I suppose it’s true, I’ll tell you, that years ago I encountered a young man at a dive bar in Copenhagen who—after sipping his pilsner and tilting in close—explained, unprompted (in the manner of young men explaining, unprompted, in dive bars the whole world over) that there was actually a much better dive bar than the one my companions and I were currently lurking in, a bar that would remain open all night, a bar not far from here, so he said, and since we were new to the city, since it was in fact our first night in the city, he and his friends would be pleased to escort us, if we were so inclined, to this second location, this other better dive bar, at which point, as if an afterthought, he divulged the kind of pleasing and preposterous non sequitur that seems to only grace a stranger when he followed his offer to lead us to liquor by claiming to have once been a famous Danish soprano and the singer responsible for hitting the high notes in Lars von Trier’s musical Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork. It sounded implausible but not impossible; we followed him to the second location. The lot of us—my brother and a few friends—had just arrived from Amsterdam where we had consumed large amounts of “shady shawarma,” marveled at Hendrick Avercamp’s low-lit “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters,” and celebrated the dawn of 2012 from a garage-sized open window in the Red Light District which was replete with shrieking teens and frantic tourists and where a relentless series of fireworks detonated at such alarming rates that the ensuing flames and smoldering vehicles might have deceived any random drifter into thinking they had entered a war zone. Although the trip’s impetus was distinct from my own research I was pleased when it included a week in Copenhagen, the home and final resting place of the recently-deceased Danish poet Inger Christensen, author of alphabet, a book-length naturalist epic which begins: “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist,” and subsequently lists in a visionary repetitive reverie all manner of flora, fauna, and phenomena: “bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries; / bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen,” or later, “guns and wailing women, full as / greedy owls exist; the scene of the crime exists; / the scene of the crime.” Translated into English in 2000 by Susanna Nied (the book was originally published in 1981), alphabet is bound by two major measured limits (“given limits exist”): the alphabet—both in order and word—and the Fibonacci sequence, the mathematical expression of a spiral and a frequent pattern in the natural world: snail shells, fern leaves, pineapple scales, pinecones, hurricanes, seed heads, animal flight, galaxies, and even, I recently read, the human face and a healthy uterus. The equation, related to the golden ratio, begins as most things do, in nothing (zed, zero, zilch), becoming—with a conceptual leap that feels unbearable—something, or one, at which point each new numeral is the sum of the two that proceed it: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. Christensen uses the form in conjunction with the alphabet so that the first section of the book (beginning with “a”: apricot) is one line while the second (“b”: bracken, blackberries, bromine) is a couplet, and so on until the sections stop at “n” (the letter representing whole numbers? the beginning of nuclear, nature, or nothing?); it is a form that never escapes itself or fully concludes and serves as an apt metaphor for memory’s own evolutions and erasure by accretion. The poem is an ever-amassing acknowledgement of the elements of the world—our world, Christensen’s world—that exist (her foremost refrain) and as the images build slowly, systematically—like the measured introduction of instruments in Ravel’s “Bolero”—they also turn away from the predominantly organic (“cicadas exist; chicory, chromium”) toward the violent (“atom bombs exist // Hiroshima, Nagasaki // Hiroshima, August / 6th, 1945”) back to the human (“love exists, love exists / your hand a baby bird so obviously tucked / into mine”) and the visionary (“snow / is not snow at all / when it snows / in mid-June”) always managing—as would any natural spiral achieving revolution—to involve the strands of its own generation (“don’t panic; it’s bracken on a / trip, gathering time and / binding it; bracken”). Christensen’s poem can be read as an urgent and furious pre-apocalyptic documentary response to the nuclear fear and Cold War dread of her time (a dread that has since evolved) in which the word “exist” becomes its own ghostly opposite—material that doesn’t or hasn’t or won’t ever again endure (polar bears?, kingfishers?, shrubs?, children!?!?)—illuminating the poem’s violence as well as—by the very act of writing—erasing each recorded idea or object and what it signifies. In one section Christensen leads the reader on an expedition around the world by connecting each body of water or land mass to its neighbor (“around the Barents Sea / the water stops at / Spitzbergen / and just behind / Spitzbergen / ice drifts in the / Arctic Ocean / and just behind the / Arctic Ocean / there’s solid ice at the / North Pole…”) until she has imagined her way, in a few traceable steps, around the globe name-by-name demonstrating how irrevocably and undeniably connected one nation (one population, one landscape, one citizen) is to another. Much of alphabet is concerned with the space between experience and extinction—the cataloguing of what currently is or can be perceived and therefore eradicated—and we begin to understand nouns as apparitions of their reference, recalling one to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am when he reminds us that “every case of naming involves announcing a death to come in the surviving of a ghost.” The poem is a dirge and hymn, a chronicling of potential in its breaking. Even the initial image, that infamous apricot tree—which I realized the week I spent in Copenhagen wouldn’t have thrived in Christensen’s city—contains a hazardous seed in the form of a pit that is poisonous if eaten in quantity causing similar symptoms as cyanide poising. I have always read this line as Christensen’s proof that nature’s systems shield signs and also, possibly, a nod to the fact that in order to accelerate our own extinction we might one day pray for an apricot tree (or two, or three) to have survived and for their seeds, upon digestion, to liberate us from what will certainly be a bleak and unmanageably dark apocalypse. One might compare Christensen’s use of natural forms to that of the sculptor Robert Rohm, whose deceptively simple “Rope Piece”—one of many works sharing that title—was originally formed in 1969 of heavy shipping lines and knots nailed to the gallery wall in a strict grid and then, according to the Des Moines Arts Center’s wall plaque, “cut or unfastened at predetermined points [Rohm] had plotted in a preliminary diagram” illuminating the “tension” between “rationality and randomness.” I saw the piece one morning years after the trip to Copenhagen as part of a brief stop along an extended drive out west and it reminded me of the “invisible architecture” (as Barbara Guest would call it) of alphabet. Like Christensen, who said that “by using a system you are trying to reveal the
Image Credit (left): Candy Adriance & Chuck Mayer
rhythm of the universe,” Rohm is known to have employed mathematical and geometric structures to attract disarray and acknowledge the man-made disruption of so-called scientific systems. Although it is easy to admire Rohm’s damaged parallel lines and their echo of fishing nets, spider webs, and desert fences, there is something quite literally hypnotizing in the spin of the spiral, perhaps even more so, in my opinion, than the most hallowed and elegant of all shapes, the circle, which Emerson claims is “the first of all forms” and which the spiral imitates in concept while involving infinitely new territory as it expands, serving as a spring into the past and future or possibly a third dimension. These forms were on my mind the summer of 2015 when O. and I visited Robert Smithson’s 45-year-old earthworks project, Spiral Jetty, on our way west to Nevada and ultimately the Pacific Coast. It turns out that in order to visit the piece you must first find your way to a particular point on the northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake (in our case this journey followed two beautiful days in Salt Lake City where we went one afternoon to Temple Square and noticed—because I am miserably? mercifully? shamefully? physically incapable of not noticing these sorts of dynamics anymore—that as we wandered the majestic halls of the museum, a museum which culminates at the top of a spiral incline in a striking bright white talking-Jesus, that while all of the tour guides were very lovely, very young women it appeared as if the entire population of current profits, whom we encountered in a series of gold-framed professional headshots at the end of one exhibit, were elderly white men with white hair and striped ties and although I find the comparatively contemporary origins of the religion and the—oft repeated by the young women we passed—belief that according to the gospel a Mormon family will be together forever in the celestial kingdom deeply enchanting I am no longer—at this age?—able to be enthralled in such a way or to accept the seemingly obvious though under-appreciated reality that there is no adequate role for women in most organized religions, that their mythologies, hierarchies, and power structures are firmly and transparently sexist, that the patriarchy is real, and that religion is one of the many mighty enemies of feminism…) and then follow the signs to the Golden Spike National Historic Site where the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869 creating a transcontinental route that reduced coast-to-coast travel times in the United States from several months to less than a week. Once past the visitor’s center, complete with replica steam-fueled locomotives and scheduled reenactments of “the driving of the last spike,” you can proceed by weaving along an arid gravel path past old oil jetties, past salt flats, past dust billows, past cattle guards and barbwire fences, past blackbrush and desert sage, past waterfowl, past hovering shorebirds and into swarms of crickets and iridescent insects all the while negotiating sharp bends under silver clouds for something like ten miles until reaching a clearing and Spiral Jetty. Everything looked bleached to us although the marble plaque that looms just above the bluff, a recent Eagle Scout project, will tell you that “Spiral Jetty is now largely white against pink due to salt encrustation,” and according to the official DIA website one is only able to see the piece during those months when water levels are low enough, a detail O. had thought to check before we left the hotel room. We scrambled down a tapered trail through loose stones and weeds to where the rocks stretch out levitating above sparkling salt flats. The day was hot. A small tour bus of retirees got out behind us and poked their way down the path, openly baffled by the minimalism. It is challenging to clarify how a gigantic pile of designed rubble is so affecting but perhaps, I thought as we walked the edges, it had to do with the way the jetty indicates perpetuity while concurrently forecasting its own inevitable decay among the wild wind and weather of rural Utah. Smithson (who was born in New Jersey and whose childhood doctor, it turns out, was William Carlos Williams) discussed in interviews his interest in the idea of entropy, or “energy-drain,” saying that it “contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view,” and that “it’s a condition that’s irreversible… a condition that’s moving towards a gradual equilibrium,” that equilibrium being for Smithson the sweeping sameness of the charred post-apocalyptic universe, making even those shapes that have eternal potential most authentic when forsaken to their own known natural finale. In the late 1960s when Smithson was searching for an ideal site-nonsite on which to make new work he was struck by the Great Salt Lake, the fourth largest “terminal” lake in the world (meaning there is no outgoing water flow), which looked to him like “the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence.” This kind of manic, menacing vision of the end of the world arose throughout Smithson’s notes and at another point he says: “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through the lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks. My sight was saturated by the color of red algae circulating in the heart of the lake, pumping into ruby currents, no they were veins and arteries sucking up the obscure sediments. My eyes became combustion chambers churning orbs of blood blazing by the light of the sun. . . Perception was heaving, the stomach turning. I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me. . . Surely, the storm clouds massing would turn into a rain of blood.” The morning I saw Spiral Jetty—under a scorching sun which illuminated the iridescent salt-sand crystals in such a way as to evoke an ice-scape (“ice ages exist, ice ages exist”)
instead of reflecting the record-breaking heat wave that had ignited fires up and down the parks and forests of the west coast—it was easy to imagine how Smithson could have entertained such a hallucination in this location. I would recall Smithson’s vision later in the summer after reading an article by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker describing the pending peril of a fault line (the Cascadia subduction zone) predicted to shift under Oregon and Washington creating the most massive catastrophic natural disaster the United States has never seen (“When the Cascadia earthquake begins,” Schulz writes, “there will be… a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive.”) It is thought that when the tectonic plates move there will be only moments before houses slide off their foundations, buildings collapse, and much of whole cities’ infrastructures crumble to the ground; only the animals will know what sort of terror is to beset them, as well as, of course, all those who have cautioned us. But that day, as I stared at Smithson’s spiral of stones, stones which appeared more and more like an ominous warning from generations past, as I paced the ash-colored ground and watched our little dog do a dance when his paws got hot, I vaguely remembered, as perhaps others more definitively do, the childhood fear that one day an (animated? what cartoon does this image come from?) snake with evil powers would confront me with his gigantic pupils spinning around and around and around and around and around at increasing speeds until, if I wasn’t vigilant, I would stare deep enough or long enough at the whirling optical coils that my body would become locked in the inescapable prison of hypnotism, losing any future autonomy. Perhaps this cartoon snake was meant to demonstrate the ways in which staring is dangerous or more probably, I realize now, to express the threat of a stranger’s spellbinding suggestion. Hypnotism,
often invoked by a spiral, was once upon a time thought to censor one’s memory of the experience, hence the well-known scene in which any ordinary citizen called to the stage can be made to cluck or squawk like a chicken (chickens being the perfect animal to imitate as they are legitimately captivated by a line in the dirt) without any knowledge of having done so. There is the famous case of Dr. Franz Mesmer, an early proponent of psychological suggestion from whom the term “mesmerize” arrives, who in the 1770s transformed hypnotism from an occult practice to a “science” and apparently cured via cutting-edge hypnotic techniques the blindness of a young concert pianist, Mille Paradies. According to one source I read on the subject, when Mille’s parents arrived to collect the girl she didn’t wish to go home and a familial spectacle ensued: Mille’s mother slapped the girl, Mesmer defended her, and Mille’s father drew a sword in an attempt to retrieve his daughter; the incident apparently caused quite a scandal and is responsible for the ruin of Mesmer’s so-called medical reputation as well as the return of Mille’s blindness. It isn’t difficult, I’m afraid, when wading through 18th century medical testimony to grow distracted by the gendered aspects of early therapeutic dynamics as every case seems to include a “professional” male doctor practicing his theories on a vulnerable or unwilling female patient (see also: Freud’s Dora, etc.). We can only imagine the courage it must have taken to submit to these seemingly random early psychological examinations intended to expose one’s deepest fears or wrench repressed memories to the surface for expert inspection. Contemporary hypnosis, on the other hand, concentrates on states of consciousness closer to what I think of as meditation but is still intended to restructure a patient’s approach to reality. To be hypnotized is to be captured or caught, to be trapped under the (hopefully charitable) govern of another and it would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal of an outside force gently nudging one’s desires forward. With this in mind I attempted one afternoon after we had reached our final destination, O.’s childhood home of Port Townsend, to follow an instructional video I found on YouTube promising to teach the art of self-hypnotization; the video began by asking the listener to take three long slow soothing breaths which I did self-consciously as a mellow-toned man with the voice of a villain murmured “In this sweet mindless bliss… focus on my words and my words only… breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out…” and I tried to release any lingering tension accordingly. As someone untrained in meditation, terrible at relaxing, and generally resistant to authority it is not surprising that I made a dreadful subject for this sort of experiment despite a professed desire for experiential research. I followed the instructions exactly but ultimately failed to feel as altered as I had hoped. Perhaps it’s true that after staring long enough at the black and white spiral on the screen I felt a bit sleepy? Or possibly I was already too comfortable with the admonishing tones of my own internal counsel to succumb to suggestion? Should I get pregnant? The strangest part of that trip to Copenhagen, I remembered, as I took several more deep breaths and set my gaze on the video’s tacky spinning wheel, had occurred that very first night as we stumbled into the wet lilac light of dawn in the direction of the second “superior” dive bar and the young man I had just met, along with his friends, paused under a streetlamp and—apropos of nothing—serenaded us with the most beautiful moving doo-wop rendition of Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” that I’d ever heard and thus we learned that our acquaintances were a well known European boy band. Although my previous experiences have taught me that one must sometimes wait for decades for a single astonishing moment I know now that occasionally, only occasionally, they will arrive at once and in quick succession. I don’t keep in touch with the soprano but I’m still friends with a friend of his on Facebook who, according to photos, seems to have recently gotten married and had an adorable baby daughter.