1. DEFINITION OF AN EXCELLENT PHOTOGRAPH
I grew up in my father's low-slung house on Gondola Drive, where he brought home, along with the groceries and dry cleaning, porn.
A lot of porn. Every afternoon he went down to a post office box he rented at the Oak Hills branch. The brown paper-covered mail piled on the counter between the sugar-flour-coffee-tea canister set and the coffeemaker. The brown wrappers mingled with Fortune and U.S. News and World Report, Playboy mixed in with bills and offers. Sometimes I looked inside.
I put an enormous amount of energy into not-seeing anything in front of my eyes.
When one is very good at not-seeing the real world, there's a sliver of opportunity to see what can't be seen. Call that faith. I slipped in.
In every room in the house on Gondola were photographs that did not seem like photographs, reality, or anything fascinating. The photographs of the girls smelled of despair, and it was shiny; theirs was a graphic life.
Pornography means writing about harlots. It's a new word, from 1850 or so. I never once said the word aloud (until I was in graduate school), and I never allowed myself to think What is wrong with this picture? A girl, in a house with so many magazines and videos. Labeled adult.
It was my father; I lived in his house.
2. WHAT IS ART?
A decade after I left my father's house, I bought a book of Sally Mann's photographs, Immediate Family, photographs of her children as water creatures, fierce pale humans energized by fear and abandon. My boyfriend at the time said she was wrong to do this to her children, photograph them naked. He used this word: unnecessary. He believed some things were more important than art.
For a photograph to be interesting, beautiful, Mann says it must have two things: mendacity and ambiguity. I add: for a childhood to be interesting, or maybe anything.
My interest in Christ comes from those photographs of women, fingers on their labia, spreading, smiling, softening, showing, melting. But I don't study the teachings out of fear or because I am craving an antidote, a punishment, clear rules, justice, refuge, or safety. Christ is ambiguous and peculiar. With faith, I must keep looking at something that isn't photographable, and, just as when I looked inside the magazines and tried to understand, I keep seeing more, not less. Faith is not-seeing perfected; it's what my childhood brought me to. It's what my childhood was for.
Faith is art perfected.
Pornography, like Hummel or Precious Moments figurines, is not beautiful or ugly; it's harshly sweet, and collectible, meaningless without a series, and similarly odd. Porn, Hummel, Precious Moments--in each case the body is pressed into shapes that bear little resemblance to daily real shapes.
And an awful lot of weird shades of pink. A kind of bisque.
I always want to be photographed naked. Not actually photographed. But remembered clearly, delighted in. Irresistible: the idea of the body made applicable.
I have an illusion that naked is real. I have an illusion that if I could just pin down a real self, someone to be, finally I will be able to relax.
I always want my photograph taken.
We all want to be seen. Faith: see the invisible, never become it.
Is a place with a taut skin, where, like pornography, the juicy and delicious and forbidden and the hot and wet are just another day. Pelicans, flamingos, hibiscus, bougainvilleas, geckos on the ceiling of my bedroom, frozen in time and fragile and moving toward sex and as far away from death as possible and right into it--Florida is a blossom and a death. And I always wonder: where is it from, this place? How hard was its childhood? How did it get to be this way, beautiful and sleazy and startling and overt, making this money, selling itself?
When I read Bible stories and tales of elves and fairies and tales of people in cold climates and olden times, it all felt like the real world, and when I walked outside, among giant spiders and snakes and armadillos and even flamingos down at the park, my world and my self seemed fantastic, untenable, envisioned by someone in a book. In Orlando many days it rained even while the sun shone bright, heavy, hard, and damp. I was often in a bikini. I was in a store, in a bikini, and I didn't feel close to naked; I felt unreal, close to home. Unreal, close to the bone.
Occasionally in Florida, men in rockets streaked across our sky, and we all went out to watch them. I really could see through the fire and smoke and vapor, into their little window, see the helmet, through the visor, the gums pulled back, the terrible gleeful grimace on the head of the man in the rocket.
And I sensed, as they tore through the blue drapery sky, always, in this place, something like skin: permeable membrane.
4. MY FATHER'S PORNOGRAPHY
I visited him, a couple years ago. As always, it felt like the last visit, the last time I would see him alive. He often had cancer or was just finished with treatment for cancer: colon, skin, throat, skin. He was paralyzed on the right side; he was always very, very drunk; he was always somehow on the loose. His back door was wide open. I walked in.
I was wearing a nice pink skirt, and I had on good black shoes--I was in Orlando for a conference, where the night before, I'd delivered the keynote speech. My father's house was filled with smoke. On the television, something sea slug was pulsing, and weird music, a kind thrumming Jell-O of sound. I looked away when I realized what it was. People having sex--very close up. I'm not sure what I was supposed to see; I couldn't tell parts from other parts. But I know the notation.
Turning from the television, I walked past my uncle Donny, an Oxycontin casualty, sacked out in the exact position he'd been in when I was here with my stepsons, a few weeks earlier. I passed the large framed portrait my father had of himself, in his silver afro, hanging on the wall, his expression a fractioned combination of bring it on and no one home. I tiptoed down the hallway, looking for my father. I walked past my old bedroom, where what sounded like the same porn movie from the living room bleated and hummed, a woman, or more than one, moaning uh uh uh from behind my old closed door. My father rented out rooms to drifters, men who said they'd fix his roof, his plumbing problem, put in a patio, men who drank and convinced him to give them money and moved on, men he said were his good friends.
I looked in the hall bathroom, then the back bathroom, calling for my father. Porno magazines piled in both bathrooms, in the hallway, commingled on my father's nightstand and desk with Fortune, Kiplinger, National Geographic, U.S News and World Report. It was always this way, and I knew about it. When I left the house as a kid, I left behind the girl who didn't see things. This is called splitting yourself off from yourself. It's also very pornographic in spirit. It's not the full picture, but you are walking around as if it is true. Yet there's no mendacity, no ambiguity. It is true. You are one thing. A girl body. I didn't know! Pert ass. Cute smile.
I found my father in his wheelchair, smoking at the edge of the swimming pool. I sat on the edge of a planter filled with sand and beer bottles and plastic plant baskets, frizzled with foliage long dead. He was so close to the edge of the fetid pool. The dolphins lacing between cutouts in the cement blocks of the wall were still in mid-leap after all these years.
"I can't hear you," he said.
"I wasn't talking," I said. "I came to say good-bye."
"Wah? No," he said, intently, frustrated. "I don't. No, no, no." He smelled of pee and gin and smoke.
"Whatever I say or anyone says, you say no. It's a reflex."
"No," he said. "No."
I laughed. He didn't. Wasn't he freezing out here, in shorts? His skin was so thin. The pool smelled green. The thick water was low. I stood, leaning over him, bent at the waist, hands on the wheels of the chair. We were right at the edge. Wind rustled in the palm trees that lined the street, and their bright orange nuts glowed like eyes. I'd forgotten that sound, that exact sound the fronds make, gentle scratching that could make you crazy.
A motorcycle roared down the street. There was fuchsia light in the sky, a blood-orange Florida sunrise, like an early morning cocktail. I wanted to take his photograph. This was my father: leaning forward, drink in hand, wondering what, sure of himself, about to say no, leaning forward hard into his next chance to expound.
I wanted to take photographs of him the last photographs of my father alive but I would never be able to look at them. Too much ambiguity. No mendacity. He's all chaos, and he's all true.
Chaos is ambiguity to the tenth power.
Porn gave my father, the hurricane, an eye, but an eye isn't a center.
I watched him through the kitchen window as I washed my hands. His tiny bird legs, their yellow-gold hair flanging out and shimmering in the dawn light, his jaw, shivering. He looked so lost and desperately in love with the world at once.
5. LIFE DRAWING
When I got fired from my first job after graduating from college, I applied to the graduate school at Florida State University, and miraculously, with my sketchy transcript, I was accepted. To pay for it, I took a job with the art department, and I took off my clothes and stood on a platform naked trying to stay perfectly still for ten minutes, thirty, for the midterm examination, a two hour pose. It felt like the most significant, useful work I had ever done in my life.
This work was not low self-esteem. It paid really, really well. It wasn't narcissism; it was the opposite. It was revision. I couldn't imagine other people were really looking at my body and thinking thoughts. They were drawing. I was drawing too. I was outlining, line by line, cell by cell, a whole new body to be in. A fresh beautiful one, one untainted by brown paper-covered mail, you looked, you looked. I was drawing myself out.
Every Wednesday afternoon, and every Saturday morning, and some Tuesday evenings for a group of diehards, I took my self apart, laid out the component parts, working from the outside in, and slowly, for two years, I drew myself together. That's how I saw it.
Meanwhile I was taking a class where we were reading Freud, and for the first time in my life, I thought about my father surrounded by all those images of naked women, women with their legs spread open, their pubic hair groomed into calm triangles of dark lawn, all those women, all those views of where he had himself come into this world, and I could see him as a caretaker of the life force, his addiction to these images, his subscription on America Online to AdultLiterati, pages and pages of pure text, stories of men having sex--thousands of dollars a month. I had read his credit card bill. Porn. I could see his misaligned Eros, a potentially wonderful creative impulse, Eros the life force, the urge of creation, of love for women. Kind of. I could see how afraid he was of death. Of life. He was stuck, in an infant stage, between women's legs. Come out, I wanted to say to my father. There's a whole world out here!
I was not a looker. Nude modeling did not yet seem to me at all connected to the images of women piled in the hallway, on the kitchen counter, dirty magazine towers in every room in our house. I never felt I wore that girl, inhabited her collective skin, in order to slip out of my father's house. When it came to standing naked in front of people, I thought I just liked the money.
But I perfected naked. I perfected it by spending hours reenactingre-enacting facets of nude: hating it, loving it; freezing cold, feet asleep, terrified, bored, thrilled, loathed, uncomfortable, fantastically flexible--hungry nude, working nude, and weird nude. It never got to the point it wasn't weird. I brought my dog with me some days. He fell asleep on the platform beside me. He snored and I grinned.
And then I moved on. To teaching. For which I put on my clothes and thirty pounds of weight before I realized you are safe and you do know.
People do not realize naked isn't about the body. It's about the words in your head.
Pornography is never about anything. There's no problem. That's what is so boring, flat, one-dimensional. No mendacity. No ambiguity. It's an attempt to make what's extremely visible visible. This is one attempt that can never fail. There is no problem. Art makes the invisible visible.
6. WHO LOOKED
I never imagined my father touching himself or anyone else. I never saw him reading or looking at the magazines; the videos ran from breakfast on through the day into the night; he was often not in the room.
In the morning, before the bus came, I walked into the dining room, where he always was having gin for breakfast and reading the paper. The television was at the end of the table.
"Can you switch it?" I would look for the controller.
"What," he would say, confused, half-reading the paper. He was always very drunk at breakfast.
The porn movie was just on. Always. Like a life-support machine. I was so used to pretending what was happening wasn't happening. Like in a hospital, where you play cards right below Surgery. You go to the bathroom. You get bored. You go out for a short walk.
Against the backdrop of the weird insistent hum of the tape rubbing against the rollers in the old VCR machine, breathing itself like an old person, whirring and trying so hard not to break.
For dinner we ate chicken from Dixie Bell, or he cooked chicken. There would be a porn video playing in the television while we ate, while I cleaned up. When he went to the bathroom, or when he answered the phone--he would talk to anyone--I would pick up the controller and turn it off.
For eight weeks during my junior year of high school, he was away, in the hospital, in rehab, back in the hospital, and then he took a vacation to Germany. I read the magazines straight through, every cartoon, every letter to the advice columns, every single thing. I made myself look and I wanted to look. I wanted to look at myself. But I did not.
I loved the letters. How to deal with a neighbor who answered the door in the nude? How to handle the teenager next door who had to give a blow job every afternoon by the pool? I loved the Playboy form the centerfold filled out, printed on the page behind her big pull-out photo, where she posted her childhood photos, listed her turn-ons (hot tubs, rain, champagne, skinny dipping) and the books maybe she read (a lot of Kahlil Gibran). I sub-vocalized my answers. I participated. For a while these girls were my friends, and I imagined myself popular, sweet, festive, part of the fun, yet other, like a dog on the set. I was proud I didn't judge them.
Tonight, I'm forty-four years old, tired, home late from teaching, wound up and exhausted, and I pick up the mail off the porch. There are no letters, only catalogs. Catalogs for clothes, catalogs for sheets, catalogs for the garden, catalogs for citrus and nuts, catalogs for beauty. Catalogs for the pet supplies, catalogs for window treatments, catalogs for shoes, catalogs for department stores, catalogs for pure food, catalogs for terrible modern fake furniture, catalogs for toys, and the catalog for American Girl dolls. I look at them all.
I look at the pictures, imagine these objects in my life, imagine my life in these scenarios, and after I am done, I feel I have binged on food or liquor. I feel narrower and flattened out, uncreative and greedy and unsatisfied but aroused in a seamy way. I feel exactly as I did before: ashamed and worn thin, a little ruined and thoughtless.
8. AIR FORCE PORNOGRAPHY
My stepson met with a military recruiter and was shown videos of men controlling robots and blowing up things. He joined the Air Force, which gives you choices for your job, and he signed up for Explosive Ordnance Devices.
I cried in front of him. I did not care that this was wrong. Why? Why did he pick this? The most dangerous job in the world? I didn't tell him my former professor's son who had had this job committed suicide because of what he saw. But I had implied it, earlier. I had researched this. I had talked to friends. I had given my stepson a list of fabulous jobs. Desk jobs. The good jobs. "What about us if you are dead?" I said.
My stepson looked sad and uncomfortable and proud and scared. His voice was soft. I was hurting him. He took my hands in his hands. "The video. The video was totally cool. It's like playing Nintendo," he said. "They keep us safe," he said. He said he was the perfect person for the job. Because of his experience gaming. I lied and said I was sorry and that I knew he would be safe. Because he looked so scared. Because already he had a new tone of voice when he said They keep us safe. He was already gone, and he could not look at me as more than a photograph.
9. SYSTEM OF BELIEF
The pornography in our lives, in every room of the house, seemed to me like a tumor. Something that had been installed in us against our will, not spoken of, no cure, going on with the day and just working around the great terrible lump of pain in our spaces. It was just on, in the background of our lives. If you'd asked me any questions about any of this at the time, I would have drawn a blank. It was like the Dallas Cowboys. I kind of knew what they were up to.
I never thought to myself He put this porno tape in and pressed play; he knows his sixteen-year-old daughter is coming home from school at three-thirty, making a sandwich, eating it here before she goes to work. He never said, "Sandwich fixings are in the fridge."
I never thought he should do things differently. I never thought You are raising a daughter. I thought of him as my father.
10. MY FATHER ON HIS DEATHBED
Three days after my stepson leaves for boot camp, my mother is reported missing, lost in both Alzheimer's and Orlando, and a lawyer calls me. Two women, posing as my father's daughters, are dealing drugs from the house on Gondola and writing checks on his account, and the neighbors say men--sleazy terrible men with terrible vehicles are in and out all the time. Drugs and remnants of drugs in every room. Children. A dog, locked in a back room, starving.
"The house," the lawyer says, "is unconscionable. What those people did in there. It's truly horrific. I will send you photos." My father has been taken to the hospital. The women posing as caregivers, as his daughters, have taken his money, most of the furniture. "It's never worth prosecuting these things. When are you coming down?"
Now these days I look. I look and I speak. When I leave the house, when I answer the phone, all the parts of me are assembled, sometimes in disarray but almost always in unison. Now I am not as interested in my photograph; I'm more interested in beauty and action.
"No," I say. "I do not need to see the photos. That would be very difficult for me. I can't take on the details." I say I am not coming down. I offer to do what I can by fax and telephone.
"Rats, feces everywhere--I don't think there is anything in this place that can be salvaged. I think it will be condemned."
I remind the lawyer that this is my childhood home. I say "Please. Spare me the details." I say it again. Just give me the outline. My brain is way, way too primed to fill in the details on its own.
Pornography is all details, no distance for love or meaning or grace or affection.
"I need you to be very general here." I say it again. "I lived in that house. Please."
She rushes on. "And pornography. I think they were running a ring. Those children! When I think those girls had kids in there. My god. There was stuff everywhere--everywhere." She sounds excited at how bad it was. The police were called. No one can go in the house; new locks have been installed.
I'm quiet. I know what needs not to be seen too. No one could ever go in that house. I only came out in pieces, close-ups and far-aways. I've spent my life resizing my images of myself, assembling a strong clear girl from a hurricane of parts. I know what remains. I know what is his. I know what is secret, what is best kept, and what will never be understood. I do not tell her what
was my father's. I will never know. I say only one more thing to her. "There's always more to the picture."
11. SALLY MANN AND WHAT REMAINS
I have the book in my lap. I read the title with my own inflection. I read it as an innocent question asked by a guilty person. "What remains?" as in "Problem? What problem?"
I love Sally Mann's work, and I'm surprised when I don't want to open the book.
I do not want to look at naked people. I do not want to look at dead people. I can barely look at people walking down the street. I love the idea of Sally Mann because she passes through the membrane, but I'm not sure I can look at her photographs of bodies, dead and decomposing, the most naked of naked. All this feels so much like home.
Her photos of corpses decaying are the opposite of pornography, and so therefore akin to it, two faces, one coin--what does not remain. Now I am turning the pages, passing through the dog bones, over the bodies, to the faces. I do not recognize any of these pieces, parts. The naked girl and the dead man: we look at them now but they stopped wanting us to a long, long time ago.
I can't go where Sally Man has to go in order to feel alive. I'm already alive, without the dead.
The ambiguity of my life with my father set against the stacks of perfected pore girls, bearers of weird vulvas, each girl saying Here Is The Opening For You!
It wasn't my opening and it also was. And the pornography drove me to find openings, palpable sacred rents in the fantasy. Where does God come through, where is grace shown to us? What can I move closer to in order to touch and be touched by that ineffable pull to wholeness, what some know as Christ? My father hunkered down by the glory hole.
I have so much hunger too. Isn't my own search for openings instigated by his obsession? I know my strange-flavored gratitude toward him. My abandonment of him on his deathbed.
Almost all of what is interesting in academia, in the Midwest, in faith, in middle age--where I live now--is unseen. And that's what I can't stop looking at. That's what I bring in every day with the groceries and the dry cleaning, on good days, snapshots of grace.
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|Article Type:||Literary essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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