I wrote this section of Shadow stands up in winter soon after we’d moved into our new place, which we liked because it had a big flowering tree outside on the street. How quickly we orient ourselves in new situations: the tree was one marker which I’d see in the foreground as I came home through the alleyway off Three Lamps into the car park behind the post office; another was the distant blue-green horizon of the Waitakere Ranges viewed from the Ponsonby ridge across the early evening glitter of house-lights beyond Westmere to Te Atatu. Stepping from our front door into Prosford Street and going in the opposite direction back towards the shops, it was the picture-framer across the road and the auto-repair business at the end of the street that became the markers of that journey.
I was re-reading Rimbaud’s poems and letters at the time, fascinated all over again by the tension between the letters and poems of that miracle year 1871 (‘Je est un autre’), and the letters he wrote from Africa after 1880. Though the tree, the view across to the ranges, the picture-framer, and the auto-repair business had become my memory markers, they were sometimes reoriented through Rimbaud’s words and that amazing ability he had to be other than himself, ‘un autre’, to be at once a subject and an object he observed, even a drunken, rudderless boat; and, in the letters written from Aden and Harar, to be the trader Rimbaud, that shrewd operator looking for the best price for coffee or guns, whose memories of the family home at Charleville must also have been filtered or reoriented somehow by the dusty red sunsets he observed with a mixture of venomous boredom and unquenchable hope.
When he watched his camel-train watering at an oasis, did he also see the ‘black, cold puddle’ where a small boy, ‘plein de tristesses’, launched his boat like a butterfly in May? Where does the present moment stop and a memory summoned by it begin to slide across that consciousness where self and other are not distinct? One chilly morning I saw Cartune Auto up the road from our place through the filter of a ‘memory’ derived from Rimbaud, but also through my own memory of swallows around the old battlements of Fez, and a cat sitting on top of a camel-load of goods just across the Syrian border in eastern Turkey. What present was Rimbaud in when, in his last delirious letter dictated to his sister Isabelle on 9 November 1891, the day before he died, he asked for ‘the prices of the services from Aphinar to Suez’ – when there’s nowhere called ‘Aphinar’ on the map?
And where was I, precisely, a couple of days ago, when Donna and I walked – ‘plein de tristesses’ – through the empty rooms of our lovely old house in Albany Avenue, Mount Victoria, Wellington, for the last time, and locked the door behind us? The rooms weren’t ever empty over more than twenty years, and the moment the door shut on them they began at once to be filled again with the voices I’d always heard there – in a place called something like ‘Aphinar’, perhaps, a place that doesn’t exist (but does); a moment at once melancholy and filled with the unstable, liberating happiness of change.
Khartoum is what I see first
when I step outside into
the street at the front of our
place, with a tree I’m starting
to remember, its shadow
was thickly matt in summer
but now sparse and transparent –
I look past its filigree
at a yellow battlement
scarified with texts and signs
that seem familiar, though the
swallows piercing a sunset
reddened with dust, the hoarse yells
of women beating carpets
flung across the sills of dark
windows, and the open gate
through which laden camels pass
(a cat perches on top of
bales of merchandise) – these I
don’t remember, yet they stand
up clearly in the morning
light where the green Link bus goes
swiftly past Cartune Auto
Service Centre ph 37
60268, its six
dark windows inscribed with texts,
its open warehouse door through
which a ute laden with tyres
enters the dark citadel
past the cat rolling in sun-
light on the footpath outside.