The Memory Tower

For Leonora Carrington.

Everything happened after my birth, you said, as you left on the boat of the herons, a new Eve, refusing to be devoured as anybody’s muse. You had spells to cast, self-portraits as alchemy, your spine a hearing trumpet, listening between the worlds; mère, mer; now mother, now sea.

The solar systems of your eyes kindled by your own light, you rode the seventh horse away from the house of fear, passing through the stone door to the land where the serpents sing stories from the well to the pilgrims ascending the memory tower.

El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas, Leonora Carington

***

Inspired by the life and work of artist Leonora Carrington, with phrases borrowed from the titles of her paintings and stories, as well as her interviews. 

Reparations of a Body

Old woman, new art.

Past, present, future: body. It’s a reaching place, this blood house, this mother’s form––out, out, she paints balloon bodies bursting with anxieties of desire, washing together in tides of pink, crimson, vermillion. She paints the sound and the fury of the gaping mouth, wild eyes; body like a net, like a sac, flower petal breasts like octopus arms: reach.  

The images shock. The nerve, to dare production beyond her reproductive years. With a nod to decorum, might she not try creeping around the flesh?

Given her advanced age, wasn’t she supposed to have floated into something ethereal by now? Suffusions of light, passive serenity, reflections on a lake? Flowers would be appropriate. Ripe fruit, perhaps. 

With flamboyant irony, she rejects easy ripeness, preferring instead to quarrel with time, to paint within her bodies the unresolved contradictions of her still-becoming self.

I am about to find the past, she says. I feel it, she says.  I own it forever. 

Her mornings continue in this manner, her mourning still undone.

***

Inspired by Louise Bourgeois, whose life and works are of deep interest to me lately. This morning, I was reading Rosemary Betterton’s article, Louise Bourgeois, ageing, and maternal bodies, published in a 2009 issue of Feminist Review.

Muttering Thunder

Music lessons with the rake.

The poet likened gardening to an act of listening. Poets are known to do a lot with the old gardening metaphor, and she resisted this. Nothing was like a garden, not really. Not when you waited. Not when you took its music on its own terms. She called the rake a dew’s harp and her favorite instrument. The method for playing it meant finding what was already there, which is the opposite of working it into something else. 

***

Inspired by the work of Alice Oswald, particularly The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for The Planet.

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.

Hello, Stranger

For the love of seaweed.

There is the familiar arrangement of well-known symmetrical forms, the sort that draws comments of Cute, and Beautiful, exclamation mark. These are not that. Slick like raw meat, covered with film over knotty, bulbous appendages, they were dubbed the useless class of botanists. Perhaps it is the fate of things deemed useless, to be collected by fringe enthusiasts, who pressed them between paper, offered collections as gifts. They would sell them during the first world war, to raise money for wounded soldiers, and this is one of those things I can’t stop thinking: how when a continent was immersed in mechanized violence on a scale unprecedented in human history, some responded by collecting delicate specimens of fragile ocean life, to press between pages. 

***

Inspired by Sasha Archibald’s Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album in the Public Domain Review.

Sounding Branches

On phantoms, limbs, and being an instrument.

The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.

But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.

The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.

***

This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

On Digging for Sources

The endeavor to examine the origins of art is fraught from the get-go, and yet.

Notes while reading Jung’s 1922 essay “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.” The following includes phrases borrowed from Jung’s text, assembled while reading with certain questions in mind. 

***

There are parallels in process, but a psychological approach when it comes to art or religion is permissible only with emotions and symbols. The essential nature of each is another matter and can’t be touched by psychology. Artistic, scientific, and religious propensities may yet slumber together in the small child, when the distinctions between fields of activity in the mind remain invisible. A work of art and a neurosis may swell from the same soil, but to link them causally would be a mistake. In tracing common lines, let’s not be like moles with our noses buried in the dirt. To be so reductive is to strip the gods of their robes and mock their naked forms, extinguishing the sheen of creation. 

The subterranean background is not to be conflated with the art. To study well demands ridding oneself of medical prejudice. Art is not disease, and it would be a mistake for a botanist to assume they know a plant just because they have studied its habitat. Art is a creation, not a personality; its special significance comes from having escaped the limitations of the personal. 

Is it like a tree in soil or a child in a womb? All comparisons, in the end, are lame.

Divine frenzy comes perilously close to pathological state, but the two are different. Speaking of which, consider the difference between a body of flesh and blood and any abstract frame.

Real Talk With Gallileo

On keeping time with heartbeats and the bumpy, dusty moon.

Today, I’ll be having another one of those one-sided conversations with a dead person, as I love to do from time to time when I find occasion to think about them. What got me on this track was learning that on this day in 1609, Gallileo Gallilei demonstrated his first telescope to lawmakers in Venice. I was wondering: Why, of all people, was it them? Perhaps he needed a permit. I have not yet found the answer to this question, but I did find some more questions.

Gallileo, I’ve been wondering.

What must it have been like, to notice ––while studying medicine at your father’s insistence, after he discouraged you from your calling as a priest, after he discouraged your interest in mathematics (on the grounds that neither vocation paid as well as a physicist)––that the chandelier above you, swinging in the wind at variable arcs, seemed to keep time with your heartbeat, regardless of the size of the arc? To discover, in the experiment that followed, that pendulums of any length will keep time with one another and the human heart?

What is it like to know what happened to this discovery, how it led––a century later–– to the creation of the first timepiece, which over time meant that people kept time, which over centuries meant that people were kept by time, which over centuries meant that people no longer tended to look at the sky or the shadows of a sundial to know the hour; that people would often be so rushed by the march of expectations corresponding to the commodification of minutes, that they would no longer stop to look up?

Apologies for this digression. Of course, I am projecting here. I am somewhat envious of your freedom for study––of your freedom to stop and examine things, period. That and the way that not only did you never need to introduce yourself with an ID number, you didn’t even use a last name. 

Of course, you had money troubles of your own, especially with your brother, a composer, constantly accruing debt to support his love of music. You had studied the arts, too, against the wishes of your father, and you befriended the painter Cignoli, who painted a Madonna on the moon, which was a common-enough image until you noticed the pockmarks on the moon.

I can’t help but think that his friendship with you had a hand in the painter’s decision to resist the convention of a mythical orb. I can’t help but think that time spent with you helped him to appreciate the poetry of the possibility that the celestial body elevating her feet need not be a perfect sphere of dreamlike luminescence, that it might instead be a rock not unlike the rocks of this world, suggestive of a sort of comical lopsidedness, with cracks and crevices in which everyday filth and ordinariness may easily accumulate, along with lunar dust and cosmic pests and possibly even space mildew.

I am grateful that your work made it possible to make certain associations between our most sublime conceptions––say, heaven––and the stuff that was hanging around everywhere, either invisible or appearing to be in the way of the men with their lofty goals, who preferred not to debase themselves with considerations of the cracks in surfaces, the way that the wind would get through, and the cold, the way you had to keep mending and stopping them like you had to keep changing and feeding and holding the crying babies, ––

gathering and chopping and seasoning and boiling and stewing and roasting and cleaning; to feed the noble man a single meal, just before you got back to the babies and before you got back to do it again, how sometimes, even after all this, it was still possible, for the length of sixty to a hundred heartbeats at night, ––

just after the children were asleep, to sit in a chair, looking up, feeling an ineffable pull toward a wonder and mystery that felt both vast and made of the same mystery that you had noticed gathering herbs, wrapping the soft body of an infant, and in the longings that persisted no matter how long they seemed to go unanswered.

Thank you for insisting on this connection, even though it meant you were outcast from the basilicas you loved, from the rituals you had once thought to administer yourself, from the silence of the naves with their candles and incense, and the awe of an intimate mystery in the air.  

I’d love to say more, but my second alarm is going off now, and I’ve not yet been awake for an hour. Time to check the sleeping baby, time to check the food, iron the clothes, pack the things of the day, all the while watching the clock––which marches, I know now, by the rhythm you first noticed in the chandeliers swinging above you as you sat with the books you meant to study, the assignments you meant to get to, the financial responsibilities you meant to meet, the appointments you meant to keep, the wandering heart you meant to tame, and you could not keep your eyes from wandering up, to rest on what you had yet to understand, having the insight to notice that even this was made of something as utterly familiar as the drum in your own chest. 

Pigeon Spectrum

Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

You gotta come see this.

What?

These feathers. This artist makes these huge rainbow murals from the colors.

Oh, I love peacocks.

Who doesn’t, but this is about pigeons.

Flying rats!

No, but look close. Ever notice them in the light? If you look really close, there’s a lot happening there. These feathers, you have to see what she does with them, zooming in.

Where?

Sides of buildings, chimneys, warehouse walls, shipping containers. They started out more muted, but then it was the winter of sirens and another lockdown and everyone inside. That’s when they started getting really bright.

Huh, there’s a legend I heard once, about what the Cottonwood remembers about the pigeons.

Why people started calling them flying rats?

No, why they became the first birds eaten by another bird. It’s a Caddo story, I think.

Hawk get ‘em?

Owl. Legend has it that in the beginning, no bird killed another bird. All they ate was grass and leaves. Great Spirit didn’t like to see anything she made killed by another creature.

But the owl always hunted at night.

Not always. It used to see fine in the daytime. Matter of fact, that’s how it started. Owl laid eyes on a swan and fell hard in love. 

Always the swan. Great white ladybird. They’re mean, though.

So, owl goes every day to see the swan and then he proposes marriage. Swan’s like, “Come down here.” Now, usually owl knows better than to get near any water, but love makes you do crazy things. So, what do you think happens?

Wet feathers.

Yep, he falls in, can’t get out, and there’s a loon in the reeds cracking up, going, “Hah! Fool!” and Owl is humiliated, furious. Thing is, he can’t see the loon. What he sees instead are these two pigeons above him on a cottonwood branch. The pigeons are not paying the owl any mind. They’re lovers. One’s saying to the other, “Who do you love?” just as the raging owl below them is going, “What are you laughing at?” The other pigeon, addressing her love, says, “You, you.”

Uh-oh. I see where this is going.

Yep. Owl goes crazy and attacks her. Her feathers rain down, brush against Great Spirit’s cheek. Spirit wakes up, sees what’s happened, and punishes owl. And that’s why owl can only see at night now. 

Huh.

I know. 

Point being, you gotta see these feathers. 

Let’s go.

The artist is Adele Renault and I came across an article about her “Gutter Paradise” murals in My Modern Met. Here is a link to the article with images.

The story “The Cottonwood Remembers” can be found at When the Storm God Rides, by Florence Stratton, collected by Bessie M. Reid [1936], at sacred-texts.com

The Artist and the Curator

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

I had the great fortune of visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this weekend, and was profoundly moved by the experience. It had been a long time since I’ve visited an art museum, and the timing is perfect for many reasons. One of these is that I have been considering certain questions related to art: mainly, how “doing it” is often felt to be something separate from bringing people to it. And how the fusion of both roles is essential for the art to reach an audience. 

While visiting the museum, I am noticing the level of intricate thought and care that has gone into the design of the space where people come to see what is called “the work,” ––without which, the work could not be seen and appreciated except in small private groups. I think about what choices are made to lead people in, how curating an exhibit is an art in itself.

I notice what has been considered, from selection and arrangement of pieces, to how people are guided to move through a space.  The frames, what wall colors, behind which pieces, under what lighting?

LACMA by Elliot Harmon on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

American art critic Jerry Saltz said, “Don’t go to a museum with a destination. Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you…and the world should begin to change for you.”

It’s the curator’s job to present an artist’s work in a manner that allows such wormhole experiences to happen–– and, ideally, to encourage that they will.

My own experience teaches me that while some celebrated artists had the great fortune to work with people who recognized the art and matched it with an audience, then cultivated, curated, and nourished the conditions for its reception, most of us working creatives do not have someone like this working along with us. We tend to feel discomfort when it comes to curation. 

This is worth paying attention to. How do you find an audience and welcome them in? What pieces do you arrange in the opening room, what do you save for the inner room of the exhibit? How do you select and display pieces so that they work in dialogue with each other? When a summary is included with the label of a piece, how do you frame it so that connections are encouraged across time and space, to meet the viewer in this space, in this time, looking now?

How does a curator leverage some knowledge of what will draw people and lead them to be surprised by what they were not looking for, which they may never have thought to seek out?

How do you direct the movement in a space while allowing viewers to explore with a sense of freedom and choice?

These are the questions on my mind, and while I may not have much in the way of answers ––yet, at least I have moved beyond thinking of curation as something somehow separate from my work as a writer. Keeping these daily posts are part of this, I know. I’ll stay with these and continue developing other projects as I develop some curating muscles.  

Some things I do not tend to keep at the forefront of my creative practice, as I have previously thought about it: how I want people to find the work.  How much I want to meet them where they are and bring them to it. Or how much it matters to me that people might be reminded back to something they might have wondered about, to revisit what might have been thought lost. How much I want people to see themselves in my work, to be reminded back to their best and most life-giving parts and be moved to nourish and protect those parts in themselves and others. 

It occurs to me as I write this, that I have never articulated any of this before. So, here’s a start. Onward.