And Words Are All I Have

dilapidated old building

All We Leave Behind

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there,
even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again
only by going back there.”

Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

There is a powerful lure for me in places that are past their heyday, when the world is finished with them and they stand quiet and apart, down at heel, abandoned after serving their usefulness.

Many years ago I rented a house in County Kerry in Ireland, on a small rise near the ocean. In a visit to the local town a chatty shopkeeper asked if I'd discovered the derelict hotel just down the shore from where I was staying. Naturally, I sought it out that very day.

I saw it first from a long distance. There it stood, this dissipated monolith, planted, still, in the sand. Not a sign of life was to be seen. It was an incongruous sight, as if a giant hand had dropped it there by mistake. Most of the hotel's roof had given way and the concrete walls still standing wore deep cracks and scars from the decades of punishment at the hands of punishing wind and salt spray. Calla lilies, common to Ireland, with decadent blooms the size of cornets, had popped up everywhere through cracks in the concrete, their velvety white blossoms bizarrely, decadently, intact.

Across the entire frontage of the property a stone breakwater stood in two separate pieces, cracked neatly down the middle as if by a stupendous lightning bolt. Or was it a rogue wave, I wondered?

It was easy to see the spot had once been grand. I envisioned the well-heeled patrons sipping tea on its wide sweeping deck facing the sea, and a host of fashionably dressed ladies leaning over the balustrade to watch their fellow guests strolling below.

I carefully picked my way across the front deck, through the minefield of debris, sidestepping rusted pipe and broken glass, to the massive main door, unhinged now, lying sideways across the opening.

The lobby with its 30-foot ceiling still hinted at the hotel's former magnificence despite years of graffiti-bombing and neglect. I thought of how many revelers must have glided through these rooms, brimming with excitement on their way to weddings and parties and banquets. It had since seen its share of vagrants, the floors strewn with sodden mattresses, cigarette butts, beer cans and styrofoam. I even spotted a battered hibachi.

Along one wall stood the remnants of an opulent marble staircase that once headed to the intact promenade on the second floor but that now ended abruptly after only half a dozen steps, as if a gigantic power saw had buzzed neatly across the divide.

Anything of value was long gone. If it was movable, or removable, it had been pilfered. However, I noticed on one standing wall several rows of carved wooden pigeonholes, stacked one atop the other, where once the room keys must have been safely stowed. Strange how it remained the only original fixture in the entire structure to survive undamaged. I pictured the concierge handing over heavy ornate brass keys attached to leather tags with the hotel's name embossed in gold, soon to unlock the elegance of the rooms waiting above.

My investigation continued. In a public washroom off the lobby, hand-painted porcelain sinks, now chipped and weathered, stood in a row along the wall, the surfaces barely visible under thick coats of vibrant green moss. Weeds grew belligerently out of each drain. Out of one sprouted a daisy-like flower in full bloom.

Behind the stairway stood a large opening into what appeared to be the hotel ballroom. I could tell by the size and openness of the space; nothing there to impede the dancers. The elevated bandstand, relatively unscathed in one corner, would have been its heart and soul, sending out popular songs of the times.

Can you hear them? Sweet Georgia Brown, Yes Sir, That's My Baby, My Blue Heaven, and for the last waltz of the evening, the enchanting, wistful It Had to be You.

I imagined the scene, the postwar frivolity of it all, the ladies in flapper dresses draped in strings of pearls, their heads in black velvet cloches with kiss curls peeking out, their mouths bright red Cupid's Bows. And there were their escorts, their hair slicked back fashionably, sporting handlebar moustaches, pinstriped suits and suspenders, collar stays, and black and white saddle shoes.

I wandered back through the lobby and stood out front. I pictured a young man and a woman that might have stood side by side here so long ago, gazing out to a bewitching sea.

The woman is twirling her parasol, dreamily. Her courtly companion turns to her, extends his hand, and asks courteously:

"Shall we have a spot of tea, my dear?"

Here is this week's poem, loosely aligned in theme with the above. Zagajewski's image of the thrush feather at the end held the most potency for me.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

~~ by Adam Zagajewski
Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

“I saw this was the way of the future, to leave the past behind as if it were a dream.” Alice Hoffman

See you next Friday. I welcome your comments and suggestions as we go forward by email at

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