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Mysterious Portland: On Katrina Palmer’s ‘End Matter’

By Karen Whiteson.

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“The shadowy quality of the work’s documentary vestiges will act as a memento to the missing body of the book”. This extract is printed as a statement of intent on the back cover of ‘End Matter’ by the sculptor Katrina Palmer; for, as the title suggests, this book is constituted entirely of its own supplementary material. Whether or not the main corpus ever existed in the first place is one of several riddles which serve to baffle and fascinate the collective figure of the Loss Adjusters. A metaphysical version of the insurance agent who assesses the amount of compensation to be paid following a claim, the Adjusters’ main remit is to account for the loss of land mass from the island of Portland, and attempt to counterbalance it with presence. The title of one their dossiers–as this happens to be missing, the title is all that remains–is ‘Compensating for the Depletion of Real Things with Fictionality.’ The idea of fiction as a hallucination arising out of emptiness is intrinsic to the landscape. Portland stone supplies the building material for the bulk of London’s civic edifices; a million square feet of which was quarried for Saint Paul’s cathedral alone. The hollowing out of the bedrock renders it “a site acutely vulnerable to fabulists.” And, one might add, allegorists; at least going by Walter Benjamin’s aphorism :“Allegory is in the realm of thought as ruins are in the realm of things.”

“The Loss Adjusters are at all times woeful: an inherent disposition confirmed by their proximity to Portand stone. Everything that flourished here in the Jurassic period, vital and full expanded, ultimately perished, became compacted and compressed under the mass of new existence until solidification preserved the remains and finally transformed them into Portland stone.’ The melancholic gaze, charged with a sense of transience falls upon its object, hollowing it out of any meaning except that which it acquires through interpretation; this according to Benjamin is the essence of the allegorical mindset. Its emblem par excellence is the ruin; through its re-absorption into the landscape the built environment becomes memento mori. Benjamin again: “In allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape”. Only here, the ruin is not the crumbled edifice but a terrain hollowed out by the quarrymen and convicts, who cut the stones which go to build the capital, leaving behind a negative space, an ancient landscape palpably charged with loss. The landscape as its own ruin and memorial in one : the ruin as readymade. At least, so it becomes as witnessed by the Loss Adjusters:

“What is not here is commemorated at the site of its disappearance. The entire island is a Portland stone memorial, carved out and immense, shaped by convicts and quarrymen, sliced and dissected by the machine, and perceived as an ongoing sculptural production created by loss.”

In the consistency of its weird, stubborn logic, ‘End Matter’ recalls ‘A Noctunall Upon S, Lucies Day’, John Donne’s cri de coeur written on the death of his wife, “…Yea plants, yea stones, detest,/And love; All, all some properties invest;/If I an ordinary nothing were,/As shadow, a light, and body must be here./But I am None…”. In ‘End Matter’ such melancholic logic is explored through storytelling and combined with an intricacy of narrative construction. Missing bodies comprised of both text and flesh; dislodged stones and the sound of implements hitting rock are some of recurring motifs embedded just under the surface of the narrative where the story threads merge and loop to form a subterranean labyrinth. Dense with ideas the book also delivers a rattling good yarn.

The tales are presented as deleted fragments retrieved and pored over by the Adjusters; the work of a writer in residence who has herself gone awol. These fragments concern the quarryman’s two ‘deviant’ daughters, a Carniter and his dealings with a Rogue Loss Adjuster and Ash, a young convict The first of these tales features Celestine and Hazeline, themselves supplementary creatures, sisters, who having outlived their father’s traditional occupation of quarrying, have no place in the social structure. “But here we are.” says Celestine. Displaced by time yet stubbornly present in space, like the mound of earth which appears when Ash buries the Rogue’s corpse. Their excessive love of the landscape binds them to the island. One day Hazeline recounts to her sister a “peculiar encounter” with the Adjusters.

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The encounter begins with them questioning her in the interests of their bureaucratic research. It turns into a group sex scene described in terms of a machinic assembly of moving parts and a merging of flesh with stone. As Celestine wryly comments: “There’s a long history of banging and cutting on this island. I hope they thanked you.” The link between the sex scene and the exertion of labour required to extract the stone continues to be be evoked throughout the book, underlining the theme of sacrifice and expenditure. As the group sex scene triggers the event of a full-grown runaway horse who’s mad dash across the island culminates in the dislodging of a huge boulder which crushes Hazeline’s hut, along with a human inhabitant of the island, ( the identity of the mashed remains supplies one of several story hooks). The elemental force of the runaway horse is conjured in a singular sonic image: “Its heavy hooves powered down and into the ground” . Those hoofbeats sustain their echo in the recurring descriptions of men working stone : ”Co-ordinated sound resonated throughout the arena; the repeated impact of iron against rock. The power required for a human body to force a pickaxe through stone required this rhythm.”

This book is part of a tripartite work commissioned by Artangel. These interlocking tales have been repurposed for an audio piece which accompanies a site specific walk as well for a broadcast on radio 4. This juxtapositioning of the written with the spoken word is intrinsic to the dynamic tensions of ‘End Matter.’ For Benjamin this tension was key to the liberating potential of allegory, which he saw as a space where “…written language and sound confront each other in tense polarity.” The writer-in-residence leaves behind an audio file which records her speech and footsteps in real time; its immediacy mediated by the Adjusters bureaucratic method and presented as a forensic exhibit. Benjamin continues: “The division between signifying written language and intoxicating spoken language opens up a gulf in the solid massif of verbal meaning and forces the gaze into the depth of language.” This stratifying device, at work in terms of both formatting and narrative strategy, produces a text as compressed and richly layered as the geological formation of Portland stone. It evokes a vertical temporality, a coexistence of all the different eras inhabited by this slim book, ranging from the Jurassic to the contemporary. This vertical sense of time lends itself to a belief in reincarnation and the Adjusters suspicion the Rogue Adjuster has “evolved into an inextinguishable life force” is an irrational possibility which seeps out to encompass all the characters.

In Craig Owens’ essay written in the late 1990s: ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ he comments ”Allegory is an attitude as well as a technique, a perception as well as a procedure. It occurs whenever one text is doubled by another. One text is read through another. The paradigm for the allegorical work is the palimpsest.” In ‘End Matter’ the allegorical attitude is so intensified, it conjures the supersensible as Palmer calls it. In Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime novel ‘The Heat of the Day‘ there’s a phrase which describes the atmosphere of collective hallucination of London during the blitz; which allows for fleeting moments of intense, erotically charged, telepathic communication between the characters. She calls it ’…the thinning of the membrane between this and that.’

In Bowen’s magnificent short story ‘Mysterious Kôr’ also set during the blitz — which, in some ways could stand as the obverse, companion piece to ‘End Matter’– the supersensible is given cinematic treatment by the full moon which turns London into “…the moon’s capital- shallow, cratered, extinct.” i.e. into Benjamin’s “facies hippocratica of history… a petrified, primordial landscape.” Exposed to the corrosive enchantment of moonlight, London is revealed as a palimpsest for another, more ancient realm; an effect that also pervades the domestic interior. When Callie, one of the main protagonists, parts the curtains to let the moonlight march into the flatlet which has been converted from a Victorian drawing room, it x-rays through the veil separating one era from another, bringing the hidden contours of the moulding into relief. “-out stood the curve and garlands of the great white marble Victorian mantelpiece of that lost drawing room…” .
The thinning of the membrane between this and that, bringing lost layers of duration into stark relief, is the latent force at work in ‘End Matter’. “…I had my hand against this stone.” So says Hazeline, describing the moment before she embarks on the orgy with the Adjusters. ”I said I wanted to reveal everything.”

In the other story threads produced by the writer-in-residence, the allegorical attitude is played out in a way which highlights the absurd, kafkaesque quality of its endeavor. Most strikingly in the case of the Rogue Adjuster where the logic of absence counterbalanced by presence is enacted in terms of the law of supply and demand. As well stone, the island also boasts sheep which yield a particularly sweet mutton and which the Rogue exports for profit. As the Loss Adjusters summarise the situation: “ The Rogue realises that an overlooked consequence of quarrying is the removal of grazing land for Portland’s native sheep. In his degenerate mind, he understands that this delicacy will become rare, so he attempts to secure a supply of it for himself, to fulfill an improbable level of demand from some unspecified market. Paradoxically, he needs the land to continue to disappear in order for the sheep to become increasingly valuable…” At one point the Rogue, in his greed, is compared to a pig- whose meat he himself disdains on the grounds it will happily eat human flesh. His own corpse ends up being fed to these very animals, so embodying the self-consuming cycle of cannibalistic greed which drives market forces. This cautionary tale turns on the thinning of the membrane between human and animal and between stone and flesh. Beneath the skin of the landscape there stirs an endless chain of being.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Whiteson lives and works in London. A novella The Seventh Piece is forthcoming from Eros Press. More info can be found here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 4th, 2015.