NOW ZERO: AKER MAKUM
Tired of all the GoT takes? For her May column, Ella dives into a fish tank and digs into mystical poetic botany in her mother's garden, the Black Forest and at the Serpentine's latest symposium. What is planted may never die.
I had been trying to write about power the day I found myself walking through Angel when a figure (who had seemed to be walking forwards but might have just sprung from the ground) suddenly spun on his heel in something between a pirouette and curtsey, mouth and arms spread wide with eyes locked on me in a movement unnervingly like this. Too close. I braced into threat mode but he was off. I pulled my earphones out and stood unsteady as he dipped and volleyed through currents of people before something about the look in his eye and the curve of his grin pulled at me and I ran back through the crowd tearing my neck around for him. I don’t know why. He was gone. But I wondered later if his had been some contract written in motion. If bodies can spell things out in this way, what, then, was either one of us promising?
On the top deck, two beautiful boys have their feet up against the bus’s flat glass forehead. One is slender, the other marrow-limbed. They’re noses to phones but a rubber band conversation snaps between them. School-age buoyant and apparently dancers–
“He said Jump Clinic’s at four”
“Why do we have that what is the point we’re about to leave you stupid bitch”
“Do you wanna go and watch Rocketman”
“Nooo I’m not watching that again”
“Why are you being so hunnnnngry man”
I plod down the stairs and pool behind a couple and their new baby in a cart his father hasn’t mastered yet as they try to exit. The gully between the bus and the pavement catches a wheel and the child slides headwards deeper into his carriage. shitshit_shit the man says and then itsalrightitsalright as he rights the carriage and glides onto the sidewalk. The woman is all clench in her leggings and greetings card tee. For a moment I see the current of tension that makes up their relationship, see it right there between them.
Further down the street another dad stops another pushchair and bends to kiss his swirly eyed daughter all fingers and shining teeth. I scoop up bits of my open chest then.
Power is everywhere. But so is grace.
I put my chin and a pile of wet arms on the lip of the pool and stare at the fish in the tank. A murk coloured catfish drifts up the glass sucking and popping his lips as a bladdery companion moves lifelessly, aimless around the rocks. Doleful. No business no purpose. Round and round. The pool is maybe 25 meters long and vacant except for an earthworm of a girl dragging strands of straw-coloured hair across the surface of the water, some expressionless toad and myself. __ sits on the side glaring into her phone.
The previous weekend I had spent 10 hours in a hospital and then felt nothing but the distance and the day’s weight as I walked home past the cemetery after hugging close to the scrub of the heath imagining the smell of earth, matter, hair, bones. Sepulchre. Petrichor. Words they put on Buzzfeed lists.
I suppose in that moment in the water I was still thinking about power, about what Japanese terms “kotodama”. What is that to a fish? Must she be able to describe her glass-walled water garden in order to know it? If she knew the words, could she break the glass? Perhaps she does and fish share the same power women are versed in since girlhood: knowing (separate from choosing) when to speak.
Anistemi: Bin Bamboo
So that evening over a bottle of wine I rake over the topsoil of a deep impact event with my mother, careful not to disturb or scorch more earth than we can tend to. The next morning she shows me the real garden she has grown. At the entrance to her home there are two flower beds: one is warm-toned and lively while the other is cool in blues and whites. Philadelphus and cornflowers, “a miserable acer”, like a bruise. And at the side of the house she’s planted bamboo in a pair of steel dustbins to keep it from spreading which gives it a name like music and makes me laugh. And then I go away and realize what she has shown me. She has written parts of herself into the soil.
After lunch the same day I travel back to London in time to see another hortipsyculturalist speak as part of the Serpentine’s latest symposium The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish with Plants. Elvia Wilk calls her talk Death By Landscape: The Weird Outside after a short story by Margaret Atwood and speaks broadly about the sublime but specifically about women. By this point I’ve finished reading her brilliant first novel, Oval, which ends the way all books set in or sideways from Berlin should end and comes out on my birthday and you should buy it then and read it too. At EartH, Dalston she talks about the ways women dissolve into or integrate with the natural world, calling this “becoming plant”. The titular tale describes two girls who go walking in the woods. Only one returns and, haunted by the loss of the other, sees her friend vividly years later in paintings of trees, in their “currents of energy, charged with violent color”. Elvia underscores that kind of intensity which only teenaged girls can have between them and says something elegant but forgotten now about the other dissolve between mind and action. In another story, whose author I didn’t catch, a wife who throws herself upon a garden fence in despair. Her husband sees this new thing which was (or is) his wife flourishing upon their fence and tries to murder it or her with pesticide but she is too…naturalized.
After Elvia Amy Hollywood talks about Emily Dickinson’s mystical poetic botany but keeps returning to a line in Corinthians about raising the dead. There are various versions but hers is this: “what is sown in corruption is raised in glory”. What is planted may never die.
Deep in the Black Forest is a lake where legend says a watery king pulls women down beneath its black surface which never stirs and there they become water music or nix. When I walked around its perimeter a few years ago I knew very well that that story was true. That drowned people drown people. Named for a white water lily ‘Mummeln’, the water in the Mummelsee was thick and unstarred that day but another legend says that very deep in this dark water there is a blue flower too and those who possess it can become invisible. Camouflage has always been a fusion with nature and the state of nature is the state of grace. There’s something here about mothers too, though it’s easier to say it in an undergrowth.
Of course the flower is blue, like the central motif for the Romantics. The Mummeln king’s tale is a waterlogged version of a fable found again and again in the Romantic/Gothic canon in which women are buried or almost buried by their monstrous suitors. Hades. Bluebeard. Bill. Women laid like lime to sweeten their earth. The skeletal remains of dead sea creatures crushed into fine powder and covering everything. We don’t die, we fertilize.
After the symposium, I dig out and dm my friend my Mummelsee blau baume, which is a handful of text on a tourist guide sign. A garden grows best when it is grounded with words. A week later I am still wrestling with the event’s unpalatable title as I finish writing this month’s column I realize my whole month has dissolved into it: the Shape of A Circle in the Mind of a Fish with Plants.
Ella Plevin's column Now Zero is published once a month. Last month, she wrote about "thin places."