The Art of Memoir: Outside is Trouble

The news is they are coming.

We shall leave failed rooms, perversely furnished, stinking of teleprompters and cheap sculptures of angels with poor architectural detail. No matter how far we bury our face in our hands, no matter how wet with tears the palms become, those monsters catch our eyes.

Call the media to the balcony to announce the dead. But the shape of memorial relies on our sense of partition — whether supporting or ornamental — to extract the critical, cathartic moment, paradoxically universal and personal.

We descended the stairs. We might become a little band bound to a carpeted purgatory, leaving behind the genitive rituals that ushered us out. They take us lower until there occurs the landing, which leads us nowhere further.

The audience is there to listen, but listen actively, to witness the grandiosity of an elevated person, at an elevated height, producing elevated speech. At a civic function, the platform blooming out of a building, fastened by supports and opened onto by something grand (door, curtains, figured windows).

Here is where the beloved appears, delicate and pale as an apparition, in a brief moment so the voyeur may get an intimate eyeful of the cherished object. That glimpse of her on the exterior represents the interior chamber — certainly the voyeur’s true desire. The voyeur isn’t there to admire the balcony’s flourish and ornament but to commune with the flowered bulkhead and the joys behind it. In other words, to have it all: the dynamic of the waning beloved and the (intentionally smudged) belover. Longing — nowhere is this illustrated better than in the idea of the balcony.

By its very nature, the balcony induces melancholy. It tantalizes. The distance is known to everyone. Just as three distinct possessors can be named for a toy given as a present (the giver, the recipient, and the void between the two), so the unity of love is seen through its fragmentation by the balcony.

As quickly as the desired appears, she disappears behind French doors, frosted glass, or a velvet partition that blusters out in the wind, enveloping her and leaving only a tangle of fabric fluttering down; the tangle of muslin curtains; a silky, flowing robe.

We should resist the temptation to look at Earth as manmade. We should suspect anything in that vein. It’s the unwelcome manipulations that tend to stay with us — when we dropped our guard and were fooled. It’s like going to the theater. The houses are unreal. Every architectural gesture is performative.

On a stage, architectural function doesn’t necessarily correspond to metaphysical function. Cicero might lean against a pillar in the Senate, Hamlet paces the steps, Faust’s door opens and closes — these elements of the built environment retain their own utility even though the character’s psychic landscape is charged.

A willed unwilling suspension of disbelief: The steps become a Jacobean ladder, the pillar of Cicero is the strength of the people, and the door of Faust is choice, decision, Lutheranism. They are polysemous. Urbi et orbi, after the white smoke rose from St. Peter’s Basilica.

Similarly, suburbs become utopian conceptions. They extend endlessly backward and forward, heterogeneous and verdant in lawns and technology. Hybrid, like the El Camino.

Our neighbor’s home is false. It is a site only for an event we do not know. The homogenous house should be exactly like ours, but it is charged with the dispossessed possibilities for excitement. It must be a prop for parents to line their progeny on along pointless steps. Aesthetic tragedy, to capture the family in portraiture. Sounds of a pigeon language, with idiotically named children, screaming over the enormous, cognate history: “I was. She was. He was. We were.” We must move quickly away from them all, leave home.

For the past three years the same hymn has played to my deafness, my dumbness, my death. I can’t say which because I lack the ability to separate the song from my own voice.

If the tune emerged from the quilted noise outside my window (there are two here), then I might covetously recognize the phrasing and tempo as something splendid and profound and wholly not my own. I would childishly obey any requirements the form and composition required of me, submit completely to my new master, like it could rescue me.

Let’s imagine that I created it: I wrote the words and music when I believed in transformation and transformative qualities. To trouble this argument is the overall poor execution of all the musical elements. What I hear now are not fluid notes engendered by epiphany or the sublime descent of someone to love; it is a wall, unmovable.

It is four walls. It is a room. It is the idea of four walls collapsing perfectly toward their midpoint; the ceiling collapses in direct proportion, naturally. The lonely study, too, is a scenario and therefore always already destined for the stage.

I bide my time in my room and listen for the howl and bark when dogs separate post-coitus, a song added to this noise, and I know the membrane is more permeable than I’d like. My selfishness never astounds me, but I always must remind myself to release the death I wish for to the dead I know.

A residuum, functioning as a Lake Effect machine, where the movement into divine grace leaves on the material world another hurdle obstructing the course of romance, and when desires are left to be sated on the residuals of the disappeared object — or when language, culture, class, and politics block the path — a phantasm occurs to act as ligament between the desire and the unattainable: help me.

Obsolescence bestows a patina to the inelegance to random adventures. You might clamor, like the rest of the toys, for your being.

At Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. Perspective diminishes, fizzles out as we walk along the wall. A single name began it—the memorial—three-fold in symbol, like the flag accompanying a body home. The triadic points in the name might be labeled time, government, and cause; or official, physical, and memorial.

A certain disregard toward oneself, done as often as possible, keeps one’s mind clean. Vanity.

Vanished by the surface, black and opaque, my reflection returned to me when I needed to lighten the burden from the darkening as the sun dropped away. When I needed back myself, so that I’m not looking at the Vietnam Memorial, I reappeared and lifted my finger to the wall.

Conceived as a wound, the memorial takes form against the concept of wound, which should be a formless infliction, especially during the moments of opening. Yet as a term, formless is problematic. Even something continually in flux can’t be truly formless, even a network slipping into what we wish it to be is form; the knot is Gordian and endless.

It commences from a single name; it ends on a different one, such being the perception of linear movement. But what about collateral movement in auxiliary with linear progress? When we do not see the names moving back and forth, the space between the name engraved on the wall and anyone’s name is the color chartreuse. I cannot know exactly what chartreuse means to the dead, nor can they, thankfully.

If I am, in fact, the type of person who recognizes himself in a reflection, then I can say while at the Vietnam Memorial there is one member of my family elegized, mirrored, because that is a condition too, like war and tectonics: Every so often we forget that we are we who we think we are.

When I needed myself again to be the neat creature, self-aware and under control, so I’m not looking at the Vietnam Memorial, I saw only me in the darkness. I have had too much of me. I reappeared and lifted my finger to the wall.

We see the widening circles on each point in history. Longing on a large scale is what makes history.

Note first, the natural saddening us, landscape bruised and bruising. We deform it as we move through it. It deforms us as we move over it. Our emotive reactions bend our sensations; they warp our perspective. The landscape always seems farther away than our ken suggested. It rises quickly, it disappears quickly, and the observers never notice until they are gone.

Vanished are the foothills when we enter the mountains. Can we recall them without recalling our anticipation to pass through them to reach higher elevations? Are they that utterly forgettable?

At Storm King Sculpture Garden, Maya Lin’s Wavefield relies on fulfilling and reversing suburban fantasy. Dirt covered with grass. Serpentine mounds, grass over them. A rectangle sign warns, “This is organic sculpture … Please don’t walk on it.”

That must be another way to say from where we came: Home fills landscapes, landfills fill mouths.

I am from the suburbs. A cedar fence partitions the lawns; structures are erected in accordance with council decrees for the maintenance of trees and the housing of dogs and the standards of living uniformly, hence, well. The cedar planks are all that separates the identical verdure into plots: We can know what is ours.

My experience suggests another loss, maybe even a synthesis and a coming to terms with concrete monstrosities that wouldn’t let me ponder the iniquity. They saw no cause for which they might intercede. The saints have abandoned us. Although that argument has the surface shine of progress, epiphany, movement, which implies depth, there is only surface. The gleaming off-white paint of it all!

It is resistance. The terms aren’t truly dialectic; the movement was frictional and produced only a sense of warmth, like manically rubbing the back of a leg with the top of a foot.

How we travel changed over generations, in nothing more than the increased speed and our eyes focused forward or backward. More cars and fewer horses. An intuitive turn toward a more active introspection failed our increasing velocity; this relates directly to the terms horizon or terminus: there must be an ending for the gain.

Mustangs were being killed to become an ingredient in pet food, and probably not even the main ingredient. But when you become fringe, you become expendable. Your circumstances changed.

The immediate debris of revolution becomes acceptable death. If we remember the cause. Horses are now a sign of status. They are poems, pretty and useless. Something to occupy wealthy teenagers. Through our sentimentality, we ruined their fate.

When I saw grass at my eye-level, I knew the cant began, a withdrawal, and Richard Nixon visited China. The wall rose above my head and pooled out into a field.

Though I sang in my chains like the sea. Nestled, I thought, in parenthesis always. The constraints of place, of coast, of lack of coast, except for the riverway, there is possibility for myth everywhere. The beauty of the American sadness is in the realization of it. 

My first trip to Los Angeles occurred when Nixon died there in 1994. Event in landscape: without my sense of history to apply, Nixon represented only a parody to my generation. That never fully killed the ole bull, did it? We relent. Everything is funny because it is castrated. Richard Nixon can no longer harm. Ronald Regan can do no harm. On down the line. Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.

The observer fixates on the balcony, what has disappeared, vanished, absconded, and in cathexis, the forward-looking architect has made the exposure an absorber for disconnected eros.

Even if the pursuant remained reticent and only watched the scene unfurl above his head, his undeclared affections choke him not. The balconies stand as the middle point between the observer and his god. From terra firma, terrestrial and common, the raised beloved is separated from god to the exact degree the observed is separated from the beloved.

This might be extended to the audience at a theatrical production. Geometrically and spatially, the apotheosis becomes concrete. Immanence achieved by the stifled word, the swallowed word.

All I had to do was react. The one thing I could not do. Youthful or otherwise, we escaped each other. The very prospect of an us too disastrous for belief. Did we save each other or have we deformed each other simply by thinking of each other.

I wish I could say more about her. A vein I never bridled. We were young then, and I hated those conditions. But we were on a suburban porch, the antithesis of the balcony. I now have a spatialized representation of melancholy.

The sadness of Juliet’s balcony would, if catharsis it is, make all of us Juliets when we step out of the window or Romeos when we see from the street.

No more, then, this room. We travel longer and without much esteem to whereof we last called home but until there is sacrifice and a gift, we retain our individualism.

When to apply pressure to a dying animal’s neck is mercy, I learned when I cried at the sight of my brother and father returning with a game bag filled with pheasants, one or two writhed in the bag still, even in the garage of my grandparents’ home in central Nebraska 35 minutes from the site of the hunt. Your hands make like you’re going to flash an O.K. sign to someone, slide the neck in the space between your forefinger and thumb, and you twist as hard and as fast as you can, because nothing should suffer.

The mind works, partially.

For the past three years, the old smell of a frightened horse was in my heart and lungs. I listened for the howl and bark when dogs separate post-coitus, a song added to this noise. I know the membrane is more permeable than I’d like.

This is not the center, per se, or even a point near the middle of our journey, but it is the place where we have stopped because we held a faint interest in those indistinguishable trees along the side of the highway. Only because we thought we’d never get back here, applying the correct principle of never being able to drink the river twice, etc., did we disembark. Maybe momentum gives us distaste, retroactively. I failed to understand its value. I am human, I fancy, and that condition has limited my progress. My selfishness never astounds me, but I always must remind myself to release the death I wish for to the dead I know:

Someone else can love these trees. Someone else can love the shoulder of the road. Someone else’s brinkmanship can be better than mine.

There’s a tear in the window screen that I can’t attribute to an action I performed. The divide begins at one corner and ends at its opposite point. The rift is not diagonal but s-shaped. The two halves point out to the street. To be sure, this is an example of an improper use of a window; only in emergencies should they be used as exits. I remain confident, too, that no one would want to ingress into this room, if not for lack of valuable objects, for want of any company; I grew awkwardly kind and easefully bitter.

The possibilities unfolded to me, and I imagined your thin appendages slipping through the window and your jacket flashing white in the turf between my window and the street. Long gone. Deeper across the lawn until the horizon vanished with you in it. The sea gone with the sun.

I mulled this over and over, suffering like people do when they fail. There was even a point where the academic method proved to serve me best, and I almost felt the need to flick the scabs off my scholarship; for there would be nothing better than to imagine you dead.

If only there were balconies or memorials. But, none.