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julia blackburn    
 
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  When I was a child I used to sit outside my father's study door listening to the sharp hammering of the typewriter and the deep sound of his voice as he muttered and grunted with the concentration of what he was doing.

And if the door was opened to me then I entered a room that seemed to belong to a different dimension of the world, a place that was thick with the smell of stale cigarette smoke, beer and spirits and thick also with the urgent energy to get the poems written.

Sometimes he would read to me, the magical incantation of words rolling around my head, as meaningful and as meaningless as music. And because I could remember whole chunks of poetry as easily as he could, we would sit together side by side and recite things. I can't have been more than eight years old, but I knew what Othello said when he was about to murder Desdemona and my mind still contains verse after verse of that loud and wild diatribe by Vachel Lindsey which begins:


Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel-house kings with feet unstable

Stamped and roared and hammered on the table....
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom

Hard as they were able, Boom, Boom, Boom.


Already then when I was still so young, my father taught me to understand that if you can manage to put your deepest feelings and fears into words, to catch them in a net of metaphor and image, then no matter how vast and terrible they might be, you will come to no harm, you will find a way through to the other side. He said it was all a question of naming and giving shape to the things of darkness.

I think he used his early poetry as a means of keeping the horrors of his childhood at bay and then as he grew older his writing became a pathway which he hoped would eventually lead him towards an acceptance of his own troubled destiny and of the fact of death as an end to life. He was always a tormented man, but he was a very brave one too.

He must have become more or less an alcoholic in his early twenties and he never managed to give up the booze for longer than a few months, but the real problem was the pills. During the war he was unthinkingly prescribed a new barbiturate drug called sodium amytal, to calm him down when he got nervous. He took to the drug like a duck to water and over the next thirty years he crunched his way through as much as he could get hold of, at times using three different doctors to provide him with extra prescriptions. The pills combined with the drink to make him increasingly mad, but no-one was aware of the cause. When the extent of his addiction was finally understood, there was an attempt by various medical psychologists to find a chemical substitute for the amytal. With a wild and slightly demonic glee he became a willing guinea pig, trying out everything that was on offer: pills for epyleptics, pills for schizophrenics and one which he was especially proud of because he said it was used to tranquilise rhinoceros if they needed to be transported from one part of Africa to another. I can see him grinning when he tells me this, grinning like a crocodile.

From when I was still young I understood quite simply that my father was two unconnected people. One of them, who I loved enormously, was full of talk about gods and animals, ghosts and monsters, full of remembered chunks of poetry, folk songs, passages from the Bible and devastating but hilarious stories based on his experience of childhood. The other, who scared the life out of me even though he never attacked me directly, was a savage creature who might craw1 on all fours, bark like a dog, hit people, scream, break down windows and doors. I watched wide-eyed as the terrible metamorphoses took place, step by step and irreversible once it had begun. I used to think a wicked magician had put a spel1 on him and I wondered what on earth could be done to remove it.

Each time again when he emerged from one of these shuffling descents into chaos he was as shocked as everyone else by what had just happened, full of apologies and remorse. And then he would turn to the poetry, using all the strength in his cower to make the words come and to bring some light into the darkness.

With so many of his poems I can hear them being read to me for the first time when I read them now and then I find myself raging down these corridors of recollection.


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Copyright © 2000 Julia Blackburn.