- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
During a winter storm many of us were stranded together in a garret of our own making. We sat at a sloping table HG had made from several planks found in a dumpster and hurriedly painted in shiny hues of silver and white. He looked down clasping his teacup. P and AS were in one corner, ignoring the rest of us. O was agitated in the somewhat stifled atmosphere of the room. We watched the snow in livid streaks and heard the traffic below. H, however had a plan for our movement to a livelier space. She had a new acquaintance, AG, she wanted us to meet. AG was hosting a gathering and did we want to come? P and AS eyed the pile of coats in the corner and slumped back down saying nothing. Nobody moved. Then H got up got up to go and I joined her. Within moments we had left the garret and were almost merrily trudging toward an unknown assemblage.
It was the last days of what O called azure light. We fell back. Trudging through winter had nothing to do with punctuation or spelling a thing before us. Not knowing was a passport. I worried that H’s idea of a gathering might involve characters sorting tables, places to sit, colors to wear in photographs, all of which P and I found abhorrent. Persons hyperventilating at the charge bill. Or not. It was not that H was superficial but that she moved fluidly in any social situation. She possessed the mysterious ability to admire anyone. After a while I turned to look behind to see that HG and P and AS were following us not far back, walking in similar strides in the tracks we had already pressed into the snow.
And so we entered into a chapter which P later described in her book as: escorting what only the invisible may escort. Despite her valiant captioning efforts I am loyal to every moment as I imagine it, to my own personal “scathes” as well as to our collective. The building was brown stone, a winding staircase three floors up. We knocked at the door and heard jeering and shuffling behind. No one came so we entered. Several clusters of persons stood. Candles and blue glass lanterns illuminated the space. Here I must arrest my sloppy exuberance. Illusion will be metered and held against my specific lack. Here is the place I may write to the blankness and emptiness in which I imagine AG. Our initial conversation, when I attempt to break into language, finds me always in tears. The confusion must not be all my own. How frightening to not resist the real subject, beyond person. How easy to see a human face in this guise— as a gate. How easy to contemplate skin and fail. How simple to fall, lean, look down, awaken. How ripping to continue remembering from where we have come, for what reason. I wish to return to the place where daily habit does not interfere with the intermediary gravity of bodies fallen together as one.
We plummeted into what appeared to be a painted nocturnal scene when I supposed we had been walking in daylight. And then we were lost counting flat, grey, unmarked passages. H led me to a place she called her garret or garnet, which she simply referred to as “G.” I appropriate that shorthand at times, already twice removed, though O and HG and P were all adamantly opposed to her use of “G.” So I began to say, Place, instead, or better yet place, because for me it was still just a placeholder for something I could not name and had not yet experienced.
I went with H, reluctantly one night. High white walls were covered with rugs and on wooden benches sat many people with eyes closed. Musicians were singing in a language I did not recognize and I thought this is not the place. But I didn’t scoff like HG or O or even P would have, nor did I immediately join as H did, linking arms with strangers. All around was erratic movement and I was suddenly ill —muffled, twisted. Everything appeared as though through a distant tunnel. At first I was a watcher and then the tunnel turned or blemished. Was I a person in a room, in a place, which had not been determined as previously existing? AG was saying something upon which faces turned, cascaded. My cheeks were wet. Rivulets, tunnels pulled. I was bothered by the way my face contorted. What had become of volition? In a doorway questions hovered whispering. The ill hallway plummeted again, bled a path saying go—.
All persons seemed not to have occurred. What was our medium? Non-thoughts pulled taut. Whose face interrupted, gone? AG’s words hung in the air in several dimensions. We saw identity through a false glass. We began removing panes. Eventually I found that I loved the far corner of a sofa. By late in the evening I was waiting at the window for release.
P calls this emotional ventriloquism but H says that it means I have located a desire I had previously kept secret from myself. O, who hates the word “longing,” would later proclaim that I must have been fighting something off. HG agreed adding that I had been looking exhausted. In that moment, however, I was far from our collective thoughts— muffled sideways seeing continued. What is the purpose of distraction? The music was nonverbal, sound and gesture reaching a pitch. Movement was color. People were loudly embracing, without any self-consciousness, all types, as you would only find in such a submerged urban lair: dreadlocks, willowing, blue hair, piercings, wide awake among mobs of children, gauzy see-through fabrics, stacked heels and bare feet, essential oils and a scent-free seating section. Sideways anticipation synapse has us setting out to untoward places. Who will we be later? An occasional suit, bling and young collegiate professionals there only to meet a potential date. What do we fear— within the song and a certain intention, as H would later say, though I had no idea what she meant. Many foldings and convolutions passed before I was able to investigate the initial, untaught seeds of night.
What I knew in that moment was that I had been missing. There was a place, my placeholder, unacknowledged until this moment. It reared up awkwardly and I stifled it as best I could. A place, I later had to admit, internally located and overlooked, at once empty, remote, and unpracticed, which begged the shorthand for love of which we often spoke, but could not write, which was related to other creative or political acts but not the same. This was the opposite of trying to write and also identical with the impulse to write a book one hadn’t written oneself. It had more to do with standing pressed within a crowd, with being indistinguishable, than it did with being recognizable. P calls it receiving but not projecting. So the impulse to cry had been merely my first unwilling recognition of this nameless place. P would not cry, instead she would turn to vapor, and vanish into another. O would endlessly categorize, pontificate and quote philosophy. HG turned to drama, or was ironic and dismissing. H simply merged with whoever was nearest. I hadn’t found any place or practice and yet I had found another placeholder and it had nothing to do with an individual self as I understood the concept at the time. I later thought of this as a non-physical place, a state of being, a way to practice whatever it was we were trying so desperately to name, possibly, who to be.
I internalized a way of thinking and talking about what this meant, a type of reframing of reality through contemplative practices which I glimpsed first from H and then from AG and S. Later I witnessed a woman in a crowd sobbing. Her face was lifted — open—tears ran down her face. She did not obscure her features. This modest display soon became a goal which I have yet to achieve: to cry openly and unapologetically in public. I had no inkling at the moment of the import tears would later have for us. I began to wonder about contortion, shame, the suppression of emotion and how this might relate to artists, academics and instability. I began to wonder about how certain practices or ways of living might replace, supplement or improve upon what we know about medication and various traditional forms of healing. I began to wonder about this question of public space, communal activity and shame. I began to wonder if a public artistic space could exist outside certain expectations of academic, institutional, or patron based standards. I had had glimpses of such spaces and they tended to have other rules— philosophy we read and often misinterpreted. Parroted, not lived.
I had spent my whole life being taught that material accumulation was the key to success and that success was the only viable alternative for a woman aspiring to any identity other than that of “wife.” I had now begun the onerous task of unlearning everything that had come before. In order to internalize this new way of thinking I needed to surround myself with persons who wanted similarly to undo various notions of the world. P was the first. She taught me to cook foods I’d never even seen (as a well endowed “wife” or a successful woman wouldn’t need to cook at all), to dance (as another language) and to sit on a windy bench overlooking the ocean with a notebook in hand. Or I should say she was my accomplice in these practices. She taught me to get arrested in peaceful protests. She changed her hair color and her boyfriends at an alarming rate. At that time I also learned to sit at a place on the coast where the ocean spit violently in time with my unruly thoughts. P was the only one I would occasionally take with me. She could convulse voluminously saying nothing and she tolerated my earliest attempts to write.
Many years later, when P was diagnosed I imagined us sitting on the same bench, and at the same spot on the coast and I could not reconcile the sound of her medicated voice, her uncertainty. She who had always been so certain. Her instability, her fragility, and her book— she couldn’t write about it because it had not happened yet. Still she was asking herself the same questions about women and dissolution. Paradox— what has not happened yet is more interesting than the past, which is fixed. In the eventual present is a place to reside. This is not the same as the future. It is the place easiest to overlook because its unfixed aliveness makes us uncomfortable. Requiring presence by virtue of turning to meet a particular face is what I’ll call our project. It belongs to everyone though it is not quite transcribable. This is one of the inherent problems in trying to meet the paradoxical face. To write it, in most instances, is to step out of the stream. Except when it isn’t. You may also meet another foil, an overused screen. I am careful to try to avoid the blankness which comes from not living. Nothing is chronological. When quiet surrounds me as a hedge I am grateful. But then again quiet is also a culprit. O says that inaction is the price of contentment. P reminds me that transformation occurs when we are not content. But I cannot remind her of this now, meds out of sync, between jobs, lovers, uncertain. It was much easier to view such uncertainty as a necessary balm when we were barely twenty years old, at that spot on the coast, nothing yet inscribed.
Laynie Browne's most recent book is Roseate, Points of Gold (Dusie, 2011). She is co-editor of I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues, 2011).