually seem to loose focus, entering into an affair. Anna fizzles out of the picture as if forgotten by the audience as well as the characters. We end, after Sandro betrays his new love and we, with the two protagonists, stare at a distant island off the shore.

The whole adventure seems pointless, confused and ugly; what did they discover on the island in losing Anna? Something changed. What was it? Whatever happened to Anna, it seems certain that she personally found nothing; their escape was artificial, controlled; their adventure was small, trivial. So she designed a real escape, a thrill. The particulars of all this seem tied up with the wealth of their milieu, but still there is something deeply human about it all. There is an isolation in social living; of being misunderstood, and also an isolation in solitude proper. Either way, we’re alone. These characters use the boat-building metaphor semi-consciously. They buy the built boat as a tool toward their own satisfaction, a playing at adventure. Of course, there is nowhere for them to arrive, no adventure to be had and they must remain as islands on islands; stay in their isolated selves, alone with their leisure.

W.H. Auden makes use of an island metaphor again, quite differently. Perhaps as direct response to Yeats’ Innisfree, Auden urges us not to dream of elopement, not to live in hope of delivery from the local known, but to act within its imperfect reality. Island as the opposite to world; absolutely an island of the mind. It is a word and symbol used exclusively in his poetic world as an icon of warning; the dangers of the ideal. The ideal is removed from the world and what’s more, when projected onto the world in the form of action, the outcome is potentially harmful, one of violent change. Someone, somewhere will be hurt in the name of ideals distant to them. In the search for the island, the distant prospect, there’s murder on the roadside. Rather like the victimised apprentices of Peter Grimes; collateral damage in the mad pursuit of an idea of a world. Peter’s mission–to regain respectability and marry Mary Ellen–could then be seen as his dangerous island, and it’s easy for us to say, after the events of the opera, that it would have been better had he not sailed his own way, reckless in pursuit of his ideal. The attempt to realise an image of the mind upon the kinetic world is a violent one, a forcing.

Auden’s negative island metaphor, is of course a reaction to his particular world–the turbulent Europe of the thirties and forties–a time when the repulsion towards ideas of the radical will probably seemed more of a given truth. There is an inevitability in the violence surrounding Grimes’ absolute action that reflects the period too–the opera being composed in 1945–though the character is no two-dimensional villain. The evil in his action comes through a desire to break through; a spiritual desire, confused into worldly affairs. All too human.

Too human too, is the figure of the young Robinson Crusoe who aches to escape and does, blagging his way onto a ship, ending of course on his literal island. He finds there both satisfaction in the world he designs around him–the order he imposes–and fear in the chaos, the nature that refuses to be shape; in the shape of pirates and savages. Overwhelming both of these experiences he finds loneliness. He sought an avventura and found instead yet another type of island; the literal, loneliness; out-of-place-ness and bitter mundane reality of narrow survival. His isolation leads him into a certain role; an identity dependant on his environment; that of master. His sense of entitlement to masterhood, as a white British male of the Empire is something he discovered in his accidental exile. He is a character designed as an example of the autodidactus, ‘the self taught’; and as such he learns much without prior knowledge. Through trial and error he develops his methods of survival until he reaches a simple state of sustained living; a farm, an elaborate cave-hut system, domesticated goats, all of that. He learns practical lessons from the materials surrounding him, and it’s true, he claims to have discovered some fundamental moral and religious truths, but his sense of purpose and identity are still tied, however seemingly sound, to his immediate tasks. The meaning–where there is any–comes from daily action, from problem solving; what could be called distractions. Not too different from the mundanity of the city he tried to escape in the first place. His mission, in his isolation, above all else, becomes again, a second escape.

Last year, in a hotel in Paris, I sat up late watching an English reality-documentary show about a lone man landing naked on a remote island and making his way. It was over-dubbed in French. I found the minimal apprehension of what was happening that I gleaned, allowed me the distance to reflect on what was transpiring in an unusual way. The main thing I remember is, after eating only coconuts and raw sea-snails, joylessly and incredibly slowly building his hut, he found himself crying incessantly; first a stream of tears, eventually a full child-like whimpering. He cried for hours, calling out over the almost mockingly calm, disinterested French overdub: “I’m just so lonely. So, so fucking lonely” and literally howling out into the sky. He engineered this fate, probably went to great lengths to ensure the show was produced. But whatever adventure he was seeking, he didn’t seem to find it and yet, even after watching this, reading Robinson Crusoe, Auden’s warnings, all of it, I still find myself positioned with Anna and Yeats. Why is the idea of building a boat and the prospect of the island that comes with it so appealing?

The Silver Surfer of the Marvel Universe represents yet another branching off in the osmosis of the island metaphor. He was a citizen of the planet Zenn La, an ancient civilization at the pinnacle of its social evolution. The planet was totally at peace; no wars, no travails, no money, no illness. Each citizen, devoted to sport, art or science. Norinn Radd itched for more; for adventure, challenge and most of all that strange abstract concept of their history books: danger. He was one day transformed, by the intergalactic super-being known as Galactus, into the Silver Surfer, granting him powers to travel faster than light speed and giving him a near invulnerable silver body, without even the need for sustenance. After some mere decades of superheroics, he became again disenchanted. The adventure was no longer enough, the challenge no longer engaging. So he devoted himself to endless, infinite travelling through the universe; to see all the universe bit by bit, instant by instant: he became unmoored, finding whatever came his way and watching, listening to it; perception as purpose. Rather like a cosmic superhero version of one of Wordsworth’s poetic ideals. As Seamus Heaney describes it in his essay The Makings of a Music**:

As his poetic feet repeat his footfalls, the earth seems to be a treadmill that he turns; the big diurnal roll is sensed through the poetic beat and the world moves like a waterwheel under the fall of his voice.

He’s describing both his poetic vision in order to illuminate the nature of his poetic voice. The Surfer becomes a sentient entity of pure poetic vision.

Le Bateau Ivre of Rimbaud, would be a greater model of the unmoored. The boat that slips its ropes–slips its use–and becomes a mere vessel of perception; again, of poetic vision that has seen every corner of the earth, floated randomly over every sea and seen all of human life and animal life live and die and sink and swim, do everything they have to do. After all this, resigned, exhausted, the boat at last looks back:

But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!
If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,
Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,
Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,

Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships. ***

So, the free vessel of experience, without aim or desire, observes the everything that happens to pass by, and done with it, sinks. This must be the apotheosis of the genius that lies at the heart of the idea of building a boat; the spiritual lack that comes with simple existing, of getting by and indulging in desire, success and failure; the strange hunger that comes both in isolation and populus experience; to float aimlessly, passing by the island and the adventure in the boat we have built; the boat we plan to build; in the idea of the boat that we may well be.

*All images from http://www.helenstokes.net/boatforpeter/

** Heaney’s The Makings of a Music can be found in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978

*** Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre Translated by Wallace Fowlie

JOHN-PAUL BURNS is a writer of poetry and essays currently on the Creative Writing MFA program at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Manchester. He’s published poems with The North, Poetry Salzburg Review and Smith|Doorstop (in Introduction X, an anthology of ‘New Poets’).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 28th, 2017.