On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from poet, performer and general wonder Rachel McCrum.
In the basement of the art college
Elpenor hangs forgotten.
Endless birdman, hands flapping and fluttering,
He mutters, dreaming over and over
of a rooftop in Greece and white sails
he did not see being raised.
On that morning, in another corridor, red tiled
and warm, his companions talk in loud voices.
They are waiting for an audience.
They are performing ‘On Distillations of Survival’
against a backdrop of lemons, salt and sand.
Stories they have combed over as scavengers on a beach.
But it’s tricky. They do not yet understand failure.
They have survived nothing, except this.
No one comes.
Casually, they rip apart the work of their peers
kick around obscene stuffed nylon stockings, laughing
release an inflatable dolphin from coffee jar
(which is, in truth, saying nothing about anything
but has inexplicably won the artist a residency in Ghent).
They speak of the open world,
how they are standing on the doorstep to freedom.
But no one comes.
The birdman stirs in his sleep, cries out once.
they cast their posturing aside
pour the failed performances down a plughole,
toss the pool toy from a casement window.
the timbers of the ship will be torn apart.
Dull ties will be loosened under flushed faces
in late night city bars
and it will be years
before they remember him.
Still balanced on the guttering edge
the one that no one noticed hadn’t made it.
The ship sailed without him
and still he balances
thick gloss of pale and clammy sweat.
The lightbulbs burn out, one by one,
and his hands never tire, fluttering,
still crying ‘Hey! Hey! Wait for me!
Look, I’m flying!’
In July 2013, I spent two weeks in Nafplion, a stunning town in the Peloponnese, Greece. It was my first trip to Greece and along with everything else I fell in love with – the iced coffees, the conversations, the heat, the long dresses, the saltiness of the water, the food, oh God, the food – was the making eternal and present of the stories I knew as mythology – Herakles, Jason and the Argonauts, Agamemmnon and Clytemnestra, Odysseus and his crew. These stories were in the hills and on every horizon, and they were claimed not as mythology but as ancient history. Here are the ruins of Mycenae…of course, these tales are true.
Nafplion boasts (and it can boast about them) a multitude of galleries, museums and cultural venues. One of the finest is the National Gallery of Nafplion. On the day we went – my itinerary had been generously and fully packed by the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies with whom the trip was arranged (and the Michael Marks Trust, and the Callum MacDonald Award), and my warm, stunning guide/translator/friend Matina Goga had been indefatiguable in taking me around – they were showcasing an exhibition exploring modern portratiture, the artist’s (specifically the male) gaze.
One picture, amongst a sequenceby Christos Bokoros portraying Odysseus’s journey through Hades, caused me to pause. And return, again and again. A pale, thin young man balanced wobbly on one foot, black suit and dark hair, barely lit against the background. The kind of nervous smile on his face that would break your heart, a seeking for approval, for notice, for contact – the kind that would make you want to reach out and say ‘Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay. You’re good.’ The hands at the end of his wrists a blur of motion, flapping, like the wings of birds.
I didn’t know the story of Elpenor, which is hideously appropriate, considering part of his function in The Odyssey is to be a symbol of being forgotten. Don’t take that as accepted scholarly fact, mind, I never studied Classics. But that’s how I read it.
In The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his crew are finally gearing up to leave Circe’s island, with all its stultifying pleasures, they have one last drunken night. Elpenor, too tipsy and too hot to sleep, climbs onto the roof of the villa to try and get some rest. In the morning, he wakes up to see the rest of his crewmates down on the beach, readying the boat to continue their journey back to Ithaca. In his panic to reach the boat in time, he forgets he is on the roof, steps off, and dies. The rest of the crew don’t realise he’s missing, and sail on. Years later, when Odysseus is making the journey through the underworld to find the seer Tiresias, the first shade he comes across is Elpenor, who begs Odyssyes to return to the island, to find his bones, and to give him a proper burial. Odysseus eventually honours this promise, returning to Aeaea and cremating Elpenor’s bones on the beach, marking the grave with an anchor.
The idea of the one left behind was the first part of the poem to grab me. I’d been part of a collaboration at the degree show at Edinburgh College of Art before coming to Greece, and had spent some time hanging out in the corridors/eavesdropping on the conversations of the recent graduates. And remembering that weird sense you have coming out of university/college, that everything will just be there, waiting for you, because that’s what years of New Labour shoving everyone into Higher Education encouraged you to think, really. That the world would be yours for the taking, and there was no possible option of failure, and what does that do to your sense of, and your sensitivity,to the rest of the world, with all its messes and fuckups and mistakes? I think, post recession (amid recession?), it’s a little different now, and the new wave are more aware of how hard it will be for them. But in 2003, we were, perhaps, a little callous.
So that’s the mix that the poem came from. Thieved from a bit of life and a bit of memory and a bit of fear and a bit of guilt, and starting with a modern painting inspired by one of the oldest of stories. It wrote itself a bit towards the end; I like it best when poems go off with their own picnic baskets. It’s hard work to perform it, but the ending can be quite powerful. And it’s always fun to say ‘Ghent’.
Read more of Rachel McCrum’s poetry in her chapbook ‘The Glassblower Dances’