Thank you, Jason and Justin, for making this happen. And a shout-out to my amazing co-worker, Nicole Callihan, who was a recent BPOTW, and has a terrific new book of poems just out. http://brooklynpoets.org/poet/nicole-callihan/
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Central Park; St. Mark’s Place
It begins on a long line, the way most things do in New York; it begins two days before Labor Day, when the city’s practically deserted—yes, a kind of ghost town. It begins with an ending, the way most things do, anywhere. Summer’s ending. Standing on the line to get into the Guggenheim, I’m looking at the treeline in Central Park. It’s yellow sooner than usual. It’s been a drought season. From what I understand a lot of trees died this summer. I saw one fall on St. Mark’s Place a few weeks ago. It just snapped in half, and the people on the sidewalk screamed. Somebody shouted, “Oh fuck, that branch broke his head,” and there, by tattoo parlor, stood a tall boy holding his temples, and a broken branch at his feet. He looked dazing but he wasn’t bleeding. He was one of those strangers you designate as the representative of a minor disaster—someone you’ll never see again but won’t soon forget. I’m on the line waiting to get into the Guggenheim, and somehow the image hasn’t left me, the tree broken in two, the boy being given ice to put on his head, and a dream that I had where every tree in the city had disappeared overnight.
Whenever I go into a museum alone, I remember Angie Dickinson’s character, the lonesome New York wife, in the movie Dressed to Kill. She gets followed around by a stranger and likes it so much that she follows the stranger herself. It turns out to be the sexiest museum-visit in the history of the movies. The exhibitions aren’t the focus of this elaborately made chase scene, but they never entirely vanish from the frame. Look but don’t touch—the law of the museum, the law between strangers—creates a kind of unbearable tension. We see Angie lose her glove, we see the stranger pick it up, we see the two of them play hide-and-seek, we see an urgency we seldom feel in museums and galleries. And we, the movie audience, are safe and shut-off from this pursuit, a little lonesome ourselves, a little deprived, infinitely more invisible than the art that Angie and her stranger walk hurriedly past, but whose power may have had something to do with igniting the spark between them.
Inside the Guggenheim, near the sign that says Photography Not Permitted, a young man and woman, two lovebirds who were kissing earlier on line, decide to share the audio guide headphones. No—they’re not the audio guide headphones, they’re iPod ear-buds. They’re in that stage that most people outside their relationship would consider intolerable, where no act of shared intimacy seems beyond them.
“I like that it’s called Haunted,” the male lovebird says.
“Too obvious,” the female lovebird answers. “It’s what any exhibition could be called.”
Then she kisses him again. A barrel-shaped woman behind them mutters, “Jesus, Get a Room.” She jams in not ear-buds or audio guide headphones but earplugs. She unwraps a package, makes a point of holding it up so everyone can see that she wants to be sealed-in, no voices but her own: the ear plug’s brandname is Hearos.
I’ve lived in New York long enough to know people I have no business of knowing—the man who sells paperbacks with acid pages, titles like Chariots of the Gods and Fear of Flying. Going around in circles, or in and out the grid, there are certain people who seem to hold the world together for me: the ancient Polish women gossiping on the stoops near the bridge, where every month or two there’s a new face on the billboard. The Brave One becomes Ghosts of Girlfriends Past becomes Avatar.
For once in my life I decide to get the full audio tour, it’s part of the ticket and it can’t hurt, but I start on the wrong floor and the narrator’s instructions don’t match what I see. I’m thinking about what the man said to his woman, and what she said back, and the third woman who found their kissy-lovey-honeymoon business annoying enough to issue them a stern rebuke.
Maybe she was correct. I’m thinking that we all need to get a room—not for anything carnal but just so that we can be more sealed-in, more haunted. Ghosts don’t often appear in places as populated as this, do they? My grandmother’s mother, a teller of tales, a midwife, said you know ghosts when you see them. They look like someone you’ve seen before, or maybe you’ve seen them in a dream. Ghosts only appear to strangers, she said.
What Will Haunt Me
So exactly right it is, I almost know it before I see it, the thing that will stick with me from this visit: Annette Messager’s My Vows. It’s a spider web of pictures—a spiral-shaped string suspending hundreds of gelatin prints. Nipples and hands and penises and other parts: no words, no names, only erotic memory. Think of ads on dating sites, Charlie Sheen using a shot of his tool as his online profile’s avatar, Jpegs of genitals on Craigslist Missed Connections—the parts that can be shown to a stranger before the most overexposed thing, the face, can be shown, because maybe it’s the only sex organ we have.
Marilyn wants to be friends on Facebook. 3 Friends in Common: Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jane Fonda. Marilyn posted new pictures, drinking champagne on the beach with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, Album Summer 1962. Marilyn is single. Marilyn likes Carl Sandberg and her fellow Gemini Walt Whitman. People in Marilyn’s network include Fidel and Boddy. Marilyn’s Farmville animals are thriving. Marilyn likes your picture. Marilyn commented on your wall post. Marilyn is recovering from her cold and should be back on the set of Something’s Got to Give very soon.
Instructions for Hearos Earplugs, Rock and Roll Series, Reusable and Washable, NRR 22, Trusted Since 1992
Caution: Improper fit of this device will reduce its effectiveness in attenuating noise . . . . Although hearing protectors can be recommended for protection against the harmful effects of impulsive noise, the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is based on the attenuation of continuous noise and may not be an accurate indicator of the protection attainable against impulsive noise such as gunfire. . . .
In 1838, Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre took a picture of the Boulevard de Temple in Paris. He must have taken it from a respectable height and distance—it’s definitely not a candid view of the European street. It’s the furthest thing imaginable from the romantic images of Robert Doisneau. Instead, one gets a dismal vista of city life, the profiles of Parisian buildings, trees that look like plumes of smoke. The two human figures in the picture are the size of grease ants, and just as dark. It’s two men, one shining the boots of the other. This pair, among the first human beings to be photographed, have no faces, no names; when I see human faces in other early photographs, I’m always struck by their expressions: the terror, the boredom, the impatience.
It would take many years, I think, for someone to achieve that kind of look. We flirt with the camera as early as a moment after our birth, Daddy ready with the flash button off so he doesn’t hurt the new baby’s eyes.
It begins with an ending, the way most things do.
* * *
What I want to say is that I think there’s some grace to being afraid of the camera, something to be said for the art of being sealed-in, and some sweetness in noticing the things that are turning yellow and are beginning to curl up before their time.
I go home from the Guggenheim with the same stranger I came with, myself. I worry about the disappearance of things I know about New York, I worry about the Hindenberg Omen, which I admit I don’t understand, and I worry about the students I’m about to meet, many of whom were probably in the museum with me. Maybe it’s that moment before you meet someone new that you’re a ghost.
All I know is that during summer weekends in New York, when Manhattan becomes deserted, when summer is what’s among three markers, Memorial, Independence, and Labor, I fill an imaginary but tangible space.
Richard Serra Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, 2007
Your popularity makes visiting you difficult. You’re free only on Friday nights, when the spectators pound in. A bit like a public execution. It should be easy to see a piece of you—you are, after all, vivisected. But everything seems already taken, inhabited. Everyone seems to need you too much. You’re visible and invisible, both, like a disease. We see the symptoms but not the microbes that trigger the symptoms.
Even babies—why so many in a museum? The babies point and burble, or they cry deeply, ardently, into themselves. A womb is a museum that we don’t remember, Freud says, except in sleep. Oceanic bliss. It’s the mothers who preside, the fathers who seem redundant. Maybe infancy is a form of metonymy: the parents look at the baby but only see themselves. Like saying, you, Richard Serra, when I mean the work of Richard Serra? Who can blame these parents? Don’t think I’m making that tired analogy about art being the offspring of an artist. Every creation here seems more willed than wild, predestined in a way that children never are. You’re more a genetic engineer than a parent.
What are they—we—looking for, but proof that you, Richard Serra, exist? And therefore we exist? We pass by and through your sculptures and we believe without question that you authored them. But maybe it’s not belief or faith, but simple laziness; we accept these claims as facts because it is easier than to think something else.
If you’re a king, your royal guard does you proud. No one’s allowed to touch, even though your precious materials—steel, for one—will probably outlast the oils our fingertips may leave.
Let me ask you candidly: are you a monster? You’re definitely a carnivore. Maybe you’re so ugly you build mazes to outrun your reflection. But there’s a shortage of mirrors here. And maze feels like the wrong word: I can get in and out of your gigantic puzzles without trailing red yarn or torn bread. Since the Minotaur retreated into retirement, the labyrinth is under new management, and maybe the myth doesn’t have to end with abandonment. The one who figures out the maze and helps the hero—she’s the one who gets abandoned.
What I want, more than anything right now, is the novelty of being lost within one of these tunnels. Once, loss was news. Even if I got lost inside for a few minutes, I could say that the sculpture me, at least temporarily. How many times have I been in Central Park at night without being lost? What would that well-lit lantern become in a blackout? Wouldn’t the well-governed grid of Manhattan be forced to concede to the forest? Isn’t there something beautiful about this?
You don’t provide paths, you carve out exits. You whisper us instructions to follow your thoughts horizontally. The vertigo, even acrophobia, is meant to be transmitted by both the structure and the strangers who are attracted to you. Perhaps you mean to work on the big people the same way the forest works on the children in fairy tales: you coax us to disappear. It’s not just the size; in New York, we’re used to being dwarfed. You want to undermine the fictional map we’ve absorbed, the tidy stories we tell ourselves about space.
I wonder if you come here, secretly, in disguise: you might be the man who passes me, whose T-shirt reads Protect Me From What I Want.
You make me seasick, and the worst thing is: I have no words to hold on to. Richard II loved words so much he lost his throne. His successor loved the throne so much he lost his soul. You wouldn’t trade your kingdom for a horse, but you don’t fool me: I know you’re a killer. A friend told me yours is art that kills. Fact: in the seventies one of your steel pieces fell, crushing a rigger. Is there anything here meant to memorialize him, or is it that the hubris of making your gift horses demands blood? What bridge doesn’t have a worker embedded inside it, what skyscraper doesn’t have a death for every floor?
When I go out in your garden, I wonder what it would look like with just your sculpture and nothing else built by humans. Would these giant waves and ship prows become more sacred? A friend told me once a story about sacrilege, how you can see the McDonald’s arch and a pyramid of ancient Egypt in the same view.
I want to steal something from you, of you. In the end, all I can manage are a few pictures with my phone. I hope for a candid snapshot. I lack the guts to get in the photo, to implicate myself. Isn’t it odd that a phone, something that depends on the give and take of conversation, can now take something as unanswerable as a photograph? My phone’s memory clogs with my attempts to take everything in, and in a few weeks the phone itself will be gone, left in a cab. I can look at the brochure to recall this, but that feels like cheating. The brochure shows too much. I want to remember what I stole from you: a close-up of rust, like peeping through a microscope at frantic, bubbling cells—that thrill that borders on alarm, because it’s just enough to let me know what you’ve made is alive.
Inside the shelter of another morning.
The escaping minutes that bottle bees ride,
phone numbers carved into the walls.
The three battered walls where they wait.
Where I wait, inside another morning.
Inside another morning & no fourth wall.
Tinted windows, smiles of the missing.
Everything posted—bargain bids,
pleas for vital organs. No fourth wall
to drive out the elements: hail, fallout.
Today All Souls’ Day.
Today when the souls go back.
Today the day of numbers, departures.
Where I wait inside another morning.
The saints, the statues left in the house
where a machine answers all voices.
The end has been delayed, it
missed a connection. No one can wait.
Bribery, blackmail—the heat keeps
leaves in place. I keep my place with the others,
I don’t know how to drive them out.
The children are bundled, the heat in place.
Where we wait inside another morning,
we miss a connection.
Today the souls go back: bribery & blackmail
are no good. They forget our phone numbers.
They can’t wait to be missing.
A machine keeps answering all voices.
The end is coming.
We are keeping our place.
We are forming a line.
***Originally appeared in The Paris Review.
The poem is “Falling Stars,” originally published in Peter LaBerge’s journal The Adroit Journal (Hi, Peter!). Thanks to my beloved and talented friend Jennifer Pastiloff for filming this and posting it on her YouTube channel:
And please check out Jennifer’s other videos and writings:
Family portraits usually isolate a clear moment in the lifespan of a tribe: it’s a study in exclusion.
I often visit a Web page called Awkward Family Photos. Antlers are popular ornaments in holiday snapshots: antlers for the whole family. A stand-up comic once said: There is no such thing as “fun for the whole family.”
I go to a gallery in Chelsea that promises more of these studies in exclusion, the awkwardness and micromanagement of the staged, but I get the dates wrong. I find oil paintings in a railroad room, I find family portraits but they are better and darker than the Americana of awkwardness, they are all I want.
In Sara Conklin’s painting Family Portrait, a trio of figures stands before the woods. They look like they’re about to go in. Their faces are hazy. Smog features, smudge and contour.
Nothing mentioned of how they came here—these children, before the woods.
In another Conklin painting: more blurred features, the father almost faceless, the daughters looking at you with the faces of rocks: only certain disturbances of form in their faces. Only the mother’s is the most clearly developed face. Inhabitants of an early time, this quartet: the girls’ sky-blue skirts flare but the stiff pose of these children and their parents makes them archaic. The artist has represented these people as ghosts. They stand on ground that looks like volcanic rock. Mists snake around them. What I see in in Sara Conklin’s Family Portrait is an insight into how family pictures transform the family into a set of ghosts. A good family picture practices the art of exclusion.
* * *
The Highline is a greenhouse whose roofs and walls have blown away. I’m walking with many people among these plants, along these covered-up tracks, but we can see the buildings around us, effaced company-names and The Manhattan Mini Storage ad that says on the building: Love Means Never Having to Say I’m Sorry My Kickball Trophy Fell on the Baby Again. A man with a sculpted plastic head on top of his head—like an Easter-Island head—walks. These are the things I hear as I walk by. Everyone has a camera. Is a camera, a Sally Bowles, perhaps, delirious in the moment before the party’s shattered.
–”I was homeless myself,” she laughs. “Just for one weekend. I didn’t have to be, of course–it was just, I don’t know, a phase, like when I took up photography and I won that competition for taking pictures of vegetables in erotic positions. I’ve always liked studying things. I think you’ll be a fascinating allegory in my movie.”
–I love all these—[pointing to the stalks that look like barley]—“I don’t know why”
–Something in Japanese: “Watashi wa korera no shokubutsu wa minikui to omou”
–Something in German: “Als ich sie küsste, es war wie Verkostung ein Aschenbecher”
–”I felt that way about Love in the Time of a Cholera. What I wanted to read it for was a good story, but it just seemed like a bunch of run-on sentences”
–Two women on the Highline. One is the boss of the conversation.
The boss says to the non-boss, “Is he older? You were always dating older guys, if I remember right.”
After the question’s confirmed, the boss says, “I’m not on a career path, I don’t want to be strapped to a desk, I’d just be happy working in a bakery, eating cupcakes every day. I guess I could start a food blog, but everyone and their mother has a food blog these days…”
[Then, later in the conversation:] “I went to HG’s [movie star’s] apartment. She lives right on 13th and University. Her boyfriend was practically naked when I came over. He’s really ripped. Her? She’s not as nice as you’d expect. She’s not too clean, either. She didn’t even really need my services. Most people who think they have mold don’t even have mold, they just have a little water damage.” [THE BOSS'S PHONE RINGS]
“Bye, Charlotte. Pinky-swear we’re going to hang out in the next—[a moment of calculation, upper teeth pressing into lower lip]—three weeks.”
–”Crazy Lola! Crazy Lola!”
–”Oh look a track it’s sad you know that your mother won’t come back here”
–”Prior to 1980, this was a junk area but lots of good memories”
–”My parents are saying I’m stupid, I’m wasting their money, I’d better get my shit together—
–I know I can have my macaroni and cheese but why can’t Mommy have my macaroni and cheese?”
—”My shrink always me asks about my birds. I don’t have the heart to tell her I no longer have them.”
* * *
Live in the moment they say, meaning in the present moment, but very few of us do. Some of us live in the long moment before—certain recurring frames of our history—but I think I’m in the group that belongs to the moment after. If I live in the future, it’s only in the most limited way and I know it. I live in the moment after the present, because even as I’m examining what I have right now I’m also facing its inevitable disappearance.
And I’m a witness to how pictures transform the family—in this case the city—into a set of ghosts. We practice the art of exclusion. We are the students, lanyards with our names around our necks, names with lanyards around our necks.
* * *
—A riddle for you, my goose-egg: what’s the scar we’re all born with, whose loss we dread and fear?
March 21 at 7:30 PM
@ Lolita Bar
Admission: $5 + FREE DRINK!
Lily Gelfars (City College)
Joey De Jesus (Sarah Lawrence)
Hawkins (Sarah Lawrence)
LOLITA BAR is located at 266 Broome Street in NYC, between Allen and Orchard. Visit their website for directions: lolitarbar.net
EARSHOT is a bi-monthly reading series, dedicated to featuring new and emerging literary talent in the NYC area. Visit earshotnyc.com for more information or email at email@example.com.
From recent reviews of my poetry debut, The Wanted:
The book’s great merit is not simply that Tyrell has managed to order the chaos of this world to create what Frost famously called “a momentary stay against confusion,” but that in doing so he has managed also to convey the very chaos itself… [I]n much of The Wanted, we find Tyrell’s linguistic flair coupled with a subject of emotional resonance; clever language and deft timing are the means through which this poet accesses his speaker’s painful past. –Ben Evans, The Huffington Post
Tyrell appears poised to stake his claim as a serious and original voice that writes from the heart of America’s techno-anxiety. His debut is peppered with lines and poems that are both hair-raising and irreducible. –Publishers Weekly
BUY IT FOR THE HOLIDAYS:
The Wanted, in the window of the St. Marks Bookstore:
My friend Jesse Dillon’s short film WHERE SOCKS GO (2011), featuring Martin Pffeforkorn, Maria Rusolo….and yours truly!