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Monthly Archives: January 2014

 

I’ve decided to write up a few episodes and meandering stories from my time in Chile for the indulgence of memory and an occasional distraction every now and again.

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Lucas and I arrived in Vicuña, a craterous basin of a town at the edges of the Valle de Elqui, broken by the robbery of the last of our food and all of our most valuable possessions. Camping beside a river under willows in the valley of Cochiguaz, a rucksack had been stolen while we slept: a sinister rupture in a setting of bliss. Sent onwards by the camp-site, driven by a toothless flete driver towards civilisation and then ignored by the police in Pisco Elqui, we had come to Vicuña in a last attempt to report the crime, gather some sympathy and move on.

Despite its desert setting, Vicuña is made lush by irrigation: orange trees, trees of willow leaves and cypress peals of cerise pink berries, decorate the low grid streets of brightly coloured houses, shutters and doors. In the garden of the family hostel, La Elquina, we find green and black avocados cradled in the wet grass, bright red chillies hanging for plucking and guavas growing atop cactuses along the dark stone wall. The lemons still green for the sound of the narrow channel of water, fall in the shallow puddles gathering for the birds to bathe in. I want to make a picnic of the bounty that falls about our tent but am too afraid to take anything from the family who let us into their house to wake a grandfather asleep in front of the television, and who take our money as they gather around a table to eat their lunch. This is so much vegetable security after our dawn robbery.

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Like every town in Coquimbo, Vicuña claims Gabriela Mistral for itself; a destination on the ‘Circuito de Gabriela Mistral’, Mistral’s face is everywhere: raised on a plinth in every small corner with pretensions to be a town square, and lying huge and omnipotent in the dry belly of a fountain in the Plaza de Armas, to gaze – unblinking – at the blue sky. Even the cash-machines seem programmed to favour her, spitting out 5000 notes (the smallest denomination) decorated with the deep-set bird of prey eyes and wide face of the handsome poet laureate, Mistral.

It is not poetry though (I am not a fan of Mistral’s Latin Pastoral, despite the Nobel Prizes) that survives as an accompaniment to my memories of Vicuña. The town defies its logically ordered size with an incredible syncopation of sonic disturbance; pop music, preaching and the cries of caged cocks. In the day Lucas and I couldn’t help laughing at the Latin pop music pumped into the Plaza de Armas: surreally punctuating the public sculptures and couples gathered on benches, and the street dogs bathing under leafy views of drifting blue. Then at dusk, when the mountains glow with a new mineral rich-hue and the fractured sky of feathered clouds begins to burn vibrant with red and purple light, we find evangelists and preachers at the corner of every block; an unintelligible echo as we cross the corner of Chacabuco and San Martin towards the next reverberation of the Word. Their sermons ringing through the dim light, the preachers – dressed in smart suit jackets over jumpers, and joined by their young apprentices (local lanky boys in churchly ties) – look up to an audience beyond us, intent. After dark it is the cocks who continue the refrain, they begin crowing at 11pm and continue all through the night (Lucas believes they can’t divine the dawn glow because they are kept caged).

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Perhaps we got closer to the Coquimban character of Vicuña than most: its struggle to host the passing tourism of Pisco distillery tours, Elqui treks and stargazing; its out-of-season honesty. The town is named after the South American camelid found camouflaged in the burnt ochre coirones and lava cordillera of the Andes: the vicuña is brother of the guanaco and the wild ancestor of alpacas and llamas. And yet I never saw any vicuña in the Elqui Valley. In many ways that elusive vicuña is a figure for the town itself, which promised and garnered affections, but always gently and subtly thwarted us: Gabriela Mistral’s museum was closed on the day that we cycled to its gates, so that we would never find out more about the poet than her magisterial height, and the stargazing tours were all cancelled because of the rare feathering of astral clouds that covered the sky; we were left to an ice cream in the town square, a bike ride through the gridded streets past the Colo Colo murals in the suburbs, and a Pisco Sour in an empty restaurant. Just this to transform our afternoon spent in the company of the police into a holiday. If Vicuña taught us anything, it was that even simple pleasures are sweet after a small personal tragedy.

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I am currently studying for a Masters in Medieval English literature and had two term papers to hand in over Christmas. The first, which had to broadly be about sex, gender and culture in medieval literature, was an essay on the thirteenth century Seinte Margarete: the story of a Christian virgin martyr tortured by a lusty pagan named Olibrius, whose offer of marriage she refuses because of her spiritual marriage to Christ. Margaret is stoic and steadfast and not only survives her tortures, but also miraculously bursts forth from the belly of a dragon who has swallowed her (an exciting subsidiary detail). My essay was about textual materiality – the partible text and the textual relic – and took as its starting point a wonderful quotation from Jocelyn Wogan-Browne’s ‘The Apple’s Message’:

‘[Saint’s] Bodies are partible yet whole […] texts are partible, but when they too are a form of relic, their fragments, like their material components, retain the meaning and force of the whole text.’

The best part of the essay though, was having an excellent excuse to book an appointment with the British Museum’s Medieval department to handle some of the seals and rings associated with Saint Margaret.

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13th century personal seal matrix, front view, Museum no.1858,0218.1

Any member of the book can book an appointment with a small selection of objects and get inside the curators’ offices. I was particularly interested to see the seals associated with Saint Margaret as the text I was working on introduces an original use of the metaphor of sealing to think about the virgin’s relationship to Christ, and to authorise her body as saintly. I wanted to think of seals as functioning as ‘textual symbols’ and therefore partible textual relics of Seinte Margarete.

Like the contact-relics of medieval saints’ cults, these symbolic signatures functioned to present rather than re-present the signatories. This thirteenth century seal from the British Museum collection (see image 1) depicts the Virgin Mary with a clerical figure to her left and St Margaret with the dragon at her feet on the right. Below the Virgin, we see Christ on the cross with St John and the Virgin again (this time with a dagger in her bosom), on either side of him. The matrix is made from silver, a divine metal used to imbue the impression with its purity, and is elaborately engraved on its back (see image 2), suggesting that the matrix was more than a simply functional object and may have had its own religious symbolism.

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13th century personal seal matrix, rear view, Museum no.1858,0218.1

There are also later St Margaret seals held in the British Museum collection which depict the saint alone (see image 3 and 4). There has been very little research into what function seals with religious imagery may have performed, or what significance such sealing imagery may have had, but like the other objects associated with the saints’ cult, the seal worked as a contact relic in presenting the wishes of the owner, and therefore the owners themselves. The use of the saint’s image on a seal appears to invoke the saint’s presence as another witness in the authorisation of the document. The saint may have been remembered with each new impression of matrix into wax, (a satisfying reflection of the process of memory itself) but there is space for a possible imagined contact here too, a contact made between sealer and saint in the act of sealing.

Seals were highly personal objects, usually marked by a ‘design’ and a ‘legend’ which constructed personal identity for the authentication of a document’s source. But they were also evidence of a bodily contact, as seals often retained fingerprints and hairs pressed into the wax, an incredibly corporeal re-presenting of the sealer’s wishes. This textual symbol had a powerful connection to the body of its owner, much like the relationship between saint and hagiography.

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14th Century St Margaret seal, belonging to the Guild of Horsham. British Museum No. 1987,0403.20

Unrelated to my essay in the end, but as something of an extra treat, I also saw two gold black letter inscribed rings from the 15th century, which both included textual mnemonics in some form. The one ring was inscribed on the inside so that words touched skin.

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15th century St Margaret gold ring, inscribed in black letter.

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Last week I travelled up to Scotland to talk about a PhD in St Andrews, and to wander the streets of Edinburgh: falling more in love with the city than ever before. It was a week filled with incredible skies, architectural landscapes – both ruined and coal-charred – and the tumbling stone-masonry of hill-top kirkyards.

There is something of a rumour I have been clinging onto during the winter, a chinese whisper passed from a soluble sound-bite in the newspaper, read and reported by my mother, to me. The whisper said that some fortuitous alchemy, the mild winter combined with the mutable laws of astrology, had led to a period of particularly wondrous skies: shifting, transforming soft-vibrant dawns and sunsets which take my breath away. Despite its now untraceable nature, I believe it  with absolute conviction; I can’t remember a winter of such lullingly-beautiful skies.

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Sunsets bleed like flashing precious metals into the smallest slithers and exposed fractions of sky. Ruby red and amber jewelled-clouds make tracks against the celluloid blue, drifting behind the black frame of a winter tree’s scraggy branches. Mists rise up from the damp marshes, caught by the sunlight as if illumination gives levity, and then roll up and across the blue at impossible speed. The Harlow flood plains, fall below the Essex motorway, and mirror-ripple whipped clouds caught adrift in this suddenly vast, soft, brilliant sky. This winter I am obsessed with the sky.

In this sense Scotland didn’t fail me. It was gloomier and broodier, the sky there, framed by broom and gorse and the rising peaks of the land. The light seemed softer and weaker, but strangely immanent, and the clouds never succeeded in obstructing light, but simply diffused and fractured it. In St Andrews the day was spent under a weak, darkening and lightening blue, a dimness which filled me with joy instead of typically making me gloomy.

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Sunset in the depths of Edinburgh caught itself in the window panes of buildings – so tall they grow by distortion – and was framed always by an illusory perspective of the city streets (the pretence that the sea is not in fact, out there somewhere, that everything is far grander and more sprawling than it really is).  Edinburgh is the deep city, the city of vertical depths which confuse our sense of scale: cavernous archways and tunnels, infinite Scottish steps, a black tower of a monument, a castle sat atop a craggy peak.

Scotland was an adventure framed by perfect skies, more skies than I could ever or should ever try to describe. I’ll leave you with the perfect broodiness of the sky over the black rock of Arthur’s Seat…

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