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The London Experience of Jean Rhys
Sometimes I would say to myself, ‘What if you’d just let yourself go a little? Talk a little, make a little conversation, be brave, braver, and confident like those mannequins in the window that you passed today with their chins up.’ I thought I would only become illuminated as a woman when he, the man in my life stroked my cheek, my palm, my bottom lip, my head and it would always come with a rush of this feeling to my head. He is so pale and beautiful, so fragile and delicate, like a flower in the winter light. The hush of silence in the room is as soft as feathers. His breath is as fresh as water. His soul is perfect but he doesn’t know this yet. I imagine it’s a feeling he will only experience with his children and his future wife.
This relationship doesn’t heal anything in my past; bring emotional closure to the abuse I suffered in my childhood. It only serves to encase my newfound promiscuous behaviour in Technicolor in a bubble, in a grandiose time warp. I can’t make him love me. Yet he is just as much impossible to love with his own mood swings as I am. I am always forgiving of his artistic temperament. I ask myself what is his heart, his soul trying to express. He’s just as wounded as me. Comfort me, hold me just a while longer but he doesn’t make eye contact with me, and speak to me. After making love I am as empty as a drum. I watch him sleep and feel fiercely protective over him. No love lost, only my innocence.
Before I was invincible, and now in his arms I am fragile and delicate. From far away I hear myself say, ‘Say something funny. Make me laugh.’ He smiles, looks at me as if to say, ‘I am not in love with you’ but I don’t care. For now, he is all mine. He belongs to me. His body, his jokes, the smell of his aftershave, his stories, his eyes, his lips so soft and delicate and bruising all at once. He is bitter. He is sweet. He does not believe in me, he does not believe me when I say that I love him. In my heart I say, I’ll take you just the way you are, you maladjusted, maladroit, abusive, abused child from one abused, damaged and neglected child to another. He can see me and that is enough for me.
I wash his back in circles, making ripples in the water with the palm of my hand, talking in circles but he doesn’t say anything-meaningful back. I know he’s just using me, humiliating me and causing a future exposure to trauma. I don’t know any better, anything else, any other life. What is the reward, what is the payoff? Even when he humiliates me, he is still looking at me, working miracles on me. I have become an addict. It doesn’t matter whether or not he speaks to me with contempt. I am convinced I have nothing without him. I am convinced I am nothing without him. Look at me, rescue me, save me; but the lost boys with vacant eyes and vague promises never do.
They leave me feeling haunted and blue with ice water running through my veins. They never smile at you until you smile on the outside. If I am quiet it’s because of the urgency in his voice, his breathing, his movements (himhimhim). Shame was a word I heard often when I was a weak child with a raving mother who often taunted me. And in this ice house there was no beauty, prettiness, loveliness, only grief, weariness, and a cry in the dark. I could not be alone and feel that kind of fire. And at that time in my life and in all the faces I saw around me all I saw and heard was, ‘I do not, I do not, I do not love you.’ And so order was spoiled and chaos ensued. I became frantic and believed that Lolita’s passage had set my own.
I kept my heart in a jar and my head in the sand. Everything happened so fast that I had no control over the pressure, the tightness of the close-knit and newly formed friendships, the disturbance, and the disturbances. I felt I could no longer live in a world that was not accepting of me. So I had to create a character in a storybook, a fairy tale to be loved, a glutton for punishment. For me he would bruise me to the bone, to my psyche. I’m a dazzling insomniac. Even my silent screaming when I am falling apart is dazzling with my every waking thought and living moment. I brought submission to the table. I had solitude on my side. He had a kind of self-leadership about him then. I was alive even in those empty moments.
I learnt to say, if you feel like it then love me, if you don’t then don’t. I began to see his, my, our rituals as crucial turning points in the relationship. I could not bear being alone, being left alone.
Poetry continued in my thirties (there’s room now for a view)
The discovery of hearts in jars
There are things
I will never forget
The art of making war
Instead of peace
How it nurtured luminous me
Without me knowing
That time was slipping away
In one lifetime
There can be many passions
That can be part of your heart
That tells you to have courage
The headline read, ‘Let’s stop the persecution’. It could have been something I had written, perhaps a letter to the editor. I saw a flash, a slap against a face across the breakfast table and my sister gave a shout and began to cry. I remember washing my hair in a woman’s salon and reading about the virgin lover in Nabokov’s Lolita. My fingers holding onto the spine of the book, bookmarking the last page I read. The girl sitting next to me at the basin had doll eyes. They were brown with gold, golden flecks in them and so I began to learn what any woman would do for vanity in high school. As a child I grew up in a house made of brightness, made up of bright things. Tough love was a shiny bullet flying through the air. The surfaces were conservative, tense yet tidal, emotions running high, the collection of them and those experiences hard. And then I began to long for the weight of the meditative hush in leaves. It was the only thing that brought me peace of mind and that froze both joy and deception in their tracks. I wanted to be the sensible child taking the separation or divorce pretty well. I wanted to tell my mother that she hurt the people who loved her the most.
Where the woman of the world is illumined
The unseen is eternal
The world is not my home
I am here on earth for a little while
I have left childhood behind
One day I will let go
Of everything that intoxicated
What orientated me?
Before will come to an end
This is the sound of one voice
Speaking to me
But he, my father does not give of himself effortlessly or consistently. There were often closed doors. They would bang shut and it could be heard in all the rooms. It could even reach children who were supposed to be asleep, their ears. It couldn’t have been that serious. I heard my mother laughing. She sounded free. Free in the sense that she was a young girl again without any limitations being placed on her. The limitations of a family and a husband and especially work. My mother and sister had the personality of a volcano. All I could taste was rain, pretend that I was dead in the sea whenever, wherever I heard a shriek of excitement on the beach from other children building castles. I imagined auras while their mothers dried their hair with a towel and gave them money, pressed silver coins in their hand for ice cream or for something cold to drink. Other children would parade and dance in front of their mother’s. I wanted to be left alone. I was always a child on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As a young woman I wanted my gracious, appreciative heart to locate others.
Through the eyes of the child
For all my life
You’ve painted me
Inside my head
There’s a silent sea
A quiet town setting
Poetry in a scrapbook
An exquisite identity
I am a poet
In a pot in bloom
Before being launched into space
The art was not to fall like the virgin lover in Nabokov’s Lolita. But fall I did. It was always cold where I was. It was not my dream to be endeavoured with literary pursuits from a young age. Children do not have the mental faculty to wish fear away in an instant. Children are just brave. They just seem to have that cosmic life force. I don’t think I was a brave child. I wanted to be a volcano but I just didn’t have that in me. And when I grew up into a young woman, into a writer, that oppressive feeling that I had to be emancipated in some or all the way never left me. It stayed with me at my side. It was my doppelganger. And as I became a vibrant type of person and my thoughts more and more vivid I could see all the beauty in the world around me except in me. All I could understand was people and write about them and me observing them. Playing dead in the water in the end had served me well and had taken me to new heights and had fostered an unseen intelligence. My father did everything but talk. Meanwhile I pulled out the entire minimum stops and shortcuts.
And so I come
To the end of violence
He never said please
He never said thank you
He touched the nerve centre
Of all my despair and madness
And perhaps that was the end
Of joy in my life
The beginning of silence
In the background of rooms
When I began
To flirt with the temptations
Of this world
Purpose is life. The war inside my mind is often a war of nerves, a crowded house. It leaves me with a feeling of being locked up inside a box, Pandora’s Box. There’s place for stigma and being, the unbearable in there as well. Living in a fog-like consciousness, always watching the clock, that round island made up of numbers. So I had to discover that the universe promises the human condition two things: mortality and eternity. Depression doesn’t come with a vision of the world. It comes with its own canvas, blank and its own personal mission, do or die, go beyond yonder. The proof of depression is something absurdly supernatural, that there is something greater than you are even if it is a calling and a gift in your blood. Your need to learn how to fly, the machinations of your consciousness ‘caught by the river’ by the river exploding into life in front of your eyes. Sometimes the story begins at the end or with flashbacks with dramatic effect moving forwards and backwards. It is blood that is thicker than water, than family bloodlines or the phoenix rising from ashes.
Head against the brick and stone of depression is often a permanent protest. When I began to write poetry I left space for interpretation, for kindred spirits and soul mates, even for ghosts. It is brutal, dissolves, deranges, distorts and it drums this in to you. It has such a presence, pain, depression, melancholia standing at attention. Poetry became my goal (the force of my reality, the reality I lived in) and my life. It became my desire that existed in both the spirit of place of darkness and light. It became the psychosomatic root to my cognitive thinking and my self-help. When you’re depressed you keep your thoughts and reflections to yourself. They’re more often than not charged with electricity, electricity that is not easy to shield yourself from like the eye of the sun. ‘Come back to bed.’ Your body says. Your eyes are vacant hinting at the spark and the glow of the displeasure of ill health, old wounds and escape. You feel naked, as if you’ve been abandoned in the dark, the pitch black and thrown to the wolves. I make lists of things that trouble me when I feel depressed. Any female writer would write what she feels destination anywhere in an upside down world.
Nothing fades away except the material world and the physical body. And so I found myself in the city of cities, bereft, sinking my teeth into the polished floors of the library, the archives, the newspapers, textbooks, novels and biographies, anything that I could get my hands on and read. I was a film student marching across asphalt and green armed with books and not so often an engaging intellect. If only people were more like me, I wondered. If only people were not so mediocre. If only the other students did not spend their time drinking so much, not understanding me, sharing cigarettes. And then there was the woman with a feather in her hair, a modern-day witch. Her skin dark and ashy she would dance mad with rhythm in the halls of the ward in the hospital with feathers in her hair. I could not understand her, the mechanism, that shift within her brain, whatever was in her head, that swift shift in the chains of her consciousness like leaves against grass, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. It was here that I discovered Goethe. All I could think to myself was that this was madness and that madness could be as magnificent as the highs of euphoria.
Nothing unique but as weeks went by it didn’t seem to fade away into the comfort blanket world of inhibitory drugs and prescribed medication and that beautiful Lithium. I could only face the world with the psychology I gleaned from my reading, delving deep into the ghostly facets and facts of the unstable planet of illness and mental illness. I grew excited by the potential that lay ahead of me, in the distant future. It was always hours away. All I had to do was built on the edges of a dream.
When I think of that time before my life began once more in search of a fabulous road, I seemed to live in a nation in ruins in that hospital, filled with ruined people, and lives that were intensely fragile. Their sadness seeped into me like stains in the peeling wallpaper at the Salvation Army. I needed to feel alive and I could only feel alive when I was witnessing the pain of other souls and when I could tell and see how the world put pressure on them to excel. I began to live in books and on the plateaus and landscapes it offered me. I needed to picture a life without the cool order and routine of student nurses hovering, staring at a television’s snow. For now I needed that but I needed the world too.
Dark, dark, dark and just like that it was gone. I am the way I am because of my mother, other women, my father, aunts and the hidden meaning in responsibility. I have felt devastation all my life, loss, people simply passing through my life going from one place to the next and I have found that words are the easy part. The outside world doesn’t inform anything that you say or do when you are living with ghosts that you’re waiting to be cured of. His eyes were a sea of green glass and his hair was long and dark. We could talk for hours sitting on the grass. I would stare into his eyes and that glass would chip away at the fragments of my heart. I even found time to fall in love and out of hate with my soul (what is does it mean to have a soul) and with the being of myself. I found I could reconstruct the material, make it emotive, and make it glad. I wanted to bring my family back together again. I wanted to heal what was broken. All I saw around me were broken people, shattered people, people in recovery under daily observation and I was one of them. I felt as if there was some part of me that didn’t belong to the world. Yonder, unbearable light, madness, illness, scar tissue, a heavy kind of woundedness can do that to you.
And what are women truly at heart if the writers are the thinkers. Poets are dreamers and being conscious of their dreams they are conscious of the guts they have to live in this damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t-world. We have to start somewhere I reckon, all women do. We are the ones who have to come up with a blank emotionally intuitive and spiritual slate before our written words become imprinted on an audience, a reader, a woman, a man or a child. Before we burn away into nothingness, before we escape, and before truth stares us down in the face. Awareness and the grit in our souls always comes with nurturing and until there’s an unbearable lightness in our awareness, a turn of the switch to develop this spirit in others.
Our writing (female writing) only becomes more successful when we inspire others to gravitate towards greatness. From a youth’s pure and angelic roots to being a walking mass of contradictions as they grow, to their bones, the consciousness of a movement has begun across the female nation reaching converging lines bordering on the universal. Writers’ psyches cannot survive in dysfunction without the pictures of our external reality growing cold and dim as they fill inner space, marking turning points in time, in the flesh of history books. This is my message to the youth of the world. Pay attention to your dreams. The light in all of you is like a volcano. It can melt the heart of stone.
Perhaps one of the loneliest experiences in the whole world is this, writing. I say this because on the surface I feel I can make it look effortless (there is a transference, a catalyst that I can’t explain, can’t put my finger on) while inside the vision we have this surface that if looks could kill it could kill. I’ve realised through my long walks that the woman who is secure in her home is the woman who has married, who has those children, who cooks those breakfasts and steaks, maintains a household, is the lady of the house. She is the madam who orders the kind of fish her husband likes to have. She puts honey and lemon in her tea, serves it like that when guests come to her house.
Other women her age, other women with the same interests she has, who have the same number of children that she has. She does not have to put her coat on, her scarf, and her hat and open the door and walk out into the world a leper, yes, I say a leper because she is rejected wherever she goes. She is the Outsider, the loner, isolated. Nowhere is there a paradise for her. There are norms and values. What are the norms and values of a single woman (note I did not say the single ‘lady’)? A single woman is a burden to her family if she is unemployed. If she does not have any skills and her loveliness fades away swiftly. Nobody wants to have anything to do with her. They do not want to talk to her, converse with her because she does not have any talents.
If she had they’ve already convinced themselves of this fact that she would’ve been married long ago, off their hands. She will never find herself in a field of love. Instead she will imagine what it would be like. She would imagine the atomic illusion of it. And she will know deep in her heart that she will be a girl for the rest of her life, a being who will never be swept off her feet by a masculine swagger. She would never understand what the words ‘flirt’, ‘flirting’ meant. She would remain detached from the world her cousins now inhabit, tangled in obsession. Men like to eat meat and she will remember meals she had with a man once or twice. How he licked the fat off his lips and drank his wine and how kind he was to her like her father was and when she thought of that she would always think of Dominica.
Is there anything else you would like, maybe a dessert, something sweet, a treat to end our meeting like this?
You know it’s not always going to be this way.
I want you to remember me like this always, and that we were happy and friendly and our parting was amicable. Let us part as friends. Smile, I know you can.
I have a present for you. It isn’t wrapped though, forgive me. I painted it myself. It’s a landscape. It’s pretty isn’t it? I’m thinking of buying a house there. You’ve never been to the country before have you. It’s beautiful and quiet. Business is business but you have to live somewhere too, you know. You have to live.
But I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to live, how to ask, ‘Are you happy now?’ All I seemed to say over and over again was, ‘Are you happy now, Jean? Is this what you wanted, or was it a manifesto of loneliness and despair that I had been searching for all of my life since childhood?’ All I knew was hotel room after hotel room, meetings there, situations there. I wanted to be filled bit by bit with love and empathy for other people who seemed to find themselves in the same situation I was in. They were lost. I was lost. I was scared to find out that I had no substance. I was baffled by the life around me and the lives people were living. It was as if they were telling me I was the fraud, the fake, and the poser.
I still don’t know how it came about, the writing part of me that bit. Now when I come to my younger sister she is half otherworldly, half superimposed in reality. Now she is made of substance. God, why am I not. Why? So here I am? Why?
I don’t know what love is, what love is made of, why I am out of touch with that reality and I’ve been out of touch with it for a long time. So here I am in London where the lights aren’t as bright as they are in Paris and in my dreams I was in Dominica. It was always playing at the back of my mind. There was nothing European about me although I had travelled on the continent. A man gave me advice once. I didn’t take it. Oh, I pretend to listen and it’s alright for them to know that I am just pretending too while they pretend to care about me.
What are you thinking about in that intelligent little head of yours Jean? I don’t think you need saving. I think you’re fierce enough to understand your circumstances, to grapple with the future that lies ahead of you, to take it on. Not many women can do that. Are you lonely? Even I get lonely sometimes. Sometimes even when I’m surrounded by other people truly living. What does it mean to truly live? Does it mean to be happy, and content, the weight of a ravaged country or mountain off your back? Money does not make anyone happy. It can make you, give you a certain sense of power and control over other people but coming back to you, pet; you give me that impression that all ‘little Jean’ had known in a way her whole life was suffering.
It is a reality I can’t bear to face, to face this existence, this depression, this illness. You might think I’m brave but I don’t think I’m brave. There is nothing heroic about miserable me I’m afraid. I sought out male companions who were pure of heart and failed miserably at that too. While leaves curled up (I too curled up in my bed at night), shrivelled up (my soul shrivelled up), winter danced away and seasons passed, turned into the loving of summertime I took to the streets again and little cafes. I casually observed the ballad of the human race around me and the wonder of loneliness. It took guts to live and I was so meek, so week, mousy. I did not know how to live. Nobody had taught me anything about that.
I had to steal it the best way I knew how. By using my brain as a catalyst and by filling black notebooks with the winters, the breath of the wilderness, the wild of life, the Technicolor of poppies in a field, drops of rain on a drab coat, shoes that looked a bit worse for wear. I wanted to remember Dominica (my choice). Not the suffering but the lavishness of the books I stuck my nose in the library when I was a child. It made me feel better. I too had a right to live in this world. You, anyone could not take that away from me. I was not a ghost although I moved like one through the streets. I have finally decided what my gift was to this world. Sacrifice. I am still here. Magnificently I am still all here.
The unbearable light in having bright conversation, sharp, bright, intuitive eyes with insight into the world around sensitive me. I need a drink, badly, to forget all about yesterday. I’m pensive (don’t give a damn about this maddening hell that seems to cavort beautifully, helplessly around me. I drown in its echo, its phenomena.) Am I cultured? Am I educated? I always wanted to be. I wanted to be a woman who is secure in her own home. I wanted to be a brutal thinker, a woman who has not been initiated into the sexual impulse (the wonder of a kiss, the virgin seed awakening to consciousness in a touch, love, beating heart, romantic interlude) at an early stage of her development. Poor me, hey.
I don’t think my mother ever knew how much she really hurt me. I think when I first became aware of that I became less trusting of the world around me. I became detached from it in a sense and there I was thrust into a state of imbalance. I could no longer feel the flux of equilibrium, fisherman’s thievery, the glint of the silver skin of the fin of the fish. Love stories come from that place, the land of immortals. They truly last forever but love affairs are another equation, another seam, hemmed in by mirth, priorities and cons. They’re inelegant. A love affair drifts. You can’t read its palm. It has a noose tied around its neck. It’s loosed into the world like it has been there forever. It’s just an obsession. It is just an obsession in an open love field.
I met someone once. He smelled like the earth. His hands were rough. He wore a mask and I had one too but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t define the boundaries of the relationship. He made me feel as if I could do anything, be anything, feel alive. It was as if I had just come into being, you know. And when it rained I didn’t feel the rain. When I was away from him the world no longer felt uninviting and cold, grave and condescending. I could look people in the eye because now I too was a possession. The dark no longer made a cripple out of me. It no longer burned me, that giant. I could close my eyes and fast forward to a time that I looked forward to. I no longer said, ‘What is love anyway? It means nothing to me.’
I would sit across from him at a table at a restaurant (he would order and he’d be in charge) and he would say things that would fill me with delight, with bliss, something would just shift inside of me. I would no longer be a girl; I would become a woman, a fashionable lady. I would sample everything on my plate. I would warm to him. The days when I felt persecuted by sitting idle while the world would go by would be long gone. He would colour my life now. He would lecture me not my subconscious, and not the inner spaces of my mind. I’d think to myself that now I have no more adversaries. Now I have my revenge. I only have to compete with other women who are in my position. My lonely days were over (not completely.) There was a part of me that knew that there would be a new area where desolation would await me. I would be hungry for more shades of energy, power, and love. As soon as the person or people in the next room or downstairs moved out, someone new would move in.
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