To show this felt presence, the undiscussed ghost, you let a part stand for some concrete whole, which stood in for the imagined whole we had once dreamed to approach, when the choir sang, Nearer. My God.
Consider your figure at a gas station, far from history, community, from any sense of connection to any other moment in time. There is no house, no other human being, not even a passing car in the frame. No trees live here, only this undefined scrub of the beyonds, leaning away. We can hardly see what he does.
Another, flanked by the shadows of buildings in a boomtown, far from any landscape, the hoe replaced by the rake. His action like a still, somehow the stuff of a life, but what is it?
Here is a particular American bleakness: the cold light, harsh angles, a mechanized blandness, a puritan stiffness of rigid self-containment, waxed fruit shining in a bowl, at the center of an empty room, beside the stylized body in space. We are far from her, and she is far from herself.
Inspired by (and with borrowed phrases from) Linda Nochlin’s description of the work of Edward Hopper in this article, “Edward Hopper and the Imagery of Alienation” (Art Journal, Summer 1981). Citing an observation by Brian O’Doherty, Nochlin highlights how “the alienation that viewers feel in Hopper’s pictures is not the simple alienation of human beings from each other, but of individuals from themselves.”
You can’t say they didn’t warn us, those eye-level oracles whispering above the chewing gum we didn’t need, the candy bars we secretly craved, the batteries we were always forgetting to buy. It’s not like they weren’t persistent. They offered a bounty of answers, endlessly. But, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water––
Secrets would be revealed. Why the it girl could never marry, what the bachelor of the year could never refuse. How to win against the crooks, not to mention important updates: recent developments in a high-profile rivalry, what happened to the kids you still remembered. What was fumbled, what went bust, who was at the end of their rope.
It was a bombshell. It was graphic. It was a must see. It promised: Your questions finally answered! The secrets, the how to, the life hack you don’t want to try living without. The bags of apples moved ahead; the cereal was scanned. There was always something we were forgetting until it was too late. In this way they knew us, these oracles.
Look away at your own risk, they chided. We slid forward, replied with banal comments about how our days were going. Buttons were pressed, money exchanged. A receipt was handed over. We turned to exit, offered the usual thanks. But the things that we carried could not be the things we were here for, could they? They had called our bluff, these fantastical fortune-tellers. We exited through the sliding doors, into the asphalt flatland, squinting against the glare.
Inspired by a recent survey of magazines featured by the checkout station at the local supermarket.
For those creatures, large and microscopic, that scientists once thought extinct, then found again.
Who is this for? The question was preoccupying. The list got longer. Those who occasionally get a sense of wonder at the idea that there are parts of themselves and others emerging and about to emerge that neither they nor any others can begin to imagine, which will only be known when they are in full bloom; and which may even then, remain unknown, like those flowers that bloom only one night a year.
Who think it is worth something to protect the barely-emerged parts, the hopes not yet breathed, the tiny flames prone to being extinguished in wind.
There was a man walking along a sidewalk in the rain the other day. He had white hair, large white sneakers, a nice-looking windbreaker, khakis, a neat haircut––and a plastic freezer bag sitting on his head, perched like the cap of a fast-food uniform. I saw him and celebrated, “This guy!”
People who sometimes have moments of delight or sudden heartache passing strangers, who sometimes can’t keep from imagining stories about customers if they are working at a register, or about the person at the register when they are passing as a customer. Who look at the hands with the card or the change, who make constant note of the details of hands: their tiny scars, their tremors, their bitten fingernails, their rings, and the homemade bracelets peeking out of the cuffs of dress shirts.
Who have noticed how an overwhelming sense of vividness at the shimmering parts of being, everywhere, may sometimes live just beside a sense that some deadly danger, creeping through it, is precisely the thing that no one is naming aloud.
Who have loved or imagined loving the feel of a costume, and face paint. Of cardboard-sword play and fairy wands; double-dutch and baseball cards, and the magical arrival of an ice cream truck. Who have watched a mother cooking, and wondered about her silences at the stove. Who have watched a father, sitting, at the end of the day, and felt something coiled behind his tired eyes, as though preparing to spring.
For those who are reluctant to embrace the workplace trend of replacing one’s actual face with a bitmoji version of one’s face, for reasons that one can only vaguely (and not without discomfort) relate to the aversion reported by those chronicling certain native tribes, to photographs in general, those strange, not-quite-human, human-seeming likenesses which appear as a theft of one’s actual face––and with it, the connected soul.
Who believed at some point or another, that they might do something more than what their mind was generally asked to do, although they could not say exactly what.
For those creatures, large and microscopic, that scientists once thought extinct, then found again. For the last surviving member of a species, still singing, even when no living mate exists. For the ones just discovered in the deep. For the ones not yet discovered, still so far away.
For those employees of institutions that require large-group meetings, who noticed in the last year, that they often had to turn off their cameras when no longer able to maintain composure in Zoom meetings because Bossman was so funny when not trying to be, whenever he delivered a motivational speech on some Thing of Great Import.
Who find the world very loud sometimes, who want to vomit at the sound of a leaf blower, and who also want to laugh wildly or break into song in places that are eerily quiet, like medical waiting rooms.
Who were disappointed that the first love interest did not propose becoming an item by breaking into song, followed by a chorus of friends, inviting the respondent to reply in song, also a with chorus of friends.
Who experience the world alternately as a series of swords against raw flesh, and as a shimmering wonderland, endlessly remaking its patterns and purposes.
For people who will invent words on an as-needed basis, and those who see faces in shoes, cars, and appliances.
Who is this for? Someone asked me. It’s a good question. I started a list.
I thought of this young woman I met. She wore these knee socks depicting Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And I thought that there are probably many of us who admire her Van Gogh socks but do not have any and perhaps never will because we keep spending our would-be sock money on fresh bread from a favorite bakery, and repeating the obvious at the first bite, no matter how many times we’ve said it before. “Oh. Bread.” For her, for us. For people who make bread like that.
I thought of how sometimes a person will be so excited about a party that they will arrive early and then wait in the car until appropriately late, and sometimes a person will wonder, in the middle of a party, if it would be rude to start reading. Those who, upon discovering the answer to be “Yes,” consider it a moral choice to resist the impulse, however strong. All of these people.
I thought of the people on the pier, fishing for dinner, piling their catch in a five-gallon bucket, who know which bait and which rod go with what catch. Also, the people who tried fishing once because it seemed noble, somehow, who did it long enough to realize that if they could only eat the fish they caught, they may as well abandon seafood altogether and just start focusing on developing some better nut-based dishes. Both groups are on my mind.
I thought of people whose eyes get weary when they are staring into late-afternoon traffic, and who find some moral heartbreak in the way that a person with some power at work can regularly write emails with non-parallel sentence structure, and I thought of a custodian I knew who was never without a book, and another who would moonlight in a band on his sax. These people, I thought.
And anyone who ever felt a little funny about doing an inner eye roll whenever they would encounter one of those “live, laugh, love” home décor placards––not because they are opposed to living, laughing, or loving, obviously, but because there is a gut-level aversion to propaganda in all forms; or who found themselves entirely mystified to meet a person who seemed generally immune to debilitating bouts of generalized melancholy. And I thought of my sister, who may actually have one of these home décor placards in her living room, I couldn’t remember, and how if she did, she would mean it unironically, and it would be honest and real, and just perfect for her home. So of course, her, and anyone also in this category with her.
People who know the feeling of laughing until the liquid one is trying to drink starts to spew out the nose, intensifying the laugh which is now all out of proportion with any sense of decorum. People who appreciate the customs of decorum, how they vary according to context and place, and notice the subtle nuances, who know when to say, “What’s good?” vs. “How are you?” vs. nothing but a long look and a deep nod, hand over heart.
People who will invent words on an as-needed basis, and those who see faces in shoes, cars, and appliances. Who hear voices regularly, in a manner that is neither alarming, nor pathological, nor the sort of thing they’d go around admitting, because they understand people’s aversion to associating with the people who admit to hearing voices, and also because the voices in question are generally entertaining, and usually good company.
I noticed, as I was writing this list, that it wanted to get longer. I noticed, that if I let it go on as it may want to, I might be going way beyond my self-imposed limits for these posts. I considered how much I enjoyed making this list, and decided to return tomorrow, with the next installment of “Who Is This For?”
Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.
Open fist against graffitied bricks, he watches crows, remembers death. Painted peacock lady smiles over traffic lights; checks the mirror, pouts.
Back-to-back on the park bench, a pair wonders if they are dating yet. Babies bearing swords beat against trees and stones while sandboxes still wait.
Queens rock hi-tops, heads leaning toward hips, and braided babes run. Mob men in trench coats talk business and horses while sirens wail upstairs.
Holiday blue notes shine cool on midnight sidewalks; her walking pace slows. By park fountains he reminded her, What’s the point? ––Meaning, of her rage.
Baby boy finds mama’s stash. She won’t know what he eats, until later. He fell in love: first God, then the ancients, then woman; then he was done.
Don’t tell me what to do, she says, leg crossed over knee. He listens, nods. Bullet clears rib cage to stop against spine; now there is no need for shoes.
If you sit beneath trees long enough with snacks out, squirrels come to eat. Makers cross the street. Meeting halfway, they embrace. Cars honk and they laugh.
Joining foreheads, seated lovers bow, form a heart by the fountain mist. The bracelet was there to remind him to count each memory, but her.
Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.
Notes: The title comes from the painting by Robert Delaunay (1912, oil on canvas; Tate London). The poem came from an exercise done on the seventeenth of the month. In honor of Alan Ginsberg’s American Sentences (A haiku without line breaks, seventeen syllables), I aimed to write seventeen of them. Then I took some liberties with arrangement and punctuation. Sometimes breaking from the sentence (into two or three), I kept lines of seventeen syllables, each aimed toward a particular scene, during a particular twenty-four-hour period, on a particular street, in an imagined city, present day.