I have a map of Jamaica in front of me, I’m thinking about how places connect. My friend Santhia has sent me two pebbles as a gift from Freilassing, in the German Alps, and they’re making me
reflect on distance. Isn’t our perception of distance, in a certain way, a trickery, given its tendency to mask the ways in which faraway places interconnect? I’m from a region in Jamaica called Manchester. We live in other peoples’ imaginaries. Someone thought that my region could be a copy of another place; they thought that by naming it they could recreate the familiar on a foreign soil. Every time I view these place names on the map of my country, I’m forced to remember that we have been owned, that they tried to own even our imaginations.

Consider Cambridge, Dundee, Stonehenge. Can you imagine… Stonehenge? Such a foreign formation. Such located history, and yet they thought it fitting to stick it here? Such imposition of their own memory. This was empty space, they thought, no people here – empty space for their own history.

During lockdown, I’ve begun an epistolary exchange with my friend Santhia, from a town called
Freilassing, in Bavaria. Our relationship began and continues as a linguistic exchange, a tandem we call it, in which she helps me with my German and I her, with her French. I’ve made leaps and bounds in the German language, thanks to Santhia, but our relationship has become much more than that. I count it as one of the most significant developments in my life during lockdown. Through this relationship, we’ve talked a lot about breathing. Our weekly talks via Microsoft Teams have been themselves a way of breathing through exchanges of poetry and missives, through our discussions about the body, about what this time means for our bodies, for our loved ones, for us. I’ve thought about the breath thanks to this relationship in which we have never been in each other’s presence.

I write a note to her.


You sent me two stones several months ago and I’ve waited for the right time to hold them under water as you told me to, and wait to see the patterns. You wrote about the stream and the mountains. Aus meiner Heimatregion? Is that what you said? I want to think of where you live as a Dorf, a village, but I know it isn’t. Whatever you wrote, I recorded in my mind that I would see the place where you live. And think of that journey, from a river in your Alpine mountains to a paltry saucepan in my kitchen in Leeds. But they needed to be submerged in some form of water for me to be able to see their complexity. I hold them there for minutes on end.

What do rocks know?
I’ve searched for ways of standing in Coffee Grove, in Leeds, and in Freilassing at the same time.
Do I now have a part of your mountains and rivers in me?
And how does a place become ours? If not only by birth…

At times I see in your rocks Coffee Grove, my elevated village in the mountains of Manchester,
Jamaica. Note the name of my parish. Manchester. It’s a karst geology; you can clearly see that at some point these high hills were under the ocean.

In one of the rocks, there’s something like photos I’ve seen of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and I wonder, is the whole universe in a stone? Their colours appear as if by magic. There’s a thread resembling a blood vessel running around the circumference of the thickest point. There’s an orange-like mineral deposit. Holding this stone in my hand, I slowly turn it under water, slowly discovering different regions. I’m travelling at a speed too fast even for my thoughts. And yet I feel myself slowly moving between Coffee Grove, Leeds, a town called Freillassing, and many roads in between, roads I’ve taken and roads I’m conjuring.

Rocks are great gifts; you’ve given me place, and time.
How did you choose them? Did something about these ones call out to you?

One rock is oceanic, like egg, like womb, the other telluric, two bits of earth held together by salt. There are so many minerals here I cannot name, so much time; the salt seems to show something in motion.

I read that the river Salzach derives its name from the German word Salz, meaning salt, and from Aach, a widespread Upper German hydronym, from Old High German aha, ‘running water’. There are old ways of seeing no longer available to us except, perhaps, when we show enough love to the things that surround us, the Gewalten. You show love to the ‘running water’ that you wade into, up to your knees.

Perhaps only through such desire do things begin to reveal old meanings. When you go to the river, you encounter that Aach, that particular running water, its mental shape.

Today, after reading your words, I recognised the word Salz in the name of the river. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been learning German. A new world has been opened to me. Old sounds fall differently on my ear. Sounds previously dead come alive; I enter their life. This new language of mine is a new way of living with things. I will never see the world the same way as
before. This same body does new things with the air. It sends new waves out into the world.

Recognising your physical world is also being able to recognise its sounds. Salzach. The world sometimes shows layers which we peel back, if we are so lucky. By hearing what you hear, perhaps I can begin to imagine what you see. Perhaps only. Perhaps not. I remember the salt in the rock. I had once heard you call the name of the river, it flowed beneath my consciousness.

Fichtenharz. Z.hlflussiges, klebendes, bernsteinfarbenes, würzig duftendes Ausscheidungsprodukt von Fichten. Fichte. Before, this was only the name of a Romantic philosopher. Before today, it evoked Sturm und Drang. Through the landscape you share with me, different orders of thinking are available. I will never hear Fichte the same way again. It’s my Geist that’s expanding, going into different places. With Fichtenharz, I’ve already travelled into the woods where you walk. Only very lightly. Only very partially. In fact, a part of me is still there. Looking at Harz, resin, on the bark of the Fichte. Bernsteinfarbenes Ausscheidungsprodukt. Bernstein will now be more than a famous pianist.

We’ve never had to contend for breath as in recent times, and entry into your world has enabled me to breathe. In this season of plagues, language is one way in which I’ve breathed. I take deeper breaths through my efforts at apprehending these new sounds, making words out of noise. Making sense, emotion, world. Learning the language involved some heavy, difficult
breathing in the beginning. Then there was the breathing of desire, the way my heartbeat raced as I began to see that world form, as I began to feel new meaning flowing beneath my skin, as the world revealed new sense to me, new ways of feeling and seeing. Forming unknown words requires breath, the practice needed for the tongue to gain new memory. Your eyes allow you to see obstacles, the terrain before you, you know where to place your feet, your eyes help you to commit a familiar room to memory, but there’s a sixth sense that renders a space familiar. I feel that the tongue also has a sixth sense. For me, learning a language has always been a fleshly thing, sensual, engaging my sense of space. My mind reaches out into the world in ways I cannot
understand; it makes me bigger. It suggests a way of taking up space in the world, a way for the world to enter me. The experience is poetic. Uttering different sounds leads one to breathe differently, for even the rhythms of speech are different.

In this season of the plague, which is also the season of ‘Black Lives Matter’, I’ve discovered different ways of breathing. Ich brauchte auch, wie Du, die Fenster weit öffnen zu können. I rushed outdoors to encounter the breath of hillsides, rocks, and trees, to find and exchange breath with the streams in the interstices of a noisy landscape. This poetry of visiting the Salzach and der See, your lake, has been a way of being alive.

I’m thankful that the land is planted in your words.

Is language something that grew out of the earth? I say the word Dringlichkeit out loud, repeating it to myself so that it enters memory; I feel roots forming; perhaps those roots are in my body. They grow slowly, forming a rhizome. By morning, that rhizome will have expanded, I’ll wake up to discover new regions, new networks created overnight. I’ll find surprises, like knowing my way through a wood, or over a Brücke, a bridge, through a wood I didn’t know existed. There’ll be flowers perhaps. Mushrooms. A new tree? Poppeln.

The word Regen is spicy. Thermoskanne is aromatic. Rätsel is fragrant.

Then, at a certain point, it suddenly strikes me, while reading Mary Ruefle’s essay ‘On Secrets’, that I was being given the gift of being a child again, of having a first experience of the world. Ruefle’s words brought me a conceptual clarity: ‘the unborn child in the womb perceiving through sound an outside world it has absolutely no experience of, no concept of, and no perception of expect through sound. The experience of the fetal being is the experience of sound without sense; the fetal being is overhearing a secret, a true secret insofar as what it hears is not revealed as having a discernible meaning, and so is still kept, still remains a secret, all the while still being experienced, revealed, as sound, is not hiding itself.’


Jason Allen-Paisant is a scholar, award-winning poet, and writer. His first collection, Thinking with Trees, won the poetry category of the 2022 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. His second collection, Self-Portrait as Othello, is the winner of the 2023 Forward Prize for Best Collection and the 2023 T. S. Eliot Prize.

From Magma 88, Underworld

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