Birds Flutter and Pterodactyls Are Dead

Originally published in Puerto del Sol, 2012.

A Response to Robin Morrissey—tweet tweet

I’m in the kitchen drinking an iced mocha from ipsento, the coffee shop down the street. I like the caffeine and sugar together. I think I can write better this way. I’m sort of in a frenzy. Logically, I know that coming to rely on iced mochas is like saying, “I can only write in the space of many hours uninterrupted by other thoughts.” Those hours don’t exist, and my fingers are trembling. This is not an indulgence that I should continue. It’s no good for my body. I’d like to write and run up and down the steps, and I wonder if my heart might just die. And I think you’d like the coffee. It’s among the best I’ve ever had. The beans are roasted on site, and they buy directly from the farmers. The baristas go to Africa. They know the names of the Africans they buy from.

In “My Toy Interior,” Robin Morrissey writes, “There is a curious way in which writing becomes ideal form.” I’ve heard other writers say such a thing, and I’m not sure if I agree. I could start this argument by talking about the inherent problems of language. Words will always fall short, and we’ll never understand each other fully. But meaning is in the poetics, they say, and they are usually the poets. Robin is a poet. And I think, Jesus, how do I begin? I’m in a frenzy, and it isn’t because I drank too much coffee. I’m in a frenzy because finding the right words feels hopelessly impossible, and so I want to give you images like Jesus Christ, canaries, and dinosaurs, Barbie Doll shoes, lush carpets, and tiny studios in Roger’s Park, Chicago. Put them together. We’ve all read a few poems in our days. The meaning lies in the series of images. The meaning is in the sounds. If only all texts were poems and infinitely expansive…if all words cupped our joy, the jouissance of understanding the world. If only we could drink it up, those infinite meanings that multiply from the complexity of the particles of pleasure in our morning coffee. If only we were all trained in poetry.

The beginning of a friendship….

I am anxious and frenzied and frazzled. How does one begin? Should I call her? Is it too soon? Will she want to have coffee with me? Will we have a friendship? I’m getting terribly nervous. When I got my coffee, Ryan told me that a girl came into the coffee shop and he thought she was my roommate at first. When he realized she wasn’t, he said, “You look like a girl I know named Amanda.” The girl responded with a last name for Amanda and Ryan thought yes, that is the last name. “Amanda who lives with Heather,” he clarified. The girl said, “I’m on my way to Amanda’s and Heather’s right now.” I can only assume it was Robin coming over to discuss the magazine, Requited, when I was the nonfiction editor. Robin was the issue’s Guest Video Editor.

Sometimes the miniature is so tiny, it is often mistaken for something entirely different. Robin is interested in miniatures and would like the confusion to come to an end. Sometimes, when we aren’t holding our looking glasses, the miniature’s minuteness dissolves our abilities to observe its imperfections. It does indeed look perfect. But, unlike Gaston Bachelard’s comment that suggests miniaturizing is a means of possession, it is the miniature that possesses us. We are duped by its charm—you perfect little thing, you. We are wrapped around little fingers, pressed under little thumbs. But Robin walks around with her looking glass. She insists on seeing clearly.

To begin again. Near the Michigan Avenue entrance, there is a section on the lower-level of the Art Institute of Chicago Museum with an exhibit consisting of tiny miniaturized rooms. The rooms remind me of a dollhouse that my grandmother and uncle made for my sisters & me when we were quite young. The rooms were carpeted and the furniture felt extravagant. It was not furniture that anyone I knew could have afforded in real-people size. The lamps were little stained-glass replicas, and if someone were to wire the house with the smallest of outlets, the lights would go on. And my sisters and I would imagine ourselves in those lush rooms, going up and down the steps, to the attic with the player piano, and down the hallway to the room with the balcony that surely overlooked something grand. We imagined and moved about in the space so often that we wrecked the little house and it was taken away from us. I think my grandmother still has it in her spare bedroom.

Yet, the rooms in the Art Institute are even grander. It is rooms like these that Robin Morrissey writes about in her essay, “My Toy Interior,” and it is the Victorian room that I imagine when I think of the upper-class living room described in Morrissey’s play Benazir Fluttering, where Antigone is a main character. The wealthy women are opposite the stage from Antigone’s bedroom, and it seems that these are the rooms of the aristocrats, and yes, Robin, I would love to have tea with you in any of these perfect living rooms.

But as I look at the parlor that it suited for people who are 4-inches tall with my bigger adult eyes, I still find myself longing to enter, but like the desire to go to the balcony, it is the view from the window that I want most. In almost every room of the Art Institute exhibit, there is a window, and if you peer out the window, there is a landscape that offers something magnificent. One window looks out to an English Garden; another looks directly to the peaks of a Japanese mountain range, artfully painted as any landscape. Aside from the notable differences in the décor of these rooms from the Roger’s Park studio where I once lived with a window or two that looked out to the brick wall of the next building or to the bathroom in the studio across the alley, or from the space that is Robin’s Roger’s Park studio that I’ve only been to once and can’t remember any window at all, I’d like to ask my therapist what kind of deal it is, after all, that I desire to enter the beautiful but restrictive space of the rooms, only to look out to a landscape that is only a representation of a real landscape. Unfortunately, I ran out of money and can’t pay my therapist, and so yes, perhaps writing is the ideal form. It is the talking part of the talk cure, and it is the deciphering part of the therapist. Even the writer must analyze the text.

To consider Benazir Fluttering, I feel a moment of hesitation. I feel compelled to discuss the power dynamics between men and women and the structure of authority that lies between the President and a former Prime Minister. And I resist. I’m tired of talking, I’d like to say. Can we just stop and look at what is beautiful and divine? And maybe there could be something like redemption in the world. Because what I’m afraid I’ll see in any such real space is the cruelty of living. I’m tired of the violence. It pains me. I don’t want to get going on the subject because every time I get going on the subject, I get worked up. I start talking about the fact that I know more women who have been raped and sexually assaulted than women who haven’t. I get angry. Women have a right to be angry, I say. And quite frankly, I’m furious that women do not have Constitutional equal rights. I’m furious that my students tell me that “femi-nazis” just want to have abortions and that it isn’t like the olden days. I’m furious that date rape is common among these very same students. I’m heartbroken, and I’d like to sequester myself in that pristine place where I can imagine a world and a landscape that is nothing but exquisite and devoid of the fullness of reality. Of course, I realize that Barbie’s pink shoes that Robin considers fetishizing would surely hurt my feet.

On Wednesday, September 30, 2009, Robin and I went to the Nicole Gallery in Chicago to see the miniature sculptures of Willard Wigan in an exhibit called “Art in the Eye of the Needle.” Wigan was at the gallery.

The sculptures were microscopic and made of wire and nylon. They were placed in the eyes of needles. Without the microscope, the needles appeared to hold colorful dots. With the microscope, the needles revealed intricate scenes detailing Little Miss Muffet, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Homer and Bart Simpson. Within the graphite of a pencil, Wigan carved Mt. Rushmore, and for two small houseflies, he fashioned a wardrobe. The “male” fly wore sparkly red pants that I thought were very rock ‘n’roll. The “female” was a bit more conservative with her hat, looking as if she were ready for an outing in the country.

The images came predominately from popular culture. But Robin wanted more. She asked what his favorite kinds of images were. “Why?” she asked. Versed in theories of miniatures, the questions were complex, and the majority of them were unasked. Are we possessing the icon that is P. Diddy? Are we capturing Disney and placing it in the minute space in which it belongs? What does it mean when considering the highly interiorized space such as the eye of the needle that is already associated with domesticity, another domain of the interior?

“I miniaturize things,” Wigan said and clearly expressed that he hoped to inspire children.

“I felt invisible as a child,” he said, exemplifying Gillian Brown’s comments that Morrissey quotes in “My Toy Interior.”

[T]he miniature perfects the experience it so carefully reproduces… (an) idealized form of the miniature then articulates as it exemplifies […] a sense of individual interiority as separate from and superior to the world. (Brown, qtd in Morrissey, “My Toy Interior”)

“My mother said, ‘The smaller you make it, the bigger you’ll be,’” he said.

Wigan told us his newer work involved a split hair with a sculpture of Samson in the middle. He said he was working on The Last Supper. I wonder if his work is getting larger yet, but not in terms of size. He is entering the realm of myth. He is entering the realm of the ancient.

When Wigan described his work process, he said he often worked at night when there is less noise, less static electricity. He enters a meditative trance, slowing his breath. He finds his pulse. “I work between heartbeats,” he said.

[I am drinking more coffee, and my heart rate is high again. I’d like to say I feel the beating of my heart synching up with the clicking of the keyboard. In acts of creation, I prefer the frenzy of feeling alive.]

I think of Wigan slowing his body down. How slow can he go? How close can he get to death? How much more perfect can he make his images that seem to get smaller and smaller as he progresses?

In an article titled “Shadows and Illuminations: Spiritual Journeys to the Dark Side in ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Eyes Wide Shut,” John Neary argues that Hawthorne’s and Kubrick’s works involve characters who traverse through the darkness on spiritual journeys, though Goodman Brown’s journey in Hawthorne’s story is less complete than Bill’s in Kubrick’s film. Neary cites the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich who argues, “He who knows about depth knows about God” (Tillich, qtd in Neary, 249). Neary explains that it is important to travel through these depths, these dark spaces, to know God. But, in order to make the journey, as he points out, one must have faith. Bill must use the password fidelio to enter the ritual in Eyes Wide Shut. Unfortunately for Goodman Brown, he left his Faith, his wife, home for the evening.

And then, there is Wigan, trance-like, taking a step closer to death, entering into a depth that is removed from his body. And perhaps it is not far removed to consider Wigan at the beginning of his own spiritual journey. His images are shifting from popular icons to religious icons. I wish I would have thought to have asked him about the magic of his work. It seemed magical to me. But, like Bill in Eyes Wide Shut or Goodman Brown, Wigan certainly claimed no pleasure from the process, or depths, of his work. “I don’t like the work,” he said. “I like finishing the work.” The dark space is uncomfortable. It is a space that must be traversed, not a space in which to linger.

Another story that picks up on the travels in the darkness is T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake,” which begins with an epigraph from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Spirit in the Night.” Boyle sets up a metaphor similar to that which Neary writes about. Boyle’s story suggests that the nature of humanity is in part defined by its ability to indulge in revelry and brutality. The characters in the story are drunk and high and nearly murder a man when they get into a fight in the middle of the night at the lake where people often go to drink and indulge themselves. “This was nature,” the narrator repeats. And after the beaten man is lying unconscious on the ground, his girlfriend comes screaming out of the car, half undressed, only to find herself attacked by the narrator and his friends in an attempted rape. The rape goes unfulfilled in this instance and the characters must somehow get through the night in order to reach the morning’s sunlight, and somehow they struggle to hold together their faith in humanity and in themselves.

But there are other rapes in this story.

The narrator drives around in his mother’s car, a station wagon that is the safe haven if only he can find the lost keys, if only he can get back inside. In response to the attempted rape of the girl, a group of men symbolically beat and rape the mother’s car filling it with trash and used condoms. The safe space sitting in for the womb has been polluted.

Mother Earth herself has also been polluted. The feminine aspect of nature and the mother earth figure are set up nicely in this story with Springsteen’s night spirits invoking fairies and pagan fertility rites. The feminine landscape is littered with broken glass and beer cans. It is described as being “ravaged” and “stripped of vegetation.” The lake itself has become polluted and holds a corpse.

There is a saying that people, and men in particular, will try their whole lives to return to the womb. Freud calls it the death drive. It is the desire to know the unknowable, to move into the space that is mystery and eternal. It is the space beyond life. In “Greasy Lake,” the space of the eternal is the lake and the earth. They are the wombs that give life, and they are the graves that hold the dead. And returning to Neary’s argument about spiritual journeys, Greasy Lake itself operates as another metaphor for our understanding of the depths. This lake, known for the clarity of its water, is mucky. The only thing that is clear is that there is no clarity. The only thing we can understand about life and death and the divine is there is no understanding. As Neary argues, we’d like to speak about God, but there are no words. We are in the realm of the unspeakable, and the only thing we have is poetic discourse. The only thing we have is metaphor.

In Morrissey’s play, Antigone quotes Benazir Bhutto. She says, “I remember the two powerful influences in my life in my childhood [were] my father and my teacher in the Convent of Jesus and Mary.” Antigone says, “I remember seeing the parrot fall down dead and bleed…and I remember the parrot fluttering and I can’t bear to see blood.”

There are bleeding parrots and I’ve been writing about canaries dying in the mines in other works. I’m getting caught up in violence imposed upon delicate flighty things. The world is brutal. But, yet, songbirds exist. And there are living creatures who prune lovely plumage in jungle trees every day. They exist. And the late Jurassic pterodactyl from which they might have sprung is no longer a monster that soars the skies. It is not like the olden days. I’d like to hold onto my faith.

And so Robin, I’m struck by your fantasy living room where two women sit on couches and drink tea and laugh, and yes, let’s please have coffee or tea sometime. We can stay inside, and what is outside of our windows might not matter for the moment. In the interior room, we can turn on the lights and construct a scene with the details of our choosing. Here, a poem is made, and it sits on the cushions between you and me. There is something in the space that we have, and perhaps it can begin to make sense after all.

Works Cited
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “Greasy Lake.” Greasy Lake and Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Morrissey, Robin. Benazir Fluttering. Dir. Lavina Jadhwani. Caffeine Theater. Curated by Kristen Shook and DePaul University for DePaul’s Year of Antigone. Chicago, IL. 21 April – 3 May, 2008.

———-. “My Toy Interior.” Requited. 1.1 (2009).

Neary, John. “Shadows and Illuminations: Spiritual Journeys to the Dark Side in “Young Goodman Brown” and Eyes Wide Shut.” Religion and the Arts. 10.2 (2006): 244-270.

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