METAPHYSICS OF THE MANUSCRIPT:
Written Pictures, Drawn Words,
and the Pathos of Reality
When thereís a subject worthy
of poetry, poetry finally
proves unworthy of it.
Thereís no way to write about
the silence at our sonís grave.
No words will right the wrong of it.
While these lines, from a long autobiographical poem in progress, may not fit Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility," at least I'm able now to articulate the futility of trying to put words to such profound loss. But in 1993, when grief was new, words failed me completely. So I began to draw again.
It started during the three weeks that Jeannie and I literally lived at Lenox Hill Hospital, stopping at home briefly each day only to shower, change, and feed our pet birds; sleeping on a sofa in the waiting room of the Intensive Care Unit, where our son Holden lay stricken with fullblown AIDS.
During the many hours that we sat at his bedside, I compulsively covered entire pages in my pocket journal with minuscule marks. Although they resembled overall abstractions, these marks were actually tiny t's through which I hoped, by some supernatural act of will, to transmit some of my own t-cells to my dying son.
I know now that I was caught up in the kind of "magical thinking" Joan Didion would describe several years later, following the death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, in her grief memoir with that phrase in its title. To quote Didion directly, I too was "thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome."
Jeannie and I were ecstatic when Holden's
t-cell count suddenly shot up to a degree that his doctors found inexplicable, making us think my magic might be working; either that or the megavitamins Jeannie insisted be added to Holden's drug regimen. (In deference to a desperate mother's wishes, the skeptical but kindly doctor instructed the nurses to pulverize the pills and dilute them in our son's intravenous drips.) But the false hopes that sprang up briefly with each small sign of improvement vanished when Holden's t-cell count dropped back down just as suddenly as it had risen.
* * *
Later, I would feel oddly nostalgic for those terrible days and nights at Lenox Hill. I would remember how the nurses that I needed to think of as angelic moved through the halls of the ICU as silently and gracefully as fish in a nocturnal aquarium. I would remember the soft Spring breeze wafting in through the open window, and seeing some of the windows still lit in the apartment buildings across 77th Street, where normal life was continuing as we sat like shadows in the dark at Holden's bedside.
Sometime after midnight a thuggish looking man would come around to empty the trash pails. He was an albino, wore white rubber gloves, had multiple tattoos sleeving his musclebound arms. Being shadows, we never spoke to him, nor he to us. In hindsight, I would even miss him.
I would remember how we came to relish small pleasures and momentary respites, such as visiting the little room where the vending machines were are at odd hours, after Holden had fallen off to sleep and we felt free to leave his bedside. I don't remember what they called it; probably the commissary or snack bar or something like that. But it was always empty at that time of the night. It had blindingly bright fluorescent lights and they, in concert with the candy and coffee and soda machines, emitted a communal buzzing sound that seemed to enhance the silence like white noise.
It seemed so very peaceful there. And we would savor that and take empty nourishment from sugar before going back and falling off to our own fitful sleep on the sofa in the waiting room of the ICU...only to be wakened shortly after dawn by a slapping and sloshing and bumping sound coming closer and closer.
One of us would wake up first and say to the other, "We have to get uphere comes The Mop!"
To be able to say it that way, with the capital letters clearly audible, provided us with another small pleasure; to make our rueful little joke about the hospital janitor's mop, as it worked its way toward our makeshift bed at the beginning of each day (as though it were some familiar, benign monster); to repeat those same words like some ironic morning mantra, provided us with a small sense of certainty, of continuity, of the ordinary in the midst of our extraordinary misery, our unrelenting agony.
To put it plainly: what prompts this soliloquy of nostalgia for the worst three weeks of our lives, even now, is the simple fact that our son was still alive then.
* * *
Like other children of hippies, Holden rebelled against rebellion. As little boy, he loved to play policeman. There was a wonderful snapshot that we lost track of over the years, unfortunately. In it, Holden, age four or five, is sitting on the sofa in my mother's house on Staten Island, next to Jeannie and me. He is wearing his policeman's hat, his badge, his holster and toy gun. He has his arms folded across his chest and is regarding his long-haired, flamboyantly dressed parents sternly. Jeannie and I used to joke that it looked as though we were "about to be busted."
Whether by nurture, nature, or whatever, Holden eventually went into publishing, rather than law enforcement. And while he could hardly have been called conservative, his grown-up demeanor was invariably low-key, gentlemanly. Unlike me, he never boasted, postured, or tried in any other cheap way to call attention to himself. Even in the hospital, he was the most gracious and cooperative of patientsexcept in one regard: While he submitted without complaint to having his veins jabbed painfully several times a day by interns who drew blood with varying degrees of incompetency, he had zero tolerance when they came with a clipboard rather than a needle, asking him to sign a permission form for HIV testing (which he had never undergone, having taken ill suddenly with what he, and we, thought for awhile was a severe flu).
Of course, the doctors had already taken more than enough blood to come to their own conclusions, and Holden knew that since he had been diagnosed with fullblown AIDS, his HIV status was a moot point anyway. Still, he refused to make his HIV status official ostensibly because he objected on principle to the stigma attached to testing positive, but really, it would later seem to me, because simple stubbornness was his last defense against utter helplessness.
He lay there in that hospital bed, staring into Nothing, and remained steadfast in his refusal, no matter how much the interns (most of whom were roughly his own age and could probably look forward to bright futures filled with all the conventional prizes) pleaded and cajoled. At first, my own rebellious nature quelled by abject terror, I tried to convince him that it might be helpful to his treatment if he signed, even though it seemed to please him to send those interns away clutching their clipboards in frustration. Then it dawned on me that being uncharacteristically ornery about this one last thing may have been our son's only remaining chance to exercise personal power or control over anything at all. And, in the end, I was unspeakably proud of him for the stand he took.
Holden was a Taurus, the most stubborn of all astrological signs, and his HIV status remained officially unconfirmed on May 14, 1993, when he died of complications from AIDS, twelve days after his thirtieth birthday.
* * *
After Holden passed away (the euphemism I still prefer) I went through a period of numbness and inactivity during which I was absolutely certain I was through with work of any kind. At one point, I even suggested to Jeannie that we live off our modest savings for as long as they lasted and not worry about whatever happened after that.
Then I started to draw once more.
Though drawing diverted me, I was resistant, as most conscious artists tend to be, to the notion of art as therapy. I was not expecting to be healed; just satisfying my graphomania and keeping my hands busy. I drew incessantly, filling the pages of a Winsor & Newton sketch book with intricate ink lines delineating a strange mental landscape strewn with tiny objects and images: clouds and oozing liquids, broken tea cups, houses and eyeglasses, flowers morphing into flame-like forms, insects, umbrellas, empty picture frames, crosses and teddy bears, scissors and sleep-masks, mountains and mounds of crinkle-cut French fried potatoes, faces and fingers and lots and lots of empty, windblown sport jackets, rows of old fashioned fedoras floating in formation like bomber planes, and stacks and stacks of freshly laundered shirts like the ones Holden had picked up from the Chinese laundry in optimistic anticipation of further life, shortly before he suddenly fell fatally ill.
Empty articles of clothing orphaned remnants of a life seem obvious enough. However, I had (and still have) little inclination to subject my drawings to simplistic psychological interpretations. Obviously, a grieving mind is a mind wracked by loss, pain, anger, guilt, and any number of other complex feelings. But I had no desire to illustrate emotional states or contrive conscious symbols for them. I simply tried not to impede the images that flowed effortlessly and profusely from my Japanese fountain pen (which, instead of a steel nib, had a fine sable brush affixed to its tip to facilitate the fluidity).
Although I had no clue as to what most of the images meant, on some level I seemed to know exactly what I was doing. The blind certainty of the process made me think these might be more than mere writer's block drawings. Wishful thinking though it may have been, I began to think of them as poems of speechlessness.
Honed by the journalismand later, art criticism with which I earned a living, my word poems had always dealt with specifics. There were no angels or demons in them, but many mundane objects and much evidence of dailiness. These drawn poems, if that is indeed what they were, were consistent with that stance.
Later, when I was able to make poems from words again, I would circle cautiously around the subject of our son's catastrophic illness and death. It was still beyond me to comprehend how a young man who'd been raised as a somewhat sheltered only child and had never before been tested by serious illness could face the direst possible prognosis without a hint of self-pity, accepting increasingly more drastic and painful medical procedures with a stoic courage he certainly had never learned from me. There was no way I could write about Holden's heartbreaking bravery without sounding unbearably maudlin.
Nor could I fathom much less write about how Jeannie had found the strength, in the last moments of Holden's life, when all she wanted was to cry out and beg him not to die, to speak to him soothingly as she had when he was little and she'd tell him made-up bedtime stories about "The Land of Somewhere Else," urging him not to struggle, not to be afraid, easing his final passage to "a beautiful, beautiful place..."
So I wrote instead about "the swarming molecular patterns (like cells or atoms) on his hospital gown, so poignantly unchosen, though he'd always been fastidious about his dress," and "the democratic insensitivity with which they adorn us to die."
* * *
In my drawings, as in my poems, I chose to focus on the concrete, even as the recognizable objects that I drew took on a mysterious new resonance in relation to one another. The hope is always that careful attention to mundane particulars may unearth something more meaningful than mere emotional nakedness can yield, sincerity alone rarely being sufficient to sustain artistic statement. (In this case, especially, it seemed important to exercise restraint in order not to have the intensity of the emotions I was experiencing in bereavement turn sincere sentiment into mawkish sentimentality, as can often happen when one tries to deal too directly with profound personal crisis in art.)
* * *
I often write poetry in notebooks while walking around the city, just as I am writing these words now on a bench in Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, in the shadow of a pigeonshit-spattered statue of the immortal Chinese philosopher. Restless by nature, I have always identified with Baudelaire's notion of the flaneur, an incognito stroller who finds solitude and poetic inspiration in the midst of crowds. Here in Chinatown, where some of the older citizens still regard all outsiders as lo fan, "foreign ghosts," my anonymity is even more assured.
After spirited haggling under the umbrellas of the street peddlers nearby, elderly women elbow onto my bench with their fragrant bundles of fruits and vegetables. As they laugh and gossip with each other and the small grandchildren in their charge race raucously around us, I might as well be invisibleyes, a ghost. And while now these Chinese grandmas have entered into this text quite literally, normally they, too, would be invisible in another way: phantom presences, human palimpsests, inhabiting the subtle subtext that lies dormant below the surface of all writing. Yet rereading what I had written to edit or revise it would revive them in memory. For it is part and parcel of the metaphysics of the manuscript that the circumstances of composition, the unseen and unremarked upon events and atmospheres attending it, live as vividly within the text on some subliminal level as that which the text consciously endeavors to evoke. This sense of simultaneity, of overlapping layers of consciousness, informs my drawings even more obviously than my poems, since in their case text and subtext are virtually indistinguishable.
Following my usual peripatetic practice, I worked in my sketch book in bookstore cafes, atriums, and other public places, somewhat surreptitiously. I appeared to be writing rather than drawing, thus avoiding the attention that drawing (which is generally perceived as a less private activity, sometimes even a public spectacle inviting comments from self-elected sidewalk critics ), tends to attract. I did not sketch "from life," as the term goes, but rather from inside my head. Yet I have no doubt that aspects of my surroundings insinuated themselves into my drawings in ways that may not be immediately obvious to anyone looking at them. At very least, I'm sure these ambient elements influenced my mood and had some affect upon the imagery that I conjured up subconsciously.
My entranced absorption in the act of drawing was as close to meditation as I have ever allowed myself to come, never having been drawn to esoteric belief systems. In fact, so scornful was I of anything smacking of the occult that Jeannie and Holden invariably fell silent and grinned like co-conspirators whenever I walked into a room while they were having one of their speculative conversations about the Afterlife, in that happier time before we had any inkling of our son's impending illness.
"'Won't there be time enough to find out what happens after we die, after we die?" I would ask, so spooked by what I took to be their morbid fascination with the subject that I sounded plaintive, even while practicing my customary intellectual arrogance. But since Jeannie was born and raised in Virginia and Holden had obviously inherited some of her Southern gothic love of ghost stories and all things supernatural, they would just grin wryly, in the patronizing, half-pitying, way of true initiates humoring a nonbeliever.
As I always tell people now, one becomes a mystic simply by being mystified. And, believe me, nothing will affect that conversion faster than having one's child proceed one into the mystery we all most dread. Nothing ever again makes sense in quite the same way once the natural order of things has been so radically reversed. That said, I did not go so far as to think my drawings were being "channeled" like those of certain "mediumistic" outsider artists connected to the early nineteenth century spiritualist craze. Nor could I legitimately qualify for outsider status and thereby exempt myself from the laws governing sophisticated taste. For while it was true that I had never attended art school, I had been something of a prodigy as a dead end kid growing up on the Lower East Sidethe darling of doting art teachers who thought they were saving me from juvenile delinquency! And later, as a young man invested in the identity of artist, I had felt like a whizkid all over again when my work was included in a group show at The New School for Social Research with Warhol, Rauschenberg, and other famous older artists.
That was before I started getting even more attention for writing, a vice picked up years earlier as a teenager enamored of Kerouac and his fellow Beats, which eventually led me into journalism (and, inevitably, into writing about art, an ekphrastic enterprise that granted the best of both worlds, enabling me to experience the artmaking of others vicariously through my natural empathy for a familiar creative process).
Being fully as impressionable as the next egotist, by the time I was writing feature stories about the counterculture for Rolling Stone and struggling with poems on the side, I had convinced myself that wordsthe perfect medium for indulging my natural garrulousnesswere my true calling. Now, though, having resumed drawing only because I was finally at a loss for words, I drew with little regard for the rules of composition (just an old decorator's trick anyway, it was convenient to think). Images swarmed the page with a heedless horror vacua intricacy that we usually see only in the work of isolated idiot savants and mental patients earnestly transcribing their elaborate visions. But I was no visionary; probably I was closer, even in distress, to the selfconsciousness of those early surrealists in Andre Breton's circle who deliberately cultivated a technique of "pure psychic automatism" in the hope of achieving that raw immediacy which is the unique gift of the truly, purely mad.
Eventually, I would explore some of the images that were flooding me more selectively in large collage paintings based on the drawings, but I resisted editing the drawings themselves. While some were better than others and some even struck me as aesthetically indefensible, I saw them, for better or worse, as part of a continuum. To save some and discard others would have meant to cover my tracks: to falsify and possibly even abort an intuitive process that was proving more compelling than any more calculated approach might be. After all, what I had always hoped for in art was to surprise myself, and these drawings held the ultimate appeal of being inexplicable to me. Which may be why it gave me pause when, in one of them, I found that I had inscribed the phrase, "On the shore of language, hold your breath."
I should explain that from the beginning words "drawn" in a minute script turned up here and there among the images I was "writing." Fragmented phrases and obscure sentences materialized, much as messages might turn up on a Ouija board, perhaps by sheer force of subconscious desire. Eager for the sensation of certainty that simply forming the familiar letters afforded me, I welcomed these scant elements of ecriture, poor substitute though they were for the workmanlike satisfaction that comes with conceiving a coherent line of poetry or prose. I may secretly have hoped that by including these snippets of text, as random and seemingly unrelated to the images as the images were to one another, I might break through the writer's block which had driven me to draw in the first place; that random phrases might turn into sentences I could make sense of and even serve as rational lifelines by which I could pull myself out of the increasingly abstract miasma that drawing seemed to be drawing me into.
Still, superstitious mystic that I had become, I was taken aback by "On the shore of language, hold your breath." Was this a warning that words, rather than rescuing me from imagery, might mire my drawings in the literal, in banal specifics that would not jumpstart the writing impulse but merely muck up, even corrupt, whatever silent truths these drawings might yet reveal to me?
Well, if it was a warning, I took no heed of it. A lifelong lover of comic strips, the tiny line illustrations in dictionaries, Chinese literati poem-paintings, the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake, and other hybrid forms from Apollinaire's "calligrammes" to the avant garde doggerel doodles of Bob Brown and the crude drawings, crawling with scrawled texts, that Antonin Artaud committed to paper in a French insane asylumI had always toyed with the idea of evolving some personal synthesis of word and image. So I continued to draw words into my pictures written in black and white, the colors of language, perhaps hoping for some brilliant Blakean epiphanywhich never arrived, of course...
* * *
Working sporadically, mostly in public places, I completed some seventy five drawings; yet I make no professional claims for them. For many years now, I have earned my living as a writer. Whatever my visual ambitions may once have been, it is writing that I have struggled with and writing to which I have devoted the better part of my time and energy. When it comes to visual art, I prefer to think of myself as an amateur in the original French meaning of the termwhich is to say, not so much a dabbler as someone who does something for love rather than for gain or for fame. Given the deeply personal impetus for these drawings I see them as something quite apart from all such ambitions, an intimate exploration that I embarked on with no intention of exhibiting the results.
For this reason, I chose to keep my sketch book intact, rather than removing its pages as the drawings accumulated. I didn't see these drawings as separate art objects or even "originals," but rather as pages of an ongoing pictorial manuscript that would be more appropriate in a book than on a gallery wall. I felt that the drawings themselves should have no more intrinsic material value than their printed facsimiles, which could communicate the same visual information (whatever it might mean) just as effectively.
Given this disavowal of artistic exclusivity or "preciousness," one might validly wonder what made me continue with these drawing after my own period of magical thinking had ended in failure and disillusionment. That question might best be answered in hindsight by a book I came across recently while browsing in the library of Fordham University, Lincoln Center, where Jeannie is studying for a degree in social work so that she can qualify as a private therapist and someday help others cope with the kind of grief she has had to overcome. The book, which I do not own and will have to paraphrase, perhaps simplistically, from notes scribbled in my pocket journal, is called "Art and Existentialism." Its author, Arturo B. Fallico, suggests that we make art in order to replace the innate "pathos" of reality with "aesthetic reality." This, according to Fallico, is not a "rival" or a "substitute" reality but "a parallel reality which is the art formation itself." As such, while it can't "reverse the narrative" or "change the outcome," to borrow once again Joan Didion's felicitous phrases, it can, according to Fallico "force a personal, super-purposive human significance on life," so that "under its spell even death and defeat take on proportions which justify and dignify them." In any case, happening upon Fallico's theories seemed to clarify some of the feelings and yearnings that had driven me to draw so blindly and obsessively years earlier, when it would not have been an exaggeration to say that drawing felt like a form of salvation.
Yet now when I look at those drawings, what they remind me of, more than anything else, are those black and white pages, jam-packed with tiny mail-order advertisements and embellished with cartoon line-art, that I used to pore over as a kid, in the back pages of 1950s comic books. I can't recall ever having sent away for the whoopee cushions, squirting lapel flowers, palm buzzers ("Shock your friends!"), invisible ink (particularly appealing to a budding graphomaniac), or other cheap novelty items that they offered. But for some reason, when I was a solitary child like the dreamy little boy that Holden was to be, finding refuge in comics, as he later would, from a world lorded over by dysfunctional adults, those intricate, jumbled pages of images and words (my first brush with horror vacua!) both fascinated and comforted me.
* * *
- Ed McCormack
* * *