by Gemma Bingham
When Daisy left for university, we began to write letters to one another. This was true for many people I knew, but, for one reason or another, we never really stopped. For the last three years I have always been either waiting for a reply or about to send off my own and yet, as I look over them for this piece, I realise I have never re-read one. I think it is something to do with the way once opened, the moment asks to be responded to almost immediately.
The letters are so connected to their own little piece of present and to your moment of opening them that they sit in your brain until acknowledged. Although almost every one of my replies begins with an apology for being slow, from the instance of opening to the moment my pen touches paper I will have had her words at the back of my mind. Magpie-like, I tuck away bits of debris from my week to add into each one (something I learned in class, a funny text, a moment which made me smile). Sealing the envelope encloses not only my own week’s thoughts but those passed on by her: each pair of letters becomes a clasped whole which snaps shut at the mouth of the post-box.
Often what you end up writing is far more honest than you might have otherwise been. ‘My dad wrote me things he would never be able to tell me to my face’, a friend told me, ‘about how much he loves me, and is proud of me.’ I find that the distance and delay of the letters makes intimacy less difficult. As with a diary, it is easier to face down a blank page than a person — especially if you know that a response will never be immediate. It is hard to be self-conscious when you know that you are unlikely ever to read your own letters again, especially when the same is true for your partner.
Now and again things I have written come back to me with horrible clarity — lines I probably thought were deeply emotional but would now make me cringe, anecdotes shared in gruesome detail.
Somewhere in a drawer are sheets and sheets of scribbled pages, the uncensored snapshots of a fairly clueless seventeen-year-old growing into a fairly clueless twenty-year-old preserved forever in envelopes. At the same time, it is an equal exchange and I’m sure Daisy feels the same way. Since we keep the other’s half of the conversation and lose our own, they are near impossible to sort into chronological order: Daisy’s explosion of green polka dotted envelopes are nonsensical without my own plain white ones to fix them in place.
It is the physicality of the letter which allows it to be mutable.
I normally write mine over the course of a few days: things are constantly being added, scribbled over, re-written and doodled on as I find more things I want to tell her. ‘P.S’ means nothing anymore, once I got past ‘P.P.P.P.S’ I stopped with the formality. Bit by bit they mutate away from being a neat, orderly series of responses to her questions and updates on my life, gradually losing all sense of grammar or cohesion. Daisy’s letters are far more interesting than mine, and I can’t help but feel that I have the better end of the deal. For her, the plane of the paper becomes as expressive as the content of the words: her sentences are long and augmented by scribbled exclamations or sketches. They wind about the page, a stream of consciousness in both narrative style and physical presence, collecting in whorls and eddies at the page’s edge before percolating down toward the sign off: ‘Mad amounts of love, Daisy’.
Her handwriting tends to alternate between being entirely capitalised and being one entirely joined up (un-punctuated) continuous line, sometimes morphing between the two depending on her tone — informative for one, speculative for the other.
The word stanza in poetry has its roots in the Italian word for room, or, ‘stopping place’; I like to think about the line break in this way, as a kind of museum corridor where you pause in its plainness before peering into the next exhibit. Daisy’s letters aren’t interested in letting you breathe. Rooms run into rooms which double back on themselves like a circus funhouse: what you thought was the exit is a dead end, lines of thought peter out and trip over new ideas. Waiting in the margins there is always an anecdote she forgot to tell me down the phone, a joke she heard on the street, a new word learned from a friend. You scan down the page to find your place, only to discover that it has been shunted to the side as a new thread of conversation begins.
One of my favourite letters arrived folded and cut so that a single plane of A4 became sixteen small square sheets, joined by a mysterious series of connections. Depending on the order of unfolding a different story was told, each more jumbled than the last.
Attending Alice Oswald’s poetry workshop on letter poetry allowed me to see mine and Daisy’s letters in a different light. Oswald spoke of letter poetry in terms of Einstein’s theory of relativity: the moment both of reading a poem and of opening a letter exist in a kind of expanded present wherein its contents and the impact it delivers are preserved.
Like a poem, a letter can only exist through having a recipient, a reader or someone to write to. Both are a kind of offering from one person to another. They also cannot be extracted from the page on which they were written: just as without the white space a poem would lose its formal organisation, its stanzas and distinct line breaks, a letter is indebted to its own physical presence. As with the kind of letters Daisy sends, the interactions between letter and paper — or even envelope — are three-dimensional, fixed in place only loosely by the conventions of signing on and off.
Considering the magnitude of last year’s events, it is remarkable how little they crop up in the letters. As if our own narrative erased the real world, I can only place letters from March 2020 onward by the address on the envelopes and some of the objects within them. One memorable letter included a worry-doll and a zip-lock bag of tobacco, rizlas and filters — those pages smell permanently of cigarettes. Although we speak on the phone, a call cannot carry the scraps of her world she sends me (a dried blob of paint, a small chip of tile, a postcard from Kiev).
Another letter contained a photograph of myself. It seemed something had been wrong with the exposure: the image itself was very pigmented apart from a slight lightening in the top left corner. Out of this gloom you could half see my face, just an eye and the corner of a smile dissolving into the glossy grey of the photo-paper. She had developed it herself in the dark-room and it had that smooth, almost oily quality which felt as if it could be smudged, interspersed with chemical imperfections- swirls and streaks of white.
My favourite part was the faintest shadow of a fingerprint on the bottom right corner where she must have fished it out of the chemical tray to inspect, almost invisible but perfectly preserved and set into the page like a fossil. Just as I have given Daisy slices of myself through time inaccessible even to me, I have these pieces of her. These aspects of us will exist as long as the other keeps them.
For the last few weeks I have been waiting on the latest of these letters, which is travelling all the way from Budapest where Daisy is studying. Written in part curled up in a booth on the night train from Paris, it has already covered quite a distance. ‘It’s one of my best, I think,’ she says to me on the phone, but her tone is sad, because a misplaced stamp means we both know it will never reach me. I am a little lost on how to reply, how to respond with nothing to respond to — I guess it’s about time the conversation started afresh.
GEMMA BINGHAM is a second-year studying English at Teddy Hall. She still can’t read an analogue clock.
Art by Autumn Clarke