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One is no longer fully present. Now, all experiences seem set in a context so large
and increasingly complex that one is more than distracted, almost obliterated by
all else that is going on and indeed all that will be going on after one ceases to be.
For it is this sense of one’s own absence that makes one unable to respond fully and
with the sort of ticklish anxiety with which one used to respond—not a full fledged
anything exactly, but edgy and on guard, as if the foil were about to be thrust in
one’s direction despite having chosen a corner at quite a distance from the main
stage. I’ve been in constant practice, Hamlet says to Horatio, and so is ready to
stand in front of the other, almost identical young man and exchange parries. In the
theater it is almost possible to grasp an epee one has never held, to remember a time
of being fully present.
a photographic album
The experience of things missing seems itself to be disappearing, although I am speaking here of one tiny realm of experience, of turning the pages of a photographic album as the relatives in my family used to do, although not in recent years, since most of them are dead or live so far away that, although they may still be doing such things, turning pages slowly as the couch sinks into featherless flatness, I no longer am witness. What I refer to, however, is not the absence of photographic albums per se, but of that experience of turning a page into which black-and-white photos have been glued, only to find that one of the photographs is missing. Traces of glue remain on the page, perhaps even bits of the backing, but the photograph is gone, missing entirely—some aunt perhaps or a boy with a baseball glove or oneself. If I could remember a particular pose or particular set of apartment steps, I might remember the photograph that’s missing, but the person I was is now also missing and it seems suddenly the clue to a time, even were the documents intact, that is lost.
Hamlet refers to “the book and volume of my brain,” and with the one word, “volume,” points simultaneously to books as volumes of written words and to the volumes of space inside the globe of his skull. The oscillation of the two meanings, between the “book” as mentally conceived and the book as an object to be picked up and held, a thing to be read, the volume Ophelia, as directed by her father—“Read on this book, that show of such an exercise may colour your loneliness”—lures him with, makes a reader of the play helplessly intimate with this character who is as mere words as unreal as the clouds he sees as camels or at least says he sees.
One summer by chance, visiting friends who had invited other friends to lunch, friends who then asked to include and did include a neighbor who was asked along, I had the opportunity to see her portfolio of road kill. The birds in her photographs were dead, their bones protruding through spread feathers held apart by disembodied hands. I asked her if she thought there was some intimate meaning to her pursuit of dead animals, dead birds, but instead of answering my question directly, she told the story of Audubon’s failed efforts to paint a live bald eagle, his having to resort to killing the bird in order to be able finally to paint the picture, a picture which in the original version showed himself as artist crawling across a distant rope bridge, puny and precariously perched. In later editions of the famous book, this small self-portrait was erased.
The leaves move outside the window of the kitchen; they do not blow, but rather from a still position move suddenly from one side to another and stop. I try to figure out how this might happen, how the wind might be caught in a particular eddy at the side of the building, how the fence just beyond might let some leak through, wind that lifts the leaves, and then hits the side of the house, stilling the branch. Standing at the stove I am frightened by the movement, the stiff green clothing of the woman. Her name is too familiar and she’s come after all this time to stand at the side of the house, stare at the leaves bending and stiffening, as they take on the postures of Charcot’s hysterical women. When conjoined in this way, they begin to oscillate, as if wary of whoever might be moving through the interior rooms of the house.
Martha Ronk is the author of eleven books of poetry, Glass Grapes and other stories, and a food-biography, Displeasures of the Table. Her most recent books include Ocular Proof 2016, on photography, and Transfer of Qualities, long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry.
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