With a friend this weekend, I remarked of someone who took a risk and died young that it was his fate. “But you don’t believe in fate, do you?,” my friend said. I said I did, but only in a specific sense: what happens doesn’t happen because it is our fate. It is our fate because it is what happens.
You have to engineer the idea of fate in from the other direction, otherwise you get caught up in prophecy and in altering fate. In calling it fate only afterward, we rob ourselves of excuses for wickedness, knowing that, in a matter where choice is possible, we could have chosen to act another way.
The museum was anthropological in the obsolete style, and I could see the fluidity of the categories, on the one hand, of black, primitive, and native cultures and, on the other, the clusters of chimpanzee, mandrill, and gorilla families in the taxidermy displays in the adjacent hall, the context making the continuity between human and animal all but explicit, and I became even more strongly aware that the halls were full of children and young people having their heads passively stuffed with obscenities that they would, in the future and in some other context, draw on to shape their interactions with people from distant countries. The light was low in the big old rooms, but the displays were spotlit, and I was drawn in not just by the fossilized ideas about color, race, and kinship, but also by the dioramas, which brought to mind a friend whose father in the 1950s had been employed in building just such dead-life and living-death chambers, the animals stuffed and mounted with painted backgrounds, the amazing antelopes, greater kudu, elands, rhinos and zebras, the dinosaur bones which were seamlessly falsified with casts and which testified to long vanished violent struggles for survival, and above all the study cases full of stuffed birds, endless varieties of birds in the subtle coloration common to those inhabitants of the air—the spots, flecks, stripes, couple-color, the grays, browns, gray-browns, brown-grays, yellowish-whites, whites, blacks, and faded reds and greens, with dull yellow daubs where the eyes once were. Looking at these long-dead creepers, swallows, sparrows, wrens, nuthatches, thrushes, egrets, gulls, jays, diving ducks, titmice, crows, as well as the falcons, vultures, eagles, and all the surprising varieties of hawks, their feathers smoothed and folded, their feet tucked in beneath them so that each looked as if though it were diving into water, I felt at moments the sensation of a bird pulsing in my enclosed hands like a feathery heart, and at other moments myself turning into a bird and plunging heedlessly across the air with avian singlemindness, and when I encountered the case full of owls, those marvelous night hunters who surpass us in sensitivity as master musicians do the tone-deaf, who blindfolded hunt mice by the sound of their scampering, their white, tufted faces out in some far region beyond secrets and the divulging of secrets, I was ready to believe anything, accept and endure anything for their sakes, ready to hand myself over as an uncomplaining servant of the natural world, particularly the world of feathered, beaked and winged creatures, and this must have been why I thought later that night that the old erhu player I encountered in the subway at Grand Street and the Peking Opera singer who sang beside him, her voice as thin and bright as her lipstick, were also the image of some marvelous unnamed birds who had somehow been captured by the mind’s eye in the middle of their swift and breathtaking flight.
I first worked in stone, doing a couple of abstract pieces in the style of Henry Moore.
Then I worked in clay. I remember a life-like life-sized head, a self-portrait, the oval head resting on its slender neck just like mine, the eyes looking straight at me for the long hours I spent working on the features. It was like looking into a mirror to begin with, but then less so as I shaped the clay more finely and misplaced the initial mimetic charge.
Later on, I worked in plaster, making about a dozen pieces after the style of Giacometti. At the end of my final year, I had a solo show at the university’s art gallery. I remember my nights in the studio, kept company by a small radio. Working shirtless, I’d get flecks of plaster all over my body and face.
The sculpture was officially for a class, but by this time—it was my third sculpture class—I didn’t care about the grade, and only worked in order to find myself in the work. The studio was big, and lit by a single bulb, though that is probably a misremembering, and the bulb was bare, and that too is probably misremembered.
In any case, the studio had the feel of a cave, and I would stay there alone all night, surrounded by finished and half-finished pieces. The elongated figures, most of them about three feet tall, loomed around me on their pedestals. Each was built on a wire armature, and working the wire gave me blisters and tiny cuts.
The plaster dried quickly, but when wet it had a chalky smell I liked. My figures were all of walking men, falling men, men falling backwards, figures as silent as I was in the hours in which I made them.
The dials and switches of the little black radio were encrusted with plaster and clay, and it’s a wonder it worked at all. I usually listened to the local classical station, the programming of which got more adventurous with the deepening of night. One night, after a piece of music ended, the next one was an avant-garde piece consisting entirely of a rain shower, which went from a small patter, to a full downpour that came down like pulsing drumbeats, and then trailed off. After came a thick silence, and then the initially tentative then gradually bolder whistles and calls of birds emerging from the rain.
To that aural rain I worked in my own wordless rhythm. I poured water into a bowl, some of it inevitably spilling on the floor and the mixing counter, scooped powdered plaster from its polypropylene bag (I remember the crinkly sound of the bag) into the water, and stirred it with a stick until it was thick enough to shape, but not so thick that it dried too fast.
The initial shaping I sometimes did with a small flat stick, a popsicle stick, but most often just with my fingers. Then to sharpen the planes and lines, I used a blunt knife. Because the plaster dried fast, the gap between an idea and its execution was small. Thought extended into form easily, and as the weeks went by I developed a facility.
It was a personal rain, that rain that fell invisibly around me in the studio at 3 am while I shaped falling men in plaster.
I don’t remember any of the other rains from those years. This imaginary one, which left me washed clean as bird voices, has stayed with me. I still listen to radio a great deal now, the more far-fetched the better, and I’m often up working in solitude in the middle of the night. It is work in which I find myself in a different way.
But work that doesn’t involve words is something I sometimes forget I miss.
The filled mind fills things, as water full of fish fills, via gills, the finny tribe.
Snow maps the hill.
The white continents shrink
and each drowns in muddy earth.
Grass grows into the month of March
without a sound.
An invisible beard.
will catch our souls,
neat as a cat.
Ulyss. is lovely blooming loopiness of vowels, wording all pout and roundy.
“A tilted urn poured from its mouth a flood of bloodhued poplin: lustrous blood.”