Correspondences: The Rhododendron Tree

 

There’s a second in the film of The Snows of Kilimanjaro when the backdrop comes loose, tipping the riverbank into the corner of the screen, and if we held our disbelief in abeyance until now, it would be hard to ignore this, this tilted horizon that reveals not the real world but the dream. How did we evolve to beguile ourselves so wholly, to imagine ourselves central and rhapsodic in saturated colour? Is it because we desire the landscape we marginalise, as though being the one desired should bring you to your knees, or that I, in my desire am ashamed, and so shame? When I think about this, I’m not thinking about you. But the word dream, with its capacity to signify one thing and its opposite, brings me back to my own small rhapsodic heart, which is nothing like a solution but a restating of the problem.

 

*

 

Or, do I believe in dreams not as desire, that they are not so much the longed for depicted in a Roman mosaic and buried under the modern vine, but the Roman goddess of love and abundant wine reaching her finger out to mine, like the touch of Creation, or an osprey lurching towards its prey? To reconstitute the fragments of an old question, then, is love a divine gift or a memory we dream to recover?

 

*

 

Both the book and the film open with this riddle, that the body of a leopard lies at the summit and no one knows why it was there. I imagine the leopard’s coat still shining above the snow, its gold lovely in contrast, though without its bodily heat, the snow must bury the corpse. It’s the repression of a leopard I have in mind, how the film makes us complicit in a lie when Gregory Peck’s character survives the ending, betraying the physical laws of his own narrative. Do we mistake dream for fantasy, shame for love? What is it we’re trying to save? To ask another way, imagine the wind chime sounding in my garden, the sparrow-pitch of its blue glass leaves – chirrup chirrup – for last year’s fruit still shrivelled on the branches. Do you recognise this underlying language of desire, or only the late light turning on the glass? The relationship between the dream and the waking is one of Freud’s first questions. 

 

*

 

Freud tells us Aristotle thought a man’s dreams reflected his bodily, more than psychic, health. To walk in his sleep under the burning sun might pre-empt a pyrexia, and so I’ve begun asking my patients about their dreams each morning. They take it as being a kindness, a general interest in how they slept, and I let them. Why not? But in the logs I’m making, I’m hoping to find a significance between the stories they tell and their cardiovascular observations, as a form of early warning score. Perhaps they spend the night running from a falcon only to develop an atrial flutter. Or they hear the opening strum of Van Morrison’s Sweet Thing just before they wake. And later, a rush to the head, or feeling of relief. In Oliver Sacks’s case studies, he meets a New York grandmother who, after a stroke, had temporal lobe seizures that filled her ears with Irish songs. She, though, suffered from reminiscence, and as such, can’t help us with preventative medicine.

 

*

 

At my grandmother’s funeral, my uncle says
too English for India, too Indian for England.

 

*

 

In one of Rousseau’s Solitary Walks he buys all the apples from a girl at the fair and gives them away to a half-dozen boys. Rebecca Solnit describes how he was practicing his defence for an imaginary trial, charged with abandoning his own children. But for all the happy moments he recalls in his walk, it is shot through with persecutory thoughts. No amount of evidence absolves him. Whatever we think we’re guilty of, and we are (sometimes) guilty, it’s only a placeholder for some deeper shame. What if guilt is (sometimes) only a rhododendron tree flowering mindlessly along the riverbank? What if these flowers were there from the start, a haunting, perhaps, their pink heads bending towards their own reflection, exiled under their own weight?

 

*

 

Dysmetria is the inability to judge distance. It is a function of the cerebellum, to know when to stop.

 

*

 

I dream in fragments of Rhapsody in Blue
the opening phrase never descending
to answer its own question. I dream in notations

of wildflowers, the iolanthe’s quiet dissent
against the clamouring larkspur, the Shepard Tone
of time in dreams, rising, always rising

 

*

 

Do you remember that early episode of the West Wing? Cartographers for Social Equality show CJ the Gall-Peters Projection, where the relative size of the continents is rendered accurately. Africa is huge (and potentially, upside down), and yet, it was on the radio yesterday, as though this is news. The world is as imaginary as it ever was. How strange we’re struggling to flatten the earth after waiting so long to learn it’s round. But if the Peters Projection is criticised for its distortions of shape and distance, there’s a beautiful butterfly map that shows the world unfolding from an octahedron. Africa and South America, like facing forewings, spread out over the rest. You and I are barely there, and as though asking the stars to define my place, I’m happy to be found so harmless.

 

*

 

Harmless, no. That we recite stories equating size with power may or may not be the fault of the old maps, but it is perpetuated by them. In another Solnit book, she says: We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or be blind … She has a story about a roomful of apricots stripped from her mother’s tree. They are, she says, her birthright, her fairy tale quest. Across the pages some of the fruit begin to rot. Others are preserved and sent to friends. That story doesn’t belong to me, but it does flicker through the one I want to tell you, about the trauma we’re gifted, pass on.

 

*

 

There’s a vintage shop that’s always closed, and a jug in the window. I imagine it holding a handful of purple irises. It’s shaped like a savoy cabbage, its handle wrought from ropes of corn, but it’s not the shape that makes me hungry. It might be the colour or glaze, but whatever else this hunger is, it is also only hunger. I’ve felt it before, as a child reading Rapunzel. The witch’s garden made me want, as the young mother did, what didn’t belong to me. No shame, child. I became aware of my small round stomach, how it could be sucked into nothing, and I could disappear. The inverse was also true. Mostly I want to hold the jug. There’s harmony in its overlapping leaves. I am ravenous with it. I felt it again tonight when I read Strawberry Fields was made by combining two songs in different keys, one sped up, the other slowed until almost, almost perfect. And there it is, I want to tell you, the harmony of the continuous soul blown wide open.

 

*

 

When his daughter calls out from a dream, Anna Freud,
strawberries, wild strawberries, he says, she’s using her name
to take possession of what she’s been denied that day.
But he also says that dreaming of fruit
of apples, cherries, or a half-eaten pear, signifies desire
for the mother’s breast, to feed from it, to be it.
To both possess and be possessed by what has been forbidden.
Do we ever learn to live with less? The literal work
of keeping the apricots from going to waste. I want this.

 

*

 

Angela Pelster tells us that Indian Yellow was, perhaps, introduced there from Persia, and made from the urine of cows that ate nothing but mangoes. She describes how Vermeer’s paintings glow with it, as though they’re lit from within. (This phrase applies to other fruits. Plath’s blackberries. Or is it the meadows? Kleinzahler’s peaches.) What I like about the Vermeer passage is what she says he understands: the way a red dress was never only red, but smoldering blue inside its shadowed folds; the way a wall was pockmarked with light, with every color in the room layered beneath it. Her mother’s favourite colour is yellow. She says this is because she’s Dutch. Because of Vermeer. I read this essay years ago, but in rereading it occurs to me, as though for the first time, that my family are as Dutch as they are Indian, and so I move through my house looking for evidence, for yellow. A cushion or vase. It’s hard, she says, when looking at a beautiful thing, to know where the beauty is coming from.

 

*

 

Sacks describes the movement of a patient’s paintings
from figurative to abstract as the pathology of the occipital lobe.
This man no longer thinks in images, dreams in them.
And if he might acknowledge the colour yellow
or the geometry of a globe, strawberries, or his wife’s face,
the soul it expresses, are lost to him. To be unable
to perceive the whole, or your own whole in relation to it.
Is this the same as wanting nothing? I dreamt the blue nude
of Georgia O’Keefe’s stepped out from the print
on my bedroom wall, climbed under the covers, held me.
I dream in blue and green. In rhythm. I dream in jazz drums,
a kind of rain or echolocation, the reverberation
of desire sketched across the blue-night shoreline, presenting
itself in blue waves, always coming, closer, closer.

 

 

 


[Angelina D’Roza lives in Sheffield. Her first collection, Envies the Birds, was published by Longbarrow Press in 2016. Her pamphlet, Correspondences, came out autumn 2019 (Longbarrow).]

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