From October 1st, 2019, to September 30th, 2020, I lived in the Sheppard Flats on the grounds of Churchill College.
A few times each week, I walked from the orchard at the bottom of Churchill Road, in what was once the back garden of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and still is, perhaps.
To the grave.
76 Storey’s Way has a creamy blue plaque that notes philosophy’s many modes. This is where the architect or poet or engineer or philosopher died. One night, I dreamed that Ludwig Wittgenstein was standing in my courtyard, smoking a cigarette, facing my window. The curtains of my university housing (light green, blue and white tartan) were drawn. Was LW, as I called him, or as everyone calls him, because he is not mine, waiting for me to wake up? In the morning, I drew the curtains back, half-expecting to see him there, drained of color [colour].
Every day, LW walks to his grave. Or does he rise from his grave to return to his home, the place where he died, to smoke a cigarette on the back step? Sometimes, I took the walk myself. Sometimes, I took a question for a walk. Sometimes, I just trudged around the orchard with my sister, whose images were produced in the time that we lived together on these grounds and in this place.
Do you have a sibling? Who is near you when you are making your own, always unfinished art? Is there a way that something moves (horizontally) between what you are making and what they are making, though both of you are private people and do not share your progress in the mode or style of an atelier?
Just because something is hybrid doesn’t mean the different parts of it have to touch.
Orchard notes: I walked to the grave.
In the last part of his life, and in this house, LW completed Remarks on Colour. The logic of “ever-changing” color [colour] and transparency, a layered process, is something I see in my sister’s works, generated from images collected on asynchronous walks to the orchard.
The name of the orchard is now The Xiaotian Fu Garden.
In the orchard: sentences, notes.
Or composed at the foot of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grave. Now I regret not accepting KK’s invitation to walk to Goethe’s grave, in Frankfurt last Fall, as Goethe’s Theory of Colours is so much a presence in LW’s culminating work.
Instead, we inverted ourselves above the Rhine.
As I write those words, I remember how, last Spring, my sister and I lay on the ground beneath the cherry tree, which was plush and pink.
Sometimes together. Sometimes alone.
In the orchard.
A fox. A red apple.
One day, I saw that squash blossoms had appeared on the thick green vines by the back porch of 76 Storey’s Way. I plucked them. They were orange but also red or yellow, a color [colour] resembling saffron, but without associations. At home, back in the flat, I fried them in a tiny bit of oil, tucking a piece of mozzarella cheese inside each one.
On the evening of October 31st, 2019, I walked to the grave from the orchard, an apple in my pocket.
I did not know I was walking there.
To set the fruit upon the slate.
Yes, now I can begin to write this poem.
To the images.
From the light and the colour.
Of the orchard.
And the surrounding grounds.
I returned to England because it was no longer tenable to care for my mother in the United States, at a time when the voluntary repatriation of immigrants was openly discussed, just as Enoch Powell had once offered British subjects, freshly settled in England, a speculative economic incentive to return to the place they were.
In writing this second batch of notes after the poetic or non-linear preface above, I do not wish to suggest that I was living in a precarious way. In fact, I was living in the National Memorial to Winston Churchill. There was a bell. There was a flag. There was a bust, boarded up. Each month, using an app on my phone, I transferred 1884 GBP into the account of the college itself.
I left England because it was not possible to think of becoming or being a writer here, at that time (the 1990s). It is different now. The other day, I participated in a reading for The 87 Press, and was in awe of the readings of Karen Sandhu, Nisha Ramayya, James Goodwin, Calliope Michail, Sophie Seita, Kashif Sharma-Patel and Mandeep Johal. At the last minute, I panicked and did not read the poem I had written for the occasion, reverting to an older book, a study of mental health and migration set in the part of London where the Nestlé Factory let down its lilac skirt into the canal. The hem was always dirty. The water was not water. It was a hard, mobile foam that we sculpted into beards, moustaches, ringlets, genitals, and shoes. My friends and I were playwrights. We were the stars of a play written by Jean Genet, a manuscript we found on the towpath, soaked through with urine, which we loved for its tint. Do you remember having to toast paper during the module on the Magna Carta, rolling up your simulation, just before it crisped, into a scroll?
I left England for other reasons, though I can’t describe them here. We are not friends. We haven’t met. Sometimes I think that writing in an experimental lineage or tradition, in the United States, was a way of concealing my body and its drives from my family.
Returned when my father was dying of cancer.
Then he was gone.
And with him went our house.
Returned permanently to England, with my mother, who came to the United States from India, when her own life there came under threat.
For almost forty [fourty] years, my mother commuted to Mile End, Whitechapel, The Isle of Dogs…
To teach. Waking before dawn to cook the evening meal.
Because of this, she has excellent, enduring pensions, in addition to her government pension.
Washed our clothes, by hand, in the bath, then hung them to dry on the radiator.
And now, once more, access to the NHS, though we will have to wait another few months, into October 2021, to have full access, due to the two-year residency requirement.
Even this limited access is such an enormous relief after the expensive, variable access to health services in the United States.
In March 2019, on a Tuesday afternoon at 3 pm, I said: “Help!” aloud. I knew I had to find a way to return to England. That night, the poet Sandeep Parmar sent me a link to the Judith E. Wilson poetry fellowship at Cambridge. At the age of 50, I had never won a grant or fellowship of any kind. My life as a writer (and single mother) in the United States was maintained by full-time work as a professor, as well as part-time teaching work for another university, in addition to invitations to speak and perform in other places. Under normal circumstances, I would never have applied for such a prestigious and well-supported gig, assuming I would never get it. But because I had called out for help (to whom? To what?!) earlier that day, it felt as if I should open the link at least.
It was due the next day.
There’s more to say about the kind of dysphoria that took a violent synchronicity to up-end.
University housing, set in West Cambridge grounds dotted with modernist sculpture and snowdrop dells inhabited by a cut-price, grey-ish yet red fox we called Old Raggedy, was market price, spacious, lonely, and amazing. The refundable deposit was 300 GBP. I was grateful to have found a ground-floor flat. During the pandemic, the college set up a grocery store in the Dining Hall. Sometimes I helped myself to a milky coffee from the machine. Slowly, I began to connect to the place itself, taking slow walks around the Archives Center, to analyze the materials, objects and detritus in the landscaping material that surrounded it. Here were the archives of Margaret Thatcher, for example, a presence or formation underlying contemporary immigration law. I became curious about the parts of colonial archives that are not held in the document of place. Is the perimeter a zone of diffraction or information, in another sense? I didn’t know if the notes I took on these walks, or from the “orchard” to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grave, would ever form a more solid project. Perhaps they simply gave me a reason to go outside, to breathe in the molecules of this country again, to attend to its surfaces and cosmic rhythms.
Am I eligible for a mortgage? As it turns out, no. I am not eligible for a mortgage.
In March 2020, I won the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry. Every penny will go towards securing housing and care for my mother, and to organizations that provide resources for those fleeing or living with domestic abuse, who also do not have recourse to public funds for housing relief or costs.
That’s the end of my account.
Though I don’t have inherited wealth, or a house, I do feel that I have access to what Nadine El-Enany, in her excellent book, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, describes as “colonial spoils.”
Passport privilege brought me home. The NHS brought me home. Being a daughter brought me home.
Perhaps I should write something.
On the wallpaper.
Or the windowsill.
No, this is rented accommodation.
I will write my sentences with a fingertip.
In the brisk, bright air.
I will keep trying to write something that could be read in Scotland, England, or Wales.
Bhanu Kapil is an artist by-fellow of Churchill College, and the author of six books of poetry/experimental prose, most recently How To Wash A Heart (Pavillion Poetry) and Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books). She is currently writing a novel that reverses the plot of The Secret Garden, set in childhood.
TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.