In 2005 Rusty and I spent our first wedding anniversary in a Central California beach town called Cayucos. After dinner one night we wound up at a dingy bar, where we sat next to a man who told us he was a Clamper. We didn’t know what that was, but it explained the traffic-style signs on the walls that read things like “Clamper Crossing.”
The man was drunk. He tried to explain what a Clamper was and we gleaned he was part of a thuggish fraternal organization. The members were motorcycle enthusiasts and had a mission to protect widows and children—the children part seemed genuine, the widows part gross. Their other mission, he told us, was to preserve the history of the American West, although he didn’t seem all that clear on how it was done.
The online record of the Clampers’ history is garbled (both intentionally and not), but I now know that the organization’s official name is E Clampus Vitus, which is nonsense Latin for something lively whose nineteenth-century humor I can’t access. It was founded during the Gold Rush and, in contrast with the earnest rituals of other esoteric fraternal orders, like the Elks and Masons, it subsists on the ridiculous and inside jokes. The group’s motto is Credo Quia Absurdum, which is shortened from the Latin for “I believe because it is absurd.” Tellingly, Mark Twain was one of the organization’s most famous members. In more recent years, it’s become a biker fraternity and drinking club with a fuzzy relationship to its origins. It does some charitable fundraising and also mounts and dedicates plaques to lesser-known historical sites and events, which is its contribution to preserving Western heritage. Most of the plaques memorialize oddball Gold-Rush-era incidents and characters, and some are of inscrutable significance. The text is often excessively long and badly in need of editing:
In the year 1912 a mr. william king heiskell built an aviary with its first inhabitants being a green parrot and several species of birds from
around the world
The zoo also had several ponds and water fountains and a bandstand.
Although the madera zoo wasn’t full of many species of animals, there are several stories about a famous parrot named ‘polly’ and a alligator named ‘galahad.’ Polly was most popular for his colorful vocabulary that he learned from his miner friends and his ability to mimic them.
Galahad – a nine-foot alligator spent most of his early years in a small bathtub behind a saloon owned by a mr. Glass who used to kid with the chinese and them that he was actually
a little chinese dragon.
Polly nearly met his demise when he and another occupant of the park (a racoon) had encountered each other and the racoon’s intention was to have polly for dinner the racoon was banished from the park
and polly lived his remaining years with mr. Heiskell’s daughter.
After his death he was sent to a taxidermist, stuffed and resides in the present courthouse museum.
Dedicated by e clampus vitus
Grub gulch chapter 41-49
August 11 2007.
These plaques throw the generally accepted relativity of human events’ scales and significance out of whack. They’re like dialog boxes popping out from the desert, the negative space of the painting, superseding the seeming blankness of the landscape and the canvas. California is conducive to these geometric shenanigans, with its vast spaces and endless embodiments of the sublime that defy and challenge you to locate individual events within them. Here in the Northeast, the close quarters, lower sky and insistent textbook claims on the terrain can make attempts at landscape reclamation fizzle. Historic plaques are closely packed and even the vast swathes of deciduous woods seem full of themselves and antithetical to such open gestures as earthworks.
I appreciate the Clampers’ arbitrary approach to relocating the foci of human history. A phenomenon that I refer to repeatedly in my work, and which now undergirds my own approach to apprehending the world, is that optical illusion with the white grid on a black field. At the lines’ intersections you see fuzzy gray dots, but only out of the corner of your eye. When you try to look directly at them they disappear, and then pop back up in the periphery of your vision. To me, those dots represent extra-linguistic, contrapuntal possibilities for comprehending existence, and, paradoxically, I use language to try to focus on them for a moment. I can’t quite resolve the dots or linger on them long enough to clearly define their nature, but the grid is political, historical, and my eye and its corner are largely defined by gender and economics. The dots are made of all of these things at once and something much more, in addition to else. The natural world and the conditions of place are both inside and all around. (I want to say “so there.”)
I don’t know if it’s possible to break or break out of the grid lines’ framework, but you can dig around in the squares of space it contains. Think of a formal French garden, the intersections of its stiff box-lined walkways celebrated with looming statues of war heroes. Now think of the earthworms navigating and tunneling around the paths and parterres. I mean there.
In Budapest, a necropolis of shifting foci grid-dots, Soviet heroes, missing limbs.
The Clampers’ plaques outsize the importance of small events and deeds, in contrast with the civic practice of trying to encapsulate both the individual and collective suffering of scores of people by funneling them all into one comparatively slight physical instant. War and disaster memorials’ lists of names intend both to create a poignantly generalized blur and to elicit the specificity of each individual’s experience, but they tend to just become themselves and their own physical manifestations as self-referential memento moris—a reminder of their own death-by-definition. Same with cemeteries. I found both Arlington and Normandy agitating, and not in the way I’m supposed to.
It’s not the jingoism, but the manipulative grandeur that gets me, the quantity-over-quality assessment of suffering. It is necessary that they exist, however, even if only to display their own insufficiency. Maybe the insufficiency itself is the true monument to humanness, an open question.
occasional frottage Monument
A terracotta army of more than 8,000 soldiers to protect me in my real life. I mean a copy of the one that already exists. This is a work on paper.
What kind of gesture could possibly capture the simultaneously outsized and infinitesimal scale of a human life? The Clampers’ plaques make me wonder if only the absurd can. Absurdity is a palliative to insufficiency. And it’s about time. Time slows, slides up its skirt and flashes its man hours. Absurdity graphs its own labor against time and shows them in wild disproportion, saying on behalf of its perpetrator, yes, this archness is how I choose to consume my moments. Consider the artist Tom Friedman, who created a sculpture of approximately 3,000 garbage bags meticulously layered one inside the other. Another piece features a roll of toilet paper that he unrolled, removed the tube from, and then flawlessly re-rolled with perfectly aligned edges and no discernible space at the center. His work is perfectly futile and perfectly memorious, evoking the body of the artist laboring in lumbering real time, pursuing sublimely banal perfections.
Maya Lin once described her subterranean black gash of a Vietnam veteran’s memorial as a “wound”—the object of a wounding. In a 1994 documentary she talks about how she first researches a site and its history and comes to a verbal understanding of its significance before even visiting the physical place. I don’t know, but would guess that many landscape architects and artists would claim to privilege their intuition by visiting a site first and having it “tell them” what it wanted before doing in-depth historical research. The way I write poems is that chicken and that egg at the same time. The writing comes from the body and the mind and the site. I want it to occupy a physical space, to make divots in the desert. To wound. By its two-dimensional definition, I can’t make it do that, but there is a muscular meaning at inception—I hold my breath, overarch my back. Feel the edge of my chair and the floor, pressing.
OCCASIONAL ASPIRATIONAL MONUMENT
bag of wind (choke on your own)
It’s funny and makes sense that the respective heydays of earthworks and conceptual art were virtually simultaneous. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit came out only four years before Smithson’s foundational essay, “The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” It’s as though the representative capabilities of tools suited to the scale of the human world had been exhausted, so artists were reaching for something extra-human (“extra” meaning both “more than” and “more of”). Earthworks and conceptual art are opposites in so many ways—one quintessentially material, the other equally immaterial—but both are both absurd and insufficient in their comprehensive inaccessibility and resistance to containment in a frame. I want these qualities in writing. I reach for outsized physicality to a degree that only theory can satisfy, and only in theory. So I continually find myself describing what it is that I’m trying to do while trying to do it and also make it huge.
occasional CONCEPTUAL MONUMENT
Don’t read what I write. Grind it beneath your heel, like glass. Sweep up the sharp dust and stick it in your eye. Bleed until complete.
We are in possession of a hideous nativity scene. Rusty remembers it as a fixture of his childhood Christmases, so when my in-laws were downsizing and distributing their belongings, he particularly wanted it. The figures are large and, even he admits, terribly ugly, so the set remains in the basement. It seems we can’t get rid of it, even though we don’t display it.
Why does merely remembering something make it meaningful? And why isn’t the memory itself sufficient? Cognitive science suggests that each time we remember something we are really just recalling the last time we remembered it, over time distorting and rewriting what we think of as our most fundamental experiences. Each memory becomes only its forever modulating self, pulling away from the original context and blowing up in relative proportion with each visitation. Time grows a bulging cul-de-sac to accommodate it.
Our memories are rubbings of rubbings of our wishful anticipatory epitaphs. We might be made of our memories, but we think we are made of our inscriptions. Inscription is a stand-in for absence, which it tries to represent as the negative space of presence, like glinting marble chips falling around the figure. But absence is not anti-presence—it is only itself.
OCCASIONAL REMINDER MONUMENT
Never take pictures. Leave only footprints (to fill).
In November 2012 a factory fire in Bangladesh took the lives of 112 garment workers. They were sewing hoods onto sweatshirts for huge international brands whose higher-ups claimed either that they never knew this particular factory was in their employ or that they had explicitly forbidden it because of the facility’s disregard of fire codes and worker welfare. I read the story in the NY Times and what most struck me about it was how small and remote the suffering of the mostly anonymous victims seemed as measured against the scale of global capitalism and the materiality of its countless mundane products. Faces pressed against window grilles do not a high-profile disaster make.
Does some pain mean more than other pain?
A baby is born and left to die on an open plain. It has a name, but doesn’t know it.
Pain is a fuzzy gray dot with definite dimensions that can’t be measured, except on a personal scale. Hospital nurses will ask you to rate your pain from one to ten before administering medication. This task is difficult for me. Am I ranking my pain against itself or against all other pain I’ve experienced? I’m fortunate to have only ever been hospitalized during and while recovering from childbirth. Both times I felt the pain of labor and childbirth itself to be very lonely, and I can’t explain why this is. It goes against my desolate sense that if pain has meaning, it has to do with the extent to which it is witnessed. Surely the experience of giving birth to a child is one of the most painful. Surely being born is another. But while mother and child simultaneously, symbiotically suffer and witness, neither knows nor thinks of the other’s pain, and maybe that’s what makes it so lonely—it’s a pain mutually witnessed and mutually unheeded by two entwined people, the physical part of whose attachment is but a taste of the crushing, comprehensive conjoinment to come.
If witness makes pain mean, so might remembering—memory makes you your own ongoing witness. But one can neither remember the pain of one’s own birth nor call back the pain of childbirth.1* And while the pain of childbirth is to be dreaded, it does not matter so long as it’s behind you, even if you want it to. Why is it that the memory of one’s own physical suffering is not usually troubling, but the anticipation of future suffering is? And yet, knowing that a loved one has suffered before death is terrible. But knowing that a loved one has suffered and then survived is not very terrible at all. In any case, one is not suffering now.
An unnamed baby is born and left to die on an open plain. (You little black hole.) (Shut up.)
With or without a witness or a body’s name, I refuse to not believe that suffering takes up space, that it’s somewhere recorded and stored. That there’s a mark or memorial wormhole for each of us in the positive or negative space of space. The dark matter of two faces or a vase.
occasional nostalGIA Monument
An actual player-piano scroll, music made of holes.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology outside Los Angeles is often likened to a cabinet of curiosities, the collection of oddities and natural wonders assembled by wealthy late-Renaissance Europeans. Among other phenomena, the museum houses the microminiature sculptures of Hagop Sandaldjian, which are so small that they are displayed under magnifying lenses. Born in Egypt in 1931, the artist trained as a violinist in Moscow and Armenia. In the 1960s his rigorous study and obsessive practice led him to develop a musical technique based on ergonomics, which leveraged the muscular force of the musician against the external force of gravity and the mechanics of the instrument, ideally making the instrument an extension of the body working with and in counterpoint to the physical world.
One of Sandaldjian’s students introduced him to the world of microminiature sculpture and he soon applied himself and his ergonomic theory to creating artworks that fit inside the eye of a small needle or balance on a bisected human hair. Working with a microscope, he learned to time his minute creative gestures between heartbeats, since his pulse was capable of compromising his precision. He crafted his pieces from lint and dust motes, which he manipulated with precise homemade tools such as needles tipped with diamond dust. He even painted his sculptures with brushes made from sharpened strands of hair. His miniatures’ details can’t be seen without magnification, and their fuzzy blown-up outlines foreground the mechanics and parameters of your vision.
Sandaldjian’s sculptures each took as long as fourteen months to complete (by contrast, Spiral Jetty took just six days to build.) The miniatures’ screaming diseconomies of scale are just part of what makes them so touching. The thing that takes them beyond the oddly obsessive into the realm of the wonderful and mysterious is the insipidness of the imagery. Many of the pieces are brightly painted Disney figures—Goofy atop a needle’s eye, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves lined up along a spliced hair. That anti-expressive, self-abasing devotion to rendering cartoon figures creates a counter-sublimity, a non-non-site of oneself or singularity that shuts you up like a telescope (to quote Alice, whose adventures in inhuman scale are also insipid from overuse, but exactly what I mean. All the time).
It might be that this kind of seeming mere curiosity makes the best monument of all—the oddity happening in the periphery of your purview. Like Tom Friedman’s sculptures and the Clampers’ eccentric commemorative gestures, Sandaljian’s artworks are a kind of living anti-statuary. They are monuments in and to time itself, rather than an attempt to capture a particular instance of it, and that is what keeps them alive. A defining element of living is change, and so change is necessary to an eternally evocative monument. By nature, a curiosity remains curious, refuses to resolve into its raison d’être. It defies adaptation with its adhesion to the moving body that made it and elicits an ongoing wonder at the perceived boldness or inanity of the maker’s commitment or indifference to time consumption. Like a fuzzy gray dot, it can’t be pinned down, sized up or located. It is slight. It is niggling. It is moving.
OCCASIONAL MAKER’S MONUMENT
All the right tools must be harder than the medium.
To lunge at the finish of this strung-out syllogism, since the body is a vessel of change and anything inhering to it is a thing in flux, a sense of the body that made the work (and by “work” I mean both process and product) is necessary to living, moving, unresolvable art. The body and the work must be of a piece—beating, blinking, circulating, wearing themselves out and using themselves up. In paradoxical perpetuity. And differently each time. How, I don’t know. I’m nearly exhausted.
Imagine an arrow hurtling straight from the hand of the body and then lodging, forever trembling, in the work. The impetus remains manifest. I want to call this relationship “ergonomic,” but that’s not accurate, exactly, since I don’t necessarily or always mean with a sense of efficiency. Rather than a surgeon with her scalpel, I see the artist staggering around under the weight and force of the chainsaw, cutting into the coffee table, getting in an occasional whack at the man-sized block of marble. It’s a necessary sense of the body that made the work in time, of the tools of representation as a mere and palpable and perfect medium. Of the heartbeat or the diastole in the form or the line or the rigid stack of garbage bags. The body and the wound at once, at the moment.
make the whole world
a monument to you
My conceptual conviction.
The question remains to me, how to write curiosities, bodied monuments of words that can’t be apprehended, that flicker for an instant in the margins of the mind, and then reappear elsewhere, changing all of the contextual terms with each visitation, perpetually occasional.
Words are enormous containers, and yet they hold so little. The trick is to lug and arrange them in such a way as to yield the smallest units of perception, i.e., poetry. Poetry is absurd. Poetry is sufficiently momentary, the telescope collapsing with a snap. (Watch your fingers.) The long-range seeing part is relatively easy—the struggle is in the collapsing, the better half of the poem’s purpose. The struggle is also the poem. And then: is it two faces or a vase?
perpetual occasional Monument
I mean I mean I mean
I want a new memory. Running over trips and incidents in my head, all I remember is their self-supplanting palimpsests. I need triggers, but they have to find me, like the objects and moments in the day that suddenly bring back last night’s dream. And the triggers, for the most part, live with other people. There are hundreds of people who can remember things about me that I cannot. Small, incorporeal memorials to me move over the globe, flickering like fuzzy dots. Imagine a map of everyone who remembered you, the dots disappearing and new ones cropping up for as long as you kept on meeting people. And then, after you were gone, they’d snuff out one by one.
One week before flying Back East to be married, Rusty and I were driving on the hot infrequently traveled road that heads inland from Mendocino and ends at the 101 in Ukiah, California. Somewhere in the middle we stopped at the side of the road to pee. I had just crouched down behind a boulder when I heard a loud rattle beneath me. Millimeters from my flip-flop a fat black rattlesnake was coiled, its head reared and looking at me. At the same time as I screamed and did my best to run with my pants around my ankles, the snake took off into the brush.
I think about this incident all the time—it’s one of my favorite stories. But how many more times will I remember it? That element of ontological mystery about something that feels so close to me is the crease that collapses me into myself.
1*although it seems to me I can usually recall the sensation of mental pain, including that tunneled-in forlornness of being in labor. Or of milk letdown. Or of being hung over. It’s as though the utter realization of the body makes the mind disengage. But is the disengagement a retreat or a terrifying plunge into freedom from everything that is not oneself? I wish I knew how to pay more attention.
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