When I was around seven years old and starting to formulate the tenuous boundaries of my own existence, I stopped in my tracks once in the hallway between my family’s bedrooms. It was carpeted then. The walls were angled such that no one in the house could see me from that position. I stood there becoming aware of myself, slowly filling with a sense of prideful estrangement that no one knew precisely where I was at that moment. Later, it would dawn on me (so slowly), first-born and ajangle with love, the lastingness of that privacy. Once boundaries grow impermeable, the illusion of separation is what must be overcome.
My grandfather gave his larynx to the lord. A retired Pentecost Holiness preacher, he holds his voicebox like a stethoscope under his chin. Adjusting it to find that tiny muscle to sound it, he tells me “People think you prepare the soul for eternity, but eternity is something we live in.”
To prefer. To lean to, to collect. Walter Benjamin writes that the collector orders a “World of particular secret affinities: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne bottles, prostheses…” A collection reveals its psychic system.
But thoughts too are material: one might study the patterns of herself, the idiosyncratic cycles and motivations, toward a manifestation and elucidation of what it is that collects, the collector as the sum sans cogito, sans ergo.
Like a clerk in a brain store, one grows receptive to what the collection is collecting, what individuates it. She lights a composition of compulsions in private devotion, like the passage Benjamin takes through the Paris arcades.
“Get an escort and a good cart,” Basil Bunting tells her, “Come.”
The mind is a “husk of words,” Antonin Artaud reasons, bound of fibers. And the body, “one’s inner equilibrium,” is mind. As such, his work manifests the volcanic thrust of what he calls his “monotonous crucifixion” and Susan Sontag calls the “event” of a single body straining perilously toward self-transcendence.
Artaud cannot be assimilated, she says, illustration that he is that individuality pushed to its conclusion is social madness. Madness, she adds, being a sliding-scale system of measurement that is culturally and politically defined.
I am not a lunatic but a fanatic, Artaud says. The singular body erupts—he writes in Art and Death—to encompass the whole extent of the living body. Breath unfurls, and one is all space: “And this is what it is, and it is this forever.”
He walked by feeling around his body for the head. “The star eats,” he says.
“But what target in its right mind wouldn’t move?” Lucy Lippard asks, an unintentional but perfect question of the mind itself.[i] One prods a lump of cake batter not to watch its slow dissolve, but to make the cake better. Airy as a dune.
Kafka quotes Zeno on being asked whether anything is at rest, Yes, he says, “the flying arrow rests.”
In some way, when I read Antonin Artaud or Jean Genet I am thinking of the Jackson boys, the stringy, no-collar mountain boys whose stop was after mine on the schoolbus—the last one. I never wondered if they walked over a mile every day to get home, since our bus didn’t cross the creek. I didn’t cross the second creek for years. And then one day almost by accident, as alone as I’d ever been, did.
We have all known, Sartre says of Genet, the personal affront when one of those frank-eyed children whom everyone takes to be an angel steals.
We are a biological urge who are ourselves the urging. Use your words, we tell children. The world is how you make yourself known.
Aloneness is part of the equation. Each finds herself reflected against other tracks to unmarked snow. Each tracks his final loneliness to the longing of that snow.
On my grandparents’ farm sat an old bus inside which a couple, two of its paid laborers, lived—at the boundary of human experience I call the Appalachian sublime.
On the side of what my brother and I referred to as Grandaddy Hill, daffodils have been coming up every springtime to line the walk of a house that has been gone for more than a hundred years.
Paired with a tendency to stare swall-eyed into clouds, Odilon Redon describes being yoked to a culture that works “obscurely but beneficially for the necessary duration” of the earth. In a letter to a good friend, he describes the influences attending his artistic evolution, including the French countryside of his youth—the skyclad arid plains, the villages where one meets the eyes of humanity on the verge of abandoning themselves to place.
A healthy body will last you forever,” a fortune cookie says.
If one could gather, Redon says, the “immense chain of materials” on which humankind has scrawled or hatched or hummed its living matter, it would be the Code—the confluence of consciousness it is our nature to fulfill.
It is painful that “the da Vinci code” bears the name of a Hollywood movie, because it implies we have been so close to knowing it without knowing it all along.
“That knife,” my mother tells me, drying dishes, “came from the bandsaw at the old knitting mill” where my grandparents worked. Lloyd Crigger made it by bolting that carve of steel to a hickory handle. He taught my father how to whet its edge by holding it to the light. “When it’s sharp enough,” he said, “you can’t see it at all.”
“Art is a representation of your insides in a different form.”[ii] Kiki Smith says. Many people misinterpret the creative process, think it less grunt work than it is, she says, “But I never have a moment in my life where I don’t know what to do.” She adds that ninety percent of her job as a sculptor is “showing up, filing out mistakes. I always know there’s some filing to do.”
The stark whiteness of her porcelain “Woman with Owl” (2004) http://www.paceprints.com/artist/779/779-188 in the Gund Gallery caught my eye, followed by the spread of wings, the woman’s nakedness, her bird merger. They seem about to lift off in flight, or land. Either way, they loom larger in partnership than either would alone.
Soft-paste porcelain, which can be cut with a file, was discovered by trial-and-effort by medieval European potters to imitate the fine translucent grain.
Bone china was produced c. 1800 when Josiah Spode II added calcined bones to the hard-paste formula.
I consider what the owl might represent in the figure, since symbolically owls conjure stealth, wisdom, enlightenment, night, femininity, and, according to one animal totem website, the “voice inside you” by which things are revealed.
But as I read it, the woman with her owl parachute and the owl fitting itself for stilts stand in for life and limb caught in delicate ceramic. One gives the other wings. The other, arms raised and heart spread, lends a place to touch down, legs in the shape of a mountain over which is sky.
The grand opening of a new neighborhood grocery came with a manna of blood oranges, Tuscan figs, pomegranate preserves, and fresh pastas to which I am now accustomed. What still catches my notice, since I do not go to the frozen food aisle often, is the eco-friendly lighting that maintains a dim setting until someone approaches a cooler. A section blinks on, and I squint back, imagining the atomic world operating the same way though invisibly—electrons scurrying like amphetamine bedbugs underfoot, every cat Schrödinger’s collapsing possibility into reality, thoughts absorbing into matter.
[i] Lippard, Lucy, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. The New Press: New York, 1995, 3.
[ii] Smith, Kiki, PBS documentary “Kiki Smith.”