Monday, 2 April 2007

Ashes, Inspiration, the Moon and Robert Graves

It was a beautiful bright sunny day yesterday, so I headed into the great blue yonder and decided to go and pull up a few weeds round the tree where my parents’ ashes were scattered. What better way to spend a pleasant early spring day than wandering around the quiet garden and grounds of a crematorium. I am so easily pleased and a cheap night out by the way, a curry and a Tiger beer and I’m a happy individual.

I was very impressed when a few months after my mother’s funeral in 2004, I was phoned by the crematorium staff and asked what I wanted to do with her ashes. I had not collected them, just as I had not collected my father’s; I am not an ash collecting sort of person, despite my usual ability to collect ‘stuff’. A small urn on the mantelpiece was out (no mantelpiece) and there was no football ground, special hill, valley, wood, park, street corner, pub, garden, lake or stretch of sea that seemed appropriate. My parents seemed singularly lacking in favourite geographical places, in fact most of their happiest times were spent in their own front room with family or round the kitchen table and the new owners of my parents bungalow would hardly want a ‘shake and vac’ dance done on their new carpet or laminate flooring with the ashes of a previous owner.

“Would you like your mother’s ashes placed exactly where your father’s ashes were placed?” I guiltily confessed that I have no idea where he had been placed. There was a pause at the other end of the line.
“We do, we have his sector co-ordinate”
Was this like spot the ball competitions, the whole crematorium gardens divided up into a precise grid? Indeed it turned out that it was but luck played no part in spotting the last resting place of my father’s remains; they already had a precise grid reference. It transpired that the crematorium keep an ‘ashes scattering’ map, they knew exactly where they had scattered my father’s unclaimed ashes eighteen years earlier. One metre due north of a particular tree. I was fascinated, thousands of people must have been scattered in eighteen years yet they painstakingly noted where everyone was. I did a rough mental calculation and decided some doubling up on grid references must have occurred but no doubt this was kept from relatives as no-one likes to think a nearest and dearest in merely one strata of the dead. These first thoughts are probably not to my credit but at least honest.
The day I and Boo turned up to scatter my mother’s ashes was cold and windy, there is no high ground between the Urals and the fens if the wind is blowing in a certain direction. A kind and efficient gentleman lead us to the exact spot and my mother’s remains were dispensed from a large lantern affair with bomb bay door underneath that could be opened by pulling a lever. Despite the wind he seemed to have developed a technique that prevented the possibility of blow-back. I and Boo, who insisted on being present, watched as mother and grandmother was scattered. I wondered whether if he was alone was he tempted to make patterns or write letters on the grass with the remains. He told us that many people take the ashes and bury them in the garden and then plant a rose bush on top, then sit back and watch it die.
“Too many calcium phosphates and nitrogen in the ashes,” he informed us “Kills the roots; we’re just too acidic. Only rhododendrons stand a chance and that’s pushing your luck. One woman was going to put her husband’s ashes on their allotment, which she still worked. I hadn’t the heart to tell her it would play havoc with any root crops.” I wondered who would want to eat spuds fertilised by their dead husband’s ashes. However I suppose it could be regarded as the ultimate re-cycling.

As I pottered about yesterday with a trowel I wondered at the whereabouts of the lavender, sage and rosemary I and Boo had planted round the tree. It appeared to have been dug up and shifted by someone to make room for an inscribed stone plaque for a married couple. I had a sudden hot flash of territorial encroachment. Suddenly Boo, who was with me, pointed back the way we had come and looked at her shoes. “Oh God, I think I’ve stepped in someone” There was a trail of gritty white ash across our path across the grass and now white footprints leading towards the tree. The crematorium was empty save for a man way in the distance with a watering can and a small spade.
We began to laugh and the more we thought about it the more we laughed. I think my parents, should they have currently have access to such things, would have been laughing to, they had a keen sense of humour.

I have made a mental note about the ashes map, it will scratch at my brain like a dog desperate to be let out of the house unless it finds some form and shape in a poem. The poet and translator, George Szirtes talked about the nature of artistic inspiration in his news section on his website yesterday. Sometimes we perceive something that we prod and poke with language until some sort of form begins to take shape, which in itself allows us to step back and examine it without drowning in a welter of subjectivity (I summarise clumsily here). I shall have to use my Wallace Stevens allotted thinking time today to ponder on that. What do I make of a map of human ashes, so scrupulously kept and painstakingly documented in a manicured quiet English garden? What do I make of a man who can talk of our calcium phosphates and nitrogen content and the death of roses and potatoes, of our laughter in the face of the macabre?

Think long and hard enough and to quote E M Forster’s forward to Howard’s End..’Only connect’, ideas and thoughts begin to cohere. The perception, the language, the form that takes are not so much linear as an intricate web of constant interconnections that somehow we manage to create. I think this process is what allows us to be surprised by our own work sometimes, we can be caught unawares. That odd paradox can occur, if we are lucky, the discipline of thought setting the idea free.

Of course we could all adhere to Robert Graves’ concept of The White Goddess and the phases of the moon from which she derives her power as the source of poetic inspiration. I am rather proud of the fact that I actually got through reading that book without having to call on a Chick Lit book to cure me of the footnote trauma his works usually bring on. Personally, whilst I know the moon may influence many things, tides, bad songs, were wolves, Apollo moon landings, poor decisions on a mate; I am loathe to see it as a direct source of the muse. However in Cool Web he did have something interesting to say about language being necessary to keep us whole and that it served to make sense of the chaos of the power and immediacy of experience. Of course Graves famously read his own obituary in The Times, when he was presumed dead during the First World War which may account for his more bizarre intellectual eccentricities.

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