Kimberly Campanello

A Circular Walk

That Sunday they had crossed, probably illegally, into the area that held the poet’s grave. She and her boyfriend had decided that despite the cold it was time to leave their city and cross the county, seeking air and beauty in lieu of ceaseless isolation in the comfort of their home. They were unsure of their exact permitted boundaries but neither of them bothered to look them up, nor did they pack any sandwiches or snacks for their walk. As they drove on toward the valley that sliced through the hillsides, the landscape changed and so too the stone used to build the houses. They reached the town that had been ravaged by floods six months earlier and were pleased to see people going in and out of shops and restaurants. They admitted their shock at the three-dimensional faces and fresh haircuts and parked their car along the road to begin the circular walk to the poets’ grave and back.

After hours of walking the church spire was in sight. They were near. She thought about the graves she had visited a month ago in Paris. The fact she was a writer, broadly speaking an artist, acted as a sort of passport that had allowed her to travel, even in the circumstances. The residency was going ahead no matter what, and so she took the train under the Channel and sat in isolation at the old seminary-cum-arts-centre, but this time in a different room from her own study. To spark inspiration, she brought along postcards of artworks and artefacts bought on past travels and affixed them to the walls with blue tac. The priest’s apartment adjoined hers on one side and the ancient church on the other. The church bell tolled directly above her window each hour, causing the exposed beams to vibrate. She thought of her boyfriend at home, and how he was probably vibrating the whole terrace of houses playing improvised jazz on the old upright piano he got for free from a school. His piano practice had disturbed her writing which led him to buy a digital keyboard and headphones. Still, its pedal squeaked above her head.

At the residency there were two Irish artists, a famous husband and wife team, who had lived in Paris for decades. They weren’t staying on site but were working on their next exhibition in the studio space. Each night they joined the resident artists for meals, which were spread out in the courtyard as required. Food and plates and cutlery and cooking times were not to be shared under any circumstances or group meals would be banned altogether. After a conversation with the famous couple over dinner about her favourite Paris haunts it was arranged that she would take their daughters on an open-air tour of ‘her Paris’. The daughters, twins, were technically French and Parisian no less, but they had never been to one of the key cemeteries. In contrast, she, originally from a small town in the American Midwest, made sure to go there on each and every trip to Paris.

At the cemetery they photographed their three shadows cast over the grave of the famous writer and searched for the visual artist the twins were excited about. A man trimming trees shouted to them from a safe distance. The smell emanating from the burlap sacks of leaves and cut branches was powerful and familiar and clearly something special, something worth shouting to them about. She didn’t recognise the word he was using and couldn’t think of the word for the source of the scent in her own language. The man asked if they needed help finding anything. She said the name of the artist. He told them it was a tragedy. The grave, once beautiful, of the artist and his dancer wife had been vandalized about a year ago. The shameful story had hit the papers. He said he would show them anyway and led them through a thicket of mausoleums. The grave looked like a vacancy purchased for future use, a blank rectangle, white. One of the twins searched on her phone and confirmed the artist was Jewish. The famous name he used was not his birth name. The words ‘unconcerned but not indifferent’ had adorned the now-missing headstone.

Her Paris reverie was broken by her boyfriend saying he couldn’t believe these new-build houses had been allowed to interfere with the scenery all along the clifftop. The houses each had identical gravel drives lined with identical sets of shrubbery. The circular walk had taken them from the bustling town along the canal towpath and up through woodlands and onto the moor’s causeys, undatable stone paths once used by medieval monks. It was pleasing to her how each stone was sunken into the earth, flat and rectangular. The mud from their boots acquired on the climb up was gradually knocked off onto the stones. She had spent the walk thinking in his presence, both of them walking and thinking, privately, but with similar trigger points in their shared experience, which meant that if her thought went down one path after noting a certain thing in their surroundings, she could easily share it with him because that thing was in the same landscape as another thing that had triggered a series of thoughts in him.

Throughout the walk, her body, specifically her shoulders, reminded her of the therapeutic massage she had had a few days prior, her first in a long while because of the circumstances. Her therapist, a body builder, could encircle whole muscle groups at a time with a single hand and so he was able to get her nerve-damaged right arm under control. The health system was under too much pressure, even before, to address her problem thoroughly. She had not seen the therapist for months because he had been closed and then she had been in Paris and then isolated in her house. Now she was finally there on the table, her face looking down through the hole at the commercial carpeting that she could tell had just been professionally cleaned. She tried not to breathe too deeply, though she knew that would help the massage do its work.

They talked throughout about the economy and trying to see family as soon as possible. They talked about getting back into exercise, specifically lifting weights, which she had done for a couple of years now, though obviously not to the same extent as the therapist. She asked him if he liked swimming. He said he was ok at it but couldn’t crawl properly, though he did once swim very fast when he pulled a dying girl to safety.

It had been the first time in the sea for him. Before he had only been in pools. He and several friends from various countries had flown to the beach town to party, and that’s what they were doing there on the beach at night. He had seen the Austrian girl drink down a whole bottle of vodka right after the sun went down. She was a friend of a friend and he could tell she was in a bad way by the look on her face. Then someone noticed she was missing. They all started searching the beach, but he decided for some reason to go into the water. He swam straight for the buoy by the rocks. He had seen her swimming there earlier that day. Sure enough she was there in the darkness, head barely above water. He got hold of her and began to swim to the shore. The whole time jellyfish were stinging him and she was panicking and almost taking him under. The next day her mother arrived. No one said anything about a suicide attempt, just that she had taken a risk and nearly drowned. What would have been the point, he said, of upsetting her mother even more. He never swam in the sea again.

The spire is hidden now as they continue through the cluster of houses. She asks her boyfriend about the difference between taking risks and aiming to hurt oneself. Earlier the trail had come very close to the cliffside. She had had an urge to run to the edge and off. Not to die, but to just throw herself out into space. Caprice versus slow deliberations, both have a kind of build-up. Did he know what she meant. Is it just that she’d been cooped up for too long and no longer knows her limits? He said he understood, of course, but that suicide is very different. It comes from a completely different place of genuine pain that could seem preferable for the person to end. It’s like terminal cancer this pain. He had felt something approaching such pain before.

They continue climbing and she tells him the story of her student speaking to the class about his pen. She had asked her students about their writing habits, whether they used notebooks or not, or if they used things like the voice memo or notes functions on their phones. The student was quite ill. He was coughing, but he turned on his camera and mic to tell his story. His housemates the year before had forgotten his birthday. They felt bad about it afterwards and promised to give him a really good present, whatever he would like, his choice. He requested a good fountain pen. Days, weeks, and months passed and no pen. It became a joke among them, when would he get his pen. They messaged each other GIFs of pens. This year he was in a different house with different people and hadn’t seen his old housemates at all. He had forgotten about the pen, even on his birthday, which this year was like any other day. There was a knock on the door. He was feeling feverish and went downstairs to answer it. He opened the door only slightly to tell the person to go away for their own safety. No one was there. On the step was a package and in the package was a pen. That night he wrote with the pen for the first time. He said it felt effortless. The ink and the words just flowed from the tip. She and the other students wept hearing this story. One of the students in the group made a request – that he write all the lost memories of this year. The things that have not happened and so cannot be remembered. He agreed he would do it.

They are getting closer now. Any minute the poet will be there for them. The new-build houses huddle and make living sounds around the grave. And there it is, surrounded by plant pots teeming with precious pens, the name of the poet’s husband partially scratched off, reinscribed, scratched off, inscribed again. She has been here once before and found it bleak, like the poet has been transported as far away from warmth as possible, made inaccessible, made low, not even placed in the raised ground of the storied ancient churchyard, but just outside it in a field with just a few rows of new graves. On that first visit she hadn’t noticed the nearby houses at all. Maybe they hadn’t even been built.

This time the poet feels close. Her stone and the dying flowers left around it glow in the lowering sun. Through the windows of the new-builds afternoon snacks are being laid for the children inside. She tells her boyfriend that she will never forget him, upstairs in the spare room, leading his community choir each week. He spends hours mixing fragments of voices into backing tracks so large speakers can blast songs from Eastern Europe, Africa, and North America through their house and into his computer and the choir can sing along, muted.

She tells him she won’t forget one of the songs from Appalachia. The one that says that the mothers have gone to heaven, shouting.

Kimberly Campanello’s most recent project is MOTHERBABYHOME, a 796-page poetry-object and reader’s edition book (zimZalla, 2019) comprising conceptual and visual poetry on the St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. She was awarded an Arts Council Ireland Literature Project Award for sorry that you were not moved, a digital writing collaboration with Christodoulos Makris and Fallow Media launching in November 2021. She lectures at the University of Leeds.

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