Lost in the House of Mirrors



Bent double like an old beggar under my stack of mismatched matchstick houses, knock-kneed, coughing like mad from too many fags, I cursed through the House of Mirrors where reflections pranced and jigged, turning my back on haunted faces, knackered, desperate for a rest that didn’t seem forthcoming, marching asleep, my boots killing me and filling with blood, drunk with fatigue, deaf to the derisive hoots of the owls nesting in the upper circle (“What a gas!”), so tired even the mannequins’ caresses didn’t interest me, their ecstasy of fumbling making me recoil so violently my mask slipped and I found myself shouting, stumbling, fumbling to put it back on but unable, incapable of maintaining my role, burning with shame in the limelight, dimly aware of the others on stage, floundering as I tried to remember what came next or whose line it was, thinking of the sea, trying to see the sea before me, the words in waves, the rhythms in blues and greens, the sea of dreams or dream of seas, and the Bird King drowning in it, the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanged man’s face, like a broken Mr Punch, a broken clock, a broken bird cage, a broken mirror, a broken self portrait, a broken forest, a broken smartphone, a broken ribcage, a broken record, a broken egg, coughing up blood, coughing like mad from too many fags, an old beggar asleep or dead outside the House of Smashed Mirrors. 



My left half mirrors my right half imperfectly. Creases become cracks, an eye becomes a stab wound. My mouth twists up on one side, down on the other. 

I play with the crows, most mornings. At lunchtime I turn my back on them and climb trees with my imaginary friends. 

Do you think me childish?

We all fear falling. When I’m at the top of a tree I don’t dare look down. 

My right hand is white. My left hand is black. I’ve a chequered past. I think you’d guessed that. 



I found it in a cupboard in A Block. Couldn’t tell what it was. It didn’t come quietly, so I had to ask the Mirrors to extract it. 

It shrieked and thrashed all the way back to the Quiet Room. I closed the door and left the men in white to work their magic. 

A few hours later, I went back to the Quiet Room to have a proper look at it; I had forms to fill in. The Mirrors had gone and it had calmed down considerably. It brought to mind a plucked turkey. I sat down next to the cage and started on the paperwork. Had to leave several boxes blank: sex, age, etc. I didn’t even try to gauge diet, political orientation or dream life because there was no talking to it; it kept its eyes closed and its hands over its ears. 

As I was leaving it whispered something that sounded like, “I’m the king.” I asked it to repeat itself but it made a rasping sound and defecated. 

I don’t know what it was, but it had spirit. I’ll give it that.

—–

House of Mirrors is an ongoing collaboration with Viviana Hinojosa. You can see more here.

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The Mannequin: a reflection

Imagine a chessboard made of an infinite number of squares, in which the pieces are locked in eternal stalemate. The Mannequin is white to the Bird King’s black. Where he is broken, mad, risible, she is perfect, glacial, sinister. She is the mask Lady Macbeth presents to her haunted husband. The Bird King is, in part, me, by which I mean that his nest is somewhere in me, between memory and imagination. Although he is a tyrant, he is also vulnerable and silly. Aren’t we all vulnerable and silly? The Mannequin, on the other hand, is totally alien to me. She seems emotionless and inscrutable. I find her mesmerising and nightmarish. What is she thinking? Like Lady Macbeth, she reveals nothing to me. She tells her secrets only to the night.

The Bird King and the Mannequin do have one thing in common, however, which is that it is impossible to attach to either of them a stable mental image. If we see either of them in their entirety, in the glare of the sun or a spotlight or headlights, what we see is provisional, a brief phase in their constant mutation. Despite this, the essential identity of each of them is fixed. They are both trapped by who they are.

The Mannequin started out as the mannequins, a collective entity appearing in several poems and In the Dark Room. I associated them with the act of writing. Their presence seemed a condition favourable to creativity:

When the mannequins
   possess my hands
I tap out little poems on my phone

The index finger
                of my tweeting hand
                    pecks the touchscreen
          like a nimble bird

Words chirp
in the kingdom
of their cage

      But the hand
   holding the phone
is made of fibreglass

(From “The mannequins”)

Now, the mannequins are crystallised into a single being, albeit one comprising thirteen separate anatomical parts. Susan Omand has interpreted in paint the text I wrote for each of those parts. I see the book we made as a result of our collaboration as the flipside of The Madness of the Bird King (illustrated by Diana Probst), or, to put it another way, as a view of something at once alive and inanimate, human and monstrous, that exists on the other side of the mirror.

 

New rooms in the House of Mirrors

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She showed me her ID. It didn’t look like her. I took it from her and told her to stand in the corner while I checked it.

I went to the computer and typed in the number on her ID. “Not found.”

I went back to her and told her she wasn’t who she said she was. She didn’t reply. Just looked at the floor. She might have been smiling. I told her again that she wasn’t who she said she was and that her ID was invalid.

One of the Mirrors came in, grinning. He pointed at her and asked what was up. I told him that she wasn’t who she said she was, then showed him her fake ID. He grinned even more and pointed at the photo on the ID.

It took me a few seconds to see it was me, wearing a wig and makeup. I looked like a woman.

The Mirror left the room, laughing.

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They played peek-a-boo in the ruins of the mannequin factory, scampering around the hulks of the machines, frightening the cats.

They played hide-and-seek at the bottom of the sea, oblivious to their own drowning.

They played “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” in the heart of the iron forest.

They played “It” on the rings of Saturn.

They played chess in someone else’s headspace, until they were evicted.

They played solitaire in a circle of Hell hidden from Dante but revealed to all users of social media.

They played with themselves under the table while your mother served them soup.

They played the parts written for them by the Bird King.

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The birds in Eve’s ribcage panicked and shrieked.

Wolfish eyes watched from behind the curtains as we acted out the seasons of someone else’s life.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. No one had warned us we would be reduced to marionettes. No one had told us our badly written dialogue would be drowned out by Eve’s birds.

At the end of the first half, during the blackout, I lost my bearings and fell off the stage. It was thirteen years before I hit the floor. During that time I changed into something else: my skin flew off in flakes and my hair thickened into a crown of snakes.

By the time I landed the theatre had been turned into luxury flats. An elevator took me to the top floor, where sluttish mannequins danced motionlessly in bone cages.

—–

House of Mirrors is an ongoing collaboration with artist Viviana Hinojosa. You can see more of it here and here.

The Bird King is mad again

“A brilliant piece of work.” Jeff Noon, author of Channel SK1N, Vurt and The Automated Alice.

The Madness of the Bird King is a poetic picture book for grown-ups. It presents the reader with the enigmatic Bird King and his world, in a poem made of twelve fragments, each with an accompanying watercolour illustration by Diana Probst. Originally published in 2012, it has just been reissued in a new edition, available here.

In constructing our book, Diana and I wanted to offer the adult reader the feelings of delight, wonder and joyful terror that young children experience daily, when immersing themselves in picture books like The Gruffalo and Where the Wild Things Are. Much of that rich emotional experience is a result of the potent combination of text and image; the magic of The Madness of the Bird King is generated by the connections and disjunctions between my words and Diana’s beautiful pictures, which are not illustrations in any traditional sense. Although each painting was inspired by a Bird King fragment, we have not paired them up. Indeed, some of the pictures were inspired by material that didn’t make it to the finished poem.

What follows are the first three parts of our twelve part work. In the book, my text appears on the left hand page, and Diana’s illustration appears on the right. The Bird King himself may sometimes be glimpsed, fleeting between the two.

—–

I

The Bird King is mad again.

He caws
through empty midnight streets,
moulting tar-black
feathers.

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II

The Bird King’s wings:
stiff machinery
cobbled together from wire,
wood,
corrugated iron.

But the feathers are real, seasonal:

Spring: urinous, downy.
Summer: purples, scarlets.
Autumn: rust-tinged greys.
Winter: a widow’s fan.

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III

The Bird King spends much of his time
asleep on a throne of lightbulbs,
dreaming of love.

Waiting in the wings: his retinue of electricians.

Sometimes he wakes,
jovial.

His laughter breaks glass,
frightens animals.

He cackles and crackles on his electric throne.

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Copies of the book can be purchased here.

Find out more about Diana and her work here. You can read Diana’s account of her work on the Bird King book here.

All texts on this site are the copyright of James Knight. All images on this post are the copyright of Diana Probst. All rights reserved.

The mannequin’s left leg

Left leg

I walk a sinister path. Ash trees look like bones. Dark here, bloodless. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes. In the abandoned laboratory they made perfume from lavender, tar, olive oil and urine. A childish exercise. I refused to put it on my wrist. The trees are strung out, like nerves. The tightrope walkers resemble clockwork owls: their heads swivel all the way round and back again, with a whirring sound. If this is a forest of symbols, the language is gobbledygook.

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Left foot

They were lost. Had been for years. So lost, they forgot what home looked like and what it meant. They weren’t aware of their own amnesia; false memories caused by the sentimental distortions of nostalgia had supplanted what they used to know, so slowly and subtly that none of them noticed the changes. One afternoon, I stepped from my display window and led them through the labyrinth of streets, back to their old neighbourhood. They walked past their own front doors without realising. They’d follow me to the ends of the earth if they could.

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—-

The Mannequin is a collaboration between James Knight and Susan Omand. You can see other parts of it here and here.

House of Mirrors

In May I published part of my work-in-progress collaboration with Viviana Hinojosa. Entitled House of Mirrors, the project is a dialogue between Viviana’s arrestingly strange, beautiful drawings and my writing. What follows is some more recent material we have created.

To see the first part of the project and find out more about it, click here.

James Knight, July 2014.

—–

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Everything is a game to her, even her incarceration. She waits behind the iron door, ready to leap out at anyone who opens it.

She whiles away the time by playing solitaire or chess. The latter is tricky; she has to think first as herself (white) and then as her mirror image (black), then back again, and so on and on until she gets confused or bored or angry with the pointless game.

Her favourite chess piece is the White Queen. She imagines her elegant hands, hesitating on the rusty bolts on the other side of the iron door. Why doesn’t she just unlock it? Well, she’s a queen. Queens don’t do anything much, except the Black Queen, who seeps from shadow to shadow, on a murderous diagonal.

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Before the curtains opened: a hand, a door.

More precisely: a piece of scenery, a moveable wooden frame, inside which was a closed door. The observer stood on one side of it, looking initially at his shoes, until he was aware of a foreign object, something that didn’t belong in the general backstage clutter, which made him look at it: a hand on the door.

More precisely: a small hand, maybe a child’s, on the lower left part of the doorframe, fingertips touching the door itself. The observer assumed that the owner of the hand was standing on the other side of the door. He noticed that the fingers weren’t moving. The whole hand was still.

More precisely: a memory of Alice in Wonderland, working backstage, waiting around doing little most nights, often bored, missing her, sometimes allowing himself little erotic daydreams, seeing gigantic tables and playing cards being taken on and brought off again, laughing when a bit of the “EAT ME” sign got rubbed off by accident and read “FAT ME”, sitting sometimes but more often that not standing in the darkness and heat, doing what he was told, lumbering quietly, and one night, one night of many, looking at a small hand on a piece of set and assuming at first it belonged to a child but then not being sure, not knowing if it was real or not.

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Events played out as expected. Queens were beheaded, palaces bulldozed. Most of us hid behind the riot police and laughed. My dad tried to climb a rope ladder to the moon, but a seagull pecked it in two and he fell to his death. The funeral was a scream: everyone wore fancy dress. I’ve always had a flair for theatricality, don’t you think? You should see me when I fling aside the shower curtain and strut into the searchlights. The crowd adores me. They shriek my name in raptures as they tear down my house of cards.

Don’t you dare call me a queen!

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Do you like my wig? It was made from the pubic hair of my enemies. You should have heard them pleading not to be shaved; they sounded like pigs being slaughtered. Very undignified. As you can see, all my makeup is scarlet. It’s a nod to conventional menstrual symbolism. My dress (fabulous, isn’t it!) was designed by Vivienne Westwood. Its most exciting feature is the tiny bomb attached to the whalebone corset; if I try to remove it, I’ll be blown to smithereens! Vivienne always had such a wicked sense of humour. A pity she had to die for it. See that streak of red at the back of my wig? That’s a clump of hers. The shoes? There are no shoes, my dear. I have cloven feet. They’re best left unshod.

Don’t go yet. I’ve so much more to show you, to tell you. It’s lonely here in this trompe l’oeil landscape where everything smells of plasticine and piss. If you’ll pardon my French. And besides, I don’t know how to get back to my palace. That may be it, burning on the hill. Impossible to be sure in this light.

Don’t go. Not just yet. Have I shown you my necklace? The pendant is dear to my heart. Look at it. Go on, I won’t bite! It’s a little glass prison. The wall at the back is a mirror. That girl crawling around inside is called Eve. She did something very bad (I forget what) and will have to stay there forever. She amuses herself by pulling faces at her own reflection.

Don’t go.

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It was the eyes he found most unnerving. They were expressionless and yet somehow malevolent.

He moved on to the next exhibit, which was some sort of machine. It towered over him, its many levers, pulleys, pistons, valves and gears making its purpose impossible to infer. When he looked more closely he noticed that parts of the machine were pink and fleshy, vaguely porcine. One particularly meaty appendage had been branded with what he took to be the name of the contraption: EV3.

—–

Images copyright Viviana Hinojosa. Text copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.

The Mannequin grows an arm

My collaboration with fellow Chimera artist Susan Omand continues. Here are two more parts of our Mannequin. You can see the two we’d previously unveiled here.

—–

Left arm

I keep to the badlands. Most of the bodies are buried here. The second statement does not explain the first; be careful about making causal connections where none exist. The area beyond the little hill is more allegorical than real, and is home to the Knights of the Round Table. Gawain fights his insomnia on a fly-tipped sofa. I vow to thee, my country. English pastoral and English gothic are the same thing.

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—–

Left hand

My fingers are purely decorative. You may kiss them. They’ll never hold a phone or a champagne glass or a knife. Aesthetics and utility rarely marry. It doesn’t matter, though: influence over others is more important than innate usefulness. When I turned my back on you I saw in the mirror how you were looking at me. I won’t spell it out. You give yourself away every time.

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—–

Text copyright James Knight. Images copyright Susan Omand. All rights reserved.