BURIED LETTER PRESS
Buried Letter Press November 2012 ÂŠ Buried Letter Press 2011-2012 Cover Photo by J. Vandegrift Detroit 2012
Buried Letter Press Akron, Ohio
Photo by J. Vandegrift Detroit, 2012
NOVEMBER 2012 Land Art without the Land: First or Final Frontier? by Heather Haden Struggle, Water, Desire by Andrew Rihn Forgetting History, Part II by slm young A Cup of Quiet by Robert Miltner Grieving until the End by Kelly Jones
Land Art without the Land: First or Final Frontier? by Heather Haden
Nature photography and general documentation inspire us to go out into the world and make a change, explore, hike, camp, and generally run around, enjoying the planet. Inevitably, though, we will be leaving this planet and departing on a galactic quest aboard a space station. Aboard this craft, men and women will produce the first generation that has ever existed without being privy to earth’s majesty. Like Wall-E watching scenes of old movies in which a couple cavorts and dances, this generation, which for all intents and purposes here will be referred to as Gen-1 (first generation on the space station), will also watch something that is foreign and just beyond their periphery. Perhaps Gen-1 will still be able to glimpse the earth through the window of the space station, but such a vista will be akin to our modern view of the moon: something that we know from distantly from our front lawns, and more intimately from film, from pictures, and from documents, but that none but a select few have ever experienced directly. Perhaps Gen-1 will mold fables about the earth just as many have spun tales about the moon being made of cheese. For more than 30,000 years, humans on earth have crafted fiction and nonfiction onto and with the earth itself, comprising a broad genre that is now known as Land and Environmental art. A coworker of mine has a framed, anonymous quote on his desk that reads “The earth without art is just eh.” While literally humorous, it is a true statement. Art, whether created with the earth directly, as in landscape art, or with digital means to manipulate and provide commentary, increases our quality of life directly, through immersion in the great outdoors, and indirectly, through media such as photography, film, and television. I have recently watched Wall-E and Melancholia, and the TV series Deadwood, each for the first time. The first two films present important messages about earth on the brink of death, while Deadwood represents a different frontier, that which has already been breached during the gold rush of the mid-1800s, the same time period in which art propaganda was created to entice people to explore new terrain. What does such nature photography and general documentation mean to Gen-1? Let’s first explore the earth-centric view. This generation will see documentation of a dead planet that was once thriving. Yet it will not be possible to recreate the smell of fresh grass and the sensation of the wind created by a rolling tide. Or will it? Assuming that technology can bridge this phenomenological gap, what will it mean to simulate these experiences for Gen-1? This raises questions about whether simulated sensory experiences of a dead planet (perhaps virtual reality in reverse) may be considered as reappropriation, and also whether it can be considered art, perhaps under the genre of reappropriation art. Will the end use of this reappropriation be propagandistic, paralleling the artistic campaigns of the nineteenth century frontiersmen? The power that geocentric campaigns hold on us, who live on earth
contemporaneously to the use of this propaganda, will be lost on Gen-1, a generation full of individuals with no point of reference. When these toddlers see the beauty of a rising sunset for the first time through a video, will it appear mythic? Will it appear as a fairy tale, and with such a separation from the truth of the land, will it be more susceptible to dishonest manipulation? Today, representations of the environment, framed to meet propagandistic ends of politicians and organizations, abound. Recall how many times you have seen the global warming mascot, the polar bear, pulling at your heart strings as hard as the little guy clings to his chunk of ice. This propagandistic function is far from new. Rather, man has been taking advantage of the land for industrial means, expressed through art, for centuries. Soon after the time period of Deadwood, in 1872 the first national park, Yosemite, was founded and the over-idealized representations of the West continued in earnest, depicting the Western frontier to look naturally as beautiful as a carefully crafted Bierstadt painting. Reflecting on the “eh” of earth without art, what does it mean to look at the inverse, art without the earth? “The National Parks Preserve Wild Life” until they don’t. What is art, both created of the earth and with the earth, without the earth? It is a struggle to consider the breadth of art genres existing without the genres of land and environmental art, for the womb of artistic production was the cave, the cave wall the first canvas, and the gestation period thousands of years. Looking forward, let’s consider how will art evolve when artists will never have stepped foot on the planet and for whom all materials are synthetic. What does it mean for these individuals to unbury the entirety of an organic Earth from the synthetic ruble we are in the process of creating, that which will be subversively the “organic” of Gen-1? On the space station, youngsters sifting through nature photography and videos will not be that dissimilar to the archaeological digs occurring in ancient sites, just with a lot less dirt. This is especially true for Gen-2 and beyond: their grandparents, the last generation of earth-dwellers, will at that point be dying off, and soon they will have no direct way to speak to people who once lived on earth, those who broke the atmospheric frontier and braved the cosmos. These individuals of Gen-1, Gen-2, and beyond will be braving a new frontier of their own. Let’s look at the quite paradoxically named Cosmo-centric view. While these individuals will be robbed of direct reference to a dead or dying planet, they will be the first generation to have access to infinitely greater possibilities for life and art. Any discussion on what new art forms may be developed once man explores the cosmos can be merely speculative at best. Envisioning such art forms is like imagining the hyper-polychromatic world of a mantis shrimp, an organism with 13 more color receptors than humans.
By the time that humans are able to board the space station, science will have progressed farther than we can imagine today. Think back to the past 100 years, for example. Albert Einstein published his Theory of General and Specific Relativity in 1907 and this had arguably indirect influence on the art of Pablo Picasso and direct influence on the art of Salvador Dali. Picasso considered a singular object from various perspectival views relative to the object and painted them all simultaneously upon a single canvas, whereas Dali’s amorphous shapes are not simply stretched out arbitrarily, but have been the subjected to Einstein’s time dilation and contraction. This is most famously witnessed in Dali’s 1931 Persistence of Memory. Today, a parallel in scientific theorization exists in the community of particle physicists who are on the brink of discovering the “god particle” to prove superstring theory, a theory that hypothesizes that the protons, electrons, and quarks are not quite the most indivisible particles, but that all matter is further divisible into vibrating, string-like loops. Whether string theory will be proven at all, let alone by the time of our inevitable departure from the earthly realm, is as yet unknown. Even as we wait with baited breath for the discovery of this particle, however, one artist, Craig Clarke, has already been inspired by string theory, using it as a concept for his digital sculpture. Describing his Chaos in Wood digital sculpture on his website (http://www.craigclarke.com/art/string.html), he writes, “Where time is not a straight line, from past to future, but more like a ball of string.” Clarke’s use of Photoshop, in some ways, pays homage to the Cubistic shatterings that Picasso asserted on the picture plane, but in other ways, it is a quantum leap from art of the early 1900s. Ultimately, what the examples of Picasso, Dali, and Clarke show us is that in the past 100 years we have made incredible strides toward opening a new frontier in science and art, as an inseparable duo. Let’s revisit Wall-E on his own space station for a moment. Wall-E coveted a small plant, the first plant to grow on the Earth after its “death,” suggesting regeneration. Conversely, it is my belief that the space station residents will salvage from Earth what naturally growing plants they can, perhaps even freezing seeds of all known species of plants by the millions, for future rebirth or impregnation of a new, inhabitable planet. Consider this not a post-diluvian Noah’s Ark. Therefore, from these organic stores we will not be short on DNA documentation that supports procreation, regeneration, and the composition of a new way of life. Yet, it is unlikely that these organic substances will be used for artistic ends, as they will be in the possession of the government. In our society, arts funding is currently one of the first programs to get the boot when capital is needed for capitally-demanding matters deemed more pressing for human protection; if we continue upon this path, it is likely that the organic stores upon the spaceship will be used for continued genetic testing in order to protect the human race and to create ever higher functioning genetically modified substances and not for art. With no new organic materials such as those readily available on earth today, Gen-1 will likely experiment with subgenre of land art that deals with decomposition, called entropic art. The heirlooms of their parents that were brought aboard the spaceship such as clothes made with natural fibers and physical books (assumed to be antiques by this time, as e-books will likely be the main form of
archiving information) will encounter an environment that may increase the power of decomposition. Entropic art is art that defies permanence. Remembering Einstein’s theory of relativity, unlike the art that covers the walls of museums, continually restored to maintain a snapshot of the time in which it was made, the permanence of entropic art is relative to the fourth-dimensional medium of time. Creators of entropic art seek materials and/or environmental contexts that cause their art to break down over an undefined period. For example, on the periphery of Kent State University’s main campus, near the Liquid Crystal Materials Science Building and adjacent parking lot, is Partially Buried Woodshed of January, 1970 by Robert Smithson. This is not only earth art, but entropic art that was used as political propaganda. Twenty truckloads of earth were poured on top of an abandoned woodshed that was inherited by the university when they purchased adjacent farmland to expand campus. The earth was poured on the building until the center beam collapsed, symbolic for the backbone of America breaking during the Vietnam War (yet more propaganda, this time antiwar). While the date provided for Partially Buried Woodshed is 1970, this is merely the starting date. Entropic art is art that is eternally incomplete as it moves through the medium of time. Entropic art has a starting date but not an ending date. Thus, in the second image of Partially Buried Woodshed, while only remnants of the foundation are visible, it is a work that is forever in motion as the elements of earth break it down. Even when it has decomposed to the point of not being visible, it will still be present through its absence. How does outer space affect entropy? Think about modern astronauts’ rigorous athletic training and maintenance to combat the ill effects of anti-gravity on muscles that need to heave through a weighted atmosphere to stay toned. While the space station would presumably have to defeat anti-gravity to exist, what if there could be an anti-gravity chamber in which a body artist would submit themselves to muscular entropy similar to the astronauts? Additionally, if entropic art requires the medium of time to act upon an object, what happens to the texture of the entropic artist’s medium of fourth dimensional time when we are hypothetically able to access wormholes and dimensions higher than the fourth? The possibilities are endless, yet one thing is certain: art will be forever changed. Leaving the planet upon which humanity was born will send shockwaves to our perceptions of land mortality versus human mortality. Manifest destiny will be significantly redefined, as humans not only conquered the earth, but leached it dry before departing in search of greener pastures. Perhaps the earth itself will be eventually treated as an entropic art object. The way in which we treat ancient ruins could be a microcosm for the way in which we will look at planet earth one day, as an entropic art object representative of a dead world culture, viewed behind the museum glass of the space station windowpane.
Photo: Bill Viola / ‘Tempest (Study for The Raft)’ / 2005
Struggle, Water, Desire by Andrew Rihn
Bill Viola’s “The Raft,” a ten minute video free of dialogue but not of sound, places its visual emphasis on the human body. In doing so, his work highlights for me some of the absurd and beautiful paradoxes of these fleshy meatbags we call bodies. At once intimate and comforting, our bodies often become alien and cumbersome. Like drops of water upon a hot plate, it is along this dialectic our bodies leap and fall, run and walk, writhe and dance. We have sex; we amputate each other’s limbs. Sit in chairs and sleep in beds. We struggle and we desire. And through it all, these mortal coils remain apparently discrete – our own – despite the shuffling and remixing of the everyday. In “The Raft,” we see a crowd gathering, waiting. They stand both together and apart, like strangers waiting for a train or bus. Some carry books or purses; one woman carries a large rolled up paper tube. The people crowd one another without making eye contact. There is a minimum of non-verbal ques. No one speaks, but anonymous sounds reminiscent of street traffic can be heard. I wasn’t sure what sounds belonged to the video and what may have been from outside the room. A car horn could have been outside on Wick Ave. The sound of keys may have been a maintenance worker outside. Coupled with the extreme darkness of the room, this created an unsettling sense of disorientation. Furthermore, “The Raft” is recorded in extreme slow motion, creating a palpable sense of anticipation, of expectation. And it pays off, big time. Suddenly, and without warning, two simultaneous streams of water burst forth from either side of the screen, crashing into the seemingly unexpecting crowd. Still in slow motion, we are given pause and witness to reactions that normally occupy a split second. There is little surprise or fear in their faces; rather, we see a more stoic, physical response as bodies begin the act of bracing oneself. The water continues unabated. By the look of it, it could have been blasted from fire hoses; its power was more than enough to knock the people down. Their bodies are battered, pushed together, their hands raised against the water. Falling and struggling in acts of contortion and balance, there are moments when bodies appear from the mist and spray with an almost balletic quality. Both the physicality and the sound of the water hit you – both dominate the space. After several minutes of onslaught, the water dies down. Still in slow motion, the people begin to regain composure. One man, who remained standing throughout, falls over. Another moves to check on an older woman who is not moving. Huddled together in a few inches of now still water, everyone is dripping, exhausted – but in one piece. They wipe their faces and their eyes and for a moment I felt as if I had gone through the same violent baptism as they. Fade to black and the video ends. I stayed and watched the video two more times that day. There is something compelling in the indifferent community of the beginning, the senseless and inexplicable violence of the water, and the final scenes of compassion and human solidarity. I left the gallery thinking that what those people in (or on) “The Raft” did was struggle. They were living the everyday – waiting in line for a bus, maybe, when the artist made visible the
thousand natural shocks that our flesh inherits from this ordinary, absurd life. They struggled, in all their beauty and brutishness, and in the end, are given no reward, save for the right to say at least they struggled. I left the gallery thinking of Sisyphus - the Greek character who, for having tricked the gods, was forced to push a boulder up a hill every day. When at the summit, the boulder would roll back down, and Sisphysus’s task would begin anew. French philosopher Albert Camus famously re-visioned this story, reading Sisyphus as an absurd hero who, while recognizing the meaninglessness of his struggle, could also acknowledge – even celebrate – a world based upon such meaningless struggle. In Viola’s “The Raft,” I can see reflections of this Sisyphus in the bodies struggling and thrashing, falling and enduring. Yet later I found “The Raft” drawing me to another Greek myth. In a different punishment by the gods, a man named Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree. He suffered from great hunger and thirst, yet when he reached for the fruit, the branches raised out of reach. When he bent down for a drink, the water receded. The crowd in “The Raft” was left standing in a puddle of water, a place of newfound community in the face of hardship and disaster. What were they reaching for? For the audience of “The Raft,” the video ends in empathy. And silence. The light fades from the screen and the room goes black. Our eyes moves from the bodies on the screen to our own. From their story to ours. What was I struggling against as my eyes readjusted outside the gallery? What was I reaching for? Bill Viola’s “The Raft” is available for viewing at The Butler Museum of Art in Youngstown, OH through the end of the year.
Forgetting History, Part II by slm young What is the purpose of war memorials and museums? I first asked this question when I stood amid the grand pillars that make up the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This memorial is made up of a semicircle of pillars that carry wreaths and the names of the states and territories, a pool and fountain, a “Freedom Wall” covered in 4,048 stars each representing 100 soldiers who perished, and quotations from General Eisenhower (“D-Day June 6, 1944, You are about to embark on the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle”) and F.D.R. (“Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941, A day which will live in infamy… No matter how long it may take us to overcome the premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory”). What was it about this memorial that first brought the question to mind? Perhaps it was the grandness of it that seemed inauthentic to me. Perhaps it seemed too triumphant, as if it were celebrating a victory rather than memorializing the lost. As I stood staring up into the triumphal arch that read “Atlantic,” I realized I didn’t know what the memorial was trying to tell me. I hadn’t yet read the criticism in Time Magazine that stated, “Il Duce would have loved it,” since much of the memorial seemed to be reminiscent of the Fascist architecture of the 1930s and 1940s. But I still felt distant, unimpressed, thinking that if Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks hadn’t been on board for the fundraising efforts, this monument wouldn’t even be standing. And the question still hasn’t been answered for me. Is the only purpose of war memorials and museums to make us remember something we weren’t alive to experience? We (the living, the “future generations,” the children of those who fought) must be the audience, right? For it seems indulgent to spend millions of dollars on marble and concrete if the only audience is the veterans themselves, especially when it would be more practical and more respectful of their service to give the money directly to the veterans, their families, or even to their healthcare bills. Are we meant to learn from these memorials or simply gander numbly, thinking about how the tragic events are so far in the past that they hardly touch us anymore? And if we are meant to learn something, what is it? Isn’t the victorious nature of the WWII memorial proof that the winners tell the history, make the younger generations believe what and how they want us to believe? Know this, children, we may have been bombed, but we came back with bigger bombs. Perhaps it was this that left the sour taste in my mouth, made me believe that I was being lied to rather than taught something crucial—or even something honest— about our history. Even memorials to the Holocaust have faced this type of scrutiny. In his essay, “Shoah Business,” Mark Dery writes that the Holocaust is “being trivialized, merchandised, and (through feel-good Hollywood confections and theme-parked museums), Americanized…” He points to Hollywood movies whose focus is the Holocaust, but whose endings are happy, and to the United States Holocaust Museum in D.C., the Anne Frank House, and the tours through the Auschwitz Museum as evidence that we are white-washing history, sanitizing its horrors. And if we stop to consider for a moment the ridiculousness of
buying Holocaust mementos or having lunch inside a crematorium, isn’t he right? Aren’t we simply commodifying rather than remembering? Aren’t we failing to learn the lessons that history can teach us? Perhaps my problem with memorials and museums is that too often their true purpose isn’t what I want it to be. I want it to teach me something I don’t know, to elucidate something I don’t understand, to heal something that is broken. I don’t want them to pretend that war is easy as long as we win. Perhaps I am asking for too much. Perhaps it is impossible that concrete or marble, a collection of quotations and stars, can mean anything more than a symbol. And if this is the case, then what do we have to commemorate our losses, where do we go to experience the truth of violence, how do we learn from a history that we all know is always told by the victors? We can rely on stories. We can remember through words. I suppose it isn’t surprising to anyone that this was where I was headed all along. As a nonfiction writer, memory is my bread and butter, and using memory to teach, to try to create meaning is the best any of us can hope to accomplish. After all, books are artifacts. They make us experience the power of a story because by reading it, we become part of the story. We are able to internalize memory so that this war, this violence, is no longer just a part of someone else’s life, but it becomes our life, too. Movies, museums, and memorials attempt to externalize memory, attempt to take it out of the personal and into the realm of commercialism where we are passively experiencing someone else’s vision of what the conflict meant, and while you may argue that reading an author’s account is the same thing—an externalization of memory—I would argue that the active role you take as reader changes you. Writing teachers always yell one particular phrase at their students. Can you guess what phrase I’m referring to? Show, don’t tell. Why is this so important? Because when we show in our writing, we use sense impressions to make our writing vivid, and information taken in through the senses is processed in the limbic system of the brain, which means that it makes our bodies react. Our hearts race, our muscles tingle, our hands grow clammy. Reading makes us feel the same things the speaker or narrator or characters are experiencing. Reading teaches us empathy. So when we read “Nude Interrogation” by Yusef Komunyakaa, we feel the interrogation, too. We feel the eyes of the so-called innocent on us, at once accusatory and curious, asking if we’ve killed anyone, used a hand grenade or a bayonet, and we feel the shame in admitting it. Yes, the speaker says because denying it is impossible, futile; denying it wouldn’t save us. Another poem by Komunyakaa, “Facing It” describes an experience standing before The Wall of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. It is about the memorial and the war too, how facing one requires us to face the other. It is the impact of The Wall—both in the world of this poem as well as in the real world—that makes me believe that the purpose of memorials is actually quite clear, that my questions of purpose emanate from my distaste, not from a lack of clarity. The WWII memorial, for instance, is meant to be a monument to our victory, not a reminder of what was lost. It is meant to make us feel better about war because it is necessary to overcome our enemies. We will overcome, we will triumph, we will be victorious. On the other hand, the purpose of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is something quite different. Notice the name of the memorial, how this one unlike the WWII memorial is named for the veterans—the ones who came back, the ones who when they came back were spit on for taking part in an action that was unpopular, the ones for whom healing seemed impossible. The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was designed by architect Maya Lin. I once read that she wanted to cut into the ground like a wound, like the wound our country had
experienced as a result of this conflict, and she wanted the memorial to be a healing, the way a scar covers the wound, but doesn’t let us forget we’ve been cut open. The main element of the memorial is “The Wall,” which is actually two walls made of highly reflective stone, engraved with the names of lost or missing servicemen, and sunk into the ground with earth behind them. They start, I suppose as all wars do, small—the lowest corner is only about eight inches tall—but before you realize it, the names are everywhere, above you, higher than you can touch, and when you look into the wall, you see yourself there among the names, and you realize that we all carry the burden of war on our shoulders, we are all victims, we are all responsible. In “Facing It,” Yusef Komunyakaa writes, “My black face fades, /hiding inside the black granite. / I said I wouldn’t, / dammit: No tears” but it seems impossible not to also feel the turmoil he feels at standing before The Wall. The tears come anyway. The poem, like The Wall, is a monument to the grief and the loss; it is an attempt to understand, to tell the truth and not hide it beneath the beauty of white stone. When some veterans first saw the winning design for The Wall, they withdrew their support, claiming that it was an ugly gash, but isn’t the Vietnam War an ugly gash? Didn’t it tear apart our country, our families, and our men? Isn’t it more honest to represent with accuracy what those who served can feel? Memory to a veteran can be a curse. It keeps the war and all of its horrors alive, and memorials that work to obliterate the truth rather than seeking to report it, only help us lie to ourselves and to our children. On the website devoted to the creation of a national memorial for WWI, there is a short film that begins with the following quotation by Abraham Lincoln, “Any Nation that does not honor its heroes, will not long endure.” I don’t disagree, but I can’t help but think that without truth, honor does not exist.
A Cup of Quiet by Robert Miltner “How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table.” Virginia Woolf, The Waves
I My neighbor in the apartment below mine introduced me to her grandmother whom she was helping get out of her car. “She’s just turned a hundred and three this year,” my neighbor exclaimed. Her grandmother looked at me and nodded her head in affirmation. The car’s exhaust pipe with its catalytic converter made a pinging sound as it cooled off. The summer day was Ohio humid, and I could hear the highway in the distance, a lawn mower starting up on the next block. I saw some guy down the street cleaning his car in the driveway, heard the twang of the country song he was listening to while he worked. “It’s sure a different world now than the one you grew up in, isn’t it Grandma,” my neighbor asked. Her grandmother was looking up at a silent airplane chalking its line across the sky. Without looking back at us, she replied, “It used to be quieter.” II About the only time I listen to radio is if I’m working outside, usually in my yard, or repainting a railing. If so, it’s a baseball game, something that moves along, measuring the time in a way that is unlike the hand of a watch or a digital display. I can’t listen to the jabber of disc jockeys or talk show hosts or news or the insistence of commercials. Radio never stops speaking. Silence is its nemesis. Dead air is unacceptable because filling up the space with sound is a measure of money. Radio is never allowed to slow down, or stop. It feels manic. It makes me nervous. Worse still is having the radio on in the car, especially in heavy traffic. But I do like warm fall days, driving down streets when the leaves have fallen and dried, my windows rolled down, listening to the song of the wheels on the road surface, the crush of leaves, the percussion from the scrape of sticks and twigs along the curb. III My son-in-law Mike is doing a series of pieces on up-and-coming music artists for the Red Eye, in Chicago where he lives. There’s this young hip hop kid called Chief Keef they want to talk to because the word is he’s “making noise in The Chi.” Some phone calls later, made to a specific cell at a specific time, get someone representing the Chief who says, yes, the interview is possible, but they have to bring some Loud. We’ll check on that and get back to you, the Red Eye Guys say, and ask the skinny photographer with the fantastic cameras who actually listens to hip hop. Loud? he says It’s weed, grass, you know, the dope. On the call
back they tell the cell voice they can’t do Loud because it’s not only illegal, but the Red Eye won’t cover the cost. Options? they ask. The cell voice says to bring eight chicken Alfredos. Mike and the Red Eye Guys have seen the “I Don’t Like” video, as have over 20 million others by now: a small apartment packed with young black men swaying and laughing and rapping loud together, smoking Loud, shirtless, broadcasting power. The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written that all black men look like kings, and in this video the room looks like it is filled with proud princes. When Mike and the camera kid get to the interview on the South Side, it’s a standard-looking apartment, just Keef and his grandmother, a few other guys, his posse, Lil Reese or Young Chop, maybe, and before they start the camera rolling, except for the sound of people eating chicken Alfredo, it’s pretty quiet. IV A particular kind of silence can be found in an old house in the Midwest in the wintertime. You rarely hear people outside unless its teenagers walking up the alley, smoking and joking. A school bus in the afternoon. Inside, you hear the furnace kick on or off. The metallic tick of the ducts cooling down. The floor creaking when the old dog stretches then jumps up onto the bed to nap. Drops of rain on the window pane. The light purr of the laptop. Now and then the whistle of a tea kettle. The rest of the time it is not-sound. A kind of silence. An extended pause between the leaves and winds of autumn, before the bright spring sounds burst through the open windows. It is a silence like in the meditative phase at the end of yoga when you might doze off for a couple of seconds. Like the sound of a house late at night when the doors are locked, lights are off, the dog settled: a sort of hush before sleep comes to visit. Like an open church in the dark before dawn, dimly lit by votive candles, that silent space for reprieve or meditation or litany or confession or incantation or calm: silence is both the context for prayer and prayer itself. Even if you don’t believe in prayer, you can still believe in silence. V Ok, so when I was sixteen I played guitar in a British Invasion cover band—Beatles, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds—and because we did songs off the LPs, tunes people only knew if they bought the album and didn’t just take it in while cruising in cars, people thought we wrote those songs. We didn’t tell them we didn’t. Billy, the other guitar player, was the son of an electrician who built the band these monster stacks of speakers that rivaled the Vox amps we couldn’t afford. He also figured out how to link all our microphones into multiple channels with foot switches so that, when it was time for us to join our lead singer on the chorus, a couple of us would step on those switches and suddenly three voices became twelve voices run through a reverb: it was loud, it was big, it was what Berry Gordy at MoTown Records in Detroit was doing in the studio with the Supremes and the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandllas: the Wall of Sound, a signature chorus effect that defined what America was recording to compete with the British bands. My mic was solo, just one line patched to one channel, and I only used it to play harmonica on “I’m a Man” and “Love Me Do” and “It’s All Over Now.” The rest of the time it was off. But still, when it was time for the big chorus, I’d step up and sing my heart out, loud as hell and as off-key as I was, into the silent mic, an unidentified mime, a lip-synch artist. My nickname in the band was Dead Mic Bob. I played guitar.
VI The loud in us, the quiet in us. The wave crashes and recedes, and silence arrives splitsecondly before the next crest approaches. We know the intimate silence from catching our breath before the next kiss, a sound we learn as babies and give as a gift to a loved one dying. Our world is louder and fuller and busier than the history of humans seems able to sustain. Sounds of ads and entertainment and traffic and displacement and conflict and turmoil have become the soundtrack for our era. It makes us anxious, stressed, frantic. The last safe, comforting, renewing space we have left is in moments of silence, wherever we can find them: some forest path or farm pond, an old wood-paneled library, or in the room where we sit thinking before we pick up a pen and begin writing.
Grieving until the End by Kelly Jones Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance is an exploration of death and beauty, a merging of love and mourning. It is the winner of the 2010 Cleveland State University Poetry First Book Prize and shows the maturation of a promising young poet. I first encountered Frey’s work in 2008, when I was pleasantly surprised by her submission to the literary magazine I was working for at the time. Her verse then was ruminative and concise, two characteristics that have been strengthened over the years. In her free verse Frey packs multiple images and metaphors, endowing her poems with meaning. Though the poems appear small, they work together to explore large ideas, layering upon each other so that one must read them repeatedly, picking them apart in order to put them together. The Grief Performance is divided into three unnamed sections, the first consisting of thirteen poems that introduce characters, objects, and memories that reappear often. Six of these poems share the title “The End,” showing Frey’s focus on this concept. However, the first poem of the book, “The March,” deals more with distance and the mundane bits of life that lead to the final destination that everyone is headed towards. This poem is in five parts and starts with “To be separate / is to be the smallest / bit angry,” drawing attention to emotions felt after a loss. In part three of this poem Frey describes a day as “A lot of receipts / and decisions / concerning food.” These lines say a lot about surviving loss, about grieving. Sustenance is key to survival, and this glimpse at getting by is emotionless, mimicking the stunned state that survivors often experience. “The March” ends more personally as Frey focuses on an experience: I dream my father, grandmother and aunt are holding hands down a steep hill We’re all going to the same place These lines introduce three relatives who are gone, and Frey realizes that one day she will be, too. Though morbid, there is also some comfort to be found in these lines, as they show that those who are lost are not lost forever. Images continue to drive the second section of the book, though the seven poems that comprise this section have a more narrative structure that creates a bridge between the first and final sections of The Grief Performance. The poem “Love Letter” stands out, as it is written in lengthy couplets that make it visibly different from other poems in this collection. It is not composed of a direct narrative, like most of Frey’s writing, but relies on the layering of images to create a history, a relationship. There is a combining of the physical and the natural, as the poem begins with “This letter is not liver-spotted or decaying. Ferns feather this letter. Never / will this letter be referred to as an institution, nor will it endure or persevere.” It is not made clear who the letter is between, or if there were even a letter at all. Perhaps the accumulated actions comprise the love letter, perhaps the poem or the book
does. “Love Letter” ends with “They wait, at the head of the line, each of them holding a particular / weight, carrying something. They feel it move in their hands.” In these two lines distance resurfaces as the characters in the poem are together, but waiting for something. They are not yet where they are headed. The final poem of this section, “The History of Knives,” also calls attention to itself, as it is the only prose poem in The Grief Performance. In this poem relatives, images, and memories are the focus. These are heaped up so much that it is impossible to grab onto any one thing or idea, at least not until the final line, which is: “There are three dead people in me.” In this poem there is a dad, a grandfather, and an elusive “you” who overlap. This may explain the structure of the book as a whole, as it is divided into three parts and Frey claims to have three dead people within her. In the last section of The Grief Performance Frey returns to the brief, choppy lines common in her verse. This portion of the book is one poem, “Meditation on a Meditation of Frost,” in twenty-nine parts. These numbered parts recall earlier poems and twist images in new ways. The flipping fish that appear earlier in “Beach” shows up in “4.” This time, the metaphor is changed, however, as the speaker of the poem is the fish being flipped over by a lover. In “14” sand and death turn up again: Death, my best and most insincere opponent, I’m ready for you this time with fists of sand In “Beach” Frey writes, “glass is sand.” If this holds true still then the speaker in “14” is now prepared to fight death, offering an alternative sort of grief performance. The Grief Performance is extremely successful at creating a somber mood and using it for all it’s worth. This exploration of loss is well crafted, its parts come together to create an interesting inquiry into what it is to love and lose while avoiding coming off as a dark obsession. Frey may be obsessed with what grief is, but she is possessed by an ability to find the beauty in it.
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