AN ULSTER PSYCHE
I was shocked by her photographs. How could she dare? As well as projected slides she had a dozen cibachromes on display whose marvellously luminous surface makes the paper itself a fresh lens. It becomes a pool of water in which everything is gently enhanced by the limpid medium. And yet, this pool is pinned to a wall.
I had to leave the room. Such things should not be shown without a warning.
Or, I thought, once outside in the corridor, perhaps they need, not a warning, but a ritual to precede them. She wouldn’t know this. That was it, most likely.
I considered her a beautiful-looking woman, with a detachment from her appearance which is rare these days. She didn’t know she was beautiful. She saw and photographed beauty in the natural world with flair, as a labour of love, with a willingness to invest long hours of hard waiting, in frost or in water, to catch the moment that blesses the subject with just the conjunction of light and attention that quickens its core; like those December solstice mornings when the dying sun labours to the top of a standing stone outside a megalith. Its rays, though weak, are straight, and human ingenuity harnessed them long ago by a slot above the sealed door of the tomb. They have no choice but to travel deeper in, between the massive incised slabs that line the passage, and strike the back wall, flooding the grave with light. She had learnt how to perceive and receive such an instant of revelation and present it to us in a photograph.
How had she learnt? How could someone like her learn? No, not that. More precisely: how could someone like her learn to notice and record things that were ours, not hers; things that we would never have discussed in front of people like her.
She came from a townland whose name, I knew, means the Ford of the Sand Dunes. But she didn’t know that. Families like hers worked fields whose names conveyed nothing to them. Irish is seen as a completely useless and alien language and ignorance of it as not only normal but justified by its economic irrelevance. They think it an unenlightened language, in league with the forces of Romanist repression and dark superstition.
She’d told me that as a child she and her siblings spent many Sunday afternoons in car parks, on beach-fronts or grassy plots, listening to her father and other members of their gospel hall witnessing to the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had not lain in the tomb waiting for a creature like the sun to warm him into life. He burst the bands and emerged in his own blaze. These were God-fearing, bible-believing Christians who hung texts on their walls and stood firm against art.
Art, then, had been her ray of sunlight! Yes. It had only needed a chink and it got in. And she was lost. Her father said so. Her mother pleaded. She went to university and, as they had feared, encountered Catholics. Not too close an encounter, mind you. Perhaps one of them had told her about a shrine by a puddle of a well or rags tied to a tree. Going to such places had been enough to lead her even further back.
I paced the corridor. It was not her problem. It was mine. The innocent can stray unharmed where the guilty dare not go. Should I tell her? Wouldn’t that be to place a burden on her shoulders, making her uncomfortably conscious of what she had done? Her own beauty, carried without egotism, moved the shadows quietly aside. Let her work go on, then, disturbing our depths as none of us would have dared. Perhaps it was fated. Psyche lifts her lamp.
That resolution lasted till I re-entered the room. Some Americans were saying crass things about her photographs. I told myself repeatedly that art is human and that all human response is valid. I sat very still. Psyche, I told myself, lifts her lamp to see the one who has captured her heart. That’s all each of us here is doing. We’ve encountered something beautiful and we lift up our responses to see more clearly. The fact that these Americans have arrived in the sanctuary with a ghetto-blaster shouldn’t matter. If that helps them see, far be it from me… It was no use! My heart was tearing as I heard them. Psyche lifts her lamp and drops of hot oil fall searingly on Love’s skin. He wakes and flies away because she has looked on him too soon, with too crude a curiosity.
I would have to buy some of these photographs, to rescue just a few for her and make sure that they received the reverence they deserved.
It took me a while to get the money together and longer still after that to track her down because she moved often, passing from one continent to another. In the meantime, I had those images in my head.
She had worked with disc-shaped mirrors, about a foot across. These she placed in the open where they would catch images of what passed over them. In one series, she photographed ten of them on the crimped sand left by a retreating tide. Where all was shifting, either on the strand or in the sky, the mirrors’ sharp circumferences caught – like bowls − an image, each one different to the next. The photograph, by fixing the instant, spoke to us of change.
For another set of pictures she had climbed for a whole day, carrying mirrors in a rucksack, to get to a corry lake, pooled darkly at the feet of precipitous, scrubby slopes. These were the images that most disturbed me. One could not go to such a place unprepared. And yet she had. And returned unharmed.
These lakes contain no light. The sun penetrates a few surface inches and is baulked. Peat darkens the water. The wind raises superficial ripples but nothing disturbs the depths. Something down there is unmoved by us. Our agitations and passions are nullified. We look into them and see – nothing. A subtle shock. A shift behind the breast-bone. A glimpse of the silence − the darkness − of the moment of death.
Our technique for dealing with this is not a secret. It used to be gold and silver, whatever was hardest won and least replaceable. The precious things were thrown from a height into the water: swords, jewellery, pots and knives. Things that carry light in themselves. The smith struck sparks as he beat the blade. He made light from metal. What power, then, what self-assertion, to fling a thing like that into the blackness, knowing it could never be retrieved and, rather than be undermined by the threat of loss, to deprive ourselves willingly.
Later it was indeed our selves we threw. That heavy power that squatted, indifferent to us, in barracks, ministries or law-courts was like these lakes. It swallowed up a language, a culture, a future. We pitied it contemptuously and let ourselves grow thin. We nourished instead a talent for endurance, a sardonic patience, and a reverence for suffering as an act of war.
Meanwhile her people prospered, in a thrifty style. Pebble-dash, modest flower beds, pastel outfits, well-filled suits. Plenty of light. Was that it? She went up there and put a mirror into the water. She waited. The sun found it. She clicked the shutter.
Weeping and wailing! There should be cries and ululations! A golden sun in the water! Are the gods spitting out all we have given up?
At last I found her, on an island. A cold, brash sea drives a hard bargain around that place. Storey upon storey of sea-birds conduct their business on the cliffs. This little world stands off from the mainland, like a dealer at a fair inspecting from the edge of the crowd, suspending judgement.
She was startled. Her man suspicious. No one had shown interest in those photographs. I had to wait another year because they could not be found.
I have them now. But the ones I bought show the moon, snared by a mirror placed among shale, and those taken on the beach: inversions. The heights brought down. I could not bring myself to acquire the lake shots – the depths brought up? No. That hadn’t happened. The gods would not punish her for sacrilege. She acted according to her tribe when, seeing darkness, she put in light. All the deeper is the realm that she couldn’t reach, the unbought photograph said, and those hidden presences smiled.
I honour the version my imagination keeps. And I honour her for seeking her beloved, who, in this country, has not “gone down to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens” but hid himself, long ago, in the darkest places of the land. She must have sensed his presence there and “done what she could”, wanting the sun to enter the tomb.
Preacher-father, you need us. You are too clean and your Christ too efficient but your daughter has done the one essential thing. Sitting at his feet among the sand-dunes, she has seen his other face, the one we glimpse and know: the one who fails to make a difference, who is irrelevant, yesterday’s man. Your daughter is a ford. You and I can cross, changing places, feeling the ground shift beneath our feet. I need your steadying hand.
First Published in ‘FORTNIGHT’ magazine, 2009