The city inside him rarely fell still. It was a mistake, he was sure, to think of himself as separate from the city, a sovereign state, even though, it was true, he could leave the city and go elsewhere if he wished, a village on the moors, a small port town on the south coast, with a snub white lighthouse, in winter. He didn’t contain the city, as a phial contains a particular liquid; and he wasn’t a passive object, like a white screen upon which the city was projected in a series of images. Everything was more porous than that: the city was a field of interactivity, in which the citizens were participants, coming into and out of existence as thoughts fire and fade in the mind, as lights go on and off in a building. Pronouns felt increasingly deceptive to him, the clumsy “I” and the “you”, the “it” and the “me”. His mother was in the advanced stages of dementia, and despite the grief and disorientation he experienced at watching her metamorphosis, he marvelled at the way his mother’s brain had progressively jettisoned parts of what had once been essential elements of her life, including her son, whom she had loved and cherished for decades, and including even herself. It was terribly cruel, to be introduced to her over and over again, the person she’d borne in her womb, and dandled and taught, guided, punished and adored, now he was somebody with a question mark for her, a “Joe?”, or “the television man?”. A conjuror inside her was making items vanish — a goldfish in a bowl, a white rabbit, doves — but never returned them, so her world, in theory, grew smaller and smaller, less and less populated, more and more empty. She was a periodic table, dropping members, first without mercury, then without sulphur or plutonium: failing connections plucked from her titanium, cobalt, zinc… Instead of the full 98 elements, hers was a table of 50 or 40, a dwindling amount. She was far less her “self” than she had been ten years earlier, her husband, two children, pets, her home, all had been mislaid in the mysterious zone of forgotten memories, their status problematic, their survival unknown, perhaps they were only extant in fragments, shards among the shards of broken dreams. Was she any less of a person? Of course not! She had her world, her routines in the assisted facility at the hospital: it was only that, quite evidently, she was not in control of who she had been, and she was not in control of who she was. She was not her self. Other powers held her in their sway, and yet they weren’t malicious or impish, they had no sentience, they were impersonal, systems that ran with no aim and no choice, cells that helplessly mutated, chemicals that were forever combining and re-combining in different formations, atoms that rose and fell in their own tides, swept back and forth, fluid and unresting… In other words, she was a collection of energies, but not in a stable or fixed condition, but like the collections of great patrons and museums, over the ages, first accumulated, painstakingly, treasures sought and added in, built and built up, then broken down, when finances or circumstances forced it, scattered, some artefacts destroyed, others lost, still others drawn into the holdings of new collectors, representatives of nascent empires, newly wealthy republics. And he was like this, and even the city was like this. And the girl in the boat looked so lonely, he felt like weeping: did she have any idea, how sad and how funny it was to mourn an illusion, to cling to a wreck that seemed so young?

 


from Semapolis | City of Signs
(series of poems, unfinished, 2012–present)

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