[ToC]

 

FOUR ESSAYS

Kathryn Nuernberger

 

 

FRED SANDBACK MAKES ME MISS THAT TEENAGE FEELING

Fred Sandback makes forms subtly calibrated to the architectronics of space.

Apprehension of a work by Fred Sandback involves kinesthetic viewing to appreciate such valorized examples of logistical ephemera.

Fred Sandback's works are without insides.

I was a teenager in a gallery at the Forum for Contemporary Art. There were other teenagers and a grant to art us out of the inner city.

The gallery was white, naturally, except where Fred Sandback had affixed black strings and also where those strings cast bluish shadows.

Just trying to remember myself then, I feel wrapped up in those aggressively white walls. Like the worst of something. Like when a person walks into a room where there's just you and then that person turns around immediately without saying anything and walks back out.

I wore a plaid uniform every day of my life. I had to smoke pot for years before I stopped wearing that culotte in my dreams. Those deliberate fibers, those tethered wonders of fragility and force, "Fuck them," I think whenever I see myself wearing a blue button-up shirt in the mirror.

In the gallery, the pieces are coexistent with, as opposed to overwhelming, the environment.

The wall is a pivot. The strings are vectors skimming the air.

I only learned Fred Sandback's name after he killed himself and the newspaper ran an appreciation. What a surprise, the yarn guy was a very important person in certain circles.

There were just enough strings to make a triangle in one corner, a trapezoid in the other, and a rectangle within the white rectangle of wall. It seemed like the point of the show was to illustrate how perfectly void the gallery was, and also how the curator only wore black and used a lot of foundation to make herself seem very pale.

One of the teenagers in the gallery was Adam, who went to the alternative high school, where all the kids were on drugs I'd heard. Adam was on drugs. He had many piercings and a skateboard and no one dropped him off -- he appeared, as if by bus or some other miracle, as if he were an emanation of the city itself.

A Sandback creates oppositions to the illusions of oppositions. You are what you say you are not.

Every Saturday I emerged out of my mother's Corolla. It occurs to me now that I could have asked her to drop me off down the block and then no one would have known what corner of the bourgeois I emanated from.

I had a fantasy that Adam would kiss me. Him or someone else. I tried pretending to want to skateboard, because maybe skateboarding would turn into heavy petting. He kicked his board to me and the rolling echo filled the emptiness of the room. I stood on it, then fell. The skateboard slid, slow like someone was bending the fabric of time, into one of the ephemeral strings, which silently slipped out of the wall.

The ragged thread spun a little cyclone under the air vent. We watched it and felt how the end of the triangle didn't change a single thing about the space in the room. Which, of course, changed the space in the room.

The curator rushed to jam it back into the nail hole before anyone saw. I said I was sorry, but I wasn't. It was the stupidest art I had ever seen. It didn't even get me to first base.

Fred Sandback would probably consider the incident with the skateboard an engagement with the local nuances of phenomenological experience. He's probably a good-natured guy, lying in his grave, not rolling over to hear me to tell this story. Which is disappointing, because surely there are some things that can't be made right.

To experience a Sandback is to brush with temporality, seriality, and change.

Fred Sandback simultaneously entices and denies the haptic.

In a room with his strings nothing is tangential except the lines to the air, which thrill, little teases.

 

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HEED NOT THE MILK HARE

The princess of Hesse-Rhinevelt was among the most beautiful and eligible on the list of ninety-nine who might become queen, but was cut in the first round because her mother had been in the habit of giving birth alternately to daughters and hares.

This was not a problem without precedent. In 1726 in England Mary Toft was startled into miscarriage by the sight of a rabbit. Later that day she "delivered of a creature resembling a Rabbet but whose Heart and Lungs grew without its Belly." About fourteen days hence she was delivered of "a perfect rabbet." "From that Time," it was said, "she hath not been able to avoid thinking of Rabbets." A few days after came four more, until there were nine, all of whom died "bringing into the World."

For all this she was attended by her mother-in-law, who was also a midwife, but John Howard, a man-midwife of thirty years experience was called to account. He delivered from Mary's body "three legs of a Cat of a Tabby colour, and one leg of a Rabbet: the guts were as a Cat's and in them were three pieces of the Back-Bone of an Eel." It was supposed the cat's feet were formed in her imagination from a cat Mary was fond of who slept on her bed at night.

I think we need to pause here and discuss miscarriage. If you know a woman who has had a baby, you probably know a woman who has had a miscarriage. If you have not had a miscarriage, you likely do not know that Dilation & Curettage is a standard procedure now, performed under anesthesia to remove the material of the pregnancy so that you do not bleed and bleed for weeks and do not develop an infection in the uterus as material of the pregnancy begins to decay.

Doctors have a great many words that are meant to sound almost but not quite like the experience you are having. I think of this as a specialized form of politeness. I try to be polite in return, so I did not say anything about the strange and hurtful words "missed abortion" on my paperwork as I left the emergency room. I did not say, "I am too sad to let you cut and suck ‘the material' of my pregnancy out of my body." I did not ask if the baby would still have a body after it was done. I did not explain that I had been shown horrific animations of abortion in Catholic school sex ed that were very much on my mind right now, but also that I could still tell the difference between my life and another woman's. Since it was not a symptom of anything, I didn't mention I was having trouble separating the idea of tissue they wanted to clean out of me from the ultrasound picture I still carried in my wallet. I just went home and bled and bled and suffered a great many oddly shaped things to pass from my body that were clots and pieces of placenta and a little mew of a 13-week fetus.

By 1727 John Howard was offering to deliver these rabbits from Mary before anyone who asked. According to one account, "The last leap'd twenty three Hours in the Uterus before it dy'd." Elsewhere it was written, "As soon as the eleventh Rabbet was taken away, up leap'd the twelfth."

By the time the British Royal Family had grown interested in the case, Mary Toft was strangely squeezing her legs together, complaining of a severe pain in her right side, and Howard would not let anyone assist in the deliveries. The royal surgeon, Sir St. André delivered of her what he thought was a hog's bladder. He was fully convinced and quick to publish an account, as it proved his theory of sympathetic medicine. Keeping pets in your house, he cautioned, would give your child a dogface, or harelip, or otherwise allow the mind to inflict its impressions on the body. He wrote of Mary herself that she possessed a healthy and strong constitution, a fair complexion and was "of a very stupid and sullen temper: she can neither write nor read."

In general doctors dislike their patients. I understand why and try to be polite and use the words they prefer to be used and be as nonplussed about my condition as they are, but nevertheless I can feel in the room our distaste for each other. After six weeks passed we were all beside the ultrasound machine once again, looking at some material we had started to call the circus peanut. I wouldn't ever stop bleeding until it was gone it seemed, so the surgery was scheduled for the next morning. I lay in the bed that night telling my body all through my body, "It's okay to let go now, it's okay to let go now." And in the morning there was the peanut, not wavy and gray on a screen, but gelatinous and rounded on this side of the world. When I arrived at the hospital explaining it was done on its own after all, I had never seen a person so irritated with me as that doctor was.

Members of the Court deliberated at length over this strange case. One position was, "If it be a Fact, a Veil should be drawn over it, as an Imperfection in human Nature." Others, who wished to know all things, sent the scientist and doctor, Samuel Molyneaux, to investigate further. He found on the rabbits drawn from her body evidence of cutting with a man-made instrument, as well as pieces of straw and grain in their droppings. Then Mary Toft's husband was caught buying live rabbits at the market. I'll admit, I was a little surprised to discover it was really just a hoax. I thought she'd also reached the limits of language.

Faced with so much evidence, Mary confessed an old woman passing through the edge of her town had promised her a way to ensure she'd never want for anything again. After the miscarriage of a baby who did not look like a baby but did look like some sort of soft creature a mother could love, her cervix was still open and malleable. And so she took heed and began to insert various animal parts into her body to be born anew.

She went to prison for a year at Tothill Fields Bridewell and when she emerged in 1727 she had given birth to a human daughter. While she was away Dr. Molyneaux died of poisoning and Dr. St. Andre eloped with his widow. Everyone believed St. Andre poisoned Molyneaux, but no one could prove it, so he lived happily ever after.

It was suggested Mary Toft's old woman might well have been a milk hare. A milk hare is a witch who takes on a rabbit's form to steal milk from the neighbors' cows in the night. The only way to catch such a one as her is to shoot or otherwise wound the witch-in-hare. You will know her later by how you find the selfsame wound on her woman body as you put on that dash of a wretched rabbit you never could catch.

 

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BESET UPON ALL SIDES

When I was a monk using my hoof hands to copy out "The Apostles Creed," I told myself every hour, "I chose this, I chose this, I'm choosing this, I chose this."

Then I would think about beautiful Saint Teresa, naked and flagellated at the center of Rome, until it occurred to me Lives of the Saints is pornography. "The self-surrender may become so passionate as to turn into self-immolation. It may then so overrule the ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in sacrifice." It's like how the O that starts this book is an elongated body of a deer wrapping around itself to nuzzle the ear of an abbot straddling its neck.

The first time I saw God I was eight and he was floating on a cloud over my bed, saying, "Katie, I want you to do my will." I was marveling at how he was so fat the belly folds rolled over the edge of nimbus and made the whole thing bob like a pool raft. Then I remembered God can read minds so I started praying to myself, "Please don't think God is fat, please don't think God is fat" but it didn't work.

William James was the first psychiatrist to attempt to parse the difference between religious feelings and mental illness. "The sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself so strongly to our object of belief that our whole life is polarized through and through." Varieties of Religious Experience is over a thousand pages and has only proved I'm fortunate not to believe what I see.

St. Francis was the son of wealthy fabric merchants, but gave his inheritance to the women curing indigo dye in a vat of steeping human piss. He threw his cloak at the feet of his weeping mother and walked naked through the streets. When Sister Lauretta decided not to turn the TV around, but let us watch every muscle of his buttocks clench as he stretched his arms out before the woods at the edge of town, welcoming himself into God's embrace, I knew I was a sinner not to shuck off my red wool sweater and plaid jumper to march barefoot down Flad Avenue, under the overpass and into whatever was on the other side of Salamma's liquor store and convenience mart.

That night when I was a virgin, God was an obese Jamaican man and sexy, if you like men you have to climb, which I do. I looked great in a sarong. We had sex on the sand beneath a full white moon and afterwards, for once, he didn't ask me for anything.

Now I keep a garden because God likes self-reliance. I spent $700 on a deer fence because God sends mixed messages. Every night raccoons and groundhogs chew through the bottom of the mesh. Rabbits follow at dawn, eating everything down to nothing. When I live-trap a raccoon, I set it free on the other side of town, which is illegal and un-neighborly. I know the right thing to do, but I don't have the stomach to do it.

Saint Anthony was assailed by howling lions storming the breaches of his mountain fortress. If you let yourself listen, he preached through a vow of silence, a cave opens up in your sternum and in there grows a blossom of brimstone.

You can put this flower in your rifle, and smite the vermin, can you not?

"When the outward battle is lost, and the outer world disowns him, it redeems and vivifies an interior world which would otherwise be an empty waste."

The groundhog is in the crosshairs. I've only fired a gun once and it was into a tin can on a fence post one Christmas morning. I know there is no God, but if there is, he's always telling me these funny stories. I think I like that guy. Maybe we're falling in love.

 

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WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD PEOPLE GONE

In religion class Mrs. H. asked what Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had in common. The answer was so easy it couldn't possibly be the one she wanted.

I was an overachieving seventh grader who liked reading the newspaper every day and Time and Life and Smithsonian magazines, plus all of Reader's Digest. I knew that I knew a lot about lime disease, miracle NICU babies, and stretches that would ease the discomforts of arthritis. Of course I raised my hand.

They all cheated on their wives?

I loved school because it always seemed like you might learn something. I'd been wondering why there were no good people really and I thought maybe this was the day someone was going to explain, but Mrs. H. just became angry. Was it because she was also confused and disappointed by man's imperfect and sinful nature?

When she asked the class to interpret the verse about how a rich man could no easier get into heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle, she'd just finished leading us through that Let's Pretend game where some of us were single mothers on public assistance and had slips of paper saying things like "Buy milk for the children and drop them at day care and get to a job interview all while using the bus" and others of us were the bus driver and had slips of paper instructing us to care for our mother who has no insurance and pay for her mastectomy.

This kind of interactive and innovative lesson plan is de rigeur in private school. Worksheets are for poor kids in public school.

It seemed too obvious to say we were all going to Hell. And also mean. My mother was a teacher just like Mrs. H. was a teacher. My dad wore a suit just like Mr. H. and he played the organ at 8 o'clock mass while Mr. H. played 10 o'clock mass. We lived in a neighborhood where all the houses were old and brick and had three stories and the H.'s had the same floor plan as everyone else. Surely Mrs. H. did not mean for me to say she was a hellbound camel.

I always raised my hand back then. Perhaps the verse means things were different when Jesus was alive?

She was holding a piece of chalk and it fell to the floor with surprising velocity.

One time my mom came home from parent-teacher conferences and she closed the door to her bedroom so I wouldn't see her pink and tear-stained face. She was the kind of person who sends her children to private Catholic schools to get homework assignments like "Interview a parent about a moral dilemma" and then says in that interview she is pro-choice, but don't write that down.

I should have asked her about rich, but she was spending all that she had so other people could make her kids sorry about it.

Sometimes I think about going by Mrs. H.'s house to tell her things.

Mrs. H., I'd say, you didn't have to give me a C in class participation. I know Martin Luther King was a great man, and Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela too. But it's OK. I'm the age now that you were then and I also understand we're all camels trying to squeeze by. When I was a public high school teacher I said many things that seemed ethical to rooms full of students completing the workbook pages I distributed.

You were really mean to my mom. I don't know what you said, but I'm sure you didn't mean it that way. I'm always upsetting her on accident too. Like when I confess my childhood was too full of shame to be called happy. But you're one of the best people I know and your husband plays the organ better than my dad. 

When I see homeless people on the street I give them money and I think they probably use it to buy drugs. Not all of them, of course—it's wrong to paint the poor with a single brush stroke. You taught me that. But sometimes the people I give money to are high, I can tell when I bend down to the cup. I know what it looks like when people are high, because based on your teaching I tried to devote myself to good works, so I've taken group home kids to get their stomachs pumped and picked them up from juvenile detention and I've written about what happened with a nail in the nightly log. Also, I get high myself sometimes. I don't know what else to do after I've held a girl down by the shoulders so a nurse can thread a tube of liquid charcoal through her nose, because I took her and five other kids in recovery to the movies and when they all disappeared to the bathroom at the same time to share three boxes of Sudafed, I sat in the dark stupidly eating popcorn.

Every time I try to slim down, I get fatter. I'm such a rich camel. Your class was the beginning of that, but I've always wanted to know more than not know, so I remember it fondly and getting scolded by you fondly too, even though I wanted to be good more than anything.

If I ever find myself in Hell, I'll think about you and about how hard we both tried, and if I can laugh there, I will. Maybe we'll laugh together. Maybe my mom will be there too and the three of us will laugh until we cry.


 

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These essays were written at the intersection of going to high school in a convent and a bookshelf with essays by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, John D'Agata, and Alexander Theroux.