We thought it was just going to be a tour of the defunct coal mine’s aboveground facility, which was already troubling enough. The winding wheels and framework for the conveyor system at the “pit head” were like the superstructure of an abandoned carnival, like the one I’d read about near Chernobyl.
I found a book by Georges Perec called Tentatived’épuisement d’un lieu Parisien, or An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. I like Perec very much. He loved word games and wrote crossword puzzles, and very often invented challenges for himself in his writing. In 1969 he wrote a book—La Disparition—in which the letter “e” does not appear. It was translated into English, also with no “e’s” but since the literal translation—The Disappearance—has three “e’s”, the English title is A Void. In 1972 Perec wrote Les Revenents, in which “e” is the only vowel in the book. Perec died of cancer in 1982 when he was only forty-six.
The paintings may be best known for what they are not. They were made on the heels of work now considered Matisse’s most groundbreaking, the paintings from the period between 1907 and 1917 when he engaged with the early perceptions of modernism. His trajectory through these years widened his ambitions and shows him becoming more cutthroat within them, first leaving behind the saturated exuberance of fauvism, then, by degrees, flattening color and form into strange and austere near-abstractions.
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These “color swatch poems” are taken from a larger work in progress called Mutterfarbe, a book of experimental translations and poems using Goethe’s Theory of Colors as a primary source.
Each of the colors and their names were pulled from the landscapes and built environments I inhabited during my travels throughout France in early 2015. The nine images at the top correspond with each color swatch poem, and represent those landscapes/built environs. The “Anhang” (appendix) at the end features lines I translated from Goethe’s text on color theory—each numbered line corresponding with one of the color swatches to create a new poetic text.
We are standing in front of Mark Rothko’s Black, Red Over Black on Red at the Centre Pompidou.
“I love Rothko,” says my companion. “I am not crazy about modern American art, but Rothko is different.” A painter himself, my companion is a talkative man behind whose frail body and white hair is an energetic, sometimes erratic mind. “Look,” he says, as he moves closer to the painting, the guard keeping a polite watch over us. “The way he has layered the painting—as if he were breathing it.”
In the Paris Métro last summer, heading to the Chatelet station on my way home after a wayward day, I caught the sound of a saxophone and that familiar melody from decades past, Sidney Bechet’s Petite Fleur. I could tell the music was coming from a source close by, perhaps only a few rows behind me. I froze, not knowing what to do as though I were in the grip of something large and timeless.
September. It seems these luminous days will never end. I first encountered those lines over ten years ago in New York City. I was living near the United Nations building. It was late evening. I was on the fifth floor of a high-rise and through my windows I could see the sky’s reflection against other windows. I felt lucky to be able to see the image of the sky from my apartment. I felt lucky to be in New York. I believed I had figured things out. Which is to say I was young. I could count the amount of friends I had on one hand and I was happy about that. I enjoyed being alone. I preferred the company of imagination. It was what, in the end, seduced me, more than any person during that time. And for a few nights, what lived with me was the narrative of Phillip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, in faraway France, in a world so very different than mine; and yet their story felt, page by page, more alive, more vast, more sensual and more true than my life could ever feel or become. And rather than being depressed by this, I was elated. Joyful. Celebratory. I paced my apartment. I looked out the window at other windows. I went to work and came back and returned to the pages.
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David and I leave our children, thirteen and ten, watching television in our rented house in Barjac, a village in southern France, to go hiking. They often fight like scorpions in a jar, but are best friends right now. “Bye,” they wave, eyes screen-ward. We don’t expect to be long. But after ten days of family vacation, we crave time alone together.