The Writing on the Wall
Poet and artist Sophie Herxheimer, co-author with Chris McCabe of Hercules Editions' book The Practical Visionary, reflects on her return to London from a residency in California during lockdown, with the ever-present William Blake there to help her with a new project
I took Blake to Berkeley where he was glad to walk around hand in hand with Allen Ginsberg.
The residency I’d been invited to take up there was for six months from early December last year. During the first three I monopolised the monster of a library, raided the art shop, scoured and scampered in San Francisco, its devil-may-care book palace City Lights and sparkling vintage stores. I invited half the locality to my gorgeous residency house and studio for a reading, showed off my new Californian paintings, served up my best borscht and baked goods — and mostly, had my mind blown by living in a new place, where birds were process blue, Chanukah was as popular as Christmas, and winter lasted two weeks.
The following three months… well, you know the score. No salons, no visitors, no galleries, no bookshops, libraries or museums, no restaurants: LOCKDOWN. Even Blake went paler than usual, though my husband Adam had arrived by then, so things began to domesticate. A game of two halves. What a fearful symmetry.
It’s almost two months ago now that we returned to Brixton, and were shocked by the loose crowds in Brockwell Park wandering round mask-free and wild. “William,” I implored, “are we Lambethans really so unruly?” He laughed. He’d acquired a west coast accent. “Don’t sweat it honey,” he quoth, “you ain’t sick so quit protesting, Rose.” I put the kettle on and tried to stay indoors.
The kids had been minding the house, and our small back garden had become sheer overbearing weeds. My studio at home was similarly overgrown, but with bits of my pre-Berkeley project-mad ink-scrawled paper.
How could I land from such a life-changing experience? William advised I build on the work I’d made in California, the great connection that I’d felt whilst there to nature and her colours.
He helped me clear the garden and drag out crates of hoarded broken china from underneath the deck. For twenty years I’d kidded myself that I’d make a broken china mosaic on the back wall. In poetry there are some words that poets snigger at, words forbidden in poems, like ‘shimmer’, ‘soul’ and ‘shard’. These were the very things I found in the crates of long-forgotten jaunty crockery: plates I ate off as a child, a gold teapot, blue lustreware saucers bargained for in Brick Lane, green plates moulded like cabbage leaves from hefty porcelain, all waiting in chipped and cobwebbed oblivion. “Nothing from the famous Lambeth potteries, though?” William sighed. “Come on,” I said, “you never even liked that Doulton mashing clay in your Jerusalem! You’re like me, Will, and you know it, you need the colour!”
He fetched an old bucket and we mixed up sand and cement. “I like to haunt the tunnels near St Thomas's,” he said, “those mosaics made in honour of my songs, I’m taking Allen there tomorrow.” “Yes, yes, I know,” I said. “Well, stick with me, and we will make a brand new cosmos for you in this very yard, then we’ll say kaddish for you and Allen, the nurses and the unnamed Covid thousands.”
The china needed whacking into flattish pieces. Then I made a palette, using trays and washing up bowls for shards of different groups, the greens and blues, the tiles and cups, raised textures and bits of spout… More ghosts were gratified by my restitution of their glorious works, including the unsung painters of the Staffordshire potteries, often women, like those who even rose to fame, such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, glimmers of both these genii found places in my new arrangements.
Friends came by with extra bits of cracked yet lovely china too. Welcome familiars, despite the impossibility of hugs. Something about this, and the rehabilitation of the broken stuff of the past, together with that gritty sensation of earth under my fingernails, helped settle me back into my neighbourhood for real.
“What if we can never go anywhere again?” sulked William. “Oh, you of all people!” I snapped. “You, who persuaded me that Poetry was the only type of transport that I’d ever need, and that through printmaking one could visit all the Realms Imaginable! In these times of downgraded A-levels and economic collapse, letting our souls fly where they will on the shimmering shards of broken promises is the nearest thing we have to hope!”
The garden was quiet, gold china fragments glowed in the dusk of an English heatwave. Emily Dickinson floated through the lack of French windows carrying a round of beers. She winked as she lay down the tray of tinkling beverages, international queen of strange weather and seclusion, “Back to normal then?” She said, her sense of irony shimmering like the real butterflies fooled into landing on a glazed art deco flower. “Back to normal,” we nodded, doing our best to dwell, as poets must, in possibility, a fairer house than prose.
Follow Sophie's blog at poetryteapot, where you can read her series of five posts about her time in California (December 2019, January 2020, March 2020, April 2020 and June 2020). She is also on Instagram as @sophieherx, and on Twitter as @SophieherX.
'The Practical Visionary' by Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe is available from the Hercules Editions online shop for £10