Traces

Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tyres press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.
— Thom Gunn, On the Move

Funest philosophers and ponderers,
Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
— Wallace Stevens, On the Manner of Addressing Clouds

The clouds travel like white handkerchiefs of goodbye,
the wind, travelling, waving them in its hands.
— Pablo Neruda, The Morning is Full

Long car journeys are always an opportunity for reflection. A lone tree in a field, a historic building, clouds in the sky, reflected sunlight, traffic signals and road furniture are all catalysts to random thoughts as they are viewed by the passing traveller. The roads we traverse have stories imprinted on them or instead serve as portals to narratives of our own creation.

Making my way back from a family holiday in southwestern France, I was struck by the tyre markings on the road. Rubberised memories of past events. One particularly dark pair that gently curved towards a ditch running parallel to the autoroute, for example, were imbued with traces of recent catastrophe and were a powerful reminder of potential danger.

Someone else’s misfortunes prompted me to reflect on the notion of the traces we leave behind as I slowly made my way northwards through stop–start holiday traffic. It is a concept always bubbling away at the back of my mind. Something linked to the ephemerality and reshaping of memory. An idea often brought into focus by the image of contrails that aircraft write on the sky, which then gradually disperse and vanish not long after the vehicle’s passage through the heavens.

One of my favourite authors, James Sallis, has frequently observed in his fiction and poetry how memory is more poet than reporter. My response to the tyre marks on the road reminded me of this. So too the recall and crafting of my own story in The Neo-Generalist. The stories we tell are always heavily edited, elliptical in their nature, with small fragments illuminated and expanded at the expense of the mundane or the too-personal-to-share.

As Mark Pagel observes in Wired for Culture, language is a great way to implant our thoughts and ideas in the minds of others. This can be language verbalised, written or rendered in the form of images. There is, however, a constant filtering process going on. You select certain things to share and a recipient chooses only a portion of them to internalise and make their own. Already, we are embarked on the path from solid to liquid to vapour. From a fragment of ourselves to a trace.

Even after death, though, we persist, however temporarily, in the memories of others. A little of what I have done and said throughout my life will be recalled, retold, reshaped by friends and family. My grandchildren may hear certain things about me from my own children, they may even benefit from a small number of my actions, enjoying some sort of familial legacy. Generally, however, the traces we leave behind disperse like the contrails in the sky.

It is reflections like these that have taken me back, albeit circuitously, to the long form of writing. My friend Doug Shaw encourages people to draw for the bin, as they hone their artistic skills, remove inhibitions and practise their craft. I have adopted a similar approach with social media. A tweet, even a blog post, tends to have a short life span in my view. I delete and unpublish often, having tested out and refined ideas that will find their way into longer pieces of writing. In some cases, I erase myself as completely as I can from a given platform, choosing to focus my attentions elsewhere.

My approach to the publication of a physical book, however, is very different. This I see as having a longer life span, a greater opportunity to convey ideas beyond my own lifetime. The book stands in conversation with many others: those that have influenced its contents, and whose traces are visible in its own pages, and those that it in turn will influence in the future. The book becomes a repository for ideas but also a space for curation. Undoubtedly, I am giving expression to my preference for the analogue form of literature over the digital one. The tangibility of print on paper wins me over, whereas the digital form leaves me cold.

I have expressed elsewhere my desire to read poetry on paper rather than on a screen, and my post-commuter shift away from the digital book back to the physical volume. One poem, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, exerted a massive influence on me during my years as a university student. It continues to do so today. In ‘shoring fragments’ it gave Kenneth Mikkelsen and I not only a chapter title but an organising principle for The Neo-Generalist. As with Eliot’s poem, we were able to synthesise what we had read, the experiences we had enjoyed, the conversations we had been involved in, the people we had met, in a fragmentary soup that told a broader story. It contains both memories of things past and traces of things to come.

But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza – one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

If memory were to fade uniformly with time it should be less clear. Instead novelty stands out.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Our young have been sundered from tradition and the entire creative heritage of their race; they live in an endless present, without illusion, without history, with only a series of images that flash across their lives and quickly fade. They are like pools of still water left behind on the beach when the tide goes out.
— James Sallis, Living Without History

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