The Essence of the Thing Elsewhere
By Adam Potts.
Reliquiæ #1, Corbel Stone Press, 2013
It is the contemplation and sanctity of inner life that interests Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet. That he would be more liberated by glimpsing a scene of open countryside over a stone wall on the outskirts of a small town than travelling the vast oceans and different countries across the world, is as much to do with his misanthropic disquiet as it is with the infinite inside the heart of the dreamer and the limitlessness of his dreaming. Pessoa proudly confesses to having done nothing but dream, where in his dreaming he has thought up worlds and vast landscapes populated by people and friends made all the more real by their imagined imperfections. Yet his dreaming and his writing is shot through with a curious kind of nostalgia made all the more painful as it longs for things that have never existed. Pessoa dreams in loss, where the landscapes and people of his dreams cannot escape the fate of never coming to pass and existing only ever in a nostalgic memory.
The collection of writings that make up Reliquiæ circle a similar kind of nostalgia. As the first annual journal of ‘poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, translations, and visual art,’ Reliquiæ (edited by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton and published by Corbel Stone Press) contemplates places, people and songs forgotten; forgotten by history and forgotten in their only ever being imagined. Even though it is as much a historical journal as it is imaginary – translations and first time publications of mid-to-late 19th century and early 20th century material, such as Richardson’s translation of ‘Four Inuit Songs’ firstly documented in Danish by Knud Rasmussen in 1930, sit next to the likes of Mark Valentine’s ‘The Other Salt’ written and published for the first time in Reliquiæ – the distant landscapes and forgotten folktales it tries to remember and evoke seem closer to the imaginative memory of Pessoa than any kind of historical remembrance.
It’s a journal with a common interest in ‘ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism,’ where a tale of the near forgotten 18th century ‘graveyard poet’ Henry Kirk White in Valentine’s other story ‘For She Will Have Her Harvest’ comes after Skelton’s own piece on the extinct grey fell fox called ‘With His Coat So Gray.’ Yet as if anticipating Holdenby, the poetry editor in Valentine’s story researching the life of White, who in compiling his book on the graveyard poets, writes a simple preamble to each author along with some demonstrative footnotes alluding to his expansive knowledge of the 18th century verse, the stories told in Reliquiæ and the history and characters remembered are not done so didactically. Even the notes and bibliography, with the exception of an odd footnote, that might contextualise a piece of writing with its original author and source come at the end, after all the stories have been told. It’s as if, quite literally, the essence of the thing being told lies elsewhere, as Richard Harms so beautifully discerns in his poem ‘Salt,’ the opening piece of the journal. Skelton does not recall the grey fox as one might recall a forgotten date, as if to preserve and lock its presence in place. Rather he poetically evokes ‘something that has gone, that has disappeared beyond reach.’ But like all the writers that make up Reliquiæ, he nevertheless reaches for what has been lost, as if to instead preserve it in a dream-like lyrical remembrance.
Like Pessoa, Reliquiæ dreams up forgotten landscapes, some real and some fictitious but all vivid and colourful in their poetic recall. Noor de Winter’s translation and discussion of the story of fictional composer Gustav Anias Horn and his friend Tutein, in ‘Landscape as the Origin of Music,’ is about music capturing ‘the melody of the soil.’ But more than this, it is about a mutual relationship between human and place, where the soil itself can be said to breathe infinite sadness. As de Winter writes, Anias can only experience certain places in nature as unreal, as they break forth with intangible human qualities, such that place becomes human and human becomes place.
It’s fitting, then, that Richardson and Skelton position Mark Brennan’s oil painting ‘Open Water’ after this piece. A blurred image of dense, dark green trees and a lake conjures a palpable place that is nevertheless equally withdrawn. Just as the limited tonality of the piano in de Winter’s piece cannot capture the harmonious density of birch bark, Brennan’s painting seems to be also deliberately lacking, evoking something closer to a dream and half-remembered than anything clear. But as de Winter writes, it is perhaps the lot of the artist as listener, observer and ultimately creator to acknowledge the limits of what can and can’t be realised in their art, such that the limit, and beyond it limitlessness, become the moment of art. And it’s here where Reliquiæ bobs in and out of focus, as a landscape both visible and hidden, and a collection of writings that circle the limit of what is remembered and forgotten.
This theme of ‘elsewhere’ is what ties an otherwise disparate collection of works together. Paintings sit next to poems, and short fictions follow historical translations because each work asks us, in their different ways, to imagine like Pessoa; to imagine a grey hunter with Skelton; an infinite landscape with Noon de Winter; a winter lake with Brennan; a king with bird feathers instead of hair with W. B. Yeats and even the beyond-nothingness of God in Yeats’ other piece. Even the more religious and philosophical final third of the journal only emphasises the type of metaphysical withdrawal at work. But where withdrawal means something more, where in the limit of our expression and memory something is able to overflow. It’s in the nothingness beyond our limit of thought where Yeats thinks God’s presence in what Simone Weil, years after, will similarly call divine withdrawal. And for John Hutchinson in his essay ‘The Other World,’ it’s the Sufis belief that knowing ‘sees infinity in all things’ that enables us to glimpse the limits of knowledge and the divine itself, not unlike Blake did in his ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ It’s not about what is present that concerns the artists of Reliquiæ but what might allow us to think beyond presence and to travel beyond Pessoa’s stone wall.
Reliquiæ is an almost romantic endeavour that for some might feel a little antiquated. But it’s what withdraws in the prose and paintings, and the deliberate subtleties and nuances that refuse the self-gratification of any kind of sublime truth. Memories, places and forgotten people are not brought into truth even in its more grandiose moments. Throughout, it is closer to Etienne Frank who in Valentine’s closing story of the journal, ‘The Other Salt,’ searches for one of the last sanctuaries of another salt only to find an immateriality, locatable only as a faint fragrance in the air and as a dissipating memory in the thoughts of his hosts. Reliquiæ is about searching more than it is finding, and it is in a certain degree of impossibility and forgetting that its memories and stories are most effectively told. The only real danger of Reliquiæ is that some of its shorter contributions, such as ‘The Herons’ by Francis Ledwig, risk getting lost next to some of the lengthier pieces that are able to evoke such subtleties in landscape and character. But perhaps this is also the strength of Reliquiæ, where everything is not remembered and retained evenly but lingers in a dreamy haze of fragments and stories that leave us with an urgency to return; an urgency that is to do with both remembering and forgetting equally.
About the Author
Adam Potts is a second year music PhD student at Newcastle University. His thesis explores the relationship between Japanese art and the work of Maurice Blanchot, with particular focus on noise music and conceptual frameworks of noise. He is also a vocalist who performs in several experimental music projects. He has been published elsewhere for the New York Qubit noise conference. He lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 25th, 2013.