Bristol Encounters I

Written by Sriram Natarajan


Editor’s Preface

The question ‘what do we seek in places’ supposes a second question, which runs twofold; what is it that we find and what eludes our search? How do we seek place and can places seek us? Indeed, who or what is it we become through our longing for place? What of words and the ecology of ‘things’, relationships, sensations and meanings they conjure and are inseparably woven into? Do they shed light on our search or do they tie us in knots of meaning from and through which we attempt to extricate ourselves, thus constituting the very search itself?

These are just a handful of introspections that feel most pertinent to share after having read and edited a four-part series of writing called Bristol Encounters written by Sriram Natarajan, a current MSc student. In it I recognise an homage to place, to writing in its broadest sense (expressive materiality, timeless poetry, methodological knowing) and a wondering and a wandering about the world (a triplet of experience, encounter and attunement).

The following piece is the first of four encounters to be posted here over the coming weeks. Writing as an editor and an academic in training I am wary of the urge to frame the meaning of Sriram’s writing here. I ponder the adjectival categorisations at my disposal and my motives too. The list in mind is certainly not exhaustive, while at the same time it is excessive. Readers may want to return and ruminate here or elsewhere for that matter. More pressing however, is the invitation I now extend to you to delve into an exquisite watery reverie in search of your own meaning.


Collage of leaf on cobblestone

Bristol harbourside. Autumn evening and the temperature plummets. It has been a month now since I first laid my eyes upon the lights shimmering, bouncing off the ripples. It has been a month of walks, back to that exact same spot across from the Watershed, separated from me by a slithery strip of black water, and I let the browning leaves guide the paths that I take. They lay strewn against the paving stones in a collage of shapes and textures, reeling me into old memories, sensations,dreams. The jaggedness of their outlines submerging the straight lines of the paving – down along this path, the bars and pubs across water and moored boats gleaming unnaturally white in the moonlight. Today, this spot for me is all about the play of overlapping textures – over the weeks that I’ve come here, I’ve learnt of its personality, appreciating the unique place-ness it exudes. I watch it now with detached patience, the way light reflects off  things, and now I trace what can be known by silhouette while unnameable shapes flirt in the shadows. I watch the paving stones spread out in a jigsaw puzzle of shadows and light, under barren trees.

There are times when the inside of my head merges into the exterior world with discomfiting fluidity. Languages play games as usual in this heady mix. I think of the Portuguese word for paving stone – ‘paralelepípedo’. It seems so appropriately to evoke the linearity of laid stone. How words resonate the qualities of the things they describe, all those multiplicities and senses to be felt and tasted! The English word ‘cobble’ in cobblestone gives me the sense of a haphazard coming together – an improvised, tense agglomeration – ‘cobbled together’. Cobble is also a round word, like the stones it describes. Words and things are hard to pull apart sometimes, and in my head today they are as much material as they are vibration.

Ah, saxophone refrains! Filling me with melancholy, or is that me projecting my image of melancholia onto an indifferent background? Perhaps I see something of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, and see in the inky blues and sulphuric yellows a hint of that Parisian romance. But I have never been to Paris and perhaps the painting will now forever come to represent my idea of it, even more so than the actual place itself – I find an imaginary Paris in this real Bristol – in this nocturnal landscape of contrasts.

What do we chase in places? What are we looking for in atmospheres? Is poetry in the place or in our heads? Is this perhaps the wrong question?

As I repeat my walks to that same spot, each time it gains a new significance, a new instance of familiarity, a sedimentation of memory that is increasingly difficult to escape. I try to dredge it for clues of its power – to drag me out of my roost every evening, challenging every sinew of my body with its unreasonable demands – whether it be feeding the gulls or melting in loneliness. It is my escape from all that keeps me tied to my human self – my relationships and conversations and concerns about political economies and whatnots in rooms still grappling with post-colonial anxiety. How empty otherwise would these words be, if they didn’t lose their meaning under the clear moon? For my existence, embedded in this milieu of people and places, to have any meaning at all, I realise it must first abandon all semblance of sense when confronted by naked moonlight upon rippling shore. It is the only way.


All that comes to me are words:

Quick as arrows, slow to form

Blinkered answers to unknown questions

I think:

Orange blankets

And jokes recalled

Of stranger nights.

Wet blue

Sunken yellow

I want you

In my wind-stained arms

All of you

In all your colours

Pure as winter

Shrivelling my skin.

Body turns to stone, slope and cutting wind

Leaves change shape

Teardrops to clouds

Light’s new significance,

In all geometry –

Geometry of illusion.

Ripple carries swan

Snaps me back!

The cold is nothing now,

Another sullen captive

In an ever-changing landscape

Branches above will drop

And ground give way

Moving in and out

Long after my bones will be

Ground to dust.

Face your fears! Hand frozen?

Who needs fingers

The words they write themselves!

Soon the stars will be seen

And it will be clear again,

That day and night are one

And I an endless sea


Written by Sriram Natarajan

Edited by Stanley Connell-Longman (blog co-editor)

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