Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: June 2008

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!

Friday, June 6, 2008

"another, and truer, way"

It's raining again this morning and I stayed in bed far too long, luxuriating in the sound of it and then luxuriating in some poetry. [Times like these I wish for everyone that they have some time in a quiet bed on a June morning to read poems.]

I had picked up John Ashbery's Three Poems for no particular reason but that it was by my bed. It occurs to me that the technique of leaving out - actually composing and then removing text, negative space left behind in the poem - is one that would be particularly well-suited to the personal history and poetic prosthesis series.

I'm off now, to dia:beacon to fight valiantly the urge to wrap my body around and into some Richard Serras.

Later, I'll meet Salman Rushdie. [Right now, you can imagine me swooning all over my office...]

Still later, I'll surround myself with roller derby girls. [Still more swooning...]

There's a part of me that longs for some modern form of Stendhal Syndrome.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

repetition and wonder

It's a rainy June morning. I kept the windows open last night, so there's a cool, wet breeze coming through to my living room along with all the sundry sounds of rain. It feels like England.

My neighborhood, Greencroft Gardens, right off Finchley Road, NW6

The house in which I lived in South Hampstead was on a quiet block near the Freud Museum. Women pushed prams most mornings, regardless of the weather. The clear plastic awnings that covered the children were speckled with a hundred rain drops, miniscule demi-worlds to capture a million-some details of the neighborhood's skyline. I always wanted to take a photograph from within there. The slate walks turned the deepest grey-brown in the rain and the modest trees smelled more like trees.

But, now, I am in my native Connecticut. The leaves on its stunning trees are now completely open. The Velvet Underground is on the record player and I am thinking of home. I'm thinking of things that we do over and over and return to with wonder. If wonder is the feeling of astonishment - that's not quite it - the feeling of our selves being thrown into a position from where we can no longer depend on our own significance in the face of some object, some occurrence, then how does it relate to something we do ritualistically?

For myself, I'm thinking of the woods, of the course I tend to track through them. Decades before my parents put in the riding ring, before any proper trails were established by Joshua's Trust, I would wander through the woods - so thick that the air looks green - and perch on boulders or test my balance on the edge of a cliff. I repeat these tests, these reveries regularly.

The people to whom I bring up Gilles Deleuze, tend not to have very positive responses to him. But I'm wondering if I could use something about what he has to say about repetition and pair it with Stendhal's description of what happened to the body-in-wonder when he was in Florence in order to hazard a guess about how ritualistic wonder works.

I think of the maps my father made me - my father, the map maker; my father, the poet - he would hide something for me in the woods and make a map, filled with fanciful names and "100-year Sugar Maples"s. He would stain the paper in tea to "age" it and he would burn the edges. He would make, in short, a world of measurement and wonder.

I'm trying to collect stories about how people approach wonder. Do you photograph it? Do you make videos? Or do you sit - so quiet - and watch?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

It caught me by surprise, like a word...

I have a bit of a fraught relationship with academe. I question my motives in toeing its edges; from the time I was quite young (even, perhaps, as young as six) I understood - not in these terms, but I understood nonetheless - that being a member of academe, being part of an intellectual elite, can in effect make ones class status secondary to the work one produces. The idea was intoxicating to me.

I finished my masters degree in the midst of a very deep depression. I was questioning my identity, reevaluating the extent to which I took my identity for granted. I was overextending myself - taking a double course load (four courses to the standard two), working a double assistantship load (teaching a course to freshmen that was part of a human rights pilot program, while also being a research assistant to a scholar and artist I admire more than I can adequately express), directing a poetry and graphic design project on a volunteer basis, studying for my exams, applying to PhD programs, and doing extensive departmental committee work. I realize that this is, in many ways, a typical academic workload, but it was a lot for me to take on in the context of having just ended the most significant relationship of my life (a relationship that, for many, many years I believed would be the one that would carry me to old age).

I left for Europe as soon as I had submitted my grades for that final semester. I left with the intention of giving a conference paper in Galway, spending a two week retreat in Co. Donegal during which I would complete a draft of my manuscript (historically-informed poems on Charcot's hysterics), and from there traveling to England with no fixed plans to return. I wanted, desperately, to find some anonymity, to have the space with myself I saw as necessary to figure out what would come next, to re-situate myself to my own positionality. It was from the Holburn branch of the London Public Library that I wrote to my would-be PhD advisor at UCLA, declining his offer of admission. Writing that letter was difficult. Very difficult. It meant, at least temporarily, surrendering an idea and a hope and a plan I had had for myself since I was a very little girl.

Today - sun shining across my floors, cat basking in the window, coffee in hand - I finished reading Colum McCann's Zoli. And, in what seems almost momentous to me, when I sat down to write about it, what followed was the most scholarly thing I've written since May 2006. Admittedly, it is half-raw and only the very beginnings of an idea that would be properly researched in an academic context, but it kind of thrilled me. I miss it so much. I miss it. I miss it at my very finger tips and in my mind's heart.