:: Article

Landscapes of Abdication

By Steve Finbow.


Not in the nearby psychiatric hospital. Not in the cells of the local police station. Not in the grubby terraced housing by the railway station. Not in the condemned block of flats encircling the car park. But in an unnamed district on the outskirts of a city, to the north by the motorways, in an empty bar of a pub, I sit at a table, a half-empty pint of Stella before me, an open paperback novel, the cover showing the pages of a book cut into with a sharp blade to reveal more pages underneath, cut into again in ever-decreasing rectangles as if the cover of the book has been designed to hide ever larger guns, but not because the special-effect of depth is made so by perspective and shading, but because the book holds nothing more than words and numbers. Alongside the paperback — spatchcocked and turning yellow with spilled beer — a notebook, black and rectangular, its pages marked with indecipherable scrawls, arrows, and brackets, strings of numbers without names written above them to mark their provenance, plus circled codes, drawings of stick men, maps and lists. These objects belong to me, purchased with symbols of my owned time, the people who provide me with these signifiers of exchange also own my time. I occupy space, incrementally, indifferently, I look up from the notebook, trace a sight line along the canopy of the bar as if I’m following the trajectory of a fly, and then I rest my gaze on a painting hanging by a door marked PRIVATE. This is my problem. Although the sign is perfectly understandable — gold letters on a black background indicating my banishment, my exile from the secret world beyond: anteroom, attic, basement: the painting — showing a cart in a pond with a house in the background and a cloudy sky — I cannot see, I do not comprehend. The house is a series of convex polygons, rhomboids, and kites; the cart an accretion of parallelograms, ellipses, and radial triangles; the sky a succession of arcs and orbits. I cannot see what I think nor think what I see. I stare at the painting. The things I see become indistinct, inchoate. The shapes form into cats’ heads, gallows, knuckles, discarded scarecrows; the dog on the shoreline an anamorphic skull. The representations of people — two men and a woman — lead me to feelings of hurt and shame, violence and regret, yet never are they the things they are meant to be. I finish my pint in one long swallow, place the glass in the centre of a beer mat on the bar, put my notebook and novel into my shoulder bag, lift the strap over my head, settle the weight on my right shoulder and walk towards the painting. The frame is gilded, sculptured with gold roses and curlicues, the glass plate protecting the painting is dusty, a sticker has been affixed to and then raggedly torn from the bottom right corner. I see my reflection in the glass but focus through it to the painting itself, specifically the cart, but more specifically the men in the cart. The figures, small, unremarkable, a matter of blurred lines and strokes, the creation of brush and pigment, an aggregation of chemical and light and then I realize that this is, of course, a print, a copy of the original, maybe a copy of a print of a copy of a print, and the men in the painting are a blur of multiplication, a buzz of fading colour, and I sit down at the nearest table, take out my notebook, open it, and am surprised that the words there remain in the correct order, still fixed, amazed that they have not bled together, separated out, dribbled from the margins, the pages drained of letters washed into the rushing gutter of the spine, leaving the notebook blank, the pale blue lines pristine, the page edges unsullied by my hands. I walk towards the exit. The barman concentrating on his crossword ignores me. Something has drawn a hot yellow line under the moon. To get home from here I will need to go underground. A concrete staircase leads down to the subway and there I will hope to not think but feel and move through fatigue, through torpor, to tedium and on again.


Steve Finbow is between cities, straddling hemispheres. Reaktion books will publish his critical biography of Allen Ginsberg in 2012. He is working on a cultural history of necrophilia for Creation Books and is failing to keep quiet. The above story is an extract from Steve’s new collection, Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom, which you can purchase here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 22nd, 2011.