Tuesday, 14 September 2021
Wednesday, 28 April 2021
These texts are a response to travelling to Chicago for the 2003 Goat Island summer school at the School of the Art Institute. Two weeks in an American city I had never visited before, although it left its fingerprints all over my imagination. I read this text as a final presentation on the last day of the summer school, with unedited video footage of the city accompanying me on Bryan Saner’s laptop.
The presentation was prompted by certain lingering feelings from the school: by the work itself, by conversations, and by Mark Jeffery’s presentation on endings. It was also informed by the particular group of collaborators, a sense of a wider community of ‘goats’, and certain events at home while I was away. What follows is written in fragments, the ‘little by little suddenly’; it includes extracts from a number of found texts, emails, a letter, some bendings of the truth, the odd out-and-out lie. It’s an attempt to be playful in a purposeful way. It touches on displacement, connection, transformation, ephemerality, and the ways in which memory had taken (a) place for me in Chicago. It’s an attempt to re-member.
Let’s start with two poets who wrote in French. Firstly, Charles Baudelaire: ‘Countless layers of ideas, images, feelings have fallen successively on your mind as soft as light. It seems that each buries the preceding, but none has really perished’.
Secondly, Edmond Jabès: ‘There are no words for adieu’.
What is a goat? (1)
A while ago, you asked me: what is a goat? I’m not entirely sure, a goat is many things, and probably not a thing at all, more a process or an event – but here are four qualities I’ve come to suspect are at work, or at play, here:
1. A goat is a kid who has matured somewhat.
2. It is said that goats were implicated somehow at the very beginnings of theatre. The word ‘tragedy’ means something like ‘goat singing’, but I’m unclear as to whether it was the goats themselves who sang, or whether song hovered in the air around them as they munched – the good citizens of Athens bursting into song in their honour. En-chanted goats, literally. But it may well have been neither of these, maybe this is just a trick of memory …
3. Never leave a goat unattended in your garden. It will eat everything and anything, including your laundry.
4. Sometimes a goat isn’t a goat at all. It’s a bird.
A few days after my arrival, Matthew lent me a book called Chicago’s Famous Buildings: the first of a number of thoughtful generosities, exchanges and circulations. Coming from a small village in the south-west of England where tall means 6 foot 2 and the bus leaves for town on Tuesdays, it was with some wide-eyed bewilderment that I read pioneering architect Louis Sullivan’s account of the chief characteristic of the tall building: its loftiness.
‘Loftiness is the very organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in the architect’s expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line …’
By this point, there was some excitant in my own imagination, and I felt the urge to experience loftiness such as this, within which every inch of it was tall. Feeling relatively brave, I chose the second tallest building in the city. My ears popped in the elevator on the way up. Then, from an open platform called ‘the skywalk’, I surveyed the city. I saw a man floating alone in a pool on top of a high-rise building. I saw a peregrine falcon riding the thermals, spiraling still as a stone above Michigan Avenue. I saw many things from up there.
And here’s some of what I didn’t see but might have seen from up there. I didn’t see but might have seen a lot of things from up there.
A young woman rocking backwards and forwards in the subway, singing the spiritual ‘Silver and Gold’.
Spray can marks on a railway-line wall that read: ‘Chica, estas fuerte!’
A man in a leather jacket carried inches above the sidewalk by a silver heart-shaped balloon.
Isabella Rossellini at Virgin Records, she’s just bought a Björk DVD.
Two guys locked in conversation, passing an old man begging, and not hearing his plea: ‘But I voted Republican!’
A white T-shirt with the Innuit word in black: QUINUITUQ.
A black dog chasing a white plastic bag.
A man trying to inhale the world.
John Dillinger reading the sports section of a newspaper before heading on to the Biograph movie theatre.
Two cigarettes in the ashtray.
An old man with a very long beard, playing ‘Yesterday’ on a saw.
A girl with a box bearing the words: ‘Kit for paddling through stars floating on a lake’.
A man with a fire in his head.
A neon sign that reads LET’S DANCE, only the final E is missing.
A man barely able to stand up after breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. The waitress clears away his half-finished meal, and asks him: ‘Would you like the complementary ice cream?’
Indiana Jones at the Oriental Institute.
A man at dawn whispering to the lake through a megaphone: ‘The air is filled with the moves of you’, he says.
A woman who cooks curries that make her friends hallucinate.
A man whistling and sawing away at the branch he’s sitting on.
The smell of chocolate hanging heavy in the air over the river.
A man on a cellphone in a hotel lobby: ‘We are all Americans at puberty’, he explains, ‘we die French’.
A woman who keeps valium in her sugar tin.
A jetlagged man who wakes at 4.33 a.m. precisely, sees the time and thinks he’s at a performance – or perhaps is one.
An old man directing the traffic with his stick.
Two nuns on a pedalo in the lake.
A woman wearing a necklace made out of pistachio shells.
A runaway horse skidding through the suburban mall.
The way she laughed.
‘There is no place not the reflection of another. It is the reflected place we must discover. The place within the place’ (Edmond Jabès).
As I walk at ground level, Chicago triggers memories, although I’ve never been here before. ‘Like those birds that lay their eggs in other species’ nests, memory produces in a place that does not belong to it’ (Michel de Certeau). Memory as cuckoo.
I walk and walk, and try to arrive, and one day something arrives at me. A feather floats down from a lofty building and lands in front of me …
Then I see that there are others falling out of the sky, a slow silent downpour.
‘FEATHER’: from a Greek root meaning ‘wing’
· appendage, plumage, display, decoration, mark of honour, badge of a fool, emblem of cowardice (a white feather in a game bird’s tail is a mark of inferior breeding): a commodity (‘to feather one’s nest’): a tuft of hair on humans and horses
· a very small part of anything, almost weightless, of little strength or importance: lightness, discretion, secrecy, flimsiness, a trifle
· weaponry (arrows), ballistics: to pierce or wound (‘to bury an arrow to the feather’)
· a blemish, flaw, imperfection having a feather-like appearance (in an eye, or a precious stone)
· hunting: quivering movement of a hound’s tail and body while searching for the trail
· related to wealth, health, weather (‘in fine or high feather’)
· in writing, a quill: usually a swan or goose
I remember Italo Calvino: ‘For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, the goddess of scales. The hieroglyph for Maat also stood for a unit of length – the 33 cms of the standard brick – and for the fundamental note of the flute’ (Six Memos for the Next Millennium).
Questions for psychics (1)
Now and now and now
Some years ago, we met in London and she took me to see a German film, Himmeln über Berlin (‘Wings of Desire’). Broadly, it’s about angels hovering around the city of Berlin before the fall of the wall. They are able to hear and see everything in people’s embodied lives, to record but barely able to intervene. One of the angels is frustrated by his detachment from the world of the material, the temporal, the human. He yearns to be able to say, ‘’Now and now and now’, and no longer ‘since always’ and forever’’. He longs to be weighted, gravitied, attached to the earth. In one sequence, he comes across a man who has just been knocked off his motorcycle by a Mercedes; the man is badly injured and in shock. The angel comforts and calms him through a whispered list planted in the man’s consciousness: an orienting list of particular places and things the man has loved, a map of coordinates and phenomena and everyday fragilities. After a few words, the man’s voice picks up the list, they are now his own thoughts, and the angel walks slowly away listening to him whisper these words:
‘The fire on the cattle range. The potato in the ashes. The boathouse floating in the lake. The Southern Cross. The Far East. The Great North. The Wild West. The Great Bear Lake. Tristan da Cunha. The Mississippi Delta. Stromboli. The old houses of Charlottenburg. Albert Camus. The morning light. The child’s eyes. The swim in the waterfall. The stains from the first raindrops. The sun. The bread and wine. Hopping. Easter. The veins of the leaves. The colour of stones. The pebbles on the stream bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of a house inside the house. The loved one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sunday. The horizon. The light from the room shining in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands. The beautiful stranger. My father. My mother. My wife. My child …’
My favorite place (luck days)
Every day when I go and check my email, I find a text from someone who has been working on the same computer, a Korean woman studying English in Chicago. I have come to think that her words are left there deliberately, as messages for me. This is what she left for me yesterday:
‘My Favorite Place. Ka Mir Park, Jul. 4, 2003
One of my favorite pace is empty swimming pool. I used to go to swimming pool in the morning. Some luck days, there where no people in the swimming pool except me. When I swam alone, the feeling was really gorgeous. The surface of water looked really peaceful. The feeling that when I divided the calm surface of the water, I cannot expression by word. Just I cat say that I love it so much. And I do not have to worry about next me, it made me relief. Some time, there are many people in a swimming pool I have to hurry up even I stay in short of breath. When I depressed I saw the dull, it makes myfelling much better. That lucky days, I spent hole day in good mood from the feeling of swimming pool’.
What is a goat? (2)
In Michel Tournier’s novel Friday, Andoar was born on a tropical island, the very same island on which Robinson Crusoe was stranded – and although Andoar ended up as a kite, he was of mixed human/goat heritage. The human side comes from Friday, whose own ancestors (we are told) were probably coastal Indians from the central part of Chile. Friday was playful, light, solar; he greeted everything with laughter, not a naïve laughter but one that emerged from a sophisticated form of acceptance. In his eyes, there is always ‘a hint of derision, a touch of mockery defeated by the drollery of everything he sees’. Friday was aerial: for example, he had a passion for shooting arrows to see how far and long they could fly. As for the goat side of the mix, we know that Andoar’s other parent was a powerful and fearless goat with startling green eyes and a terrible smell which, we are told, could be detected from a great distance.
But to understand Andoar, you have to know not only the elements of his hybrid crossing, but also the miraculous circumstances of his birth. After several combative encounters between Friday and the goat, they engage in a great final contest. At the end of it, entwined in each other’s bodies, they tumble over a cliff and emerge as a new composite creature. Andoar (and/or) consists of the man formerly known as Friday, now thoroughly impregnated with eau de goat and sporting an aerial accessory – the old goat’s skin, now scraped, cured and polished, is attached to a frame of twigs and connected by a vine to the old Friday’s ankle. Andoar spends his days ‘battling with the tricks of the wind, diving to its sudden gusts, turning when it veered, sinking when it slackened, and in a soaring bound regaining the altitude it had lost’, as the more terrestrial parts of his body and its awkward shadow dance alongside on the sand.
Tournier’s novel as a whole is a tale of how to become solar, ‘an angel of helium’. And I am drawn to Andoar because of his talent for boundless flight, for lightness and mobility, while retaining some contact with the ground. Andoar activates the wish to fly, to extend the limits of one’s current embodiment; to escape the confines of biography, culture, training; to expand the horizon of the conceivable. Andoar’s mobility activates a desire for what Tournier calls ’something else’. He offers encouragement for the space to become otherwise. For the exercising of faculties. For playing around. For shuffling the deck. For changing places. For messing with things. For responding to shifts outside and in. For keeping one’s foot in contact with one’s shadow on the ground …
Encounters and crossings bring new things into being. A goat-man-kite becoming.
Opposite my apartment on State Street, just underneath a sign for Ossama’s Hair Designs, there’s a vacant storefront. Above the windows in gold letters: ‘Incomparable Quality’ – ‘Impeccable Fashions’ – ‘Exclusive Styles’. In two neighboring windows, two life-sized casts of human bodies – a naked man and a naked woman, lying down on their backs beside each other. Asleep. Or dead, maybe. Each body is caked with earth, and inlaid from head to toe with thousands of grass seedlings. In this piece (‘Specific natures: a living installation’) and other work by the two British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, the grass grows to the point of its natural depletion, then withers and dies. On my first day in Chicago, the specific form of each body was visible, the grass no more than stubble length: a beginning. By this morning, all distinguishing features have been blurred and concealed by the grass. They are now generic bodies, ungendered, turfed outlines.
I imagine two goats grazing in the vacant storefront on State Street, quietly discussing their meal, ignoring the traffic, the passersby. ‘Mmmmmhhmmm, this grass is incomparable, impeccable. How’s yours, gonzo?’ ‘Exclusivo, compadre. Hey hey, ain’t this the life’. I imagine the grass spreading gradually out of the storefront, across the sidewalk, making its way oh so slowly up something really very lofty … grass that is every inch a proud and soaring thing …
How deep in your mouth (laughtears)
I loved it when she laughed. It was like discovering a tree was still alive, although it had no leaves because it was winter.
At her 21st birthday party, she laughed as if laughing was the joke, and the joke was spinning the world around faster and faster so that only the joke held and didn’t get dizzy, it just threw off light and flecks of laughter and grains of sugar and with its head back swallowed vino spumante, and played with the bubbles and gave them to her friends with a kiss when they joined in her laughter.
We were partners for about two years when we were undergraduates. I studied French, she studied German. We have been friends for almost a quarter of a century. Then a year ago, she became ill. Last Thursday I dedicated my talk about animals to her. She was the person who told me that Kafka called his cough ‘the animal’. Earlier this week on Monday morning, this email from her sister fell out of the sky and landed in front of me in Chicago. A breathturn.
Jane finally died at 1.15 this morning. She had spent the previous couple of days in a coma and was very peaceful. Whilst we are devastated at losing her, we are all relieved that her suffering is over. She has been so incredibly brave over the last 13 months, but has had to put up with more than any one person should have to bear.
I got your email yesterday evening, having been in the hospice for the past few days and nights, and fortunately I spoke to Kate who was there last night and made sure that she whispered your message into Jane’s ear. I believe she could hear us right up until the end, and we have been reading and chatting to her for the last few days. I like to think that she heard your message.
I will let you know what the funeral arrangements are once they are organized – I don’t expect you to fly back, but I am sure that you will want to think of her at that time and maybe mark it in your own way.
Much love, C x
A few months ago, in late spring, I sent Jane the following text from a section called ‘Our Cancer’ in Matthew Goulish’s book (Matthew is quoting Odysseas Elytis); Bryan Saner spoke a version of this text at the end of Goat Island’s The Sea and Poison:
‘I felt abandoned by everything. A great sorrow fell upon my soul. I walked across the fields without salvation. I pulled a branch from some unknown bush, broke it, and brought it to my upper lip. I understood immediately that all people are innocent. We walk thousands of years. We call the sky ‘sky’ and the sea ‘sea’. All things will change one day, and we too with them’.
I mentioned the goats, told her about coming to Chicago for the summer school. Some days later, she phoned me with a question: ‘What is a goat?’
I loved it when she laughed.
Questions for psychics (2)
I try Jeanina three more times. Always the answerphone, never anyone there to respond. As my questions remain unanswered, I figure I still have one free question each time I call.
Here are my questions:
1. ‘Jeanina – I want to be milked from the udders of a cow. I want a pine tree to grow inside me. I want to hang by my fingertips between the tops of two mountains … And you?’
2. ‘Hi Jeanina, me again … what if I just suck?’
3. ‘How do you say goodbye?’
The only dream worth having
There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors whom I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less ‘successful’ in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.
The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.
Which means exactly what?
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated nor complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never to forget.
What is a goat? (3)
Before I left, you asked me: what is a goat? I’m not entirely sure, a goat is many things, and probably not a thing at all, more a process or an event, but here are some qualities I’ve come to believe or suspect are at work, or at play, here:
A goat is the mystery of an encounter.
A goat is responsibility in the face-to-face.
A goat is connection and exchange.
A goat is attentiveness, exactitude/imprecision, interruption, contradiction, invitation, possibility, small miracle, crossing, overflowing.
A goat is a widening of wishes.
A goat is loftiness in small things.
A goat is an active vanishing.
A goat is the arrival of memory.
A goat is a letter to the dead, and a letter to the future.
A goat is a sensuality accomplice for the one that is one of a kind.
A goat is a breathturn.
Goat is also a verb: to goat. To goat is to be light (embodied, gravitied light – light as a bird, not light as a feather: Paul Valéry). To goat is to hold on tightly and let go lightly. To goat is to fall into the open, to fly a little with one’s foot touching one’s shadow – a shaggy, raveled thing – on the ground. To goat is to give the gift that gives.
To goat is to graze.
To goat is to laugh.
To goat is to whisper.
To goat is to listen.
Chicago, SAIC, 25 July 2003. Includes texts from Italo Calvino (Six Memos for the Next Millennium), Peter Handke/Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), Jane Bennett (The Enchantment of Modern Life), Matthew Goulish (39 Microlectures in proximity of performance), John Berger (To the Wedding), Arundhati Roy (The End of Imagination), Charles Baudelaire. Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan, Roland Barthes, Alfonso Lingis, James Joyce, Deborah Levy, Ka Mir Park.
Wednesday, 7 April 2021
When I last saw G, my neighbour in Western Australia, he was in his early eighties. A delightful, sensitive man who had once been an engineer. We used to chat at length over the fence or out walking with our two dogs. For over forty years, G had been caring for his bed-bound partner A; she had a rare brittle-bone condition so extreme it meant that even a sneeze could result in a broken rib. Sometimes we had tea with A around her bed; she was both fragile and extraordinarily radiant. Out with the dogs, over time G revealed his frustration and exhaustion. After so many years the imperative to care for A, the push-pull of having to meet her every need and demand, had ground him down. He loved A but wanted her to let go now, to slip away; it was time, he said, while there was still time. Sometimes, despite himself, the weight of his tiredness manifested as irritation or even anger towards A, and he felt crippling guilt for not always being up to giving away his life for another.
G had an escape, and perhaps, he said, it was now ‘the love of his life’. Once a week for a few hours he would go gliding by himself, and whenever he talked about it, he was utterly transformed, lit up. The sheer joy of riding invisible thermals, the miracle of soaring and hovering, the wedge-tailed eagles. The silence, adrift in skyspace with the world laid out far below like ‘a beautiful old faded carpet’ (his words). Freed, for a moment, from gravity and care, while A lay immobilised by her illness on her bed, as light as a bird. When he came home afterwards, he said, he was troubled about whether it was okay to feel such pleasure. I told him I felt sure it was, more than okay. He invited me to come gliding with him. But then A died, and for months G was bereft. Grounded.
Extract from ‘Diffractions: record of a passage’, an afterword for the forthcoming collection edited by Karen Christopher & Mary Paterson, Entanglement: duet as form and practice, Intellect Books, to be published in August 2021. Image from www.aerospaceweb.org, 'Birds, thermals & soaring flight'