Memory, as they say, is a funny thing. The last time I saw Leila, I cannot remember in any detail what we talked about, or what we watched on television after she returned, exhausted, from the chemo. I do remember the day she enjoyed me showing off her wigs though, and then I made her a steak salad with strawberry coulis for lunch. What really sticks in my mind was the shape on the ATM keypad she drew out for me, so I wouldn’t forget her pin number when I went shopping (she had insisted on paying for dinner, but was too weak to make it to the shops). 1431 marks out a right-angled triangle that hugs the top left hand corner of the keypad and stretchers along the top edge. Like a cobweb, she said.
As we gathered her poems and papers together to publish a collection, Joe, her boyfriend; Humphrey, a local poet; and I were faced with a series of uncomfortable choices: in the absence of the author, how were we to proceed? We could not suggest revisions to texts, or additional pieces that might develop successful themes; nor could we nail down meanings, dates, or place for every piece. It must be a basic polychotomy of life-writing between those with no chance of a personal connection to a subject lost in time; those writing about a living, talking and question-able person; and those who had known their subject, who had seen how they talked and moved, how they listened, how they pondered. Our project belonged to the latter category, complicated further by its reliance on an unorganised cache of Microsoft Word files and handwritten notebooks. In addition, it was horrifically painful.
As such, we approached the work both with our memories of Leila as the person(s) we knew, and the truth of her absence. Our best and most respectful way in, we felt, was to be as professional and dispassionate as possible, a position we could only hope to aim for. We were alone amongst these tens of thousands of words and hundreds of images, but always accompanied by a loose phantasm of recalled moments. Whilst she had shared poems and prose with Humphrey and I for several years, immersing ourselves in the editing let us discover a private Leila: the artist at work. Leila was a drafter, we discovered, editing again and again, renaming, restructuring, returning to motifs, refining them down. She planned her work from the outset, the idea skeletally sketched out, then fleshed out with each subsequent draft. It was apparent how her artistic focus changed as she travelled, grew into full womanhood, and as she grew ill. It was also possible to see her reconsider and evolve in her conceptions as she returned again and again to the themes that so dominated her art. We were thus faced with an act of recreation, of resurrection, and bringing something entirely new, dynamic, and synthetic into being.
Her prose combined elements clearly biographical but distorted through a lens of folk stories and imagined futures, both declarative and reflective, with a keen eye for human foibles and facades:
“I bought a pair of boys’ jeans which I rarely take off, and find myself craving a moustache”
“Rebecca opened the bedroom door with a slice of bright yellow and looked disapprovingly into the shadowed room before lighting her way through the corridor to the bathroom. Deftly flicking switches as she went”
“”Miss…” he uttered. He had meant the words to be strong and reassuring but they cracked and disappeared in the dark. He reached out his dry hand and took her right arm in his grip, she was as cold as the sea. Then her eyes opened in panic and she thrashed violently”
The prose was light on dialogue; she used instead monologue and the inner voice. The characters are, in the main, observers, at one remove; placed there by either circumstance or their predilections. Leila writes them as an observer too, distancing them from herself and from the reader, as they are from their fictive habitats, yet still brings forth their essence. Her creations breathe and sweat, her allegories lust and fidget.
Her images repeat other, more self-referential themes, almost to the point of iconography. Ideas and pressures of womanhood, family, sex and sexuality, weakness, and the peace of the banal are all essentialised and distilled. Figures either emaciated to the width of a single pen line, or reduced to abstract shapes. These are, by design I believe, both open and closed to interpretation, a scaffold and a safe. An ongoing conflict (or synthesis?) exists in her visual art between simplicity and complexity, solidity and willowy sparseness, the plain and the mosaiced, the ephemera and the all too fleshy, untitled or adorned with cryptic notes.
Using an array of voices, Leila used her poetry as a far more personal mode of expression. Form was an intrinsic part of function for her as she whizzed from one tradition to another:
The poppy set slumber
For Dorothy in her blunder.
Sleep in an apple core
And let me rise in spring
In that same young tree’s blossoming.
She is older.
I’d give her three or four years on me at most
But she is such an innocent.
The pain of living has not set in yet, But I’ll bet that it does
And that’s where we differ
Your silk and leather,
my pauper’s wool
wet with weather.
My poxed fingers
and yellow thumbs
will sleep with Him
when all is done
and I will miss
your hissing tongue.
When I first was able to rouse myself to actually seriously read though the collection, rather than staring at words made meaningless by fresh grief and tears, I stumbled upon one piece of prose where Leila had quoted me. I do remember saying it and her nodding, more in conversational politeness than hearty agreement it seemed to me. The quote is unimportant, but the fact she had taken it up as a part of her art is not… The piece was saved under the name “Dialogue”. And imperfectly, made clumsy by our limited understanding and craft, this is what this book hopefully provides: continued dialogue with Leila, with her thoughts and her creative spirit, with how we remember her and how she remembered the world.
Leila Ann Soltau died of cancer, just shy of 31, on 26th September 2012.
Unsteady, a collection of her art, prose, and poems is available. All proceeds go to costs and two local Oxford charities; Helen and Douglas House where she spent her last days and the Young Women’s Music Project.
On the 6th November, from 7:00 at Fusion Arts (by the East Oxford Community centre on Cowley road) Unsteady will be launched. Books will be on sale, there will be readings from the collection and reminiscences of Leila’s life as well as examples of her work. Please join us. Stuart Bryant.