6 February 2013
Articles | Arts

Exquisite Corpse: ‘Trapped In This’

It's A Tale of Two Letters as we ask 40 of our favourite artists to play the parlour game

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Exquisite Corpse is a Surrealist take on an old parlour game called Consequences, in which participants write a word or phrase on a piece of paper, then pass it on, but each new contributor is only allowed to read part of what’s already been written.

When the Surrealists tried it they came up with “Le cadavre / exquis / boira / le vin / nouveau” (The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine) and the name stuck.

You can make up your own rules for the game, as we did. Because we wanted lots of musicians/writers to take part (40 ended up doing so), and a story that would hopefully be fluid and make some sense (you be the judge of that), we allowed players to read every contribution before adding theirs.

We initially insisted that contributions be kept to a single sentence. That didn’t work out, because we didn’t have the balls to tell Ian Rankin to re-submit his entry. We subsequently requested something short and simple, and that, of course, is a tough ask of many musicians/writers. As such, we refused five contributions, cut down and edited four that were decadent or over-long, and corrected grammar.

The final participant, Robert Wyatt, titled the story.

* * *

Trapped In This

A Tale Of Two Letters 

The electrifying horror of that first letter still racks my nights — endless and unsleepness — staring through cold glass, under a gibbous moon, I remember its revolting — some would say disgusting, sickening — content. [Mark E Smith]

Countless nights passed where I witnessed the dawn and that rising sun in me did not dispel the dark spirits of that wretched letter — only illuminated them further — until I finally had to retrieve it to read aloud to discern if I had made it more in my mind than it was. [Bill Callahan]

Armed with a shovel and the spotlight of a trillion overbearing stars, I descended into the foreign, untamed wilds of the back garden to uncover that unholy script from where it lay entombed and mouldering amidst the detritus of my whole existence. [Angus Andrew, Liars]

“Ethelrida, Ethelrida!” I hollered, the torch of the moon silver-casting my jaw and then, suddenly behind me, panting and the stench of hot, fetid breath. [Anna Calvi]

The nape of my neck prickled. I dared not turn to face my nemesis. The first letter had done its work. Darkness had been given life. I heard paper crackling. The second letter was about to be delivered. I reached my hand behind me. [Ian Rankin]

It was a light thing. It was only an envelope. And its messenger was only the brief hint of a voice that disappeared when the deed was done. But I was afraid to read it, because I knew the writer, and I hated the writer. [Emmy The Great]

Ethelrida’s second letter contained even more bile and poison than the first. I hated her because she reminded me of what I used to be. I dug up the first letter, placed both in my breast pocket and thought of all my mistakes. [Darren Hayman]

And that’s when it hit me, a sorrow so deep, so crushing, that it stole the very air I breathed. I sank to my knees and sobbed, tears spilling down into the mud. It was all my fault, all of it. Everything she had done, everything she had become, it was all because of me. [Gary Numan]

I looked down at my left arm. There it was. What was it? It didn’t lead anywhere. It attached to my shoulder. My shoulder led up to here, where it got lost. The only thing left was my nose, a kind of blur, and the very top of my cheek, and my upper lip if I stuck it out. [Faris Badwan, The Horrors]

My initial shock at my formlessness turned into elation. I felt cleansed. If I’d had both lips (a mouth, a tongue, a head — the whole caboodle), I would have squeaked with joy. Then I noticed the nose. It was not my nose, but it was a familiar conk nonetheless, “Ethelrida’s fucking beak,” I thought to myself. [Luke Haines]

And it was with the greatest of physical exertions that I managed to protrude my (my?) tongue out; a few millimetres at a time — in, out, in, out — gradually gaining confidence until I was able to flash the tip across the nez, and there came at once a foul tang to my mouth, a taste which I quite arbitrarily attached to the image of my father. [Tom Fleming, Wild Beasts]

“Whoa… Wait, whuuuut?” I thought, “What am I doing here, licking myself?” Licking myself. More or less, anyways. I tried to enjoy a momentary lapse of laughter at the thought of how ridiculous a fly on the wall might find me at this very instant. Shaking my head here, at myself, by myself. “I’m fine,” I tried to say. But I wasn’t fine. [Kurt Vile]

I wasn’t even ‘I’: shifting through dimensions, changing in shape, and otherwise altered so profoundly moment by moment that feelings didn’t have the time to penetrate and even the most recent experience went unremembered. Relief from volition. Was this death? It was kind of exquisite. [Richard Hell]

A cloud slipped across the moon. [Ben Watt]

I read the letters and the memories came flooding back. They seemed to be written with hatred when there was so much love at first. My tears mixed with freshly dug soil. They were shining in the moonlight. Is that what was moving me? It struck me what I had to do next… it was obvious. I had been such a fool. [Tim Burgess]

I shuffled back to the house and slowly pushed open the conservatory door. Lumps of filth fell from me at every painful step, and the wet sound of my foot dragging behind me turned my stomach as I made my way down the hallway to the study. Eventually I collapsed on the altar of my father’s writing desk, and with my one good arm reached for his pen. [Steven Adams, The Singing Adams]

I wrote and wrote for the longest time, my calligraphy dancing languorously past the pages to the edge of my desk, and from there swinging in harmony all up my arms until my words escaped the constraints of this tangible bedding and rose holy among the apocalyptic dark matter that caroused my body. The one thing I had so acutely avoided was now freeing me from my own subconscious dishonesty. And at that moment I knew, or at least accepted, that I, I was Ethelrida, and Ethelrida was me. [Beth Jeans Houghton]

I couldn’t understand it: why had I, a derivatives analyst of Sino-Norwegian extraction and a citizen of 22nd century Guangzhou, somehow been transported back into a Gothic vision of Victorian England, as a middle-aged woman? What exactly had gone wrong with the Time Crosser, and how would I ever be able to get back to the reality I knew? [Brian Eno]

“Think! Think, dammit!” How was I ever going to get back before the end of the trading day? I’ve been in tight spots before, teetering on the edge of a precipitous drop, and somehow managed to scrape through. Was the key to my confounding predicament hidden in the very substance of the letters themselves, their very materia prima? [Jim Sclavunos]

I looked closer at myself, searching for some detail which would explain my strange wrinkled image in the mirror — the mirror of my trader’s mind, perhaps — and then the horrible truth wrung out of my veins and across the desk of Papa. Blood red ink! Papa’s desk — the one that Marianne had once written that brilliant first novel on. What was it called? Who were the publishers? And where was my dummy? [Simon Fisher Turner]

These are the sorts of things I should remember. But was does it matter? I have followed the path laid out by a mad man and been driven mad as a result. [Damian ‘Pink Eyes’ Abraham, Fucked Up]

Everything then melted into its other; me a ghostly voyeur as Marianne made love to Ethelrida in shallow graves under blood-red half-moons, a howling orgasmica of integers and decimals, percentages and aggregates in the language of time and the lilt of history. A letter crushed in Papa’s hand… and soon I was somewhere new. [Aidan Moffat]

Shivering, I awoke in a roadside ditch, the sounds of some raucous carnival an eerie Doppler in the distance. The sun was setting, bathing the anonymous industrial wasteland around me in a sickly Fanta-ish light. I looked down at my body. The amount of lace I was wearing seemed — how shall I put it? — incongruous. [Lawrence Arabia]

Goon Road eventually yields a municipality: a base camp with scaled trapezoidal security panelling; a bar with biomorphic paintings for sale; a statue of Chevalier D’eon; street meat. [Daniel Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never]

A white crow appeared and perched itself on my left shoulder, his right eye gleaming with secrecy and abandonment. [Sune Rose Wagner, The Raveonettes]

Aware of a sudden numbness at my feet, I looked down. Thick, flesh-coloured tree roots had sprouted from beneath my boot laces, entwining my thighs, stiffening at my hips. My entire anatomy, now cocooned in a strange kind of tree bark, gently creaked against the drone of a fizzing, blue strip light. [Gazelle Twin]

Suddenly, centuries of sleep crust broke in my eyes. My first thought led my hands to fumble for the letters. I had the letters. “Where am I?” I asked the nearest I could find to a beauty — more a mess of scarred fat bundled by hair. “This is Guangzhou, 2156!” she screamed. “Grow some fucking balls.” [Dan Michaelson]

“GODFUCKKINGDAMNNIT!” I cried, and ripped the sim stim from its porthole at the base of my skull. That was the last goddamn time I was buying anymore knock-off time sims from the moto-rickshaw in that goddamn hutong. What was that fucking Wuthering Heights / Big Bird filth monster nightmare!? [EMA]

I went in to a bar, my neck still pulsating with waves of pain. The pain was good, though — it made me feel more alive since… I couldn’t bring myself to think of it again. I ordered a whisky and took a table in the corner. That’s when he first appeared to me, a rapturous symphony of leather and bandoliers. I knew what he was thinking; what he had fought his way to this backwater hellhole to ask of me. [James Allan, Glasvegas]

It was a question that only he could ask, one that had I asked myself would have caused me to collapse inwardly; to see myself as others see me — a weakling, a fool, a shadow of how I envisage all that I am and stand for. He asked me with an intensity and intrusion normally reserved for the final throes of family ending disagreements: “How did you end up like this?” [Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai]

I began to laugh. “I hadn’t ‘ended up’ like anything. This life is as much a dream as those of sleep.” And I slung the whisky aside, grabbed a knife and spiked open a tin of sailor’s arm, emptying it onto the bar where it quivered cold as a mermaid’s thigh. “You’ll need to learn the hymns of the hermit if you’re ever going to escape your self-made hell,” I advised him. [Billy Childish]

A sad smile melted his lips as he glanced from me to the jelly on the mantel, both shivering in the gloom, both flushed with the same sickly pink hue. He gestured to the blade and pointed to the door, his smile suddenly a comfort rather than a wound. [Rachel Davies, Esben & The Witch]

But murder and hell was all of what was left when talking had ceased suiting the situation, and I would choke him as long as he lived to be choked. [Eugene S Robinson, Oxbow]

I wrung him out of life like a wet cloth. When I let go, he slumped to the floor, a fleshy sack of once-was man. It wasn’t the scene it might have been. The eyes in the bar looked up, took note and returned to their tables. People here react only to protect their investments. And his name was not contracted in the letters. Unlike mine. [Liz Green]

Swift transition of time and place — black cab back to Trellick Tower, London, 3.24am. Cool summer night. Sat in the kitchen, trembling, useless. Not showing in the mirror again. Hundreds of letters pinned all around the room. Waiting for guidance, as usual. Eventually, I heard that scraping sound. “The sailor’s arm episode was the last straw,” said the voice behind the wallpaper. “I guide you, give you clues, money, even a randomised morphology licence and you mess it all up with avarice, envy, drugs, phoney mysticism and murder. Somehow, we have to resolve all this crap before you get burnt and I get assigned a new council estate.” [John Foxx]

Any sense of otherness ceased. This for sure is a fetid mix of mind-fucked dreamscapes of all I’ve feared, loathed and loved screaming at me from every crevice. What’s that moving in the corner… a trick of the dim light or part of my warped illusion? BANG! BANG! BANG! The door shook on its hinges. [Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter]

“I’ve brought you a cup of tea, son, and a plate of digestives without cheese. You had us worried there.” [King Creosote]

Ethelrida. She stood silhouetted in the doorway, the centuries-old china rattling in her skeletal grasp. Her footsteps echoed in the darkness, and as she drew closer, I began to make out what was left of my mother’s haggard face. I shuddered, my mind afire at the wretched tangle of maternal sympathy and murderous contempt before me. [Jimmy Martin, Teeth of the Sea]

“Thanks for the cookies, Ma. The letters you wrote are safe here with me. I know they’re soiled — I had them in the garden… Why are you looking at me like that, Ma?” [Son of Dave]

At last, her own calm whisper: “You twist, turn, and writhe, but still you are always, always trapped in this, our infinitely unchangeable past. Get used to it, son.” [Robert Wyatt]

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