Patti Smith - Because The Night
Friday morning, a noisy gull on an adjacent roof, the lady Elizabeth supervises my work in the ramshackle garden. The air is clear, crystal clear. I labour in this overgrown Eden beneath a warming sun.
I am rooted here, absorbed, cutting a circular path between the compost bins to enable my octogenarian friend to plant out and tend to the sweet corn growing in her conservatory. Clearing cooch grass, bind weed and an overabundance of creeping buttercup allows the apple mint and pink purple mallow to breathe.
I lean back on my fork, wonder where Elizabeth has gone, consider that life needs room to breathe. As it is for plants so it is for poets. Patti Smith at dusk last night in the halls of Tennyson was unfettered, uncluttered away from the corporate food chains and blare of the festival kicking off a few miles to the north east of here on the dirty old river of my youth.
Most of the 200 plus left Farringford last night beaming though one unsettled punter grumbled, “I thought I was coming to see a rock chick.”
The New York lady of poems, plays, punk, Polaroid’s and more came by invite of Vic at Vaguely Sunny, Dimbola’s answer to Allen Ginsberg, the wide eyed Doctor Hinton and Rebecca and Martin at Farringford. A special date was chosen, June 11th in honour of Julia Margaret Cameron’s birthday.
Julia Margaret Cameron, Virginia Wolfe’s aunt is responsible for the groundbreaking glass plate photography conjured out of the ether in the chicken house out back of Dimbola set up the road from Freshwater Bay. In her time the sniffy art school artistocracy denounced the emergence of photography as a mechanism not an art.
I can only wonder what the dark room elite’s disdain for digital will make of Patti Smith’s exhibition of Polaroid miniatures on the walls of a small room at Dimbola. In an adjacent room are Julia Margaret Cameron’s epic portrayals of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Lewis Carrolls Alice ‘in Wonderland’ Liddle. All I see between the two is a continuum bathed in the pin point light of expression, from the Lady of Shalott to Shelly’s grave in Rome and the bead like keys of Hess’s typewriter.
I was there on Wednesday night when Patti Smith in company of her sister were invited to a small reception to open her exhibition at Dimbola which lasts for a few weeks. They never dreamed of being here amongst the photography they had loved, literally they were in awe. The same quiet admiration I’d heard the late Anthony Mingella speak of when he cited the influences for Cold Mountain.
It seemed entirely appropriate for Anthony’s sister Adana to be here on Thursday night for a magical, one off evening of Patti Smith’s poetry and music in the halls of Tennyson at the Farringford Hotel.
I’m resting on the fork today grinning like a Tom Cat just thinking about last night. If that fellah was expecting a ‘rock chick’ I got exactly what I hoped for, poems, music and charisma. She read a poem about Georgia O’Keefe, the desert cow skull painter steeped in cactus prairies of New Mexico, she sang a song about Jerry Garcia and rendered a beautiful version of Tennyson’s The Poet. And blow me she graciously read my request for her poem to Amelia Earhart. I was double blessed the lady Elizabeth had loaned me her printer to provide the copy.
The most sombre moment when the room stilled was Patti Smith’s announcement that her London agent had made a hurried return to London on the sudden death of his father. She read Tennyson’s In Memoriam for him. You could have heard a pin drop. The poem welled up the emotion in the hall and the timbres of Tennyson’s words were read as though flowers laid tenderly upon a grave.
Here leaning on the fork, my work done I have room to consider this in the tranquillity of this Eden, home to me these past couple of days. As I pack away the tools into the shed Patti Smith’s encore last night comes to me again.
Last night it was as haunted as a Dante Gabriel Rossetti canvas, her voice imploring her lover the late Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith:
“take me now baby, here as I am
pull me close try and understand
desire is hunger is the fire i breathe
love is a banquet on which we feed”
And I hear the great choir in the halls of Tennyson respond:
“Because the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to us” the chorus fills the room, fires her on and the moment was made.
I hear Patti Smith and her sister made one last telling poetic pilgrimage before they had to return to London. They were driven down the dinosaur coast to leafy Bonchurch where above Monks Bay in the churchyard, they came to the last resting place of the enfant terrible of English verse, Algernon ‘Seagull’ Swinburne who grew up bobbing about in the bay here.
In 1909 the poet’s burial was controversial and the crowds colourfully dressed up from the promenade at nearby Ventnor.
After the crowds had all gone, Thomas Hardy chose a quiet moment that summer to come here and read his beautiful elegy to Swinburne “A Singer Asleep”.
Such it is I consider in this idyllic Eden that the 2009 Isle of Wight Festival is ratcheting up a ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ extravaganza on the river of my youth, one I am due to join.
For now I’m in serene Freshwater just down from the Jimi Hendrix statue at Dimbola. Patti Smith and her sister are in Bonchurch where the morning dew glistens in the glade where the poet lays as it does here on the creeping buttercup.
I hope Patti Smith captured the moment with her Polaroid.