Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Marvelous

^The Great Lawn, Central Park, in Spring <source>

In expectation of Spring, new things and old, here is an extract from Teju Cole's "Open City", 2011:

“In the spring, life came back into the earth’s body. I went to a picnic in Central Park with friends, and we sat under magnolias that had already lost their white flowers. Nearby were the cherry trees, which, leaning across the wire fence behind us, were aflame with pink blossom. Nature is infinitely patient, one thing lives after another has given way; the magnolia’s blooms doe just as the cherry’s come to life. The sun coming through the petals of the cherry blossoms dappled the damp grass, and new leaves, in their thousands, danced in the April breeze, so that, at moments, the trees at the far border of the lawn seemed insubstantial. I lay half in shadow, watching a black pigeon walk towards me. It stopped, then flew up, out of sight, behind the trees, then came back again, walking awkwardly as pigeons do, perhaps seeking crumbs. And far above the bird and me was the sudden apparition of three circles, three white circles against the sky.

In recent years I have noticed how much the light affects my ability to be sociable. In winter I retreat. In the long and sunny days following, in March, April, and May, I am much more likely to seek out the company of others, more likely to feel myself alert to sights and sounds, to colours, patterns, moving bodies, smells other than the ones in my office or at the apartment. The cold months make me feel dull, and spring feels like a gentle sharpening of the senses. In our little group in the park that day, we were four, all reclining on a large striped blanket, eating pitta bread and hummus, picking at green grapes. We kept an open bottle of white wine, our second of the afternoon, hidden in a shopping bag. It was a warm day, but not so warm that the great lawn was packed. We were part of a crowd of city-dwellers in a carefully orchestrated fantasy of country life. Moji had brought Ana Karenina with her, and she leaned on her elbow and read from the thick volume –it was one of the new translations- only occasionally interrupting herself to participate in the conversation. And a few yards away from us a young father calling out to his toddler who was wandering away: Anna! Anna!

There had been a plane travelling above us at such a height that the grumble of its jets was barely audible over our discussion. Then only its faint contrail remained, and just as that faded, we saw the three white circles growing. The circles floated, appearing to float upward at the same time as they were falling down, then everything resolved, like a camera viewfinder coming into focus, and we saw the human shape within each circle. Each person, each of these flying men, steered his parachute, to the left and to the right, and, watching them, I felt the blood race in my veins.

Everyone on the lawn was by now alert. Ball games stopped, chatter became loud, and many arms pointed upward. The toddler Anna, astonished as we all were, held onto her father’s leg. The parachuters were expert, floating towards each other until they were in a kind of shuttlecock formation, then drifting apart again, and steering toward the centre of the lawn. They came closer to earth, falling faster. I imagined the whoosh around their ears as they cut through the air, imagined the tight focus with which they were bracing themselves for landing. When they were at a height of some five hundred feet, I saw that they were dressed in white jumpsuits with white straps. The silken parachutes were like the enormous white wings of alien butterflies. For a moment, all surrounding sound seemed to fall away. The spectacle of men fulfilling the ancient dream of flight unfolded in silence.

I could almost imagine what it was like for them, surrounded by clear blue spaces, even though I’ve never skydived. Once, on a similarly fine day a quarter of a century ago, I had heard a boy’s cries. We were in the water, more than a dozen of us, and he’d drifted away toward the deep end. He couldn’t swim. We were in a large swimming pool on the campus of the University of Lagos. As a child, I had become a strong swimmer at my mother’s insistence, and somewhat to my father’s dismay, since he was himself afraid of water. She had taken me to lessons at the country club from the time I was five or six and, a good swimmer herself, she had watched without fear as I learned to be at home in the water; from her I had learned that fearlessness. I haven’t been in a pool in years but, once , my ability had made a difference. It was the year before I went away to NMS; I had saved another’s life.

This boy, of whom I remember nothing other than the fact that he was, like me, of mixed race (in his case, half-indian), was in mortal danger, drawn into increasingly deeper areas of the pool the more he struggled to keep his head above water. The other children, shocked into inaction by his distress, had remained in the shallow end, watching. There was no lifeguard present, and none of the adults, assuming any of them was a swimmer, was close enough to the deep end of the pool to help. I don’t remember deliberating, or considering any danger to myself, only that I set off in his direction as fast as I could. The moment that has stayed in my mind is of having not yet reached the boy but having already left the crowd of children behind. Between his cries and theirs, I swam hard. But caught in the blue expanse around me and above, I suddenly felt like I was no closer to him than I had been a few moments before, as though water intervened intentionally between where he was in the shadow of the diving structures and where I floated in the bright sunshine. I had stopped swimming, and the air cooled the water on my face. The boy flailed, briefly breaking the surface with frantic arms before he was pulled under again. The strong shadows made it difficult for me to see what was happening . I thought, for an instant that I would always be swimming toward him, that I would never cross the remaining distance of twelve or fifteen yards. But the moment was to pass, and I would become the hero of the day. There was laughter afterward, and the half-Indian boy was teased. But it might easily have been a tragic afternoon. What I hauled the short distance to the diving platform might have been a small, lifeless body. But almost all that day’s detail was soon lost to me, and what remained most strongly was the sensation of being all alone in the water, that feeling of genuine isolation, as though I had been cast without preparation into some immense and not unpleasant, blue chamber, far from humanity.

For the parachuters, the distance between heaven and earth began to vanish more quickly, and the ground suddenly rushed upward to meet them. Sound returned, and they landed, one after the other, neatly, in billowing clouds, to the whoops and whistles of picknickers in the park. I applauded, too. The parachuters slipped out from under their tents, crouching, and signaled to each other. Then they rose like victorious matadors, gesturing to the crowd, and were rewarded with our happy cries and louder applause.

Then it stopped. Above the noise, we heard the blaze of sirens on the east side of the park. Four officers came racing over the ropes around the perimeter of the lawn and ran toward its centre. One was white, one Asian, and the other two were black, all as ungainly in their movements as the parachuters had been balletic. We began to boo, safe in our numbers, and were pushed back from the congratulatory circle  we had formed, so that they could arrest the daredevils. Someone at the far end of the circle shouted “Security Theatre!” but the wind had picked up, and it swallowed her voice.

The parachutists did not resist arrest. No longer encumbered by their wings, they were led away by the police. The crowd began to cheer again, and the parachutists, all young men, grinned and bowed. One of them, taller than the other two, had a full ginger beard that glinted in the sun. The parachutes remained in a glossy heap in the grass and, when the wind picked up again, seemed to give off trembling exhalations. And so we watched the parachutes breathe for a while, while the men were led away. Then, but only after what seemed like a long time out of ordinary time, we came out of the marvellous and resumed our picnic.”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ode to Foster

walk the spiral
up out of the pavement
Into your reflection, into
transparency, into the space
where flat planes are curves
and you are transposed
as you go higher into a thought
of flying, joining the game
of brilliance and scattering
where fragments of poems,
words, names fall like glory
into the lightwells until
St Mary Axe is brimming


This is a poem by Jo Shapcott that I came across thanks to London Underground's ever enjoyable Poems On The Underground program.