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Double Take
By Teju Cole
A blog on vision, visuality, and visual culture
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She wrote to me: The Therme opens out like Duccio’s Raising of Lazarus. But this is the moment just before the miracle, or the moment after the miracle. The crowd has dispersed. Remember, you once asked me about the role of thresholds in my work? You saw it before I did.


She wrote: I was crossing the Aare when I read the following words in an obsolete edition of the Blue Guide Switzerland: “Crossing the Aare, Goldswil is traversed, dominated by the Romanesque tower of a ruined church (note grotesque figure), and then Ringgenberg, where the 17C church is embedded in a medieval castle perched above the dark blue lake, formerly reputed for the beauty of some of its oarswomen.”

On the day I crossed, the lake was turquoise. There were no oarswomen. The valleys here are constructed from the glacial equivalent of the lost wax process and as such share the melancholy of ancient bronze sculpture: the shape in both cases comes directly from absence. The form produced by deep time. This is not a nation, like some others, formed by shipwreck. The tragic myth here is of blizzards or ascents gone wrong. I crossed on a perfect summer’s day. Ellen pointed out a village on the shore. Many died here a few years ago, she said. They never saw the avalanche coming.

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She wrote: They say, “Look up or you’ll miss it.” But sometimes, it’s a matter of looking down. There is a mountain facing the picture of a mountain. There’s a woman whose story is not in her face, but on the back of her neck. There’s a city at your feet, and this is the real city.


She wrote to me: There is the object and there is the image of the object. Between the two is a tension that is never resolved. God was the first conceptual artist, for he made man in his own image. A human being is a kind of photograph: made with light, a copy after something else. I’m trying to find the dignity in the copy. Not to find it; to see it.


She wrote: A hundred meters below the earth are magnets cooled to a temperature lower than anything else on earth or in outer space. Down there, I felt myself an inhabitant of something called “the universe,” as though I did not always already live in the universe. I felt my body was made up of something called atoms, and for one giddy moment even thought: what if it all suddenly falls apart?

We are mostly empty space, as the saying goes. I sensed the trillions of neutrinos passing through me, the way the reading of a poem can suddenly intensify one’s awareness of the reality of the room. Not only opposites attract.


She wrote: The horizon (the limit) is horizontal. Where water meets land on the distant shore, where water meets the sky, is a level line. The human animal, the animal that stands, is vertical. And, standing, the human animals seeks out or creates other vertices. In its field of vision are trees, towers, and houses. Beyond these two axes, between them, is the mountain. The mountain is both vertical and horizontal. From the level line, the vertical line, and the triangle, are formed the elementary geometry of the landscape. Every European language, beginning with Greek, agrees on the word for horizon: horisontti, Horizont, orizzonte, horyzont, horizonte, horizon, горизонт, horisont.


She wrote to me: Does the cityscape have its own grammar? Does it have discrete elements from which its own form of meaning is assembled? I spoke to you once about Lyotard. “The rebus is discourse disguised as visible object.” What is the discourse of the cityscape? These disparate objects that do not begin to speak to each other until someone raises a camera and presses the shutter: do they not bring to mind hieroglyphics, the origin of all our writing?

The weather here has begun to change. Last night it rained. A window banged against the windowsill. The dishes rattled. Each object seemed to be tuning itself, and they seemed to be taking turns. I was falling asleep when Ellen said, “The montage is a kind of rebus.”

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She wrote: These days, I feel as though I see objects everywhere. What I mean is, I see them properly now, in the Proustian sense: “We think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” From time to time I even wear her clothes. Objects are facts made visible.

Here I also begin to understand the European mania for categorizing the world. I haunt the zoological and paleontological museums in Zürich, Lausanne, and Bern, alone sometimes, sometimes with Ellen. Sometimes only what has already been labeled and put in a case can be endured. Adrienne Rich wrote: “A year, ten years from now/ I’ll remember this—/ this sitting like drugged birds/ in a glass case—/ not why, only that we/ were here like this together.” At times I think I’m writing only to you, but at other times I remember how I used to write to Ellen.


She wrote: We are now living in the anthropocene. The human touch is on everything, and it is rarely gentle. How can the possibility of the consequences of how we live be endured? To raise the camera and press the shutter is a memorial act. Out here on the mountains, I cannot forget even the material cost of photography itself: the film, its chemicals, the developing, the paper. Only the light comes free. Did I tell you, or did you tell me, that Kodak used to be the leading consumer of silver worldwide?


She sent me this image and wrote: Perhaps what the sea is to the Greeks, the mountains are to the Swiss: both a home and a journey. The sea meets the sky at the horizon, but the mountain is its own horizon, beyond which one cannot see.

On the train to the Bernese Oberland, Ellen told me that the German word Heimweh originated in Swiss German. It was the word for that feeling of homesickness that assailed Swiss mercenaries who had traveled out in service of various European armies. Switzerland exported war and imported homesickness. Heimweh: listen to its sighing sound. The commanders of these foreign armies, to control their mercenaries’ longings, forbade them depictions of the high landscape they’d left behind. Our train was coming from Lausanne, and the Bernese Oberland was now rising around us. The green mountains of the Voralpen began to interrupt the level horizon. Emotions begin somewhere, in a place, and they have to be named one at a time, as Adam named the animals. Ellen is from the Bernese Oberland. She told me that to be homesick for a landscape is particularly Swiss. “The higher the mountains, the stronger the feelings,” she said. The arguments against the idea are obvious, but the arguments for it are more subtle. I like it. But as she said this I also thought: neutrality is not the same thing as pacifism.

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She wrote: I would like to write to you someday about the essential mystery of families. I saw a case in the museum in Lausanne, a family tree. One squints before such things, trying to recognize the ancestors. Rich again: “Only/ a fact could be so dreamlike.” Don’t you imagine, sometimes, these millions and billions crowding the horizon behind you? Only a tiny handful of them have ended up in cases at museums, thank goodness. But they all lived, and most of them are now dead.


Appearances aside, can a person be, for someone else, a landscape?


She wrote to me: I have been thinking of that line of Anne Carson’s: “Who likes to look straight at real passion? Looks can kill. I would call ‘feminine’ this talent for veiling a truth in a truth.” On tram No. 15 to Bucheggplatz, a woman sat in the seat in front of mine. She was in her late 20s. Late afternoon light. Her hair was pulled up, and I could see her neck tattoo clearly. It was in two lines: a woman’s name and a date. I wrote both down.

Later, when I looked up the name, I found an old newspaper article. A woman of that name had died in a small town near Phoenix, Arizona in 2007, on that date. In the car that night, the article said, there had been two other people, both of whom survived the crash, and both of whom, at that time, like the woman who died, were in their early 20s. The survivors were a man, and another woman. Their names were given.


She wrote: I came here with two big cameras and one small one. But I could not find the language in them. One day, I happened to walk by Foto Ganz, on Bahnhofstrasse. I was not going to buy another camera. I didn’t need one. But why was the Yashica 270, with two lenses, priced lower than what it cost to develop one roll of film? I bought it out of curiosity. Ellen said, “You don’t need another camera!” But if you know how serendipity works, you’ll already know that I’ve taken the Yashica everywhere with me, and I have seen things with it—this cheap camera from the early 90s—that I was not able to see with more expensive machines.


She wrote: Did you tell me, or did I tell you, the story about the old lady who went to a lecture and heard the lecturer say that the universe was going to self-destruct in five billion years? In any case, on hearing this, the old lady fainted. As we descended into the earth at CERN, I told this story to Ellen. When they asked her why she was so upset at an event that was five billion years away, the old lady heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Oh, thank God. I thought he said five million years.”


This was the image she sent me. Under it, she wrote: I had closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, I saw the funnel of the ship. Behind it, the lake ringed by mountains. As I raised the camera, in a moment of synaesthesia, I heard the sound of the alpenhorn. But it was not synaesthetic. Like a dream given material reality, there really was an alpenhorn playing behind me. This is the photograph of that sound.


She wrote: When I’m out walking, and I’m the only one with a camera among these good burghers of Zürich on a weekday, and I center an image in my visual field, say, an image from a poster or a hoarding, I sometimes see it float out of the texture of the cityscape. It “pops out,” leaving behind its assigned purpose (as art or advertising) and spilling over into a play of surfaces. This sensation barely counts as true trompe l’oeil: no one is deceived: but somehow it gives a little kick to the seeing part of the brain, and I’m happy when I can catch it in a picture. And when it is not an image at all but actual objects sitting on a street? I see chairs, fire hydrants, shoes. I wish I could show you the thingness of things! The best I can do is to make images of them, remembering always that even an image is a thing.

Ellen said that given the eternal tension between things and images, idolatry, that most harshly punished of all sins, ought to be the most easily forgiven.

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She sent me this photograph and wrote: One thing I had not noticed about travel, but which I see now, is the way it can lay out before you the raw materials of something you thought you loved. In Graubünden, I began to see what it was that had made Zumthor’s architecture. I saw his sources everywhere: in the local stone, the wood, the mountains, the water frothing in the river below, the air, in the heat of the baths. It was obvious, once it was seen, the way it is obvious that a person is shaped and continues to be shaped by all their living and their dead. Sometimes Ellen is talking to me, and sometimes, like all the dead, she’s just the afternoon light moving across the face of a mountain.


She wrote to me: In a successful work of architecture, the rooms open out to one another like a choral work in which one voice after the other adds to the harmony. Is the sense of hearing the most essential for an architect? Photographing certainly feels like close listening at times. But someday, I will write to you about the other physical senses, beyond the famous five.


She wrote: The work at CERN depends on violent collisions on the subatomic level, from which particles scatter and which sensors try to detect before the particles decay into other forms. It is easy to see the equipment involved—the supercollider is the largest machine ever built by human beings—but difficult to see what the result is. These supercooled magnets are like the words of an epic in a foreign language. The meaning is there but it is elusive.

The supercollider in section looks like a starburst, or like the head of Medusa. I took photographs of it, a hundred meters underground. My fear was that the radiation would make all the photos come out black. What a victory that would have been. But instead I had the opposite problem: the pictures came out too clear, like illustrations for CERN Courier. I can’t use them! And so, instead, I send you another rebus, a few feet away from the supercollider: handcart, plastic tape, broom closet. There is always something else happening to one side of the miracle.


She wrote to me: When I stop in the middle of a room or at the edge of a cliff, arrested by something I have seen (or by something by which I have been seen), I wonder what this image is which expresses a will in agreement with telluric desires. Why here? Why now? For whom is it being made?


At certain moments I have the feeling—usually simultaneous with the pressing of the shutter—that this or that image in particular is destined to outlive me, that it will be visible past my speaking. A photograph is an epitaph made of light.

Did you tell me, or did I tell you, of that line from Cixous? “What is interesting when you write is to imagine that your reader is not yet born…”


Unnamed Lake

On the night of October 8, 2014, or, rather, early on the morning of October 9, I had trouble sleeping.

I lay in bed, closed my eyes, and let my mind go blank. Hours passed. I was in something like sleep which wasn’t sleep. Around two in the morning, a light that had been bothering me went out, a neighbor’s lamp, perhaps, or one of the electronic devices in the next room (the door was ajar) which in these days keep watch over us at all hours.

Now wrapped up dark, my thoughts, instead of dipping into the cool subconscious, began to churn and froth.

derrida fear of writing

I paced inside my own mind like a tiger inside its cage, like the Tasmanian tiger going back and forth, maddened by the prospect of its coming doom. Where I had been pinned down in sleeplessness by one small glare, my eyelids now trembled with the flashes coming from within. So quick was the succession of images, each of which presented itself like a problem to be solved, that I could not at any instant remember what had gone before. It seemed to me instead that my consciousness had become like a narrow, high-walled corridor crammed with everything I had lately read or seen, every landscape I had recently passed through or touched on in my thoughts.

The intensity and speed of these images—which had come to resemble a slide show played at absurd speed—became harder and harder to bear until I suddenly sat upright, shutting down the show, as it were, and got out of bed. I went into the study, switched on a lamp, sat in a chair (not at the desk), and began to write notes (into a blank book, on my crossed knee). I wrote many pages. The room was peaceful like that, spot-lit, silent. The shutters were drawn, the mountains in the distance invisible. I wrote for an hour or more with lucid ease, as though my hand was being guided by a benevolent spirit and there was no gap between the flow of my thoughts and the fluency of the ink.

The next day, in daylight, I saw that the book was full of fevered scribbles, with only a clear word every now and again to hint at whatever it was I had hoped to set down in writing. I remembered only what I had watched on YouTube, what I watched between having finished writing and not having yet returned to my bed.

For years now, when I cannot sleep, I rise from bed and watch J.D. talk. I watch what he said sometime in the late 1990s.

Each time that I write something, he said, and it feels like I’m advancing into new territory (he demonstrates “advance” with his left hand), somewhere I haven’t been before, and this type of advance often demands certain gestures that can be taken as aggressive with regard to other thinkers or colleagues—I am not someone who is by nature polemical but it’s true that deconstructive gestures appear to destabilize or cause anxiety or even hurt others—so, every time that I make this type of gesture, there are moments of fear.

(J.D. has proud white hair, and wears a red shirt, and at times he touches his thumb to his lip or lifts a hand to his face.)

The concerts were in honor of the Führer, who had been in power since 1933. The conductor was Wilhelm Furtwangler. The end of the first moment grinds and rumbles like the thick of battle. Never has it sounded so frightful: this is music March 1942: for the despair in Lodz, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the horrific winter of the Red Army on the eastern front, the heavy fighting in Malta.

(Later that year, J.D. is expelled from lycée for being Jewish.)

But the adagio is clear and tender, played slower than usual, reaching an even greater ecstasy than usual. No one who heard it could have failed to be moved to human kindness. Could they? (In addition to Hitler, both Himmler and Goebbels are in the audience.)

The concerts took place on March 22 and 24, 1942, on a stage draped with Nazi flags. A recording, patched together from these performances, is considered the greatest recording of Beethoven’s Ninth. The previous week, on March 17, a Nazi camp had begun operation in Belzec, Southeastern Poland. For the first time, people were shepherded into “showers,” and gassed to death. Not slave labor, not shootings, not gas vans: this was the beginning of the gas chambers. Belzec was designed for death and death alone. (“Is considered the greatest recording” by whom?)

What if it could be heard as it was then, and seen as it was?

beethoven 9 1942

This doesn’t happen at the moments when I’m writing, J.D. said. Actually, when I write, there is a feeling of necessity, of something that is stronger than myself (here he gestures with both hands raised to his head), that demands that I must write as I write. I have never renounced anything I’ve written because I’ve been afraid of certain consequences. Nothing intimidates me when I write. I say what I think must be said. (A fierceness in his narrowed eyes here. He is tanned, and cannot be unaware that he is handsome.) That is to say, when I don’t write, there is a very strange moment when I go to sleep.

Of the no fewer than 434,500 and as many as 500,000 who were eventually brought to Belzec, two survived. Karl Afred Schluch of the SS was not at the Berlin concerts, for he was working with Christian Wirth (“Christian the Terrible”) at Belzec. Schluch said, “My location in the tube was in the immediate vicinity of the undressing hut. Wirth had stationed me there because he thought me capable of having a calming effect on the Jews. After the Jews left the undressing hut I had to direct them to the gas chamber. I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my words or gestures that they really were going to be bathed.”

A composer who loses his hearing can still compose. The real disaster for a composer would be to lose the ability to count.

In a small enclosure in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1933 (at the time J.D. is a three-year-old in Algiers) a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, paces. His name is Benjamin. He has a dog-like head, and stripes on his back like a tiger. But he is neither canid nor felid; he is marsupial. He is also a carnivore, a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one. The thylacine is first described in 1806 by Tasmania’s Deputy Surveyor-General George Harris. “Head very large, bearing a near resemblance to the wolf or hyaena. Eyes large and full, black, with a nictant membrane, which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance…”

In mainland Australia, the thylacine may have survived until 1830, according to the oral history recorded by the Adynamathanha people of the Flinders Ranges region to the east of Lake Torrens. “Today marrukurli (thylacines) are known only as mammals of the Dreaming. That is, there is no one living who claims to have seen one. Both the Dreaming and other oral tradition, however, suggest the possibility of their bodily existence in the region in the not-too-distant past.”


At moments, you may notice that what you are looking at contains both its own obliteration (the promise of death) and a curious quantity of eternity, like a single body possessed by two spirits. Survival and extinction are both indelibly there. There is a quality of listening in the dead of the night (the “dead of the night”), perhaps, that is not conducive to writing or interpretation, but that heightens the possibilities of what can be heard, or that might lead one to believe that there is an unnamed lake underneath all reality, and that there are places where the ground, insufficiently firm, can suddenly plunge one through into the subterranean truth of things.

The thylacine is the quarry of a state bounty in Tasmania between 1888 and 1909. An epidemic finishes off most of the rest. In the year 1933 when he paces for the camera, Benjamin is the last of his species. And when he dies in September, 1936, the thylacine goes extinct. There are sightings afterward, but none credible.

When I have a nap or something, J.D. said, and I fall asleep (these words in English, all of a sudden, and not in French; but only these words), at that moment, in a sort of half sleep, all of a sudden I’m terrified by what I’m doing. And I tell myself: You’re crazy to write this! You’re crazy to attack such a thing! You’re crazy to criticize such and such a person. You’re crazy to contest such an authority, be it textual, institutional or personal. (J.D.’s gestures become more animated.) And there is a kind of panic in my subconscious, he said. As if…what can I compare it to?

Perhaps when people talk about liking a man in uniform, they are thinking of someone like Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, someone both confiding and confident. The interviewer is white. He asks about the events of January 15, 1966. “Did the Sardauna himself attempt to fight?” “No, we didn’t see him until the time we actually shot him. He ran away from his house when we fired the first two rounds from the anti-tank guns into the building. The whole room was blown up and the place was set alight. Then we went to the rear of the house and started searching from room to room until we found him among the women and children, hiding himself.” Nzeogwu says this part with faint but detectable mockery.

He is young, fit, not yet twenty nine, the consumate professional in his officer’s cap and short sleeved uniform. He speaks with astonishing clarity. He is what will change Nigeria for good. “So we took away the women and children and took him.” By “took him,” Nzeogwu means he himself shot the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who had been serving as the Premier of Northern Nigeria. In the same coup on the same day, Nzeogwu’s co-conspirators killed the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; the Premier of Western Nigeria, Samuel Akintola; the Finance Minister, Festus Okotie-Eboh; Brigadier General Samuel Ademulegun; and many others.

What if the things that happened could be seen again as apparitions before us? And the people who did these things could speak as they spoke in life, and move about like the people you see in dreams?


Nzeogwu smiles as he gives his answers. The future is bright. Within a year and a half, he will be killed in an ambush during the Biafran war. In the three years of the war, more than a million of his Biafran compatriots will be dead, too.

Imagine a child who does something horrible, J.D. said. Freud talks of childhood dreams where one dreams of being naked and terrified because everyone sees that they’re naked. In any case, in this half-sleep, I have the impression that I’ve done something criminal, disgraceful, unavowable, that I shouldn’t have done. And somebody is telling me: But you’re mad to have done that. And this is something I truly believe in my half sleep. And the implied command in this is: Stop everything! Take it back! Burn your papers! What you’re doing is inadmissible. But once I wake up, it’s over.

On August 4, 2014, the MV Pinak 6 Ferry, with more than two hundred fifty passengers, was crossing the Padma River near Mawa Ghat in Munshiganj, Bangladesh. It was high tide. The ferry was headed to Dhaka. It became inundated with water and capsized, sinking in a matter of minutes.

A man on the audio track, presumably the same person recording the video from the shore, can be heard calling out God’s name, in shock and in fear, and then reciting the shahada: Lā ilāha illā-llāhu, Muhammadur rasūlu-llāh. The ferry was approved for only eighty-five passengers. The death toll is well over a hundred. The event sinks into the handheld camera recording it, the amateur videographer calling out God’s name.

What if the event were recorded on video, and could be summoned up out of the depths for helpless viewing again, and again, and again?

pinak 6

What this means, J.D. said, or how I interpret this is that when I’m awake, conscious, working, in a certain way I am more unconscious than in my half-sleep. When I’m in that half-sleep there’s a kind of vigilance that tells me the truth. First of all, it tells me that what I’m doing is very serious. But when I’m awake and working (he raises his hands and lifts his head, like a conductor about to give a downbeat), this vigilance is actually asleep. It’s not the stronger of the two. And so, he said, I do what must be done.

(J.D. died on October 9, 2004, this is the tenth anniversary; a good coincidence, but history has few dates in which to fit everything.)

“I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb,” said President Truman, after the first bomb had been dropped, but before the second. “It is an awful responsibility which has come to us. We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”

atomic bomb

The footage shows the island of Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands on a sunny afternoon in August 1945. Men prepare a bomb—the second bomb, the pilot of the first having just returned to base—for deployment. They paint it, check its seals, and position it into place. Some of the men wear tan fatigues, others are shirtless. (Are they being exposed to radiation?) The atmosphere is cheerful and tropical. The bomb, bright yellow, looks like a school project.

The large ovoid shape of the plutonium bomb is about the size of a small car. The president invokes God. I am half-asleep, and therefore more awake than if I were completely awake. The footage is in vivid color.

What if it were visible? What if you could rise from your restless bed and switch on a machine and see it all again?

Major Charles Sweeney pilots the plane, called Bockscar, from which the bomb, called “Fat Man,” is dropped at 11 am on August 9. Thirty five thousand people below in the city of Nagasaki are killed instantly. They “took” them. Another fifty thousand are to die later, in greater pain. But all that now, and much else besides, is in the time of the Dreaming.

(for Night RPM)

1. Jacques Derrida, “Fear of Writing,” 2002.
2. Beethoven Symphony No. 9, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berliner Philharmonker, 1942.
3. Last Tasmanian Tiger, 1933.
4. Lt. Colonel Kaduna Nzeogwu interviewed, 1966.
5. The Pinak 6 Ferry capsizes, 2014.
6. Final preparation of the “Fat Man” atomic bomb, 1945.

You Drank Some Darkness



Stand here and look out at the steady fact of the sea. Like a closed door, it gives you little. Behind you is the museum, and between you and the sea are a number of sculptures. The sculptures are like ancient rocks that have sleepwalked out of the water. Now they rest.

What is hidden between here, where you stand, and there? Here is Denmark. The museum, its sculptures—Henry Moore, Alexander Calder—the bank leading down, the North Zealand coast of which it is a part. And then a narrow episode in the life of a great body of water and, further, beyond all that, Sweden. What is hidden between here and there is space as well as time; and it is width as well as depth.

The year is 2013. I’m in Sweden for the first time, in an apartment with a view of the city below. A bright clear day. I’m speaking with a kind old man. We talk about Brahms, and he responds with joy. This is the man who wrote:

Growing hard to see, nearly dark.
Stones lie about on the moss.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything.
It can make the darkness shine,
It’s the light switch for the whole country.

This man, Tomas Tranströmer, makes me ask myself: what can change everything? How do you open the door to the sea?

The year is 1943. The grief that is visiting all of Europe becomes ever more intense. The Danes receive word that Nazis wish to deport Danish Jews. And so, surreptitiously, at great personal risk, the fishermen of North Zealand, here, along this line, on this coast, begin to ferry the Danish Jews across to Sweden. Small groups of passengers, a great labor, in October when the water is cold, day after day for three weeks, until more than 7,000 people, the majority of the Jewish population in Denmark, have been taken to safety. It’s the light switch for the whole country. Here, the darkness shines.


Tranströmer also wrote this line: Friends! You drank some darkness and became visible.

And out in the open water north of here is something else visible only in the darkness, something older than me, older than the poet, older than those grief gondolas of 1943 and their worried passengers, older than the sculptures here at the museum that are like something rescued from the sea. Out in the open water are certain species of whales, the Bowheads, massive and secretive, that have been swimming under the ice, full of their whale life, for a hundred or two hundred years, since before the time of Brahms.


[Photos: Teju Cole, Humlebæk, Denmark, 2014. Audio recording: Pejk Malinovski/ Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, 2014]