I pause in the art museum, savoring “Wild Roses.” Other patrons press and throng; it takes a beautiful act of will to shut them out. Finally, though, the coughing behind me recedes, a wave lapping back, reabsorbed into the ocean. As is my wont, I render myself invisible – via ritual – in that heartbeat of silence, wrap my sinuous dark hair around one fist, disguise my neck. One with the monoprint – my favorite Joan Snyder.
I adore Snyder’s art work because it exemplifies, for me, the beautiful, disintegratory process that is the journey into middle age.
I’ve begun this journey myself. Sometimes I wake at two a.m., breathless, my nightshirt creasing the drenched area below my breasts. I stare into a darkness as pervasive as my thoughts, that rich, oily blackness everywhere, the blackness that will bury me, and wonder what happened this week, last week, the morning I was born. The slipperiness of time itself eludes some part of my consciousness; I can’t fathom that I was born and that I’ll die, just as I can’t quite comprehend what’s happening to my face and body, though it appears that I mourn the changes in each and deem them unacceptable. Subtle decays. A psychological song, internal, which the mad poet composes by herself, for herself, as that entity – the “self” – warps, transmogrifies, becomes irrelevant.
Regardless, I long to embrace these miniscule disintegrations, to adopt a Zen attitude toward the entire aging process. And yet—
Lately, in odd moments, I’ve become obsessed with my neck. Usually my obsessions are either solipsistic or trivial, passionate or inane; this one, though, strikes me as much worse, somehow – more compulsive and self-defeating. In the end, I tell myself, tracing the baggy contours of my throat with two fingers, gravity conquers us all. And, middle aged, I seem less and less interested in physical facts anyway. So why do I stare at my neck, suffused with longing, in any available mirror, wishing for a tautness that will elude me, now, forever?
In the midst of these contemplations, the “self” recording each minute step on the path to its own erasure, Joan Snyder – the idea, and not the person – is what saves me, guides me toward a tenuous redemption glimpsed in moments of intense absorption in the prints, the paintings.
It’s not that I’m deeply familiar with Snyder’s work. Before “Dancing with the Dark” went on exhibit at the University Of New Mexico Art Museum, I’d never heard of Snyder. And then I went to see her paintings. When I stepped off the museum elevator onto the exhibit’s third floor, wall after wall of paintings rose up to surround and engulf me, a red-tinged melange of chaos, madness personified. (And it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m attracted to madness.)
The paintings glowed rich crimson, siren-song seductive, as I walked and paused before each one to sample it, a glorious mess of scribbled hearts and dashed-off words and strangely collaged elements embedded in paint. I stood before each canvas and tilted my head back, jaw jutting forward, a signature tic when I’m self-conscious or terrified.
This time, I was both.
Sinking into a morass of abstraction so fiercely energetic I felt cannibalized by it, devoured alive.
What I feel for the paintings is nearly metaphysical, a veritable bulwark against death and decay. I savor their essence, which is cerebral. Ultrahuman. After all, the delight of any abstraction is buried inside its lingering remnants of pattern. Conundra Land! They’re oversized, these art works, meticulously messy, a glittering red-blend that gets the primal juices flowing. My brain can’t help intuiting patterns from the diverse splashes of crimson and black, green and gold. I’d love to turn my brain off, force it to stop making patterns, but I can’t. The paintings lack a traceable, rational process, which reflects my own experience of middle-aged creativity, and this – more than anything else – rivets and redeems me in the face of my own demise.
I’ve been thinking about creativity a lot these days, how it affects me, us, how it fuels and spurs Joan Snyder toward the canvas. Why it seems so important for some of us, though not all, in terms of emotional health, especially the middle-aged. What makes Joan Snyder’s brain feel electrified when encountering an inchoate pattern, preconscious, that releases her only when she intuits it in paint daubs? Why are some people soul-wired to become potters rather than painters; why are other people driven to work as electricians, pragmatic to the core, lacking some inner vision that compels them to create? What does it even mean to want to “make things?” Does it involve the brain, hand, ear, eye, and how much of each component is necessary? What is the actual connection between the need to create and the need for release? Is it tactile, internal, psychological? It has struck me, more than once, that I’m driven to fashion various objects in different genres, physical or not, the way others remain insatiable for orgasm.
Long ago, when I was a little girl and it never occurred to me to worry about such nonsense as “impending turkey neck,” I experienced a period of such profound loneliness that, even now, it pains me to remember. My mother had taken ill and been loaded onto a stretcher while, eight years old and emotionally stunted in some way I still can’t fathom, I’d devoured the mashed potatoes and gravy my mother had prepared before she collapsed in the kitchen with terrific appetite, my father running to call 911. Even today, though I was admittedly just a child, I think back on my unawareness and feel despondent at how I continued to ply myself with food while burly firefighters in black-and-yellow uniforms hoisted my mother.
The red lights flared, synesthetic, and my mother was carried out, her face tilted toward me on her journey through our narrow, darkened living room. She was very beautiful then in a way that inspired hope and adulation, at least in me. Her face as white as the pillow firefighters had arranged under her neck; her eyes the unremitting shade of green, too intense, that mine would eventually become; her hair like some auburn horse’s mane, undulating and gorgeously chaotic as it spread in thickening tangles; her lips made redder by the fierce scarlet lipstick that shaped her lavish mouth.
How could I dream, staring at her face before my mother disappeared, that one day I would become my mother’s physical twin, stunned possessor of a beauty so violent it would make strangers whisper and stare?
How could I dream that I would become accustomed to that beauty, to the reactions it evoked, to the ways in which it cushioned my passage through the world, only to experience a near-strangling grief when I was finally forced to relinquish it?
That day I knew nothing, of course, about the joys and terrors that would engulf me in adult life. All I understood was that the woman I adored, depended upon, was vanishing into some unknown country of sickness and fatigue. Racing alongside the stretcher, I couldn’t stop staring; supine, sick, she still reached for me, arms flailing; her pale face glowed, red-gold hair, and, as the stretcher passed, her long, elegant fingers lifted in a wave while firefighters carried her out the front door, down the porch steps – forever, I thought.
As I drive to work in pre-dawn darkness, absent-minded and groggy, I’m thinking about my mother, I’m thinking about Joan Snyder, connections between death and creativity, loss and redemption. My daughter, in the back seat, soundlessly mouths the Eagles as she listens through her headphones: “Hotel California,” “The Boys of Summer.”
Albuquerque. March. I park the car, egg-splattered Sable, in the dilapidated parking lot of the fringe college where I teach English to the underprivileged. The lot’s near deserted; fast-food bags, white and beneficently ghostlike, blow across the rubble; men in with sweep brooms in blue coats circle, their figures shadowy, hunched, perfectly anonymous, interchangeable – a fact I find depressing. We park under the dim orange flicker of a street light (one of the extant ones – many at my school are broken, smashed) and get out of the car.
I’m walking my daughter to school.
We stroll, she and I, immersed in a silence typical for these mornings. But I don’t mind it, the quiet. My daughter, adopted, is Chinese, lovely and uncommunicative. It’s who she is, these verbal voids are her nature.
Down the street lies the baseball field where the Isotopes, an Albuquerque team, plays every summer. I can hear the games inside the sweltering classrooms where I teach College Writing to students who struggle and sweat through their allotted prison-time, the announcer’s booming voice, the crowd shouting in the muffled, amorphous way in which collective voices translate from a distance. Fragments, run-ons, comma splices; what do boundary errors matter for students who will go on to become welders, factory workers? I think about this every day and never arrive at any meaningful conclusion, though. Financially unable to retire, I’ll probably keep teaching till I die.
Across from the baseball field, a football stadium looms fat and squat and gaudy, a specious form of architectural magnificence piercing the heavens, concrete reflection of easy money, mass pandering. Banners of star players for the Lobos, the University of New Mexico’s team, scroll up hundreds of feet, the players gods in an academic firmament, all of which leaves me depressed.
But my daughter, oblivious as usual to my moods, pursues her own mental games, leaps back dramatically from the imagined danger of a UNM shuttle speeding by.
There’s a crack in the sidewalk that my daughter and I avoid. We skip around it now, a quick game of mother-daughter hopscotch, our fingers lightly brushing; we jump, land out of breath, glance at each other, my daughter red-faced, and laugh.
Then, we look up.
Across the street, over spring break, cherry trees have burst into blossom. Trees that were naked, scrawny, only a week ago. An assemblage of white, pearlescent petals, wind-quivered blossoms, push out from these trees now in splendiforous masses, little burning brightnesses that thrust up and up, igniting the cold gray sky.
“Prettiful!” my daughter cries, and I nod, find her fingers, give them a quick squeeze, trying for some reason I don’t understand to appear disaffected, to not let her know how vulnerable I feel, cracked open by the pedestrian.
We stand and gaze at the trees while I think about my mother. When the firefighters carried her out, I assumed she was going to die, and nobody told me otherwise. My grandmother, who came to care for me and my brothers in our “time of need,” was a woman I thought of even then as cold, and we never spoke about my mother, as if her illness and hospitalization had never happened. Though she didn’t die, of course, though my mother – shaken and pale, rendered quiet by her hospital scare – returned home merely a month later, that episode evoked my first genuine sense of grief, for I believed, at eight, that I’d lost her.
After that, my losses multiplied. I moved, started teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and earned my Ph.D. A friend who sprinkled ashes on her forehead to commemorate a religious holiday, a colleague in the classics department more reverent and spiritual than I (woefully ignorant, then, of the most basic Christian tenets), made me wonder, when I boarded the elevator with her for a ride to our shared office, if her face wasn’t dirty, if she’d simply forgotten to wash.
These trees make me feel as if I’ve washed. Make me forget my mortality, my sagging neck, the fact that my work may be unimportant. I step forward, clasp my daughter’s hand, and take the trees’ whiteness into some deep place in my being. My mother exists, somehow, in this proliferation, as do Joan Snyder’s art works, as do all things of the spirit that we carry with us, invisible but never subject to erosion or decay.
Fact: my mother could have died that day, but she didn’t. Fact: she will, someday, die, as all of us will, but this distant sorrow doesn’t diminish the simple gift which has been bestowed upon me, its unexpected blossoming.
Terri Brown-Davidson’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in more than 1,000 journals, including Triquarterly, Puerto Del Sol, North American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Los Angeles Review, and other venues. She received the AWP Intro Award in Poetry, a New Mexico Writer’s Scholarship, and a 2002 nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.