A long bike trip with Sue to Kensal Green cemetery in North London, in search of something I first read about some year's ago in Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For The Territory. His account of a particular encounter in the 1990s, en route to a funeral with his friend the photographer Marc Atkins, has lingered with me.
Initially Sinclair is dismissive of the pretensions of some of the cemetery's inhabitants, their 'pyramids and stone mansions whose original pomposity had been weathered by long indifference into something more democratic: a sanctuary for wild nature, a trysting place for work-experience vampires. Irrelevant memory doses. Boasts and titles and meaningless dates'. Then -
"I spotted one particular stone angel that had to be photographed: a robed hermaphrodite tangled in the bare Medea branches of a tree. The image was entirely mythical. The tree devoured the stone like a recollection of dry fire. Like Actaeon, the voyeur, turned into a stag: trapped, as it were, by the wonder of a site unexpectedly encountered. Like Ezra Pound's obsession with the girl who becomes a tree:
The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast -
The branches grow out of me, like arms.
The angel's hands were gone, her face was hidden; the branches spread out above her like electrified hair. Her wings, tangled in the thicket, were a useless decoration ..." (350).
There are countless angels in Kensal Green cemetery, immobile flocks of them in varying states of eroded, gravitied flight, but Thomas Raphael's winged companion was nowhere to be found. Eventually we met a passing 'friend' of the cemetery, who explained that the tree had died some time ago, and the masonry of the angel itself had been significantly damaged. He offered to show us what remained. I thanked him and declined, for it seemed most fitting to retain Sinclair's account of his Ovidian encounter and Atkins' photograph as the enduring mnemonic traces of a vision now disappeared - an active vanishing.
Text extract from Iain Sinclair, Lights Out For The Territory, London: Granta, 1997. Photo: Marc Atkins