Dying Art

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The Burghers of Calais

I’m preoccupied with scale and wanting a complete one. If my creative work can be encapsulated, it’s a manifest frustration with the capsule that contains it, and me—holding it local. The writing that most often attracts me enacts this same unavailing need to see from the inside and outside of everything at once. Poet and playwright Darcie Dennigan’s work evinces this scale problem perfectly. Darcie is a good friend of mine. We both live and write in Providence and we each have two little kids, which, right there, gives us a lot in common that we most often choose not to talk about. But we do both write about it—motherhood and its (I’m going to be honest) small joys and huge sorrows, and the effect it has on the very writing we’re writing about it.

Darcie’s most recent book, Palace of Subatomic Bliss (Canarium, 2016) is an absurdist treatment of the most niggling exigencies of our shared realm of existence—work, marriage, leaks, dust and the minutiae of mothering—with which she offsets and/or metonymizes bigger fare: death, art and ecological disaster. The wild swings in scale that accommodating all of that necessitates are dizzying and weirdly evocative of the most droning parts of living, as on any given day I worry about refugees and running out of milk and my kids’ academic performance and the dog’s ringworm and polar bears and thank-you notes, all against a backdrop of guilt at lumping these. One centerpiece of Darcie’s book is an absurdist anti-treatise on absurdist treatises that asks whether women can be absurdists, i.e., might we pull off the detached gravity of a Camus or the archness of a Daniil Kharms while in the throes of literally enabling the existence of other people. But realism is only opposite the absurd if made to appear that way.

Another would-be opposite of the absurd is memoir—even, perhaps especially, a fictionalized one. In Book Two of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard writes,

Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought, this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand … All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs, and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news, and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference what they told had actually happened or not … [T]he nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same.

A fictionalized memoir displays memory as totally verisimilitudinous and totally unreliable. The absurd enacts a non-non-verisimilitude—double-negatively undoing reality into itself, like a durational Rube-Goldberg setup that generates a momentary flicker of truth.

I am taken with stories of artists dying in the service, or the actual making, of their art—Robert Smithson’s plane crash while surveying sites for an earthwork, Eva Hesse’s fume-induced brain tumor. It is already my privilege to die while writing, if not of it. I wonder, though: does writing fill me with or empty me of words? Am I moving toward something or excising it? It’s a truism that truth is expressed in the fewest words, which my life-shaped logorrhea either verifies or disproves. In a 2014 Vogue interview Elena Ferrante said, “…writing, for me, is above all a battle to avoid lying. If it seems to me not that I’ve won but that I’ve fought with all my strength, I decide to publish.” Without understanding either the nature of the truth or the tenor of my lies, that feels right to me.

On January 21st, thirty-three-year-old Providence writer, artist, and activist Mark Baumer was hit and killed by a car while walking across the US barefoot to raise money for an organization combating climate change, a journey which he documented in absurdly dark and funny videos that my kids and I watched together. In a piece of writing called “Science Animal,” he once wrote, “An isolated element in the process of science looked at the process of science and thought, ‘Why?’ The process of science looked at the isolated element and thought, ‘I don’t know.’” It hurts to say, but Mark would have appreciated his cause of death.

The other centerpiece of Darcie’s book is a play called Dandelion Farm, which concerns the death of German choreographer Pina Bausch. I worked with Darcie to stage a production of it last year. Toward the end, there’s a monologue that Mark delivered in his customary deadpan, narrating a crowd of sunbathers marching around a fake lawn with Pina held over their heads, together repeating the refrain that suffuses the play, “Sorry you have to go so soon. Sorry you have to go so soon.”

Truth is to memory is to writing is to what I’d like to leave you with:

a) “being” both noun and verb is absurd, and

2) a double positive is the same as itself.