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On necklaces.

This essay is dedicated to Roald Hoffmann, who has brought me back beads from Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Madagascar via Tucson, Arizona, and the Atacama Desert in Chile.


What is the charm of necklaces? Why would anyone put something extra around their neck and then invest it with special significance? A necklace doesn't afford warmth in cold weather, like a scarf, or protection in combat, like chain mail; it only decorates. We might say, it borrows meaning from what it surrounds and sets off, the head with its supremely important material contents, and the face, that register of the soul. When photographers discuss the way in which a photograph reduces the reality it represents, they mention not only the passage from three dimensions to two, but also the selection of a point de vue that favors the top of the body rather than the bottom, and the front rather than the back. The face is the jewel in the crown of the body, and so we give it a setting.

When people are intensely concerned with something that is obviously impractical, anthropologists take note, for lovely useless things often express archaic structures in the human soul. Fireplaces, for example, have little reason to exist in contemporary American houses already heated by gas and electricity, yet most people want one and it is still the focus of the living room. This desire testifies, I think, to the hundreds of thousands of years during which we Homo sapiens huddled around a cave fire. We watch ourselves, rather anxiously, vanish backward down those long temporal corridors, as my daughter gazes at her infinitely multiplied small self in the mutually opposed mirrors of the beauty salon, and wonders, is it me? Our fireplaces and necklaces and tombstones say it is, they are.

So we have the corporeal-cultural custom of wearing something around our necks, useless except for the emphasis or commentary it provides. A necklace is very meta. A friend of mine in Paris, Lucie Vines, learning of my newly acquired fascination with bead craft, brought out two necklaces that she had made from objects purchased over a period of decades in the antiquarian shops of Paris. The first was a necklace made entirely of Neolithic beads, great over-sized, roundly geometrical, roughly granitic things. Taken together, they were gorgeous and not a little disturbing, for they were the literal embodiment of the archaic figure of the necklace. So too the second, composed entirely of Egyptian amulets and scarabs, each two or three thousand years old. And then she emptied a box of African trade beads that she'd been saving up, and let me take my pick of them to celebrate my unwonted excursion into color and form. (She's an artist.) In three or four different experiments, I mixed them up with faux and vrai Murano millefiore beads; amber, red, and blue glass lozenges; heavy round dark crushed-glass-coated oversized beads; green aventurine beads from a garage sale; silver filigree beads from an antiques barn near Lancaster; and coral beads from the Philippines, coated in shellac, with the grain and striation of little apples.

In American culture, an interest in necklaces seems to be rather gender specific. Many men to whom I mention the enterprise feign polite interest and then change the subject, though I know some who admire, construct, and wear necklaces, including the distinguished scientist and poet to whom this essay is dedicated. Most women, by contrast, become mildly to wildly enthusiastic. A doctor in Blois brought out her entire collection of costume jewelry for me, exhibited the most splendid pieces with an account of where and when they were purchased, and then explained them all with the help of a large glossy book on the history of costume jewelry, with dozens of pictures. A former student who had moved to California mailed me six plastic boxes full of beads gleaned from a warehouse managed by an eccentric friend who just likes to amass: a trove of freshwater pearls I had to detach one by one from their settings; a feature bead painted with a naked lady; crystal rondels of truly exceptional shine; and tiny silver hematite seed beads. My daughter's dance teacher, learning that I was on the lookout for tree-shaped beads, directed me to the local stained-glass artist, and as an afterthought lent me a book on the internationally recognized glass artist Dale Chihuly, who reminds us that glass is like water (as crystal is like ice). Our babysitter brought me back a box from Colorado Springs with various treasures: large topazes, azure cloisonne beads, bone beads carved like dice, and snake vertebrae. One college friend requested a purple necklace; another, bright lemon and lime because she was sad; another, blue, because she wasn't. Beads lend themselves to exchange. Beads travel. And clearly these two facts are related.


My fourth book of poetry, The Abacus of Years, includes a poem entitled "The Historian's Pursuit," written a couple of years ago for Christine Heyrman, who had just won the Bancroft Prize for her book Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. When we were fellow Fellows at the National Humanities Center (with my husband Robert Edwards, who wasn't yet), I learned a great deal from her--mostly over lunch--about the methods and romance of historical research: how she talked her way into archives and sifted patiently through dusty boxes in the unventilated basements of churches or the un-air-conditioned storerooms of county courthouses; how she wove narrative warp threads in and out of the weft of statistical data, numbers compiled from phone books, tax records, medical records, deeds, wills, newspapers. That year, when we were not exchanging scholarly notes, we were shopping for shoes at the outlets. E. B. White said of the gifted spider Charlotte that it is rare to find someone who is both a good friend and a good writer; I might add, and a good shopper.

I didn't realize that she had another hidden talent until, in response to my poem, one day she observed by e-mail, "Emily, I can't make you immortal in verse, but I certainly can make you sparkle." Shortly thereafter, she arrived for a visit with two packages. One contained a longish necklace composed of gold Czech glass squares with blue edges, big amber beads, mottled brown and white seeds, clay stars, and in the middle a milky blue marble bead that looks like the earth seen from the moon. In the other was a shorter necklace of polished rose quartz and softly faceted clear crystal. They both indeed sparkled, and so did I when I wore them, cheered by the thought that Christine made them herself especially for me.

Later, I asked her to restring a strand of jet and pearl beads my mother-in-law once gave me; the title poem of Abacus is dedicated to her, and come to think of it, centers around the image of a necklace, construed as wooden counters on the wire of an abacus, strands of Christmas tree lights, and stars flung out along the conceptual filaments of light-years. Along with that broken strand I threw in two other derelict sets, one blue, one green, which had been rolling around for a decade in a bureau drawer. I meant for Christine to use them in her own creations, but when she returned the repaired necklace, she also brought two new ones. The irregular green serpentine beads were interspersed with silver spacers and green glass stars and reorganized around one large heart-shaped and two smaller oval green and white marble feature beads; and the little metallic blue beads were enlivened and extended with multiple small olive, bottle-green, and azure glass cylinders to a strand I could wrap three times around my neck. Wow. My daughter and I took to laying out and admiring my new trove of necklaces, which made the white bedspread resemble a corner of Aladdin's cave. Like crackers and marshmallows, speakers and air conditioners, necklaces had always seemed to me items that one must buy at the store, involving in their manufacture skills or equipment beyond the ambit of ordinary humans. And yet here suddenly was a king's ransom, conjured up by a friend: magic!


So one day I called up Christine and said to her, "What if I come down to visit with a couple of the kids, and you show me how to make necklaces?" A few weeks later, we arrived at her house in the Maryland countryside; the children occupied themselves with her astonishingly patient dog, and Christine and I sat down to bead. She had kindly bought me a pair of wire cutters, a pair of needle-nose pliers, some glass seed beads of various color and degree of sparkle, and the new space-age substitute for thread (in three diameters, .12, .15, and .18 cm.) that makes beading easy: supple, nylon-coated, steel wire. Also a few other essential, though diminutive, items: crimp beads, clasps and spacers (both gold and silver in, well, tone), which prove to be the commas, semicolons, and periods in the expressive sentence of the necklace.

I hope I may be pardoned for giving it all away, but the technical secret of necklaces is what happens at the end of your row of beads. You feed the wire through a metal, cylindrical crimp bead, through one end-loop of your clasp, then back through the crimp bead; you make sure that the beads are tightly lined up and secure, and then squash the crimp bead flat with your pliers and cut off the stray end with your cutters. Voila. The procedure has to be carried out twice, of course, and the second time is always a little harder (because there is less wiggle room) and riskier (because at that point your necklace is about to become a fait accompli). "Is that it?" I asked Christine in amazement after having just elevated my first strand of beads to the rank of necklace with a flourish of jeweler's tools. It was so much easier than the exacting procedures required to deploy a sewing machine that I'd usually gotten wrong in seventh grade, for example. "That's it!" she announced, and brought us out another beer from the fridge. I was in business.


The easy part of making necklaces is finishing them, once you have the right equipment. The hard part is making necklaces that aren't ugly (disproportionate, mismatched, or unbalanced) but at the same time aren't boring. I suppose the exception to the rule is a single strand of pearls, which from the perspective of design is about as boring as a necklace can be; but in this case the investment is all in the materials, real pearls, that made dozens of real oysters miserable for a long time. Otherwise, the trick is to take materials of variable quality and provenance, and mix them up according to various formal principles, intuition, and the hard cautionary knocks of experience, so that in combination they look gorgeous. A good necklace, like an organism or a poem, is a counterexample to the metaphysical thesis of reductionism: it is much more than the sum of its parts. What it will look like when you finally tote it all up and fasten it on is always a surprise. You don't know that you have achieved, or failed to achieve, gorgeousness (or even sober elegance) until the last moment when, if you're lucky, you give an involuntary sigh of wonder and recognition.

Another way to put the point is that making a good necklace is not the application of formal rules, nor can a necklace be deduced from its beads. You have to keep moving between rules and memories and hunches to discover what certain beads in concert may be encouraged to become. The wisdom of experience precipitates a cascade of rules, but then you have to choose and apply them. Don't depart too far from symmetry. Perfect symmetry is boring. Increase bead size as you work towards the center. Don't place interesting beads too close to the clasp; they'll be hidden behind the curve of neck and shoulder, and hair. But don't put trivial beads near the clasp either, because sometimes after all they show. Be reasonable in your use of spacers; syntax should not be allowed to overwhelm semantics. Heavy central beads turn the curved drape of a strand into a "V". Two- and three-strand drapes are much harder to estimate than one. Don't juxtapose really big and really small, or round and rectilinear, beads without mediation. Choose your central beads with care, because they draw attention even when they're not feature beads: make sure they're not chipped or dirty. Wash your beads if they need it, in vinegar or soapsuds or jeweler's solution. Be lavish in mixing colors, but let your eye guide you.

You have to have a good eye. Like the musician's ear or the poet's heart, this is an innate attribute, though possible to cultivate if you have it. Moreover, no amount of experience seems to prevent the occasional disappointment of a failed hypothesis; an awkward necklace, however lovely it seemed in the prospect of imagination, declares itself as firmly as the data of experiment fail to measure up to what the scientist predicted. And you never know when unexpected gorgeousness will thrill you.


Once I began to make necklaces, I also began to see the world through a highly specific filter: wherever I went, I was on the lookout for material. My children learned to sense the onset of bead fever, and tried to resist when I shepherded them into a dollar store or Saks or a dark alley. Beads show up in fancy and lowly places, and no possibility should be scorned. Finding bargains is half the fun, though sometimes the discovery is nuanced by sadness, for beads travel, and they are often cheap because in the lands they come from no one earns a living wage. One of the few women who hasn't responded to my new project with enthusiasm is a Taiwanese friend who runs a restaurant I go to almost every week. When she was a child, she spent many summers stringing beads to make money to support herself and her family, so the idea of doing it voluntarily and for pleasure to her fell just short of the unthinkable, in the no man's land where the natural numbers get close to infinity. The provenance of beads in general can't be tracked like that of Adidas sneakers. Was your bead carved by an artisan in Bali who relishes and is rewarded for her craft, or by a Burmese peasant who is trying not to starve? On the other hand, sometimes the discovery is nuanced by malice: if a neighbor is silly enough to let go of a strand of good cloisonne pearls for two dollars at her garage sale, my contraband adds a certain spice to each necklace in which I plant it.

The most expensive way to buy beads is to cut up necklaces you've bought at a jeweler's. I've done this once or twice, when I really needed a certain kind of bead, but discourage the practice. Wholesalers who supply jewelers are a more rational source, but then you have to find them. There are quite a few in the Marais in Paris, behind the Place des Vosges and the Picasso Museum; I bought some lovely white amber beads there, which look like a smooth compound of vanilla taffy and butterscotch. In Rome, behind the Piazza Navone, you can buy strands of coral from the Mediterranean Sea just off the harbor of Naples for ten or twenty dollars. My soberest wholesale purchase was the 50 Euros I laid down for a long string of faceted Tibetan crystal in a shop just above Pigalle, which has meanwhile proved to be worth every centime. In New York, the pertinent neighborhood centers around Thirty-sixth and Forty-sixth Streets and Broadway. Not long ago, I spent an hour there discussing findings and philosophy with three generations of the charming family of Myron Toback; his daughter persuaded me to buy my first two- and three- strand clasps, which opened up a whole new set of quasi-geometrical construction problems.

Antique stores have offered some treasures. At a Brocante in Cusset, a medieval suburb of Vichy, I bought a dozen strands of tiny silver seed beads made in Murano in the 1930s, which endow any necklace I put them in with a shimmer like light reflected from the lagoon off the rosy facades of Piazza San Marco. The most spectacular clasp I ever bought, a kind of rhinestone clock-face, came from an antique store off the Via Nomentana in Rome, though I had to detach it from some high-class plastic pearls. The Goodwill in my town is a well of bargains: I looked at a strand of intricately carved bone rosettes there for months before snatching it up for fifteen dollars when it was finally marked down, and once pounced on a glorious set of yellow jade beads for even less. It is also a reliable source of staples: black glass beads of all sizes, glass pearls, gold spacers, and lobster-claw clasps. Garage sales regularly yield discoveries, but only if you get up at the crack of dawn: a bracelet of rock crystal beads for a dollar, a necklace of polished hematite chips for two. There are also stores that purvey beads to people who make necklaces, like the chain Beadazzled or La Pharmacie, whose Paris branch hides in the shadow of Les Halles. I mostly avoid them, because it seems like cheating, but I did buy five sets of large flat oval "Palazzo" beads with swirls of gold in purple, black, yellow, green, and amber, and smooth mahogany-brown seeds that resemble shaped-up horse chestnuts at La Pharmacie, and had to wait in line forty-five minutes for the privilege.


Bargains also turn up when you aren't really looking for them. I once bought polished topaz and garnet chips in an Indian grocery store at the same price demanded by a wholesaler off Forty-seventh Street. I've stumbled upon faux but dazzling Murano millefiore beads in an art supply store at home and at a newspaper stand next to the Pantheon, moss agate lozenges in the shop of a natural history museum on the Sioule river featuring the skeleton of a thirty-thousand-year-old rhinoceros, and carved jade in a souvenir store facing the august Romanesque church at Orcival. One attribute of beads is their stubborn democracy: good ones turn up in both high-heeled and flip-flop establishments.

But bargains, as ever in the economy of life, must be paid for by betrayals, which are also democratic: I have been gulled at all levels. I was once disappointed to discover that a Vide-Grenier held in a small French village did not actually consist of French villagers emptying out their attics, but rather of professional dealers who go from town to town selling collectibles. One such dealer talked me into a Coco Chanel imitation necklace that seemed to be made of sea glass, those wine-bottle shards worn opaque by the waves and sand that beachcombers treasure. Mais oui, madame. She assured me it was, but I had forgotten my glasses and was too embarrassed to bite it, a sure-fire way to distinguish stone from glass and glass from plastic. Teeth turn out to be remarkably sensitive organs. In any case, great was my disappointment when, upon returning home, I uncoupled them from their enormous gold-tone spacers that hid half the bead, and discovered they were only plastic after all. I gave them to my daughter, but she also scorned them because under the shadows left by the spacers they were dirty.

An elderly lady and her young gay assistant talked to me for half an hour about my projects in an upscale Roman boutique, and assured me that there were no wholesalers in Rome. I explained to them (in English, French, and approximate Italian) that I never used plastic beads but was happy to employ all kinds of glass, and they ultimately sold me a long string of glass beads the color of Piero della Francesca's skies that I never want to part with, and another long string (for the same price) of delicious coral-color beads that proved, when I bit them back in the hotel room, to be plastic. The charming Korean gentleman who sold me white amber in the Marais also sold me a graduated set of yellow amber beads with fascinating interior crackles. When I tried to use them, a few weeks later, they turned out to have no holes.


Those who string beads in patterns count, like weavers, like Goethe composing verse by tapping out the meter, delicately, with his fingers on his Roman mistress's back. Four green seed beads given to me in Paris twenty years ago, one of Christine's sparkly turquoise seed beads, two Murano silvers, one turquoise, four more greens, and then the big one; begin again. So it goes, and so I whisper to myself. Because I have a long-standing interest in geometry and its mathematical offspring, I often also reflect on the curve a necklace makes as I work on it. Stretched out and unclasped, it's a line (ax + by + c = o). A choker encircles the neck, so it is by and large a circle (x[sup.2] + y[sup.2] + c = o). We might think that a necklace, extending longer, droops into an ellipse or a parabola or one of the fugitive branches of a hyperbola (ax[sup.2] + by[sup.2] + cx + dy + e = o). However, the form is in the end probably not an algebraic curve, expressible like those above by a polynomial equation with a finite number of terms and positive integral exponents, but rather more like a famous transcendental curve, the catenary. Leibniz called it la chainette, because it is the form assumed by an ideal chain with links of vanishingly small fineness (and who among us has not wished for such a chain, in gold, fashioned by the masters of Jaipur?) when suspended from two points. Generally speaking, it stands for a minimal energy state, and since such "minimal surfaces" are especially important in physics and chemistry, la chainette and the surface it generates when rotated turn up all over, as the catenoid of a soap bubble stretched between two loops or of the lipid bilayer in cell membranes; another such minimal surface is the helicoid of DNA. I thought of trying to make a necklace with a glass helix winding around a certain section of the beads, but haven't yet found the right occasion.

Apropos surfaces, what makes the drape of a necklace so hard to estimate in abstraction, up in the air (the way you hold a necklace up to see how it's developing), is the complicated surface formed by a woman's neck, shoulders, and breasts. They are a set of saddle curves. A flat surface has zero curvature; a sphere, where the curviness all curves in one way, so to speak, has constant positive curvature; but a saddle has negative curvature, since some of its curviness goes up and some goes down. A neck and shoulder form such a curve and so does the valley between two breasts, and the clavicle adds its own angular interruption. Now, how will the circle or ellipse or catenary of the necklace (in one, two, or three strands) fall over this surface? The question is further vexed by the varying weight and size of the beads. A long bead in the middle tends to go horizontal; a heavy feature bead pulls the whole thing into a "V" that then intersects in various ways with the curves of a buxom girl. Moreover, people have necks that vary from willowy to columnar, so what droops on one person will work fine as a choker on her friend.


Recently my family spent a month in Chatel-Montagne, a hilltop village in the Bourbounais, south of Bourgogne and north of the Auvergne. We chose it by chance from the hundred offerings in a Gites de France catalogue, but once arrived we realized it was a great discovery. It combined the advantages of French rural life--no e-mail, coin-only public telephone, fragrant bakery, established population of wild cats, friendly postmaster, tidy fields, and ravishing views--with a lively aesthetic scene. During the past decade, the mayor realized that the imposing Romanesque church brought into the village a stream of tourists steady enough to turn a cultural waterwheel. So he invited artisans to settle in the village: glass blower, basket weaver, carpenter, leather worker, glass engraver, sculptor, photographer, potter. He turned the public building next to the Mairie into an art gallery with rotating exhibitions, and booked frequent concerts into the church and the tent erected in the Place beside the church, where there is also a good restaurant.

As soon as I arrived at Chatel-Montagne, I went around to various ateliers to see if anyone would make me beads. Many expressed interest, but the only person who really followed through was the glass blower, a young man named Laurent Joignaud, whose shop is always filled with relatives, friends, ruly dogs, glass works that show how willfully he tests the boundaries between craft and art, and children drawn by the twice daily, sorcerer's apprentice exhibitions of his powers as a glass blower. So I often found myself sitting on the threadbare sofa in the rear of the atelier with a couple of children balanced on my lap, trying not to stare into the inferno behind the open doors of the furnace, marveling as M. Joignaud turned molten clumps of glass into vases, platters, kittens, apples, wings, snowflakes, and northern lights.

At first he made me beads that were globes of clear glass with a floating island of gold, like earth when Pangaia was the only continent; the squarish fragments of gold leaf came from a booklet with the fine sheets pressed between its pages. Next there were pink flat flowerets and then leaves, which were green and blue until I told him about the autumn hardwood forests of New England and thereupon red, gold, and amber. After further speculation, he tried more abstract spiral forms, sometimes with spirals of color twisted inside the spirals, including one double helix whose black tourbillon proved when held up to the light to have oxidized to purple. That one inspired my first two-strand necklace, made with the silver 1930s Murano seed beads, amethyst, and jet. I left a few of our co-authored necklaces for him to sell in his shop, along with matching chokers. The last thing he brought me, as the landlords were checking us out on the final day, was a blue lizard with gold speckles on its back, its tail curled in a loop like the Seine just before it disperses into the Atlantic Ocean at Honfleur.


Now when I have to drive far away, usually to New York City, instead of listening to the radio I invent imaginary necklaces. You can conjure up a necklace around a feature bead, as I often did with M. Joignaud's glass pendants. But it is also instructive to plan necklaces with no center, whose patterns wax and wane or just remain constant all the way around. Perhaps it's like planning a melody in a certain key versus a melody progressing without emphasis in the twelve-tone system, or planning a sonnet in accentual verse versus a ghazal written a la francaise in syllabics. Either way, you can achieve good effects. There is the question of length, and the question of multiple strands, and the questions of uniform or graduated size, curvilinear or rectilinear bead shape, smooth or rough texture. And color, of course, is the deepest source of formal conundrum. I invented rainbow necklaces, springtime and autumn necklaces, nightclub and hearthside necklaces, snow and fire.

My best invention was initially sparked by a Chinese blue-and-white-porcelain bead, a cat with a quizzical look on its whiskery face. I thought it was hungry, so I put it on the trail of four fish beads, who swam away from it through lapis and crystal water while I landlocked the kitty in green jade beads dotted with blue glass flowers. At first I thought of the necklace as a narrative, but then realized it was also a landscape. Many painted depictions of landscape on two-dimensional canvas or silk scroll make use of linear conventions: they are often organized around or summed up in a winding road, the curve of a river bank, the crest of a hill, or a cirrus cloud. So why couldn't my necklaces also linearize a place on earth?

With that insight, many places occurred to me. I thought of a necklace corresponding to Chatel-Montagne. Starting from the clasp, I would use a few green-grey jade beads, the color of sunlight waning from a cloudy sky. Bronze-green jasper, delicately lobed and veined, leaf-beads from China to represent by synecdoche the dark maples beside my favorite wall, and sand-colored, squarish beads for the wall. A clear hand-blown glass hummingbird, with flecks of gold, from M. Joignaud, suspended at the center. Then a spray or sequence of fine coral branch beads, real ones from the Piazza Navone, which do rather resemble, iconically, the flowers called coral bells that lined the base of the wall and drew the elfin hummingbirds out of hiding. Then a few more sand-stone beads, asymmetrically disposed with respect to those on the other side, and leaves all the rest of the way up. If I could find the right kind of fat black bee beads, perhaps carved from pyrite (fool's gold), or some indication of the faded metallic red of the gate in the wall, I'd put them in too.

I thought of another for Olympia, with cypress trees climbing the little hills, redbud blooming before its leaves come out, dwarf iris and wild geranium, the Alpheus River plunging among vineyards. Another for Aegina with olive trees, gold terraces, and the Mediterranean lost in the blue of distance. Another for the woods behind my house in Pennsylvania, with rabbit and deer, blue jays and robins, my children playing hide and seek behind black walnut and wild cherry trees. Each place, each necklace, also had its poem, and the stylization of the landscape impressed upon it by the poem suggested to me the elements of the necklace.


When I was a child, my mother and I kept a "glitter box" filled with a hodgepodge of sequins, rickrack, buttons, seed beads, old bits of jewelry, ribbons, and felt cut up into shapes. We got it out mostly to make Christmas tree ornaments by decorating Styrofoam balls or bells or reindeer with the stuff held in place by half-length straight pins. Perhaps because my mother's real jewelry was lost for a time after her death (although later recovered), I always kept careful track of the glitter box. From time to time, I'd get it out of the closet for my little boys, just for fun, but only when my daughter Mary-Frances and I started making necklaces in tandem did I realize it might include beads we could use. Then I spent a couple of days, off and on, sorting out beads from its bright jumble: coral beads shaped like miniature branches; real but tiny conch shells either au nature or colored in 1950s aquamarine and mauve, with neat holes; matte-black round metal beads; clear glass rosettes; turquoise glass seed beads; rainbow-colored wooden beads of various shapes; and graduated beads the decorous, shiny white of dinner plates in a French bistro.

I put them back, mostly sorted, in the postwar shoebox they'd always inhabited, and then in a glorious moment of recognition set it on the needle-point footstool that belonged to my great-great Aunt Emily, next to the Italian shoe box in which I keep my own beads (sorted by color in freezer bags with Ziploc tops, which in turn contain finer sortings by texture and weight in postcard-to stamp-size plastic bags) and the Adidas box in which Mary-Frances keeps her beads, mostly plastic and not much sorted and extremely brilliant. Tears came to my eyes. There we were, four generations of women represented by the work of our hands, with interlocking names: Emily Paddock, Frances Skerrett, Emily Grosholz, Mary-Frances Grosholz Edwards.

During the years of my early fifties, the grief of my mother's death has often reoccurred to me, because she died at fifty-two. The triggering event was September 11, but somehow every threat of dispersion, every important thing I'd ever lost, every bitter disappointment, came back to haunt me. For awhile, the center could not hold. Taking up the construction of necklaces was, I think, at first almost obsessive and then therapeutic, and then, at last, another occasion for the pleasures of invention. It is a commonplace that disaster often causes a retreat into intense aestheticism, domesticity, and the miniature (and therefore manageable), and I don't deny my own need for retreat. But to compose a necklace is also to endow lost or dispersed elements with meaning and pattern, to make them beautiful again, to warm them with the touch of human flesh. They ride, after all, where our blood comes close to the surface, where we feel a pulse, where we dab perfume to emanate from cleavage, nape, and temple. And their allure reflects the face they underline.


As it happened, just when I was dreaming up the landscape necklaces--a project that proceeds slowly because it's hard to find beads that resemble trees or rivers or the red tile roofs of the Mediterranean in cross section--I was writing about the way science linearizes real things in order to understand them, to reveal their conditions of intelligibility. For example, a molecule (indeed, any physical or algebraic system) may be studied in terms of its symmetries, using groups that are in turn reduced to matrices and then to numbers. In general, and over a longer period of time, I have been musing about the linearization of things in the symbolic strings of language, natural language or the formal languages of logic and abstract algebra, and even of space itself in the analytic geometry Descartes invented but didn't fathom, and even of love in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Sydney. Linearization is a distortion, an oversimplification, a reduction of complexity: but pari passu it also illuminates and engenders, highlighting elements and patterns against a shadowy background of forgetfulness.

As Borges knew so well, if we couldn't forget, we would never discover, prefer, or bless. So it may be that the poems and theorems I especially treasure are like necklaces on the great breast of darkness, underwriting a lovely and terrible face up to whose furnace-like eyes I don't dare turn my own, and with reason. If it seems pretentious to end an essay on necklaces with an excursion into metaphysics, keep in mind that the four figures who (arguably) invented modernity around 2600 were the philosopher Descartes, the scientist Bacon, the poet Shakespeare, and the essayist Montaigne, who took the pebbles to which skepticism reduces knowledge and the fragments explorers carried back to Europe from the realms of gold, and fashioned them into a new line of civilization.
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Author:Grosholz, Emily R.
Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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Next Article:Carole Simmons Oles. Waking Stone: Inventions on the Life of Harriet Hosmer.

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