Dreaming Arrival

The law of delicacy, according to which an author has the right to use what he himself has experienced, is that he is never to utter verity but is to keep verity for himself and only let it be refracted in various ways. Kierkegard

Published simultaneously with my Collected Poems, ‘Dreaming Arrival’ originated in a series of articles, the first to appear being ‘Dream and Restoration’, published in the collection ‘Poets on Writing’ edited by Denise Riley and published by Macmillan in 1992. There was subsequently a piece in a special Poetry and Psychoanalysis issue of the magazine fragmente exploring the relationship between poetry and therapy. In 1999 The London Review of Books, published in their regular Diary slot my account of a breakdown I’d experienced, followed by hospitalization, ECT and drug therapy, when I was nineteen. Other pieces appeared in various magazines, including Scintilla, The Reader and PN Review.

‘Dreaming Arrival’ focuses on a long period spent in therapy and the publishing context, inevitably, is a vogue for confessional writing . . . But the connections between trauma, therapy and creativity are ambiguous and worth exploring I think. Therapists and analysts write case-histories; there is a place for those on the receiving end to have their say, and in a way which neither succumbs to the process nor excoriates it.

I would like to feel that these pieces worked well enough as articles, but containing them in a book, in a single narrative structure; this was always going to be problematic. Carla Willig, reviewing the book in the journal ‘Existential Analysis’, wrote: ‘It is not a psychoanalytic detective story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Instead, the book is written in a way that reflects the open-ended, meditative, sometimes circular, meandering, tentative yet intense quality of the therapeutic experience. The reader is witnessing a process of visiting and re-visiting memories within different contexts and from different angles. Meanings emerge, evolve, and revolve around one another, and slowly and almost imperceptibly we get to know (something about) Welch and his life. . . Welch is extremely good at evoking settings; he brings to life his physical environment in such a way that we feel that we are literally 'with him' as he walks the streets and parks of London, allowing his surroundings to set off trains of thought and associations which over the course of the book's 200-odd pages map out a territory which constitutes his life world.’

Here are a couple of extracts:

There was my friend Paul’s story. One day Paul phoned his analyst to say he’d be ten minutes late. The phone was answered by a weeping woman, who told him the analyst was dead. He’d died the day before in a car crash and she told Paul to leave his number if he wanted details of the funeral. The funeral took place in a big church in central London. This analyst was quite elderly, a man of some eminence in his profession and those present fell into three very distinct groups and in the church they were seated separately from one another. There were fellow-analysts, members of the family, and a third group consisting mainly of former patients. Paul leant forward and asked the man in front of him exactly what had happened when the analyst was killed. The man, who was there with his parents, gave Paul some more details of the accident and then burst into tears. The other ex-patients all seemed to be on their own and kept giving each other covert glances. All through the service Paul was preoccupied with a fantasy which he couldn’t let go of. It went like this; the analyst wasn’t really dead at all, he’d simply had enough and wanted to give it all up and he thought this would be a less painful way for his patients than simply to tell them not to come any more, and so he had set up this enormous conspiracy with grave, suited colleagues, weeping family members, and in the middle of it all an empty coffin. The service proceeded, various colleagues and some family members got up and said their pieces. The priest, who all too clearly had not known anything much about the dead man, went through his routine, and it was all over. But, as they were leaving the church, Paul felt like shouting out ‘What about us?’ – meaning the group of ex-patients gathered there. ‘Why has no one asked any of us to say anything?’

But I’ve thought more than once that it might have been better if I had never set out to write about it. This endless going over and over it, instead of just walking away; 'Take up thy bed and walk'. It was as if I felt I could be 'born' in the book. All this trying to find the answer, but maybe there isn't an answer. It was as if I had walked into a trap, a trap that I had set, and I had baited the trap with myself. At times I had a sense I was being 'warned off' writing about it by members of the profession with whom I had briefly discussed it. Can such writing be anything other than an offering at the shrine of therapy? Another offering would be to train as one oneself. I think of all those years he and I were locked together like hostage and captor, though I'm not sure which is which. What I have written is not the book that I first set out to write. I had imagined myself producing a straightforward narrative of my experience, but I was plagued by a sense that what I was having to do was write a report as if seeking my promotion to the ranks of the 'successfully analysed' and I had to show what a good boy I’d been – and that was one of my problems anyway. Actually I have no idea what would constitute a successful analysis, or whether what I experienced was 'an analysis' at all. And Freud himself famously said the most he could do was convert a neurosis into 'an ordinary unhappiness'.

The 'journal' I kept, all fifty one ring binders of it – I started it a year or so before I started seeing B – is still sitting in the basement. I have numbered the pages and put a sort of contents list at the beginning of each one. It's as if I were trying to tidy it all away. Dust sifts down from the ceiling and, when I take one of the binders out and start to read, the pages have a gritty feel. I now see how much the decision, made early on in the process, to write about my experience affected what happened there, distorted it. The analyst quoted in Janet Malcolm's book 'An Impossible Profession' maintains that the sign of a successful analysis is that the analysand subsequently forgets all about it. This would make writing about it a kind of failure. I did not experience a sense of loss or abandonment when it ended and I think this was because of the writing. In my anxiety not to lose hold of it I embarked on writing my book the moment my therapy finished. I feel this writing, and the journal that preceded it, must have been in part a wish to stay in control, an attempt to both defend myself from the process and to prolong it and thus smooth over the final break. And I never once discussed this writing project with him. It was only after I had finished seeing him that I realised what an extraordinary omission this was. It was as if I carried this 'book' in front of me like a shield, as if it were a fortress from which to observe him, or something like a secret name which renders you invulnerable. But did this secrecy make it like a theft? In the sessions I found it hard to take openly, but 'stole' nourishment from him. This writing – was it something stolen from the father? There was an element of grandiosity about it and, once finished, I would wave it about like a flag, in triumph.

I think of the room I used to wait in downstairs in his comfortable North London house, with its books and paintings, one in particular, a self-portrait by a painter he collected, looking down at me from the wall. I write a poem about the room. 'I want to come to you', I write, 'from the most enormous distance', and imagine the room in its daytime quiet and myself there like a 'travelling shaft of light'. There's the twitch of a curtain and from time to time that sound of a car pulling away outside. I imagine myself writing in there, sitting in a 'perfected circle's pool of light'. And then I end the poem comparing myself to Tantalus, Tantalus who reaches out for substance, substance that remains shadowy, a hologram of reality that he passes through. In the session, I would 'tantalise' the analyst, by not telling. Silence, keeping silent, can be very controlling. I would refuse to yield my meaning, while I implied that there was a great deal there.

. . . . . .

Of his painting 'Snow Storm' Turner wrote, 'The Author was in the Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich' – though apparently there was no such boat as the Ariel, so why did he choose this name? – 'I got the sailors to lash me to the mast to observe it; I was lashed for four hours and did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did. But no one had any business to like the picture.' This curious comment was provoked by a clergyman who said his mother had particularly liked the painting because she had had a similar experience. B commented when I described the painting to him: "Mother. The picture is all around one centre", he said. As for Turner’s 'Sea Monsters at Sunrise', it is a veritable epiphany of the unconscious, these creatures just visible on the crest of the waves, multicoloured curdlings in the paint, fragments of dream breaking the surface; the painting has an erotic refulgence, as if light could go on coming out of there for ever.

'The Golden Bough'; the nymph enters left carrying the golden bough that will keep Aeneas safe in the Underworld, and in the middle distance is Lake Avernus, a beguiling blue-grey blur. When I was fifteen I tried to read Frazer's 'Golden Bough'. This was because I had been reading Eliot's 'The Waste Land' and it was referred to in the notes. My father had a copy of the abridged version, which itself runs to more than seven hundred pages, in the glass-fronted bookcase. Unusually for him he had written his name in, a very neat signature underlined with a flourish, and the date, January 1936, as if he were making a particular claim of ownership. He was thirty then and this edition had only appeared three years before, so it looks as if he must have bought it himself. This was midway between his father's death and my birth. In his opening chapter, 'The King of the Wood', Frazer refers to Turner's painting, 'a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi: "Diana's mirror” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it.' He goes on to tell the story. 'In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him... He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary...' The blood of the sacred victim is diffused in the purple stain of Frazer's romantic prose. I read this, ploughing solemnly on through a couple of hundred or so more pages before I gave up. Starting from the mysterious story of the priests of Nemi, Frazer explores the theme of the sacred king, consort of the queen, who is sacrificed and his blood scattered on the fields to fertilise them, while the queen, at the turn of the year takes a new lover who will be killed in his turn. Everything in Frazer's thesis tended towards the notion that Jesus was simply another such 'sacred king'. Frazer was a Fellow of Kings College Cambridge and, wishing to avoid controversy it is alleged, he avoided following through the implications of his thesis. I wonder if my father, the son and grandson of clergymen, ever actually read it? There is the obvious connection with Eliot; but there is also that hint of rebellion suppressed, as Frazer had perhaps suppressed his. Being instead the good boy, the dutiful son. I have a photograph of my father as a baby; his father is holding him up, a small defenceless bundle, in front of the camera's eye, while seated behind is his grandfather, squat, bearded and patriarchal.

I had called my first collection of poems 'Out Walking' and what it makes me think of is starting to live in inner London, a sense of possibilities, a day in early Autumn perhaps with a sense of the trees beginning to change and all those miles of quiet Victorian brickwork. I could slip through a crack in the day like the protagonist of my story, out into the sunlight of the streets, feeling safe from harm encased in my solitude and movement. It is the mood I sense in Atget's photographs of Paris, taken in the twenties, a sense of my solitude confronting the picture's solitude. Here in this photograph even the small crowd of people seem oddly bunched together near a wall with lots of empty space around them. In another the street-singer, her arms flung wide apart, is singing rhapsodically to what appears to be a deserted street. Walking round the city to arrive at a point of stillness and silence, seeking a vantage point from where you are empowered to watch the play of meaning, like a kaleidoscope of patterns endlessly re-forming. What the streets threw up often seemed full of meaning, but nothing you can quite put into words. There was this moving about, always safer when on the move; I could carry my sense of self with me then, just as I had carried it away from my parents' house. In the meantime there was this baffled searching, these powerful feelings anchored to the walls. ‘Being there’ paradoxically meant being on the move. This moving about and this sense of meaning as a sort of aura, is this being at the breast? My greed is visual, the eye sucking in impressions. But when I want to do something with it, when I start to write, it is all too much and I don't know where to start, everything starts to connect with everything else and it all slips away from me. A fine afternoon like foliage trapped behind glass and a sense of being unable to reach through to something. An object and its reflection and me being a third, part of neither; still glassy water, an afternoon brimming with light, full of itself but excluding me. It fades and I am half-relieved, half-disappointed. And then the impatiences, the mouth-hunger, being voluble on my own, playing with my mouth. 'As if wanting to sing the world to rest' I wrote in a poem – to make my self that other. All those cramps and tensions and rages sweeping through me as if from babyhood. Yesterday going to sleep on the lawn and then for a moment unable to get up, an odd feeling in my back like missing a step. Is this from babyhood too, lying helpless on my back in the cot as if waiting to be picked up?

For several years I used to walk to work across the River Lea and the Walthamstow Marshes – it took just forty minutes to get to the school I was then working in. A fine Autumn morning, washes of sunlight everywhere on patches of water, among grass and reeds. I am walking to work – I do this almost every day now – and I am saying to myself ‘I keep the wound fresh.’ To let the breeze and sunlight play on it, on a day like this. To guard it as a possibility for life, a haven of possibilities; on no account to let it close over or be sealed off. Another morning, crossing the white-painted footbridge over the River Lea, there is an elderly man ahead of me with an Alsatian. I overtake him. The dog has gone on ahead and he is calling it as he leans over the railing, and now he is pointing something out to the dog. As I go down the other side of the bridge I confront the animal coming back up, the eager open jaws dripping with saliva in the early morning sunlight. I hurry past, noticing how he exults in the animal's strength and a moment later I look up and see a cormorant that has flown out from the island on the reservoir ahead where they nest, and is flying round in a huge circle. The sun is still low and, as the bird is passing overhead, sunlight lights up the underside of its wings and body, and at that moment I am lifted up there, into this triangle, sun-bird-self. But there is something else about the cormorant. It is a symbol of voracity. I remember as a child reading how Chinese fishermen trained them to fish, how a ring was put around the bird's neck, so that it could not swallow the fish it caught. Endless voracity, greed but no satisfaction, a sense of being full yet empty, gorged but at the same time starving.

In Freud’s biographical study of Leonardo da Vinci the key to his ‘analysis’ of Leonardo is a dream the painter records, dreamt he says when he was two years old, where a kite flies into the room and thrusts its tail into his mouth. But in the German translation Freud was working from the Italian word for kite had been mistranslated as vulture. ‘In the mythology of the ancient Egyptians the mother is represented by a picture of a vulture’ Freud writes and this sets him off on a sort of mythological fugue taking in the mother goddess Mut with a vulture’s head ‘or else several heads, of which at least one was a vulture’s. . . . Can the similarity to the sound of our word Mutter (mother) be merely a coincidence?’ He even quotes, albeit with some reservation, a fellow analyst Pfister who claims to discern the outline of a vulture in the shape of draperies in the painting in the Louvre ‘St Anne with Two Others’. All of which is alarmingly reminiscent of the Da Vinci code and the shapes the authors claim can be made out in the figures in Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’ It’s the way one thing leads to another, this chain of associations that goes n and on. I’m lying on the couch telling him about the Sargasso Sea. Reading about it as a child had greatly impressed me. Boats that sailed into it got stuck in the masses of dense weed – and wasn’t there also something about eels? Was this where eels came from, where they returned to breed? But now I am starting to falter. Like one of those boats I feel I am getting stuck here in the session. And now he is saying, "You try to overwhelm me with your images". I bring him images like fish. Like the cormorant I’m gorged with them. But I am seeking to smother him, to keep him at a distance. I will get to him before he can get to me. And I have some of the very best images – nobody can deny that. I am the top of the class. "You hide in your images”, he says. “You are very good at it. You have made a home out of your images."