On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from poet Kathrine Sowerby.
‘Záhrada’ was commended in the Wigtown Poetry Competition 2012 and published here.
In the film there is a man in a black and white garden. His face is round, framed by the small portable television balanced on the armchair. His chest is bare, his trousers are baggy. With a brush, heavy and dripping, he paints the trunks of the trees that surround the house. His father shakes his head in disapproval at the holes in its slumping roof. There is music, plucking perhaps or a repeated chord. I’ve finished teaching for the day. It’s dark and the building I live in is quiet. I’ve boiled two eggs, same as every evening, opened a bottle of beer. There is no one to speak to. A girl visits the man. She is pale and pretty and they sit side by side under the trees, biting into fallen apples. He lifts her shirt and sees her bruises. She stands ankle deep in an anthill to show she can’t be hurt and to calm his bites she crouches, puts his hand under her skirt, and pees. I’ve never lived alone before. During the day the rooms in the building are offices. My boss walks in without knocking. A cleaner makes my bed and moves the votive candle from the side of the bath to the table in my room. Lunch is in the canteen; tables of boys in boiler suits from the engineering school next door. In the film, an angry woman arrives in a car and opens her shirt. While she sleeps, the man measures her body with a yardstick. In the evenings, I write letters, read A Hundred Years of Solitude, print photos in the bathroom with borrowed equipment. Sometimes Peter and his girlfriend pick me up in his orange Škoda and we go to a bar in town. Drinks come in pairs: tea and rum, whisky and coke, coffee and orange juice. It takes three languages to have a conversation. The girl is in a trance. She lies in bed and doesn’t move and the man holds a mirror to her mouth. He carries her back to the house and waits. Tomorrow I will ask my favourite class about the film and they will piece together the story for me. Miro’s eyes will light up. Miro, who has never missed a lesson, will hold his finger in the air and describe the final scene: the father sitting next to the man who is writing backwards in his notebook, the girl standing on a table in the garden, reaching to pick the final apple then lying on her back and rising into the air, floating above the table, and the father looking back and forth between the two. Everything, Miro will translate, everything, as it should be.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was 22 and a few months out of art school, I took a job teaching English in a small town in Slovakia near the Polish border. Arriving in January, I didn’t see grass until April when the snow melted. This was before the days of mobile phones, I hadn’t even heard of email, and being the only teacher in town, I could go days without speaking to anyone.
I had a small black and white TV in my room and after work I would watch ice hockey while I ate but one evening I turned it on and a man’s face filled the screen and I was transfixed by him and the girl in the film and their attempts to help each other by performing small miracles, it seemed. There was urgency, romance and a sense of vulnerability that I related to and that reminded me of the magical realist writers that I loved.
The time I spent in Slovakia was formative and the landscape, the friendships I made and the isolation I felt has fed into my writing in many ways, but for a long time I tried to find a single way to tell the story. A few years ago, I wrote down what I remembered of the film, directed by Martin Šulík, that had made such an impact on me, and ‘Záhrada’ came together very quickly as a prose poem.
Earlier this year I listened to Sinead Morrisey reading her poem ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ from Parallax at the TS Eliot Prize readings, based on the film of the same name, which she watched in the early stages of labour. The poem is accomplished and moving, swinging between the imminent birth of her first child, the life and afterlife in the film, and the death of her grandmother. It works because, as she says herself, she couldn’t have made the connections and the timing up.
I don’t often write directly from personal experience but cutting the details of the strange life I lived into the scenes in the film distances it from myself. It also gives it a rhythm; it’s a poem I like to read aloud and one that reminds me of a quiet time, when questions took longer to answer, and the restorative power of film.
Read ‘Záhrada’ here.