Ruth Barker

Conversation and the art of something


Men Talk



Rabbit rabbit rabbit women

Tattle and titter

Women prattle

Women waffle and witter


Men Talk. Men Talk.[1]


Reading the opening of this poem makes me think about talking. And it makes me think about conversation.

Conversation is not just talking. It is, specifically, the speech that escapes me to hang in the air between myself and another.                                

Communication exits my body through my mouth and through the movements of my hands and through the form of my shoulders and through the space between my elbows and the table and through the wrinkling of my nose and through the shapes made by every part of my body, in fact, as it exists with proximity and distance to other objects and surfaces.

It is one of the parts of me that extends the physical boundaries of my self, and ventures hesitantly out into the world outside of me.

Conversation exists in the points at which this extended line of my self meets the line of another's, and tangles with it. For true conversation to occur, perhaps both lines must be changed by the meeting.





A      So did you go? I can’t believe you went…

B      I had to go. What would you have said if I didn’t go?

A      I don’t know what I would have said. I can’t imagine you not going. Do you want that last piece?

B      No, I don’t want it. You finish it.

A      Ok, but only if you don’t mind.

My conversation is thrown out into the world to catch on the outstretched lines of others. Enmeshed, it comes back to me. Sometimes I recognise the returning thoughts. Sometimes they are unfamiliar. They have grown, nurtured by the spaces between myself and other people.

If the spaces between the people are too big, the conversation falls through the gaps and is lost. If the spaces are too small, it has nowhere to go and nothing to feed on. Only sometimes are the spaces just right.

Our conversation moves in the space between us. Sometimes it is closer to me, and sometimes it is closer to you. The conversation pulls and pushes, steering itself in our ether.







So I’ll be blunt as I dare.

I’ll be crude as I am bare

under this ill-fitting gown.

I’ll be truthful as flesh and bone,

which is all that I am now

and which is all that I own.


I am…

(with great boldness and courage)

I am Odysseus. I AM ODYSSEUS,

son of Laertes, known the world over

for cunning and guile and strength of mind.

Odysseus – a hero of Troy.[2]


Sometimes the most interesting thing about a conversation is not the words themselves, but the things around them.

These things include:

The small movements we make with our faces.

The way we tilt our heads when we are listening.

The way we rub one finger against another.

The way we rub our earrings with our thumbs.

The way our breaths punctuate our speaking and listening.

The way we press our fingers together.

The way we say Hmm and Mmm and Ahh.

The way we laugh.

The way we smile.

The way we can raise one of our eyebrows (the left one).

The way we purse our lips.

The way we look up.

The way we look down at the floor or the table.

The way we move our eyes to look into your eyes, or to look away.

The way we finally meet your gaze.

The way we look at our wristwatches.

The way we say Hmm and Mmm and Ahh again.

The way we look first at your left eye, and then at your right (we keep changing our minds).

The way we look away.




11.            However, Peggy Phelan’s (1993) proposition that the ephemerality of performance unavoidably stages loss might place performance in closer proximity to de Man’s understanding of autobiography as akin to the production of an epitaph. Performance is a fleeting act that sits precariously between being present and absent, here and gone. Once staged, it can never be recovered, other than in memory. Performance then, might be thought of as a rehearsal for our death.[3]




Sometimes I think of my relationship to the books I read as a kind of conversation. I read almost (it seems) continuously. I like to be in the midst of several books at the same time. I may read a serious novel in the mornings, and a thoughtful book of ideas throughout the day, over lunch or in the moments between tasks. At night I read fat, mindless, glossy-spined books about murder and the pathology of violence. I try not to guess who the murderers will be, pretending to surprise myself.

When I read, I extend part of myself into the text, but I also keep something back. What happens to my self when I am lost in a book? I’ve often wondered.

In this way, reading may be like conversation: it is a time when we meet another’s thoughts halfway, and may be changed as a result.

For this reason, reading and conversing are also acts of small eroticism, as we allow aspects of another person enter into us. This penetration is almost always a pleasure.

I write, I read, I think. Sometimes I extend myself into an idea that originates outside of myself. this allows the idea to penetrate me. I realise that this is paradoxical.






A      So I don’t know, but I want to know. How do we go on from here?

B      But we don’t go on. We don’t go anywhere. We’re just here (in the darkness).

A      It’s not so dark, I don’t think. It’s not so dark.

B      I don’t think we go anywhere. We stay, if we’re lucky; and everything else moves around us.




Often, I read about Odysseus. When I do so, my thoughts move towards him (towards the written images of him). Then my thoughts pull back again, towards me. What I read becomes the other party in an ongoing conversation about an absent hero.

The conversation regularly shifts its ground, and the hero we’re discussing seems to change before my eyes. He’s a mutable, unstable figure. I’m not sure what to make of him, and for this reason he continues to fascinate me. Some of the things that fascinate me about Odysseus (some of the things that the conversations about him often return to) are:

That Odysseus is the king of Ithaca, survivor the Trojan war and inventor of the Trojan Horse, who took ten years to find his way home after the ten year war was over.

That Odysseus is also Ulysses.

That Odysseus is also a murderer.

That Odysseus is also a hero.

That Odysseus is also a storyteller.

That Odysseus is also a womaniser.

That Odysseus is also a lover of women.

That Odysseus is also a myth.

That Odysseus is also ancient.

That Odysseus is also continuous.

That Odysseus is also new.

That Odysseus is also a trickster.

That Odysseus is also abhorred.

That Odysseus is also celebrated.


And as I keep the conversation going, the many figures of Odysseus pass lightly between the book and I. I put the book down and try another. As I do so, his outline changes again, but every shift and contradiction renders his shape more indelible.

Such is the nature of myth, perhaps.






A      They’re nice, aren’t they?

B      You’ve got a lot of them. What will you do with them all?

A       I’m not sure. I suppose I’ll just keep them.




In the Jeffrey Room of the Mitchell Library, are the six volumes of a book called Imaginary Conversations by Walter Savage Landor. The volumes contain imagined dialogues between historical and literary personalities. The book was published in sections, between 1824 and 1853.

A quote from Landor, in a 1973 biography by H Van Thal, has him recalling that "When I was younger… among the commonest of my occupations was the bringing before me such heroes and heroines of antiquity, such poets and sages, such of the prosperous and unfortunate as most interested me …[and e]ngaging them in conversations best suited to their characters".

Which of us has not imagined the spoken words of another? At times, we even think in conversations. At times, our thoughts move back and forth like pendulums.

I have a reprinted, edited version of Landor’s Imaginary Conversations. It sits on my bookcase between Conversations Before the End of Time by Suzi Gablik, and Conversations at the Castle by Mary Jane Jacob. It is a hardback Everyman edition from 1933, and has an introduction by someone called Havelock Ellis. It is also Mr. Ellis who has, somewhat brutally, cropped the contents of the original six immense volumes into 353 small printed pages. On the front of the book is a drawing of a knot, beaded and coiled, with the initials E.R. in the lower right hand fold.



[1] Men Talk, Liz Lochhead


[2]  Homer’s Odyssey, Simon Armitage.


[3] Endnote to Politics (Of Self): The subject of Autobiography, in Autobiography and Performance, D. Heddon