Care and Feeding of the Monas Hieroglyphica

This time last year, I spent a week as writer in residence at the Bleddfa Centre art gallery in Mid Wales.  I have always been fascinated by the boundary between writing and art, and the place where artistic practise blurs into writing practise.  I used the week to explore this space between the two, and wrote a short blog for their website about where that led.

At Nant Y Groes, site of the family home of John Dee, the beech trees are a bright russet even in the rain.  I drive past them each morning on my way to Bleddfa, and they come to mark a mental boundary, a milestone to the strange autumnal valley where once wolves outnumbered houses.  During my week at Bleddfa, I think a lot about John Dee.  In particular, I am fascinated by his monas hieroglyphica, an alchemical symbol he designed as a way of trying to express the nature of the smallest indivisible part of the universe.  The duality of it: it is at once mystical, mysterious, and an attempt to pin down a scientific reality.

I suppose that is a very modern way of looking at it; Dee himself would not have distinguished between science and mysticism in the way that we do.  Still, Dee's urge to categorise and express the smallest unit of reality is one that poets can identify with: the urge to simplify, to perfect, to hone.

Often, people are quite surprised to find that I do very little writing by hand.  I keep a notebook for facts, research, and ideas, but almost none of my poetry goes through a handwritten stage.  Instead, I will start to write in my head, often while walking; if the lines are good, I'll remember them until I get home, and if not, I won't.  Then the rest of the writing and research happen on my laptop.  I find working in a regular font makes it easier to see the rhythm of the lines, their shape on the page.  But when Lois first asked if I might like to spend a week as writer in residence in the gallery at Bleddfa, it seemed a chance to shake up my practice.

I wanted to return to the act of writing as a physical one.  I wanted to reintroduce the act of mark-making to my practice (in my head, that word, reintroduce, made me think of reintroducing wild animals into a structured, domesticated environment).  Surely there could be no better place to do this than a gallery.  So I begin my week armed with paper – actual paper – a pen, and ink to dip it in.  And I write.

I write a lot.  The paper is rough, handmade stuff, and the pen scratches in a satisfying way.  I think about the monad, about the smallest indivisible part of reality, the perfect unit of meaning.  About stories.  Instead of moving on to a new page when I reach the end, I go back, overwrite, fill in gaps.  The words become indivisible.  In the tall, empty space of the gallery, my writing condenses, draws in its edges, forms dense black clouds in the centre of the large white pages.

Poems betray their structure when written and overwritten across the same piece of paper: the hard left hand edge where the lines begin quickly becomes a blot of black ink; the right hand edge, where the line lengths differ, diffuses into blank page more gradually.  But I write stories as well as poems, strange things full of wolves and physic gardens and a yew maze in winter, stories that stalk the length of the valley, stories that thread a path through the varied histories here.

They are, of course, illegible.  Small closed systems, hermetically sealed.  I suppose that means they are for me: in introducing these wild elements to my practice, I have reclaimed the work it produces for myself.