Long Live Patience

Jack Underwood is a poet, critic and senior lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Winner of the Eric Gregory Award in 2007, his first collection, Happiness, was published by Faber & Faber in 2015. The following extract – running in issue 28’s Commentary – is taken from Underwood’s upcoming debut non-fiction work, Not Even This, a lyric essay penned in the wake of his daughter’s birth that reappraises, with fresh urgency, the importance of language as a ‘realm of intimacy, overlap, hope and trust’

Illustration Dror Cohen

You are five weeks old. You weigh about four kilograms, the same as our cat. Your vision can only draw objects into focus if they lie within forty centimetres of your face. The rest is background. Your sense of day, night, your body and what lies beyond it, is vague. I am not sure whether you are able to isolate your own voice from the rest of sound, whether your cry is something you feel that you make, or if it is suddenly just there, part of the world.

I watch your face, errantly exploring its possible positions and combinations, and I think I can see recognition taking hold. Not of me, or the room, but of yourself, being here. I know that you are already beginning to impress your memory onto the present, stopping you from existing in a constant state of spooling, endless newness. And we, as your parents, are a central part of that impression of continuity: our faces arriving above your cot and leaving again, waking, feeding, changing, sleeping, not sleeping, the light of the 4 a.m. television, muted with subtitles, the patterns of our shift work across this bleary, newborn time zone, daily ceremonies… these are your first worldly repetitions, the first structures by which you navigate your presence, or predict and prepare for whatever sensation comes next; in other words, your first language.

The brain is not a general-purpose device. […] Human concepts and human language are not random or arbitrary; they are highly structured and limited, because of the limits and structure of the brain, the body, and the world.
– George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez

Your fluency in this language is absolute, because you have never known another way of measuring yourself against the passing of time. We all started off this way: a tiny pool of repetitions imposed upon the present, giving our novel lives the impression of similarity, when in truth, no one has ever been anywhere before, despite the mind’s invigilation.

Then the tiny pool floods out and deepens. We continue to draw our past into the present. But we also begin to imagine alternative versions of events. We triangulate and rerun. We edit and fantasise. And we rehearse our futures too, catastrophic or heroic, the terrible accident, the narrow escape, the mot juste, the acceptance speech… The outside world, various and ready, runs parallel to the creativity of our inner lives, each tramline steering the other. And somehow language mediates. Or perhaps it rescues us from meaninglessness: modulating what we feel and imagine with its concepts, its theoretical frameworks. Language lays its names over and across the present like the eastings and northings and contours of a map. It gives shape and reason, a stable sense of relativity within its system, and a relationality with the world.

By adulthood, language and reality are hard to tell apart. The tiny pool of our early repetitions has become a great wide lake of terms and laws to apply… there is so much language to our consciousness that we scarcely move beyond those waters, while our desires and impulses coalesce in the unknown depths and eddies, convecting in the dark: those drowned voices, hidden from memory, that rise and find us in our sleep, half remembered, rarely understood.

This will happen to you too. With your ‘highly structured and limited’ brain, you will learn like the rest of us to recognise the feeling of being as a pattern, and part of me mourns this loss for you. You’re still so beginning! The slide into a conceptual present feels so brutal. Perhaps it is the inevitability of it; as if you could live some more authentic, less moderated existence instead, and your wild, contingent, newborn way of being in the world might be preserved or protected; as if you will one day grow up and demand to know why I didn’t save you from language, this dulled, violently categorical version of being alive.

*

Three months have passed. Your world is no longer encountered as a diffuse, contingent mass of stimuli hailing you from within and without, but as a collection of things in relation to yourself. I can see already how insidiously, how without thinking, the words and symbols for these things will arrive next, as if they were not sounds and shapes that we taught you to make, over and over, but somehow part of the things themselves:

We must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life […] the word is not the thing.
– Alfred Korzybski

Your brain, thoroughly calibrated by thousands of years of evolution to choose the efficiency and safety of finding repetition over the vulnerability of living in a world perpetually new, is readying itself for the nameable world. In time you will simply accept the limited version, its habitual roll call, and so you will reduce your reality in order to know it.

A door.
A tree.
Water.

*

Now I am wishing the days away. In such a hurry. I want to know you, and to be known by you more and more. I want you to be more arrived. Why does this part take so long? I want you to speak to me, to pass the symbols back and forth, so that it feels as if we are, yes, both here – not just here in the world, but in the world and in language simultaneously: a place where love and knowledge can be declared with a reassuring sense of ongoing permanence. I want you to meet me here, where the words are!

*

Daddy. A name. A handle. A contract. And it is a mad wish, really, to want to be named that way, because if anything I am lost in its prevalence. It is only a rain cloud to stand in. But such contracts are all we have to know one another.

*

But does language really reduce our contact with reality? All at once, in a gasp of thought, it seems only to complicate the world, to open it up to us; there is so much of it, and it takes so many different forms, with its signs and gestures and ceremonies. How miraculous that it might bring you closer to the surface of yourself and to us, bring you here to me. Every day we say it: bring her to me, give her to me, let me take her, and doesn’t language do that more than anything else? An equal miracle to being alive and witnessing another life begin is being able to make life comprehensible. It is miraculous that we possess the faculties to simplify reality for ourselves in this way.

In otherwise total darkness
there was a handle
became my hand
and I was very somewhere
when suddenly I took it.

*

Then, today, I looked at you and thought about all the repression and the burying that human beings attend to in exchange for this workable coherence within ourselves and with the world. I thought about how we burn and fuse the brain’s shorter routes to learn, how we teach ourselves with the pain that the body makes for us, its harsh replies, to expect the ground to be hard, to expect radiators, oven doors, cups of tea to be hot, to fear love and connection that might one day be lost… You cannot even swallow solid food yet, or deliberately drop an object… Your mind’s sums of reduction will also be your mode of survival; without them, where would any of us be? Not here at all.

*

I searched online to find out how far you can see. There was no average visual range given for a five-month-old baby, but I did discover that you now have the fundamentals of depth perception. You can experience distance. It makes me imagine the time when our faces must have simply bubbled up before you.

I also learned that the central visual range of the human eye is only 5 degrees, and that most of our 120 degrees of vision is peripheral. It is the eye’s narrow progress across an object that accumulates a sense of its whole, in the form of memory; we rarely see anything in one go. Most of what we ‘see’ is what we remember. I go and run the tap. What am I looking at?

We do not think real time. But we live it, because life transcends intellect.
– Henri Bergson

*

I distract myself and do not stop
to remember my clothes
are not my body, or
to listen to paintings.
Am I even in a room, or just following
its story to the next confusion
like my weight on the floor?
I want to tell you
there is a necessary loneliness
in anything unverified;
loneliness is anything unverified.
It’s 4:21 a.m. and I have taken you
to the sofa so your mother can sleep,
the television flickers blue
with the sound down
subtitles landing the story in chunks
while you shut yourself in sleep
and I am not lonely
but laying to waste
the rest of my life
over my shoulder
to be here this way
with you like a habit
like a knack or a lock
like the downturn or narrowing
on my face,
which I hardly ever check
to read, daughter,
in a line of cars at night,
or a line of thoughts preceding,
and when I do, I lie.

Not Even This: Poetry, parenthood and living uncertainly by Jack Underwood is published by Corsair, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, May 2021

Illustration Dror Cohen

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Chekhov’s First Play

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an extract from the electric theatre company Dead Centre 

Dead Centre are one of Ireland’s most exciting theatre companies. I first saw their production Lippy at the Young Vic, in London, in 2015 – a truly haunting and original piece of work. Since then artistic directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd have continued to write and direct shows that fearlessly investigate and deconstruct their medium, while always delivering unpredictable and memorable nights in the theatre. Here’s a taste of some of their work: two extracts from a new piece… But for the real deal get yourself to one of their shows.

– Cillian Murphy 

*

As they enter, the audience are each given a set of headphones.

A red curtain.

The Director enters, holding a gun, stands in front of the curtain. He is dressed as himself. He goes to the microphone.

The Director. (whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Thanks for coming to – (out loud, off mic) Oh, you need to put your headphones on in order to hear me. (Back to microphone, whispers) Hello. I’m the director. Are all your headphones working? Let’s do a quick sound check: you should be hearing this in your left ear (they should) and you should be hearing this in your right ear (they should). Our production manager will swap them out if anyone has a faulty set.

Thanks for coming to tonight’s performance of Chekhov’s First Play.

You’re probably wondering why you’re all in headphones. Well, I did a version of this show last year and it went ok, but, talking to people afterwards, it became clear that a lot of people didn’t really get it, they didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. And that’s understandable because Chekhov’s first play is really complicated and messy… so I thought I’d set up a director’s commentary to explain what’s going on, what it’s about, and why you should like it. Personally, I always need things explained to me, especially art. I’m the kind of guy who goes to an art gallery and spends all the time reading the writing on the wall next to the paintings. I hardly ever look at the paintings.

And a lot of theatre, too, can feel complicated and inaccessible, especially these old plays, the classics. But they’re worth doing. They tell us so much about the world we live in now, they ask the big questions: who am I? What kind of a society do I want to live in? What do I want?

Chekhov was 19 when he wrote this and, as you’ll see, it’s not a very good play, but it’s hugely ambitious. It’s like all his other plays were in there, waiting to get out, all his ideas. This gun, for example. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the idea ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – it’s the idea that if you have a gun in a play… if you… if there’s a gun then you fire it… erm… actually I’ll explain that later… erm…

So, hopefully this commentary will make things clearer.

Ok, I’ll be offstage so I won’t distract you, I’ll just be a voice in your head. If you’re anything like me you already have a voice in your head anyway, so tonight you’ll have two. Hope it’s not too strange. It can feel a little intimate. Like even though everyone can hear this, it feels like I’m just talking… to you.

Looks at single audience member.

How are you? Comfortable? Make yourself at home. A theatre seat actually is sort of a home. It’s legally your private property for the duration of the performance. I found this out the other day.

Pointing gun at audience member.

That, even if you hadn’t come tonight, I couldn’t re-sell your ticket, as that seat is your private property.

Taking gun away.

And property, of course, is one of Chekhov’s main themes… See, that’s the sort of thing I’ll be doing throughout the commentary, unpacking key themes, making connections… And I know this microphone is very sensitive, so I’m sorry if you can hear me breathing, it’s a bad habit of mine.

Let’s get started.

Goes to leave but then stops

And I recommend keeping the headphones on, but if there are any members of the audience who are comfortable with the classics, feel free to take them off at any point and enjoy the play, as Chekhov intended.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Chekhov’s First Play.

CHEKHOV’S FIRST PLAY

A spotlight appears on a single audience member. The audience member slowly rises from their seat and moves forward on to the stage. They are hearing a different track from everyone else. They are receiving private instructions. They are Platonov.

The sound of the city. Traffic and electricity.

Platonov moves to the table and sits down. 

Everyone looks at him.

Everyone moves over to the table and sits.

Platonov pours shots of vodka for everyone.

They pick up the shot glasses.

One, two, three: everyone drinks.

Music starts.

All dialogue is now pre-recorded. The performers lip-sync their lines. They are losing their voices as they are losing themselves. At once liberated and truncated.

ANNA. How could you make us wait so long? It feels like we’ve been waiting a hundred years. It’s good to see you. Now we can have the fireworks

The demolition ball bursts into flames.

They all dance. It is a choreographed number. Platonov stands front and centre, and is obviously lost.

SASHA stops dancing and looks at her husband. She looks closely, and perhaps suspects he isn’t who he says he is. The others dance, synchronised.

SASHA. Are you ok? You’re acting funny. Come and sit down. Where have you been? You’re always late. You’ll be late to your own funeral. The late Platonov! Do you have a light? Do you even… smoke? I can’t remember. You’re like a stranger to me. Anyway, we can stay for a bit but then can we go? I don’t feel great. You don’t look so good either. Have you changed your hair? No, that’s not it. Have you changed your… face?

The others gradually finish dancing and the evening continues. They have been liberated by Platonov’s arrival and swirl around the stage. We only hear them when they are close to Platonov.

ANNA. Let me get you a drink, Platonov. Or something stronger? Now you’re here we should get a little high, don’t you think. Let our hair down. Be ourselves.

ANNA shivers.

ANNA. Someone googled me.

TRILETSKY. Here, man. Do us a favour? Would you play us that song? You know, the one we used to sing together in college? Christy Moore. The one about the airport.

He puts the guitar in Platonov’s hands.

I love that song. Go!

GLAGOLYEV. (Takes away guitar.) I hate your singing.

TRILETSKY. Irish music is the best in the world! Ireland’s the best country in the world.

GLAGOLYEV. It is and it isn’t.

TRILETSKY. I’ve been to London, and New York, whatever, and Berlin. Barcelona. Paris.

GLAGOLYEV. Great cities.

TRILETSKY. No they’re shite.

GLAGOLYEV. What do you mean?

TRILETSKY gets up on the table. The others throw food at him.

TRILETSKY. Because in one of those cities you can be at a party having the time of your life but you just know that somewhere else on the top floor of some building someone is having a better time, in a better life… you just KNOW that Kanye and Kim

or David Bowie

or Björk

or Marina Abramović

or somebody rich

or Prince

or an actual royal prince

or the fresh prince, Will Smith

or Zadie Smith

or Miranda July

or Anton Chekhov

or Kate Bush

or Kim Noble

or Miley Cyrus

or Billy Ray Cyrus

or P Diddy

or Brangelina

or Kate Moss

or Simon Cowell

or Angela Merkel

or Lena Dunham

or Eric Cantona

or Michelle Obama

or Chris Eubank

or Jay Z

or Dennis Hopper

or Marlon Brando

or Elvis Costello

or Snoop Dogg

or Tyler, the Creator

or Jim Jarmusch

or Jackie Chan

or Salman Rushdie

or Yanis Varoufakis

or Harmony Korine

or Castellucci

or Vladimir Putin

or Will Oldham

or Miet Warlop

or Nicki Minaj

or Thomas Ostermeier

or Michael Myers

or Matthew Barney

or Christopher Brett Bailey

or Tino Sehgal

or Steven Seagal

or Andy Lee

or Simon McBurney

or Justin Bieber

or Kenneth Goldsmith

or Macaulay Culkin

or Anna Wintour

or the fella out of the fuckin’ Arctic Monkeys are out there somewhere, having a better time than you. But here, in Dublin, there’s no such thing as famous people. There’s just us, Platonov. Think about it. What else is there? This might just be the coolest party in the whole country.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Town

Editing issue 25’s Commentary, actor Cillian Murphy selects a photo story on Dublin by Rich Gilligan

“I don’t relish having my photograph taken. Strangely I know a lot of actors who feel the same way… I have worked with Rich Gilligan several times over the last decade, and for him I make an exception. He is a proper artist, one who understands how powerful, emotional and elusive an image can be.”

– Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy: Can you tell me how the project was born?

Rich Gilligan: This body of work came about as part of a collaborative book project, published by The Salvage Press in Dublin in 2018. Jamie Murphy (who designed, typeset and letterpress printed the entire book) approached myself and the poet Anne-marie Ní Churreáin to create fresh bodies of work somehow connected to Dublin. The brief was open to our interpretations and we worked independently until Jamie made sense of our individual narratives and combined the work through the lay- out of the book.

CM: It seems that you were seeking to represent Dublin in detail and texture rather than scale. Would that be accurate?

RG: Yeah, that’s true in a sense. I guess the fact that I grew up in Dublin and that it’s a place I know in great detail means that the work inevitably becomes personal, and, although I no longer call Dublin my home, I still feel a strong connection and familiarity to the city. The challenge with this work was to try to represent the distinct atmosphere and rhythm of the city relative to my own personal experience without the work feeling overly representational or sentimental.

CM: Can you tell me about being an Irish artist living and working in the states, and what that brings to your work?

RG: Living and working in New York, I do find myself tuned into a different frequency. There exists a heightened sense of my Irishness, but also a strange feeling that the place is constantly changing and evolving in your absence.

CM: Ireland seems to be experiencing a very fertile period across the arts: music, literature, visual art… Do you have any insight into what alchemy might be at play in creating this moment?

RG: It’s rare that while a movement is actually happening, people have a chance to pause and acknowledge it. After moving to NYC I found myself almost exclusively listening to Irish music and reading new Irish writers. For a long time I attributed this to some form of nostalgia, but, on reflection, I’ve realised it’s simply because there is so much incredible work consistently coming out of Ireland that it’s almost impossible to keep up. There is something uniquely visceral and confident about these new voices, and that is what stands out most to me. When that fresh confidence is mixed in with raw talent, things get really exciting. I’m not entirely sure what has driven this creative surge, but I like to think it may be one of the few positive forces that often come out of a downturn in the economy; like somehow now we’re witnessing the fruits of the creativity that was happening at such a challenging time.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Ireland(s) 2.0.

Actor Cillian Murphy guest edits issue 25’s Commentary, drawing inspiration from luminous creatives in his native Ireland. Here, he selects an essay on Irish political identity from the novelist Lisa McInerney

I mentioned in my introduction to this section a new creative energy at play in Ireland today. Politically things are different. There are many forces at work internally and externally. For all of the country’s recent transformation into a socially liberal state, I am also aware that there are many issues that are not ideal, that are in fact shameful and need addressing. I’m a huge fan of Lisa McInerney’s work – do read her novel The Glorious Heresies, it’s a wonderful book. She has very kindly contributed this essay on the state of our nation, in which she talks a fierce amount of sense.

– Cillian Murphy

*

It’s not going out on a limb to say that we Irish are partial to upheaval. Plantation, partition, famine, migration: We’ve been through so much upheaval that we define ourselves by O’Casey’s “states o’ chassis”. We can cope with chaos. We feel formidable for coping with chaos. Like Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle, we like the misery. So on August 6th, when, at the Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that a united Ireland would mean a “different state” and a “new constitution”, he might have been labouring – or buckling – under the misapprehension that everyone would think this overhaul a woeful prospect altogether.

Reunification will happen only by consensus in the North and in the Republic, but it doesn’t have to be a condition of our forging a new Ireland. As a thundering nationalist, it’s my duty to realise that Ireland is far from perfect, that she might benefit from a spit and a polish, if not a gutting and refitting.

It bothers me that ‘nationalist’ is an ugly word now. As I understood it, growing up bouncing between Galway and Cork in the ’90s, it was the softer form of ‘republican’, meaning that you were passionate about all 32 counties of your country, but not to the point that you’d get lairy over it. It meant self-determination, being smug about our collective soundness, knowing the words to A Nation Once Again, and never giving Le Royaume-Uni douze points in the Eurovision. It didn’t mean building walls or breaking unions or obsessing over flags. It was positive, community driven, rather left-wing.

Recent political trends recommend lexical redefinition. Frowns skitter across pals’ faces if we talk about notorious amadáin Trump, Farage, Orbán, Salvini or Le Pen. What use have we for the word ‘nationalist’ in the age of Brexit and climate change and refugee caravans? There seems to be a fundamental breakdown in terms if the left-wing, inclusive, comforting nationalism we espoused could have anything to do with this far-right screeching. To be united by fear or hate is to not be united at all, and unity is the cornerstone of nationalism, is it not?

This definition is colloquial, of course. When your country is divided, the nationalist goal tends to be the romantic one, and that nationalism can also be used to promote the divide et impera tactic doesn’t make a lick of sense at all.

It’s easy to be romantic about Ireland. Likely this is the case with any underdog country. Ireland has not invaded or enslaved and till very recently had no wealth to speak of, and is, therefore, not grabby about resources. When recent history is characterised by casting off shackles and facing fearlessly the mistakes of the past, it’s even easier. In particular, there were the marriage equality and abortion referendums in 2015 and 2018, each won by a landslide. Of the abortion referendum result, Varadkar said, “I believe today will be remembered as […] the day Ireland stepped out from under the last of our shadows, into the light.”

Leo Varadkar should be the perfect Taoiseach for today’s Ireland. Young – our youngest ever, taking office at the age of 38 – openly gay, the son of an immigrant, educated and accomplished, he is also quite right-wing, quite cold, slow to show his hand… a bit of a cute hoor, we’d say. “You all must love him,” I’ve been told, abroad, and it’s sad that I’m compelled to let our admirers down by retorting, “He’s an awful bollocks.” (Now, the Irish will call anyone in a position of authority or influence ‘an awful bollocks’: The parish priest, the bank manager, Bono, Maura from Love Island… I’ve even heard one heathen say it of our patron saint, Michael D Higgins.) It’s a tough task to be fair, for Ireland’s problems are many and no one Taoiseach can be expected to triumph over them all. Any one of those problems could have been the breaking of Leo, if Brexit hadn’t trundled in and driven us to distraction.

Possibly our friends in the UK are sure that it’s only their social problems that are ignored thanks to the rabid elephant in the room, but it’s the same this end. Brexit has profound implications for Ireland’s economy and our fragile peace, and so rightly it takes up our public servants’ attention. Varadkar could be otherwise engaged; his counterparts in the north should be otherwise engaged. Ireland is suffering the same greed-driven housing crisis as many of our European neighbours. As a result of this, and of our underfunded mental health services, homelessness is on the rise. The Republic’s health executive is a bloated, bureaucratic nightmare. The citizens of the six counties of Northern Ireland don’t have access to abortion services, nor do they have the right to marry someone of the same sex. Power-sharing in the North has collapsed. Prejudice is grand so long as the target is a member of the Travelling community. Asylum seekers in the Republic are stifled by the system of direct provision, where the state provides for basic requirements while curtailing access to work and third-level education. “The whole system is designed to remove one of the core human needs – imagination, the ability to dream,” says asylum seeker and LGBTQ+ activist Evgeny Shtorn, who fled persecution in Russia.

Despite, or perhaps because of all of this, political disengagement is common. When nationalism either means ‘frothing bigotry’ or ‘solidly performs Come Out Ye Black and Tans at parties’, it’s easy to disregard the concept of public duty, to absolve yourself of your obligation to act on what’s going wrong. We Irish are susceptible to inaction, not so much because of frothing bigotry, but a little because of Come Out Ye Black and Tans.

Romanticised nationalism, the kind you hear in song, is the kind that comes from enduring life in the shadows. The Irish inferiority complex is the reason for our collective pessimism, suspicion of authority, begrudgery, love of a good lie, capacity for schadenfreude, tolerance for shifty politicians and intolerance for those who develop ideas above their station. These characteristics are symptoms of an illness contracted from occupation, the tyranny of doctrine, generational poverty and inequality, emigration-as-culture, the loss of a language. The Irish – in the North and in the Republic – have a propensity to form an unhealthy relationship with their own state, enabling and enduring in cycles, because the Irish haven’t yet shaken off the suspicion that whinging is all we’re good for. The Irish employ black humour because the Irish are scarred. The Irish laugh because otherwise we’d never stop keening.

So we’re frustrating en masse, but in smaller numbers we’re astounding. So much progress is driven by individuals, community groups and grassroots activism. All over the island, campaigners throw their energies into beautifying their cities, fundraising for mental health services, supporting people living in direct provision, providing for the homeless. And if there’s anything that’ll make you weep into your cup of Barry’s tea, it’s the spontaneous #HomeToVote movement, where Irish citizens living abroad came back to vote in those historic referendums, because they knew their own power, and recognised their duty. Perhaps it’s a case of divide et impera strangely being the right tactic to deal with our inferiority complex. In Ireland nothing ever works how you think it will.

By rights, our politicians should be motivated to perform with that individual energy. If the grassroots movements are indicative of national reimagining, Leo’s feared gutting and refitting has already begun. Let’s see Ireland 2.0., Ireland stepping into the light as a nation of doers rather than bitter worriers, of nationalists in good deed as well as romantic thought. Our politicians, north and south, should get on board before the ship leaves the harbour.

This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here