Impasto layers scraped from knives, smeared by fingers, smashed around in organized chaos. Primary colors – blues, reds, canary yellows – undulate like a boa, constricted across the canvas. A brush lies dormant, unused in a splattered jar in the East Hampton studio of Jackson Pollock. He prefers the squeeze of the hand, directly from the tube.
Embedded behind the colors, trapped beneath their cheery hue is the epic battle of light and dark; stuck, submerged beneath the dried crust. The work is demonic, laughing, a high-pitched cackle emitted from the top of the throat, pounding against the roof of the mouth, metallic.
And in that crust, you see an oblique eye, a reaching hand, bodies anatomized, dissected, desiccated. It is a figure overflowing, bloated in the heat, bursting at the seams, dreaming of absolute zero, of Life immense in passion, pulse and power – jagged, sharp, shredded by nothingness and totality, longing for the moment before the blues, before the reds, before the canary yellows, before the knives, the fingers, the chaos of the battle, before light and dark, when the canvas was blank, the jar unsplattered, and the thought unthought.
On the fourth floor of Rutherford library, between the parallel stacks and the crisp pages of an oversized folio is a fading reproduction of Gericault’s Truncated Limbs. Arms and legs, severed at the shoulders and knees, fold over one another without weight. The fingers curl, gentle against the angular shadows of a harsh unseen light – depth and form.
This is a study, practice for a bigger picture – more bodies, more limbs, bloated corpses elucidated against the bleak background of an unforgiving ocean. The Raft of Medusa – a make-shift vessel carrying shipwrecked settlers in search of Senegal, an image of inhumane humanity forged from thirteen days at sea, fifteen castaways left, the rest brutalized, cannibalized, their flesh hanging from the mast.
I close the thick folio, the musty church-scent of the long-unopened book settling on my pores, a gritty dust caught in the ridges of my fingerprints. I carry the book to a small table near a window for study. It is a quiet floor, tomb-like.
Sometimes it takes only a small cough or a sharply inhaled breath or the cracking of a book spine. Most times, it’s easy to think that the rest of the world has vanished, that the cities are empty, that the skyscrapers are slowly being retaken by the soil while the whole of history unfolds on the page before me.
Outside the window is a wintery Albertan landscape of pine trees bent under the weight of heavy snow. Bare elm arms reach for the seamless azure with branches that are home to hearty magpies for a moment or two. The grass is drab, buried beneath a fondant of frozen ice, untouched, save for the slurred tracks of a hopping rabbit.
Though the scene is innocent enough – with scholars bustling on trodden paths and squirrels racing like brown bullets across the ice – the snow creates anxiety in my mind and heaviness in my heart. Its whiteness is paralleled only by the infamous whale hunted by the Pequod on the high seas.
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in the marbles, japonicas and pearls, and though whiteness has been even made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power, for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet and honorable and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. It is not the whiteness of the whale or the ghost or the squall that imbibes me with terror: rather it is that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs me from behind with the thought of annihilation.
It is a particularly bright day and the sunlight explodes across the scene. The snow radiates like gold dust, deceiving, lulls my mind with its refraction, reflects the memories of my hand in a warm spring grass or my feet scattering the leaves of autumn. My mind is made gullible by the artificial fluorescents that illuminate the hundreds of words I read to escape the cold. It is a sharp hue that doesn’t give, it only takes: takes time, takes sleep, takes the night.
In the few moments I spend outside, whether from home to bus, or bus to library, the whiteness asserts itself, is all-consuming, brings images of instant icicles forming in my lungs, brings the slow crush of stagnancy to my limbs.
It is not just the body that is bundled away and hidden from the air. Much worse is the imprisonment of the mind. Locked away in libraries, or coffee shops, my mind can find solace only in the company of other minds, equally trapped in the basic need to stay inside and stay warm. The urge to flee, get in the car, get on a plane, get out of here is always present. I dream of European and American cities with museums and art and sunlight and people – passionate people who care enough to shape cities around paintings and talk about music and create whole schools of thought. I dream of architecture and cobblestone and anything but the cold, ice-covered concrete that threatens against my every timid step.
I crack open the Gericault folio to the large print of The Raft. The reproduction is a fraction of the original’s size, hanging in the French painting section of the Louvre, dominating the hall with its five by seven meter frame. Bodies defined by chiaroscuro crescendo from emaciated ribcages and ruined cadavers to a muscular African back, waving an arm for salvation, the flesh of his acquaintances in his stomach, the cruelty of the fates yet to bring down his shoulders. I saw all of these things: all these things – all the meanness and agony without end I stood in front of, looked out upon, saw, heard, was silent.
It was Paris. Paris in all its splendor and squalor. Paris of La Tour Eiffel, Notre-Dame, the Champs-Elysées. Paris of porn shops, burlesques, and one-Euro peep shows. Paris, where lilacs permeate the city in the spring, only to be mixed in the noses of Metro passengers with the unmistakable stench of piss. Paris of contradictions and complexities: a living, breathing organism that devours personalities whole.
In Paris, I was anonymous, the city indifferent to my existence. But the poor souls, with whom I shared the cobbled streets, saw me. The men leered on street corners, in alleyways, from the unclean windows of cafes. They smiled when they heard my voice, added weight to their ‘R’s, rolled their tongues, always asked if I was in Paris for romance. This was the Paris of tiny dogs yipping in restaurants, the Paris of the perfect cappuccino, the Paris of shoe stores where I bought six pairs just so the clerk would touch my ankle the way he did.
It was also the Paris of the Louvre, standing stoic, saturated in its history of kings, emperors and art, reveling in its shameless cliché of old and new colliding. A collection that spans centuries: the stark juxtaposition of Egyptian antiquities, of Eugene Delacroix, of Perrault facades and the glass pyramidal entrance.
I wandered around the Jardin des Tuileries for a half-hour naively looking for a front door, standing out in my bright yellow sweater like a canary in the coal mine of Parisian rain. I was approached by a man, the type I’d take home in Canada: fifty-five years old, salt and pepper hair, slight frame and thin face. He wore a raincoat and pointed Italian-leather shoes with a heel that clicked against the wet ground. His name was Maurice, and after he discovered that I could barely feign French, he placed a warm arm over my shoulder and led me in the direction of the pyramid.
The landscape of Paris is proudly adorned with Egyptian architecture. Looted obelisks punctuate the Jardin and Place de la Concorde, where heads rolled from the dull blade of a smiling guillotine. Their phallic structure is mimed across the city at the Place Vendome commemorating Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, at the Place de la Bastille in recognition of the once-infamous prison, and at the point where Maurice pressed his swollen crotch against my leg while dragging me to the covered forest of the Tuileries. His hands viced my face in place. His tongue feathered in and out of my gaping mouth. Before I could wrench myself free, he breathed hotly across my forehead, scanned my features, ran his satin hands through my hair, drank my body in for later.
I started walking, fast, turning back to see him waving as I spiraled down the Louvre staircase.
The accented voice of my French tour guide flowed through the rented headphones. I imagined her to be dressed as a flight attendant, chestnut hair pulled tightly in a bun, cadmium scarf casting a rosy glow on her cheeks.
“Gericault’s Raft was the star of the Salon of 1819. Critics were divided: the horror of the subject exercised fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a pile of corpses. After its exhibition at the Salon and subsequent showing at the Egyptian Hall of London, the image was forever etched in copper on Gericault’s grave.”
Her voice faded. I lost myself in the orgy of reaching bodies.
The train speeds through the tunnels — the digestive tract below the behemoth of a city. Volontaires, Concorde, Avenue Emile Zola. One station has random arrays of letters in marble tiles from floor to ceiling. While waiting for the train, among men in turtlenecks carrying briefcases, I pick out some words here and there. Another station is plastered over with ads of old men straddled by young models selling bananas and cantaloupes for the local Monoprix. The station Abbesses is a decomposition of improvised, underground jazz. The walls are gray and brown with ripped posters, soiled by an imperceptible wet dust. The concrete platforms hold onto the soles of shoes for a moment too long, echoes of sticky suction reverberating down the tracks. The only way out of that place is to climb 136 steps in a narrow, spiraling staircase, layered with the sweat of the city and underground art stolen in dark moments. The rhythms of Paris’s forgotten populations are sprayed and splattered on the walls like the excrement that decorates the steps.
I emerged from the underground into a quiet neighbourhood of the 20th arrondisment, an 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass in the pocket of my red trench coat. The guidebook said that this was a good place to enter Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise. It’s at the top of the hill overlooking the graves and near the Epstein-sculpted headstone of Oscar Wilde. The concrete block is dominated by a flying Egyptian nude, almost irrelevant beneath the thousands of oily lip-prints kissed upon it.
More than halfway across the cemetery, through the snaking dirt paths, dwarfed on each side by the cobblestone streets, The Raft on Gericault’s grave is obscured by the overgrown branches of surrounding trees, the green of their leaves shocked against the lime-decay of the image on metal. The rains of Paris leave their mark on the image like an intentional brushstroke, the raft now thrust against a Francis-Bacon-sky, a dripping Pollock-contrast to Gericault’s contrived sunset.
Mere meters away is the grave of Chopin. A stone-white muse laments atop his simple headstone. His profile is carved into the chalky grave marker. In such an obscure location, his final resting place would be overlooked were it not for the hundreds of red roses placed upon it – some fresh and smiling, others crumbling in the breeze.
The piano in my living room is a Steinhauer upright built in New Bedford at the end of the 19th century. It is a deep red walnut, solid and veneered in high gloss. The keys are light to the touch and worn down near middle C.
The weather in Massachusetts is similar to Edmonton, with blustery snow-saturated winters giving way to warm, if short, summers. But its situation on the Eastern Sea-board gives it a damp humidity that the windswept prairies of Alberta will never know. As such, the piano must be tuned each autumn in an effort to fight the stranglehold of dryness over pitch.
The piano has been in our family since I was three years old, but the stool was lost during a move when I was ten. Seated in front of the piano is a pale maple stool, three inches too high, handcrafted by my draughtsman brother.
Atop the piano rests a weathered pile of Polonaises and Preludes, dog-eared, marked by a frustrated pencil. Circled allegrettos and glissandos urge my fingers to play more than the notes, more than the black ink trapped on the white page.
At points like this, whenever I find myself growing grim and monotonous with the droning rhythm of routine; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pondering the purpose of life and coming to no conclusions; and especially whenever I allow absurdity to get such an upper hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street – then, I account it high time to settle my hands upon the keys as soon as I can. In paths untrodden, the keys are an escape from life that exhibits itself only in pleasures, profits and conformities. The keys take me far away, leave my body behind, transport my mind thousands of miles — to a nighttime café in Paris where the patrons see themselves endlessly reflected in the darkened windows; to an outdoor courtyard in Eastern Europe where the stars are refracted in a musky glass of wine.
Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor begins wide-eyed, gazing in wonderment at its surroundings, amazed at the surprise of existence. It unravels like a fog, whispering off weightless fingertips – the phrases unwinding themselves like the conversation of close friends. Notes move round a central point of gravity. Floating from the top of my piano, they glide across the curved ceiling, twirling around the room in invisible currents, flowing in each others’ wake – each new note heard like the twinkling of a constellation in the haze of the Milky Way – pausing in a final pirouette at the window.
But before the fermata dissipates; before the caesura takes hold; before you can almost taste the burgundy smoke of a pinot noir set against the blackness of the Seine; before the calm fluidity of the Vistula can focus the images of its troubled past in your mind’s eye; before, out of the rolling rivers, come small drops, gently telling of long travels made solely to look on you, to touch you – before all of this, the sound reaches the whiteness beyond my window frame and recoils, recedes into its first lamentation, an ache stronger than before, illuminated by the pleasure of its own contrast.
The cover on the bundle of manuscripts is the only photograph of Chopin, taken in 1848. At first glance, his rigid stature, broad-lapelled coat and black eyes suggest a callous figure, inured by life, hardened perhaps by the thrill of uprising, the sting of defeat and his subsequent emigration from Poland in 1831. But on closer inspection, the furrowed brow becomes a wince, the rigid stature, a grimace. His hands clasped tightly across his chassis, his skin marked by the White Plague.
The bacteria divided slowly and silently, diminishing his vitality, dulling his luster. With the crush of stagnancy threatening his lungs, Chopin dictated his last Mazurka. And, on October 17, 1849, he bid adieu to earth, stepped down to the world unknown, was buried beneath a stone-white muse in Paris.
But standing before the simple headstone, the soft scent of roses in the air, an intuitive part of me felt that something was missing, as souls only understand souls. I didn’t yet know that his heart, soaked in brandy, was sealed in the Holy Cross Church in Poland.
The flag on the pavilion barely stirs, the water quivers gently in the sun like some young promised maiden dreaming, half-waking of the joy that shall be hers.
The Old Town square in Krakow is the largest in Europe. Cobblestoned, it spreads out like a mosaic plain, clip-clopped by the hooves of horses carrying smiling men in top hats. In the evenings, as dusk descends like a watercolor wash, whole swarms of bats appear around the asymmetrical towers of St. Mary’s Basilica, flipping and diving erratically against the fading blue of the day. Every hour, on the hour, a trumpeter hangs from the highest window in the highest tower and plays a lament of scaling semiquavers. He stops abruptly, mid-phrase – homage to another bugler from another time, shot in the throat by a precise arrow from the invading Huns of 1241. Whether at dusk or at dawn, amidst bats or the silence of the square at night, the trumpet can be heard. I have stood in the bustle of the day and repeated the phrases back to him and played the notes again in my mind. The sun was in my eyes, reflected off his horn. The only thing that remains is the sun, for the melody has long dissipated on the wind of memory.
In the center of the square is the Renaissance Sukiennce cloth hall — a covered galleria flanked at each entrance by jolly oompah-pah bands and filled with vendor stations passed down through the generations. Polska flags, shirts and jerseys color the hall in a cadmium red, offset by the endless rows of sculpted amber, shaped into rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Gazing into the polished sap, you can see prehistoric air bubbles trapped like pin-pricks, forming erratic patterns like the ancient constellations, making you feel less like the one watching and more like the one being watched.
Outside the hall, flocks of pigeons with dark plumage, scuffled and scraggly, walk along the terraces of red brick buildings or in the gutters of crumbling sidewalks. Nowhere are they more plentiful than around the base of a tribute to Adam Mickiewicz, the national poet. He towers over the square in bronze, the allegories of Motherland, Science, Courage and Poetry at his feet.
Born on Christmas Eve in 1798, his childhood was peaceful – the protective cloak of nobility punctuated only by the tramping marches of Moscow-bound Napoleon. He studied art, discovered the triumph of a revolutionary pen, was exiled to Russia. Miracle of miracles: a passport. And with it, the opening of Weimar and Goethe and Paris and Rome and an ill-fated Romance, with Life almost ended by the pavement below his window.
Following this, the wispy cloak of mysticism enraptured his heart against the whipping winds of poverty and despair. And he wrote. He wrote of deceased ancestors, of Poland as the Passion of Christ, of martyrdom and virtue. His words were melancholic, dirge-like as they reflected on the hydra of memory, asleep through evil days; in peace, plunging its talons in his quiet heart.
In Istanbul, organizing Polish forces against Mother Russia – cholera, then death.
But before the all-consuming whiteness of death, before the unending light from an unseen source, Mickiewicz – with nerves shot and his wispy cloak dissipating against the gale – was visited by his dear friend, ailing also, lungs full of slowly dividing bacteria in beautiful patterns like snowflakes that would never melt.
Chopin played by his bedside, painted with his fingers on the keys, painted rich landscapes of yellow ochre and burnt umber and flashes of gold. He played at night, comforting the morose Mickiewicz who was pacified in his bed by the outpouring of fraternal love. Each trill of the keys sang to him – lullabies against absurdity, quietly musing, joining them together by the unspoken aphorism: “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
The Vistula River runs through Krakow, separating the center of town from Kazimierz – the Jewish quarter. Just across the bridge is the Galicia Jewish Museum.
The main room of the museum had been sparsely decorated, an open warehouse with concrete floors and exposed ventilation painted black. From the ceiling, in parallel rows, hung frosted glass sheets with the local history of Jews etched in Hebrew, Polish and English. Lean intellectuals in black turtlenecks or beige trench-coats were gathered in small pockets of conversation around a grand piano. I took a seat in one of the black folding chairs near the back and wrote in my journal, ignoring the complimentary Syrah and platters of smelly cheese and stale crackers. After a few moments, a man with a white moustache tapped on the microphone and the crowd filed to their chairs. He introduced the musicians in the flurry of harsh consonants that is Polish and took his seat in the front row.
A woman, with long hair woven into a braid and wearing a ballerina’s unitard and flowing black skirt, took the center stage. A timid man with round spectacles ruffled his papers and shifted his position on the overstuffed piano bench before nodding to his partner and laying his hands on the keys.
The first notes and their chromatic modulations ricocheted around the large room, bouncing off floor and ceiling, off glass panels, off empty wine bottles. My ears were kissed from all angles by rhythm and melody flowing like a warm molasses, burnt in the dark, amber in the light.
The woman took to the microphone and from her voice came a pure sound, like the very pitch at which a heart breaks. A long note, piercing, it shocked my eyes closed, seemed to bypass the floor, the walls, the glass in a concentrated beam aimed at each of us. A wail more than a song, she broke into throat and guttural acrobatics hitherto unheard by my ears. I sat there, dumb, glued to the chair, floored by the earthy language of a Chosen people.
Images flooded the space behind my eyelids. Images of yellow stars sewn on black coats, of shattered windows, of burning synagogues, of unsmiling people waiting in lines – lines for food, for water, for ghettos, for trains, for gas, for the white-hot flame, for smoke.
The song ended after a few minutes – the woman’s voice a slight echo, like the quiet epiphany of a haiku. I got up, grabbed my journal from under the chair and carried my saturated body out of there. Shocked by the light of day outside the museum, I carried myself back down the dusty street and across the bridge to the grassy banks of the river.
The Vistula flows from the Carpathian Mountains as two rivers – Biała Wisełka and Czarna Wisełka, or White and Black Vistula respectively – that join like veins of an artery at a town near the Czech border. It pushes north, winding through major communities before emptying into the Baltic Sea at Gdansk. Along the way, the ancient water gathers momentum, widening against the contested soil of past world wars. Once a central stage for combat, the river was then cloaked behind an Iron Curtain only drawn open again by independence. It calmly passes by, getting wider and murkier as it nears its destination until it is so black that all you can see in it is your reflection on a cloudless night. The water of the Vistula, like all water, is imprinted with memory. From the rain comes the whole of history, cascading violently down the mountain-side, gathering fragments of the past along the way. It passes through Warsaw, mere steps away from the entombed heart of Chopin; it flows through Krakow as the divisionary landmark of a now absent population; and it snakes past the heartless void and immense fields of Auschwitz.
There is a place in Auschwitz where the water is stagnant. It is through the Gate of Death, down the rail tracks that sever the camp like a spine, past the brick barracks that smell of musty rot and the fields of brick chimneys left standing in parallel rows. It is beyond even the gas chambers, dynamited, deconstructed, dilapidated as they were in 1945. It is in the far Northwest corner of the camp, near a small grove of trees, in an overgrown field of grass – a small bog of unnatural green, a perfect rectangle, gouged from the land by reluctant shovels. Where the ashes of the ovens were poured. It was a place to hide the world’s shame, unmoving and silent in its testimony.
The landscape of a death camp succumbs to all sins of memory. You want to believe that the sky is brooding, a storm on the horizon, that the grass is a drab brown, that birds plunge to their demise should they dare fly over such a place. You want to believe that the sun doesn’t shine, that it doesn’t wash over the sky with purples and magentas at dawn, that it doesn’t glisten off the barrack roofs where children carved pictures in the walls. You want to believe it is a vortex, it is an affront to the senses, it is the absence of color.
But it is not like that at all. It is an overgrown field of grass, home to thousands of scurrying ants and ladybugs. Spiders reclaim the barbed wire with their elaborate webs. Birds nest in the watchtowers, chirping their heart-breaking melodies, and the sun pounds your skin with its all-consuming heat. Trees bud and bloom and pollinate, their seeds carried by the soft wind.
In a poem by Mickiewicz, an all-knowing voice implores a girl to listen. But she doesn’t listen, while the roofs glisten, bright in the sun. The voice asks, “Silly girl, what do you do there, As if there were someone to view there, A face to gaze on and greet there, A live form warmly to meet there, When there is no one, none, you hear?” But she doesn’t hear. Like a dead stone, she stands there alone, Staring ahead of her, peering around, For something that simply must be found.
As an afterthought, during my time in Paris, I visited the Centre Georges Pompidou to see a traveling exhibit of modern art. It was there that I encountered a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, 1946.
It was part of a video exhibit on the fifth floor, a pitch black room curtained-off from the noisy maze of nude self-portraits rendered in thumbtacks, live goldfish reflected across Miro prints, and entire bedroom sets constructed from matchsticks. Stepping into the small room was like falling into the space behind my eyes. Pupils dilated, I crawled on hands and knees, and skirted to the corner, and stared at the wall-sized video screen. From invisible speakers came a scratchy soundscape like the noise of a cassette played backwards.
It was a love story told in still images – the nape of a neck, crumpled clothes on the floor, the tape deck in a used car, skates on ice, snowflakes. The photographs were superimposed like ghosts over modern paintings, though the work was largely unknown. Held hands, the beauty mark on a soft shoulder, a pair of foggy silhouettes in the shower. The soundscape got louder, crescendoed, or decrescendoed backwards, worked into a fury. A blinking message machine, a scribbled note, a vase thrown at the wall. The noise stops, replaced by the sound of a rewind, or a fast-forward. The final image was a pair of women’s shoes placed neatly beside a closed door. It was black and white, save for a few greasy smudges of the reds and the blues and the canary yellows of Pollock that peeked through from the background.
I didn’t know it was Pollock until I crawled out of the dark space and found a small handbill of the film’s credits. I scribbled it down in the corner of my journal, a small note on its own, almost illegible, almost forgotten.
On a warm evening in winter, I sat in a chair by the window on the fifth floor of Rutherford library. I was studying Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – the text reprinted from the 1891 edition. The pages were thin and satin-like, smooth and slippery against the fingertips. In the margins were the light scribbles of a mechanical pencil. I paused a few times while reading, let the words sink in, saw the streetlights come on outside the window.
An announcement came over the speakers: the library would be closing in five minutes. I gathered my bag, the book, my journal and padded down the stairs to the exit. A few others shuffled out behind me, made their way, heads down, to the bus stop. I walked in the opposite direction, towards the small space between the Arts buildings, where a fountain, frozen over, was surrounded by tall pines and ice-covered walkways. I stared at my thoughts in the snow, the koans of Whitman echoing softly in my mind. A pair of snowy rabbits hopped by, their muzzles and feet stained a light gray.
It was at that moment – when the proofs, the figures, had been arranged in columns before me; when I had seen the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure; when I soon became tired and sick, till rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself, left my body behind and gave myself over; when I too faded into the night, looking for the part of me pushed away, tucked under the covers of a deep slumber, a part of me forgotten in measurements and charts; it was at that very moment, in the mystical moist night air, that I looked in perfect silence at the snow, at nothingness and totality; the sublimity of it slowing my struggle, stopping it completely, an emptiness, a pure and whole emptiness taking hold, a gap, a void, a complete trust that at this moment, the earth would take me in its arms, plant my feet firmly on the ground, and breathe Life into me, Life immense in passion, pulse and power, filling me, bursting my seams, destroying the canvas of my constraint, making me whole but for a moment.