This talk, held February 3 at the CSWR, examined the forms that grief can take, in the work of Zoe Leonard, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and John Constable.
Kate Zambreno is the author of several acclaimed books, including Screen Tests, Heroines, and Green Girl. She has recently published a collection of talks and essays, Appendix Project, in the shadow of Book of Mutter, her meditation on grief. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, VQR, and elsewhere. A novel, "Drifts," is forthcoming in May 2020. She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.
Thanks for coming out this evening. For those of you who don't know, my name is Charles Stang. I have the pleasure of running the center. And it's a great honor and a privilege to welcome Kate Zambreno to the center. My colleague Amy Hollywood is going to introduce Kate, but I just wanted to say a few brief remarks.
First of all, it falls to me as the director to say things like, please silence your cell phone. So please do that now. And then more substantively, I wanted to let you know that Kate's talk tonight is part of an ongoing series at the center-- it's in its third year-- and it's called the Poetry, Philosophy, and Religion Thread.
All kinds of programming are associated with that. Let me just flag two upcoming events. We have Anne Carson coming on March 31st and will not be speaking in this room but across the street at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and that's Tuesday, March 31st. And Fred Moten is coming next year, October 14th. So if you're interested in this thread or any other threads at the center, you want to keep abreast of them, just sign up at that sheet there or you can do so on the website.
If you're specifically interested in this thread around poetry, you should know that we also support a poetry workshop here at the center that meets on Tuesday evenings and another one that meets on Mondays at noon. And I would point you to Sherah Bloor, who is a resident here at the center, who coordinates that Tuesday evening workshop and is also the editor-in-chief of Peripheries, our literary magazine. So I think that is it, and I will welcome to the podium my colleague, Amy Hollywood. Amy Hollywood, who needs no introduction.
Who's going to knock some shit over before. OK. I will try not to knock anything over. I have a bunch of scribbled stuff here because I actually want to write a book about Kate Zambreno. But I realize that you all probably don't want to listen to a book about Kate Zambreno. You might want to listen to one by Kate Zambreno, so I'm going to try to make this brief.
Those of you who know me, which a lot of you don't, but those of you who know me probably know that my father died when I was 23 years old. And that is something that has been a shadow over my life. And when I began to read Kate Zambreno's work-- I think the first thing I came across was Heroines, which came out in 2012-- and from that, Gone Girl-- excuse me, Green Girl. I'm glad you didn't, but I also-- yeah. I can see the attraction. Green Girl, which came out in 2011, and has been relatively recently reissued that I realized there was a shadow of death over her writing in a way that has kept me compelled and interested. The death of daughters, the death of mothers, the death of the wives of modernists-- a variety of deaths that cut across and through and transverse her work.
One of the things I am most aware of-- and acutely aware of-- in the attempt to introduce Kate Zambreno is that she often, I think most often, refers to herself as a writer rather than a novelist, say, or a poet, or an essayist, or any of the many other things that one might use. And I'm acutely aware of the fact that in Heroines, she talks about the speaker of that book, which I always take to be Kate Zambreno, as a character at least, talks about wanting to be a writer, working to be a writer. And somebody says, what do you write. And she says, novels, because that's what you're supposed to write if you want to be a writer.
Kate Zambreno has written novels-- O Fallen Angel from 2010, which is a really astonishing triptych of voices, mommy, Maggie, and Malachi speaking in trite and beautiful and anguished voice about an American tragedy and the tragedy that is America. Green Girl from 2011, which is the early 21st century Ophelia. the line, green girls from Polonius speaking to Ophelia. She's also Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil-- they're all in the book, and they're all in the voice of and the person of the central character in Green Girl, who is living out her attempt to become a person, I think, is one way she would put it.
And there's a forthcoming novel, Drifts, that I think is coming out next fall. Is that right? May? Oh, May. Soon. OK. Never mind. Sooner. Yes. That's exciting. And in addition to that, Kate has written a series of books that are unclassifiable, what she calls a shadow, a Book of Mutter, or Book of Mutter, depending on how-- I don't know how to pronounce it-- which appeared in 2017 that is haunted by the death of a mother. It's a shadow book that speaks to the shadow that is already named in Heroines. In Heroines, she writes, "I write this book of shadow histories, these histories of books and shadows."
In a book that follows Book of Mutter, Book of Mutter, Appendix Project. There are 11 essays, appendices-- I'm not sure exactly what to call them-- that are things in some part things left out of Book of Mutter and others, instances, things that are elaborated in the wake of Book of Mutter. I think everything was written in the year after the book was published.
And in this penultimate essay of that she cites someone who is really important to me, the work of Susan Howe. And she cites Susan Howe saying, "it's the stutter in American literature that interests me," and adds to that, the stutter is, for me, the mutter. I think that perfectly gets at the range of writings that Kate Zambreno has produced. Shadows, tellings, appendices, screenshots, essays, and literary excavations, novels, criticism, homage, elegy, hauntings, explorations-- all of it is writing that, as she puts it in the Appendix Project-- excuse me-- writing that is an attempt to make rooms in which the reader can live, that the reader can inhabit.
This reader has inhabited them with great joy and a great sense of affiliation and a great sense of love. And so it's really a profound pleasure for me to invite Kate Zambreno to speak to us today, to have her here, to talk to us today, to the open fragments towards the unfinished. Thank you.
Wow, thank you so much. That was a thrilling introduction. Thank you. What Amy didn't say is that I think-- well, because, I mean, it's for me to say is that Sensible Ecstasy was a huge, huge book for me when I was writing Green Girl and writing Heroines. And it's such a thrill to be in conversation with Amy and to be invited here to the Center for the Study of World Religions.
The series on Poetry, Philosophy and Religion is very exciting to me. It's very exciting to be asked to give a talk thinking through poetry and religion and philosophy. Thank you to Charles Stang for inviting me and to Ariella Goldberg for organizing and for everything. I have a PowerPoint. If it stops working, I will stop using it. So I'm going to be talking about an unfinished film of David Wojnarowicz. I won't have images for it because I wasn't allowed to take pictures from it and it's not available. So we'll just have to imagine the film.
Into the open, fragments towards the unfinished. Up at 4:00 AM, cannot think. Thinking about this talk. Perhaps the only time to confront grief or the fact of one's mortality is at 4:00 in the morning. I sit on the couch in the dark, except for now the glow of my laptop screen. The streetlights coming in through the gauzy curtain in the kitchen and the front room, it glows too. A ghost or haunting. The thrum of the refrigerator, of the humidifier in the next room. No traffic on the street. No people shouting. How strange this calm.
If this talk is a collage film, I don't want this to be a series of fast cuts. I prefer instead a series of still, barely moving meditations. I can't stop thinking of the famous photograph by David Wojnarowicz. With a herd of buffalo falling off the cliff, tumbling to their deaths. The almost abstraction of these biomorphic black forms and then the horror of piecing together the narrative.
Looking at this photograph, how the bodies are both kinetic, seemingly falling, and still, as if frozen, and how this sense of stillness is more pronounced when one knows that this is a photograph of a diorama at the Natural History Museum in DC. These are already dead animals, taxidermied to life, arranged and suspended in a never-ending dynamic stasis. This photograph is always read as a response to the 1980s AIDS crisis. The near extinction of American Buffalo in the 19th century, mirroring the devastating and senseless speed of the loss of so many lives to governmental and institutional ignorance and refusal.
But now that I've been spending time meditating on the profound mourning of David Wojnarowicz, his elegiac gaze in the days and years after the death of his soul mate and once lover, Peter Hujar, I also see more layers in this photograph. I see the profound beauty and the profound sorrow, what I would also call an ecological sorrow, that mirrors so much of Hujar's own photographs of landscapes and animals.
That Wojnarowicz is not only referencing the history he is living and dying in, but also seeing the devastation of the past, the extinction of not only the buffalo, who once freely roamed in packs in massive numbers, by the careless slaughters by white hunters for sport, but also the way of life, of ritual, for the Plains Indians, who regarded the buffalo in their hunting as something sacred. But there's also grace in this image, such profound beauty in this gaze of death of history that I think is also supposed to linger there suspended.
A still life painting was referred to in the Italian as dead nature. That the artist took this photograph while in DC, I imagine on the same trip to see the AIDS memorial quilt. His silent filming on Super 8 of the slow and synchronized unfolding of the quilt on the National Mall, a space the size of a football field, the panning to Peter Hujar's square with his name, a cloth reproduction of the [INAUDIBLE] moving upwards to a drawing by David of a figure climbing a tree. Peter Hujar, 1934 to 1987.
When I saw this fragment from his unfinished film on the little TV screen wheeled out for me in the studious silence of the Fales Library at NYU, where the David Wojnarowicz archives are held, something like weeping began to choke my throat. Something of the solemnity of the gesture of unfolding, of unfolding and unfolding this great open space to find it filled with beauty and with death.
Earlier, I had paged through, slowly and carefully, instructed to lay the book flat and on its proper rest. David Wojnarowicz's copy of Peter Hujar's 1976 portraits in life and death, the only book of photography published in his lifetime. There's nothing that signals that it was David's copy. There's no marker heat to it. But thinking about it now, I realize that this is because this book was most likely a sacred object to him.
I read first Susan Sontag's introduction. Another image that is also like a memento mori-- Susan Sontag in her hospital bed, uninsured, having just been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 41, quickly writing the introduction to her friend's photography book. Sontag, who shared with Hujar this closeness and desire to contemplate death through meditations on photography, the skull she kept on her writing desk. Photographers, she notes, are recording angels of death but also connoisseurs of beauty.
The images from the book, from the vantage point of me paging through it, appear like a montage of ghosts. First, the portraits of the then living, friends and artists Hujar admired, in isolation that he sensed in each of them, lying down on a bed. Sontag herself in her turtleneck, stoic and magnificent, slightly gray around the temples. A self-portrait of Hujar, naked handsome, possibly post-coital, the twist of the sheets underneath his head.
Then there is an abrupt juxtaposition, a blank page. The photographs Hujar took quickly in the Palermo catacombs years earlier while on a trip to Sicily with the artist Paul Thek. There is a beauty to his compositions, as always-- the taxonomy of corpses and bones. I get the conceptual juxtaposition, the horizontal bodies laid to rest. Sontag again. Photography also converts the whole world into his cemetery, to contemplate both the grace and the horror of death. It's a particular gaze that Hujar and Wojnarowicz both share that I would almost call religious.
There is a small statue located at the Met Cloisters that I've been meditating on lately. Because of its size, it was most likely meant for a home altar. It is an early 14th-century example of a pieta from Germany known as vesperbild. What interests me about this particular example is its grotesqueness, like Hujar's photographs of the Palermo catacombs. Mary mourns a shrunken, emaciated body, already decomposing. The Met's description copy tells me that the small size of the Christ figure might reflect the writings of medieval German mystics who believe that the mother, in the excruciation of her grief, might have imagined she was again holding a baby in her arms.
This collapse of time and space happens to Roland Barthes when his mother dies and he looks at the photographs of her as a child, specifically the mythical and unprinted photograph of her in her innocence that he calls the Winter Garden photograph. In an attempt to locate her, which he documents and thinks through in the fleshly agonized part two of Camera Lucida. He is now alone in the apartment where he once lived with her and took care of her in her illness. There is an exhaustion, almost a vertigo, in which he meditates on his mother as child. Something of the leftover survival energy that is care-taking for someone who is no longer there. The ambiguity and instability of this role, where he was all at once father, mother, caregiver, son.
Quote, "during her illness, I nursed her, held the bowl of tea she liked because it was easier to drink from than from a cup. She had become my little girl, uniting for me with that essential child she was in her first photograph." The language that Barthes uses here to imagine his mother's suffering resembles the mystical, like Margaret Ebner having visions of both nursing the infant Christ, imagining him on the cross. Later, he writes, "I, who had not procreated, I had in her very illness engendered my mother."
Further on in his meditation, Barthes uses even more explicitly theological language to describe the effects of the photograph, thinking explicitly about the sacredness of the Winter Garden photograph. The treasure of rays which emanated from my mother as a child, from her hair, her skin, her dress, her gaze on that day. "Photography," he writes, "deals with resurrection," then referencing the image of Christ, which impregnated Veronica's napkin during the stations of the cross. He always envied the visual iconography of Catholicism, he writes.
The sorrowful contemplation of the Pieta the tragedy of an early death. These early vesperbild statues, so alive and grotesque, coincided with the medieval plague, the Black Death, where the afflicted would suffer extremely and be dead within days. The need to meditate on this horror of losing a loved one with such speed defined within it both compassion and grace.
What happens when a person is suddenly missing? As soon as Peter Hujar died in his hospital room, David Wojnarowicz immediately took his Super 8 camera and performed a slow gesture of filming across his body and also took 23 still photographs, a mystical number for Wojnarowicz-- each human cell containing 23 pairs of chromosomes. I sit in the room at Fales and watch this fragment. I finally find it on a DVD entitled, Mexico, et cetera, Peter, et cetera. There's something religious and painterly about this moving still.
The sharper features of Hujar's face, as if out of an El Greco. I fixate on the crumpled sheet at the end of the bed, the beauty and abstraction of this form, and keep on thinking of Hujar's handsome self-portrait in bed, the tangle of the sheets. It's horrible to look at, but also undeniably moving, taking me back to all the hands I have held on hospital beds as they took their last breaths and then were gone, to all the bodies that seem to have disappeared before they are really gone, to my agony as to whether their souls have traveled or dispersed.
Wojnarowicz writes about his compulsion to take out his camera and begin recording as soon as his friend and loved one died, first in his 1987 diary and then later rewritten in his title essay in Peter Hujar's Dying and Death in Close to the Knives. It is an extraordinarily beautiful passage full of such characteristic propulsion and also getting close to some truth about how Hujar's death was a catalyst for the younger artists, how witnessing his death and choosing to record it, and soon later, the awareness that he too was afflicted with AIDS and was going to die, although he would have a few years instead of months, was something like an inner experience for him.
There's so much that's been said and written about the importance of David Wojnarowicz as an activist and the urgency of his rage, and I know all that to be true. But I want to think about the beauty of his extreme mourning, about the ecstatic insights brought about by his sorrow. Douglas Crimp in his pivotal essay, Mourning and Militancy, published in the 1989 issue of October, theorizes Crimp's own activism within the AIDS crisis.
Rereading Freud's Mourning and Melancholia amidst the agonizing repetition of constant memorials, Crimp argues for the political urgency of mourning and [? sudden ?] tension with the belief within act up that to mourn was to not be active, not angry enough. Profound mourning, according to Freud, meant a turning away, a lack of interest in the outside world. But in the elegiac gaze of David Wojnarowicz in the days after Peter Hujar's death there is even more awareness of the relationship of the self to others as well as a desire towards transcendence.
First this passage in Close to the Knives, only slightly altered from his original journal entry. "I surprised myself. I barely cried. When everyone left the room, I closed the door and pulled the Super 8 camera out of my bag and did a sweep of his bed, his open eye, his open mouth, that beautiful hand with the hint of gauze at the wrist that held the IV needle, the color of his hand, like marble, the full sense the flesh of it. Then the still camera, portraits of his amazing feet, his head, that open eye again. I kept trying to get the light I saw in the eye.
And then the door flew open and a nun rushed in, babbling about how he'd accepted the church. And I looked at this guy in the bed with his outstretched arm, and I think, but he's beyond that. He's more there than the words coming from her containing these images of spirituality. I mean, just the essence of death, the whole taboo structure in this culture, the mystery of it, the fears and joys of it, the flight it contains, this body of my friend on the bed, this body of my brother, my father, my emotional link to the world. This body I don't know. This pure and cutting air. Just all these thoughts and sensations, this death, this event produces in bystanders contains more spirituality than any words we can manufacture."
Here, he's wrestling with wanting to find spirituality with the metaphysics of death beyond the official language of the religion he detests but has incorporated within himself, wrestling with his loved one who has insisted on the rights of a Catholic funeral mass. Reading his agonies in his 1987 diary, swallowed up by the week after Hujar's death, he constantly meditates on silence, on the impossibility of language to articulate the mysteries of death, something of the sacred.
I'm also reminded of what Blanchot, rereading Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge, theorizes as the two kinds of death-- the anonymous, mass-produced death, which Rilke's narrator has such a horror of, and then the death that can be one's own death, a sort of sovereign death, Blanchot thinking through his friend Bataille. This is what I believe Wojnarowicz is fighting against in his elegiac writing and filming of and towards Hujar, sort of grace and dignity to give him back the dignity that the violence of homophobia and the hysterical fear of contagion has denied him in the last months of his life.
When I first wanted to write about this unfinished film I had only read about, I wanted to write about the footage of the beluga whales at Coney Island aquarium which Wojnarowicz shot, that he then juxtaposed with the fragments of Hujar's dead body. Hujar loved to go to the aquarium, and he had gone with Wojnarowicz in his exhaustion and had watched the whales in the tank for some time. It became a mythical sequence for me.
Finally at Fales I found it on the DVD marked Mexico, et cetera, Peter et cetera. I watched the whales filmed in black and white move around and around in their enclosure, barely turning. I felt the vibrations of their body. In his journal, Wojnarowicz writes about his obsessive search to film the beluga whales, driving on the West Side Highway through the tunnel into Brooklyn. Those whales are so beautiful, pale, almost gray white bodies streaming through the sun, luminous waters of a giant tank. All the mysteries of the world were somehow answered in their form and imagined intellect, he writes. But on his first trip to the aquarium, the glass case was emptied of water. There's just four whales swimming in a shallow pool.
In his essay Close to Knives, he begins juxtaposing narrative scenes of Hujar's illness and the inhumane and incompetent quacks Hujar and others go to with facts about beluga whales. After giving birth, a female whale produces more than 200 gallons of milk a day. He does this twice within the essay. These two atomistic facts that I think contemplate the life of the whale outside of captivity, and then abandons this in the rest of the essay, not mentioning his drive to fill the whales, a strange porousness across his film and his writing that I've always wanted to search after.
I don't know how to juxtapose this talk with the facts I now know about beluga whales. I'd spent some time earlier trying to locate where those beluga whales are now. They have been moved to the aquarium in Georgia, and all of them have died. The life of a beluga whale in captivity is cruelly abbreviated and very few of their calves actually survive in captivity. In the oceans, the whales do nurse for many years, and the calves ride around on top of their mothers.
As with his photograph of the buffalo diorama, I do believe that a sorrow and awareness of the lives of animals is coupled with a gaze of grace and beauty. He writes in his journal, "and the idea of animals that embody such grace and intellect and gentleness of it all seem so perfect to me. I think of Peter, I think of those whales, I think of sad innocence in the face of death and the turning of this planet." Something similar here to what Rilke writes in his eighth elegy. Rilke, known for his poem about the panthers gaze behind bars, how the gaze nearing death is the gaze of the always watchful animal who within has the weight and despair of a great sorrow.
In the days after his death, Wojnarowicz begins to film fragments for a film about Peter Hujar, a film that will remain unfinished, that operates as an archive. He is now living at Hujar's monk cell at 189 Second Avenue, as with Barthes, the survival energy of the former caretaker located in the same space previously occupied by the deceased. He describes being in his loft and looking at Hujar's bathtub and realizing the passage of time and seasons. Hujar died end of November. The bathtub is now filled with winter leaves, but Hujar's body is not there. There is the bed where Hujar laid for those months, sinking into the mattress. Now Wojnarowicz's body has replaced his.
What I find most interesting in Freud's essay on mourning is that mourning for him is related to time. It's a necessary ritual of duration. For Freud, this means it expires. It can be overcome, unlike melancholia, the other more pathological loss of a love object. How seasons still change, time still passes, yet one is still mourning. How slow and fast it is at the same time.
During the 15 minutes entitled, Footage for a Film about Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz's hand pages through the books in Hujar's home, a sort of shrine. Slowly flipping through Hujar catalog under the window, people walking by down below, life's still happening, focusing on a naked self portrait. A book of Renaissance paintings, the naked body of St. Sebastian, a series of childhood photos which Wojnarowicz writes about in his journal. Then in the third day after his death, he spreads these photos out on the bed thinking, how could this mother not love this boy?
It is hard to decipher time exactly, how many days have passed in the journal. There is a sense that this all began, this ritualistic writing and filming the process of grief, on the third day when he notes the, quote, "Tibetan papers say it's time for the spirit to leave the body." Peter wanted not to be embalmed, to be wrapped in cloth and put into a white or plain pine box and buried within 24 hours after a Catholic mass. He wanted time and no disturbance so his spirit could leave his body uninterfered with. The Tibetan papers had three days of his spirit wandering, trying to communicate with people. The paper said not to do anything that would disturb the spirit. Don't rush for his money or property. I made a simple altar or shrine on one of the large photograph tables on the side wall with an enormous beeswax candle, honeycomb wrapped round and round we found in a drawer cabinet.
Earlier that day, or perhaps the day before-- time blurs in the grief journal-- he drives to the grave, hours upstate, at Gates of Heaven in Valhalla, New York. He takes on his mentor's own photographic gaze. The elegies of his landscapes and ruins, he writes. Driving north on a gray day filled with random spots of rain on a dirty windshield. All those bird nests high in the winter tree, everything rich and black and brown, the serious rich black of his photographs, almost wet looking. He walks around the cemetery trying to find Hujar, trying to find his spirit. The passages in this [INAUDIBLE] are so ecstatic and searching.
I see a white light fixed my eyes to the plowed earth and see a white powerful light, like burning magnesium covering the soil. His body in a semi-curled position, surrounded by white light floating, hovering, maybe three feet from the ground. I try talking to him, wondering if he knows I'm there. He sees me. I know he sees me. He's in the wind, in the air all around me. He covers fields, like a fine mist.
His writing of nature and landscape is also elegiac, a pastoral way of writing ruins, part of how he sees life and death, open and porous. I see him, sense him in the hole down there under the Earth's surface. I sense him without the covering of the pine box. The box no longer exists in my head. Not til later that I realize, I didn't see the box-- just a huge, wide earth-- just grass, and field, and trees, and me, my shape in the wet air, and clouds like gauze, like gray overlapping, and fog.
Later that day, or perhaps it's another day, he sees his friend, the artist Kiki Smith, at another memorial at St. Mark's church. It is raining constantly. The constant and numbing repetition of these funerals. They hold each other and weep, and he invites her back to Hujar's loft to have some sort of ceremony. The exquisite almost liturgical writing here. He puts on Adagio G Minor, at the time credited to Tomaso Albinoni. He spreads out the photographs on the bed, and he wants his friend to dance with him. They try to waltz, but he can't coordinate his body, so she begins whirling around the room. The rain comes in roaring. The curtains blow through like open veils. Always in these entries, gauze, veils, cloth, curtains, windows.
Wojnarowicz writes, "and the rain, and the rain, and the rain. And for a moment, everything went loose in my head. And I was beaming some kind of joy. And I was happy for him. Happy that he could be seeing this naive body starting to loosen this man and woman, whirling and in an invisible flutter of cloth and feet."
It is in the next days that Wojnarowicz continues his film of Peter Hujar, a desire to record impressions and images, especially outside in nature. In this period, he imagines as a Bordeaux. He drives to New Jersey, where they are both from, where Hujar also frequently returned to take photographs of abandoned spaces and animals and fields. He writes, "decided to make this film of the process of grief, of what Peter impressed in me, various images that came intuitively, associations, particular moments in memory revolving back like a stack of cards in some old brass box with an invisible hand grinding the lever.
Got in the car to head to the great Jersey swamp. 6,000 acres that in the 1950s were to be paved and turned into an airport, ruining virgin forests, primordial place where dinosaurs once slept. All these heavy grace clouds these days. Huge dark flapping wet curtains over the stage of the earth. I got into the car and drove shaking and rattling over to the west side and through the tunnel. Brought the Super 8 camera and almost loaded it in case of sudden impulse situations. Drove with the rest of the world along the turnpike. Grief or loss, Peter is all around me, but he's suddenly transparent."
There's always the most beautiful description of clouds in these journals. Postcard clouds with fire rays of light colliding against the firm, shark gray of the horizon, which reminds me of his often quoted comment to his friend and fellow activist Zoe Leonard when she worried about the aerial photographs of clouds she's been taking, worried that they were not political enough. "Don't ever give up on beauty. We're fighting so that we can have things like this, so that we can have beauty again."
There is an incredibly lyric and mournful description of the red tail lights in the rain on the highway and suddenly seeing a pack of stray dogs standing around the body of another dog recently struck by a car that calls to mind Hujar's own photographs of animals. In the driving snow, they sniffed at his forum, unwilling to leave it behind. Again, I think of Rilke's 8th elegy when thinking about Wojnarowicz's meditations on the mournfulness of the animal and its relationship to the otherness of death. With all their sight, the creatures go into the open.
In the space of literature, Blanchot reading Rilke thinks through this concept of the open. The open is the poem, he writes, the space of porous between life and death. The space where everything returns to deep being, where there is infinite passage between the two domains, where everything dies but where death is the learned companion of life, where horror is ravishing joy, where celebration laments and lamentation praises. The very space towards which all worlds hasten as toward their nearest and truest reality. The space of the mightiest circulation of ceaseless metamorphosis. This is the poem space.
In the stillness of the interior space, things are translated into silence, Blanchot writes, rereading one of Rilke's last poems. With this in mind, I read this journal of mourning within the space of the open, which is the space of the poem. David Wojnarowicz writes of the ecstasy of walking around the swamp, life around him, both still, then alive everywhere. The description of the lights of the trees of the wintry cold air. He turns on the camera and begins running, shooting bursts of film, jumping over fallen branches of trees. He sees a stream, sets up the camera, strips off his clothes, and begins splashing himself with water.
I felt amazing. I could have gone naked in the odd warmth and comfort of those trees. After getting dressed, took the camera, and did whirling beneath the trees. The light and gray filled sky, the clouds becoming patchy and animal. Train the lens on fragments of water surface containing sky and trees and broke the surface with pale hands, rubbing sediments, broken dark leaves, cold clean water over my hands. World again, chase mammal height, the surface of the forest floor, spinning around trees and rolled over and over among them. Felt nauseous from all the whirling. My breath, thick and pumping. All the clean air felt my body in some strange ways its mortality-- its thumping heart, its fear and loss, its small madnesses.
He's surrounded in his grief by pure being, the unknown of life, of the relationship of the self to the body, the self to the natural world catalyzes something within him. There is awareness in this work of days, this morning diary, of the essence of mortality, of life ending and then opening. When I began this research, I found something so devastating about the film being unfinished, unable to be found except in fragments, recited as myths and biographies and essays.
The beluga whales swim around and around. But now I see the beauty and the devastation. It's like the life of an artist cruelly cut short. The work is the work. It's the fragments. It's the process, the private and the ritual. There's joy to this, to the search, to the space of the open. Thank you.