A Tribute to John Berger (1926-2017) – The Laid-On Blacks Are All Man Made

Writer and Artist John Berger (1926-2017)


   I’m writing on the paper with black ink.
And blacks (as distinct from dark greys,
dark blues or greens or browns) have
acquired more weight, are heavier.
Other colours flare or recede or penetrate
but blacks look as though they have
been deposited. Laid on top of. And
this connects with their weight. The black
of a natural substance – such as ebony
or obsidian or chromite – is never pure
black, other colours within it.
The laid-on blacks are all man made.

John Berger from Cataract, Notting Hill Editions Limited, 2011

Ask Aloud

To taste the salt of the stars
in the sea. To love another
more than oneself. To know this
is to know everything.

Do you see how the dusk and rain 
are one?

Do our bodies come to nothing?

Not how we fall in love,
but how we fail in love.

Ask aloud what comes of us.

My love, do you understand me?
Not surmise. Sunrise.

Ask aloud what comes of us.

Anne Michaels from  All We Saw, McClelland & Stewart, a Penguin Random House company, 2017

Canadian Poet Anne Michaels

A shout out to internationally-celebrated Canadian poet and novelist, Anne Michaels whose 2017 poetry collection, All We Saw, drenched in elegiac grays like old smoke coming out of the black and lots of white of her pages, is dedicated to the polymath John Berger and poet Mark Strand. The dedication to Berger, in particular, a dear friend of Michaels, opened up to me my sense of loss over Berger’s death earlier this year. When I say polymath to describe Berger I refer to his extraordinary expertise in so many creative arenas either as an celebrated art historian and critic, literary critic, political essayist, award winning novelist, artist, left wing activist and so on.

In Michael’s book, just released, such a sense of grief and loss of beloveds now dead. Her acknowledgements at her book’s end say it all. A list of beloveds who have died since 2013. The list includes Berger and his wife Beverley, Mark Strand, celebrated editor Ellen Seligman who died last year as well as Leonard Cohen and Rosalind Michaels, whom I guess is her mother. What a cri de couer, what a question of existential angst: Ask aloud what comes of us. Michael’s is a grace filled collection. And its cover was included in a list of best book covers for 2017 in the New York Times!

I first discovered the connection between Michaels and Berger in a literary collaboration created out of a walk they took around Kings Cross, London and environs and performed by the two of them later in London in 2005. This was later published in 2012 in book form as Railtracks.

Together they wrote a love poem/conversation to railroads, to a past time, to imaginary lovers. An extraordinary duet:

J.	 There were sixteen hours, if you include the hour
	 we spent finding butter and black bread and black
	 Darjeeling, a packet of chocolate and five small
	 oranges to take back to ur room with us, and the
	 half hour we spent in silence, each with a teacup of
	 coffee, sitting directly under the enormous face of
	 the station clock – the only place, you said, where
	 one cannot see those inexorable hands. yet the
	 face is round, you said too, and that itself is a kind-
	 ness, for the fantasy it holds of going backwards.
	 	Each hand of the immense clock, as tall as a
	man or a woman.
		There is always a station hotel. Even if it 
	called something else even if it is not particularly
	near the train station.
		Always a station clock and a station hotel.

A.	16 hours to learn exactly how much loneliness
        fits in a body that will grow old alone.

J. 	No one – no one on this earth – you added,
	to be as precise as possible, should die alone.
	So you touched me in that room, and in the 
	rooms of my body. So I would not be without
	you when the time came….

A.	If there are angels, there should be one whose
	precinct is underground, waiting where she is
        needed most.

J.      So I would know how you would hold me
        in the earth.

The yearning, the longing in this exchange. This line especially: 16 hours to learn exactly how much loneliness fits in a body that will grow old alone. The sorrow, the perfection!

The epigraph piece by Berger above taken from a small illustrated book he wrote after a cataract operation, his being able to see properly again. Like so much of his writing about seeing, and he wrote tons about it, he sees what most of us miss. Like this idea that man-made black is the true black, the rest in nature have other colours within them. What an artist knows and sees. And I sense in that simple statement, at least for me, a metaphor. How black our man made blacks can be. No other colours to mitigate the loss and sorrow created by our blacks!

I will miss not seeing yet another Berger book appear in print. he wrote a ton! The latest of his I have in my collection Is Portraits – John Berger on Artists from 2015!

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