Late for the Sky | Angelina D’RozaPosted: March 23, 2016
Last night, in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert, I was listening to music at my friend’s apartment when Jackson Browne came on. “Late for the Sky” is one of Nick Hornby’s 31 songs, and he says that when the album came out in 1974, he was too punk to have time for “delicate Californian flowers” or “navel-gazing” songs about marital discord. It was a couple of decades later that his own break-up gave him a sense of what shaped these songs. It’s a while since I heard the intro. It’s instantly moving, but now it’s like I’ve never heard the lyrics, how deeply sad they are: “looking hard into your eyes / there was nobody I’d ever known / such an empty surprise to feel so alone.” That’s the thing about endings. The past gets rewritten, you get rewritten (I am no one you’ve ever known). Shared stories no longer match up, so you lose yourself and your past as well as an imagined future. And now it’s dark outside and I’m listening to Jackson Browne in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert.
I write about the desert sometimes. This is the second part of a poem called ‘Fairytale No. 9’:
He said his country had only two seasons,
all or nothing, no spring or fall.
He longed to see snow
but I told him how leaves brittle
and burn up in love for the trees,
sacrifice themselves – little drops of blood –
to lie over exposed roots, warming them
from the early frost.
Autumn, I said.
Outside, sand and sky were all one colour.
He turned back from the still heat
asked me to write
this new word on his hand.
There’s more to the desert, and deserts are various, in their reach, their wildlife, the stories they inspire, but spending a little time in such a different landscape has made me look harder at how home and its hills affect the ways I perceive the world, the stories I tell. I love Yorkshire for its seasons. I have something good to say about them all. The visible changes in spring and autumn are magical, the little drops of blood, and the shoots that are just now turning the garden green in my absence. All that transformation is a good setting for a fairy tale, albeit a specific kind of transformation, tree-covered, cyclical.
In my poem, change comes at a cost, a “sacrifice”, and elsewhere, the speaker’s transformations are quite traumatic:
Heavy with buds, I took to bed, dreamt
of being a woman –
the weight of nesting birds
on my chest was only grief, the body taking
its share of the pain.
I lost my silver bark,
its counter-light reflecting the names
of passersby cut into my ribs.
e.e. cummings’s “Spring is like a perhaps hand” appears to offer transformation without the pain, a gentle placing and arranging – “a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there) and // without breaking anything.” – but so many carefullys can’t be what they seem … really, we’re only looking through a window, while spring affects how we see the world. Somewhere else days are getting shorter. And somewhere else again, spring and autumn are barely words.
Change as part of a season or cycle only looks like change close up, doesn’t it? So it’s not always obvious that you’re going round in circles. In her short story, “Her Bonxie Boy”, Sara Maitland combines fairy tale, spring and science, using the method of charting seasonal bird migration with microchips that record light intensity; length of day tells latitude, and you can tell longitude according to the hours of sunrise/sunset, so you can work out where a bird was twice a day. Except when it’s equinox because days and nights are the same length across the hemisphere: “The vernal equinox is exactly when migratory sea birds are migrating. So, at the very moment I want to know most what they’re up to, they disappear. Vanish somewhere between winter and summer”. Is that what I’ve done? Have I disappeared? Will this passage really bring transformation or is it just part of a circle too big for me to see? Truth is I’m holding onto more than I’ve let go, and if some days it hurts, I don’t know if it’s change that’s more painful or trying to stay still.
I wrote ‘Fairytale No. 9’ while thinking about Rebecca Solnit on pain and empathy (in The Faraway Nearby), about pain and touch as a boundary of the self: “Those who suffer are considered to be worse off than those who don’t, but those who suffer can care for themselves, protect themselves, seek change […] recover.” It might take a long time to work out where that boundary is, what it means or how to use it. But it is, perhaps, how we break cycles, change course. Hornby describes it as peeling away “yet another layer of skin [which] thus allows us to hear things, chords and solos and harmonies and what have you, properly”. He adds that he wishes he still had those layers of skin, but as my son grows up I realise life is much longer than I’d imagined, and I wonder what it would be like to go through it and never change or be changed.
In Ultimate Classic Rock, Michael Gallucci wrote, “[Browne] sang like someone who had the end of the world in his rear-view mirror and a wide open road in front of him”. In those “chords and solos and harmonies”, in “Late for the Sky”, I hear that potential for transformation, to take the open road more surely for having the end of the world in sight. The lyrics, sad as they are, are about waking up. Once you see “the changing light”, you lose what certainty you thought you had, but what do you gain?
In Hope in the Dark, Solnit says change happens in the imagination first. You have to be able to imagine the possibility of a different future, before you can head towards it. And if you think that’s scary, she’s saying that’s where the hope is. There’s no hope in certainty, only in the dark, and perhaps a little in the desert.
‘Fairytale No. 9’ appears in Envies the Birds, Angelina D’Roza’s debut full-length collection (available now from Longbarrow Press). Visit the Envies the Birds microsite for further extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the book (hardback, 80pp) via the relevant PayPal button below: