Leaving a Trace Melanie Figg
Leaving a Trace Melanie Figg
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LEAVING A TRACE
Postcard, exterior of the Oregon State Hospital, courtesy of the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health
Leaving a Trace 1 As a girl, I pressed my hand into the cool wet cement of our new cellar stairs—trusting to endure. The aging body startles, silver fades to leave a cloudy reflection hovering on glass. Again, the Oregon State Insane Hospital is moving 1,000s of copper canisters of cremated remains: decades of inmates (those who died from 1913 to 1971) decades diagnosed and dismissed: “worries about sex” and “worries about money” The flooded canisters reacted with the human ashes held within 3,400 lives confined/forgotten/ignored/out-of-sight/reacting Patients distinguished now by the unique corrosion of their containers, the mark of time & body chemistry—how to matter after years of neglect, decades & centuries— Spirits unresting after a lifetime of disregard. The public is outraged finally and there are articles and amendments. The scholars show off in the abandoned journals of academic babble—(so often language un-persons all over again).
Indebted to David Maisel and his Library of Dust, a collection of photographs of corroded copper canisters of inmate remains at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, Oregon.
Leaving a Trace
I want to write a place to store unspeakable things, to contain and drain the unremembered. Your pain can become nothing here. Not ignored, not invisible. Nothingâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;
“Canister A,” photograph from Library of Dust, by David Maisel
1. The Library A flooded basement of copper canisters, and he saw chemistry—oxidized surfaces turned green (the Basilica’s dome ages so elegantly against all varieties of sky). He imagined palettes of epic ache and beauty. Envision a dazzle so dazzling they could become micro-terrains with his camera-like eye. With decades of neglect, ashes of the dead combined with their housing to create intensely hued colors of blooming minerals—astral movements, rainbowed slick on the river— unique now as ever, ever after— We put my mother’s ashes in a handmade ceramic urn that was too small. The mortician put what remained into an empty aspirin bottle with a childproof lid. We opened the plastic lip and scattered her on the Michigan farmland where she grew up. Her body —fine powder, sticky, with bits of small bone—took to the wind, our forearms, the seams in our shoes. In no time, the once elegant hospital overfilled with the neglected and lost, a monstrous vine extending to the fourth floor ward—a ladder for no one to climb, no ones to be canistered and unclaimed. In an outbuilding, past the cemetery that no longer was, three-deep on pine shelves: the bodied canisters each stamped with a number for a name in a book somewhere—354, 251, 1886—and now would be photographed. Made into art after decades dusted by prisoners from the local penitentiary. Such strange chemistries emerging between human and metal— We are all made of stardust, the scientists tell us
Leaving a Trace
Of course, copper: metal of millennia, metal of the goddess, able to resist corrosion. First comes cuprite, that earth/blood red that builds character & protects from further corrosion. But then years of flooding with mean water & bacterial action. The canisters break down—as any of us would under such pressure. And shock treatments sometimes three times a day. Scrubbing clean any dream, any doubt, leaving no trace of before, once I—it was— will & memory tamped down, neural pathways dead-ended & the body drastically altered to bear witness to the mind’s stumping & chemical violations— and then the gorgeous azurite and malachite. Walking the halls of J Building, another polishes the floor with her calluses, shivering in a labyrinth of medication & lousy memory. The invisible shine in their remove. Some wards are abandoned; some house violent criminals. Before that: the incurables, the maniacs, the melancholics, the misfits, the alcoholics, the syphilitics, the sad and inconvenient. (Do you have family like that? I do.) In 1896, orphans visited on Decoration Day to cover their tombstones with flowers. Wards of the state spinning through time—constellations of charity We are all made of stardust, the Romantics tell us—
Aerial view, 1940, courtesy of Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem, Oregon
2. Steiner’s Chimney 2 Striped red & white like a monstrous barber’s pole drying gauze from history’s bloodletting, I was built to burn a world of what was left behind— consumptive bedding & soiled towels, keepsakes & records, concert programs, letters & inventories, then the blood & bones of my wards. I burned until they were dust, until they were light as memory—clouding the sky with silent voices that rise up through my dark throat, the sooted final mile that thousands walked to be free from this place. I was built to burn away insanity, idiocy, imbecility and helplessness—to erase our failures to cure & suckle. Tourists strolled in their Sunday finery & bondsmen dropped their unlucky loads. I have seen prisoners rioting & babies born & the shackled gone mad & others return home. I saw the alienists arrive with their arrogant habits of category & Hollywood descend to tell its gory stories polished for spectacle. I loved when a tall, quiet Indian broke the windows & ran past the cameras & pig barns—ascending past the broken fences & shallow creek beds beyond the tree line to the Bannock & Burns Paiute
Named for Dr. R.E. Lee Steiner (Superintendent of the asylum, 1908-1937). The chimney was built in 1910, the crematorium was active from 1914-1971.
& Nez Perce, for the hundreds of half-breeds that I burned down into copper canisters to wait now in a closet to be returned to their people. The rebuilt water tower blocked my view west, but still I saw past as the sun pushed my shadow across the infirmary, casting a cool veil upon the row of beds. I watched as they exhumed the cemetery & fed my endless hunger with the long-gone dead. The woods filled with neat stacks of tombstones, more buildings went up. One evening I watched the barns burnâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;110 tons of hay fed my tribute, & three empty silos flamed, hollow candles with no tallow to nurse the blaze a second hour. I watched the men play baseball between the architectâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s scrawled nonsenseâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;the J & U buildings & the brick boxes punctuating, the tunnels diagramming the sentences my hospital makes underground, arteries for hand carts & doctors on bicycles & their children roller skating past the locked cell doors, the overflow bedding. I watched a godly rage spin up Willamette Valley, toss oaks like spilled spaghetti & throw down roofs like a patient struggling with four orderlies as they tied her & stuffed her screams with cotton & stormed her brain with electricity stronger than any lightning storm I have ever seen.
Leaving a Trace
Oregon State Hospital menâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s baseball team, circa 1901. Source: Wikipedia.
I face all directions, but my voice is a votive for the unremembered: For Sara & Harriet & Ida & Thomas For all the incarcerated & too many to name For those with no names For widows & the drunks & the poor For the orphaned & alcoholic For Frank, Ann, Mary, John, Charlotte For those handcuffed & submerged in cold baths For the electrified & lobotomized For the sterilized & castrated & ignored & frightened & abandoned & unlucky
Leaving a Trace
Straitjacket, courtesy of the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health
Leaving a Trace
—A beckoning moves, shifting toward the open field a wave of black birds lifting & turning back into itself ignoring the corn scattered beside the railroad tracks lifting fluid & toward the prairie but first between birch, gray & tired, with fallen branches, overgrown sumac and wild grapes, over the patches of dry cattails & grasses clacking in the wind & over the wetlands—green-skinned & stinking, trees stripped clean, each holding one large nest— out across the prairie the birds sing out of eyesight, out of wing’s reach into cerulean, higher into indigo, calling, into turquoise & recalling— This is where you are unfolding into light—formless as you pass—
Interior of Oregon State Hospital, 1905, Courtesy of Oregon State Archives
3. The Architecture of Madness Urn 1453: Ada arrived in 1911. Inconvenienced and admitted for melancholy when she was 32. Received no psychiatric treatment and stayed 40 years until she died—Present and abiding despite magnificent duress. Her canister’s corrosive beauty holds and haunts. 1921: Abortion Childbirth Female disease Menstrual trouble Menopause Miscarriage Probably Pelvic Irritation Pregnancy Puerperal Uterine Underdeveloped Sexually Urn 1205: Thinks people and friends do not like her. Delusions not in this attack, but husband says in previous attack she was delusional. Urn 1662: Believes something awful is going to happen to her. Restless and Depressed. At times noisy.
Leaving a Trace
Urn 2744: This is not earth taken from space, this is Ann: Finding the way out. Finding the way out is all I have left. I’m crazy and they lost me in here. Steiner’s Chimney: I still see the barns and the farmlands, the churning kitchen. Bees skit along the hallways toward the medication cart, and spin away to their days. Birds next in my arms, my village, my children all rage and swoon. Alma White has gone home. 18. Psychoneuroses and Neuroses. (b) Psychoneurosis type: This includes the compulsive and obsessional neuroses of some writers. The main clinical characteristics are phobias, obsessions, morbid doubts and impulsions, feelings of insufficiency, nervous tension and anziety.
Ward 81: There is no Jesus, I saw Jesus die today. He didn’t really die but he left. He left no incandescent space. He predicted no human race. He was not America. He was not Miss America. He was not missed. Fish Pond: Soft bodies lull and flickers, hold moonlight and let it go. Beneath their skirting heat are bodies and bodies shelved. No on remembers them but I hear their mumbles sometimes it makes the scales billow and press to change the direction the fish think they are going. Urn 3837: Nobody listens to me, not to one word out of my mouth. I like Father Callan. He lets me smoke. He used to be a trapeze artist. He took a vow of poverty like Jesus. That’s why he’s here to save our souls.
War 49: singing, hayrides, cold baths, isolation, restraints, moral therapy, shock treatment, manual labor, lobotomies, insulin therapy, pharmaceuticals, castrations, ovariotomies, sterilizations. 2,855: Goddammit, one lousy nervous breakdown and look wat they did to me. Maggie lobotomized and left by whomever she trusted not to— 1,003: I’m nervous upset, I’m nervous upset in this place. . . .
Smokey: The boy loved me and they brought me to the boy to follow on his bike. We run in the tunnels and run to the pool. His mother used to comb his hair with her fingers. His sadness is hungrier than I can eat.
photograph of canisters, by Melanie Figg
4. Against Chaos In the 1970s the hospital put the canisters in a basement room memorial vault beneath the goldfish pond. There the dead came alive— corrosion blooming wildly from the leaden seams and began to speak their panicked whispers skirting the surfaces of the canisters as the room flooded: “—I can’t think of it. I lost all my thinking and I can’t get it back. There’s no way for me to get it back.” Voluptuous unease is here. On these urns reside the dazzling colors of the wide-open mind. The prisoner won’t tell nobody that he likes this job. He uses a clean rag when he gets to the library of dust. He carefully picks up each canister, 002, 3452, 125—places each carefully back. Sometimes he memorizes the un-order, but never re-orders. Each canister returns to its own spot where it belongs. Strange kin what the future holds. The copper and flood water made a universe of every body. Reacting with their ash inhabitants, the canisters are now fractal landscapes in metallic miniature; stubborn insistence of the beauty of time to falter, filter, re-imagine what is lost.
“Canister B,” photograph from Library of Dust, by David Maisel
5. The Borders of Homage His camera pans out for an aerial view, a bird maddened by color and shape to wake you. Now art zooms down to cosmos, searching for the unknowable, the 21 grams of dust and light that his lens and filters capture, the canisters and their deformations that evoke the celestialâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; the northern lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky. He is fascinated by science. He loves the colors of wounding from great copper mines and poisonous runoffâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;landscapes undone by disregard. Do all of us leave behind such a canvas of unique bloom? Dust: dead insects, flakes of human skin, worried fabric and unspooled starsâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; We will all be forgotten. What took millennia to surface on ancient Egyptian artifacts took only a dozen years to cover these copper urns as if forsaken souls could hardly wait to pass into another realm: how we come in at dusk to a warm lighted kitchen, the dirt of the garden still underneath our nails.
6. In Memoriam And now a columbarium, and I see the canisters shelved for beauty and display. And the ashes have been transferred to modern urns. Time that moved over the face of copper canvas to create phosphorescent, transformed splendor has stopped. Exhibition has frozen time (maybe ifâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;) and we can look at beauty to (no, but) explore the ethical gap where corrosion forms on what we have forgotten, what we cannot bear. Grief a ragged pipe, the same ten bars stuttered only to oneself on a park bench, the star flash for those of us watching.
Leaving a Trace
photograph of canisters, by Melanie Figg
Memorial where unidentified remains are housed today. Source: Wikipedia
Notes: Facts and italicized phrases taken from the following sources: Library of Dust, David Maisel, Chronicle Books, 2008 (essay by Maisel, “Mineral Kinships” by Geoff Manaugh, “Graves of the Insane, Decorated” by Michael S. Roth); “Voluptuous Unease: David Maisel’s Library of Dust”, Karen Lang, Getty Research Journal, Number 1, Winter 2009; Library of Dust, 2011 documentary by Ondi Timoner; “Human Ash Reactions,” Geoff Manaugh, Contemporary Magazine, volume 86, Fall, 2006; Ward 81, Photos by Mary Ellen Mark, Text by Karen Folger Jacobs, Simon & Schuster, 1979; The Architecture of Madness, Insane Asylums in the United States, Carla Yanni, University of Minnesota Press, 2007; the Daily Oregon Statesman, June 3, 1886; Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph and Images of America: Oregon Asylum by Diane L. GoeresGardner; Statistical Manual for The Use of Institutions for the Insane, The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, New York, 1918; and the archives of the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health and Oregon Historic Photograph Collections. David’s photos are gathered in a gorgeous monograph called Library of Dust found at http://davidmaisel.com. A documentary film, Library of Dust, tells the story of the cremains, from the initial discovery to the memorial: http://www.libraryofdustmovie.com. The Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health has worked hard to be candid about its past: from being the longest Kirkbride building in operation and being the site for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to curating thoughtful exhibitions and hiring an artist to design a thoughtful memorial. It’s worth a visit: https://oshmuseum.org/.
Melanie Figg is the recipient of a 2017-2019 NEA Poetry Fellowship, as well as grants from the McKnight and Jerome Foundations and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Her collection of poems, Trace, won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project and will be published in fall 2019. With an MFA in Poetry, her poems, essays, and reviews have been published in dozens of literary journals including The Iowa Review, Nimrod, LIT, and Colorado Review. Melanie curates Literary Art Tours in DC galleries (a Washington Post Editor’s Pick), and is a certified professional coach. She teaches and coaches writers in community art centers and privately. Learn more at www.melaniefigg.net. “Leaving a Trace” was inspired by David Maisel’s photographs of thousands of beautifully corroded copper canisters from the Oregon State Mental Hospital. Each canister contained the unclaimed cremated remains of a patient. I discovered the photos on the Internet somehow, and became fascinated by them and their story. I won a grant from the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County in 2014 to fund a research trip to the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, where the urns are housed. I needed to see the urns in person, as well as work from other primary documents and materials to inform this project. What I discovered on that trip drastically expanded my original idea for the poem.
I began the poem as part of a series about my older sister’s mental illness, in which I explore memory, identity, and my family’s response to her diagnosis. What started as a poem with a very personal focus became a much broader project that addresses issues of betrayal, mortality, creativity, and bearing witness—as well as the history of mental health treatment in this country. I have many poems about works of art and the creative process. With this poem, I wanted to weave personal and communal history with the art of Maisel’s photography to create a kind of public memorial, and give a voice to those ignored and incarcerated. Many voices inhabit the poem. Italicized lines are often sampled language: scientific and artistic descriptions of the urns, hospital records, and quotes from the inmates; when I talk about a “he,” I am referring to David Maisel, and more generally, The Artist.
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.â&#x20AC;?
This project is also supported in part by funding from the Montgomery County government and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.