26 September 2010

Oaks/An Inquiry— Paris, 26 septembre,


In the preserve aside the schoolyard,
stranded oaks submit their forked entreaties to the dawn,
combing the sky for the first feeble birdsong.
The coffee maker shudders to a halt,
hissing gratitude through the brown gold:
reward for waking.

Disabled by dreams, I was in that pocket of a city
where I always seem lost and flailing:
can’t find the Queen’s Theatre for the 7:30 curtain,
stuck in a foul tube stop stuffing ten dollar bills
into a chute for a burnt ticket stub,
pawing the newspaper for an address, no taxi.

The oaks again out back: they too rise up early--
legless, riddled with rings of pain, their stubborn dance
to sheer verticality a marvel to those who stumble
smiling beneath their boughs. And I wonder:
when is disability a thing willed by desire,
neither genetic nor fault of broken synapse in the womb’s nest—

when the body, touched from stripling youth, will not cease
to rail against the skin of stillness and carve its calligraphy
onto the sheathing of its own columnar weight,
while through the wear and tear of years the lumbar fists
clenched around its knotted core fuse together to hold it erect?

A word for my brothers and sisters, scarred from birth
or buckled over from some plight or plague:
find some ease in waking, do not scorn those
who find comfort in your noble defiance,
we who bow in solemn reverence to your league of pain.

I've been working on this poem for months now, filing it away on my laptop then finding it again weeks later, thinking I'd lost it. This morning, I feel compelled to take a closer look: 

I “perform” or animate the scenario of static, seemingly unmoving oaks, transferring my inner questions, my unresolved responses to the human condition, onto these (innocent, benignly indifferent) beings of nature. They remain unmoved, hauntingly static, or arrested in the act of, noble in their patient endurance over decades, centuries. It is as if they exist in an almost infinitely attenuated slow motion, relative to my attempts to mark the rings of my own short life on this earth, in this house, looking out on this grove of oaks.

Perhaps in this attempt at a poem, I seek to place my own experience of disability—of an aging dancer negotiating wear and tear, arthritis, gradual loss of mobility, or of feeling more and more like a stranded oak-- within a spectrum of more acute, life-threatening disabilities: my friends who are riddled with cancer, my younger brother who died of AIDS, (and most all of my fellow dancers from my New York years), my partner who has weathered countless serious medical conditions. And I, who have had three minor surgeries in my lifetime, not counting the dentist’s machinations: the first, my tonsillectomy at 9, an inguinal hernia (herniorrhaphy!) at 57 and a spermatocelectomy at 59.  To be cut into, even under anesthesia, is a significant event! And I am in awe of the suffering and grand, minute adjustments made by those who deal with infirmaries much greater than mine.

I see this distancing, this dance with my oaks, as related to my relationship to the camera. I invest in my camera (most often a static set-up where I improvise myself into an altered state in front of it, in private, alone in a studio) the eye of the oak. Turning the tables, so to speak, I ask, what would the oak see of me? There, thrashing, fitfully moving about to house and yard, doing my daily tasks, trying to be poetic or evolve a poetics of living alongside or in counterpoint with the world about me. Call it contact improvisation, yet unless I trust in someone to "share the weight" and follow me with the camera, such as I often do in Jacques Mersereau at the U-M Digital Media Commons Video Studio, the process is largely about me “working out my material” within what I perceive and feel as within the frame of the oak’s HD vision. (This as at the root of my research and lectures on "the visual body, the visceral eye".)

In this poem, then, I essentially empower the oaks with the ability to mirror or record my responses, as I  dance out my dialectic with myself, using the trees as my intermediaries or metaphorical stand-ins for myself, my friends, my life. If I step back to regard this first series of Paris studies, I might see a gradual exhaustion of the possibilities of the static camera. What next, then? Find a camera person to accompany me everywhere? (Time to write another grant!) Begin a series of “duets” with camera person,  OR start entrusting other bodies as my subject(s) and assume the eye of the oak, but bring that oak to life, giving it a dynamic mobility appropriate to its wisdom and experience, to its own unique grain. In  sense, it is why I was attracted to dance in the first place; I wanted to choreograph, to sit off stage and compose the moving imagery within the frame of the proscenium. Then  I figured I'd better learn how do dance if that was to become my lifelong endeavor. So here I am. A Sunday morning in Paris, lifting my gaze to peer out my window, with Notre Dame unfolding between a break in the plane trees like a medieval panel against the pale, silvery sky. 

Postscript: I’m reminded of the three soldiers in camouflage holding machine guns close to their chests while patrolling the crowds at Notre Dame yesterday morning. Earlier that day, I’d received an e-mail notice from the American Embassy warning of increased security risks in Paris. I measure the distance between myself and a Notre Dame blown to smithereens. Would I survive? I think of Hofesh Shechter’s work, Political Mother, the other night, and how we all choose what we consider “our own back yards” or realms of engagement. Where do we choose to place our frame? How wide do we open it? When do we zoom in? Why?