Ceremonial Forms

Lessons in morphology.

Had I not known what they were, the artist explained, I would have missed it. He was speaking of Ci Wara sculpture. The word means work animal, he said. Translated through his lens, it was a bicycle, reimagined. 

Examined head-on, the front view reveals nothing. But move with it. They would have appeared futuristic to me, the artist said, of the abstracted animal forms, had I not known their history.

Understood: everything as living. The artist is looking especially closely at the bodies of objects that have been discarded. There is added power, he says, in a ceremonial object. 

A reimagined instrument will play new music. The curves of a guitar body may become the outlines of limbs, ears of an elephant, cut fruit; a piano’s hammers now tail feathers.

The artist raises questions about what happens when the will of an outside force is enacted on a body, insisting some identity.

The artist raises questions about what may happen when the will of any other force is enacted through a body, insisting some other identity.

It calls to mind the phrasings of certain instruments, aimed after midnight into some loving cup, repurposed as an ear––at the suggestion made by another teacher at another time, consent not to be a single being, which some of the latent forms in the body of a vast system of roots might take as a command to go down, while others hear a plea to hold, and others as an invitation to fly.

***

Inspired by the work of American artist Willie Cole, specifically his 2022 solo show, No Strings. I heard Cole speak about the inspiration he took from Ci Wara sculpture in an interview curated by The Met. Also by artist, academic, poet, and theorist Fred Moten, who themed a trilogy, consent not to be a single being, after a line by Martinican poet and theorist Edouard Glissant, bent toward Moten’s purpose. 

The Missing Magpies

Redefining collaborative research.

Today, there are magpies singing.  Loud, proud, and magnificent, you can hear them if they are near you. But there are some who prefer to get away, and I wanted to tell you about these magpies. We wanted to hear them. We were compelled by their song. You can’t hear the complexity of those notes––over three hundred, we estimated–– without wondering about the brains of the creatures that hold them in place.

It is said that these birds can remember up to thirty specific faces. They remember well whomever has caused them trouble in the past, and only attack these one or two people in their region. If the number of people in their vicinity surpasses thirty, they start stereotyping. For example, they are known to be biased against preadolescent boys. They are also known to hold funerals for their dead. Who wouldn’t want to follow? We could no longer settle for mere appreciation at a distance. We wanted the bird’s-eye view. We wanted bird’s ears, too. We meant to track them, record their private exchanges, and publish our findings to international acclaim.

It was a simple device, but it took countless trials to get the right fit. We didn’t want to hurt them. It was tiny enough that they wouldn’t even feel it. It was also impossible for a bird to remove one from their body once it was on. It took our team of experts six months to get these fitted.

It took the birds three days to get them off. They helped each other. It took one twenty minutes of feeling around to find the weak spot, a single clasp at the back, barely a millimeter in length. One clip with a beak and it was off.  

So now we can’t hear them. At first, this made us very depressed. What a colossal failure, we thought. But then we began to think that the magpies were making an interesting point, and that we almost missed it, stuck as we were on the lost data. Proud creatures, they wanted nothing to do with being data, but this is not to say that they were unwilling collaborators.

With pitch-perfect humor, they alerted us to an obvious flaw in the design of our study. We were asking the wrong questions, and the worst among these was about how much of their music we might capture. 

***

Inspired by this article in the New York Times, “Australia’s Clever Birds Did Not Consent to This Science Experiment,” by Anthony Ham.

Imagined Invitations

From the congregation of stones.

Against the disposable, away from the technofix, certain questions emerge. They are about relearning our being in the world. I heard these from a scientist poet, although she didn’t call herself this. Asked to describe her work, she said listening. She said delight. She called it the work of waiting.

For what, I wondered. She said, consider the reverence of the speechless stone. What would they ask of us, she wondered back, that would allow our admission into their holy communion, and how would we hear them? Perhaps by these skeletons, our marrow singing like well-tuned bowls. 

Nothing is single here, she said, and nothing goes one way. I want to wait with her, to learn the reverence of these silent-seeming stones, until their language hymns my bones.

***

Inspired by, and with borrowed phrases and images from Ursula K. Leguin’s Keynote address, “Deep in Admiration,” from Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from the Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz, a gem curated by David Naimon in the beautiful ecosystem he’s created around his Between the Covers podcast.

Against Horror

A time to grieve.

Bodies again, but no words. 

The point was our speechlessness.

Terror: when the body flees to survive.

Horror: parted lips, frozen and immobile, a spectacle of power. It almost always goes by another name, or none.

State: a verb for the creation of complicity.

The method: consistent spectacle.

What heals, then?

The opposite of spectacle is suffering. To suffer is to return from horror with a voice.

Blessed are they who––

Cry against the silence, throw shattered voices into it.

The opposite of order, this is language like broken windows.

The opposite of calm, this is babbling, wild-haired, full-bodied.

The opposite of isolation, grief demands recognition of our common breaks. Its substance is our connective tissue. It flows with the blood of a common wound.

Grief is a voice, and it sounds like the inverse of okay,

which sounds like the reverse of an answer.

Consider this moment.  Against the hum of this machine, let us launch 

a shattering cry. Now is the time. 

Break.

***

Inspired by Christina Rivera Garza’s Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country and by Adriana Cavarero’s Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, translated by William McCuaig. 

For the Living and the Dead

Against the machine.

When the horror of a moment renders a body speechless, the acts of pen to page, brush to canvas, fingers to keys––become negotiations with death. Yours, mine: what are they and how do they relate? To account for whole cities of dead, a vast underground rendered invisible through banality. What is it to write a voice, paint a vision––while standing on ground in full recognition of the brothers beneath it, and the invisible sisters with their children and parents in mass graves? Welcome to the necropolis, says one, where screens herald the battalion.

What are the stakes at this scale? Life. Lives. Forget numbers, abstractions. Try instead: One.  

One. 

One. 

One.

Each a brother, sister, mother, daughter, each with a scent of their own, a particular laugh and secret hopes––erased.

What is at stake? The human condition in the age of the war machine.

How to resist? The first act is naming.

***

Inspired by the work of Juan RufloChristina Rivera Garza, and Achille Mbembe.

Flight in Darkness

The poet remembers.

Only symbols. When I saw that the architecture was burnt out in me, I became a poet. Now I am grief, hunger, the embers of cities. But making is older than killing, and what is this man to make of this life but a brief flight in darkness, now and then on a rainbow?

***

This morning I learned that it was the birthday of poet Andrei Andreyevich Voznesensky, who  Robert Lowell once distinguished as the greatest living poet in any language. He came to fame during the Khrushchev thaw and was known as an outspoken critic of artistic censorship of any kind. I don’t have a complete translation of Voznesensky’s work, but I was able to find some selections online. The above is assembled from my a small sample of these findings, adapted.

The Form is Not

Urgently seeking answers.

Are you there? I need to know what happened.

Sure. It started with a long walk and a begging bowl. Then it was time to sit.

I have some questions.

Who doesn’t? For answers, consider impermanence, inevitable extinction.

Yes, got it! To everything there is a season. A time to––

But don’t hold onto the idea, or any other. No more T-shirts or bumper stickers, okay?

Right. I’ll try to focus on action. How do I give?

Without counting.

What about appearances?

What about them?

Never mind. Let’s get to the real teaching. I’m ready.

What you learn isn’t supposed to be a trophy, but a raft.

Okay. Let’s talk fortune.

Give it away. What did I just tell you?

Right, right. Okay, what about this stream? How do I enter?

What stream?

Um, like the path––you know, the levels?

Forget about those.

You say that a lot. What should I remember?

Only teach.

But I don’t know anything!

There you go.

But seriously. I can’t even control my mind yet.

Hah! Which one? The past, the present, or the future? None of them are made for holding.

[sigh] 

Can you just give me some answer?

Fine. But I’m about to lose service here. The reception in these mountains is terrible.  Ready?

Yes!

It’s–––

Hello? Hello?

***

This morning, I learned that on this day in the year 868, a copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed in China, making it the oldest known printed book. Prior to this, the teachings had long been conveyed orally. Naturally, I got to imagining an attempt to convey urgent teachings orally via cellphone. I have spotty service at home and pretty good service in most other places, so many of my conversations have at least a few moments where one or the other party is saying, “Are you there?” or “Wait a minute, I’m walking outside. I might lose you.” I consulted Burton Watson’s translation here.

Shiny Tomorrows

Visions from a tech summit of the past.

Tomorrow’s hero is bloodless and perfect and all are lit from below––even the cow’s udder. It does not smell, and the maidens are all behind glass, sitting in the robot’s lap. In tomorrow, there is one voice and no talking back; the rugs do not slip and it’s rife with clean sailors. Instead of sounding music, tomorrow has the memory of sound.

It’s a little expensive, this tomorrow, and it remains unclear who––beyond these few––will be in attendance.

***

On this day in 1939, the New York World’s fair opened in Queens, New York. As war raged in Europe, this massive event was built around the theme of “The World of Tomorrow.” It professed to be a celebration of scientific discovery, but serious scientists complained that the emphasis on gadgetry far outweighed any possibility of serious scientific discussion. Einstein, for example, was asked to give a presentation on cosmic rays, but was only allowed five minutes to do so, a limit he said would make any serious explanation impossible. I failed to find a text of this speech this morning, so instead I selected E.B. White’s essay on his visit to the event, which appeared in The New Yorker and is collected in Essays of E.B. White. Today’s post is assembled from borrowed phrases from White’s text.

Cornered

From a tight space.

Call it a threat––back against two walls, but some dream best from spaces like this. If I wanted to hide, I could walk in the open, but only from here can I bear witness to being, the intricate choreography of shadows, swinging between the arms of a branching angle. Turning from one wall into to the next, I find the other half of this shell, enough to negate the noise of a universe with its effusive unknowns, and hear, between breaths, the song of a single house finch. 

***

Inspired by, and using borrowed phrases from, the chapter “Corner” in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Mechanical Issues

Looking for a few good ideas.

I was having some mechanical difficulties, so I decided to do some research. A body with issues of an uncertain nature may sometimes find relief by revisiting certain fundamental tenets of the physical world.

To be sure, greater minds than this one have long considered these questions––which may concern, among other things, the action and reaction of bodies at rest and in motion––not to mention acoustics and optics. Also, heat, friction; details related to magnetism, electricity. Astronomical matters may seem remote, but these, too, are not to be discounted, considering how profoundly any number of factors may govern aspects of the visible and invisible world. 

In conclusion, it’s complicated. 

There are a number of implications for these findings. For example, while I am still entirely unsure about the origins of that squeaky grinding noise that sometimes but not always happens when I make a right turn, it is reasonable to conclude that while the stereo system remains functional, it should be possible to avoid hearing it until a more appropriate time. 

As for this other thing I am trying to write, I am no more certain of my approach than I was before this brief foray into certain essential principles of structure, but at least I’ve found myself in good company when it comes to my ongoing bafflement regarding the proportional significance of any number of factors in a given system.

***

Inspired by a chance encounter with Mortimer J. Adler’s chapter on “Mechanics” from The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought. And some other things.