From The Time Before/From J.R. Carpenter
Updated: Sep 9
I spent the first three days of the week that the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on my hands and knees on the floor of a dance studio. Hand-painting four sentences onto ten-metre-long strips of sail cloth. With blood-red oil-based exterior gloss. A fifth sentence was undergoing a different process of translation. From red Sharpie to vector-based graphic. To be cut into vinyl lettering. From hand to writing. From body to glass. From paper to the window of a library.
These five sentences were part of a sited writing project commissioned by Lancaster University. They were written in collaboration with Adam Taylor, a Professor of Anatomy. They were intended to invite conversations about the body. About how little we know of our own inner workings. They were intended to be writ large. To be read by a walking body, a student body.
Up close and personal, these sentences bore the marks of their own making. The material granularity of process laid bare. Pencil marks of measure. Chalk traces of ghost letters. Brush hairs. Paint drips. Frayed edges. These sentences were intimate. They were monstrous in scale.
To write. To invite. A conversation about the body courts vulnerability. The possibility of failure. My own body was overwhelmed by the scale of these sentences. Of this undertaking. Sore. From bending, lifting, leaning, holding. Postures on hard floor. Breathing. White spirit. And paint fumes. A piano in a practice room. Somewhere in the building. And rain. And wind. Against the skylights. As if at sea. How large a ship could this amount of sail cloth rig? A fair-sized racing yacht, I reckoned.
The sentences were to be installed on the SPINE, a mile-long pedestrian corridor running through campus. There were email threads. About health and safety assessments. About weather and walk-throughs. Talks and workshops. Stepladders and grommets. Display panels and QR codes. Websites and banner adds. Site maps and zines.
The day I finished painting, the pandemic was announced.
Siting. Resting. Watching the paint dry. I Tweeted: this is a heck of a time to be doing this much thinking with the body about the body.
The day that the installation of these sentences was to begin, the campus was shut down.
I was supposed to lead a walk and talk. I was supposed to lead a workshop. I was supposed to take the train to London. I was supposed to fly to Canada. I was supposed to visit dearest oldest friends. I was supposed to meet with a publisher. I was supposed to give a talk at an international conference on climate history. I was supposed to give a reading at a festival of poetry. I was supposed to launch a new chapbook. I was supposed to take various trains. I was supposed to return to London. I was supposed to launch a new web-based work. I was supposed to launch a new book. A symposium on critical acts. A forum on cartographies of the imagination. A workshop in Sheffield. A festival in Cornwall. A reading in London. I was supposed to return to Lancaster. Another walk and talk. Another workshop. I was supposed to uninstall the sentences. Something in Edinburgh. Something in Manchester. Something in London. Some time at the British Library. Some time at the Bodleian. And so on. All cancelled.
I had been working towards UK citizenship. I had been working towards EU citizenship. I had been working towards living in my house in France. I had been working. I had been travelling. I had been unravelling. I had been pressed. I had been promised. I had been led to believe. I had been asking. As I had been saying. I had been trying. I had been waiting. I had been hoping. But no. I had been badly. I had been unable. After all that. How could. Why did. Why can’t. You can’t just. No. Just no.
And so. In the weeks before lockdown. When we should have already been in lockdown. I found myself. In a friend’s house. In North Yorkshire. Relieved to be in a small town, rather than in a city. Relieved to be alone.
(I have known profound isolation and this isn’t it)
I went into lockdown with the contents of a small suitcase. Travel-sized toothpaste. Two pairs of trousers and a wool sweater dress. Books but not mine. Notebooks but no pens. Flour but no yeast. Scones but no cream. Gloves but no masks. A garden but no grass. Sparrows but no swallows. Sun but no river. Hills but no sea.
“To want and not to have…” — a passage from To the Lighthouse.
To want and not to have a copy of To the Lighthouse.
That middle section in particular.
Oh, wait. There IS a river.
(a flattened curve is a horizon)
In an alternate reality formerly known as the present.
(we can’t return to normal. normal was the problem)
Of one unit.
Of outdoor exercise per day.
On the number of colours.
One can wear at once.
A walk along the River Ribble.
A flash of orange trousers.
A bright yellow coat.
A wide birth.
A place to sit.
Well off the path.
At the water’s edge.
Finding without looking.
By chance of glance.
A piece of pale green river glass.
Make your own sun.