Is she really a woman or a rock face?

On the first floor of the museum, hidden in the darkness that surrounds windows on sunny days, is a small canvas. She could either be a quartz cliff or a draped, half-naked woman with nothing in her eyes. The canvas makes a rock stack of her – the Old Woman of Hoy maybe, further out at sea, surrounded by turbulent water to the point of turning water to wine and honey at night. Brushstrokes solidify her.

Like all small canvases, she draws you nearer. Smell the hydrangea heads and roses from the garden, chosen for perfume more than lifespan. Linger there. She is taller than man, she is taller than sea. Her neck is Leda’s Swan. And the closer you get, the deeper her dark becomes, the more holds you can identify in her drapes and in the shapes of her breasts, to make your way up with rope, slings and the right cams, some skill, from toe to head. Some crack climbing up the drape-like section to her crotch, a small roof at her waist and an easy climb from nipple to collarbone on an inward incline. She would not move.

In the room where she’s displayed, George Sand tolerated Chopin’s whining and his telling and re-telling of his near-death story by wild doctors in Majorca.

‘Three doctors visited me, the first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die,’ he said.

‘Maybe we are always all three,’ she said.

 

But on the ripped silk of this exhibition room walls, a plaque reads that here is Margaret holding her dead child. Not rock. Not canvas. Margaret who is holding her dead child. Like my own grandmother, Marged, who gave birth to a dead boy; its blood, that baby’s, the wrong colour, blue, all blue instead of red; a biological mistake. Marged, breasts exposed and ready to suckle, eyes matt and fixed on something we don’t see or isn’t there. So, in this painting of a stranger, my grandmother lives and her dead child lives and with them Sand and Chopin who rattled about and argued in this bedroom, and me in the same art-safe light, bending over to understand.

I look again at a dead baby, rock-climbing on cotton: what I didn’t want to see. Its hip against its mother’s hip, right foot ready to swing for a foothold, right arm reaching for a crevice. It does its damndest to nuzzle nose-first through her bellybutton, back to the womb.

And the sea of wine and honey is not that at all but men coming into shape. Two men look up from what was before the sea, one unable to raise his eyes and burying his head, the other with eyes as gold as the gilt-frame, sets his gaze at nothing but the sorrows of earth in a blanket at Marguerite’s bellybutton.

1 At a party hosted by Marie d’Agoult, Chopin met the French author George Sand. She repelled Chopin – ‘what an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?’

Siân Melangell Dafydd is an author, poet and translator. Her first published novel, Y Trydydd Peth (The Third Thing; Gomer, 2009) won her the coveted 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal. She writes in both Welsh and English and often collaborates with artists of other disciplines (dancer Sioned Huws’ Aomori Project; the book Ancestral Houses: the Lost Mansions of Wales/Tai Mawr a Mieri: Plastai Coll Cymru with poet Damian Walford Davies and artist Paul White [Gomer 2012]). She was the co-editor of the literary review Taliesin and Y Neuadd online literary magazine for six years. Her second Welsh language novel and a collection of hybrid literature, Spitting Distance are forthcoming. She works with authors and poets internationally to translate literature between minority languages and is undertaking research in yoga and writing as parallel practices. Check out her yoga and creative writing workshops and retreats all over Europe. She works as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the American University of Paris, France and course leader of the MRes in Transnational Writing at Bath Spa University, England.