(On Maggi Hambling’s Aldeburgh Scallop and the Making of Damascus Twist)
A studio floor with shards of pink mashed shell,
ink sketches of sea-birds…. Forgive me.
I’m trying to recreate what it was like
for her to dream this up: a ten-foot scallop,
memory of storm and love, of two entwined lives,
set upright in this shore on secret fabricator legs
like a chilly North Sea re-run of the birth
of Aphrodite. We stand in Sunday dawn
uncertain of each other, on the banked-up shale
of an eroding coast, looking up at this curved
guardian of the earth, a monument
to music made for joy in making.
We face an under-side of polished steel
dark like the belly of a wave, dark and light
like life and death, with movement between colours
as between the forms, part shining and part rust.
A shimmer where it faces sea, but at the back
the strange dark shadow silhouette
of energy shattering as it breaks
and voices of the drowned written in white sky
cut-outs, like finger-holes in a flute.
We creep in. We run our hands along the frilled
bronze edge, split and joined at the core
like life-long partners betraying and forgiving.
I remember Plato’s cave, the screen, the fire
and how he banned the artists for
making appearances; making more than we can hear
or see or know. Invisible in this safe-seeming
hollow shadow - echo, harmony and echo –
we gaze out at a grey dim open sea
and iron horizon splicing day from night
like west from east. I think of Syria
on the front page: flat-to-flat urban warfare
in Aleppo, where ‘ouds
beyond the price of rubies
have been made from the seventh century,
and air attacks on Gaza. In the pub quiz
on Saturday, in the snack bar,
kitchen, cinema and bus, how quick
the arguments flare up, even in England,
even if we’ve never been
to what we call the middle of the east. We identify.
We occupy the centre of the rift
or what rift represents. This is our story, one bronze
étude pathétique, split vertical and horizontal.
A multiple arabesque, steel fission and steel fusion
like the goddess Harmonia, slim perfectionist
surrounded by destruction, whose wedding gift,
a necklace, lays a curse on anyone who steals
and wears it next. Harmony the hidden
daughter, love-child of Aphrodite
and Apollo’s enemy, the god of war.
The lyre is the first thing soldiers smash
before slicing up God’s perfect instrument, the larynx.
Sing the microtonal range of the maqam:
the sadness and pain of Saba; Hijaz, conjuring
distant desert and our longing for it. Sing
of the body, thighs and palms to slap,
teeth and tongue to whistle through
and the fragile, mucus-laden vox humana.
Sing also of David’s harp, placed sideways
on a mountain to catch the cinnamon wind
blowing from golden rocks at dusk
below the tower of Lebanon
which looks towards Damascus.
As we all do. That’s where the mind goes now
on Suffolk pebble-shingle
gleaming like highlights of intarsia
whose weavers set the floats of weft
and warp at angles, to reflect
light scatteredly, depending who you are
and where you’re looking from.
These chinking waves… Their draining shump
roars in like shell-thuds over Al Fayhaa,
Fragrant City, home to rosa damascena
and the heptatonic scale of a fretless lute;
where sky, dark-pearled as strong espresso, burns
above the courtyard in Umayyad Mosque,
where children used to lick pistachio-starred ice-cream
and now play Asking-for-Papers-of-Identity-
at-Gun-Point, and old men with pewter urns
strapped to their backs pour liquid liquorice,
flavoured with tamarisk, in ribboned lollops
the way a flat-edged stone
skims the surface of smooth water.
In the split-shell casque of psyche,
in our dreams, wherever we’re looking from,
we are this middle east. Some chasm
through the centre must be in and of us all.
Creatures of relation and division, we belong
in the tectonic clash
of histories on common ground. The past
is never where we left it, overrun
by warring memories
from a single rift-shot family of languages
and faith. Filters we see each other through
take on the greenish quality of shadow cast
by glass. We set up frontiers
to keep us safe and keep out the unknown.
When sea floods in or Viking boats arrive
chaos is come, we are broken into. What survives
is hope, like that run of burnished steps
infused with cardamom, heart of the oldest
city in the world. Rosewood sets of backgammon
like puzzle-books inlaid with mother-of-pearl,
blue gargoyle fish of the souk displayed
beside a frayed formica stool, strings of hanging flip-flops
and rolls of samite: glitter-fabrics that depend
on optic interference like the play of light
in Damascus Twist, that iron plait
welded in carbon fire, whose laminate
spiral surface, acid-bitten into waves,
resembles damask. Valued formerly in sword-blades
and now in the barrels of guns.
Is making our defence against the dark? We break
the line to make it, improvise a rhythm, string
silk gut over leather membrane
reverberating with folds. We shape
a pilgrim shell, place it to face the storm, catch harmony
from music of the spheres and dive in cold, as grey
dawn breaks over greyer sea, like kingfishers
tracking the play of iridescence. However
this pans out, this you and me, we can take delight
in form, in makeshift colours of the waves –
silver, hyacinth and jade, here in the rain for all to see -
and meanings we have found in what the world has made.