Skip to content

Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths body

I’d come into the room & try to write
a different ending on those anonymous walls.
There was less time all the time
until time changed. You know what I mean.

In the poem “Belief,” from her new book Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), Rachel Eliza Griffiths recounts the frustration of trying to write while waiting in the hospital during the time that her mother was dying.

I tried to read & write. Over & over, I
arranged plain little soaps, toothbrush, & comb.

. . . But before I accepted her
dying, which would be true
five months later, I kept trying to write
my mother a strong beginning.

Seeing the Body is a deeply personal book that was born out of the passing of her mother, the grief that followed, and the eventual return to a new normal. “Seeing” is often the operative word in this book.

Two years later in Brooklyn I am getting my eyes
checked. I have good eyes today. But there were
whole years I couldn’t see. . .                                                                               

                                                             from “Name”

But the real challenge for Griffiths comes with fulfilling her responsibility as a writer. At first, there are only “cobwebs of words” as the poet struggles to get past the reality of her mother’s passing. Words may be gossamer thin but in Griffith’s book they have the power to grieve, to love, to hurl anger, to forgive, to build worlds.

I want my web to hold. I want to repair
what I have made. I was not given the golden hive.
In me seethes the silk of invisible worlds.    

         from “Arch of Hysteria, or, The Spider-Mother Becomes a Woman”

Throughout the book, Griffiths talks of having her mother’s presence still with her (“even now she is still making me”). She misses her mother’s cooking. She thinks about family. She thinks about other artists who inspire her, like Louise Bourgeois and Langston Hughes. She writes a poem to Leonard Cohen (“Where are the miracles now, Leonard?”). She seethes as yet another black man (Mike Brown) is killed by the police in America. And then she herself becomes ill.

. . . There I prayed. I hummed.
alone, half-bald. Being born alone again.

I could not trust such sentences of faith or fiction. Instead, I read
menus, trues crimes, prescriptions. Transcribed
simple miracles for my anxiety.

I could not taste life or honey.

But I could bleed.                                                                                                   

                                                               from “Signs”

But for me, the true core of this book comes when Griffiths knows there are times when she can not be silent. When she must speak for more than just herself. Seeing the Body reverberates with moments of outrage. The most powerful example is the poem “My Rapes.”

I promised my mother I would never speak a word
about my rapes. I would never tell the world.
about my power until she was dead. Her eyes sealed &
having a choice now to listen to me or be a ghost
when I am saying the difficult thing
& lived it. . .

“My Rapes” is “a terrible poem for us,”

we outlaw women who have taken off the silence
of our muzzles & armed our small bones with stars,
we who leap from the attics we are burning down.

In the poem, Griffiths writes not only from her own past (“when I tried to tell my mother about the rapes she asked me / what in the world had I been wearing & where had I gone”), but about the students who have come to her with poems about their experiences, the “typed-up evidence” and “the formatted corpse of a memory that won’t lie still.” It’s not so much a poem about rape as it is about the endless pressures to deny rape, to call rape by a lesser name, or, worst of all, to blame the victims. It’s a poem everyone should read.

Griffiths is also a terrific photographer and she includes a section of intriguing self-portraits in the book in a section called “daughter: lyric: landscape.” She writes: “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss.” Self-portraiture is a form of automatic self-distancing, a mirroring of the self. But here, by using the word “daughter,” Griffiths implies that she is also looking at herself through her mother’s eyes. She accomplishes the eerie act of displacement by momentarily trading places with the dead in order to look back at her living self.

Griffiths Double Portrait

Seeing the Body is a book that is tender and fearless and timely. Highly recommended.

. . . When some fucked injustice
smiled & shot into the crowd & said
Y’all need to go back from where you came from.
Well, we stayed and lived.                                                                         

                                                             from “Paradise”

Watch Rachel Eliza Griffiths read several poems from this book on YouTube, courtesy of Poets House.

The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

 

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints. Read more

Pandemic Time

IMG_3243

Without appointments and concerts, without events and other things that remind me of the date, I find myself looking at the calendar more often, trying to fix in my mind a place to lodge myself in the stream of time. Is it Sunday or maybe Monday? But to be honest, the calendar that seems more like the true pandemic calendar is the one that hangs on my wall made by the German artist Hanne Darboven in 1971 as a gift for one of her collectors, which I acquired years ago. It’s a calendar for the year 1972 and Darboven carefully filled all of the spaces surrounding the actual calendar with wavy black lines. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but it’s connected to a large body of work she did with calendars over several years.

When I first saw some of the calendar works by Darboven (1941-2009) for the first time I was struck by the fact that they depicted the way I felt about time, about eternity slowly unfolding before me.  The cinematic version of time passing, which often shows a succession of calendar pages disappearing off the screen, blown away by the breeze, was never how I understood time. For me, it’s the constant repetition, the endless mimetic motion of the hand up and down, left to right, the same gesture day after day after day. That feels like time.

Darboven 1975 Artists Book
Hanne Darboven. Cover of her limited edition, self-published artist’s book 1975.

These obsessive, wavy lines became one of Darboven’s signature marks, one that she used for years in scores of works. Each line is a simple unbroken set of waves that appears to have been made with a medium-tipped black marker. The line rises and falls, undulating like a word comprised only of the lower-case, un-dotted letter “i” or an endless line of the letter “u” written in cursive, leaning slightly to the right. This line is repeated time after time, filling the allotted space. It’s a recognition of the underlying sameness of every cycle of day and night, followed by another day and night. But it also feels like a form of penance (I will not chew gum in class anymore. I will not chew gum in class anymore. I will not . . . ) When I was young, the very idea of eternity (and eternal life) frightened me unbelievably.

Darboven lines
Hanne Darboven. Untitled, c. 1972. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Darboven’s wavy lines remind me of something from the early pages of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, when the title character watches from his mother’s house as two men—who he calls A and C—walk toward each other in the distance.

The road, hard and white, seared the tender pastures, rose and fell at the whim of the hills and hollows. The town was not far. It was two men, unmistakably, one small and one tall . . . At first a wide space lay between them. They couldn’t have seen each other, even had they raised their heads and looked about, because of this wide space, and then because of the undulating land, which caused the road to be in waves, not high, but high enough.

The other artist whose sense of time matches this pandemic was the Japanese artist On Kawara (1932-2014), especially his Today Series of paintings (also called his Date Paintings). Each of these black-and-white paintings conveyed only the current date and he had a self-imposed requirement that each of these paintings would be completed on the day in which he started them. In addition, the language and format of the date had to conform to the country where he was staying at the time. Upon completion, the painting would be housed in a box accompanied by a daily newspaper from date and the city where the painting was made. These are paintings for days on which there appear to be no past and no future.

On Karawa 4 Mars 1973

On Kawara 4 Mars 1973 Acrylic on canvas

On Kawara also published a two-volume limited edition book called One Million Years. The first volume, Past, is dedicated to “all those who have lived and died,” and covers the years from 998,031 BC to 1969 AD. The second volume, Future, is dedicated to “the last one,” and begins with the year 1993 AD and ends with the year 1,001,992 AD.

On Kawara One Million Years a

 

So That the Soul Would not Be Distracted

external-content.duckduckgo.com

A very astute reader of Sebald’s work sent me an email recently noting that the final sentence of The Rings of Saturn (1995) bears a striking resemblance to the final sentence of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s book Still Life with Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993).  What’s up with this, we both wondered?

Here’s Sebald:

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as if left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

Here’s Herbert. describing how a family prepares for the departure of the soul of a recently deceased Dutch merchant in the seventeenth century:

Then they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and turn all the pictures to the walls so the image of a girl writing a letter, of ships in open sea, of peasants dancing under a tall oak, would not stop the one who wanders toward unimaginable worlds from going on his way.

Read more

John Hawkes Goes West

hawkes beetle

For his second novel, The Beetle Leg (New Directions, 1951), John Hawkes took the restless, chaotic energy from the war-torn Germany of The Cannibal and transferred it to the American West. In his early years, he seems to have needed a “lawless country” in order to let his novel run free from the constraints of “plot, character, setting, and theme,” which he once labelled as the “true enemies of the novel.” And The Beetle Leg surely demonstrates his early commitment to this premise. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics.

But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago,  killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. “The mile long knoll of his grave mound was an incomplete mountain, a pile of new earth erupted between the bluffs, a patch, a lighter hue of brown, across the river road.” Read more

Take a Train Journey with Sebaldsound

Ear Edgeland Sebald 2

Here’s another audio piece about W.G. Sebald to help you through whatever level of confinement you are subjecting yourself to these days. Nick Warr and Guy Moreton recently taped a fascinating conversation about Sebald while taking a train journey and the recording they made is now up on Soundcloud. Warr and Moreton meander through many topics, including Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn, his use of photographs, and the significance of the trains that keep appearing in his work. Here’s their description of the thirty-three minute program.

The third episode in the [‘Ear of the Edgeland’] series finds us back on the rural railways, from Norwich to Lowestoft.

Commissioned by Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Sebaldsound’ acts as a complimentary audio piece to the 2019 exhibition ‘Lines of Sight’ about the artist W G Sebald.

In this episode ‘Lines of Sight’ curator Nick Warr talks to artist and academic Guy Moreton about the landscape, Sebald’s life and work, whilst travelling on part of the journey featured in Sebald’s much revered book The Rings of Saturn.

Sebaldsound includes field recordings by Oliver Payne with ‘Increasingly Absorbed In His Own World’ and ‘When the Dog Days Were Drawing To An End’ composed by The Caretaker for his album ‘Patience (After Sebald)’.

Guy Moreton is a photographer and teaches at Solent University, Southampton. Dr. Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections, University of East Anglia and co-author of the forthcoming book W.G. Sebald: Shadows of Reality.

“Lines of  Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life”

Cantu Sebald

“Lines of  Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life,” an essay by Francisco Cantú is currently available online in the Virginia Quarterly Review Spring 2020 issue. In his essay, Cantú meditates on landscape, violence, and borders, inspired by a walking trip he took along the Suffolk Coast described in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Cantú’s 2018 book The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border explored the harsh realities of the U.S./Mexican border and it made several top ten book lists that year. To better understand the issues facing those who were trying to smuggle themselves north into the U.S. he enlisted as a Border Patrol agent for a while.

In “Lines of Sight,” Cantú writes of the universality of Sebald’s message.

I first began to read Sebald during the years I worked in the deserts of Arizona, as an agent for the US Border Patrol. I was in my early twenties, living alone in a two-bedroom home built for mine workers in the former copper town of Ajo. I read his books one after another in that hot, silent, sparsely furnished house, encountering detailed descriptions of his European wanderings and long digressions into obscure chapters of world history, immersing myself in places and stories that were distant and foreign, yet still somehow familiar. The way Sebald interrogated his surroundings—the reminders of horror he found in abandoned buildings, pieces of detritus, swaths of cleared land—reminded me, perhaps, of the glimmers of violence I encountered day after day in the borderlands. Despite writing from another continent and another decade, Sebald somehow seemed to be speaking about the precise moment I was living in, about the very nature of my own work as an agent of oppression, about the violence being imprinted into me each day as I rose to police the border. More broadly, his work gave language to how violence has been normalized throughout history and written into our landscapes, cities, cultures, and bodies. Sebald’s books taught me, in effect, to look for what had been hidden in plain sight all around me.

Read the piece now. Cantú warns on his Twitter feed that the piece will eventually go behind a paywall.

History as Amnesia: Adam Scovell’s “How Pale the Winter Has Made Us”

How_Pale_sales_cover

‘… I am a voluntary exile, a wanderer by design, unwise with a purpose, everywhere a stranger and everywhere at home, letting my life run its course where it will, rather than trying to guide it, since, in any case, I don’t know where it will lead me.’
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

How often is the main character of a novel a city and not a person? In Adam Scovell’s new novel How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, the first thing we see (after the epigraph from Goethe quoted above) is a reproduction of a 19th century photographic postcard of the cathedral of Strasbourg, France towering over the roofs and chimneys of the city. Isabelle, our narrator, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.”

And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented. Read more

The House That Jack Built: John Hawkes’s The Cannibal

Hawkes Cannibal

When I was young and the traveling fair came around every spring, they sometimes brought with them a funhouse called The House That Jack Built, meant to suggest a structure built by a crazed architect. Inside was a mildly scary maze that consisted of floors that were uneven or that would suddenly go soft on you, mirrors and optical illusions, horrible noises, paths with misdirections and dead ends, and other tactics meant to make the space the size of a mobile home feel as spacious as a mansion.

I was reminded of that as I read John Hawkes’s first novel The Cannibal (New Directions, 1949). The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. We are in a bombed-out town called Spitzen-on-the Dein, a landscape of buildings that are tilting or half falling down, the streets littered with abandoned carts and bomb craters. The opening scene is the empty insane asylum, which sits on a hill surrounded by charred earth, fields with dead cows, and stunted trees. The omniscient narrator, Herr Zizendorf, is the Editor of the wonderfully named local paper, the Crooked Zeitung. Zizendorf is a reluctant narrator who doesn’t bother to announce his presence or use the pronoun “I” until page 32. He prefers to stay in the background most of the time, until the end of the book when he reveals that he is the ringleader of the final event.

We are slowly introduced to an odd cast of characters: Madame Stella Snow, Jutta, the Census-Taker, The Duke (a tank commander in the previous World War), Herr Stintz, a tuba-playing school teacher, and a handful of others. Relationships and chronology are often ambiguous. But the writing is lush, thrilling.

The Mayor, with his faded red sash, was too blind to tend to the chronicles of history, and went hungry like the rest with memory obliterated from his doorstep. Their powerful horses of boney Belgian stock, dull-eyed monsters of old force, had been commandeered from the acre farms for ammunition trucks, and all were gone but one grey beast who cropped up and down the stone streets, unowned, nuzzling the gutters. He frightened the Mayor on black nights and trampled, unshod, in the bar garden, growing thinner each day. Children took rides on the horse’s tail and roamed in small bands, wearing pasteboard Teutonic helmets, over the small confines of the town. The undertaker had no more fluid for his corpses; the town nurse grew old and fat on no food at all. By mistake, some drank from poisoned wells.

This is writing I would follow anywhere. Read more