Life Writing Prize 2020: Sue Hann



Palingenesis

On the day that I am due to start progesterone injections, in the slow hours before the hated needle, I am standing on the tube platform caught in a tangle of weekend shoppers. The poster in front of me advertises an exhibition at the Barbican: Living Colour by Lee Krasner. It is a bold blast of colour against the beige tiled wall of the station. An orange and pink background is overlaid - collage-style – with fat stripes of black, its raw edges revealing rips, and slivers of fuchsia. I have never heard of the artist, but I could do with this kind of colour-with-attitude in my life right now. On a whim, I recalculate my journey as I step onto the tube – two stops westbound.


The Barbican is busy and there is a queue for tickets to the exhibition. A pregnant woman and her partner stand in line in front of me. Judging from the size of her bump, there isn't too long to go. I try to imagine their lives: they live somewhere trendy but still edgy in East London; they are fitting in a cultural event before the chaos of a newborn. They have promised each other that their lives won't change that much, they will bring junior along to galleries in the sling they bought together in John Lewis. The warm cosiness of their shared hopes and plans is almost visible as a protective bubble around them. She is blooming in a light summer maternity dress; he rubs the small of her back protectively. This gesture feels as intimately painful as someone rubbing my eyeball.


The queue is moving slowly, and I rummage in my bag, checking again to make sure that I have it: the medication, syringe, sterile wipes. The fertility clinic was very specific about the time I start the progesterone. I've done it so many times now, these rounds, that I know what's ahead: the drugs, the scans, the waiting, the creeping hope, the build-up to test day when everything hangs on the appearance of one line or two.

Taking out my phone, I see a message from my husband: Landed safely, miss you xx. He's away for work and I'm not sure how I feel about this. I know he can't be here for everything, that it's a long process with lots of waiting time, life has to go on and all that. But still. I miss him. Angrily. There's no point in going over all that again, so I read up on Krasner. I know nothing about the exhibition, not even that Lee is a she. I start by looking up the image from the poster – it's a detail from a piece called Desert Moon from 1955. In an interview Krasner said the moon made her feel "more emotional, more intense – it would build a momentum of some sort". Here was a woman embracing emotional intensity and using it as an energy – yes, I think, maybe I’m in the right place.


*****

Lee Krasner, born Lenore in 1908, was one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, but her work was often overshadowed by her marriage to the more famous Jackson Pollock. As I mooch through the gallery, Krasner's early self-portraits are confident, bold, full of colour. In one, she hangs a mirror outside, and paints herself painting herself in her garden. The candour and fearlessness of her gaze draws me in. She is young, only twenty-two, still childlike in her features, red-lipped and apple-cheeked, and looks out at the world with a confident curiosity, oblivious to the ups and downs that life has in store for her. I remember being her age, when the future was infinite possibility; when life opened up rather than narrowed in and when the not-knowing was a good thing.


My phone vibrates and a message pops up on the screen. It's from my neighbour Sarah, thanking me for coming to her birthday drinks last night. She has sent a photo of a group selfie from the night before. The girls are pouting and looking at the camera out of the sides of their eyes. The boys are pulling funny faces, making finger-guns at each other. They are young and shiny looking, box-fresh to the world. Then there is me in my work shirt and sensible shoes, looking every year of my decade older than them.


Part of not having children is being out of step with peers. Evenings out with friends who have young children, which by now is pretty much all of them, are a rare occasion, so I try to say yes to other social invitations. I don't know Sarah all that well, and the age difference feels much more pronounced in a group. I felt old. I made myself stay for two drinks' worth of the night. Sarah had introduced her friends sitting beside me: "This is Josh and Boo." I turned to Boo, and, while wondering what Boo could be short for, I stuck out my hand. She looked at me, then back to my faltering hand and then, leaving it a beat too long, held up her flat palm. "Let's do a high five", she said. A flash of dislike and embarrassment flared – would it have killed her to shake? In that instant, I felt like a dated aunt, all antiquated habits, while at the same time feeling like a child rebuked.


*****

Krasner's marriage to Pollock was a difficult one. Pollock struggled with alcoholism for most of his life, and the couple left New York to get away from the social scene. In upstate New York, they lived in relative poverty before Pollock became a commercial success. In the mid-1950s, as her husband was falling deeper into his alcoholism, Krasner started working on collages. From pieces of her past failures, she made something new and beautiful. Eleanor Nairne, curator at the Barbican, said of the collages: "In order to fully appreciate it, you have to imagine what it takes to destroy work that you've laboured over, to tear and cut it into shards." Krasner cut up early work that she didn't like, tearing canvases into long jagged strips; some ragged and frayed at the edges, some sharply snipped. She ripped up her charcoal drawings and merged them into collage with canvas, mixing materials, adding colour. This series of paintings brought her work favourable attention in the New York art world, after nearly ten years of little or no recognition as an artist in her own right.


Pain arrows across my temple, settling behind my eyeballs, where it strikes in debilitating pulses. It stills me completely. I am used to this now. It has happened before as the drugs build up in my system, and I know to wait. I stand motionless, facing the artwork but not seeing until the tide of pain rolls out again. This piece, Milkweed, is an abstract of blacks, whites, greys, with a peep of orange, and I focus on the orange, a landing spot that brings me back into the room.


*****

It's time to take my second dose of hormones, oestrogen this time. I back out of the knot of people and wind my way through a crowd of Japanese tourists taking selfies against a background of the canvases. Trying to be discreet, I fish in my bag for the blister packet and my water bottle. I have learned not to be fooled by the size and innocuous appearance of this tiny pill. Over weeks, it sets up a hormonal whirlwind, wreaking chaos along the secret highways of my body. Coded messages zip between glands, along veins, arteries, bidding organs to respond and play their piece in this new concerto. I may be the owner of this body, but I am the last to know its plans. There is anarchy, uprising stirring within. My body sends me signals: a mysterious patch of dandruff, red angry pimples that appear overnight, straw-like hair. As the sebaceous glands on my head dry up, my tear glands go into overdrive. I well up at the slightest thing until it is hard to know what is me and what is the hormones, and, eventually, whether there is any difference between me and them. The pill is a shiny blue, and I think of a line from Maggie Nelson's Bluets: "If a colour could deliver hope, does it follow that it could also bring despair?" It tings against my teeth as I swallow it down and pray that it's doing its work, and will be a bringer of hope, will lead to two fat lines on the stick, to a bump and then a baby. I chant it silently in my head as I swallow: hope, hope, hope.


*****

Krasner never had children. In some interviews, she said that her husband was too needy, too child-like himself for her to want to bring a child into their marriage. Other interviews however leave it more vague and quote her as saying that she married him to become an artist, not a mother. Whatever the reason for choosing not to have children, and perhaps there were many, I admire her bluntness and refusal to apologise for her choices.


"Do you want children?" a colleague asks me, as if the wanting is the thing. I haven't yet figured out what to say in response. I have to brace myself whenever the question arises, arrange my face into neutral, steel my lips against any tell-tale wobble, and cut off from any emotion. Including an immediate anger toward them for asking the question.


*****

Pollock died, aged forty-four, in a drink-driving car crash. When asked about how she managed to continue to paint following his death, Krasner responded: "Painting is not separate from life. It is one. It is like asking – do I want to live? My answer is yes – and I paint." In the three years following his death, Krasner moved into Pollock's studio at their home in East Hampton, experimenting on large canvases for the first time. Her paintings from this period – the Umber series – are downstairs in the gallery, they need the extra room because of their size. Some are fifteen feet long and I push through the crowd to peer at the name placard before standing back to take them in, savouring the titles as much as the painting. Uncaged is almost frightening to look at: a writhing mass of snaking arcs. Or "curvilinear sweeps" as the guide calls them, a little more sophisticated than my impressions.


I sit on one of the benches, allowing people to swirl and flow around me, and find out more about Krasner and her work. I scroll through articles and reviews, and watch interviews with her on YouTube, hungry for more background, more knowledge about this woman. I come across a detail that stands out, a line from Rimbaud that was a favourite of Krasner's: "I ended up finding sacred the disorder of my mind."


Krasner, through her art, was able to take her grief and her loss, her internal world, and express it externally. She took what was in her head and her heart and pinned it to the canvas for dissection. Her mind and her work are one. Sometimes the gulf between my internal world and my external presentation creates a kind of a schizophrenia, in the literal sense, from the Greek split + mind. I get lost in the gap between this private grief and longing and my outward persona. I admire Krasner's commitment to stay with her experience, to inhabit her grief, probe its size and shape, feel its depth.


*****

Krasner had severe insomnia during this period and, as a result, worked through the night. The Umber series are all painted in earthy tones because she couldn't see bright colours as clearly as she wanted to in artificial light. The hormones give me a kind of insomnia. I fall asleep without difficulty, but then wake up suddenly in the early hours, brain instantly switched on. They didn't mention this in the clinic, but on the online forums it appears to be a common side-effect of the treatment, similar to sleep disturbances experienced during the menopause. This preview is not enticing. I lie awake for hours, my mind more alert than it ever is during the day. I download podcasts and play them at low volume so I don't wake my husband. I became a regular listener of a particular fertility podcast, finding comfort in listening to two women going through the same thing. There is a validation in hearing someone else say, yes, this is hard, I’m struggling too. Then one of them gets pregnant, and shortly after the other does too. I am alone again in the early hours with only my thoughts for company. And it feels like a betrayal. I switch to current affairs.


Polar Stampede is tiger-like with black curved lines against muddy tones. I pace the length of it. There is video footage of Krasner using a long paintbrush, jumping a little to reach the top of these huge canvases. Creation spills out of her, flows through her body, arm, hand, brush, not stopping to fetch a ladder, the momentum carries her forward, onward, onward.


Reflecting on the Umber series, she said "my painting is so biographical, if anyone can take the trouble to read it". Here is her grief writ large in sludgy colours.


I painted my own grief on my face. Although grief feels like too small a word for my feelings – too sanitised, too tidy. It felt more like a terrible fury and overwhelming sense of injustice. It was early on, shortly after another failed cycle, and I was stomping around at home, getting ready for bed. Muttering to myself that I was sick of everything, fed up with it all, that it was so unfair. And I walked with this furious force into the bathroom door, knocking my face on the corner of the door frame. Rage boiling, I crouched on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, wailing like a child, cradling my face. Finally, something physical to focus my feelings on, finally the not-fairness had somewhere to land.


I went to work the next day with a black eye. It was a dark purple with red veins threaded through, which faded over time to blue, then brown, then a dirty yellow, a palette straight out of the Umber series. I fretted about how to explain this at work when it sounded like such a cliché. Roddy Doyle had even used it as the title of his book about an abusive relationship — The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. I incorporated this into my explanations: "I walked into a door, really" with an eye-roll and a smile, the worst of the bruise covered up with concealer and beige eye shadow. One woman in particular looked at me with a sad recognition when I explained. She said nothing, just an involuntary tug of her lip, downward. The less she said with her words, the more I babbled, trying to dissuade her from her unspoken conclusion. The angle of the door jamb, I gesticulated, how clumsy I am, basically dyspraxic… Whatever my words said, the pain written on my body was clear.


*****

In 1976, Krasner made another collage series, this time incorporating figure and still life drawings made nearly forty years earlier. With titles based on conjugations of the verb "to see", the series alludes to vision and revision. I am thinking about this as I stroll from room to room, canvas to canvas. How what we see continues to shift and change over time, and this viewpoint is not the final viewpoint. The question that has been circling my mind like water in a drain for the last few months is: If this cycle doesn’t work, how do I live? How do I, we, survive this?


Krasner's collages chart her life. She said of them: "This is where I've come from: from there to here… It renews my confidence in something I believe. That there is continuity." She hated stasis and was constantly reinventing. I can't help feeling that my life is on hold. Around me, friends' lives change, their preoccupations change – what type of buggy to buy, when to wean, which are the best schools – and I am a bystander, stuck on the sidelines while all around me life continues. This stuckness scares me. I am afraid of day following day, each the same as the one before. I am afraid of a lifetime of days without the marching measure of a child's feet. I am afraid of staying in this place of missing, of continuing like this, day after day, not knowing where it ends, or if it ends at all. Or whether I will return to it again and again, like an endless game of snakes and ladders.


Standing in front of Krasner's collages, I can almost hear the rip of heavy paper, the rich rent of woody fibres. I can feel how the grim disappointment might slowly catch fire, becoming the giddiness of the destruction, until it blazes with the energy of destroying, and then eventually cools to form something new. Out of pain, she created beauty; not despite, but because of. Krasner said of her collages: "Obviously I'm hauling out work (drawings) of thirty years ago... Dealing with it. Not ignoring, [not] hiding it." She is telling me something through her work: You can’t fix it, but you can survive it. I stare at the canvases, trying to soak up some of her strength.


*****

Krasner was brave enough to take her past with her, re-fashioned, into the present. I only go back to the past to beat myself up. I should have started trying for a family earlier. Why didn't I push for more aggressive treatment sooner? I wish I could cut up my past, like her collages, rip it up, attack it with scissors. I would rend these thoughts, these judgements about historic me, into tiny slivers. "We made those decisions for a reason, with the information we had at the time", my husband often tries to reassure me. And he believes it. But did we? Did we really? I can't say. That person who made those decisions doesn't feel like me anymore. How can these pieces be put back together?


Glancing at my watch, I can see that it's nearly injecting time. There is only one small section left – her most recent works. I allow myself one last painting before I have to leave. The colours of this one draw me over; Palingenesis, the placard reads. A riot of greens, hot pinks and whites, in hard-edged geometric shapes. It is bold, perky, confident. Art critic Robert Hughes described it as "rap[ping] hotly on the eyeball at fifty paces". I am no art critic: it reminds me of the Fuzzy Felt art boards I used to play with as a child. I spent hours sticking felt shapes on to the fuzzy background enjoying the sensory pleasure in mixing colours and shapes to make a picture.


And then there's the name Palingenesis, from Greek - "palin" meaning again and "genesis" meaning birth. All of Krasner's work emphasises rebirth, metamorphosis. It feels like a fitting ending as I leave the exhibition to inject myself with progesterone, this hormone that prepares the womb for the egg. Again, birth, I hope.



"Palingenesis" by Sue Hann was longlisted in Spread the Word’s Life Writing Prize 2020. It was originally published in the Life Writing Prize Anthology. Copyright Sue Hann.


Sue Hann is a psychologist interested in the interplay between psychology and creativity. Her work explores how psychology and art both try to make sense of the universality of pain and suffering. She is a London Writers Awards recipient 2019-20. She is the winner of the Diana Woods Memorial Award 2020. Her work has been published in print journals such as Popshot quarterly, and in online journals such as LunchTicket. You can find her on Twitter here: @SYWrites.