Image courtesy of Helen Collard, 2020
Archive Extract Figment 7, Helen Collard Black Bird Family
No trace, no evidence, no coffin, no grave, no remorse.
And I remember when granny died, her coffin was put in the bedroom at the back of the house, at
the farthest right-hand side of the corridor, and I’d never been in that room before.
And I remember going to see my Dad just before that, at the chapel, inside a coffin and there was
blood inside there, and something had happened to the back of his head and the blood had stained
the white satin interior.
They arrived for him, took the coffin from the bed into the daylight, past the sitters and the watchers
and the grievers and the grievances, and the bills and the receipts, the toll of withheld failings, the
collapse of the fantasies, passing on worry and walking, silently staring into the distance, passing on.
And finally, the lark had a solution. She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head, and
this was the beginning of memory, because before this nobody could remember a thing.
A funeral cortege and there’s an undertaker; bald, possibly in his sixties with glasses, he walks with a
top hat in his left hand and a pair of black leather gloves in his right and he’s in a full evening jacket
and smart suit with a black tie.
At the end of the street, a small girl is following the funeral procession on all fours, barking at the
onlookers, sniffing at the heels of the grey undertakers. She is your friend; eternally canine, teeth
glinting, tongue lolling, trousers patched. You understand her.
And then, very strangely, probably you know is it two weeks later, the funeral car procession to the
church in the town centre, St Mary’s. It was being walked along by the undertaker, so the car was
moving very slowly and I could just hear this kind of clacking sound, very rhythmic clack, clack, clack,
and I looked out of the window and it was Beryl with a cane, just walking in kind of synchronicity
really with the car, she was just walking at the same pace and she was probably nearly 90 then, so
the car was going slow and it was just her kind of her pace. So, she kind of walked along side us, she
kind of walked us to the church really that’s what it felt like to me.
Final departures leave you feeling naked, revealing amphibian origins, reabsorbed into the skin of
the tentacular being, absorbing your grief while sensually caressing your soul and closing the
ancestral doors of mortality around you.
And the bedsheet’s holding her tight to the bed and this whole body moving upwards and trying to
rise, rise up and rise out, and that sense of suspension and lifting, but the weight of her body, the
corporal dense aspect of her body being earth bound and the gravity pulling her backwards and
Through the window my eyes drawn again and again to the swooping, circular, ecstatic flight of small
birds, swallow or swifts? Their white undersides flash in the dullness as they spin in synchronized
patterns through and around the gaps between the two trees.
She was becoming alien to me as death stepped into her body, stage by stage, and the person I knew
was slowly withdrawing and that spark of life that people talk about and not being able to see her
eyes and what that does to a person and the colour of her skin as her organs began to collapse.
I am beside death and inside death, it shakes my hand, it holds my gaze, it waits in the garden, it
watches from the balcony, it wakes in song, it stirs in the hedges, it riles the dogs, it sparks the fires,
troubles the sleeper, makes me watchful, anxious. Death expands me, explores me, it pries into my
thoughts, its song carries on the wind, whispering, leaking in a coffin.
The woman is startled out of her tremble. She turns to look at him, he too holds his wrists across his
lower stomach and bows both his body and eyes to her. On his return to standing, he turns and
passes a black blindfold to one of the attending women.
Our children’s children will hatch deep in the branches of your skull.
Our children’s children will live like beasts.
They will not fly through the air; they will swim under the volcano’s lava flows.
They will prefer not to learn to speak or think, they will flap their arms like wings.
And I think about last rites and I think about lost rites.
On the card you can see there is a blackbird and it sits contented and nestled in a large hollow at the
back of your skull. It sits with a beady eye and a cocked head, listening intently. The blackbird listens
to your leaves as you move, feel and think. You are its tree. To the blackbird you rustle, fizzle and
pop like a silver birch in the wind. Now you can think of the bird, the blackbird, like your memory but
really the bird is your curiosity, your involvement in the world, and this bird, although you don’t
think it possible to replace, took care of you when your family flew away. The bird brought you a
centre and sometimes you think you gave too much to it, constantly looking at the back of your
head, losing your way, gone in the wrong direction and sometimes you lament that you will never
feel the support that a family once promised and sometimes you think ‘I have lost the chance of a
child to this silly bird’.
The parakeets and all the other birds are worried that they can no longer see the thread of touch in
the universe, that they are no longer able to reach beyond and into the uncertain state of extension
that enables them all to fly. They worry everything will end.
I am a tree, you are my curiosity, I centre my gaze on the wings, eyes in the back of the head.
Moving through the air silently flying, thoughts like a blanket of daggers, my children’s children will
talk of this.
You put quiet into me, you let me grieve, finally grieve you, you let me finally grieve me. You came to
find me, you talked death back into the shadows and turned it away.
and Sandra Johnston
We are all figments – forms, contrivances and constructions – of our imagination.
Rhubaba is delighted to present Figments (2020), a series of memory exchanges produced between Denys Blacker, Helen Collard and Sandra Johnston. Throughout lockdown, they have been corresponding through a series of shared monologues and material figments. These have taken various forms, primarily being audio and text based. With each piece produced, responses are gathered, in turn building on the next layer of content. They listen to one another’s’ stories; memories back in time, of late, in the present. Through these journeys into one another’s’ minds and histories, subconscious connections and motifs emerged.
Inevitably shaped and influenced by the collective pandemic consciousness, various themes recurred throughout the archives’ growing body. As time slowed down and lives shifted, the collaboration allowed for a virtual intimacy to take shape. Scattered between places – Ireland, Spain and Newcastle; the artists continued to share weekly material with one another. This gradually built up to form a personal archive of memory conversations, histories and reflections.
Content Notice: Some of the archive extracts included on this webpage feature mentions of bereavement and loss.
For further information and artist bios, click here.