Tuesday, July 20, 2010

`Fraying, Tattered, Cracked, Flattened, Swollen'

The most enjoyable new book (new to me: it was published in 2003) I’ve read in a long time – enjoyable because its author is intelligent, friendly and deeply interested in her subject – is Owls Head by Rosamond Purcell, a photographer who befriends William Buckminster, owner for more than half a century of an eleven-acre scrap yard in Owls Head, Maine. The book simultaneously chronicles Buckminster’s life, the culture of coastal Maine and Purcell’s slowly evolving relations with Buckminster. It is gently, unpretentiously philosophical, a meditation on mutability, nature and art. She writes:

“I spend most of my life surrounded by man-made objects. I am familiar with the surface of things. To find them embedded in the natural world was a newfound pleasure—still—I had never seen so much stuff to which so much had happened. Fraying, tattered, cracked, flattened, swollen, dried, scrawny, collapsed, shredded, peeling, torn, warped, weathered, faded, bristling, moldy, clenched, tangled, punctured, battered, bashed-in, scooped-out, withered, engorged, trampled, toppled, crushed, bald, listing, leaning, twisting, hanging, buried, wedged, impaled, straggling, stretched, disjointed, disembowelled, skinned, docked, gnawed, entrenched.”

Purcell isn’t transcribing a thesaurus. Her prose is precise and pared-down, and she never shows off. She’s replicating with words the myriad ways in which Buckminster’s countless tons of castoff objects (the book bears the Lucretian subtitle On the Nature of Lost Things) flourish in decay. Shocking to book lovers is a description of volumes, thousands of them, long buried under soil and junk, excavated by Purcell and a friend:

“I have gathered up books in all phases of decay . . . I find a poetry book unfurled to the rain. It has a clotted look, like wet wool, as words, letters and syllables swell. Some words are now elongated, some lines swung round ninety degrees.”

One is left with the impression not of neglect or vandalism but of a new art form, and Purcell in 2006 published Bookworm, which includes photos of decaying books recovered from Buckminster’s scrapyard. Buckminster is not an artist, not even a conceptual artist (thank God), and never claims to be one, nor does Purcell make such claims. Their partnership is, however, collaborative. (At one point she quotes Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive: “It’s easier to believe in something that’s not there.”) She is an artist in images and words, and sees the art in Buckminster’s lobster traps, mattresses, baby dolls and moldering books. She comes close to defining her project:

“And while I struggle step by step and in nonacademic language [praise be] to define what the concept of fetishism means to me as a person who repeatedly falls in love (for it feels like love to me) with the way things look, it will take the length of this book to explain the ways in which this love manifests itself.”

Purcell weaves such quietly revelatory moments through her narrative. When she speaks in her own voice, Purcell lends flesh and blood to philosophy and reclaims it for thoughtful, nonacademic people. The voice I most often hear echoing in her words is the narrator’s in Tristram Shandy. I’m not claiming influence or imitation. For all I know, Purcell has never read Sterne, but often I hear his comically scrupulous, confiding tone, as in Chapter VI of the novel’s first part:

“You must have a little patience. I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship…Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out,-bear with me,-and let me go on, and tell my story my own way:--or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road,--or should sometimes put on a fool's cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along,--don't fly off,-but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside;-and as we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing,--only keep your temper.”

1 comment:

WAS said...

"lobster traps, mattresses, baby dolls and moldering books."

Truly beautiful post, Patrick!

Lucretius in Maine, Sterne in Seattle--a book review disguised as seagulls skreaking above a wet palimpsest of pages, the beauty before oblivion:

"Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?"

-Wallace Stevens, "The Man on the Dump"