Reflex and wonder

I’ve written about it before: a block from my house there’s a playground with a soccer field where cattle egrets forage. As the big riding lawnmower makes its rounds there, they follow it, pacing off the greenness in silent, dignified strides.

As I was picking up my newspaper this morning, I heard a loud noise, looked up from the lawn, and saw that I was abreast of a semi-trailer hauling the lawnmower away. Behind and above the trailer, flapping hard, followed one of the egrets, keeping up as best he could. For about a block more he continued, but then the truck picked up speed and left him behind.

Alone, the bird made a turn, soared to treetop level, and rose, white into white-clouded blue. I remembered what I had learned about Pavlov’s dogs and Lorenz’s geese and nature’s school where we learn motive and desire, but the white arc hinted that there may always be an unknown, somewhere in the air, to fill us with surprise and love.

Second homes

March 20, 1939: Gershom Scholem, in Jerusalem, writes to Walter Benjamin, in Paris:

I’ll be traveling to Port Said at the beginning of next week, to see my mother for three hours once again when her ship [carrying her from Germany to exile in Australia] puts into harbor there: this is likely to be our last meeting by human reckoning. I’ll be writing much more soon. I will certainly make use of any opportunity I might somehow, somewhere, come across for you. I am asking myself whether you shouldn’t try to get into the U.S.A. while you still can, and whether that wouldn’t be better for you than anything else. (251)

September 25, 1942: snow falls in Iowa and Illinois, USA. For the weather bureau in Des Moines this is the first September snowfall on record, and elsewhere in the state the football game between Garner and Buffalo Center has to be called after wet, wind-blown snow breaks seven lights on the field. On a train, the conductor and brakeman are impressed enough to make a note. In chalk, one of them writes “1′ / of Snow 9-25 5 PM” on one of the rafters that support the roof of his caboose. The words will still be there four months later, when the photographer Jack Delano records a moment in the history of the caboose for the Office of War Information.
Click to enlarge.

To posterity, Delano will later explain: “Freight train operations on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa. The caboose is the conductor’s second home. He always uses the same one and many conductors cook and sleep there while waiting for trains to take back from division points.” After Delano, other viewers of the image will follow his narrative to its completion. To the comment stream where I found the image on, one will contribute the weather report for September 25, 1942, while others will observe the splatters of tobacco juice on the floorboards and the different sorts of girls’ pictures on the bulkheads. Those data are precious to the commentators because they are history, because there are no cabooses now. The commentators explain: brakemen are no longer needed to watch for fires under the train because wheel bearings are no longer packed with oil-soaked rags; and switches now are thrown electrically under radio control, not manually by a brakeman who has climbed down from a caboose; and air pressure in the train’s brake lines is now read and communicated to the engineer by electronic sensors, not by a brakeman swinging a lantern.

But the brakeman in Jack Delano’s picture doesn’t know. For the camera he is wearing new overalls and a new shirt and smoking a pipe, as many American men did in January 1943, the month that shows on the calendar beside his head. Photography has done its magic again; looking, we believe the moment can be 1943 forever, with the pipe scenting the air along with coal smoke from the iron stove. And above the conductor’s head, as he sits at his desk, is the punctum of the men’s presence in the moment: inconspicuous on the bulkhead behind the girl prettily standing on tiptoe to hang laundry on a line the way American women did in 1943, an air pressure gauge. Until that indicated a certain number to a brakeman, a train in 1943 couldn’t move. But of course there’s nothing left of any of this information, now, except a still photographic image bearing pictures of a conductor and a brakeman and some scribbled words and some pretty girls who are less likely than the two men in their little portable home to have gone invisible to memory.

As to Gershom Scholem’s mother, she disappears from the text of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem after the sentence I’ve quoted above. The correspondence itself ends fourteen pages later. We know how it turned out. In an appendix, Scholem notes that cemetery attendants in Port Bou “who, in consideration of the number of inquiries, wanted to assure themselves of a tip” (268) used to show visitors an enclosed plot of ground and tell them it was Benjamin’s grave. But it wasn’t a grave.

Here below are some more plats of homes from which Walter Benjamin was absented. And Susan Schultz, whose mother now listens as an attendant in what’s called a home reads to her from The Little Prince, thinks of exile and a lost kingdom and writes:

There was a happy ending, at least for a time. Using dowsing sticks, they found a spot, unmarked by stone or twig, dug until they reached a vein of water. They drank from the same bucket, sharing more than the cold water. But then the daughters came, and their retinues, and their resentments, even the youngest one’s recovered love. There were swords and bitter words, nothing water could wash away, not yet.




*  “Haifa, British Mandate Palestine, circa 1940. ‘Swimming pool at the Casino, Bat Galim neighborhood.’ Medium-format acetate negative by the American Colony Photo Department/Matson Photo Service.”


Works cited:

The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 1932-1940. Ed. Gershom Scholem, trans. Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere. New York: Schocken, 1989.

Schultz, Susan. “King Lear Enters The Little Prince., 25 April 2011.


Funny, you don’t look . . .

like the author of Under the Volcano.



Click to enlarge.

is the modernist poet Mina Loy (1882-1966), who wrote about the moon:


A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia


In what’s called real life, Mina Loy was Mina Löwy. But a respectable anthology of the not invariably respectable, Alex Danchev’s 100 Artists’ Manifestos, from the Futurists to the Stuckists (Penguin, 2011), christens her (on p. 62) Löwry.

And this, at a characteristic moment,

is Lowry.


The poetics of cleansing

As of April 21 my new WordPress blog hasn’t yet been found by Googlebot, but it already seems to be picking up more spam comments in a week than the old Blogger blog attracted in six months. The latest one compliments my brilliance and then extends an invitation to advertise something called Juice Cleanse Detoxify, and the more I look at that phrase in my own blog’s composing window the more seductive it seems.

After all, the notion that the literal or figurative body is a vessel full of poison is not just perdurable but ancient. Walt Whitman, who suffered from chronic constipation, was always writing himself resolutions to purify and then rebuild his body, and the metaphor is prevalent throughout nineteenth-century America, from the writings of the health lecturer Sylvester Graham, “the peristaltic persuader,” to the Book of Mormon. In twentieth-century Europe, too, Gottfried Benn was attacked by a fellow Nazi, the propaganda painter Wolfgang Willrich, in a book which was called Säuberung des Kunsttempels, or “Cleansing the Temple of Art.” In that title the metaphor presumably (I haven’t read the book) comes from the Bible, perhaps by way of Psalm 51: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” At the opening of the Mass, the priest symbolically purifies the congregation by sprinkling holy water as he chants that verse.

Willrich’s own art was pure in the extreme;

Click to enlarge

Benn’s perhaps less so. Taking notes in wartime like a responsible clinician, Dr. Benn observed one of his fellow officers in the act of commenting on his own language practice — “I command only once” — and then completed the communication by completing the predication: “The subject was latrine-cleaning” (58). That realized a little zone of the world by anchoring its language to the soiled human actuality of a toilet brush. As spoken by the officer, the phrase “I command only once” could have significance only for the officer, but after the poet translated it into what Wordsworth called “the language really spoken by men,” it acquired communicable meaning.

But the art of Willrich’s portrait begins by expelling the really spoken. Erase the black, says this art, and leave the paper white; purge the unclean and leave the perceiving eye nothing to perceive but the clean. Willrich’s head model has been cleaned that way by the artist’s charcoal, and so he no longer senses the persuasions of his lower body. Erased from within, his expression has lost the fascia that once made it move. You can’t believe you could see through that unmoving face into a mind full of thought, as you might believe in front of a portrait by Rembrandt. A head by Willrich has no body, and there is nothing inside it except paper. The paper is a painter’s, too, not a poet’s. It’s blank and wordless.

As for me writing words in the postwar, I dismissed as spam my commentator’s persuasive invitation to collaborate in the ongoing work of cleansing and detoxifying. But thanks anyway for thinking of me, anonymous bringer of hyssop from the ancient world.


Work cited: “Block II, Room 66,” trans. E. B. Ashton. Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, ed. Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987), 53-63.


Landscape with wires and boat

Sunset, Kamiloiki Valley, Honolulu, April 17, 2011
Click to enlarge.

This landscape is a complex of the human and the inhuman, changing as the inhuman light changes around it. Because it’s a complex, it’s available to interpretation and judgment and the partialities of art. But photography’s way of recording the changing sky over a changed ground seems different from anything else available to a human artist. Consider, by way of contrast, this written recording.

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am.

The landscape through which Henry David Thoreau travels here is a constructed one with people in it, and Thoreau observes it and the people with all his senses. This passage from Walden begins in the kinesthetics of a solitary walk and expands into the stylized dance of the social. But then, magically, its grammar changes and it makes an escape from anything that might merely be seen, as it might be in a photograph.

Photography, after all, is the art of the indicative mood. It originates in the idea of a fully automatic, fully self-generating art, one in which the human artist is reduced to the subordinate function of middleman between the camera and its subject. Of course that automatism never completes itself by becoming fully inhuman; it’s always interrupted by the moment when a human being decides whether or not to allow the shutter to open. But a human being holding a camera is more anchored to the indicative and its limitations than a human being holding, say, a paintbrush. The indicative will impose its agenda.

The photographer Arthur Fellig, for instance, worked under the byline of Weegee, as in “Ouija board,” because (he said) his agenda gave him psychic powers. The moment a photogenic crime occurred, Weegee said, his elbow would start itching, and that was the agenda’s order to get in his car with its developing tank and contact printer in the trunk, turn on the police radio, and head for the scene. Once he was there, the equipment could take over and carry the agenda to completion. Look, Weegee’s Speed Graphic and flashbulb and high-contrast paper would say then: blood on the sidewalk. But – perhaps because Thoreau’s walk to town along the railroad track is described in the chapter of Walden called “Sounds” – it ends in a soaring upward from the completely seen, in the indicative mood, to the not yet seen, in the optative.

I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

And with the recording of that sentence, photography has been left behind. Photography, it turns out, is an art form incapable of communicating a future tense. In the moments when it communicates wide-eyed with us, what it communicates is only the Little did they know sense of the present learning the truth that the past has been trying to say. Thoreau’s art is an art looking upward from the lighted earth to a not yet illuminated future; photography is an art caught forever on the boundary of blinding light between what we see in the present and what we are about to cease forever to see.

For recording his subjects’ instants on that boundary, Weegee preset the Speed Graphic to f16 and always used flash.


About Weegee: