—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth Garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
“Maybe…” The ugly glass building ahead of us glowed. Three behind us sang—a garbled, chant-like song. Polish, perhaps—“Maybe,” I repeated. “We’ve landed in Purgatory.” The hot air from the day had cooled, and the blue-black clouds of a slow-dying sunset swirled above us. The heavens spoke in puffs of off-white, dark blue. A large bus revved its engine and slowly pulled away, and the noise mixed with song mixed with smell of bus-stops and garbage and “It feels like, yes, this is kind of how I expect Purgatory to be.” A friend next to me on the wood bench had spoken and entered the sounds surrounding us. “Bedford. She was driving very quickly. Maybe we did die.” “What if that’s death, then, well… ” I tried to fit my thoughts around subjects and express subjects in words and speech but failed. I considered the possibility and looked at my leg, resting peacefully on my knee. The chant ceased; a bus neared us and we rose.
I sat down in a wicker chair in Gough Square. Alone, I looked at the old, wood railing. The room, empty, seemed alive with figures, figures and leaves, with pencils notched behind their ears. They examined the leaves carefully and jostled notes on a large table—centered, dictating to the room the moment. Little left the lips of the men—a serving man rose like a fog, creeping up stairs into room. Tea-things out, the men paused, drank. A deep noise thundered from below—everyone looked at each other. The large ugly figure squeezed his way up stairs. He grumbled something to the others, took tea, spilt tea, grumbled again, spoke, muttered, too-too-too under his breath, holding his tea cup, playing his tongue backwards, laughing like a rhinoceros, vanishing. Alone, again, I sighed and stumbled down the steps to a door, outside, and a day also descending.
Two hundred and sixty years later, we looked at his portrait. “So distinct, this one,” my friend said. “It’s famous. On a book, back home,” I said. “And here it is.” “I could be in here all day,” my friend said. “See, there’s Laud. There’s Sterne.” Wearied with walking we paced the rooms slowly—so many eyes staring at us—so many dead faces looking so lively, and “I just stood on his grave and wept. And there he lies, alive and well.” The names seemed to rise in those moments; each a full-grown story of love and hate and joy and sorrow and fear and hope and longing and the tale of good conquering evil for good. “It’s amazing he’s recognized, considering he’s a Christian.” I said as we walked outside his old home off High Street. “Think of all he’s done,” my friend spoke again. “At some point; they can’t ignore greatness. There comes a limit to their prejudice, when they must acknowledge the greatness of a writer like him. Forever, he’ll be canonized.”
The third canon sounded. We stood. One after one after one they came, racing up river. Arms moved like great wings to a voice. Shouts from the bank: “As a unit! As a unit!” Some made blades, some were bumped, and we watched on in the sun and heat. “One may need to go all Byron in this river,” I said. He was here, I remembered. So was… We walked along the river, three of us. Crossing a bridge we spotted a smokestack and continued. At the George, we rested, some eight or nine miles later. “How long has this gone on?” I asked. My friend replied: “Oh. Nineteenth century. Many of our traditions, Christmas, the way we know them, go back to the Victorians. They loved ritual, tradition. They created so many. And today we have that.” An ugly building glowed in the late afternoon sun. Then, smoking pipes on Fisher, the calm evening set in. “Glad no hoodlums are out,” he said. Moments later, a fat man in black stumbled near us. He wore a heavy coat and carried a Fosters in hands bedecked with silver rings. Two more cans were stuck in his coat. He saw us and mumbled. I understood little and watched him take a large pinch of the tobacco we smoked. And he smelled it. His eyes danced while he did so, the tobacco soon disappearing in his coat. He too disappeared. “Falstaff lives yet,” my friend said.
I took a seat on a stone slab by the river, near the theater. I tried to imagine him but couldn’t. To many of them—people, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, America, on and on and on and me, alone. A man strummed a guitar while others had their portraits drawn or sipped on drinks, chatting. A fat boat passed by full of more people. He was here, maybe sitting right here. What does that mean? What am I doing here? Pilgrimages make us small and weak and the longing to be a part of something bigger and better than ourselves swells, and through this shrinking we expand and then—photographs. Around me, humans inhumanely took pictures by the hundreds. The theater was desecrated—Cromwell couldn’t have done better. The photographers tried to own everything—every inch and angle and wall and step and memory. They lacked reverence and contemplation, humility. He was here. I rose, turned, crossed a bridge, and walked back to the cathedral.
Behind me sways the large horse chestnut by the chapel. A tuxedoed student wrestles the breeze with lighter and cigarette while a band plays “Come Together” to no one. I know my location by the chapel. It won’t move, but it will move me. More dressed-up students head toward an evening ball in blacks and whites and reds. “I wonder if the town creates the poets, or if they came that way,” I had mused to my friend. “Hard to say,” he replied. “They started young, some of them, Byron, died young.” This chapel though, this town, straddles two worlds—a chapel rests on the edge of rural and cosmopolitan, the then and now, the here and there. When we enter, we lose ourselves to time, place, language; we find our identity by entering into the living tradition; it is within these walls we are ourselves as we truly are and truly can be; we see not only the living surrounding us but the ghosts of all those who came before and worshipped on that spot. I find it no coincidence the poets came from a town with so many churches packed together. I left the chapel and snaked around and through the market, but toward the river. Squeezing through pedestrians, I now edged the water across from Magdalene and on. Jesus Green teemed as it had with people enjoying the cool evening air, and I would remember it that way, as my feet turned homeward.
I left my temporary home on Fisher Street at earliest daylight. Passing Alexander Gardens, Jesus Green, Midsummer Common, I said goodbye. I boarded a bus at Parker’s Piece. Five thousand miles later it was night. An older, ghastlier version of myself walks through glowing penny-slot-machines and rainbow-buildings.
Cambridge, England—Fisher Street, etc.
Las Vegas, Nevada—Rochelle Avenue
June 20, 28 2017
Painting: “King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, as Seen from Claire Hall Piece and Crotches”
By Victoria Susanna Colkett
Oil on panel, 1863