genius or not

litany for the long moment, 3

She sits facing the open doorway, the light at her back. She is writing a letter she will not complete.

“It’s hard to write you after such a long pause… too long, I’ve got nothing to say… Tomorrow I’m going to Philadelphia where they’re printing off a little book I made in Rome, a little publisher’s doing it. All in all I’m pleased about it but not too excited because it’s an old piece of work.”

-=-

I spoke to the woman in the back office of the little photo processing shop she ran. We sat on metal stools. She began speaking about her childhood in Korea. How poor her family was. How they sent her here to live with a distant cousin who was a professor at the university. “Philosophy,” she said.

But he was not a kind man, this philosopher and so she left his house.

-=-

what did you do then        I got a job at a Korean bar        I poured soju 

and sang songs that my mother had taught me        sometimes the man

who owned the bar        would sing with me too        he wanted me

to come home with him        but I was too sad        and didn’t want to

I just wanted        to pour drinks and then go back        to the dingy room

I shared with the other waitress        so I had to leave        that place too

-=-

She carried a gray box with her photographs in it.

Sontag says: “To collect photographs is to collect the world.”

-=-

When winter comes, I tell you: This is how

I will undress you in my city. The bridges

are being built up and then torn down again.

Here it is always winter.

Slate gray sky. The absence of birds.

My fingers along the length of your spine.

Bridge lights blinking and broken.

I tell you: Under this concrete, a river flows.

-=-

“Do you remember that day when we had to go to the canteen but instead we ate in a restaurant and I ate chicken and peas and I was so happy about everything?”

-=-

Sontag: “Photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.”

“Photographs document sequences of consumption.”

“A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limited experience to the search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.”

Souvenir: from the French, for the act of remembering.

-=-

“I have time.”

Your mediocre cloud. Your little mouse.

She was not sad, her friends will say. Exuberant –

ambitious, fragile. Tender. But not

sad. She filled a room with feathers.

She hung fabric in the room

to resemble wings. She said: “When I return,

we will eat pears.” What is life, after all,

but apprenticeship in dying?

Little mouse. Topolino. “Kisses

on the mouth are a like a miracle.”

litany for the long moment, 2

Barthes: “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is only constituted if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it.”

-=-

Artificial memory #1: Grove of white birch trees. Francesca in a white dress. She holds her arms up. They are branches. Hair falling down, obscuring her face. She walks closer. Her arms grow wings.

Artificial memory #2: Francesca on the beach. Sand on her legs and in her hair.

-=-

The problem of femininity: “Not only female but feminine. So insufficiently critical, insufficiently conscious of it critical potential.”

-=-

Artificial memory #3: The family in the country. A stone house by a stream in a field of white birch trees.

I do not remember a stream. I remember a graveyard. I remember the coolness of headstones beneath my fingers.

-=-

Imaginary museums: Museum of Ruined Houses. Museum of Lost Fathers. Museum of Remembered Graveyards. Museum of Things Left Behind after Death. Museum of White Light. Museum of Fitful Sleeping. Dream Museum. Museum of Summers at the Shore. Museum of Mourning. Museum of Forgetting.

-=-

Elaine Kim: “My mother thought of herself as Korean, although she did not visit Korea until she was sixty years old. Tense and silent, she did not tell stories. The women’s stories I heard were told by my father, who was oblivious to women’s dreams and desires. There were only two, both centering on female loyalty, chastity, and sacrifice: the tale of Choon-hyang, a kisaeng’s daughter who remained loyal to her high-born lover despite torture and imprisonment, and the story of Simchung, the filial daughter who sacrificed herself for her blind old father.”

-=-

Artificial memory #4: My father sits in a wooden chair in a dimly-lit room. It is night, and there is wind. He is facing a television screen, black and white. Muted, the figures rush in and out of frame. My father, unmoving and silent.

-=-

Francesca, in a letter, January 4, 1980:

 “….I was happy because you remember that my work used to be very personal, feminine, too much to do with myself and I wanted to create a bit of distance and also to do something with a more universal significance. Then this fall I was really unwell and I let myself go, I couldn’t sleep etc etc and I got really sick, I couldn’t understand what was happening, you know I am not the delicate type at all. I ended up in the hospital and then at my mom’s house to recover. It wasn’t all bad because I had the time to read the complete works of Proust, which inspired me a lot. I’d really like to create a work of art like that, rooted in and linked to everyday life but addressing questions of great scope.”

-=-

Chastity Museum. Museum of Gendered Space. Museum of the Body. Museum of the Delicate Type. Museum of Woman as Wound:

“all she needed to do, for the images to come, was open the wound.”

-=-

Francesca, at the end of the letter:

“I must get back to work before the light goes.”

litany for the long moment, 1

Elizabeth Gumport: “Woodman reveals the injuries that occur in the time it takes to produce a single picture: hair turns wispy, flesh fades and stretches into smoke. The longer her shutter stays open, the blurrier and more transparent bodies will appear until at last, they disappear. Shortly before her death, she began experimenting with a particularly long development process that required her to spend several hours producing a single photograph. In the end, the camera captures not the girl, but the long moment it looked at her.”

-=-

In the countryside, in the afternoon, she gathers up slender stalks of lavender as the sun sets. Her brother stands nearby, watching.

When she is done, they walk back to the house in silence. The cooling breeze. The fading light.

She fills the room with white feathers. She hangs dead birds in rows on the wall. This room in ruins. Late light.

-=-

Susan Sontag: “But essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

-=-

In a dream: I knelt by a locked door. There was a keyhole and through the keyhole, I saw a white bed, untouched.

I have always been baffled by fathers.

I went there, to stay with him. Washed lettuce in the sink while he slept.

The heat of the city pressed down on us. The sky was bruised and blue.

We argued over love. Its insufficiencies. He said: You are too young to have such hardness in your heart.

In the news: a dog left keening in a crate on the steps of the animal shelter.

The nurse said: It will be soon, but it will not be tonight.

-=-

Peggy Phelan: “Our encounter with the photograph always occurs after the event recorded within it. The belatedness of photography reminds us of our tendency to arrive too late and perhaps especially to arrive too late to appreciate the unique drama of our own mortality.”

-=-

I left my father in his city of death. There were men in other cities. Houston. San Diego. Newport by the sea.

Everywhere I went, flags flew at half-mast, but no one could remember why.

Cities of perpetual mourning.

Barthes says each photograph contains its future death: This will be and this has been. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe…. That is dead and that is going to die.

-=-

Peggy Phelan: “Art, like all things human, succumbs to death. But that does not mean we leave no trace of our attempt to live and to create despite our vanishing.”

portrait of a reputation

My father moved out that summer. My mother took us to the shore. We stayed on the second floor of a double decker house that we rented a week at a time. There was a wide wooden porch where we sat in the late afternoons until those boys moved in downstairs.

They spotted us as they unloaded their car, pointing fingers at us and calling out: Attack! It’s Pearl Harbor! They ran in circles on the sidewalk, made shooting sounds with their mouths. We were unfamiliar with the names they called us, but we knew they were not kind.

In the mornings, at the beach, we dug deep holes and buried ourselves in sand. Threw beach towels over our heads for as long as we could stand the heat. For a time we were invisible. Inconspicuous mounds eliciting no notice.

-=-

Francesca’s brother stands nude in the corner. He is wearing a wolf mask to cover his face. His arms hang down at his sides. A slender boy. They have been playing a game. He is hiding in plain sight.

-=-

I too am tired of looking at myself. In this age of tender spectacle.

Sontag calls the camera a predatory weapon – automated, ready to spring. She says to photograph a person is to violate them, see them as they never see themselves.

-=-

When she died, she left behind an unpublished artist’s book, a set of five images called “Portrait of a Reputation.”

Of her journals, in her youth, she had asked: “Does it read as a book, one wonders?”

-=-

We were child models, actors, and dancers. That summer, from the beach house, we made trips back into the city – first for a small part in a film about China. Then, for a musical. Auditions were long, unglamorous affairs and we sat around in leotards and tights with our hair in topknots for hours. Then, paraded in a line in front of a wall of mirrors. Someone demonstrated a dance combination. We mimicked. A few of us were ushered out, our numbers thinning. Then, a new combination. Then, one at a time.

I was asked to let my hair down. And then hold it up again. Can you make a worried face? Can you look confused? Can you hold your hands to your mouth like you have seen something you wish you could forget?

-=-

Elizabeth Gumport: “Her death does not simply cast a shadow over the images, but suffuses them with a strange, spectral light…”

If living is a slow erasure of self, then dying is fixing it in place. Barthes says: “the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”

-=-

The boys did not stay long that summer. A few days and then they had packed up again and the sidewalk beneath our porch was again quiet. The battle won or surrendered, it was not quite clear which.

At home, my father was packing the last of his things into cardboard boxes and trash bags. What he left behind: a few plastic hangers in the front hallway closet. A neat pile of matchbooks from neighborhood bars and restaurants.

And later, after he had been gone for weeks, on the floor of his closet, I found something he had perhaps not intended to leave: a faded photograph of myself as a child sitting on his lap. His head is turned away, and I am facing the camera. I am wearing a blue dress, leaning back against his chest.

-=-

Barthes might say that the photograph does not restore what has been abolished, but attests that what is represented had in fact, once existed.

Or he might say that experience, itself becomes vulnerable to the effects of its representation. 

the curtained cot of childhood

I don’t remember dreaming, only waking to a thin line of pink light slicing across the horizon. Then rising, pacing the long hallway in pre-dawn shadow.

I keep hitting walls. Not knowing what is next. The problem: I look at these photographs, describe what I see. There is something I am missing. The story of a young woman. To represent the body of a young woman without doing further violence. Without laying her bare. And yet here we are, the problem of the woman’s body, offered up.

The spectacle: Beyond one life or another. Beyond the logic of the factual. These photographs: their arresting stillness. Experiment: throw a wooden spool across the curtained cot of childhood. This is a way to anticipate loss.

-=-

Of herself as subject, she said: I am always available.

Of herself as subject, she said: I am as tired of seeing myself as you are of looking at me.

Was it Barthes who asked: What is life after all, but apprenticeship in dying.

-=-

and flesh is not machine         and the body is not reproducible         

and the dream of endless reproduction        endless return

is not possible        to see face to face the limits of this human

moment        to stare at it        to blur the frame        a hand

in motion        a photo booth spits out the same image again         

and again         our uncomfortable truce        with machines

ordinary girl

clothespins on the body
body is the canvas
body is the site of feeling
body is the site of pain
seven clothespins for seven days of creation

and from beneath her, vines reach toward sky
she is sitting against a house, shingled
ordinary day, ordinary girl against ordinary house

body in repose
body at rest

kisses on the body bring tears

body is suited for
body is not suited for

this is the way it all breaks down

-=-

fall asleep lightly
wake from a dream of my father

dream a long highway
dream a ribbon of sand

dream a row of folding chairs set up along the beach
but there is no one to sit in them

-=-

ordinary day like any other
ordinary house like any other
ordinary girl

I imagine returning
walking along the shore for miles
my father in the distance shrouded in fog
my father always just beyond the frame

a little door

squares of white light
the pattern repeated

not knowing whether your father
will be waiting at the bus stop
when your bus arrives

each pathway a winding pathway
leading to another pathway

each square of white light a little door
that closes and opens

leave behind all the beloved things

A woman is a flower is a woman is a flower.

Lily rises from the concrete to rest on the corner of crumbling wall.

And a woman crouched there waiting

She holds her hand to her face

She holds herself in shadow

What she has buried there rises

Even in this dark place

-=-

A woman is a flower

Within the frame, the flower is as tall as the woman and as tough-skinned

Who is she and is she me

A freckle on her shoulder

Dark lines on the ground like something has been dragged there

Not a flower

The white lily is not white

The woman is not me

The open field of her face or flower

The open field of her body or of concrete

Woman crouched naked as if in a dream

As if in a dream the lily rising from the cracked earth

-=-

Watch the patch of light move across the afternoon

Watch the woman disappear from the frame

Here is how she stands at the stove and boils water for tea

Here is how she sheds herself, walks the long city blocks at night

Moves like shadows

Downcast eyes

It is not always love that makes us do these things it is not

always love

-=-

What stains the ground

Pay attention to the ground

Pay attention to the shadows

A chill descends

One way to go is as good as any other

She is dreaming of another place and I am dreaming too

Leave behind all the beloved things – eel skin, notebooks, pair of feathered wings

The city streets are long at night and dark

out of the frame

Write one true sentence about what you see:

I see a woman’s body lying on the ground.

Write one sentence to follow it:

When I see a woman’s body lying on the ground, I am filled with fear.

And then:

Why is she lying naked on the ground?

You did not mention she was naked before.

I thought it was implied.

It was not.

I see a woman’s naked body lying on the ground and I am fearful for her. She is too vulnerable there. Look – even a small animal approaching without ill intent can scrape at her skin with its claws. Women are not meant to lie naked on the ground with their faces obscured and their arms outstretched.

What happens next?

She gets up, puts on the dress that she has left on the ground over there by that tree. She puts it on. It has flowers on it.

What happened just before?

A picnic? A bit of bread and cheese and maybe wine? She slipped off the flowered dress. It is warm in New Hampshire in June, but there is a lovely breeze.

What will she do when she leaves this place?

She will move back to Providence for a time. Then she will go to New York where she will try to find work. And then. Well, you know how this will end.

No I mean, when she gets up from the moss-covered ground.

She will put on her dress and walk out of the frame. 

novena to the wind

It is a kind of dance – tarantella?

One arm raised high and the rest of you in shadow.

-=-

When I was a girl, we used to dance in the high-ceilinged halls, strings of colored lights hung from window frames. At the tables, placecards with our names. One family function or another. A cousin’s communion or the wedding of a godmother’s best friend’s daughter. It did not matter. Any occasion called for celebration.

Everybody danced. Pitchers of red sangria on the tables and carafes of homemade wine. Platters of broiled codfish with lemon slices and sprigs of thyme. Asparagus braised in butter. Then later, crème caramel and pastry. Espresso with a fine grate of lemon zest.

We children danced until we collapsed on the floor, our patent leather shoes scattered and scuffed.

We should probably agree which part of the memory is mine and which is yours to alter.

Do you not remember it this way?

-=-

Beneath the concrete wall, the delicate fishbone structure.

Beneath every structure, a fine complexity of bone.

In the corner of a ruined room. Wallpaper hanging down in limp strips. A standing figure with arms outstretched. A dark beam across the top of the frame that calls to mind: cross, crucifix, crucifixion, then the paper too much like flayed skin.

A woman crouches in a corner, her long skirt pooling on the cracked and broken ground.

What imprints do we leave here, what shadows.

-=-

Each memory a bead on a string. If this is our novena, then let us kneel here to pray. If these are our petitions, then let us bring them to the stone altar of the city. Posture of prayer. Posture of supplication.

If these are our holy things – memory, desire – then let us bless them and raise them up. Let us lift them in offering and watch them as they drift on indifferent wind. 

girl on gravel

girl on the gravel

what is she holding in her hand

an orange        a ball of pure light

gravel on the concrete or is it a field of moss

-=-

what do you make of this

I think she is in danger

why is she in danger

because she is laid so bare

-=-

car ride to the boardwalk

electric light         carousel and fortune teller

here is something you should know:

this card means that change is coming

and this card means that you are afraid

what does this card mean

it is hard to tell the light is so bright

but bright is good, isn’t it

it is hard to tell         if it’s all on fire

-=-

lie down on the gravel         and let me take your photo

it will look like you are dead

or that I am sleeping

this was a game we played        this staging of death

mouth hanging open        arms outstretched        was this

an invitation

was this        too much

-=-

what is the body of a girl worth

what cost to lift her from the gravel        from the

concrete where she fell

wash her skin        and comb her hair

cross her arms over her chest like this

where are they taking her

back to the countryside

but what will she do there

maybe she will rest         maybe she will ride

the sad carousel

maybe she will gaze up at the sky

to its pure light

approximation of desire

My anxiety dreams are of water. Last night I swam laps in a cool, dark pool. The room is cavernous and shadowy. The door is open and someone is standing at the entrance, backlit. I tread water, gaze in the direction of the light for several seconds. Then dive back down and resume my work.

In the place to which my mind wanders, it has rained for days. The town ties baffles from straw bundles and drops them in the street where they sit atop sewer grates like the fat cocoons of an unrecognizable species.

On some days, I wander the streets taking photographs of church spires and cloud formations.

And on others: a bird fallen from its nest, a yellow ball deflating on the sidewalk, a single sock left forgotten and waterlogged in the street.

Returning, even in memory, exacts its costs. For days after, thoughts rise unbidden. Who is standing at the entrance to the pool? What happens to a bird with a broken wing?

-=-

In the photograph, the woman sits on a chair, her legs spread open. Behind the chair, a drawing of chairs. Behind her, squares of white light.

The woman is naked. Her head is titled downward and her long hair spills in front of her, obscuring her face. She holds a drawing in front of her, between her open legs. A representation of her – her hair, her naked belly. She wears a ring on the index finger of her left hand. It is a coiled snake.

What she puts between us – between her body and our gaze on it – is a representation of herself – rendered flat and known.

(Once a man said to me: The excitement is in not knowing how this is going to end.)

-=-

The problem is of desire. An image of me is not me but it approximates.

-=-

Memory as a child, riding home from a long journey: It is night. There is a white moon high in the sky, a ring of cloud around it. We are lost. We are approaching a toll booth, but there is no one there. A gate swinging open. A sense of dread. Do we pass through?

Memory as a child, waking in the night in an unfamiliar room: The shadow of a man standing in the doorway. I dare not move. The shadow passes. What trick of unkind light?  

A faceless woman sits naked in a chair. A woman who is me but not me swims laps in a cool dark pool. A bird falls from its nest and injures its wing. To what thresholds of memory do we return and at what costs do we make passage?

-=-

In formal terms: almost a perfect square. The symmetry of open knees and the symmetry of bent elbows. The background: top half is white – white walls, white light; and the bottom is dark – floor and shadow.

The chairs in the photograph are straight-backed and wooden. One chair in the foreground. Another behind. The image of the woman and then the woman herself, holding an image of herself, and represented as if in an endless series of reproductions: one, and now another, and another. 

-=-

As a recent exercise, I wrote for one hour each day for thirty days, using a different photograph of Francesca Woodman’s as a starting point. For the next thirty days, I am going back through these notes and attempting to re-work them. For fortitude, I look to Harry Mathews, who borrowed from Stendahl: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.”