Looking Up

With Dorothea Klumpke Roberts.

Since Cain slew Abel, she considered hers a threefold role: mother, priestess, aide. Faithful service to each has meant time spent gazing up to question the sun, moon, and stars in concert with the evolving hour at hand––not as objects or territories to be conquered or subdued, but with the reverence and awe she comes to hold as original truths. Her wish: to be a living torch, bearing these, that tomorrow’s children might see and be awed in turn. To look as she does, it will be impossible for them not to feel the moral impact of the moment and be awed by all that is and may yet be.

***

Today is the birthday of groundbreaking astronomer Dorothea Klumpke Roberts (1861-1942). This post is composed of ideas and images from a 1919 article she published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, “Woman’s Work in Astronomy.”

Bird Women

Subtle bodies in flight.

An old fantasy: the flying man. Faust would die for it. The better to study stars, he said. After all, he reasoned, weren’t the heavens more suitable for study by the dead than the living? If a bird may, why not a man? They kept trying. 

For some of the women, long trained in the art of dying, flight was one of those things you simply didn’t discuss, like the daily deaths or predawn dreams. Who was asking? 

I think my grandmother knew how, as the grandmothers before her also did. It was one of those things that came with death. In certain situations, learning how to die was just another one of those things that one did, for the living.

Sea, Woman

Conversation at land’s edge.

After we dream, we will meet by the shore.

Sister, do you see me? Let us be counted among the living. 

Then we will dive. 

When they come to eat our images, they will repeat the old power play. They’ll try again, to douse our bodies in shame.

Hah! As if to punish us with a bucket of cold water! We’ll wave and smile, go back down.

But sure, we can read the signs. It won’t be long before they make their vengeance into law. It is decreed, they will say, as prelude. Then comes the next mandate about official attire.

An old story. I bet these petty tyrants could use a good dive. But they are too afraid, so they clutch their precious trinkets to their chest and pretend to avert their eyes. It matters very much to them, what we wear or do not wear.

So complete is their exile from any land, they relinquish their only birthright: the primordial cave of their mother’s body, the original canal of first passage, the ripe breasts from which they first tasted their own lives, where the membrane between worlds remained transparent, and the mountain of her form was the first ascent to some wider vista onto what might be, an impulse now degraded into mere collection of images to be held in place of first sight.

How are your eyes today, sister? Good, and look! Your skin has healed!

It is clear today, let’s get the boats, go back to that spot, remember? There was more than we could carry in our nets!

I will get the others. We will take the boat. When you see it is good, we’ll go back down.

I see you, woman.

It is good to be seen. 

Let’s get the others.

***

Inspired by the Japanese ama, as photographed by Iwase Yoshiyuki and described (with stunning images) in this article. Many of the ama lived in communities with other women, supporting themselves and their families comfortably by diving for abalone, sea urchin, and seaweeds. Many women dove well into their nineties. The business was lucrative through the 1960s, after which it suffered the effects of climate change and overfishing. Chris Lee describes some of these issues in this Zenbird article.

Forms

Considering various mediums, and the interfaces between seen and unseen.

Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. On paper you can see the smudge of erasure, the changes, the trial and error. Consider the difference between this and something like film, or film-less photos, those bodies of pixellated light in captivity.

With photographs everything looks like something that a crazed nostalgic is trying to freeze outside of time. Oil on canvas: longings laid bare, to hold what will not be held. The time spent anyway, squinting. 

A bedside book in childhood: Lives of the Saints, dog-eared at Joan of Arc, because of the way she didn’t flinch, that insistently, cross-dressing soul. I think her gift was less that she heard a voice all day long telling her what to do, but that she listened.

Now it’s art books, too heavy to lift with one hand, propped open across a chest and half-waking dreams of Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the near-transparent souls climbing doggedly into blinding light, none looking as though they have any idea what it may be, but there it is waiting, anyway, pouring over and through their bodies and their steps in a luminous column and you get the sense that they’re climbing forever like a white-knuckled novena, World Without End.

Joan was burned at the stake for three reasons: one, she wore pants; two, she wore them into battle; three, what she said about the voice she heard, even after it was clear what would happen if she didn’t retract. There was a line between what you could see and may not see. She crossed.

Before he painted Jacob’s Ladder, William Blake was getting regularly arrested for bar fights, and after he painted his opus, he died, as the legend goes, amid visions of angels. What did he see in them, I wonder, and how was it different from the eternities he saw in hours, the heavens in his wildflowers, or the worlds he found in grains of sand?

A want to hold it all in an instant, the forever dream against countless suggestions that seeing something is almost always very different than seeing everything, and the end of the world something different than the end of every known part. 

“Jacob’s Ladder” by José María Pérez Nuñez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic License.

Before the Storm

Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.

“Eclairs lointains” by jmbaud74 on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky. 

Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.

Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light,  and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste? 

They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”