“Your old man’s in the kitchen,Johnny Flynn, Raising the Dead.
he’s a smile short of laughing.
And the radio’s beaming from
the stars that are coughing up
the change in his pockets,
and the shrug of his shoulders,
and the blood from his fingers,
and the love that I hold for him.”
In my dreams, my uncle knows he’s dead. I’m ushering a class of primary school children through a set of front doors into a brutalist office building. It’s my uncle’s next crazy plan (when he was living he was full of them, correspondence Tarot courses, numerology, name analysis), and he’s dragged me into it. As I pass him, he tells me I should bring the class to his funeral. It’ll be educational. I tell him I’m not bringing the children to the funeral, and he tells me instead to take them to the family plot in the cemetery. He could have been buried there, but…
A week later he’s at my parent’s house, beside an empty parrot cage. He looks a little sad. “You’re dead,” I tell him, and he nods.
In the waking world, I’m at the train station when my mother calls me in tears to tell me the parrot’s died.
In day-to-day life, I’m a poet. When I write, I feel I’m reaching into a dark pool and dragging something back into the light. It’s as Rilke said, “Things aren’t so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.” I don’t always know what I’m trying to articulate, I’m reaching out. There’s a meditation to it.
I could tell you I’m looking for the dead, but I don’t think that’s strictly true.
When I arrived home, my mother looked me up and down and said: I’m upset with my brother.
– Well mother, he’s dead. You’d have every right to be. Very inconsiderate of him.
No, she said. He promised me he’d give me a sign. He said he’d come and talk to me.
– Didn’t he come through with the others when–?
No no, she waves her hand. That doesn’t count.
– Okay, mother. It doesn’t count. I won’t ask. What about these dreams?
You’ll have to do it then, she says. Talking to them is your job now. I’m too old and too sick to do it.
I think this is what an heirloom is. Taking the porcelain staffordshire dogs and saying thank you and promising to look after them and having no idea where to put them. Except the dogs are invisible and the house is dark and maybe your mother invented those porcelain dogs when she was in one of her moods back in ‘76.
Several years ago my mother started dreaming of whales. She’d sit on the shore, and the whales would swim right up to her. They carried everyone she’d ever lost on their backs. Her Grandmother, her mother, and my brother. Different people every night. Until she couldn’t take it anymore. Until she sent the whales away.
I was surprised when she’d given it up. All my childhood my mother told me stories about the dead: her favourite boxer dog who followed her everywhere until she was sixteen, my great-grandmother taking her to the markets in Stockton that still had gas lamps, and my brother, who was born when my mother was sixteen and died of cancer soon after. Coming with them were the stories of ghosts, the cat who came into the room, curled up under my mother’s feet and left a week after it died; mediums who gathered around my uncle’s house and read my mother’s mind; my mother dreaming into the future; a boyfriend briefly possessed by the devil.
This was the house I grew up in. Between the chronic fatigue that plagued my childhood, my panics, fixations and auto-immune issues, it was a house I rarely left. We didn’t bother trying to get me to secondary school, and I couldn’t get on with children my own age. I bought antiques, many of them the same ceramics that my great-grandmother had picked up at the Stockton market, and I read and re-read a poem inscribed the family’s green velvet bible. A tiny thing. We’d lost the family bible to another set of relatives a generation or so back. This is our only real heirloom.
Robert Pinkney, meeting my eyes all the way from 1847 writes:
When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
Take up this book and in it look
That I am not forgotten
I look at Robert Pinkney’s faded daguerreotype, painted on the glass. What am I doing?
The family tradition is to grow up and, softly, go mad. So, I think I’d like to be able to ask my great-grandma how to get stains out of velvet, to ask my uncle what strange things happened when he lived with that opera singer, to tell my grandmother she deserved better.
I’m lighting a candle for my uncle. I’m repeating the poems that call him back. Because I’m bad at goodbyes, because I’m my mother’s daughter. Because it seemed to be heading this way and goodness I’m a sucker for narrative cohesion.
This is my inheritance: I don’t know how to talk to the dead, but sometimes they decide to talk to me. Sometimes I write them back into the room.
The Living and the Dead Meet In Dreaming
A milk carton in the back alley
clatters past bins and stars.
Nighttime like magnolia and
frogspawn. This. Threshold.
I dream about cities in the
rainforest and my friends.
They’re everyone I’m afraid
for, picking over stones and
running into blue thunder.
My uncle didn’t live here and
the covered market goes
For miles. I follow the girl
whose mother just died. All
the tombstones move their
faces. In the city that’s almost
a home, raining thick, Talya
& I are looking for the rest
of us. Wet dog and nag champa
incense. A light on in the kitchen.
Mam. The news. Mam. How
can I be here? And how
do I find him in these cities
wide as leaves? Threshold
and hedge of the otherworld,
the birthday present: python skin.
Put it on and slink crypt-deep.
I wish. He could tap me on the
shoulder again. Fix everything
in place. Laurence. It’s me again.
My mother’s waiting.