by Charles Wilkinson
“He saved the poem onto a flash drive; when he opened the document it was blank; so he went back to domain where he’d found it: nothing … apart from an advertisement in Chinese.”
The man talking to Andrew Uphill was in late middle age with a grave, lined face and cropped gray hair; he was between performances of Brecht. The tiny auditorium they were standing in had no windows and a barrel-shaped ceiling. Once Uphill had located the correct railway bridge, finding the theatre under the arches had been easy. Most of the units were bricked or boarded up; white arabesques of incomprehensible graffiti competed with multi-colored tags. A month ago, a vehicle used in a hit-and-run had been discovered in one of them. Although the theatre had no sign, there was a wicket gate in the wooden door; staple-gunned posters, badly printed in black and purple, advertised previous and present productions.
“Did he read it?” asked Uphill.
“No. He was on a computer in the Central Library and his time was almost up.”
“Why did he think it was by one of Mr Zym’s poets?”
“There was something about the font. He was pretty sure it was the one used by Eyam Editions.”
Uphill remembered his tutor’s words. It’s said there are some alive in the city who were published by Mr Zym. Most of his authors were not merely changed by the experience but altered beyond comprehension. There’s a man called Richard Stack. Minor public school Marxist. Cambridge man. Radical theatre enthusiast. Directs plays in the dampest space in Europe. Watch Brenton or Edward Bond and come away with bronchial pneumonia. He used to put on poetry readings in the early seventies. Events that were well worth avoiding. He would know more about Mr Zym than I do.
Uphill had been in the city for over a year, but his research was floundering. He’d intended to write on the British Poetry Revival in the Sixties and early Seventies, but every idea he had on the subject had already been written about. Then in the university library he came across a mention of Mr Zym in a cyclostyled magazine deep in the stacks; kaleidoscopically covered in A4 card and typed onto mauve paper; the second number of a short-lived venture , it almost came apart in his hands. Yet the vitality of those days survived in the roundup of small press publications at the back: Mr Zym’s activities as a publisher were written of with the awe reserved for the hidden gods of the fugitive press.
“What happened to your friend?”
“I’m not sure. He wasn’t really a friend. Just someone who used to come to a café I went to. This must have been more than ten years ago. I can’t even remember his name. Of course, as a dialectical materialist, I considered his story to be nonsense,” said Stack with the weary smile of one forever awaiting the final crisis of capitalism.
“You never met Mr. Zym.”
“No, though his name was on the lips of the kind of confused comrade capable of reconciling shamanism with international socialism.”
“I don’t suppose any of these people are still around.”
“I don’t think so. Do you write? Apart from your academic work.”
“A little … poems. Mainly on events I feel strongly about.”
The sound of scenery being shifted beyond the proscenium arch.
“I’m sorry,” said Stack. “I’m needed soon. And no, that sort of person seldom sticks around. I’ll see you out, if you don’t mind. Some of the cast are oversensitive about strangers attending rehearsals.”
As he was shepherded away, Uphill scribbled his email address on an envelope. “Now I come to think of it,” said Stack, opening the door, “I might have given some Eyam Editions poets a reading. You could never tell how an event would turn out. If attendance was poor, I sometimes took pity on the poets and bought a pamphlet. I’ll have a look when I’ve got time.”
Outside, dusk collected the details from the skyline, replacing them with the orange and yellow early evening lights of the city centre. Dark furred the pale moon’s edge. As he walked up the path, the dank air and softness underfoot hinted at the presence of subterranean streams, once country brooks gleaming in forgotten daylight, now flowing silently beneath the layers of compacted mud and gravel.
After reaching the main road, he hesitated, unsure of the nearest bus stop. The traffic was accelerating away from the clogged arteries around the centre. Lorries threw up a faint mist from the road; yellow headlights blossomed. There were no pedestrians on the narrow pavement. On the other side of the road was the stop where he’d alighted. He decided to walk toward the centre. It was five minutes before he came to a shelter. The frame that must once have held a timetable was empty, its remaining glass jagged and white-spidered with cracks. He tried to remember the numbers of the buses that went to the city centre. A familiar 50 rushed past without stopping, raising a web of spray. Perhaps this was a request stop. Then he became aware of another man, standing just outside the shelter, even though a fine rain had begun to fall.
“Do you know how frequent the 50s are?” Uphill asked.
The man was tall, with a closely shaven head. He was staring across in the direction of the derelict industrial buildings and wasteland of the south side, an area of darkening deprivation, illuminated only by street lighting and the traffic moving steadily toward the suburbs. The light from a passing lorry blazed on thin features tapering down to a sharp chin. Uphill was about to repeat his question, but there was something about the man’s knife-like profile that forbade further interrogation. Then the bus following in its wake hissed to a stop. Without looking round, Uphill boarded.
• • •
A cloudless sky on campus, weeks before the undergraduates were due to return; yet a wash of darkness under the blue; no hint of warm hues in the red brick; even the sun-polish on the leaves brought out a trace of black in the green: It was a Midland day, far from lavish coastal light. The university was too quiet, encumbered by silence. Perhaps it was a Bank Holiday. Since leaving the station, Uphill hadn’t seen a single person. Would the library be open? It seemed improbable, but as he pushed through the swinging doors, he saw a man with his back to him behind the issue desk.
He swiped his card and logged onto the library catalogue on the computer. Four titles appeared on the screen: Beyond the Broken Forme, Letters on a Devil’s Stick, The Eyam Press Book of New Poetry and The Eyam Press Book of Blessings & Curses. None had a Dewey decimal number. He copied the available information and went over to the issue desk. The assistant, not one he’d seen before, was sticking orange Post-it notes onto books stacked on a white trolley.
“Excuse me,” said Uphill. His voice was too loud, almost an affront to the pervasive silence. “I’m doing research on a publisher called Mr. Zym. He owned Eyam Editions. These titles don’t look as if they’ll be on the open shelves.”
The assistant turned around. He wore heavy black-framed glasses, which he took off, exposing two shiny red indentations on his nose. He peered at the note.
“You’re right. They’re in a reserved collection. Are you a student here?”
“You’ll find them in the Stenning Room. Top floor. It’s locked but I can give you a key.”
It was strange to have the lift to himself. As the doors closed, he felt an uncharacteristic twitch of anxiety. What if the mechanism jammed and he became stuck between floors? He’d no sooner considered the question than he reached the top level; the doors opened with a faintly ceremonial swish. Buoyed, he stepped onto the landing and followed the signs to the end of the corridor. He peered through the round window in the door and turned the key. To his right was a row of wooden carrels; three had desktop computers with blank gray-black screens. There were high rows of books in the middle of the room as well as on the walls. The sound of the strip lighting was louder here than in the corridor. Beneath the normal electrical hum came a low continuous tone he couldn’t identify. He looked around for security cameras; if there were any, they weren’t visible. The principle on which the books were arranged was not at once apparent. It was some time before he located the literature section. No Eyam Editions publications, as far as he could see; yet small press poetry pamphlets were sometimes found wedged between larger volumes. He’d almost completed his second search when he heard a barely discernible movement from the other side of the shelf, no greater than that made by a reader shifting his weight from one foot to the other; then the rustle of a soft hand on paper - a surreptitious turning of pages. He went around at once to the next aisle: no one - but a book slipped sideways; more swayed after it; one fell to the floor. It was as if a large volume had been plucked from the shelves, destabilizing the others. Stillness, a sense of a place suddenly vacated. Yet it was ludicrous to imagine an invisible presence was searching with him.
Uphill re-checked the literature section. The Book of Blessings and Curses could well be in a different section – miscellaneous, perhaps? He’d taken only a few steps toward the shelves by the door when he saw there were books on a carrel, which he was certain had been unoccupied when he came in. The chair had been moved slightly to one side, as though someone had just risen but intended to return. Uphill glanced around the room and then approached the desk. A pair of glasses and a fountain pen were resting on the pages of an open notebook. Next to it, on top of a pile of books, was The Eyam Book of Blessings and Curses. The buff-colored cover was faded; yet the typography remained elegant, black and exact, shining as if printed an hour ago. Uphill reached out to pick it up, when all three computers started up with a synchronous whirr; within seconds, they were blue-screened and emblazoned with icons.
Without looking back, he rushed out of the room and toward the lift. The doors were still open, as if the space inside had been primed to welcome his return. He turned and made for the stairs. As he hurtled down the levels, echoes followed him, always a footstep behind, yet so loud it seemed something heavier than himself was in pursuit. He reached the entrance hall and paused for breath; the impression of being accompanied abated. There was no one behind the issue desk. When he reached the station, he realized he’d forgotten to return the key to the Stenning Room.
• • •
Tufts of wild grass grew from gray-blue brick on top of the railway bridge. It was a surprise to see a train trundling along above him on what he’d assumed was a disused line. Uphill turned down the path to the arches. He hadn’t expected a phone call from Stack so soon: “I’m afraid I haven’t unearthed any of the Eyam Editions pamphlets I told you about, but I’ve found the journals I kept at the time I put on the readings. I’d forgotten William Timothy was published by them. He was once a friend of mine. If you come to the theatre around midday, you can take a look.”
In the clear light of noon, some of the lock-ups looked less forlorn; two had been given a fresh coat of paint. The entrances of the least-favored ones, those closest to the canal, were half-obscured by hogweed and nettles. On the other side of the path was a low straggling hedge, home to discarded beer cans and crisp packets. Then beyond, an expanse of benighted brown belt: open space studded with discarded tires; gray gashes on asphalt - what must once have been a used car lot.
Uphill stepped into the gloom of the theatre. Although Stack was up on the stage, he jumped down at once, with surprising agility for a man who must have reached his seventies; he beckoned Uphill to join him by the coffee machine.
“I did put on an Eyam Editions event,” he said, handing Uphill a plastic mug. “But I’d quite forgotten that William was one of the readers. He was on the fringes of the Party but not a member. What was rather unkindly referred to in those days as ‘one of Lenin’s useful idiots.’ Bought the paper and went on a few demos – that’s all.”
“Is he still alive?”
“As far as I know. He had health problems. Some kind of breakdown. I visited him two or three times. He talked nonsense; that must have been why I stopped seeing him. I’ve only the vaguest recollection of the meetings, but it’s all there in the journals.”
Stack pointed to three well-bound volumes resting on a chair in the front row.
“Was he good a poet?”
“I found him incomprehensible. And the other two Eyam Editions poets were no better. It was a relief the reading was poorly attended. But you can read about it for yourself. I’ve marked the relevant pages.”
“Did Mr. Zym turn up to support his writers?” asked Uphill, picking up the top most volume and turning the pages.
“No … that was another thing I found surprising.”
The handwriting was in black ink, elegant and italic, yet impersonal.
… it would perhaps have been too much to expect a political dimension to his poetry, but what I had failed to anticipate was the wilful obscurity of the work and how little connection there was to the man I know. William read with toneless fluency, investing every word with equal significance. The images seemed to erase the lines before them, before themselves vanishing; there was no sense of a continuous voice: flickers of grammatical accuracy; an image that shone for a second, suggesting the emergence of meaning, then dying away before a single lucid clause could be completed. The other two were pretty much in the same vein.
Afterward, when I suggested retreating to the Shakespeare or the Trocadero, only William agreed, and then with reluctance. But once we were seated in front of two pints he recovered his characteristic animation. We must both have known the reading was a disaster, and I didn’t mention it until our third pints were on the table. “I’m sorry there wasn’t much of an audience,” I said. “I don’t suppose you sold many pamphlets. I’ll buy one of yours if you’ve got one, even though I don’t think it will contribute much to the march of history.” William laughed and then said something I assumed was a joke. “I haven’t any with me. Strictly speaking they exist on the verge of what’s visible.” Later, I remembered that I hadn’t seen any of the pamphlets at the end of the reading; yet I recalled them being put out in three neat piles before the event …
“What do you think happened to the pamphlets?”
“There was an interval. Perhaps they either sold them, which I doubt, or put them away once they realized no one was interested.”
“Did you ever meet the other poets again?”
“No, I don’t think so. What I know is all there in the journals. Borrow them if you wish.
Outside, the air was cooler, imbued with the imminence of rain. As Uphill stooped to find his umbrella at the bottom of his bag and then stow the journals away, he saw the grass and weeds to the side of the theatre had been flattened. Had someone had been waiting outside?
• • •
William and I decided to drive out of the city. There’s a pub I know. A half-timbered ruin of a place, sawdust in the public bar, and with no sustenance other than yellow-brown pickled eggs immured in ancient vinegar. But at the back there are wooden benches in an overgrown beer garden: a good place to watch the sunset and discuss the ruined currency and the fall of governments. We had the spot to ourselves. A wind sighed in the apple tree; beyond, the fields striped and harvested, their golden parcels awaiting collection; in the distance, the hills splashed with blue shadow, crested with pink fire. As we raised our pints, the dying sun enriched the beer with gold. For once, William’s normally anxious features were in repose, confident of a miracle as a knight in a Burne-Jones or Millais. “We shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced by this,” I told him. He turned toward me, surprised. “It’s a political error,” I continued, “to invest this landscape with qualities it does not have: immemorial England, intrinsically worth going to war for; home as a repository of all that is good. Like any other place, it’s a built terrain, as constructed by the human hand as any suburb or inner-city slum. Examine it with an unromantic eye and you’ll see exploitation in every blade of corn.” He took a sip of beer. “And so now,” William said, as shadows edged the stubbled fields, “even the hedgerows are involved in a political plot?” “Certainly. Their absence or presence is an indication of the extent to which the countryside has succumbed to big agriculture. In some parts of East Anglia, the fields are vast in order to maximize the profits from arable farming. But the hedgerows, though good for sparrows, were also part of the disappearance of a more communal social order.” After this, we were silent for while, with only the clunk of a beer glass returned to rest on the table to disturb the silence. I sensed William had no more stomach for political talk. “What about this pamphlet of yours?” I asked. “I must confess I couldn’t make much of what you read.” Then he told me about Mr. Zym and Eyam Editions: “I suppose what they’re looking for is poetry that cannot be paraphrased. The words engendered through the writer from a source beyond everyday discourse.” I laughed: “In other words, it’s completely incomprehensible. Be careful,” I warned him, “that what you write is on the side of history.” He replied that the fight against injustice must go on; then he added what Zym had told him: “Here there’s no progression to anything but level darkness. We must feed on the light beyond.” I picked up our empty glasses. “In so far as that is intelligible,” I retorted, “it’s an expression of a morbid, middle-class aesthetic.”
• • •
It was late evening when he met the man with the shaven head on the staircase. Uphill had just returned to the block of flats where he lived alone on the top floor. In the hall, a dim yellowish cone of light on the high ceiling came on automatically. The creak of descending footsteps. It was unusual for anyone in the flats to venture out so late. The first light in the stairwell switched itself on. The hall, with its potted plant and a polished side-table on which letters for previous residents piled up, was once more submerged in gloom. An elderly couple lived on the second floor; the companionable sound of their television was just audible. As shadows reclaimed the stairs beneath him, the light on the next landing came on. For moment, he stood still, listening. Then the figure of a man emerged in front of him, slowly at first, as if developing out of photographic darkness. His close-shaven head and sharp features stirred a memory of an encounter. Uphill stepped to one side to allow him to pass. There was time to register the man was holding a parcel; then they were level. An arm brushed Uphill’s chest, transmitting a faint shock like static.
While the stranger swept rapidly down the stairs, Uphill remained leaning against the wall; a few seconds … percussive footsteps crossing the hall; then the front door unchained and banged shut. He waited. There was silence, except for voices on the television, the words indistinct.
As soon as he entered his flat, he knew someone had been in it. The light in his sitting-room was on. He went straight through. The top drawer of the desk was open and the box files, which had been stacked neatly on the bookcase, were strewn across the floor and sofa. For a moment, it seemed as if every object in the room was subtly out of place or inexpressibly different, stained by intrusion. And what if Stack’s diaries had been stolen? There were only a few more days before he was due to return them. He went straight to the bottom drawer: a familiar marbled cover. He took all three out and rifled through them - undamaged, as far as he could tell from a brief inspection.
It was midnight before he understood what had gone missing: not only the typed manuscript of the poems for his first pamphlet, but the handwritten drafts. All the Word documents and files on his computer connected to poetry had been deleted. He still had a few notebooks that contained the research for his thesis, but the sections of a first draft he’d word-processed had been wiped.
That morning he’d seen his tutor: Your project has started to unravel since you developed this fixation with Eyam Editions, Andrew. On your own admission, the work is either no longer extant or mysteriously out on loan. Of course, there was a frisson around the name long ago, partly because it was all so secretive. But I fear it was a bubble reputation, long since popped. Why don’t you go back to your first idea? Something like “The Black Mountain Poets and Their Influence on the Small Presses and Little Magazines of the West Midlands 1965 - 1975?”
Where had he seen the man with the shaven head? The bus stop not far from the turning to the railway arches. Then there was the parcel. Was it the right size to contain the missing manuscripts? He tried to picture the scene clearly: the tall man standing above him, his face and shoulders in darkness, the lower half of his body visible; the parcel tucked under his right arm. The shaven head, the eye riveted into angular features, the figure moving with preternatural speed past him and into the shadows beneath. And how come there was darkness above and below where Uphill stood? As if the stranger’s presence was a void beneath an appearance that could never turn on the lights.
• • •
As Uphill sat on the top deck of the bus, he watched the warehouses and light industrial buildings change to red brick mansions, ornamented with a profusion of turrets and pinnacles. Then he was on the middle lane of a motorway, rushing past ribbon developments of houses with bow windows and creamy stucco facades and vast pubs in brewer’s Gothic. After three changes, he alighted at a roundabout and followed a road lined with lace-curtained bungalows. Just as he thought he was lost, he reached a drive with ragged rows of rhododendrons on both sides. It was a relief to see a sign on which the name Shady Trees had been painted. But was the place still a care home? The entry in Stack’s journal, the last one to mention William, had been written thirty-five years ago:
William’s sister told me he is now out of hospital and a resident of the Shady Trees Rest Home in Boundary Road. The home, which I assume to be privately run, turned out to be the very worst sort of institution of its type, more a place of last resort than recovery. I found William seated in a melancholy semi-circle; most of the other patients were in various stages of mental disintegration. He looked up from his book and smiled when he saw me, but our conversation was one-sided. He responded to nothing I said, but spoke only in low, excited tones of the activities of Eyam Editions. He appears to believe that its authors have been accorded the ability to transcend the material world. I do not think I shall visit him again.
At the end of the drive, a wild garden surrounded a white Victorian mansion, its roof suppurating with moss; the rust-red guttering and a disfigured fire-escape semi-detached from the walls. A few of the windows were boarded up. Tall trees, deciduous and dripping, grew from a ruined orangery. There was one car in a dismal asphalt forecourt. As Uphill drew closer, he saw the steering wheel was missing. He’d no expectation of finding William Timothy alive, but had hoped the home would allow him to look at their records. It seemed inconceivable the place was inhabited. At least there was a bell push; he’d come too far not to ring it.
The door opened at once, almost before he’d taken his finger off the button. A nurse wearing a high white hat of a sort not seen on any ward for half a century appeared. An abnormally large watch with black hands and Roman numerals was pinned to her uniform.
“No visitors,” she snapped.
“I haven’t come to visit; this is more of a request for information. I’m researching the life of the poet William Timothy. I believe …”
“Are you a poet?”
“Well, it’s not for me … I do try to … now and again.”
“Poets are welcome. Name?”
“Come with me.”
He followed her down a long, gray corridor, its linoleum floor covered in heel marks and groove-like tire tracks, as if somebody had been skidding around on gargantuan hospital trolleys. There were no pictures on the walls; not even a red fire hydrant or potted plant to measure the distance between the occasional doors. The nurse walked with gunfire footsteps, the echoes erasing every other bar of her low tuneless singing, which was either wordless or in a language unknown to Uphill. One corridor succeeded another, and then another, each presenting an identical vista. However deep they penetrated into the building, the air remained odorless, drained of all institutional smells. Once or twice, as he tried to draw level with the nurse, he would begin a sentence, only for her to accelerate away with an eerie mechanical fluidity, forcing him to break into a jog. Then at last they were at the end of the passageway and in front of a wide double door, like the entrance to a vast auditorium. The nurse stopped with a click of her heels and swung around to face him.
“The Night and Day Room,” she announced. “You will find the resident within.”
“You mean there’s only one …”
“We’re very proud of Mr. Timothy. He has an excellent editorial eye, although of course the final decision is always Mr. Zym’s.”
Then she was steering him into a spacious room with high, narrow windows. White-gray spots shivered and danced in beams of subdued light. Were they motes or static from some hidden electrical source? A figure was seated in the middle of a sweep of empty floor. Uphill was halfway across the carpet when he recognized the man with the shaven head. He was older now, tucked up under a blanket, comfortable in the hide of his ancient leather armchair. Small square indentations in the carpet showed where the other seats had once stood.
“Ah, Uphill, we received your manuscript. Sorry we kept it under consideration for quite a few days. Anyway it’s good news. We liked it. Although, of course, we had to make some changes to be absolutely sure you had nothing to say. Always remember that poetry isn’t about meaning; it’s the activity beyond the page.”
“I’ve seen you before. Twice. But you were much younger.”
“I’ve got the galley proofs if you’d like to take a look at them.”
William Timothy reached under his blanket and drew out a pamphlet, which he handed to his visitor. From somewhere came the sound of sheets whispering through the press, the scent of invisible ink. Uphill saw his name printed on the white card of Eyam Editions. Inside there was only pagination, each number crisply printed in black, the sequencing ideal in every respect. At first, there was nothing but pure space between the endpapers: then slowly his work appeared; the act of attempted understanding lifting the words to the page.
• • •
Instead of taking the bus home, Richard Stack found himself wandering away from the city centre and through a ruined quarter of the south side, a place of abandoned factories and dusty warehouses. It was early evening, the last gold fading into the gray shadows of broken chimneys. He asked himself if he had been too much in love with dereliction: the brownfield sites; abandoned, red-brick factories with grass growing from the window frames; the hoardings tastelessly bright, squiggled with tags, an uncurated repository of urban anti-art; the whole an emblem of the end of industries, a failure of capitalism. He resented it when a street showed signs of life: an empty store reclaimed as studio space; a sandwich bar opening in a corner shop that had been abandoned for forty years; a pub that once sold sour beer refurbished and themed. To avoid passing a vintage clothes shop, he turned down an unfamiliar alley and found himself in a cul-de-sac he had never seen before. A curious cobbled courtyard surrounded by what would once have been small manufactories and workshops, some no more than large cottages, yet a spot that must once have teemed with small trades. Most of the buildings appeared abandoned, but here was one with a roof and glass in its arched windows. As he approached, he saw that a poster had been pinned to the wooden front door. Was the place some kind of meeting hall or non-conformist chapel, preserved by a few elderly worshippers? The notice was printed in a Baskerville typeface on yellow paper:
Tonight at 7:00
Eyam Editions presents
Two Radical Immaterialist Poets
How long was it since he’d given evidence to a police inquiry into a missing graduate student, the one who been interested in Mr. Zym? Three years at least. Now the man’s name came back to him: Uphill. There’d been considerable coverage of his disappearance at the time and tearful appeals from his parents on local TV. Stack had been more co-operative with the authorities than was his custom, for he’d been keen to retrieve his diaries, but there was no trace of them - or Andrew Uphill. He peered at the notice once more. “Radical” sounded promising, but how was it possible to possess this trait and be an immaterialist? Yet whatever the quality of the poetry, which was bound to be bad, incomprehensible or both, it was possible the organizers might have information about Uphill, or even William Timothy.
He pushed the front door, which swung open at once. To his surprise, the interior consisted of a single space: a hall with galleries on either side. A smell evocative of hassocks and hymn books; no organ let alone an altar. Wooden chairs had been arranged in rows. An aisle in the middle led to a raised platform at the far end. There was nothing on it, not even a lectern and chairs for the poets. No sign of an audience. As Stack was about to sit down, a tall, thin man wearing a nondescript tweed jacket and a tie emerged from behind a screen. Although his silvery gray hair had been cut short at the side, a lock flopped over his forehead. His rimless glasses were only visible once he was standing directly in front of Stack.
“Are you here for the reading?” His voice was hushed yet clipped, like that of a museum curator.
“Yes, I hope I’m not too early.”
“The event is to begin shortly.”
“It’s possible I may know one of the poets. Is William Timothy reading
“The Eyam Edition series aims to transcend the personal; the readers will remain anonymous.”
“Are you Mr. Zym?”
“No, I am not.”
The room darkened, only a little, but abruptly. Had a light bulb blown?
“I thought that as the publisher he might … put in an appearance.”
“Appearances are what no longer concern Mr. Zym,” said the man, glancing at his watch. “I think we may as well start.”
When Richard Stack sat down a few rows from the back, he became aware of a gallery above him, which presumably connected with the two at the sides. Why had he not noticed this earlier?
“Welcome to the third in this series of Eyam Editions readings,” said the tall man, who was now standing at the centre of the dais. “As ever, our theme is Words Spoken Beyond the Perceptible. We are pleased to welcome two poets, both nameless for this evening’s event. They are exponents of the School of Radical Immateriality.”
Nonsense, thought Stack. What could an imperceptible performance possibly be? Perhaps he was about to be subjected to a take on John Cage’s famous piece - bourgeois individualism at its very worst! And, of course, one perceived the passage of time, surely? Cage’s title admitted as much. Marxist epistemology had no truck with the Eyam Editions’ taste for self-indulgence. Perception is a form of handling; mankind has direct knowledge of reality. There is no “other country” hidden behind the veil of appearances.
He became aware of a voice above him. A poet was reciting from the gallery. In his late adolescence, an Anglo-Catholic girlfriend had taken Stack to a service in which an invisible choir sang in Latin from on high. Sickened by this display of religiosity, he’d dispensed with her affections shortly afterward. He listened to the poem. The syntax was weirdly distorted, wedded to incoherence and softly sibilant. He’d come across allegedly radical poets who claimed that the conventions of English grammar were attributes of the ruling class hegemony. To disrupt or reconstitute the ordinary sentence was in itself an act of revolutionary resistance. He was glad to say that kind of theoretical error had found no purchase at any level of the Party, let alone the branch meetings he attended; in fact, even his contributions were thought to be a touch wordy.
The room continued to darken. Only the outline of the man standing on the stage was visible. Black shapes like burnt butterflies fluttered around Stack’s head. He swiped at them but failed to make contact. The voice reciting the poem grew louder, although the content was no more lucid than before. Wasn’t the intonation familiar? Andrew Uphill? Yes, it was definitely him. Now a second voice joined. William Timothy. Stack recognized him at once. At first, the work was antiphonal, but slowly the volume grew, suffused with uncanny ecstasy, the voices overlapping. He could no longer see the figure on the stage.
The poets must have been reciting for over an hour. He glanced down at his watch, but could see neither its dial nor his wrist. The black space in front of him had no depth. Surely the reading must come to an end soon. It was quite absurd to sit on, uncomprehending in the triumphant dark. Were these shenanigans intended to illustrate the primacy of the word? Stack recalled Dr. Johnson’s response to Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy: I refute it thus, he’d said, stamping his foot on the ground. A Tory but at least a man of sound West Midland commonsense. Stack raised his right leg and tried to slam it down. Nothing! He edged forward, angling a toecap down into a void. Then he put out a hand to touch the chair that should have been next to him. The blackness was soft and empty. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said; “but could you turn on a light?” The voices above were no longer recognizable as those of Uphill and Timothy, although the speech retained the rhythms of a mad poetry, a patterning that seemed about to draw him into a dancing wilderness of sounds beyond the reach of ordinary words. He attempted to scream: “I really must insist …” He could no longer hear himself speak or feel the chair that had once been so secure beneath him. The boundaries of his body were slipping away, sliding into the reaches of the level dark. If there was a gleam there, how could he tell whether it was from beyond? He was alone with the voices of perpetual performance. This was not an event it would be possible to leave.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles Wilkinson