Friday, October 01, 2010


Samuel Palmer's wilder, more electric landscape pieces come to mind — the watercolors, mostly — when I drive through the lower reaches of coastal Maine. Palmer more than, say, Winslow Homer, the artist identified with this region. Homer's pictures are austere, crisp and craggy (they carry, I suppose, the stoic character of an imagined New-Englandness); Palmer's are strangely bloated. Even the figure of water in Homer's pictures is scarcely ever wet while the driest of Palmer's landscapes are saturated, overburdened by a moisture far more commensurate with the marshland and rolling hills of southeastern Maine.

Samuel Palmer | The Garden at Shoreham

Homer nails the figure of contradiction and struggle head on in his seascapes and the Cullercoat paintings and perhaps it is this that trumps the wetness of water in New England; but Palmer grasps precisely what water does to things, to a landscape in any season. There is a greater sense of movement in Palmer, a greater fidelity to contradiction and struggle as wholly and irrepressibly active; like the interminable throbbing of a swollen injury, the active dialectical movement specific to struggle, the way a living thing responds through its living to conflict. Palmer recognizes this active and fluid quality in Blake, his Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners; the living light and bursts of flame; the spires and tongues of fire, vibrating with the full prism, made the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries; and you lay the book down tenderly, as if you had been handling something which was alive. As a picture has been said to be something between a thing and a thought, so, in some of these type books over which Blake had long brooded with his brooding of fire, the very paper seems to come to life as you gaze upon it — not with a mortal, but an indestructible life, whether for good or evil.

Other artists identified with the region, Maine specifically, like Andrew Wyeth often render the landscape dry. Christina's World. We know it from an early age. A stock image. Dry in its longing. Identified with New England, Maine specifically. The tall grass &c. It rains as I write. And the roof leaks. And there isn't a home for miles without a sump pump in its basement or crawl space to expunge the water that accumulates below. I recall, that is, crossing into Maine from New Hampshire a couple years ago, on my way to Orono, and remarking to myself how everything suddenly felt moist, wet, saturated even, as if the state line marked a natural divide already inscribed in the earth. If there is a longing and loneliness here, a rigid and stoic interiority that refuses to share itself against its own better interest, then these are not dry and barren miseries but rather an immanent form of struggle that chokes on the fluids of its own excess and drowns, that pulls one down.

It is likely, too, the dryness in Homer and Wyeth offer a desire toward dryness; the absence of moisture, even when the very subject itself is water, wills it away from the imaginary. Here. Where water is everywhere.

The Christina of Christina's World is an Olson, Christina Olson, Wyeth's neighbor in Cushing, Maine, a coastal town just north of here. Olson of course a surname common to the region and everywhere present down through to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the hearth-like space of Charles Olson's imagined demos. There are quite a few Olsons at Beechbrook Cemetery in Gloucester, where Charles Olson is buried. Olsons. Ol' Sun as Olson often referred to himself; and "Old Sun" as Robert Duncan lampooned him in The Origins of Old Sun (performed at Black Mountain in 1952, dormant until staged and directed by David Hadbawnik in Buffalo 2008 and included in the Kenning Anthology of Poets' Theater edited by Kevin Killian and David Brazil).

Dryness is its own misery and the possibility of death on dry land a source of regret for fishermen. Two large stones erected in memory of sailors at Beechbrook Cemetery bare inscriptions that speak this regret ("Loyalty," says Prynne, "is regret spread across time"). On a stone just beyond the entrance of the cemetery:


There is a sense of loss here, an odd and chilling recognition that death itself is something that can be either properly or poorly achieved. John Donne too well knew that drowning is preferable to choking on air, that the most noble of deaths is the smaller death, la petite mort, where the void is wet. The second stone, not far from the first and surrounded by hundreds of smaller stones inscribed only with names, reads:


The most regrettable death is a retired man raking leaves on Sunday, idly patching a hole where a breeze cuts through. In a 1955 letter to a friend Ian Hamilton Finlay remarked: "I see now it is possible to make any kind of story a fishing story." From Odysseus forward. Those of the American Homer tend toward dry land. And the landscape that surrounds his studio at Prouts Neck, a studio currently being restored at an estimated cost of $10.5 million, is by and large privately owned, the shoreline unencumbered by curious public feet, like any number of fine views restricted from view. A country club stands where people stood: carts, clubs and hole flags.

Winslow Homer | The Herring Net

Workers in Maine, reads a placard for the leading Republican candidate for governor, are among the lowest paid in the country. Cash, they say, tends toward the coast. Poverty is interiorized. When my wife asks an assistant in the plumbing department at The Home Depot for a particular copper fitting, the man insists with some frustration that he knows all the fittings by touch, suggesting he was at one time a plumber, possibly before the collapse of the construction industry a couple years ago. I found myself a little thrown by a man in the lumber department at Lowes that knew the material intimately, from mill to sale, who clearly worked with it before he came to sell it. That circulation (retail and service) provides a security far greater than production ever will; that it has been so for so long, so many of the men and women that actively worked the trades and worked them well now holed up in strip malls. To die so on dry land.

The house my family and I now reside in was previously owned by an Olson, a union tiler working out of northern Massachusetts, two or more hours away. Oddly, I was at the Olson conference in Vancouver, BC when we closed on this house, preparing then to give a talk on Olson

New England is utterly alien to me, the distance between it and the mid Atlantic states greater than I initially anticipated. The ground is not firm. And so we live in a place not home (recall here the Algonquin fable in Maximus, "He-with-the-House-on-his-Head," "chockablock," a native encounters an alien carrying home:

Another distance, in the path in the forest, he
met another man who was carrying his house on his
head. He was frightened at first but the man put
his house down and shook hands with him...

We do not travel light. We were never from Buffalo. And we are not now from Maine. But The Home Depot offers us a faux-Heideggerian hearth that extends endlessly outward. The capitalized definitive article is essential to the promise of home the depot offers; it is the home depot, the key to the center or that which might disclose the center to us. And the stretch of Route 1 connecting Scarborough, Maine to Portland looks strikingly like Niagara Falls Boulevard in Buffalo or Route 46 in New Jersey. We are never too far from The Home Depot. It is not the house we carry on our head, but it is there when we arrive, wherever we go. It is not with us but always present to us. Here there is never not home. But the home — the one and only — is curiously never my home. Nor is it yours.

Loyalty is memory distorted by time. And to make oneself at home is no easy task, even when one is invited to. I have been asked to make myself at home in a home not my own, I have asked others to do the same, and we most often never do.

Again Hegel's phrase "at home with itself in its otherness," specifically filtered through Marx. To be at home in struggle, antagonism and irreconcilable alterity seemed to me before, as it does now, desirable; to not seek synthesis but come to terms with internal contradiction. This being-at-home is the drive itself toward home as an impossibility that never arrives; the task is to be at home with never arriving home. History itself then is, in advance and always, the end of history; to be out in the cold is to be at all times home, focused on the figure of a hearth elsewhere never here.

(Sketched out 1 Oct 2010; publicly posted 18 July 2011; cleaning out the hatch.)