by Maddy Costa
I’ve been reading your letters. Forgive me. They were private.
I’ve been reading your letters gathered in a book, where the slant of the hand tilts straight. Are the nails bitten? Which finger is ink-stained? Hairpins scatter as you write.
Your letters live now in the public domain. I met them as the open expression of secret love.
I thought you were in love for the duration, and made that the difference between you and me.
You write to arrange a date on Monday. You write to arrange a date on Wednesday. You write to apologise that Thursday is no longer free, explaining Tuesday is busy, except at 5pm. You write to complain of the distance unfurling. You write to hold in your breath a rare visit.
You write to share the minutiae of absence. The tick of the clock and the tick of the clock and the tick and the tick and the tick.
You write to speak of writing. I didn’t know I came here for this.
I thought you were in love for the duration.
Not that it ends, only lessens, drifts. There is a difference between love and like. You love. This much you know.
You know of severity, and disappointment. You know of jealousy, and rage. I insist upon kindness, you write. I fold down the corner of the page.
How I wish that you would explain life to me, so that I might see it steadfastly and see it whole.
You write of desire, the trapped nerve of wanting. I wish I could see you. I wish I could tell you. I had such a longing to see you. I’ve got so much to say to you. I prefer to have you alone. I want you this Saturday more than the last and so it’ll go on. I miss you. I miss you. I miss –
I hope you got my letter.
Distances stretch and contract between you. A heart deliquescing in the moonlight. In a thunderstorm the ceilings gently sway.
Love as action. Love as memory. It helps to understand its duration.
What is love or sex, compared with the intensity of life one leads in one’s book? Or books?
Or, indeed, one’s dreams?
Oh yes, you like people through the brain better than through the heart.
You write to speak of writing: of the increase in self-criticism without which you might turn out lamentable novels; of the days spent crossing out commas and putting in semi-colons in a state of marmoreal despair; of how a novel exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross. Distances stretch and contract between us. I know. And also know nothing.
You write with dejection: that this is all I have to show for half a life’s experience. You write with irritation: this journalism is such a thin draggled straining business. You write with gossamer envy: I shall never be able to write like that.
I know. I know. I shall never.
This year I reached the limits of language. I didn’t know I came here for this.
While I’ve been reading your letters, a meme has made desert tracks across twitter, like so:
Sure, sex is good, but have you tried not talking or interacting with men for a week?
Sure sex is good but have you ever taken a nap, woke up, taken two more naps then realised you have Monday off and can continue napping?
Yeah sex is good but have you ever recovered an unsaved word document that you accidentally closed after spending all night working on it?
Sex is good but have you ever binge watched an entire series of Doctor Who in one day?
Sex is great but have you ever been told you were right about something?
Yeah sex is great, but have you ever felt the satisfaction of proving someone wrong?
Sure, sex is great but have you ever gotten tired enough of your own bullshit to just get out of your own way for a minute?
Sex is great but that mental/emotional connection you share with someone that you love is unbeatable.
I think you get the idea.
When words spoken are emptied of meaning: that is a limit. When the convex of words is request but the concave a silent refusal. When words and actions are divorced but the context, the context, will not crack. When words go unheard. When words go unheeded. When words and feelings disconnect. Each one a limit.
I could not write about this to anyone I did not love as I love you. It is all too private and secret.
How we were now exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross.
Distances stretch between love and like and the deliquescing heart sinks into marmoreal despair.
Do you exist? Have I made you up?
Even in the moment of writing I hardly know which words are mine, which yours.
Life is too complicated – I sometimes feel that I can’t manage it at all.
Reading your letters I’ve come to understand that, on reaching the limits of language, there is nothing to be done except sink deeper into language. Words are the only thing left.
Love is one. Like another. It helps to understand the difference.
I write to ask if I may enter into the unreal world too.
You see, I still seek permission.
You write to ask why be so timid and pride-blown, both at once. The answer to that might solve everything.
I try my best to put off thinking about you.
You know, or rather you don’t know, how dilatory I am.
I feel like the dustbin with fireworks inside it and no one to turn to.
And so it’ll go on.
This year I reached the limits of language.
The edge of love’s duration.
Distances stretch and contract in the unreal world.
Just a few things remain as beacons: poetry, and you, and solitude.
With thanks to Greta Garland, aka @TreeGeeKay, for creating the Vita & Virginia Bot on twitter, which led me to The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska, from which several quotations are taken. Thanks also to the writers of the sex is good/great meme quoted from twitter, and to the wonderful photographer Mary Frances, aka @maryfrancesness, for the accompanying image.