The Road to the City
The Italian author N was by now in her nineties. When she autographed her latest book for me at the book fair, I wanted to thank her, and impress her too, by listing the titles of her earlier books; I’d read every one of them. ‘The Road to the City was your second book,’ I began. ‘What was my first?’ she asked, rolling her wheelchair back from me a couple of feet as if to get a better look at me. I couldn’t remember. Instead, I began to list the titles of all her other books, while she regarded me with increasing suspicion. It was like talking to my Italian ex, like trying to prove to her that my love for her was real, even if it was only now that it was too late I’d come to realise that, just as I would only come to remember the title of N’s first book when the fair was over.
I am looking at my stepfather’s inscription to me, at the carefulness of his handwriting in a Roget’s Thesaurus, a gift when I started university. Although we were hardly close while he was alive (and he died more than twenty years ago), I feel now the presence of his spirit, as if to say, ‘And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’, which I quoted to him when he was dying, and which, I remember, made him smile, just a little.
(after Edward Hopper)
I prefer the incompleteness of the half-finished canvas. Two figures sit a short distance apart – one of them is smiling through tears. I hang onto the privilege of the spectator, who can fill out the off-white space around them with changing scenes. Are they strangers who have just met or are they long-time secret lovers? Who is confessing to whom? I have stumbled upon them as a ticket conductor might come across a couple in an otherwise empty carriage, littered with the day’s remains. The windows are a deep black. The couple, turned to each other, do not notice him. He’s reluctant to intrude and ask for the ticket. Besides, he’s wondering if they’ll kiss. Now his cough’s drowned out by the train’s hoot as it leaves the tunnel and enters the city, a slow-moving chain of light.
I was asked to paint a watercolour for a gathering in Times Square. As I walked along Broadway, the excited crowds almost knocking the easel out from under my arm, a girl arrived at my side and asked me if, in my painting, I could dress her differently from the way she was dressed now. She had a Polish accent, and she reminded me of a woman I’d known in Warsaw. I was about to tell her I thought she looked perfect as she was in her simple summer dress when she was led away by a man with red hair and beard. I noticed now that there were a lot of men with red hair and beard in the crowd. They all looked like my old friend Gerald, who had once shared a flat with me in Poland, and who had died earlier that summer before I had a chance to see him. The problem was that there was no way I could put all these men with red hair and beard into my painting: no one would believe it.
Ian Seed is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the BA in Creative Writing at the University of Chester, UK. As well as publishing fiction, poetry and essays, he has published four interlinked collections of prose poetry, all with Shearsman Books: The Underground Cabaret (2020), New York Hotel (2018), Identity Papers (2016), and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014). New York Hotel was a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year. The Thief of Talant (2016), the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s hybrid novel of poetry and prose, Le voleur de Talan, was published by Wakefield Press.