Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The intimate mathematics of gravity on the body that has not slept

This winter more than any other I can remember, I've redefined my relationship to snow, and to walking in it.

I haven't been sleeping properly this season - it's either been over-long and oddly ineffective (waking up with every muscle thoroughly drained of energy) or it's been totally absent.

I started a poetry series of little things that I write exclusively when sleep-deprived. I wrote another just now. Last night I couldn't sleep. I sprawled out and flipped through sundry books; I took other books off my parents' shelves (Connolly's selected writings were too intense, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - with another person's marginalia - was much too compelling); I paced; I looked at things. Eventually, I took a walk in the woods that surround may parents' house. The moon wasn't out, but the snow gave off the most gorgeous ambient light.

Someone had been cross-country skiing up there. I wonder how they were able to avoid branches.

I listened to the trees creak. I held onto their trunks when the wind made them sway.

I rested at the top of the hill, determined to wait until I heard an owl. I did.

And as I started to return home, I saw a coyote. It looked at me. I looked at it. We parted ways.

I came home and thought about things. Earlier in the night, I had heard my father murmur that my mother is so beautiful as he was falling asleep. What a privilege to grow up amidst a love as deep as theirs.

Who could sleep in the face of that?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"on its string. Birdlike, the almanac"

What perfect timing, I thought, to come across this article about the discovery of the oldest known brain in Britain, just as the days for An Archaeology of Wonder are dwindling away.

One of the most beautiful things about the discovery, at least as far as I can tell from the articles I read, is that it's of no neurological import. This will yield no significant information about the human brain, itself remaining essentially unchanged, they claim, in the last 2,000 years. So then, it's an object of auratic wonder - that thing which has somehow (and here's what they're trying to figure out) bent the rules of time and decay.

No other soft organs but it.

It was Randy who suggested, when I enthusiastically declared that I was "SO going to write a poem about this," that I make it a sestina. Good advice. I'm in the midst of mapping it out. How appropriate.

My notes...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wading ankle-deep in the bluebells

I've felt so much like Leonard Bast these days.

I think it's partly that I'm writing about culture and class in various places, so there are obvious associations there. But in some more fundamental way, I have been either fighting or succumbing to the urge to walk off into the night for the last couple weeks.

Taken at 3:13 a.m.

Here's to not getting crushed.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

On my magnificent good fortune

Tonight, sitting in the 32-degree cold and rural dark outside of my sister's house, I saw three shooting stars.

"One for each of us," I thought. Nora, Patrick, and me.

I am extraordinarily lucky to have these people I so admire and love as my siblings and ballasts.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Good idea or lack of sleep?

It could well be the lack of sleep that's behind this idea, but I am really taken with it.

One of the theories about what was so unnerving about hysteria in the 19th century was that it disrupted language, so that signifiers and referents would become blatantly unhitched in the mouths of the patients. This relationship to language was part of the reason I wanted to write the series of poems in the first place. What better than poetry to deal with this sort of fear?!

I've struggled off and on with insomnia for my as much of my life as I can remember. It wasn't really until I was older, though, that it started to make me panic when I couldn't sleep. As a child, it just seemed like one of those things that sometimes happens - and it allotted me time to myself that was still and quiet, something I've always already needed anyway.

I hardly slept at all last night, maybe and hour and a half - 5:30-7:00 a.m. It's 9:44 p.m. right now.

Halfway through this morning I had the idea to start of cycle of poems only written when extremely exhausted. Exhaustion unhinges my ability to use language (I can't tell you how hard I am concentrating now to write this!) just enough that interesting things begin to happen. I'm not certain that the poems from these cycles would end up finished in themselves, but they are certainly things I'd be hard pressed to come up with in other states.

So, here's the idea that makes me excited. What if I created a new section of the hysteria/Charcot book based on these insomnia poems? They certainly mirror the radical disjunction of the language the patients used (at least insofar as how it's represented in the medical journals).

It seems like a really good idea now. I shall have to put it to the test when I've slept.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Old Suzy made me stand where I was and came over and brushed all the snow off of me."

About a year ago now, I wrote a poem about Thumbelina and the early days of my parents' courtship.  Today, I read this remarkable post by my beautiful friend Sarah.  It's about Champlion's General Store - the place both my mother and I worked in our early twenties, the place my parents lived when they first got together, the place I learned how to start a fire in a woodstove, and the place I was cured of many, many ailments.

I'll be thinking of Bob a lot through this season.

It might be time to revise that poem with some detail from the Daily Campus article.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Amongst ourselves

I've been thinking and writing a lot these days of home.

The other weekend, waiting for a friend in New York, I was very struck by the observation that even in the city I find myself surrounded by hay. It's not that there was hay pervading my childhood, but I've come to associate it with home, since they got the horses. Now the smell of hay - musty, grassy, and warm - makes me think of being curled up on the couch with my folks.

My father commented recently that I only ever write about the bad stuff. It gave me pause. It just really hadn't, I think, occurred to me to divide life into good things and bad things.

I've been working more on my Archaeology of Wonder essays lately. One is about the woods I grew up amidst - the methods my family and I utilized to navigate our relationship to it. The other is about the time, as a toddler, I almost drowned.

Here's how it came about.  I was walking up my driveway with Melissa and Felisa on a recent visit from them.  Felisa had never been to my home before, so I was telling her stories about the woods.  As we passed by the pipe I was sucked through as a 15-month-old, I told the story that my family always tells amongst ourselves about how it happened.

It's a short story, really more of a skeleton of a story than anything.  Something in its manner reminds me of the schematics of myths that are in Edith Hamilton's Mythology.  I guess I had neglected to tell them the story before; they had a stronger response to it than I had anticipated.  I figure that, since the primary mode through which I know this event is through our truncated little sketch of a family story, my response to it is mitigated by the way it's told.

It made me think about the soothing role of repetition.  It made me think about narrative and trauma, and about how we might align ourselves to different narrative threads throughout our lives.

I know that the idea that I'm writing about this thing that happened makes my parents uncomfortable.  I wonder if perhaps it is harder for them because the trauma of the event was post-linguistic.  For me it was pre-linguistic, so any story I tell myself about it remains just that - a story, no more or less moving than a novel.

I have never had an interest in those wretched water slides though.  I can't think of an amusement more horrifying.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Jessica, you make a terrific hologram."

I am working on an election poem. I know that sounds a little ridiculous, and I know that ordinarily this sort of poem would lurch dangerously close to Hallmarkism, but, my dear readers, we live in a world of talking head holograms!

Anything is possible.

Can we write election poems that aren't oozing with sentimentalism? Yes we can!

[Oh, dear...]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cake and Cute

I have a little election day essay up on It examines cuteness, exploitation, Sarah Palin, race, and Shirley Temple. And cakes.

Please give it a read, if you feel so inclined.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"I would like to believe that there is a Paradise. Where one is always young and full-bladdered."

Tonight I will go to my parents' house, and we will stand out by where Joseph and Natasha, two of the most generous dogs of my acquaintance, are buried and I will read aloud Eugene O'Neill's The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Et j'ai crié, "Regardez, regardez!" Et alors, il a salué.

More than anything else these days, I have been craving time to write. And I can see it in a lot of what I do.

Silent films look like photographs of hysteria patients.

I can see it in the way Andrew Bird looks like some illustration by Cruikshank come to life (although, I suspect there is far less vitriol in Bird's being than in Cruikshank's).

I can feel it in the way I read. It's shifted (as it does from time to time) from analyzing the text to analyzing how the author structured the text.

On Tuesday, I watched Man on Wire. There's a part in the documentary where the director splits the screen so that on the left, there are photos and footage of the construction of the World Trade Center and on the right there are photos of Philippe Petit as a child.

It's even seeped into the way I do my job. Last weekend I listened to Nuruddin Farah suggest that when we donate something, when we give someone aid, we are not doing it for the benefit of our beneficiaries. We are doing it for ourselves, because that person who needs our aid is a metaphor for ourselves.

Friday, October 3, 2008

self layered on self layered on self again

What happens - I want to know - to a pearl that's not harvested.

I've set out a couple times to start my essay for the Archaeology of Wonder catalogue.  Each time I do, I think back to conversations - specific ones - from the early days of my two most significant relationships.  Such a strange feeling, this palimpsestic self.

It's always in Egypt that one forgets oneself in labor, overwhelming labor, body-bending and memory-arresting labor.  And so it was for the heir apparent who, sent by his despot parents to fetch the pearl (this, some rite of passage), fell into it.  The filthy clothes.  The food of back-breaking work.  The days so filled with it that they eclipsed his own legacy of himself.

Natural pearls are sometimes formed by a parasite lodged in the reproductive organs of a mollusk.  The creature soothes itself, smoothes over the intruder with the very nacre that makes up its shell, does it again and again until there's a pearl.

So, when the son forgot his former self, it was as though that former self was an intruder that he covered and covered, calcitrated by each new situation of self.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"and if I remained by the outermost sea"

I made it to the New Museum today for the last day of After Nature.

[by William Christenberry]

I had wanted to see it for some time for a couple reasons. First, it's an exhibition based on poetry. About time. So often the relationship works in reverse: poets write about museums and paintings and photographs and artists. And here's an exhibition that uses a collection of poems as a jumping off point.

Second, it's an exhibition based on the work of W. G. Sebald. I love his work. I save it up. I cherish it.

[by Brian Burkhardt]

Third, I think the exhibition ties in nicely to one Real Art Ways will be opening on Saturday, October 4. Archaeology of Wonder has work that punches you in the gut in a way that's similar to some of the work in After Nature. See for yourself.

[by Werner Herzog]

Monday, September 15, 2008

on writing; on not writing; on reading; on old and new beds

When I started this blog, it was with the intention of cataloguing and developing my ideas for poems and poetry projects when they were at their most embryonic. I've been quiet for a while now. It doesn't mean I haven't been thinking.

[This is me reflecting. Sorry. Bad pun.]

I've been reading a lot these days. I've been delving back into Charcot territory. In a turn that probably deserves a poem of its own, I uncovered some articles I had copied when I was researching that series this past weekend when I was dismantling my old bed. Ever since I moved out of 5 Willard Street, I'd been sleeping on the same, hard, rickety twin sized bed that I used as an adolescent. Well, now, thanks to my lovely parents I have a grown-up's bed.

But back to the old bed for a moment - it's the one on which I lost my virginity; it's the one that supported me through any number of teenaged traumas; it's the one on which I was inclined to martyr myself (in a manner of speaking) after the dissolution of my last relationship.

And it was during the dismantling of this bed - this carriage-of-so-much - that I found the unfinished aspects of my hysteria research. Have at it, Freud!

So, in addition to the satyrical self-psychoanalytic poem (maybe it should be a limerick!) I'll write about this, these are the things I've been considering adding to the series:
- a poem for/on Ada and Byron
- a poem on hysteria in Restoration comedies
- a poem that (somehow) messes with the accepted structural elements of bourgeois respectability
- inasmuch as hysteria can often be imitative, a poem in which the sufferer bears symptoms that match the mercury poisoning her husband would have contracted from producing daguerreotypes
- a poem on Charcot on art (based on Les Demoniaques dans l'art)
- a poem on Linda Santo and her daughter Audrey, focusing on the attitudes of Audrey's body
- I think there ought to be something, too, about epidemiology in the book (I just haven't figured out how I want to tackle that...)

What do you think, Charcot?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

wandering the narrows

I feel as though I have been wandering the Narrows for some time.

It was a weekend filled with seemingly obvious conjunctions of Nature and the mechanical.

It was hot and I felt as though I was adrift in the belly of some mechanical whale. Me, some little modern Pinocchio, some Jonah.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"a feeling as infinite as an open accordion"

Rosario, 2004. By Margarida Correia

During my last several conversations with my mother, she has remarked that I must be feeling nostalgic lately. I've been asking her to tell me stories from when I was a child - whether it's a story of some friend who fell and got a concussion, or whether she remembers my brother and I ever fighting (she doesn't). I've been wanting to know those little particular histories.

I spent yesterday by myself, doing a variety of things that would seem to support her charge (although she wouldn't call it an accusation, I find that I respond to it with a degree of defensiveness).

I opened up and dusted off my clarinet for the first time in 13 years. I played for hours.

I went to the ArtSpace tag sale, where I discussed Nancy Drew with a small girl and her mother. The girl, in a manner entirely reminiscent of my own experiences of family tag sales, demanded of her mother "You're not selling those, are you?! You said that they were ours!"

I opened one of the books to find a scene I remember from when I was a child in which Nancy disguises herself by coloring her trademark blonde hair with mascara (successfully, if you can imagine such a thing!).

I went to Integrity 'n Music, one of my favorite places to visit, where I was treated to the always-impressive Jackie McLean Youth Jazz Orchestra. I found there, among other things, Court and Spark - an album that was woven firmly through the entirety of my first two decades. I sang it through twice - I've always liked the way my voice bends around those songs. It was a sweet and pleasant hour-and-a-half.

And yet, I'm not sure it's exactly nostalgia that spurns these activities. It's true that I'm seeking to solidify my experience in the present and I know I'm concerned (me with my imperfect memory) with having some kind of document of my days. But I think there is something more to my impulse than the desperate grasping for proof of existence.

In Svetlana Boym's formidable The Future of Nostalgia, she traces a history of the malady. Nostalgia came into existence during a paradigmatic shift that effected much of the world. In the 18th century - that period of constant exploration, rapid colonization, and concerted nation-building - people responded to the universalization of experience, of space, and of time (think of the popularization of clocks, of the systematization of map-making) with a keen longing for the particular. As Boym suggests, "Nostalgia, as a historical emotion, is a longing for that shrinking 'space of experience' that no longer fits the new horizon of expectations" (10).

Perhaps what I'm feeling is not nostalgia alone, but something akin to Kant's ideal melancholy - that which enables one to be particularly attuned to the dilemmas of life.

Then again, maybe I do just want another chance to be seven, to thumb my way through a card catalogue, and to be aware of those moments through which I pass.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"as the flames rose to her Roman nose"

Well, it's nothing like that summer I was 14 and we piled into some boy's car to watch So I Married an Axe Murderer at the Mansfield Drive-In.  That summer it was The Smiths and cut off jean shorts and little kids' tee-shirts and Manic Panic.  It was deciding to screw being tan for the first time.  It was cars filled with older friends and it was singing arias in the back seat.  It was mix tapes and humidity.

When you're 14 the colors that fill out your experiences are deeply saturated. When you're 14 this saturation is extended by a general oblivion to the world around you, so that, for instance, not knowing that you were going to the drive-in during the Perseid meteor shower and then seeing dozens of stars raining down, would probably result in you deeming the night to be among those that were your most magical.

But then, what's 14 for if not self-centered magic?

But tonight was good, too, in its own quasi-adult way. I worked late - till around 9; I went to the gym; I showered; I did the dishes. And then I packed up The Bear and walked down the block to the law school's soccer field. My block has an odd sort of mix of housing - there are longtime West End residents; there are wealthy, newly-arrived homeowners; there are the residents of the assisted living facility; there are people on Section 8; and there are renters (most of them law students). As I walked down the block, I noted one television, one unidentified ultraviolet liquid, four used mattresses, one stove, three adolescents getting the most out of the days before the curfew takes effect, two cats (not counting The Bear), and one couple sitting on their porch. I walked past the sublime Hartford Seminary and tromped out into the middle of the field. The grass was wet. I put The Bear down and stretched out, long on the wet earth.

And I waited.

And just when I had determined that there is probably too much light pollution in Hartford to watch a meteor shower, there it was - one perfect slash of the razor against the sky. And I loved it. And it made me gasp. And The Bear switched from purring to the little sound she makes when she's taking stock of her surroundings.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"we pass on // to another cellar, to another sliced wall / where poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum"

It makes sense.  It makes sense if poetry makes sense to you.  Or maybe it makes sense if you've oriented yourself - deliberately - toward poetry.

The three poets to which I was most drawn as a girl were William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, and Anne Sexton. Because of the nature of my reading habits (pulling things from my parents' shelves and delving), I only read one book by each early on - the cheap penguin Irish writers paperback that one or the other parent bought somewhere along the way for 25 cents, the gorgeous illustrated edition of Leaves of Grass, and The Book of Folly.

Each of these, in their own way, has a propensity for layering things one upon another. Whitman, of course, layers himself on everyone else. Sexton layers herself upon herself:
It is waiting. / It is waiting. / Mr. Doppelgänger. My brother. My spouse. / Mr. Doppelgänger. My enemy. My lover. [from "The Other"]

[I've sat like this for as long as I can remember - one leg snaking around the other - my own skin pressing on my own skin, fast with pressure.]

And Yeats. Well, Yeats, with his famously widening gyre, does it most transparently, doesn't he?

I can't help but think that, having oriented myself toward this kind of layering, I am somehow primed to suss it out in my life. And yet, it doesn't give rise to any less wonder each time my life folds back onto itself, all overlapping and resignified. Lessons, people, opportunities (missed and present) serve themselves up again and again.

And my response - always - is that quickening clutch of throat and that almost immediate impulse to think of gyres, of palimpsests, of pentimento.

[The Hay Wain, by John Constable]

I suppose that's the nature of pentimento - you make a choice, repent, cover it up, but then it slowly reveals itself under the façade you established, however meticulously.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"location-notes and love calls"

When I read about the man who leapt over barricades on opening day of the Berlin Madame Tussauds' to tear off the head of the Hitler figure, the first thing I thought of was the woman during the Roman Empire who, locked away by her family because she was Christian, ate the icon that was in her chambers. Paint, splinters, gold leaf - she ate it in a fit of - of what? - significant longing? Fetishization? Faith?

Perhaps it happened or perhaps not.

I thought that we had been told of it in our Early Christian and Byzantine Art History class. Michelle and I took this course together as undergraduates with the estimable Jean Givens. Michelle has a more encyclopedic memory than anyone I have ever encountered since, so when she didn't recall that woman, locked away eating her icon, zealous in it, I was prepared to release the memory to construction.

At Wellfleet last weekend, I was walking with my mother along the same beach we had visited when I was a toddler. She calls it my Kermit phase because there was a certain frog-shaped beanbag without which I was loathe to go anywhere at all (including into the Atlantic Ocean, freakish or not!). Walking there, feet bare and legs sea-slicked from the kicking tide, I asked her if she remembered the whales that stranded at Wellfleet when I was a girl.

She didn't, not particularly, and I started to question my memory again. For her, the first thing she thinks of when someone mentions Wellfleet is that trip we took, she and I together on the bus. For me, I think of the whales and how I heard, somewhere along the way, that rescue workers touch them near the big, inky eye to see how close to death they are.

When my father was a boy, they beached here, too, fifty of them at once.

We stood there together, dad and I, on the deck of the cabin he had visited since he was a boy. We took turns with Grandpa's binoculars. I insisted that, in Grandpa's honor, we always bow our heads through the strap before looking at the boats. "Brown-nose," my father said, but I knew he appreciated that I knew the way Grandpa would have liked things, just so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

so much depends on synapses, on sea slugs

It's impossible to start a poem with that phrase anymore.

In the 1950s, at Hartford Hospital (the site - decades later - of my siblings' births) Dr. Scoville made an accidental discovery about memory. He was trying to curb a patient's seizures. This, from Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box:
Based on this last assumption [that memory was diffuse, without locale, scattered like widely sown seed over the whole rind of the cortex], Scoville had no hesitation about removing Henry's hippocampus. The operating room was cool. Henry lay awake on the steel table. Because there are no nerves in the brain, such surgery was performed with the patient completely conscious, only a local anesthetic to numb the skin of the scalp. Swoosh went the shot of lidocaine. A moment laster Henry must have seen Scoville coming at him with his hand-cranked drill, and then two holes were bored above each of his open eyes, and into these holes Scoville inserted a small spatula, with which he jacked up Henry's frontal lobes.

The operating room was quiet. Nurse, hand me this. Nurse, hand me that. But otherwise, no sound. Scoville was looking into Henry. He was looking under the hood of Henry's brain, and how beautiful it was beneath the cortical coral reef, in the brain's interior capsules, where pyramidal cells are shaped like hyacinth, in complex cones, where neurons are tiny but dense. Into this nether region Scoville now inserted a silver straw. Scoville slowly threaded the silver straw deep into Henry's pulsing brain, and then - there - he suctioned out the pink-gray seahorse shape on either side, the entire hippocampus now gone. Inside Henry's head, a great gap appeared, a ragged hole where something once lived.

What did Henry feel as Scoville sucked out his hippocampus? He was, after all, wide awake, thoroughly alert, and the hippocampus, although no one knew it at the time, is the seat of many of our memories. Did Henry feel his past leave him in a single suck? Did he feel the entrance of forgetfulness, like a cold thing coming in or was it more a sensation of sliding: your lover, your qualms, the cats calling beneath the porch in summer - all dropping down into nothing?

It was this accident that gave rise to the experiment on sea slugs through which we learned about the work synapses do for us.

One of the first phrases I associate with moving to Hartford is "build your synapses." When Robyn and I lived together, we would occasionally take meandering drives and learn new paths through Parkville and Frog Hollow and Asylum Hill. This activity was something she called "building synapses."

The other day, I withdrew from whatever social engagement I had arranged (a bad habit of mine) and sludged through some old vhs tapes to find a film I hadn't watched recently. I used To Catch a Thief as a comfort film for years - if I was sick or sad or lonely, it was one of my standards, like something you hum to yourself to quell your nerves.

I let it play through. When the 1994 World Cup footage I had taped over came on, I let that play, too.

There was something comforting about the sounds of it. I let it play and it let its soundtrack waft through my little house, heretofore unfamiliar with the fragmentary phrase construction of sportscasters.

Bits of memories came back to me about that tournament: that red-headed US player; their horrible uniforms; my dad's temporarily reassigned attention from baseball to soccer that summer; that the US team did better than people had anticipated.

And then - did I remember this or did I return to a spot vacant of particulars and inscribe a memory there - I read about Andrés Escobar and it was familiar and I felt, for a moment, the fascinated repulsion of an adolescent. It was easy to feel things in high contrast then, easy to slough off complexities.

Yes - it was this very game over which I taped a Hitchcock movie. This goal is covered up, leaving only muttered half-sentences of the end of the game. Would the sports casters have known? How eerie to watch this footage knowing what would follow, knowing that Escobar had, in a way, set into action a series of events that would give narrative structure to his life. It was rent, suddenly, from the complexities and undefinables of any-life and thrust into narrative significance - something like sea slugs, significant for the meaning we have plied from them after the experiments.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Snag Breac is ainm dom.

I've been dreaming of birds most nights.

Last night it was that I picked this up and unfurled and refolded it again and again. It was white in the dream.

The night before - I fully acknowledge that this is grandiose, but when if not in dreams can we be grandiose, eh? - I dreamed that I discovered a new kind of falcon.

Don't laugh.

It was a peacock falcon and it was beautiful.

I willed myself into dreaming a gannet's plunge in the early hours of the morning.

I dreamed I protected sundry kittens and the puppies of lost friends from eagles.

I dreamed I was on my back, again, shirt damp from the spongy ground that surrounds the foundation of L. M. Montgomery's house, after I had retreated from the dives this bird's mother took at my head.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"time's rolling smithy smoke"

We made the signs for the Separatist Road celebration. This was a task that, I think, I, Sarah, Patrick, and Josh undertook years ago - maybe 15 years ago. As I was explaining the project to Jillian and Faith - who the key players were (Mena and Robert were to have staring roles in the signs; and Nora for nostalgia's sake), the kind of humor ("only a jerk would park on the corner!") that we were aiming at - I felt this rush of gratitude for the extended family my parents shaped for us.

There are so many other things running through my head, but I think I'll just leave them, for now. How lovely - for sign-making to be significant!

[Also, a very happy birthday to my brilliant and beautiful friend, Sarah!]

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"and let thy feet milenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge"

I had just said to Jillian that I communicate better when conversation occurs through some medium. Later, I told another person that it's easier for me to talk when I'm holding a book in my hand.

So, it was a delightful challenge when someone asked me why I have cried (repeatedly) at the British Museum and I struggled through several media to explain myself.

I wanted to touch it so badly. The feeling was almost irresistible. I think it must have been a combination of the heat, my isolation (I hadn't talked to anyone in a week, at least), and the enormity of the museum. I could almost see the statue breathe, and I started to cry.

My first response to the question was to explain what I find ideologically problematic about the discursive structure of the museum. I rambled my way around some issues, in particular, that I have with the representation of African "art objects" during modernity, namely that their presentation of cultural and ritualistic artifacts would seem to suggest that African modernity did not occur. I meandered around the idea that display and possession are linked, and that it can be difficult for people to be aware of how the desire that engenders shapes their responses to what they see.

This was a thoroughly incorrect answer to the question, but I didn't figure that out until the next morning.

Books create in me a feeling of comfort and support that it is difficult to imagine going without for very long. I almost always carry a book (sometimes as many as five) around with me. And so, when I got back to my house, I curled up on the couch with The Bear and stacked all my museum theory around me. [I realize the defensiveness of a position like this. Living in a city like Hartford, with its fierce and unapologetic anti-intellectualism, has made me not insensitive to the image of the intellectual protected and shrouded, even blinded, by books. What I actually feel is something distinct from this image, though.] And so it was with comfort that I thumbed through books thrice-read, with thrice-scripted marginalia.

I found this:
once removed from the continuity of everyday uses in time and space and made exquisite on display, stabilized and conserved, objects are transformed in the meanings that they may be said to carry: they become moments of ownership, commodities.
- Spencer R. Crew and James E. Sims

It is reading exactly this kind of thing (combined with an upbringing darned through with Marxism) that makes me a bit indignant and irreverent around museums:

I came up with a formula that I imagined summed up the reasons behind my lachrymosity:
1. See Sims and Crew quote.
2. The observation of resituated and condensed culture.
3. Experiencing some degree of wonder at the incandescent unfamiliarity of the objects.
4. Experiencing horror (or something like it) at the combined semiotic and actual (physical) wounding of the objects.
5. The (again) irreverent and automatic (bratty) perception that the collectors, and the museum itself during certain eras, were pilfering bastards. [I realize this is a harsh judgment, and one that is the result of consuming a fair number of incendiary conversations throughout my life about ideological apparatuses...]

"Good," I thought, "I've neatly wrapped up and contained the precise reasons for crying at the British Museum." I should know by now to be wary of good, to be wary of neat. I spent much of the very early hours of this morning reshaping what I had thought via text message - a rather astounding mode of composition!

I've talked before about the deceptively simple clarity with which ideas come to me in the very first moments of waking. Salman Rushdie mentioned it the other night - that writing happens best in the early moments of consciousness, before the paper, before emails, before any of it. It was in these collected moments of clarity that I realized I hadn't answered his question at all - not even remotely. Here's what I thought it was this morning:
When we enter a place like the British Museum (especially now with its new, kind of postmodern vaulted atrium) I think the smallness of our bodies in the face of this gargantuan repository of culture and history (the high ceilings, the vast and encyclopedic collection) cognitively primes us for tears.
And that was it. And, in another way, that wasn't it at all. As I mulled this over - after coffee, after emails - I noticed a half-knot forming in my throat (a sure sign, if ever there was one, that there is more going on than what I am putting into words). I had been thinking all week of that summer I lived in New Jersey, remembering (I had chosen not really to think about this time critically) all the remarkably foolhardy choices I made that summer, shaking my head, slack-jawed at the shape of those months.

They are aspects of my mother's particular means of problem-solving: isolation and unfamiliarity. She encouraged me to leave Connecticut that summer I chose New Jersey and she encouraged me to go away that summer after I finished my graduate program (a phrase that I use, decidedly, as a euphemism for another period of my life that I ended abruptly at around the same time).

So it was that with these intentions (seeking anonymity, removing myself from places on which I had impressed memories) that I headed for Europe. It was after about three months of isolation, of minimal conversation and interaction, of intensive writing and research, that I returned almost ritualistically to the British Museum. Day after day I would enter through the atrium, and each time the lightheadedness would hit me almost instantly. And, at some point during my meanderings, I would feel the undeniable clutch of throat that precedes tears.

I think part of it was that the world doesn't seem quite so enormous with another person bearing witness to your life. When you have had that and then, for whatever reason, you remove yourself from it, the scale of things seems to explode, so that even a pill, netted in its systematized place, can seem too grand to comprehend.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

discoveries are usually exciting and problematic

I have been meaning to frame this memory cloth for years. I got it when I was finishing grad school. The William Benton Museum of Art had been engaging art that relates to human rights and, as part of that initiative, they had about a hundred South African memory cloths on display. I've written before about some of the things I found particularly compelling to study (cultural representations of collective memory and trauma in postcolonial contexts). For those of you who read this regularly, you are already familiar with my creative interest in memory. Besides engaging these interests, memory cloths are the visual representations of verbalized narratives. And, well, I'm a sucker for all things ekphrastic.

I hadn't framed it yet, because I wasn't certain how to deal with the narrative element. The cloth came with a narrative, in the words of the creator, printed in - I'll say it - ugly, ugly arial. I felt as though it should probably be hand written for the purposes of display - the little, impersonal rectangle that came with it was out of the question. But I didn't know what kind of paper I should use or whether my own hand writing would look right. For that matter, I wasn't entirely convinced that applying my own handwriting to another's voice was something I wanted to engage in this context.

[The Bear was curious, too!]

I pealed back the cloth from its board and my heart fluttered right up into my throat when I saw it: she had written it out - in her own hand!

I understand that there's a degree of romanticization occurring here. But I can't help it - there is something about the fact of another person pressing ink into paper that thrills me to my very core. It's not written to me, obviously; it's a much different sensation than what happens to me when I read a letter from a loved one. This has to do with language and time and indisputable indexicality.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

for the briefest turn

From the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

For just a moment, just a hint of a moment, really, I forgot my grandfather had died. I know it makes no sense. He died seven years ago, but, as I was reading in Atonement of a tank attack in France, I had the sudden, very strong urge to talk to my grandfather about World War II.

I'm not sure he would have engaged the conversation - I'm not sure I actually would have properly initiated it - were things other than how they are.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"all sorts of benevolent irregularities"

Many things happened yesterday.

Today, I sat on my couch, legs curled under me, blinds and windows down in an effort to block the 93-degree outside, the regular crank (at around 120 bpm) of the ceiling fan the only soundtrack, and I read it over and over, aloud:
Nevertheless the winter wears on and death follows death. I've tried it, and know how the narrowing-down feeling conflicts with the feeling of life's coming to a point, not a climax but a point. At that point one must, yes, be selective in one's choice if you see what I mean. Not choose this or that because it pleases, merely to assume the idea of choosing, so that some things can be left behind. It doesn't matter which ones. I could tell you about some of the things I've discarded but that wouldn't help you because you must choose your own, or rather not choose them but let them be inflicted on and off you. This is the point of the narrowing-down process. And gradually, as the air gets thinner as you climb a mountain, these things will stand forth in a relief all their own—the look of belonging. It is a marvelous job to do, and it is enough just to approximate it. Things will do the rest. Only then will the point of not having everything become apparent, and it will flash on you with such dexterity and such terribleness that you will wonder how you lived before—as though a valley hundreds of miles in length and full of orchards and all sorts of benevolent irregularities of landscape were suddenly to open at your feet, just as you told yourself you could not climb a step higher.
from Three Poems by John Ashbery

And I keep coming back to it, butting my head against it like some obstinate 3-year-old: I am terrified of the narrowing-down process. I want to remember the things - more than that! - I want to catalogue, make a record of the things that to me are somehow or other divine.

I find, as my panoply of experiences grows, that most often the concepts I thumb my nose at are the very ones that I come around to accepting sooner or later. I push hard against things. I interrogate them for as long as my endurance possibly allows and then they either break or I believe them. It's a sinister metaphor - but I am generally not very sinister at all, so I will allow myself this image. And I will push, today, against the idea that we must accept the choice to "leave some things behind."


Things that happened yesterday:

Connecticut sped by me (or I sped by it, really) in its high green glory. It is the green of these trees that I miss whenever I am away during summer. I missed it on trips to Kansas or Colorado. I missed this green in that greenest of places (or, at least, it's recognized for its greens): Ireland. The last significant trip I made on a bus was from Galway to Dublin in 2006. I rode that bus across the sparsely treed island immediately after an unhinged man spit in my face. He spit right in my face and it smelled like dip and whiskey-pickled rot. There was a teenager and her mother waiting for the bus, too. Later, they apologized for not trying to help me.

We arrived at dia:beacon and it seemed as though it was going to be rude to eschew the guided tour. So I went. I went with Barbara and our guests and I let Kirsten lead me.

It happened first when I stepped into the On Karawa room. I knew his work already; I had studied it - I had even handled it during my internship at the Wadsworth. It had never particularly effected me before. Maybe it had to do with the space they dedicated to the work at dia; he had an entire room (probably 600 square feet) with about 30 canvases. Maybe it was seeing that many of them together. Something clicked; my throat cinched; and I got it. Staring down mortality - a nice fit with Ashbery (whom I had started reading that morning).

We volunteered to read them out loud. As our mouths pressed out the Sol Lewitt instructions, our voices would sometimes overlap and sometimes synchronize. The instructions were absurd, specific, and ridiculous. And there was I, barely able to hold in my laughter at times. Our inflections lined up occasionally; other times we just missed each other.  There was a general tone of sarcastic school marm (how I imagine I sound when I read the instructions for the evaluation forms my students end up having to proctor). [Oh, Sol, we miss you!] The thing of it is, the fact of the fun of it never stops being surprising.

I climbed over and through and around George Trakas's Beacon Point. I stomped on it and splashed in it and abraded my knuckles against its sundry surfaces. I photographed it the way you might macro the skin of a new love, as if by desperate and magnified documentation you will not lose this feeling, this utter and speechless thrill of discovering new crannies and convexes. I didn't want to leave it, ever. I could have slept, curled against one of its posts, fingertips dangling into the grey-dove Hudson.

But it was hot and humid and there were other people (and my job) to consider. And so, I elected not, after all, to sleep with the pier, but to return to the museum. I thought I knew that the only way I really wanted to experience the Richard Serras was to be alone in silence, folded like some embryo against them.

Alone was not an option. I could hear other people and their sounds. I took to it anyway. I stretched my arms as close as I could to the steel. I stomped and tip-toed and listened to my own breath reverberating in the space. And when I got to the center, I laid down on the cold, cold concrete in savasana, the warmth and humidity of my flesh slipped away, absorbed into the floor. I sang - I really sang - for the first time in years. I let unfurl in pianissimo Se Tu M'Ami and it soared and swelled into the high ceilings of what was the loading dock of a Nabisco box factory.

Then it shifted. I finished the aria and just breathed. At the other end of the gallery someone started cooing a Mourning Dove's call. He did it thrice before I reciprocated, the inverted call. We repeated our respective positions, as much claiming territory as making overtures to each other. And before I realized I had decided to be complicit to improvisation, there we were, writing each other. Leaving only very temporary indexes of an intimacy anonymous and irreproducible.

I want it to be clear that by this point I had wept four times. If you have not read Pictures and Tears by Jim Elkins, you must.

As we drove east into Connecticut's center, I saw so many hawks. They soared and soared and played and wobbled. And I could not tear my eyes away.  I'm certain that the woman sitting behind me must have thought I had completely lost the plot. She did not stay for the group photograph we all posed for outside the bus. She smelled like Goldschlager - in a good way.

There's more:

I met Salman Rushdie - I will write more about this on The Absurde Round Table (I think it's a more appropriate forum for such musings), but for the moment I will describe the point at which I wept during his talk. He had just finished identifying himself as "crow number one." He was using it to suggest that the political situation that followed the release of The Satanic Verses was more signifier than significance.  In a manner not dissimilar from most artists I've encountered, he redirected the topic from biographical occurrences to the research he conducted for his newest book, The Enchantress of Florence. Much to my delight, he took his time describing his research and the way that sometimes the uncanniness of the real trumps anything we might invent. He cited an event of which he read when the lions (who were meant to be released in the square where they would cause an entertaining spectacle of gore) were too bored to maul anyone. And the people were upset. Not only were the people upset, but the historians were, as well, enough so that they recorded this upheaval in mass recreation into the bank boxes of posterity, just waiting for us.

And then, there was one last push to the day. I went for postcolonial literary giantess to retro badass babes. Real Art Ways was hosting the Connecticut roller girls and screening the documentary Hell on Wheels. I squirmed during the film. I took about a hundred pictures after. And then, I had that instant flash of heat and sweat and the next thing I knew I was gripping the green room toilet.

I'll admit it. There is a part of me that hopes my sudden illness was a kind of Stendhal Syndrome (something I promise to adequately describe in a future post - there's a surprising paucity of material on the web about it...). I think you should probably judge me for this and I think I should have been much more hesitant to so readily admit it.

I went home and swaddled myself in the familiarity of handed down silk pajamas and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. What comfort was mine!