Wednesday 16 November 2016


Sleep has always been a shy, mysterious, elusive sheep for me - rarely does she come when I call.
But lately, sleep is more fractured than ever.

I read in a piece by Mary Karr, poet and memoirist, that during this year's American election, doctors suddenly had a rush of patients ringing in or reporting as emergencies, cases of false tachycardia. My own persistent tachycardia this year may be rooted in more determinedly medical background, but now I wonder if I too am experiencing a world wide case of shared disturbance of the heart.

These are troubled times. More so than ever before? I think not, on our personal levels. But on a global level, I believe we may be experiencing a seismic shift in our comprehension of the state of things. 

A thing I think: human beings are extraordinarily clever at denial. In our bones, we know we must die. But we also know we must live in the face of such irrefutable knowing. To live as though you are not dying is the art and craft we develop innately, from our first squall. 

And yet, here I am, awake in the middle of the night; and yet, here we all are, anxious for what is to come. 

Buddha would say, 'What has come to be', meaning what has come, has come to be, because of all things past leading to this present. Not inevitability as fate, rather a collective gathering of historical human action and consequence has brought us to this pass. 'This is because that is'. We cannot unlink ourselves from each other. Frederick Douglass believed America to be wilfully blind in 1862 ('We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.' from his speech 'The Reasons for our Troubles') and wilfully blind she continues to be. 

But here we are, on the eve of a new leadership, which will implicate us all, wide awake, hungry for comfort, with very little comfort to be had. 

Last evening before I fell asleep for a while, I attended a paper on Vietnamese-American writer lê thi diem thúy, author of the acclaimed novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For, and later went to a theatre performance of A Room with a View starring Felicity Kendal. While watching E. M. Forster's novel turned to play, I was making all sorts of connections between modernism and post war immigrant diaspora writings, until Kendal spoke this line: 'Novels aren't silly. Literature can influence things, sometimes.' She was speaking as Charlotte Bartlett, but it was Forster asserting himself, for all time, with that dictum.

It was a clear bell reminding me of the more recent affirmations of Toni Morrison and Atul Gawande, Mary Karr and Junot Diaz - the arts matter now more than ever. Our individual voices, thoughts, small decisions, matter. Resistance looks like protest marches, but true resistance begins with just one person choosing to think or behave in more awareness of themselves and one other. Look a little closer at the fellow human being beside you. Perhaps he is crouched outside the theatre, soaked in his black garments, because it rained while you were inside the warmth of the theatre, and he was outside making his sign (PLEASE HELP), awaiting the richest of the town folk to bring his coin collection up to the figure necessary to enable a night in the hostel. 

Perhaps you saw him and crouched down beside him and emptied your pockets of notes and coins. You put your hand on his shoulder and he said, 'God bless you.' Perhaps you walked by, not seeing him at all, heading to your car, your home, your family. Perhaps you saw and walked quickly past anyway. 
Be sure he saw it all.

Illustration by Nino Novellino via Read What Rosie Wrote

Saturday 5 November 2016


My favourite piece by Georgia O'Keeffe turned out to be one of the first works I saw in the exhibition. Upon entering the exhibition, Mum immediately said, 'I think this is it.' She meant, dolefully, that we had scurried across London, reliving the same bus journey twice, hopped up and down the Tate Modern's escalators twice (we forgot to pick up our tickets at the booth the first time), only to find the O'Keeffe retrospective was contained in a single room. Happily, Mum couldn't have been more wrong. We were rabbits in a warren, the two of us, along with the hundreds of other Londoners who had also decided that the last days of O'Keeffe were not to be missed.
O'Keeffe began in 1916 with charcoal and wash on paper, determined not to 'use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white'. But while she was painting lines, curves, shells, abstraction, her husband Alfred Stieglitz was busy photographing her hands, breasts, limbs, so that when colour finally exploded onto her canvas, he was ready to have it labelled erotica.

This painting, titled 'Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow' is a perfect example of O'Keeffe naming her painting abstract, but the viewer being directed to think otherwise. With her flower series, this labelling became more pronounced. There is something voluptuous, sensual and anatomically vivid about certain flowers, the tongues of canna lilies, blowsy skirts of opening petals, but the painter faithfully representing them may be doing just that. These 'Oriental Poppies', I think, look just as they should.

O'Keeffe addressed her viewers: 'you hung all your associations with flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as if I think and see what you think and see of the flowers - and I don't.' Meanwhile, Salvador Dali painted a rose and was dubbed king of surrealism. When O'Keeffe painted bones and skulls, and meant bones and skulls, they called it surrealism. 'The bones do not symbolise death to me,' O'Keeffe made clear. 'They are very lively.'

Pretty too, I think...

The biggest surprise for most people with the range displayed at the Tate Modern was probably O'Keeffe's architectural paintings. 

She was homey, and settled into her places and spaces with the kind of certainty bones have when they settle into earth. She painted doorways over and over again, and explored the adobe dwellings of Taos Pueblo - here Mum found her favourite painting among the longest continually inhabited dwellings on earth.

On the bus to Georgia, I mentioned to Mum that someday I wanted to paint my own version of reality  as I see it through my highly compromised vision. It would look something like an impressionist's painting, I told her, with bits missing or smudged out. A few hours later, I stood in front of Cottonwoods, 1952.

There was nothing O'Keeffe did not attempt - from my own myopic world to worlds of synaesthesia and chromothesia - translating sounds such as cattle lowing and music, into something for the eye. In the last years of her life, there were clouds, vast expanses of blue, calling to mind Joni Mitchell's lyrics, 'It's clouds illusions I recall'...