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Oxford 2005

That moment, that photo, that spring–Trinity term–perhaps happier than I’ve ever been.

I slog through all of this ‘survival’ hoping to someday feel that kind of happiness, to have that kind of love and wonder, again.

the kinges power and is ost wende vorth
to Oxenforde aboute mielmasse
in 1297
      Indian summer
      and also of Oxford, Cambridge
      at the gret cowrtes at Mykelmas the year
     in 1493
bearing masses of small purplish flowers
the harvest

-from “Michelmas,” Veronica Forrest-Thomson



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4 July 2009: a “lived” hieroglyph?

I’d forgotten what a blessed thing Saturday mornings in the Radcliffe Camera are. In Oxford I am always possible–grateful and humbled to have been in some small part at home in this great tradition of knowledge. I’d come into town with the intention of attending the History of Childhood conference at Magdalen, but rail disruptions deposited me in Oxford an hour after registration ended, and I could not summon the courage to disrupt a lecture on baptism in medieval England; I’ve given up the headscarves, and as a result am not exactly inconspicuous.

The sky has clouded over, making the stone saints above Brasenose seem ominous. I’ve spent an hour jotting notes for an essay on my disease, yet am so tired of my disease that I feel sick to think of it. Or maybe it’s feeling sick to write something trite. I never do finish what I begin. Not even my twenties, perhaps. Oh God, I have grown so morbid.

These girls with long hair and nice legs and summer skirts and smiles–how envious I am.

Usually I am half in love with the English weather but right now I would hate it to rain; for some reason the thought strikes fear into my heart.

What I hate most about the thought of dying is not to have written, and to have K. forget me, and love someone else. Not to have his children. To think of anyone else as their mother kills me.

What is it about the Bodleian that breeds such morbidity? Maybe imagining myself here at twenty, writing poems on a Saturday morning while everybody else slept off their hangovers. Sitting with the Narnia series in a stack, unable to concentrate on otherworlds, being too grounded in my body, imagining making love to the beautiful blonde man I’d met. Frenziedly typing up an essay on the “Whitmanian strain” in American elegy, thinking I was really quite something, when in actuality it was the worst mark of my master’s–told off for misquoting Crane (“a livid hieroglyph” as “a lived hieroglyph,” when the whole essay was in fact about misquotation and re-interpretation, and couldn’t they appreciate the splendour of that? Because a “lived” hieroglyph suits, doesn’t it?)

A moment of panic yesterday when I was taken by the Thames’ current. But then acceptance: drowning would, after all, be my preferred method of death. Another grand tradition. Michael Llewelyn Davies & his tied hands. And of course Crane: “Goodbye, everybody!”


Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

-Hart Crane, “At Melville’s Tomb”

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23 April 2009: “How do you justify your existence?”

Oxford’s full of chattering Americans. It was strange, uncomfortable, to step off the train and walk past this, my most persistent milieu, the one place in my life (the world) I’ve not quite managed to leave.

Incredulous at the thought of myself, five years ago–five years–arriving here jet-lagged and terrified. I am not surprised to have encountered the love of my life here, because I almost expected it, or even sort of brazenly intended it. What has surprised me, in the breakdown of my twenties, is that everything did not proceed swimmingly happily ever after. To have ever considered the possibility that I would still be here these years later, walking the streets happy with who I am and yet beset with pangs of jealously at all the effortless youth and brilliance and beauty in everybody else. How free, how clear and uncomplicated everything actually was, and how it seemed so insurmountable, lent itself so freely to despair–

The depression of late’s an after-effect of chemotherapy, mostly–but shocking, terrible days weeping in bed, and wanting, truly then, to die, and what’s worse perhaps–believing I will.

This terror of death is always lurking with me now, set glumly over my shoulder, and must be managed, mediated. Reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Dialogue on Love scares me more than uplifts me, as I’d expected. Because she is dead. Because this depression of hers occurs after the treatment is over. Because I do identify with her experience–because I identify with her, and she is dead. At a ‘young’ age, which is twice my age.

It is strange to think of thirty as only a ‘possibility.’ Even Plath had thirty. But then, there is no evidence that any more life would bring any more meaning. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and all.

Every night I touch the lump in my breast and reflect on the absurdity that something so small should be an obstacle so seemingly insurmountable for the breadth and bigness of my body.

Still, apart from the five terrible days that inevitably follow the treatment, there is such a lightness sometimes (tempered of course by the small Death on my shoulder) as to make it a blessing. I feel none of that old omnipresent panic to (as that strange Finnish man who approached us in the pub put it) “justify my existence.” Cancer’s the trump card, the all-purpose excuse and/or explanation. I feel no more responsibility (as I should) to assess and regulate my life. I’ve suddenly stumbled upon a supreme and unprecedented selfishness that leads, for now, to happiness. Either this life is godless and purposeless and meaningless and I have cancer by the misfortune of my genetic makeup, and therefore have no ontological pressure to live up to the standard set by the divine image of my existence–or else this life is divinely dictated and I have cancer as a blessing toward some self-discovery or revelation. Either way, every problem in my life pre-March-12-2009 pales.

Composed a list last night of twenty pressing novels to get through by the end of June (though it smacks distastefully of the ominous placard in Borders: ‘100 Books to read BEFORE YOU DIE’), and it’s all I want to do–hide in corners of bookshops and libraries and make up for all of this reading I should have been doing all along, feeding my recent deficiency of Joyce and Hemingway and Melville etc.

Yesterday I was startlingly happy for its entirety. So much laughter, so at ease and in love with K.–I must remember this–[& a note inserted July 4 2009 reads, “I do not remember this]. Yet Sedgwick’s book make me worry–will I?

Fifty. I would settle so happily for fifty.

People walk down the street with children and babies and my heart breaks. I have bought so many books for my children; these non-existent beings have amassed a library. They are so completely real to me, realer than the masses of automatons on trains and pavements, Unreal City–

I believe I am beautiful and do not lament beyond reason the loss of my hair. Dead cells already. Meaningless. Absurd: healthy apart from cancer…I delight in almost Whitmanesque splendour at the strength and swiftness of my body.

A loss of sexuality despite this. After our prolonged intimacy, condoms feel so clinical–as if I am contaminated, I said; it’s like being kissed through a surgical mask.

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