Seam Editions

Thumbs in Space by Seabright D. Mortimer

‘Thumbs in Space’ is a creative-critical piece written by Seabright D. Mortimer, published by Seam Editions.

THUMBS IN SPACE:
A STORY ABOUT OPENING THE DRUNK TEXT.
BY SEABRIGHT D. MORTIMER

I’m thinking about a story about thumbs and love, I say to my friend. He’s sitting across from me on a houseboat in Amsterdam. We are eating boiled eggs and soldiers. We are hung over. The eggs are both over done. ‘Thumbs and love,’ he says staring beyond me. ‘Ok’. I am thinking about how thumbs operate now. How they rule our desires. I am thinking about Freudian thumb slips and drunk texts. I am thinking about swiping for sexual partners with the flick of a thumb and pressing delete on embarrassing messages you wish you could unsend. I am thinking about the dichotomy between the flesh thumb which is attached to the flesh hands and attuned to the material heart and the phone which is indifferent to us. Which is made of carbon and glass and is differently powered. ‘Right, yes,’ my friend says, staring over my shoulder, lifting a soldier to his mouth with his hands.

I woke up thick with it. I got up and wrote down ‘think thumbs’ in my notebook. My mind lit up with the idea like a phone screen. The thumb thought made me think of something, which had happened to me a few months ago. I walked into my bedroom and saw my phone, it read ‘—— likes your video on Instagram’. The video was of my local paddling pool refilling itself. I had liked the way the aquamarine stood out behind the rush of water and uploaded a video of it. And she had liked it. I hadn’t heard from her for a long time. I believe she had got married in the time that I hadn’t heard from her. And my phone was lying there innocently on the bedclothes telling me she had liked this video of the blue pool filling itself up with water. I couldn’t believe it. I stroked my phone with my thumb, logged onto Instagram, looked for her like and it had disappeared. Gone away as if she had never done it. Maybe she hadn’t. Or maybe she had searched for me, looked at me, scrolled down me with her thumb, slipped and liked the video of the pool by mistake. The phone didn’t care that she hadn’t meant it and sent a signal to my phone in an instant.

It’s become so easy, to look someone up you shouldn’t, to browse other people’s public histories. To push send on something you can’t recall. To let the ripples furl out beyond your control. It’s so easy, I could do it now. I think about doing it all the time.

I think about what was going through your mind that evening to make you search for me.

I like to picture the invisible powers and the networks of zaps winging messages meant and unmeant around the world. Thinking back to walking in and seeing your name appear on my phone I trace my eyes in thought from the screen to the words written on them to the ‘like’ now disappeared to the inside of the iPhone handset to the gold metal of the motherboard birthing your message into code, into the readable words you wish you hadn’t sent.

Where were you when it happened?, I wonder. At home with your wife on the sofa perhaps? A glass of wine in one hand, the glass of your phone in the other.

We no longer speak but I still feel as if I know your hands very well and have a feeling that they remember me in the way that only hands remember. So this message from the beyond that fired up my phone screen, it made something long distant feel suddenly present.

It’s the near and far of it, I suppose, that got me thinking about thumbs in space. Distance has a whole lot to do with it. Our phones have changed the way we perceive human distances. When I see that message flicker courtesy of Instagram, you are on my bed. A minute before you were somewhere else to me.

I ask my friend at the table whether he feels like this about thumbs in space? Whether his bouts of Facebook stalking bring his ex-boyfriend any nearer to him? Does he feel closer and more involved looking at his estranged lover’s recent movements documented by faces and names he’s never met. Examining the traces his body makes in images — does this make him feel closer to his ex in real time? I suppose the very definition of an ex lover’s body is that it exists in the past. It is a trick of technology that the internet permits us some kind of access to the ex’s body. But Facebook stalking is a surreptitious night-time endeavour and an ultimately unsatisfying one. ‘It can make what you had belong even more to the past’ I say. ‘The proximity to those new images can make you feel further away from what it was you were looking to remind yourself of in the first place’. ‘I don’t know about that’ says my friend ‘I know it can make you feel shit. I know you can get addicted to it.’

On the boat we wake up with motion sickness. It doesn’t go away for days. The Airbnb reviews failed to mention this unpleasant side effect. We feel fine on the boat because we are rocked in time with the waves. It’s when we are on the ground, admiring Van Gogh’s sunflowers and seeing the city that we start to sway. I look at the flowers in front of me. They are on the turn and their best days are behind them. I sway gently in front of them, heads like lions’ manes, my feet square with my shoulders. I think about the way he chose to paint them like that, a day over their prime. So that they stay that way in our minds forever with their stems slightly drooped but their golden curls roaring towards the light. He has sent a message in oils through space and time. What a work of fingers and thumbs — the cut flowers casting off into the future.

‘Are you feeling like this also? I feel a pull to the left.’ my friend says to me in the café of the museum.

‘Yes, it gets worse when I stand still.’

‘I Googled it. Apparently swimming helps.’

I did swim that weekend in Amsterdam. The cold river made me lose my breath. I swam to try and catch it and then hauled myself out onto the side of the boat.

But it wasn’t the swimming that helped with the seasick feeling. It was reading. Like Van Gogh’s sunflowers, a poem is also a message mailed through space and slotted through time’s letterbox.

I had brought the complete poems of Elizabeth Bishop along with me on holiday. I opened the book to a poem called ‘January First’ originally by the Brazilian writer Octavio Paz. Bishop translates from the Spanish.

January First

The year’s doors open
Like those of language,
Toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
Tomorrow
We shall have to think up signs,
Sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
On the double page
Of day and paper
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
Once more,
The reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what an Aztec felt,
On the crest of the promontory,
Lying in wait
For times uncertain return
Through cracks in the horizon.

But no the year had returned.
It filled all the room
And my look almost touched it.
Time with no help from us,
Had placed in exactly the same order as yesterday
Houses in the empty street,
Snow on the houses,
Silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
Still asleep.
The day had invented you
But you hadn’t yet accepted
Being invented by the day
— nor possibly my being invented, either.
you were in another day

you were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances,
time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
We’ll walk, once more,
Among the hours and inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
And bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

(1975)
January First
The year’s doors open
Like those of language,
Toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
Tomorrow
We shall have to think up signs,
Sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
On the double page
Of day and paper
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
Once more,
The reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what an Aztec felt,
On the crest of the promontory,
Lying in wait
For times uncertain return
Through cracks in the horizon.

But no the year had returned.
It filled all the room
And my look almost touched it.
Time with no help from us,
Had placed in exactly the same order as yesterday
Houses in the empty street,
Snow on the houses,
Silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
Still asleep.
The day had invented you
But you hadn’t yet accepted
Being invented by the day
— nor possibly my being invented, either.
you were in another day

you were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances,
time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
We’ll walk, once more,
Among the hours and inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
And bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

(1975)

This poem is unspeakably sad. It is also extraordinarily spacious, giving the reader time to adjust their eyes to the speaker’s gaze. This poem is open and private; it lives on the cusp of sleeping and waking where women beside you open their eyes in alternate universes. ‘You were in another day’ she says. The poem is full of the world. A world in which mysteries happen and ends are at once desperately certain and strangely ambiguous.

I watched a documentary about Elizabeth Bishop, where she lived and who she loved. I watched the documentary half a year ago. I can tell you what I remember finding out or I can Google Elizabeth Bishop and tell you the facts of her life. Instead I am going to tell you the facts as I understood them. The poem above is called ‘January First’. It is unspeakably sad. Elizabeth Bishop’s longest love killed herself on New Year’s Eve one year, years ago. She climbed into bed with Bishop after drinking red wine and sharing stories. She died by her own hand in the night and didn’t wake up. The poem relates a grief many fathoms deep. These are the facts as I remember them, not as Wikipedia discloses them.

The poem sends.

Darling, uuuuuuuu send me, (honest you do, honest you do, honest you do)

In Amsterdam I consider what it would be like to read an Elizabeth Bishop poem aloud and record it on my phone and then send it to someone in my contacts. Would it mean anything? Does the voice travel in the same way as the written word? There are less sharp edges to contend with. It is more difficult to read things that are not there into a voice than it is to read between the lines of a text message. Maybe you can communicate more with a tongue than a thumb.

Bishop’s translation only wants to be listened to. You can feel something begin to melt as you read it; you are giving it its breath back. Hauling it out of the river and onto the side of the boat.

Surely the reason any of us write is to have our message received.

And I think of Bishop’s words again and the kind of nostalgia for the future they invoke. Where past and future, both equally improbable and romantic, exist in parallel with each other.

‘last night you told me, tomorrow’

The power and pathos emanating from a deepening knowledge that things change.

CONCLUSION #1

Thumbs age. My thumbs are the same thumbs as yesterday’s thumbs in many ways, but they are also different from yesterday’s thumbs in many ways.

Perhaps it is true that words age too or at least change their meaning. What happens to the deleted message or the recalled like? How do we archive that? It leaves no trace. It only functions in memory. In the mind of the sender and the receiver. In this way digital messaging is an exercise in telepathy.

In terms of the example I gave at the beginning of this essay, I do not know that that ‘like’ I received on Instagram ever existed; I only have the memory of seeing the words appear on my screen. It is possible the words were never there at all. Certainly they are not there now, so does it really matter that they ever were?

This is the un-seeable thread I want to make visible, the thread that connects words and phones, selves and thumbs.

The covert operations of the digital realm, traceless and magic, mean we can now be in several places at once, firing signals to dozens of different people without having to leave the room or move our lips. This phenomenon feels more and more like mind reading. Like time travel.

Telepathy (from the Greek τῆλε, tele meaning "distant" and πάθος, pathos or - patheia meaning "feeling, perception, passion, affliction, experience")

Distant, feeling, perception, passion, affliction, experience: words that, I think, make up the debris of digital communication. I want to hold on to the word distant and think about screens. I want to keep the idea of thumbs present and think about touch and sensory feeling mediated through internet connections.

When a thumb slips and presses send against all better judgement an action not dissimilar to a Freudian slip happens. Another meaning is expressed. It is as if the thumb of the sender plunges into their phone, and bursts out of the screen on the other side to smudge the thoughts of the receiver the way an impressionist artist might.

Thoughts that were previously focussed on washing up, journeys, emails or dinner plans are now catapulted into the past and directly confronted with a universe of different feelings. When we get a text, the verb we use is ‘to open’ We open a message and in doing so open ourselves up to the feelings engendered by doing so.

Look at this painting by Angelica Kauffman made in the late 18th Century.

Her subject is thrusting her thumb through her palette and extracting colour from the sky with her brush. This painting, like I am, is concerned with how we manipulate space digitally with our hands, and how we communicate meaning — as bright and ethereal as the rainbow — through our bodies.

Kauffman dramatically shrinks the distance between her thumb and the sky demonstrating how art can trick space. It is a painting about circuitry, the arm with the brush with the rainbow with the palette, tree and thumb. The picture itself is circular too. Art can bring the rainbow closer, it says.

CONCLUSION #2

I would like to read a message that doesn’t mean anything or says something absurd. I want to walk in from the kitchen and see something unexpected on my bed - a voice calling from the blue. A signal from a different, distant present, a stranger or friend who lives in ‘another day’. I want to know what it would feel like to receive you. In pieces and whole. I want to push play on a recording of a voice I recognise telling me lines from a poem I don’t. It is so easy to mean the unmeant. In fact, the unmeant is almost exactly always what we really mean to say.

The messages that are never answered or barely sent are the ones that enter the heart, and hurt. There are messages and signs materialising around us all the time, they could be from a past you fail to recognise — a past that hasn’t met your future yet. There are blue spaces full of painful darting messages like shooting stars that have been sent wisely or foolishly, by accident or design because they couldn’t not have been sent.

These messages, sunflowers, stars — they exist to help with the motion sickness. You know how we know we are here? We know we are here because it hurts to be here. Like waking up on New Year.