Review: Felicity Plunketton memoirs

Feral with vulnerability: Nelson, O’Shaughnessy and Mann

‘through the interstices of things ajar’

(Robert Frost)

Tell all the truth, writes Emily Dickinson, but tell it slant. Sloping or leaning, tilting from the horizontal or vertical, the truth approached obliquely might be more precarious – but it might thus evoke new, slant forms of expression. In the work of Dutch-born conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, the slant or slope repeats childhood memories of falling and failing: the violence of gravity and the impossibility of stable form. When his father, Calvinist minister and resistance worker Bastiaan Jan Ader, was executed in 1944 by the Nazis, Bas Jan Ader was two years old. The father’s murder became a moment the son’s work can neither forget nor remember. Its trauma initiated a lifelong exploration of the unstable and unsayable; the lilting music of gravity and fall, a refusal of stasis, and, as Seth Kim-Cohen puts it, a ‘wilful experience of failure’ through which the artist makes himself a ‘vulnerable object’.

Ader’s work includes a series of installations about falling. In ‘Fall 2, 1971’, the glossy surface of an Amsterdam canal is undisturbed in the moment preceding the artist’s fall into it from a teetering bicycle. His hair blows back and only a fraction of the back wheel touches the edge of the wall. What the image captures are fleeting seconds of exhilaration before a plunge.

Ader falls – his head sunlit, his body formal in a funereal black suit – into nearby objects, where even the failure that is falling fails (Broken Fall (Geometric), 1971). He is photographed just as he begins to topple from the thin limbs of trees he has inched out onto, deliberately putting stability in jeopardy (Broken Fall (Organic), 1971). In the 24-second film version of ‘Fall I, 1970’, he rolls from the roof of his house, inviting viewers to witness the slow motion unfolding of unpredictable injury.

All this, he said in an interview, ‘because gravity made itself master over me’. Ader’s art works at a pivot between the comedic and tragic, between grace and disgrace, where the ludic illuminates trauma’s fragments. His conceptual art magazine Landslide (1969—70), co-produced with William Leavitt, features fictional artists like Brian Shitart and Dove Feeler.  ‘I’m too sad to tell you’ (1970 –1) is a mixed media piece involving a film and postcards of the artist’s wordless inconsolable weeping. Whether it is staged or genuine is the least interesting question provoked by this work: it is as much about the vulnerability of the viewer and the limits of compassion as it is about sorrow and privacy. ‘PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME’ (1969) presents its four-word message in large spindly letters on the gallery wall. Paint, light bulbs and wire comprise its medium; vulnerability, push and pull its message. The appeal reminds us that in Ader’s work – and perhaps, in another sense, in all work – the artist is never not alone.

His final performance piece was planned as a trilogy, In Search of the Miraculous (1975). It involved a series of night photographs and a choir – then Ader set sail alone from the coast of Cape Cod in a 14-foot boat. He disappeared at sea and the empty boat was found floating vertically off the Irish coast. While it is assumed that the third part of the work was never made, Ader’s work often ends with the artist leaving the frame. The place in his work where desolation and absurdism meet is one where the real and its framing are drawn into question. It may be more polite not to investigate Ader’s final experiences, but the artistic questions they invite do not disappear so easily.

For Bas Jan Ader, the slant began and ended with displacement. His is the work of exile; of having no safe place to stand or speak from. It measures the collapse of form and the incisive capacity of the oblique. It sets things up to fall and courts vulnerability. It expresses a sense of having no support and the treachery of gravity, but also a joyful abandon, play and exhilaration that balance this. Works of falling and failing lean towards the ultimate miracle of disappearance. The sea floor replaces the illusion of earthed certainty and liberation involves setting sail towards an unseen death that takes place beyond telling.

Australian poet, memoirist and artist Maureen O’Shaughnessy’s Lakeland is also concerned with the seen and unseen, with uncertainty and the unspeakable, and with the necessary collapse and reimagining of form after trauma. It contains two epigraphs about vantage point and distance, and a third quotes Dickinson’s vision of slant truth-telling. The first –

Stand too close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand too far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters.

–  is from Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge. Hoffman’s book is concerned with the aftermath of the Shoah and with memory and inheritance. Its title is the fragment of yet another work, the preface to a question posed in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontian’: ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’  The second is a line from Patrick White’s Voss: ‘We do not meet but in distances.’ Like the geography O’Shaughnessy’s title evokes, a liminal space between land and water, Eliot’s poem and White’s novel are about displacements – from youth, native land, intimacy and proximity – and O’Shaughnessy’s citation practice suggests a related displacement in the form of a regression from text to text, towards but never reaching some idea of origin.

Lakeland, like Bas Jan Ader’s work, is tilted and provisional. Its scrapbook aesthetic suggests brokenness as much as curation, a loose compilation of fragments of poetry and prose in which voices echo and recede, and angles of vision shift. It stages an ‘anxiety of waste’ like the one the sometimes-named, sometimes-first-person memoirist sees in her mother’s collection of sachets of hospital sugar, a little milk china jug, crackers and cornflour past their use-by dates, and the ache of ‘displaced recollections’ this petty acquisitiveness evokes.

A section titled Fragmentblatt (Leaf Fragments) retraces the adult daughter M’s sense of her elderly German-born mother and ‘the whole catastrophe of foreignness’ that surrounds her. M remembers being a young woman, going out with her brother to the nearby creek, and somewhere between home and leaving home, discovering ‘forms that pass between two worlds’, the ‘constant flux’ and ‘traces of random loss’ between the known and the new. Lakeland’s shape is similar, arranging significant incidents, like Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’, in various modes unmoored to conventional narrative, chronological shape or generic fixity. Its terrain is displacement, and many of its slivers take place in liminal spaces. A child (M’s mother) slips into a lake and is rescued by her father. An adult daughter returns to her parents’ home where she examines the possibility of divorce. Refugee families travel by train. The work traces the layering of memory with what Marianne Hirsch terms post-memory, those experiences of a previous generation that remain just out of reach, like Bas Jan Ader’s impossible recall of the moment of his father’s murder, which nevertheless disturbs all future stability.

Hirsch first used the term post-memory in an essay on Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a work collapsing categories of form to meld memoir, künstlerroman, testimony and allegory in what he refers to fliply as a ‘comic’. It deals with Spiegelman’s parents’ experience of the Shoah, which is, to their son, both ungraspable and inescapable, and the work is an anatomy of doubt and silence. Like Spiegelman, O’Shaughnessy examines her family history from beyond and within, in the dim light of doubt. And as for Spiegelman, a recurrent artistic and ethical question concerns the representation of another’s memories, even when they may be unverifiable, or even disprovable.

‘October in the Northern Hemisphere’ tells the story of ‘M and her Mother’ travelling back to Europe from Australia. Their journey is filled with scraps of lost testimony. M’s mother tells her daughter things she never told her husband: ‘I couldn’t ever tell your father any of this. It would have upset him, and he didn’t need to know.’ M is reading Katherine Mansfield, and in discovering that Mansfield never told her husband of a miscarriage she suffered before their relationship, thinks of this hidden trauma as an aspect of the writer’s ‘various kinds of exile’. The extent of our mourning might always be a secret, the unspeakable presence of those we continue to love when they have died both consolatory and isolating. ‘The dead are always walking in front of us’, M thinks, expressing the vulnerable nature of both living and dying within this compact.

‘Rope in the Snow’ follows the 1951 journey of siblings C and S, children ‘clumped together like rags’, the latter a little girl who ‘makes up memories’ as the train translates the family into a post-war life. These are ‘years of not trusting who might be trying to listen to their conversations’; years when C adopts ‘a sense of distance, a way of talking as if he’s worried he won’t be understood, a tone of separation that carries with it a muted yet vague sense of threat. He hears what people are saying not as sentences but as coded messages.’ What did their parents know of what went on in Germany during the war? Their mother tells them: ‘Nothing – what could we know? All we could think about was survival.’

Not far away, Bastiaan Jan Ader took a different approach, for which he was murdered, and the knowledge of such events shapes and shades Lakeland. In a poem late in Lakeland O’Shaughnessy explores the idea that ‘writing is… /art so we won’t die of truth’. If so, what she needs to make such a spell work, she thinks, is ‘a better form’. The poems here are long-lined, tilting towards prose, while prose closes its lines in lyric truncations. The first and third person, named and unnamed characters, analogue, metaphor and translation all fall and fail, in their way, trying both to tell and resist unsettling truths that flicker at the edges of lake and shore. As form tilts and fractures, an aperture appears, through which pieces of narrative and evidence may be viewed.

The aperture is crucial to photographer Sally Mann’s work, in literal and figurative ways. Mann’s collage-like memoir Hold Still maps another aspect of the impossible – the untenable contract between the holding and stasis its title suggests. The photographer’s instruction ‘Hold still’ seeks to stop time, but it is in flux that this memoir finds its tenacity. What might remain to be held is part of Mann’s anatomy of ‘the treachery of memory’, which is itself mediated through her life’s work as a renowned (and polarising) artist. Her exhibition and subsequent monograph Immediate Family, capturing what journalist Richard B. Woodward calls the ‘innocent savagery’ of her subjects, her own three children, is the fulcrum of this dispute. What right does the artist – described by Woodward with no sense of irony as a ‘41-year-old dark-haired beauty whose turned-up nose accentuates a natural hauteur’ – have to gaze at and capture her subject? For Mann in Hold Still, this is part of a troubling and elusive history:

We watch our past occlude, bleed away, the over-flowing gardens erased, their sun-remembered walls crumbling into dust at our fingers’ approach.

Mann suggests that we should stay away from memories, not touching them too much if we want to keep them ‘pristine’: ‘the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past, but draws us further away’. Like Ader, whose experiments with falling must always both succeed (gravity always wins) and fail (gravity always wins), Mann’s memoir is premised on a rejection of the form’s hopes, as though aware from the start that nothing, ever, can hold still. And like Ader, it is in this commitment to continuing to try to do what must fail that the work’s energy lies.

Yet the premise or occasion for the work is the examination of ‘the residue of my own unexamined past’, in the form of discovering and ‘scissoring’ a collection of ‘ancestral boxes’ from the attic. She satirises herself, scissoring as well the self-importance of the sleuth/memoirist as forever hoping ‘for a payload of southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, racial complications, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of a prodigal son, and maybe even murder.’

At times the payload is exactly this – for Mann, as for O’Shaugnessy and Ader, the rupturing of long family silences (here, about addiction, violence and shame) – but amidst this Mann crafts a profound and frangible ars poetica. Mann’s early mentor, photographer and painter Cy Twombly, takes photos that are ‘hazy and casually indifferent to detail – this is not eidetic memory; this is the way our minds recall and our hearts remember. They have a kind of misty luminosity, perhaps the mists of time or the forgiving scrim of recall.’

Mann’s own work begins with loss, in the form of photos of the farm landscape she leaves to go to boarding school. When she rediscovers these ‘heartbroken love poems to the farm’, ‘the emulsion of every one was reticulate with cracks’, destroyed by an effect called vinegar syndrome, a continuous and irreversible chemical reaction that causes the deterioration of the cellulose triacetate in film. Yet in this wreckage the images find new beauty, enunciating tenacity and renewal even as they are corroded. In their refusal to hold still, and through finding their new form, these photographs and the memoir chart the undoing of images.

Another kind of corrosion is the intense criticism of Mann’s photographs of her work, especially her photographs of her children. Perhaps part of the unsettling nature of some of Mann’s photographs for some viewers is that to capture ‘the miraculous quotidian’, Mann opens a parental eye she suggests must normally be closed: ‘for species survival, veil the seeing eye’. Good photographs arrive when you cultivate a state of attention between visions, the photographer herself holding still: ‘I wait there, breath suppressed, in that trance, that state of suspended animation, the moment before the frisson’.

With that attentive surrender, Mann captures her child’s face swollen with hives from an insect bite, in ‘Damaged Child’ (1984). One eyelid is swollen, the eye beneath it partly-closed as it looks into the lens, the other open and dark with pain. The strangeness of the steady gaze of an injured child is underlined by a large white broderie anglaise collar, which frames the face, and evokes the costumery associated with spectacle, clown and circus.

This kind of image, for Mann, works to probe the edges of – and thereby to seek to escape –  ‘the manifold terrors of child-rearing, an apotropaic protection: stare them straight in the face but at a remove – on paper, in a photograph’. But this magic has no hold, and the photographs instead retain an intense fragility and the vulnerability both of subject and viewer. The subject’s vulnerability becomes the subject of vulnerability, a deeply unsettling one. And the magic has no hold in another sense. When one day she meets her son Emmett to help him cross the road, he interprets her hand signal to stop as an instruction to come and is hit by a car. Observers think Emmett is dead, and so does Mann, momentarily, yet she writes: ‘I also remember that I thought about photography in the eleven minutes it took the ambulance to arrive.’

This admission, locked into the memoir’s series of questions about where and how to look, and when to invite others to look, recalls Bas Jan Ader’s inconsolable weeping. In each case, image-making frames and displaces a scene of personal pain and despair, one authentic, the other staged, but not entirely acted. There is an attentiveness to the arrival of an image that sits beyond relationships, and beyond care for the person depicted – an artistic gaze that looks past distress:

You wait for your eye to sort of ‘turn on’ for the elements to fall into place and that ineffable rush to occur, a feeling of exultation when you look through the ground glass, counting ever so slowly and whispering… holdstillholdstillholdstill.

In admitting this Mann confronts the kind of criticism her work has attracted. It is her photos of her naked children that have been the subject of particular censorship, outrage and abuse. Questions of whose eyes the photographic subject might meet and how any image might be viewed can have an impact on the subject herself.  When ‘Virginia at Four’ (1989), a photo of her naked daughter, was reproduced in a censorious article with black bars covering Virginia’s body, Mann writes that: ‘Heartbreakingly, she wore her shorts and shirt into the bathtub that night after she had seen the picture with the black bars.’

Mann’s aesthetic of ‘scissoring the boxes’ includes not just a lavish recreation of the materials found there – negatives, school reports, notes, items of clothing – but also a cutting-open of secrets, which may not always, arguably, be the artist’s to tell, and questions of ethics and vulnerability. Could the making of an image itself lead to pain? Mann considers various criticisms of her work, many made in letters received, some associated with stalking of her family. What if the making and publishing of an image of innocence has the capacity to make its subject vulnerable? Mann comes to learn that: ‘publishing the images would lead some people to try to tarnish the privacy and innocence that allowed the images to be made in the first place.’

Mann’s sharp, clear prose and box-like neat chapters contain such questions. The memoir’s edges are blade-like, insisting that each question be opened and examined, and enacting the capacity of paper, once cut, to cut. If there is a motif in the memoir and the photos – if there is one thing that holds still – it is doubt, and the courage that propels Mann’s work to encounter it. Mann’s new exhibition ‘Remembered Light’, opens late this month. It remembers Cy Twombly in elegiac photos taken in his studio after his 2011 death, and celebrates their shared creativity and deep friendship. As Mann was preparing the photographs for the exhibition, in June this year, her son Emmett took his own life. The exhibition will be, Mann says, ‘suffused with grief’. While there is also speculation about the impact of this experience, I doubt there is a way to speak of this in the context of the vulnerability and doubt imbuing Mann’s work as a writer and photographer that respects the very differences between life and art, documentation and artwork that her practice explores.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is her ninth book, each of which moves between forms. Bluets (2009) begins its investigation of heartbreak and loss with the line: ‘Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color’, while The Red Parts, subtitled ‘a memoir’ follows Nelson’s haunting by the unsolved murder of her aunt, Jane, and scrutinises misogyny and mourning.

The Argonauts launches its curation of edgy poetic slivers observing form and formlessness with a wry retrospective observation of a self who had ‘spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’ From here she encounters, through her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, an experience of love that makes her ‘feral with vulnerability’ as the couple explores a connection not easily named. Once we name something, Dodge argues: ‘we can never see it in the same way again. All that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered’. Nelson must decide whether to take the risk of looking anew ‘at unnamable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow’.

In Nelson’s creative work and this love relationship, she confronts the same question of looking-anew. If Nelson can renegotiate her relationship with language, she thinks, she might be able to live beyond the nameable, and at the same time, to write another way, beyond received forms, enables this renegotiation. The way to love – in all its feral vulnerability – is also the way to create: to venture into something that doesn’t look like anything else, trusting its uniqueness, distinguishing the terrifying-but-beautiful from the merely terrifying, but risking falling, failing and wounding. Tame love and secure form on one hand, wildness, danger and formlessness on the other. To get beyond what is known, and perhaps into something that might come to be known, involves the risks of ludic adventure exemplified by Bas Jan Ader, as well as braving the intensity of confronting the inconsolable, and presenting the self as ‘vulnerable object’.

One of the book’s questions is: ‘Can everything be thought?’ and two further questions weave a response. How might form and formlessness liberate our thinking and feeling? How might thinking more liberally about form, including the body, and literary form/genre, open possibilities of new ways of being, and of expressing self and relationship? Neither knitted into easy symmetrical analogue, nor knotted into silence, instead each question recurs in different lights.

Part of Nelson’s brilliance is her capacity for imaginative wildness, even if its advent involves feral vulnerability. The revealing chiasmus of her declaration to Dodge exemplifies this: ‘I just want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger.’ Between recoil from being wounded (enacted through anger) and the daring that vivifies life and art (braved through compassion) Nelson holds words to the light and subjects her own behaviour, from the generous and noble to the fearful and grasping, to scrutiny. But if ‘[w]ords change depending on who speaks them and there is no cure’, how might examining them illuminate anything, shifting and fidgeting as they are?

This is the origin of the title inspired by Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, another uniquely self-reflexive work in which the critic makes his own life and self his subject, and involves another instance of regressive citation. Barthes imagines the one to say ‘I love you’ as ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name’. Nelson elaborates:

Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as ‘the very task of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’

Nelson writes about – she writes because – she wants to shuck off a shame attached to language. The eye-roll, the there she goes again that met the young Nelson’s adolescent desire to speak ‘freely, copiously, and passionately’, and her learning to ‘stop talking, to be (impersonate, really) an observer’, led to ‘pouring language onto paper instead’. But this is an uneasy pact. Cordelia, writes Nelson, cannot heave her heart into her mouth, but ‘her refusal to try famously becomes her badge of honour’. But her silence ‘has never moved me, quite; instead, it’s always struck me as a bit paranoid, sanctimonious – stingy, even.’ When Nelson reads an interview with Anne Carson in which certain questions (‘the boring ones? the too personal ones?’) are answered with empty brackets, Nelson feels, again, ashamed of her desire to ‘put her cards on the table’. Yet these brackets seem ‘to make a fetish of the unsaid, rather than simply letting it be contained in the sayable’, an observation that recalls the question in Mann’s work of which images can and can’t be made.

Late in The Argonauts Nelson remembers watching an art porn film and something in one of the artworks causing, via Foucault, ‘that little portal swing open for me: I think we have – and can have – a right to be free’. In this, too, is the possibility of speaking freely, which, as the referential, eclectic nature of the work does, lets her think through Barthes about escaping ‘totalizing’ language, ‘that rides roughshod over specificity.’ Instead, Nelson finds her writing full of uncertainty, like Mann’s doubt. While she might feel fed up with the gendered inculcation of an aspect of things, learning to ‘wipe the sorry off almost every work email I wrote’, the possibility of a fructive, tremulous uncertainty is enabling.

As Dodge, who eschews both male and female pronouns, takes testosterone and undergoes surgery, and Nelson goes through pregnancy and birth (risking ‘falling forever, going to pieces’), their relationship inspires rethinking of what love might mean – and what the body might mean or be within and beyond love.  Alongside this runs a consideration of the literary body, and what might happen if one of the binaries avoided is that between poetry and prose. Nelson is especially concerned with the possibility that ‘prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness’. Instead, Nelson works in slivers, pieces and moments, each opening up into more, a little in the manner of Mann’s boxes and images. Each refers back through her reading and thinking to other texts, refusing origin and destination – like her lover Dodge, refusing limiting notions of gender binaries, who is ‘not on my way anywhere’.

Form, says Ali Smith in the luminous shiver that is the pseudo-essay, un-authored memoir and often-poetic Artful, in ‘its apparent fixity… is all about the relationship of change to continuance, even when the continuance itself is precarious’. And later: ‘It’s about the connecting force from form to form. It’s the toe bone connecting to the shoulder bone. It’s the bacterial kick of life force, something growing out of nothing, forming itself out of something else.’

The restlessness of formal invention evident in work like O’Shaughnessy’s, Mann’s and Nelson’s is aligned, in Smith, with linguistic instability. A fascination with etymology, for instance, is part of a textual unravelling intent on tracing the movement – the shiftingness – of words. The loss that permeates Artful involves a dismantling and remaking of art, such is its openness and vast creativity. The vulnerable state of speaking ‘freely, copiously, and passionately’, as Nelson writes, demands the unsettling of anything fixed. The freedom to craft, from this unsettlement – from the tilt of failure and into whatever must fall, between what can and cannot hold, resisting a cookie-cutter naming that pares away what might hover at the edges of existing words and forms – might be where the wounding and suturing enacted formally in each of these works leads to wildness. Nelson says that she writes: ‘Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding’. Perhaps none of us does. Perhaps form – including literary form and the forms of happiness – is always provisional and shifting. Perhaps it is the state of being ‘feral with vulnerability’ that might produce new ways, new understandings of something we think of as truth.

Discussing another group of writers altogether, Michael Ondaatje, in a lecture titled ‘Mongrel Art’ celebrates such tilts and renewal in terms of translation:  ‘what is magnificent in nearly every one of these writers is their evolving, the translation they made of themselves, refusing to remain who they originally were. They arrived, carrying a past vision and history but also that necessary half-open door in themselves so they could discover the new land.’ In the slant and fall of this, the radical opening and vulnerability, and in abandoning what Nelson calls ‘an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection’, ideas and forms run wild. In these works, as in Dodge’s and Nelson’s love, keeping the door open, while holding still, creates a radical patient faith in, and tolerance of, the unknowable ‘we’re still here, who knows for how long, ablaze with our own care, its ongoing song.’

Works Cited

Marianne Hirsch, ‘Family Pictures: Maus, Mourning, and Post-Memory’, Discourse
Vol. 15, No. 2, Special Issue: The Emotions, Gender, and the Politics of Subjectivity (Winter 1992-93), pp. 3-29
Seth Kim-Cohen, ‘The Artist’s Body as Gravity Makes Itself Its Master: Bas Jan Ader’s Incompetence, talk delivered at the Open Systems symposium, Tate Modern, London, 2005.
Michael Ondaatje, ‘Mongrel Art’, June 13th, 2012, Festival degli Scrittori, Firneze.
Richard B. Woodward, ‘The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann’, The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 27, 1992.
Hilary M. Sheets, ‘After Her Son’s Death, Sally Mann Stages a Haunting Show’, The New York Times, September 6, 2016.