My students spend most of the day looking at me, but I will never write about them here. Sometime I might write about what they teach me. Meanwhile, I remember my high school geometry teacher. He was in his early seventies, had lived most of his life in Estonia, and looked like a guy who either would or wouldn’t let the goats cross the bridge. I say this respectfully: I thought shapes were a magic language. I spent a lot of time looking at him too. He could draw perfect circles on the blackboard. When I imagine him drawing them, his elbow is double-jointed, but in awake life I think he was just that good.
In the beginning, I felt exhausted knowing everyone was watching me all day, but now it is comforting. It is comforting for multiple reasons, but one of them is that during the year I wrote my dissertation, there were days and days when I didn’t see anyone. It got weird. When I remember that time, it’s gray and my temples ache. At school I think a lot about the scene in My So-Called Life where Angela meets with her teacher on lunch and can’t really focus on anything other than how she eats potato chips. I eat dill pickle almonds on my breaks, and orange chocolate.
The artist Gordon Matta-Clark drew a lot of circles too. He defined architecture as “making space without building it,” and so his practice involved slicing open buildings to let in spiraled light, and setting out snacks so folks could sit and talk while they thought. The way light curves into his broke-open rooms reminds me of peeling apples with a knife. “Broke Open Love,” one of my favorite Rainer Maria songs, goes “I fell enough / I took offense.” Some of Matta-Clark’s favorite words for art experiences were splitting, cutting, writing, drawing, and eating. I like him because even when I stand in front of his work I never forget that I have a body.
Another artist whose circles I like is Félix González-Torres, and by “like” I mean I feel a light in my chest. His piece “Perfect Lovers” (1987) is two clocks hung next to each other on the wall. At first they are synched, but after a while one or the other will probably jog ahead a little. This piece taught me that time is imperfect, which is okay because the piece is still about perfection. It isn’t accurate to talk about “Perfect Lovers” without naming González-Torres’s partner, who died from AIDS: Ross Laycock. Ross Laycock Ross Laycock. Another good circle piece that is also about Ross is an untitled work from 1991, the year he died. The piece is also a bunch of candy piled in a corner—the grandma purse kind, wrapped in cellophane. There are 175 pounds of it, which is how much Laycock weighed when he was diagnosed. The piece isn’t on display in Chicago right now, but when I was in graduate school at the Art Institute it was. One year on my birthday I got a fifth piercing, walked from the shop to the museum, chose lemon candy, and held it until the buzzing in my ear went away. “Perfect Lovers” and the pile of candy ghost because they echo everywhere—every dentist office clock is now half of a perfect love. Every little dish catching fluorescent light. They are different than paintings because every time I look at them, they are different and so I can’t tell whether I’m different too.
My two favorite already-finished paintings in the known universe are Joan Mitchell’s “City Landscape” (1955), which is in Chicago at the Art Institute, and Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc” (1879), which is in New York at the Met. I know these paintings are important to me and relevant to my life because I’m uncomfortable standing directly in front of them. With Joan and Joan, I stand to the side because I am still listening. Usually I hold my elbow against my stomach. My notebooks say I’ve visited them both at least once every two years since 2006, and I know that for most of this time, I bewildered myself with that routine. (Fanny Howe says bewilderment is a way of entering the day.) I visit these paintings like I visit friends for coffee or beer. Sometimes I don’t have time to do anything else in the museum but look at them. Why? Who knows. I don’t have to, today. I would like to tell you: Mitchell’s pinks make a noise and Joan’s ghosts swirl.
When circle was first a word instead of something people just made or drew or knew, it wasn’t so much a shape as it was protection: a ring, a keeping-close. Some circles in my apartment are:
- the daisies in a photograph I took of my little sister leaning into sunlight. The order is: flowers, her braids, her
- a fistful of rocks from the edge of Lake Superior. “In every part of every living thing,” wrote Lorine Niedecker, “is stuff that once was rock,” and she is not wrong
- the circle I make when I flip on the mat. Once I spun right when a bunch of birds flew by the window, and it felt like they came out of my mouth like bats from a cave
- a horse hair vase from when my friends married each other on the side of a cliff in the desert. It was sticky-hot and windy, and at the reception everyone had grit in their teeth and no more flowers in their hair. YOU HAVE ALWAYS FELT LIKE HOME TO ME, screamed the bride above the wind, and we all cried and believed in something slightly different but equally important.
Six other circles I know by heart are the rainbow ones in the short animation Philip Glass scored for Sesame Street in 1979. For most of childhood, I didn’t know Sesame Street was longer than fifteen minutes because I only ever watched it sitting next to Mom while she fed my little sister. Glass’s circles hum and spin and turn into stars. They glow because they pulse between soft and hard. In 2018, they were reprinted on a rug in a special Sesame Street episode called When You Wish Upon a Pickle, which stars a magic pickle who lives in a box. Catherine Aison drew the circles, which were approved by Edith Zornow, and after that they invited Glass to score them. I like thinking about this: the shapes were first. I like thinking about them spinning around, waiting for their music.
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