A Woman Pouring Milk


From my novel: Ari Figue’s Cat — actually from my Journal. I used some of this in the novel.

Until the first word is written everything is possible. Speech opens outward to the unconditioned, to consequences unintended, to freedom. Not so the written word. In speech, we are like a ship with the bone in its teeth the words trailing out behind us in a widening wake soon to vanish on the surface of a restless sea, We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point–speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities, locks you in on a course to the end.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are; they seem to generate ghosts, shades, douplegangers eager to mislead, eager to lure the story into featureless deserts, barren wastes where it will wander hopelessly lost.

Resist the temptation to give in, to surrender to passivity. Above all, resist the safe way out, the straight and narrow path to the finish. There is no safety. No easy way to end it. The very demons that seem so threatening may hold the answer. Run from them and everything is lost. Like the fire around Busirane’s castle, it is there to pass through. How else will you be able to give Amoret back her heart? ..
I tie a blindfold around my head. It’s surprisingly effective. I wave my hand in front of my face and perceive a shadow image of its passing. No light leaks through from the bottom. Nothing.

Perfect darkness. And yet there is this vague image of my hand; my brain, not my eyes, tracking its motion. Reminds me of a drawing class I took years ago. Wichita State University. An exercise we did. We sat facing a reflective screen. In front of us, a large pad of newsprint, in our hands, a stick of charcoal. The room had been specially prepared; blackout curtains on the windows; doors were draped so no light could seep under or around them; a single pinpoint of red light over the screen, lest we become disoriented in the five minutes or so of complete darkness while we waited for our eyes to adapt and the signal for the exercise to begin.

The drawing master–Simone, I think his name was Simone–had a slide projector fitted with a mechanism that coordinated a graduated adjustment, rheostat with the lens, increasing light proportionately as the image came into focus. The projection would begin as a blur at the threshold of visibility. Over an interval of ten minutes, the light would grow brighter, the focus sharper. Unable at first to recognize anything–like peering into a thick fog on a moonless night; we were to try to represent what we saw as it developed: an exercise in pure, unmediated vision shades of light and dark creating forms with no identifiable figuration–to record the picture as it emerged. Only in the final seconds was it possible to recognize what we had been drawing. When the light was sufficient to see what our efforts had rendered on the paper a reproduction of a drawing or print would come into focus: a landscape, a still life, a photograph of a nude model. The lights would go on, and the exercise would be over.

My mind drifts back in time. I am fishing on Lake Michigan with my father in his boat. This is shortly before he will die. My parents had bought a retirement cottage not far from Grand Rapids and my mother had sent me bus fare hoping for a reconciliation. The light on the water, that silvered turquoise water, the peaks of the waves glisten in the sun–even the Voice is lulled to somnambulant slumber. I think of my mother–of that last summer, the summer before her final illness, while she is still herself–sitting on the porch–martini hour–watching the sunset over the lake, the jet skiers droning and whining like gigantic mechanized insects, a moment I wanted to go on forever. A tableaux that recedes into the distance, perceived as the light of stars that no longer exist.

That moment of perfect clarity… what happened? Where did it go? Another waking from dreamless sleep. The silence we enter but cannot bring with us, from which we emerge bearing not a trace, as though it had not happened. I listen. The room is quiet–not even the sound of passing traffic on the street. Quiet, but never silent. The mind is always moving, the endless stream of words. To fall asleep, I turn them into images, and then I dream. Of dreamless sleep we have no memory. The Voice calls from the crevice of darkness, from the gates of death and I resist. I pretend to listen, to follow where it leads but where it turns left I turn right. I close the door of the room in my house of the dead. Living with others we shore up the walls of our existence, the walls that contain us, hold us together, the waters of our being. Alone we bleed into the world, the outlines run and blur, we cannot tell where we begin and where we end. Was this what Blake feared? The absence of strong lines define the figure. What he could not abide in Rembrandt.

Why do I keep thinking about silence–a word we can know nothing about, or know only as we know death, as metaphor, surmise, the nothingness that frames the span of our life, the before and after beyond experience, experience that is always filled with signs, signs that may not speak but are never silent. I think of the silence of the woman pouring milk. It is hers, in that room before that window, in the light that caresses her, in the shadows that surround her, but it is not

ours. Vermeer doesn’t give us silence. He reminds us of the presence of something we cannot know. The silence is in the painting, not in us; we know it only as an absence that draws us out of ourselves, like the silence that frames the lines of a poem. We read the words, read to the end of the line, to the end of the poem and encounter there that same absence. We call it silence, but the silence is on the page, in the white spaces between the words, it is not in us. It is never ours. Never. We say that we have come from silence, as we will return to silence. But our saying this is an admission that between birth and death there is no silence. Not for single second. Look into the eyes of an animal and you will see it–the impenetrable silence we are not permitted to enter, and if we were, if we could (perhaps again, as in dreamless sleep) we would emerge (again) with no trace, no memory of where we had been, no knowledge that we had been there. Is it possible, then, that we do enter into this silence, which we neither experience, nor know nor remember; is silence the dark matter of our being–dark energy that does not interact, or only weakly with our voluble lives? We are left always with this intimation that there is something more, but we can never know or name what lies beyond it. How many times have I fallen through without knowing, into the silence, losing everything? Erased from the lives of others? Not even alone?

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