Of all the photos I brought back from Africa, I like this one best—the three of us reading the newspaper, two baby elephants right behind us. The President and his War Vets had invaded the farmlands like a hair-lipped couple blowing on their fire1, which, for us, meant fifty cent safari rides and three dollar impala steaks all the way to Vic Falls. With nothing at stake, though, we grew tired of the game, tired of playing tourist to the proverbial life. The elephant in the room? No, it was the marmot monkeys who’d steal oranges from our packs, the baboons that chased a young boy who’d thrown rocks at them so they’d look up for the camera.
At a gallery in Poughkeepsie, where “contemporary” translated into “formless,” people were bumping their heads on floating pieces of driftwood. A young boy almost tripped onto a rug of pins. I’d been home a couple of years already but was still struggling with the blurred lines of where things end. In the middle of the room, a video played—a couple circling each other in the ring. The man was overweight, the woman shirtless and the theme music to Rocky made it seem like something momentous was about to happen. But the two just kept sparring, small jabs and lazy hooks while the woman’s breasts jiggled about.
I spent a morning, once, helping friends slaughter chickens on their farm and for the rest of the day, saw gorged necks in every stick on the street, heard their pleading squawks in the worn out pads of my brakes. Because Pittsburgh is still tangled in him, wrote Jack Gilbert, he has a picture of God’s head torn apart by jungle roots. Finally, I thought, a haunting vision of my own. But it didn’t last. By the next day, trees looked like trees again, chalk sounded like chalk. And if I hadn’t dropped my keys, later that week, I probably would never have noticed the dead hatchling I’d been stepping over on my way to work—whose fluid-drained eyes and skeletal presence of wings had faded quickly among the gum drops and rubber marks to everyone but the occasional hovering fly.
Three weeks before Zimbabwe’s elections, two men tossed a Molotov cocktail through the window of an art gallery. For months the government had been impounding cars of photographers, banning musicians from radio—but this was a small family-owned shop featuring wire helicopters and ebony elephants, drawings of women drawing water from wells. That the gallery was located next door to the opposition’s headquarters was yet another sign of political incompetence, laughed the rastas at Unity Square. The next day they were selling ballot boxes in the shape of coffins, paintings of snakes eating other snakes’ tails. Buy something, they whispered, while our canvases are still stronger than theirs.
The man is running from one end of the screen to the next. He is galloping through snow and trudging through marshes, sauntering through living rooms and flapping his arms through federal buildings. Sometimes he sits on a couch, sips a beer, then gets up running again. Sometimes he somersaults naked. On the screen next to him, a man has brought a bow and arrow into a grocery store. He is hunting toilet paper and gathering tomato sauce. He arches an arrow through a frozen turkey—his craft as pointed as the tip of his shaft. Still, there is something about the man running and his dead-end flirting with the world—the way he continues on, flailing and unwavering.
1 from W.S. Merwin’s Asian Figures