Forest and the Trees

Detail work and scope.

How often one of us says––of some work or other, whether as protector or caretaker; builder, custodian, healer, organizer, artist––we didn’t know the half of what was coming our way when we started. If we had known, we could not have begun. We wouldn’t have been up for it, yet.

My mom says this about the new puppy. She loves the new puppy. The laundry is endless. Lovers say this sometimes, and parents. People who go all in for the old home, even though it “needs a little TLC.”

On a related note, I am now remembering that the thing I think I am working on is almost never the main work, and that the main project is always some other, still hidden thing I’ve started, or taken up with, or allowed to start me.  I wonder what I am doing now, and I have a strong suspicion that I lack the perspective I would need to see it.

And, Then

Light in broken glass.

During the crisis, we rehearsed everything we knew, sending ambiguous signs and vague symbols––an ongoing SOS maybe, to some beyond––and watched the play of light, how it obscured the boundaries between surface and space. Which were we, anyway?

It rained and the bombing continued and so did the ads for flawless skin in seconds and the promise of a good night’s sleep, an end to mildew, air fryers. The campaigns were one-note, not unlike the bombs; some spoke of distraction, but who had the time? The babies were needing. The list was endless. It was never done. There were only so many of us, to hold them. 

Horizons blurred, then sharpened. We looked and gave up looking. The crisis would splash across our faces. We stopped sometimes to wash them, turning away from it, sometimes into each another, and everyone had a story of a sighting, the something they would never forget. Bodies looked for somewhere to rest. Where? we asked each other. When?

Which is to say, I cannot remember where the bits went in the last blast, or what they were. I don’t remember what or if I was holding at the time, only that I felt it fly from me, scattering in every direction. 

It wasn’t a sign or a symbol. I retrace my steps, rehearse everything. But it won’t take. Someone calls, help me. I almost recognize the voice.

Untitled Chorus

Notes from the days of wind.

In a season when the atmospheric pressures seemed to be in more dramatic flux than any of us could remember, herds of winds would gallop across the ceiling, rattling the furniture. It was the babies I listened for. Everyone was going around shaking their heads. These kids, they said.

There was a painter I loved. He knew how to look when he was painting. When he stopped was where the trouble started. Amid the noisy striving and the sales pitches, the ideologues and the masses of our families clamoring to avoid being ditched with the rest of the wreckage of the hour, it seemed like the babies––so quiet, some worried, is anyone there? ––might be waiting for someone to finally get around to mentioning this other thing. The painter dared to depict it. He didn’t call it anything, and some called it dangerously close to Nothing, but anyone looking to see it could tell you that what it evoked was the opposite of nothing.

It was a verge, and he was pulling the center to the edge of where the babies would sit, unsure whether or how they will stand. He wouldn’t live to see them.

In the season of high winds, the babies cocooned themselves in blankets of ambient noise. Those who thought of silences as nothing more than the punctuation between events, and not the main event, did not know what to make of whatever those babies were doing inside those cocoons. 

They never seem to be listening, many remarked. But watch. Relax your eyes. It’s like one of those magic eye paintings where the apparent forms are only a pretext.  See the weight of noise that has been heaped on them since birth. It becomes hard not to suspect that they have found some other way to manage what is pulsing nearby, while appearing not to listen at all, like the artist who pretends to paint nothing.

Wait, someone said eventually, of these paintings. I see it. The painter didn’t make it in the end, but the works became chapels unto themselves. The works were gathered in a chapel. The babies would show up, alone and in pairs, looking. They would seem to care nothing for what they saw.

Many of these wouldn’t make it, either. But some would. And when they waited in the chapel long enough to hear something other than wind, they would notice a sound more sonorous than their most immersive dream. Eventually, they would know it knew them. That it had waited as they had, for this time. They would sing.


From the floating world.

Paper or stone; water or fire? When in doubt, we played tic-tac-toe and hoped for the best. We were in love with broken things: hiccupping wheels, chipped teacups, the wings of fallen sparrows and the lines of our own teeth. Here it comes, we would announce, pulling the next one loose. You wanted a cast so people could lean in and leave their names.

Empty rooms were magnificent halls to be witnessed from a corner on the bare floor. It was the light that did it, granting some significance to everything it touched. We watched it come and go. It moved like it knew its way around, like it knew us.


Inspired when I chanced upon this image from Barbara Bloom’s Pictures from the Floating World.

In the Mesh

A visitor to the abstractionists.

There was a visitor. The visitor had some questions but didn’t give a name. 

The visitor inquired. Let me ask you this: why did you bother with a trip to the moon if all you found were pleasant pictures to remind you back to the optimism of the intellect that got you here?

Writing in light is a matter of stage management, the visitor told us. And it’s worth asking how you got from the beginning word to this endless buffet of utopian manifestos made manifest by your co-opting of the lens. 

We didn’t know what to say. There’s a start, the visitor nodded. Try abandoning confidence.

One of us moved to speak.

Shh, the visitor said. Look around. Consider, for example, this net of records. You keep trying to close it, to capture its contents. But it will not be closed, and you are in it. Debt, in the end, will have no satisfaction.

The visitor was silent, then. One among us asked, what are you thinking?


Nothing? we pressed.

Here’s a cipher: zero. Without it, no algorithm: 00101001 . . ., and so on. You were so excited when you made that a starting point, for calculating the value of a loaf of bread against the cost of making it, the weight of fish against the trouble of going out; the power of, say, the atom bomb. But as the net only grows more intricate, cutting blood off at the wrists, are you any closer to seeing, as you say, The Big Picture

Abstraction always does this, and only the abstractionists have the stolen luxury of negating particulars. This junco, this scarred back, these soiled diapers, this afternoon, that baby’s pink sock in the middle of the road. Even subtle omissions in the particulars of birdsong make it impossible for one to be recognized as a member of its own kind.

So, we asked the visitor. Um, how are you, anyway?

Great. Fine. Take your pick among the abstractions you prefer. Each is a substitute for the here before you, a zero to add to or take from. 

An old saying: the devil in the details. As if to negate the trope of the killer in disguise.

But where does the time go? As it runs through your splayed fingers and you still forget to drink, too distracted by your reflecting pool of questions of who you are and the meaning of it all and the big nothings of what now and when, forgetting the bodies right here––one, and one, and one––preferring the salvation of nowhere.

We wanted the visitor to elaborate, but the visitor turned, saying someone needs to check the buds, the eggs, the dishes and the tiny nests, and the waters, while you orbit around your zeroes and keep on deciding there are not enough fish.

Atmospheric Struggle

A sky-watcher listens.

In the year of quiet, you noticed what got louder. Listening, you transcribed a diary of what was happening just beyond the nearest clouds. It was not a new invasion, only the old one you had long been living with, adjusting to, learning to accommodate––until you noticed, or almost did not notice, how well you had learned not to look at the edge where you lived. One day, you decided to look.

Why? Some asked you, and you explained that you took it personally.

What, exactly? The skies, and what happened in them, for one. But also, this other thing, more diffuse and insidious, precisely because it is lethally easy to ignore.


Inspired by Finn Blythe’s BOMB interview with Lawrence Abu Hamadan, on his work Air Pressure: A Diary of the Sky, on view at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, until February 26.

Time’s Witnesses

Records of cross-examination.

The first thing we grasped was that we were made of one part here and another just outside us. The next was that Time was made of more than one kind of stuff. Now it held us; now it was a river beyond. Now an elaborate ice castle, now air and what flew on it. Then it was in us somehow, overlapping breath but more.

Was it a fabric? Some spoke as though it were something to be measured, conquered, won. But then, some spoke of nearly everything in those terms. Let time no longer be imposed on us, said another, imagining it a medium to be shaped, like clay. Some had a bias toward thinking that the moment at hand was a new Time. For others, the future could not be born without events, and until these happened, none existed that we could name.

There was much we couldn’t name. This was not a beloved idea. Often, it seemed to be measuring us, and while many fell, none of these were Time. 

Records in Wartime

Sounding the skies.

The ringing went on. It dropped from the sky, filled our boots. When it stopped, the hillside hissed. We bleated against it to distract ourselves back to our shackles, our shovels back to work. What were we digging? But forgetting was the point, don’t mention it, intentions slipped in easy drifts we ripped new jokes from last year’s clothes, we could see no cause to wear their kind again. Night came and the ringing returned to us until.

We took off our boots and left them to catch what we could no longer hear. No, we whispered. This is not the war. We watched the skies. It was not time.


Before the aftermath

Yes, some added. We should have listened longer, mourned sooner, welcomed other eyes; been less afraid and more willing to approach the borders of our terrors, to see if any existed; to extend a bodily willingness to allow the next breath to sting with its magnitude, to know this something not our own, which we may yet learn to hold before the break.


Between worlds.

To move between the domestic and the otherworldly need not be some hero’s leap across some chasm, triumphant. We drifted back and forth, more gaze than choice. In this way, our tears translated to the pools of mermaid songs at bath time. Come, littles. Now the scalp, now the towels at our tails. Daylight done, lights out, out! The mystery had to do with its return in the morning, and we whispered, Tomorrow. Of the light and the pinecones, rabbits, and blue jays. They would. We would be there. We hoped tomorrow to put acorns in a pile, that the squirrels would see them and approve. That they would see us and know. We called our good nights to the moon. It was changing and we meant to see how. It pulled our gaze like tides, and we were out again.