“Blood on Paper”

IMG_6174Is the title of an exhibition at the V & A that we stumbled on in London sometime between April and June of 2008. That same day I found a ceremonial Chinese garment from the permanent colllection which was the single most beautiful piece of clothing I’ve ever seen.  Needless to say it disappeared back into the vaults by the next time we visited and we’ve never seen it since. What also went missing for ever was a poem, illustrated by Claes Oldenburg that formed part of the exhibition subtitled “The Art of the “Book”. It was the illustration that caught my eye first, a typical Oldenburg drawing of a slice of cake with two cherries on top. Beneath it was a section (I now know) of a poem by an artist I’d never heard of, a Chinese American artist called Walasse Ting, and the poem was called “All kinds of love”.

It wasn’t a great poem by any stretch.  There was nothing about it that made you think ‘how clever’.  It was simple, repetitive, inflected with a strong Chinese accent – if that makes any sense at all of a written work? But it was beautiful, life affirming, challenging, transgressive – I’m running out of adjectives. It was so beautiful I started to copy it into my notebook, but it’s agonisingly slow to copy a poem, the room was crowded and so after the first few lines I gave up and assumed I’d be able to find it again.

Interestingly, one of the other exhibits was a book that had a hole blown in it by an explosive charge, but it wasn’t that exhibit which blew my mind – it was the rapidy disappearing Ting Poem.  Back home I blithely googled it and drew a complete blank. I was so desperate to find it again that I bought a hugely expensive catalogue of the exhibition, but when it arrived in the form of a cardboard box full of separate sheets, it wasn’t there. That was eleven years ago, and ever since then I’ve searched regularly and never found the poem again except in the form of a PDF extract from a book about Oldenburg where I can see the poem but I can’t read the words.  “All Kinds of Love”  came into my mind unannounced today, as these things often do.

I frequently read two books simultaneously, particularly when one of them is very disturbing and I need another to balance my mind. I started reading “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells last week and it fell right into the ultra disturbing category – we’re all going to die a horrible slow suffocating death just about sums up the message in the early part. I don’t know about the rest of the book yet because it  sucked so much oxygen out of my mind that I had to pick up Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” to give me a bit of hope and make me feel human again.

My mind functions more like a loom than a linear calculator, weaving thoughts out of sights and smells, fragments of conversations overheard, old bus tickets and their journeys, the sounds of lorries and curlews, and so there are more threads to be added before the cloth appears. Why “All Kinds of Love” – after eleven years?

  • A book with the right message and the wrong impact?
  • The anniversary of a leaving?
  • A poem about loving?
  • Autumn and the shortening days

As for the Wallace-Wells book, it’s a straghtforward matter of strategy. There’s no ‘if’ about the coming crises – unless we change our ways, and that means changing our whole culture, things will go badly for future generations. My problem with shocking people is that one possible impact is not to energise but to paralyse.  We might, having been convinced of the enormity of the threat, behave like rabbits in the headlights. Denial is the constant companion of grief and shock, the shadow side of bad news.  “It can’t be true! we say, even while we half-know that it is.

In fact Elisabeth Kübler Ross’s five stages of grief, although much challenged nowadays, certainly contain elements of our response to the bad news of climate change and mass extinction. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance all feature in our (wealthy western) response. Our problem is that grief takes a long time to work its way through, and we don’t have that much time. So how do we take the initiative here?

That’s where, I think, the poem comes from. “All Kinds of Love” is a celebration of the sheer diversity of expression that love finds in spite of all the religious and cultural efforts to canalize it within concrete walls. Fear changes nothing, but love can break up the fatberg of our inner lives.  Love can make us better people – if it couldn’t why would bad people spend so much time trying to shut it down.  And what I recall from that one reading of a poem in the V & A is thinking that there isn’t one kind of acceptable love, there aren’t categories of love, each one different from all the others, there isn’t “Christian love” or Buddhist love” or “Comradely love”, just love in all its bewildering complexity, all its splendid, heartbreaking, erotic and life enhancing beauty; all its dangerous and destructive potential, – just the one kind, just love, and it’s only through love that we can head off the coming crisis.

How, possibly, could the earth be saved if we are afraid, if we deny the problem, get angry or depressed or, worst of all accept that it’s all over? It’s only by loving the earth and one another that we and our home stand a chance of survival, and that’s why books like “The Uninhabitable Earth” are far less likely to change us than “The Sand County Almanac”.

Finally, it’s autumn – the end of a season and the declining of the light. this is the fourth anniversary of leaving my parishes and moving to Bath.  I simply hadn’t calculated how difficult that was going to be. Bearing in mind all that I’ve just written about love, leaving – the act of handing over the keys – was, looking back on it – one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still dream about the parishes, the people, the bloody battles.  Don’t misunderstand, I’m not sitting around with tears running down my face, but my biggest articulated fear when I left was that I’d become hefted, emotionally and practically attached to those square miles. I was right.

But the Potwell Inn, with it’s ragged-assed crew hangs on in the teeth of the storms, loving the sheer weather of life, the cabbages and the caterpillars, the seedlings and the slugs.  Strap me to the mast Gaffer, we’re going to run the rapids.