The RISE project begins in full force this week, as the Manchester Literature Festival – one of the five RISE partnership festivals – starts. This Friday, 12th October, sees poet Inua Ellams and author Joe Dunthorne visit Prestwich Hospital and Greater Manchester Probation Service approved premises respectively before their public event as part of Manchester Literature Festival in the evening.
In just over two weeks time on Tuesday 23rd October, Jackie Kay will be visiting HMP Styal following her festival appearance on the 18th. Damian Taylor, The Reader Organisation’s Reader-in-Residence for Greater Manchester West Mental Health Trust runs weekly groups with women in HMP Styal and has been reading some of Jackie Kay’s work, with this poem – ‘Woman at a Window’ – eliciting some thought-provoking responses.
Woman at a Window is Jackie Kay’s response to the painting of the same name by Edgar Degas. The poem describes a woman ‘disappearing into the uncertain light’, a woman who seems to be mourning some loss. I read the poem through before holding up a copy of the picture. I ask if the painting looks anything like the images suggested by the poem.
‘You can’t see the face, is it my eyes or hasn’t she got one? She really is disappearing.’
‘Is that a chair next to her? I think someone has just left her. “Lovers I might have loved have walked ahead”. What about that?’
I pass the picture around. ‘Who is she?’ someone says, as eyes fly between the picture and the poem.
One woman suddenly says, ‘I do that – I sit at the window like that woman “emptying my head”. I just let myself go and then someone shouts out your name and you come back. You don’t know anything at times like that – you could be anywhere. On the outside I use to neck a bottle of vodka to forget things, the past, regrets and all that. But now I just sit and watch people, like her in the poem.’
In search of answers I re-read the poem and the picture does another round. Then we sit in silence, much like the woman at the window, before someone makes a final comment: ‘I think it’s good to be able to disappear.’
Woman at the Window
(after the painting by Egar Degas)
There’s nothing in my appearance except that I am disappearing
into the uncertain light; nothing that would make me certain
of any conviction, or if I’ve made the right decisions in my life.
At this point, with my skin drinking in the available light,
I find it impossible to remember if I am widow or wife,
if I’ve had a life of ease, a life of strife. In the darkening
afternoon, nothing has happened and nothing will soon.
I am sitting at the window, forgetting the day I was born,
watching people come and go, unseen, invisible.
My hands are calm, steady on my lap. I am lying low.
Whatever it was that…; I forget, the answer’s no.
There is something slow and pleasing about disappearing
into the dissolving light. Nothing now will come to light.
Secrets I might have had will go with me to my grave.
Lovers I might have loved walk ahead, or are already dead.
I am sitting here at my window emptying my head
of the past or the future perfect, or the conditional.
I already know what is impossible, what’s not been said.
In the room next to me, someone is playing a few bars
of an old piano; if ever I danced, I’ve forgotten
the steps; if I ever longed for change, I’ve lost
the path I meant to follow. Now, I am all shadow.
I sit at the window listening to the piano.
What was lost won’t now come back. I’ve let it go.
Woman at a Window is taken from Fiere (Picador, 2011) by Jackie Kay, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.
Tickets for Afternoon Tea with Jackie Kay (Thursday 18th October, 1pm, Midland Hotel) and Joe Dunthorne, Inua Ellams and Matthew Hollis (Friday 12th October, 5pm, Whitworth Art Gallery) as part of Manchester Literature Festival are available now. For information on how to book, see the Manchester Literature Festival website.