I was to become a mother, in weird, unexpected ways. Not a real mother. Not a blood-and-pain-and-tears mother. A surrogate mother, like we do in my family.
Four months from then, I would be lying in a bed on the other side of the continents, a feverish child wailing by my side. I would listen to the sounds of the forest around the house, aware of the noises that were made by the wild animals. I would worry, because the fever wouldn’t come down, and the real mother of the child was away for the night. I would look at my large, tattooed hands, suddenly seeing nothing but the hands of my own mother, as the small boy would reach to grab my thumb, in a desperate attempt to reassure and soothe himself. I would write this poem for the child’s mother.
You stay awake at night to listen to the silence of the land
which lives its secret life and is not silent at all
The fox cubs play in the woodland near the house and
the woodpecker makes the meadow echo with industrious noise
gives it space
makes it grow taller around you
Behind you, all your mothers
Gather the wood and
Stir the fire
You stay awake at night to listen to the silence of the baby
Who is asleep beside you and is not silent at all
A little human machinery which tosses and turns and snores and
turns organic matter into its own living being
everyday learns to make another noise
Behind you, all your mothers
Pick the berries and
Feed your baby’s brothers and sisters
You stay awake at night to listen to the silence of the house
Which is very old and is not silent at all
The beam that creaks belonged to an old ship in the 17th century and
the engine of the broken pianola sometimes releases a solitary note
Makes the house wonder
Makes the walls echo with forgotten splendors
Behind you, all your mothers
Sing a song to themselves
Behind you, all your mothers.
The child was teething, which in retrospect, I knew wasn’t a coincidence. Everything that had happened had taken part in an underground, unsuspected gestation.
Back in Berlin, the knots of the case had started to untie. We took the overground train to posh parts of the city. We didn’t really like those parts. We were all much more comfortable in parts of the town where paint was peeling off the wall, where the marks of the city’s history were still visible.
I remembered going to Berlin for the first time, in 2001. My idea of Berlin had been crafted by obsessively watching Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. I don’t know exactly what I expected to find, surely I could not have expected to find a young Nick Cave wailing in sketchy venues, angels sitting tired in brutalist libraries. Instead, what I had found was a city made of glass and steel, trying very hard to pretend to leave its past behind itself. No angels, no romantic trapezists. I was a teenager then, I was a romantic, and the world did not seem up to my expectations.
Years later, I realized that the world had become so incredibly beautiful, so much so that my romantic self could hardly handle it. But by then, I was no longer a teenager, and I’d been burnt out. It seemed that I no longer had the capacity to appreciate how beautiful everything was. How suited to romantic hearts. Something about youth being wasted on the young. Something about the bitterness of having a heart that has been so mistreated, and a body that has been beaten so many times that they have lost the special plasticity they once had. I had started going to Berlin again, on a regular basis, to see a girl I was in love with. I don’t know why between 2001 and 2016 I always ended up visiting Berlin in sub-zero temperatures. And I always left with a broken heart.
We got off the S-bahn and found parts of Berlin we didn’t know, but that reminded me of that disappointing 2001 trip. We had always, as a band but also as our life ethos, made a point of playing and seeing gigs in anarchist cafés, squats, shady venues that were so obviously unlicensed strip clubs. This was not what we expected. The venue was gigantic. It was clean. We didn’t have to get into an argument with the bouncer to get in. Someone even showed us to our seats. I mean, seats, for crying out loud.
Somewhere along the lines of our investigation, we had stumbled upon tickets for Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark.
When I say stumble upon, what I really mean was that it turned out it was the real reason why we had found ourselves in Berlin. It was the original clue that had brought us all together. We had the tickets, we even had the tee shirts.
Julie was excited and nervous. Her joyous chatter was interrupted on a regular basis by her own commentary about how she couldn’t contain her excitement. I loved observing her, she was so full of life, wise beyond her years, she could talk to anyone and made friends with everyone. It was hard not to love Julie. She was ready to share her darkness with all who would listen, and that’s what made her such a luminous person.
One of my favorite poems is one by Guillaume Apollinaire, from the 1913 recueil Alcools. It is called La Chanson du Mal-Aimé, the song of the ill-loved. It starts with these verses:
Un soir de demi-brume à Londres
Un voyou qui ressemblait à
Mon amour vint à ma rencontre
Et le regard qu’il me jeta
Me fit baisser les yeux de honte
Je suivis ce mauvais garçon
Qui sifflotait mains dans les poches
Nous semblions entre les maisons
Onde ouverte de la Mer Rouge
Lui les Hébreux moi Pharaon
Que tombent ces vagues de briques
Si tu ne fus pas bien aimée
Je suis le souverain d’Égypte
Sa soeur-épouse son armée
Si tu n’es pas l’amour unique
Au tournant d’une rue brûlant
De tous les feux de ses façades
Plaies du brouillard sanguinolent
Où se lamentaient les façades
Une femme lui ressemblant
C’était son regard d’inhumaine
La cicatrice à son cou nu
Sortit saoule d’une taverne
Au moment où je reconnus
La fausseté de l’amour même
It talks about walking down the streets of London, drunk and heartbroken, and following the first person that slightly resembles the one who broke our hearts, even if we know it’s not them, but it’s beyond our control to know whether or not it is wise to follow them. And it talks of the shame that we feel as we follow them down the street against our better judgement. The shame and horror we feel that even years later, we wind up always looking for something that reminds us of them, or of the passion that we felt and made us stay in spite of it all.
Milk, Julie, Lee, and all the others who at some point had been part of the Mekano Set, all including me, had toyed with the idea of creating maps. In the form of songs, books, podcasts, automatic drawings, or composite of part or all of the above. We wanted to show what part of the territory we had mapped and in what way. The territory being: ourselves, reality, a town, or our history, real or fictional.
But being a surrogate mother, I had started to realize that our need to map out things (the atom, the body, the universe) had started much earlier than that. It had started in infancy, where the mapping had to be much more rudimentary and much more necessary: which way was up and which was down? What was me and what was the others? Where did my body extend to and what happened beyond? What were the good things and what what we’re the bad ones? We’re the good things only good and were the bad things only bad?
And it had all started with the voice of the mother, this complex yet intimately known territory, which was discovered as the same time as it was creating order out of the visible chaos.
The voice of the mother, created by an abundance of teeth, treasure chest that the bare cavity of our own mouth only vaguely resembled. Children, we had plunged our small hands into our mothers’ mouths, pulling their jaws open with all the strength we were capable of in order to contemplate the inside of this magical box of tricks.
I remember my mother’s teeth. They were not all made of ivory: some were made of metal. I remember looking at her teeth the most fascinating thing ever. That’s where her voice was formed and her voice explained the world, permitted and defended. Her voice gave the assurance of the love that transpired from her gestures.
The songs that made the sleep happen. The words that made the heartbreaks possible to survive. And then it was all taken away. My mother was gone. The universe was all chaotic again and incomprehensible again. The map was taken.
Our mothers, taken. Our brothers, forever silent. Our fathers, held at a distance by our tired and flailing arms. All three of us.