A vinyl sombrero. A needlepoint rendition of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. A macramé lawn chair. If you go to the thrift store with a specific item in mind, you probably won’t find it. You’ll find something else. I forage for the else.
My relationship with the thrift store started a few months after my life-partner died and I dropped off the first bag of clothes he wouldn’t be wearing any more. Before that, in the early weeks of mourning, I couldn’t let anything go. Taking bookmarks out of his books, or emptying his pockets of keys or chapstick, could capsize me. I had no sense of what to hold and what to disown, what was essential and what was peripheral. Everything seemed important, even clothes that Rajiv hated or never wore. Everything he’d touched bore meaning.
This is the second part of a three-part dispatch. You can read Pt. 1 here. The final installment will be published in January.
We were still night owls then, seldom rising early, but after the night we spent in Duluth, we wanted to enjoy as much time there as we could before hitting the road again. We woke at first light, dressed without showering, and drove back to the waterfront. The sun was rising on the lake, and we walked to the end of Canal Point where the lighthouse stood silhouetted against the water turning gold with the new day. It was it was in the low 40s, and we took turns posing, shivering and smiling while the other took a picture.
The San Francisco Renaissance, that loose federation of poets and novelists who gathered in the Bay Area after World War II, is most famous for having organized the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (and thus given birth to the Beat Generation), but its influence was more far-reaching than that. It was also more varied. As with any renaissance, this one was cliquish, even factional: while Ginsberg cultivated his image as a twentieth-century Whitman and Kerouac descended from madcap literary celebrity to middle-aged alcoholism, a lesser-known group of near-surrealists gathered at the State College of San Francisco for a workshop called “Poetry and Magic.” Taught by Jack Spicer, the workshop combined a modernist aesthetic with elements of ‘theosophy,’ a strain of mysticism that, earlier in the century, had captured the imagination of William Butler Yeats. “Poetry and Magic” occasioned a kind of sub-renaissance (sometimes called ‘the Berkeley renaissance’), and it had a notable influence on a number of successful American poets, including the young Jack Gilbert, who died in mid-November at the age of eighty-seven. His Collected Poemswere published in March, 2012, not long before his death.
But here in the United Arab Emirates, shorter days and dropping mercury (down into the mid-eighties) kicks off a different kind of national food celebration—the Emirates International Date Palm Festival. Calorific and densely rich in vitamins and minerals, dates are a wonder fruit. A few of these and some camel milk will carry you across the desert; and if the milk spoils, dates are also super for an upset stomach.
Alla and I were introduced through a project that paired poets and painters affiliated with Boston University. Walking into her studio was like seeing all the things I wish my poems could do in language. We selected my five-poem series, “The Book of Ikons,” to work on together. This series (which also includes poems about Osip Mandelstam and Angelika Balabanoff, both Russian, like Alla), posits as worthy of iconography five historical figures, all of whose relationship with socialism was complicated by Soviet Communism, violence, or anti-semitism (three subjects also important to us). We wanted to explore the faith, hope, disappointment, transcendence and danger inherent in these ideals.
Alla created large-format monoprints, which became the digital images presented here, to be paired with the poems like facing panels in an icon screen. Rather than just creating illustrations, her images interact with and embody the poems. Like iconic images, these figures are idiosyncratic and not wholly accurate (for example, the little story about Kautsky is actually a conflation of several historical incidents). They capture what these figures mean to us, even if they are rooted in a reality that is at least partially imaginary.
We see the first one in Bellport, eight o’clock at night, and we don’t know what it is. We’re driving along a two-lane highway on the south shore when we come upon it: a caravan of cars idling in the shoulder, taillights scarlet in the dark. “Should I be driving in that lane?” my husband says. Seeing no construction signs, we drive on. We pass a mile of cars. Then we see the gas station at the head of the line. It’s been three days since Sandy hit.
My place of fret is not a narrow room, but a room that is short and sort of wide. Poor in natural light, a perpetual bulb’s yellowish wash makes it feel like a cellar, homogeneous, belonging to neither night nor day. This is not a bad thing; the illusion that time is at a standstill helps, but the romance stops there.
Cornfields really are the primary element of the landscape in Nebraska; the primary color (yellow), the primary crop (grain), the recently threatened, but still primary income. Agriculture’s primacy is omnipresent, and the fields are much more factory than farm. Still, Nebraska is a beautiful place. The sun sets in an array of unsaturated colors–pinks, purples, and magentas not commonly seen. Light wavelengths mix in a uniquely flat-country way, and indeed the earth is so flat that if you stand on a tall building you can see the earth’s curvature. Against the unnamable shades of dusk jut irrigation machines made of steel and blades. In such a landscape, I felt both irrelevantly tiny and in awe of my fellow humans’ ability to manipulate the earth.
C-MacKenzie (Chris MacKenzie) removes the background imagery from his photographs, creating uncanny visions of people in surreal blank settings. Although his figures often assume the pose of spectators, they gaze upon nothingness. In creating these images, C-MacKenzie draws on his background in motion picture editing and post production, in which mistakes are removed from an image and figures are pasted to scenery. He envisions his artistic process as “withholding information” from the viewer. By negating the sense of place, C-MacKenzie creates an unknowable and mysterious world.
A video of a young woman stopping traffic and screaming at taxi cabs in the middle of a busy Manhattan street went viral a few weeks ago. Cell phone cameras recorded her yelling, “Sorry, I forgot you!” as she kicked at car doors that slowly passed around her. She’s fun to watch; pretty and sort of graceful, dancing around the cars as if she’s dodging waves on the beach. In her bleached blonde bob and skinny jeans, she takes breaks from her traffic dodging to strike pinup girl poses for the cell phone cameras. One of the top comments on YouTube read, “Either she’s a mental patient or a performance artist.”
The comment seems to imply that when someone is acting strangely in public, they are either extremely aware of themselves, resembling performers, or extremely unaware, consumed by the force of a breakdown. It’s easy to find examples of less appealing presentations of emotional breakdowns on YouTube, maybe even easier than it is to find recorded public displays of performance art. YouTube reframes private moments of suffering for public viewing, and performance art aims for something similar: it captures and examines live events we might otherwise look away from.