Love Song to Hélène Cixous

To tell you the truth . . . I can’t tell you the truth. Hélène Cixous warned me about that delusion, drinking a latte in my favourite Kensington café, whispering lecture notes to me like erotic dreams under the sheets. I have always been an excitable student. ‘This is why I never ask myself “who am I?” (qui suis-je?),’ she told me. ‘I ask myself “who are I?” (qui sont-je?) – an untranslatable phrase. Who can say who I are, how many I are, which I is the most of my I’s?’. I cannot take my eyes off her eyes. The café was on the Gloucester Road, not far from the underground station and the bedsitter where I lived in the weary footsteps of Prufrock: No 2, Grenville Place, just down from the priests’ house at No 9 where the poet lived when he left his wife Vivienne.

But you are back in my life, or at least in my mind, and you ask me who I think I am now, after all these years since I abandoned you. In my mind, you abandoned me. I left the house but you left the bed . . . but I know ghosts have rights, and we shouldn’t be arguing already. The mental habits of a lifetime search for details like magnets attracting needles. I say: ‘I’m still living in a dingy bedsitter in Kensington,’ which is Preludes and stained wallpaper and dirty sheets, with you crouching on the chest of drawers in the window because I want to use French letters and such cold calculation is a mortal sin, helpless passion only a venal sin, that awful daring surrender bringing pregnant climax quickly quicker than tumescent guilty guilt on frozen sheets. Your guilt (or guile) leaks a frieze around my life, a frieze of Greek indignation: Medusa, Jocasta, the Furies tearing off poets’ heads. I know you heard ‘Le Rire de la Méduse’ but that’s not what I mean. I mean something older. I mean something in the cellars of my nightmares. Hélène would follow my drift. She would get my meaning.

It is also true that I cannot read your I. You/she/they/it refuse my playing playful I like any vindictive Catholic schoolgirl trapped in Bangalore heat, Kali, Dewali, vegetable curry and desire. I could make a list out of your I’s, a list spinning like endless needles, a dance smothering the poor bloody innocent magnet which is your question: who do I think I am now? And why do you want to know, I might demand, but I guess it is your question, so you have a right to ask it after all this time. But when you ask it I remember an April evening, your I’s studying a map of the London Underground and my I’s studying a map of the Paris Metro and both of us winding up in blind tunnels, a labyrinth, a maze, searching for Liverpool Street Station where as it happened you quoted my words back at me because you had a right to ask my I’s why they kept you waiting, and underneath that question, why my I’s thought they had a right to sleep with such a cauldron of alien Tamil Hindu Anglo-Indian Catholic furies if there was no love. That caught me. That was you: flaming didactic anger buried and disguised as a theoretical proposition. You might have been carrying a Sweeney razor. You might have been carrying plague.

And after all this time, even if I think of you as Iphigenia’s mother, even if I know she was you, I cannot begin to identify you as Iphigenia’s mother. Though we called the child Sarah. Which I spell Sara, to confuse the Furies, pretending I am living Coleridge’s double-life on a couch with the two sisters. They are only names, signifying everything. I often dream of Coleridge’s Sara, butterfly eyelashes and girlish laughter and bouncy with northern vigour, disguised as Asra. It’s all about disguises. And anyway he found her in bed with his best friend, the oldest cliché, even if it was all a laudanum delusion.

So who are the I’s Hélène would have me be: be as in perform, but still the same archetypal (masculine) lover aching with (libidinal) desire and a yearning for form? Form is vision, so they say. And the form desired is an erect penis. Always that, Freud courtesy of Shakespeare, no matter how hard I try. And this despite the truth being invariably androgynous: Woolf and Coleridge’s androgynous: the figure in the carpet (gender: definitely masculine; nature: half-distracted feminine) aching to touch your love, then straight away ‘touch’ and ‘love’ take leave of their old familiar meanings. There is no room beyond the room where Prufrock walked and talked, the room in Grenville Place I rented in a nearby house, the room where blinds were lifted, grimy hands stroked soiled feet, and fetishes evolved from simply reading words, ‘the very idea never occurred.’ I cannot speak my I. I cannot concentrate until the concrete form is given a different text.

This I so late in the day I cannot identify Iphigenia’s mother.

Or even Iphigenia.

Facts tell lies.

Try this: a thin girl, eighteen, nineteen, arriving on a flying carpet, full mouth on full mouth, lips the leaking love warm on soiled sheets, a thin girl from Bangalore, not knowing London, not knowing England, then chance again, a silent bedsitter, afternoons, afternoons, and summer walks in Kensington Gardens, and flying carpets again beside a river, somewhere in Surrey, an English garden, a thin girl the I’s remember, don’t remember: breasts, thighs, open mouths, Tamil whispers: love, love, all you need is love, love . . . The lies breeding an Iphigenia, in face of prayers, in face of boys as flies to wanton girls, despite, despite.

The simplest words beggar moons. The coldest winter in years welcomed you to England, your ‘America’ you said quoting Donne thought you didn’t know it was Donne, traveller from Bangalore, immigrant from the lost empire. Your Bangalore was summer hockey and Diwali fireworks, the mystic Hindus walking fire, the festival lamps surrounding the white bungalow, the guards patrolling acres of garden. At school, they taught you Hindi and Urdu and Tamil. In the summer, you escaped to the Blue Mountains, escaped in heaving carts pulled by bullocks, the Tamil servants feeding their babies opium. You knew a world I couldn’t imagine, even in my chaotically creative Coleridgean studio, the kind of creativity he said was genius, he said was androgynous. I heard Wales in your Anglo-Indian sing-song. You heard Yorkshire in my Lincolnshire vowels. In the cinema, we watched Tom Jones, then walked in Leicester Square hand-in-hand, and you told me that meant we were engaged, in love and going to be married. I thought you were just a girl, walking hand-in-hand with a boy, your blue sailor suit and your auburn hair bewitching temptations. I only asked you to go for a drink, then you burst into tears for your dead father, dying so far from home, and I had to invite you to a film, I had been brought up by Jocasta after all, or Jocasta up and Medea down, those freewheeling bi-polar moods. You were wearing a yellow raincoat. Your makeup ran when you cried. I didn’t want you, but I knew how the guilty should behave. The film lasted for two hours, the novel several months, the marriage the rest of our lives. Iphigenia waited for us on grimy sheets, though we didn’t know it. I prayed you wouldn’t be pregnant every lunchtime in St Botolph’s Without, the church nearest to where I worked in the City. John Keats’s mother was seen crossing Bishopsgate just there, showing far too much ankle. Shakespeare drank in the Dolphin where I read insurance claims like Kafka. My prayers were not answered.

Yes! says Molly Bloom, yes, yes, but you are not Molly Bloom, however much I might desire her, and Ulysses had sailed, already long gone, Ulysses and Ulysses, my replicating mind a vacant lot where Sweeney whispered birth and copulation and death, the narrow Stepney streets that bled from Hackney and leaked into the river, and Prufrock wandered lost. We thought our love would last forever, a touching melodrama, but all I tried to say you wouldn’t hear, and never heard, and drank latte as Hélène drank latte only she wasn’t really there and you couldn’t parse the arguments, couldn’t discourse love, where sex is textual politics and sheets are soiled with years of lust, centuries of lust, constructing what we are, and I Tiresias, abandoned in a Kensington which is now entirely mine, now entirely peopled by I’s this I does not recognise. On such sad beds the evening sun declines. I have written songs the river sirens sing, but that is in a world I didn’t find, a world that refuses my I, a landscape scorched by lies. You asked me how I loved you. I tried to tell you.

Goodbye is not enough. You can’t end an essay with Goodbye. Hello/Goodbye maybe, but Paul McCartney wrote that, and even if Lennon was living in Emperor’s Gate just around the corner from Grenville Place, and even if I did meet him one afternoon with Charles Monteith, I cannot possibly find room for him here, the trouble being with the facts that Aristotle warned us about in the Poetics. If there were words, the hangman’s shadow would be enough. But there are no words. Goodbye goodbye on Dante’s unlit stairs. I cannot speak my I’s so fail to tell, fail to show, the congealed words our common symptom, the congealed love on sheets a neighbour steals, selling tabloid lies as landlords sold the door of Lennon’s house in Emperor’s Gate, the blue silent door the fans engraved, rumours of the night and bleary mornings, rumours of the lies the poets tell. My I collides with your I, and swarms of bees devour the rancid honey. We squabble on, like multitudes of flying butterflies.

William Bedford