Monday, November 15, 2010

`A Little Space of Order'

My brother has posted a striking photograph he took behind his house in suburban Cleveland, the house in which we grew up, at dawn on Saturday. It may resemble a lighthouse in Maine or an Egyptian obelisk but in fact the black tower seen in silhouette is the chimney my father erected forty years ago when he built a fireplace in the bedroom my brother and I once shared. In 1964, we had moved into our own rooms on the second floor and the bedroom became a family room. The fireplace occupies the space where my bed once stood, where I looked out the window in search of Explorer I and listened late at night to the crystal radio I built and grounded on the radiator.

We’ve always joked about the oversized dimensions of the chimney, the fireplace and everything else our father built (including us). The black line in the lower right corner of the photo is a steel beam added to brace the chimney. The fireplace, built of stone and brick, looks substantial enough to smelt iron but couldn’t be used because it filled the house with smoke. My father’s most benign legacy to me was a sustaining aversion to the large, ungainly and ponderous (rock operas, house trailers, Charles Olson). In general my preference is for the small-scaled, graceful and understated. In “The Goldsmith,” the English poet Clive Wilmer suggests the sensibility I’m describing:

“To stay anxiety I engrave this gold,
Shaping an amulet whose edges hold
A little space of order: where I find,
Suffused with light, a dwelling for the mind.”

At some level I judge most works of art against the ideal of “A little space of order.” I’m pleased Wilmer chooses “amulet” over “necklace” or “bracelet.” An amulet is charmed. More than a beautiful object, it possesses powers, supernatural or otherwise, like any work of art. Wilmer also edited Unto this Last, and Other Writings (Penguin, 1986), a selection from Ruskin’s work. In a passage Wilmer takes from The Stones of Venice, Ruskin writes:

“But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewellery [sic] and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence.”

[The text accompanying my brother’s photograph comes from an interview with another "noble human intelligence," Muddy Waters: “Saturday night is your big night. Everybody used to fry up fish and have one hell of a time. Find me playing till sunrise for 50 cents and a sandwich.”]

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