An Alchemical Scrapbook
1. OCTOBER 1992, YPSILANTI, MICHIGAN: SUNSCREENS turn to smokescreens. The furnace, dormant since spring, fires up and fills the house with the snake cologne of burning mold. A fibrous resin from the Defiant woodstove thickens the air. This farmhouse, built in 1876, has no upstairs heat. My small study is warmed by a portable space heatera nostalgic, homely looking object. Like many pre-high-tech appliances, it has a countenance: a metal grill that resembles a catcher's face guard shields its humming, blaze-orange element. When I first turn it on, a whiff of mortality fills the air: scent of vacuum and dust. The farmer's grain drier roars distantly; a month from now he'll fix a white electric star to its top. How radiant his utilitarian citadel will seem when crowned by that simplicity. Most of the farmers have day jobs. The lights of their tractors tunnel the fields after dark with the urgency of harvest; they peel out, do hairpin turns, wheelies, at the ends of the rows, worried about finishing or perhaps feeling the puissance of being their own boss. Pheasant cocks, driven from the harvested fields, squawk and fight over their new territory in our meadow. Mice take shelter inside; at night their gnawing sounds like the scrape of scriveners' quills. Corn snakes wintering in the walls make a rope-through-dry-leaves rustling. The pock-pocking of shotguns signals hunters nearby. The house is swaddled by harvest in all of its guises: triumph and yield, realization and renunciation. After the committees of inertia,book blurs, wreck letters, I want to screen the day with the quiet that leads to words.
When I'm lost in the Thou-art-That of composition, the membranes dividing each from each dissolve; the separate self vanishes into an undifferentiated state, whichwho knowsmight be similar to the "suchness" of Buddhism. Yet to enter this seamlessness, I have to screen out distractions. The effort to do so creates new complications. We have two phone lines: one for ordinary calls and one for emergencies. Each phone rings with a different signal so we can tell them apart. The workaday phone is answered by a machine that's an intrusion in itself, a kind of electronic flypaper. As long as we have the emergency phone, we feel safe in turning off the machine attached to the nonemergency number. Going one step further, I also switch off the ringer of this workaday phone. As the days go by, I discover an odd fact: Even with the ringer off, the phone emits a vestigial trill when calls come in. As the quiet deepens, I can hear this tiny siren wherever I am in the house. At times, I wonder if I'm imagining the ghostly ringing. But no. My husband Hank hears it too.
I'm thinking about textures, dreams, mooncakes, and writing poems that remember the death of my nineteen-year-old niece, Laura, two years ago. Grace Lee, a Chinese American student, has given me a mooncake in celebration of the Autumn Festival. Traditionally associated with women, the Autumn Festival takes place when heat gives way to coolness, brightness to winter darkness, and the female principle ascends. A harvest fête, it is celebrated at night. People compose poems, tell stories, drink, and eat mooncakes made of lunar-colored flour. The cellophane wrapper of my mooncake features a yellow harvest moon, two tree peony blossoms, and a bar code. It says, "Made in Hong Kong by Tai Wing Wah Restaurant. Ingredients include Lotus Seed, Peanut Oil, Sugar, Flour." The wrapper enhances the pastry, as the moon is improved by cloud cover. Inside, there's an "oxygen absorber" packet, the desiccant packed with cameras. As I eat a dense sliver, I read about the structure of spider silk and how we dream to forget. It seems dreams are an erasure; a way to ease obsession; strategies for survival. Dreams are like writing.
When I need a break from the screen, I step to the window, see the cornstalks whittled into winter blond, a wizened forest against the unjustified margins of Midwestern sky. If the University of Michigan has a home game, I might see the silver football of the Goodyear blimp advertising itself in the blue and maize surround of sky and trees. But most of all, I like to see the old silo that anchors our backyard. The silo's glazed blocks are the size and shape of computer screens. Each terra-cotta the is rich with variations of patina, tarnish. I name the colors: warmly sorrel as a Guernsey, weary igneous, dun sunset, almost hemoglobin, hard hard cider, tiger lily, garnet lac. Built to shelter grain from the elements, the silo has a run in its side like a laddered stocking where the grainshoot once stood. Previous owners must have used it as a target, because its blocks are riddled with bullet holes. Its cap has been sacrificed to the wind. Sometimes I leave my room and visit the silo. Climbing through its ripped side, I consider why some screens are more lovable than others. Why do I find it easy to admire the testy elegance of barbed wire? Easy to like the silo, a screen in the round. Can I extend any of this affection to electronic screens? Inside, the silo is cool as a root cellar, though its walls drip with ossified pitch, the furnace remnants of hot tar. Keats's personification of Autumn "sitting careless on a granary floor" comes to mind, though my appreciation of the silo does not, I think, arise from literature or a Romantic fascination with ruins. The silo has a sculptural loveliness. I think I hear the faint electronic summons of the phone, but it must be a wasp livingor dyingin the gauzy mortar of the blocks. And that sudden soundpillowcases flapping on a clothesline, a row of ceremonial flagsmust be low-flying Canadian geese. Looking up, I see the silo's open crown is sealed with clouds like boiled paraffin. Summer's paraclete. What farm wives poured on their preserves.
2. Screen descends, etymologically, from "shield": a safeguard or palladium. Like the element palladium, a screen is often silver. The Latin corium"skin, hide"is somewhere in its history also. Protective windscreens and sunscreens have to be transparent in order to work. But visibility, surface, is intrinsic to the shielding properties of the smokescreen or mask.
3. The veil is a prosthetic face. The electronic screen is a prosthetic mind.
The destruction of a prosthesis isn't as devastating as the destruction of what it replaces.
Which is why I'd like to have the option of veiling when I go out. I'd like to give readings from behind a scrim or screen. Isn't it time to revive the handheld parchment fan? Not the stare, but the glance, is revelatory. The space of between, where meaning is neither completely revealed nor completely concealed, is the space of possibility.
Men have natural veils, beards, which come from within and are painstakingly removed every day. Female veils are imposed from outside; they are cultural rather than natural: makeup. Women want to appear transparent though they are veiled: Makeup tries to be invisible.
Men usually have the option of removing their veils, but in some cultures, women do not. Enforced veiling is a sign of the sexual control of women by the state. It follows that violations of veiling are a means of disruption. Writing of Middle Assyrian Law, Gerda Lerner notes that when veils were worn only by respectable women, "a harlot who presumed to appear veiled on the streets was as great a threat to social order as was the mutinous soldier or slave."
The long hair and beards of poets are a form of veiling. Behind the veil lies something too shocking, too vigorous, too ghastly to be seen: disease, wounds, mourning. A veil can be a bandage. Or it can be erotic.
If I can't have a literal veil, I'd like some metaphorical screen, please.
4. Enhancing screens have the teasing quality of veils. The threat of opacity lingers within their meshes and shawls. They enforce distance between the viewer and a coveted resolution. Sublime by association, the enhancing screen is imbued with the qualities of the desirable it conceals. And in circular fashion, the screen bestows its power on whatever lies behind it. Reading through an enhancing screen of language, I spend more time with the work. The screen holds my attention more effectively than the bareness of clarity or the confusion of opacity.
Sunset that screens, reveals
Enhancing what we see
By menaces of Amethyst
And Moats of Mystery.
EMILY DICKINSON, POEM 1609
5. Does the electronic screen have to be leaden? Why not screens that look like gems at rest? Amethyst. A little sunset in the house. A little blue-green algae. A littleyou name it. Does technology have to be ugly to be functional? People aren't wild about the looks of their computers. Have manufacturers thought of this? Are they missing a chance to have computers fetishized as cars are? All other things being equal, would a Jaguar of computers sell better? Old radiosmade of colorful Bakeliteare collectible. A friend whose field is artificial intelligence writes, "I do feel some nostalgia for my first home computer (a beautiful chrome-plated box in the basement)."
6. My antique Wang is as unprepossessing now as when I first acquired it, in 1983. Hank and I were renting an apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We had taken the place because of its thirteen windows. We veiled most of them with Japanese rice-paper shades. My study was lit by tube lighting said to mimic sunlight and cure the winter desolations. But the high-tech wand was in itself a desolate-looking thing. We encased it in a Japanese paper lantern. The kitchen window was screened with matchstick blinds. A robin built her nest on the front porch that year, and peering through the tiny fissures of the matchsticks, I followed her progress. When a friend visited, I encouraged him to view the robin as I did, by pressing his eye to the hem of light between slats and making of the seam a frame. The oddity of this struck me later. Why didn't I raise the shade? Offering a guest a stingy slice of sight was like offering a stingy slice of cake. Yet the obstruction made the robin more elusive. Screened and piecemeal, she took on treasure. Picture windows are too easy. I like windows with mullions that frame the details and create peripheral compositions; they honor the margins.
We lived with three kinds of windows: transparencies that pulled in light; electronic screens that gave off light; and paintings that lived on light. The TV was a mirror window, darkly reflecting us when off and brightly distorting us when on. The opaque windows of the abstract paintings bestowed stasis on motion and substance on color. I was grateful to them for staying still. From reading, I raised my eyes to their nonreferential world; they were screens that didn't insist on narrative, figure, or landscape. They were absolute music. Their subject was paint just as poetry's was language. The dark peephole of my new Wang computer was something else again. The keyboard was quieter than a typewriter, though not as stealthy as a pen. The type was the spiky green of lawns raised on weed killer. From now on, I'd be writing in golf course, in Astro-Turf. I'd be writing in Emerald City.
7. What are the aesthetics of electronic screens? Superficially, these appliances bespeak a pragmatic world in which aesthetics have no place. But if I press that suggestion, the aesthetic residue of electronic screens unveils. Their aura is suburban: charcoal briquettes and nice driveways. Commercial: They resemble the tray table that opens to support the processed food served in the clouds. The screen connotes utilitarianism and industry: a home equipped with the latest resembles a museum of pavement, a gallery of wet macadam framed in plastic-composite. Electronic screens aspire to invisibility: Like the two-car attached garages of subdivisions, they are surfaces of strenuous neutrality. They long to disappear. And yet, the garage door has raised neutrality to visiblehence objectionableheights. The trend in the more costly subdivisions is for side-facing garages. The middle classes don't want their houses annexed to enlargements of their computer screens.
8. Though many people contrive to hide their TVs, computers usually are allowed to see the light of day. Are they more aesthetically acceptable? Our own TV is housed within an antique oak chimney cabinet: a screen for the screen. Isn't there an inherent vulgarity in hiding a high-tech intrusion within a nostalgic surround? Concealing the TV might show a certain insecurity in regard to taste. And yet, I don't veil the TV because I'm ashamed of owning one. I cover it because I think it's ugly. I can embrace modernismin principle. But in practice, high-tech design holds associationsof office, commerce, Xeroxthat oppress me. I also am repulsed by unintended suggestions of nature in high-tech design: the computer monitor on its stalk-like support resembles a skeletal insect. The "mouse" reminds me of a large waterbug rather than a furry rodent. I would like to hide my computer. It has as much aesthetic appeal as a window-unit air-conditioner or a NordicTrack. But computers, at this writing, are harder to conceal than TVs. There's the keyboard, the printer, the monitor, the mouse. Computers could be clothed. I see a large tea cozy with tassels on top. From the pragmatic point of view, a fire hazard. From the aesthetic? The well-dressed appliance is funnier than the naked.
9. Manufacturers, aware of the impersonality of technology, want the phrase "personal computers" to trip off the collective tongue. In fact, the adjective "personal" has crept like a blush through the language of advertising. Does fear of the impersonal lie behind this locution? I give you three smarmy sentences: "I want a personal pan pizza." "I want a personal trainer to help me achieve my personal best." "I want a personal computer." The words "I want" are autoerotic. But it's "personal" that sticks in the craw. "Personal" cloys. It's infantile. "Personal" infects computers with the warm fuzzies, a condition no appliance has had to bear before. "Personal" transforms cultural narcissism into a source of pride and self-affirmation. "Personal", it would appear, sells product.
10. Tools can be beautiful. But I don't think computers are destined to become lovely sensual presences. Thus begins their difference from books. There's a romance to the physicality of the book, a tactile pleasure to be had in its constructedness. Of all the objects associated with writing, books are potentially the most beautiful. Potentially, because books in numbers can look messyeven garish. My shelves layer the walls with horizons. Windows get in the way. The titles are an intoxication in themselves, suggesting compressed worlds, visible and at hand. Within the horizontal shelves blaze the slim verticals of the books. The room is a welter of stripes, a riot of primaries too hectic for my taste.
Readers often save a book's protective dust jacket from wear by removing it while reading. A friend of mine has disposed of the wraps entirely. His shelves are saturated with the garment-washed, wet stone glow of cloth bindings. It's as if the dust the jacket was meant to forestall has gentled the books. But I can't strip my books down to the spine. Taken together, the paper-wrapped books are a visual cacophony. Taken alone, a book in its wraps has more interest and texture than one without. It's an aesthetic version of the one/many problem.
11. Soon after the Wang arrived in 1983, I used it while working on a memoir. My resistance to writing the essay was private and weighty. After agonizing for days, I overcame andirons of resistance to pull forthas if from my entrails, self-evisceratingseveral finished pages. Toward the end of this day's work, absorbed, I touched a combination of keys and the Wang emitted a loud, unstoppable electronic scream. The screen was petrified in place. Hank had to pull the plug to get the computer to shut up, and I lost all of the day's writing. A friend who worked with Wangs said I'd hit "a screech bug." I don't have a good record with electric appliances. Is it possible that my own electromagnetic field upsets them? Are we physically incompatible?
12. I'm seduced by a book's ability to preserve physical traces of its readers. Readers of electronic books leave no ink behind in the margins. Though electronic books might allow for marginalia, the notes would be typed rather than handwritten, and they probably would not accumulate as the book passed through many readers' hands and minds. This last would be seen as an improvement. The marginal notes in library books serve as hecklers, upsetting the authority of the printed text, or as echoes, noisily parroting the meaning. But I'd miss the ink of them. As an adolescent, I discovered my sister's college texts in the attic. Sandy had been an English major. I feasted on Jude the Obscure, Adam Bede, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Immortal Poems. And I devoured faddish, unassigned booksAyn Rand's, Kahlil Gibran'swith equal appetite. Sometimes the margins were wildcrafted with blue ballpoint notes in Sandy's hand. Between the pages of a paperback, I found a single red hair, unmistakably hers. A bookmark of the body, it seemed supernaturalrecherché as the two recessive genes needed to express auburn and my sister.
13. I have a wardrobe of old, ink-covered clothes reserved for writing. Pen in hand, I'm a menace to the blank slate of everything in reach. The pen has become such a constant extension that I no longer remember I'm holding it. I stretch, and the movement is inscribedon the sofa, the sheets, the cat. If invited to a literary costume party, I'd like to dress as Caddy Jellyby of Bleak House, whose "inky condition" parodies my state: "a jaded, and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And, from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place." Caddy serves as amanuensis to her mother, Mrs. Jellyby, a self-serving philanthropist and tireless generator of letters. In my reinscription, I cast Mrs. Jellyby as the draconian Muse. "Where are you, Caddy?" she says with a sweet smile. My copy of Bleak House belonged to my sister. Certain passages have been underwired with red ink, filaments delicate as hair.
14. Gatekeepers, judgmental structures, screens are invested with the power of entry and exclusion. They discriminate; censor; discern; play favorites. They have an agenda. They're critics. Or artists, functioning as silkscreens. In silkscreening, ink is forcedthrough a silk mesh with both pervious and impervious areasonto a prepared ground. The artist's open and hidden interests are the blotchy screen through which the work is pressed.
15. October 1992: Well into work, I was floating around the silent house in a creative stupor, bumping into objects. Though the ringer was off, the phone continued its spectral trilling. We'd decided that the mechanism must vibrate slightly even when disconnected. The emergency phone was silentas if all the fumble-fingered dialers of wrong numbers had entered a state of digital grace. I'd spoken to no one but Hank for who knows how long. In this somatic daze, I slumped in front of the screen and summoned my e-mail. Something from the English department appeared. What bureaucratic white noisewhat evaluations, colloquia, surveys, formslay in wait? "What fresh hell is this?" I yawned, blasé as Dorothy Parker. But the adrenaline message on the screen pierced my nonchalance: My sister Pat was trying to reach us. It was urgent. I should call her immediately. I braced myself for some awful intelligence.
Pat had been phoning us for days. She'd been unable to get through because, as we soon discovered, the emergency phone had come unplugged by accident. As she talked, my mind filled with images like film rushes, nonsequential, nonverbal: Marleen, my sister Sandy's twenty-year-old daughter; a club in Argentina; disco dresses; drinks; a holdup; film noir; smoke; gangsters; no shots fired. Marleen had lost consciousness. Marleen had died. Wait. No. A health club; tennis; juice drinks; a robbery; Marleen at the register; no shots fired. Marleen had lost consciousness. Marleen had died. Unbelief. Sandy's nineteen-year-old daughter Laura also had died suddenly, from natural causes, just two years earlier.