|In Derrida’s Memoires: For Paul de Man he quotes from ‘Mnemosyne’, a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin which he says was one of his dead friend’s favourites. Reading this recently, I remembered that about five years ago I had tried to translate the same poem. I searched my laptop for the file before dredging up an early version, in fragments, from an email. It begins mid-sentence.
When I wrote it I must have been twenty-two, living out of university and away from home for the first time.
My rooms were rented but not exactly a blur of sex, so that’s a lie (and not in the original). Hölderlin is coy about sex, the raunchiest he gets being ‘a longing to enter the unconfined.’
I was working in a suburb in West London and could have done my journey—two trains, a short walk and a bus—in my sleep, which is probably why it took until the last few weeks there for me to notice anything. Near my office, opposite St Anne’s Church, a bunch of flowers had been sellotaped to a lamppost. Up close, the petals were colourless. Underneath was a card with just an “x” on the inside, scrawled quickly and at an angle so that it could have either been a kiss or a cross.
Though named after ‘Mnemosyne’, the goddess of memory, Hölderlin’s poem is really about forgetting, or the failure to do so. Death is never far from the surface and, in the last section, a flurry of classical references bring it into focus: Hölderlin says tenderly that Achilles ist mein, before adding he ‘died by a fig tree’. The poignancy here derives from the way he addresses Achilles as a lover or close friend and emphasises—as a lover might—not how but where he died.
I thought that it was only later I had noticed the bunch of flowers, but this fragment suggests I might have recorded their existence at the time and simply absorbed them into the background haze of my commute.
Derrida argues against the kind of mourning that attempts to interiorise the lost object. We should respect the ‘infinite remove’ of the other, he says, and thus take up a form of impossible mourning which refuses to make the dead a part of ourselves, or to translate them into our voice.
This could be seen in connection with the fragment, which by its nature, being at a contextual (and often historical) remove, guards against full introjection. As a result, fragments can retain a vitality, an alterity, that wholly surviving texts do not.
In ‘Mnemosyne’, an unnamed hurt hovers behind the names of places: an Alpine meadow, the caves of Scamander, Mount Cithaeron. This is Hölderlin in mourning, unable either to forget or quite remember. Re-reading the email, I recalled my own act of refusal those years ago: on the last day of my job in West London, I had taken down the flowers and half-pulped card and replaced them. Instead of a cross or a kiss, I left a message.
the drift of those
unbroken waters taking me
to some pre-dawn
the far-off fruits of heaven
my every want become
a longing to dissolve
gone missing in a blur
of rented rooms and sex
look neither ahead nor behind
but as a small boat on a lake
be cradled through your days
what drew Achilles into war
or Ajax to the sea cave where he lies
was holding to
our paradox of faith
and on the roadside was a cross
taped to a railing above which
flew a long trail of birds
they made such intimate designs
upon the air
I couldn’t help
but call back every path
I’d crossed or double-crossed
to end up here
under the same sky that I left
five years before
of ripe fruit from the grove next door
the neighbour’s daughter
dressed in red
I saw my love’s long hair blown back
and black as night and couldn’t bear
to think of all those pasts borne
for my sister my mother my daughter
my grief gone too soon