Memory in Basil King’s chapbook Twin Towers is ekphrastic. Every trauma can be viewed aesthetically, as long as there is perspective and retrospect. Perspective, traditionally, is a cognitive strategy an artist employs to get the three dimensional onto the two dimensional – fitting death, for example, on a page or canvas; in the case of three dimensional mediums like sculpture or architecture, the question becomes how to define the amorphous so that it is, to the panoptic shrunken-ness of the human eye, contained within its environs, though still recognizably enormous.
This is the quagmire… how to secularize (1), to paraphrase King, unbind a drawing from the event that spawned it… and the event that caused the creation of the drawing from the person who saw it… and this act of witnessing the event’s significance from the witness who first thought the event’s significance profound and contemporaneous enough to depict it… and the urgency to depict it from the spread of time required to depict it and its limitations – without restricting it. King’s solution, as poet and artist, is, surprisingly, to ‘miniaturize,’ to shrink distress for the human eye. And the first three dimensional thing he shrinks is – the only way to underscore this is with repetitive adverbs on my part – really, really big. September 11th. More specifically, the attack on the Twin Towers.
I insist light abstracts the smallest thing.
And because I believe this I believe the miniature is as
powerful as a mural (4).
A mural, in scope, can be as large as the side of a building or several city blocks. Likening it to the power of the small asks the reader to think about the possibilities of containment, that miniaturizing, which may well be artistically comparable to poetically metaphorizing, is not fencing in, but framing to provide parameters so that focus – not necessarily understanding – may begin to take place.
The World Trade Center – itself once a gargantuan structure without, when viewed from below, a detectable end or beginning – was, prior to the attacks, particularly difficult to focus on, let alone surround. This is even more the case now. King approaches the task not as artist or poet, but as a person who was there struggling to place the panoramic obliteration into two-eyed space. When he writes ‘it’s not reduction or simplification but… processing the realization (10)’, the admission is heartening, a relief. He unburdens us from seeing September 11th “everything” (which would be, even if it were possible, too entire and too wrenching in scope and implication) by shifting our attention to the more ordinary personal injury of a baseball team manager reflecting back on a career as a pitcher and coach. Loss and regret, and passivity about how he feels about those feelings, is imprecise – with hands in his pockets he resigns himself to apathy. ‘There’s a horizon line with an ambiguous colored sky coming as an afterthought as afterthoughts do. After the rainbow had finished telling him nothing is what he thought is was, the managers’ hands go back in his pockets (11).’
The impact of this image, having transitioned abruptly from 9/11, causes us to stagger. Before equilibrium can be re-gained, we encounter the slogan ‘GET RICH. BE RICH. GET RICH. BE RICH (11)’ just below the passage about the dejected coach. After the portrait of apathy, this refrain is haunting mantra in reference to the symbolic, if not actual, function of the Twin Towers and its nine-to-five occupants. Quietly, commonality between the worst tragedy in recent American history and the dissolution of memory seizes us – both are figureless.
In this sequence, King tacitly and poignantly acknowledges that limitations of the eye, thus of perception, are cognitive, just as those of the mind, and so of reflection, are ocular. Because we cannot help but use retrospect to “re” view event, any rendering of it – even if honest, even if factually accurate – is always going to be partial and nebulous. Rather than focus on what this does to the seer, King ponders what this means for the apparatus, the mirror. Of the lower Manhattanites, or, perhaps in reference to all Americans who survived, King observes:
… their survival had cost them. They
looked at themselves in the mirror. Mirror, mirror on the wall,
do I look as I did yesterday? And what will I look
like tomorrow? (6).
A mirror, of course, is a tool for visual, physical inspection, and this is precisely how King uses it; he does not romanticize it as a vehicle for introspection, nor ascribe to it fantasies about a soul lurking beneath its user’s reflection. Physical space on the page occurs. Then the conspicuous is stated, without disturbance.
We deceive ourselves. We know what we look like. We
know the size of our own souls. And we know that everyone
else knows (6).
Artists have the unenviable job of making us see ourselves, for better, sometimes, but more often for worse. They are our social mirrors, and, as such, grapple with how to get the inner outer, when all space seems to veer. It’s twisted business, really, to always be manipulating your own eye, to psychoanalyze color, and be a ‘maker of surfaces (12).’ How, with uncompromising clarity, do you look at, let alone draw, ‘the back of your own head (12)’?
King recognizes the problem of time in both history and autobiography. When the twain meet they are frequently sheeted on top of each other; eventually, they fuse together, and memories that were temporally separate become inseparable memory. ‘After September 11,’ he informs us, ‘Learning to Draw takes on the scent of buttercups, Daisy chains, wetting my bed’ – all autobiographical events from childhood, which, he admits, ‘has a narrow brain. Hit it and your ego becomes a punching bag (1).’ An event is spontaneous, it sneaks up on the eye, and, almost before realized, vanishes. The after-image and the after-thought it leaves behind demand re-creation, and while there are numerous ways to get the occurrence on screen or canvas or pedestal, there is no way to re-create the unpremeditated urge to render it. Is art, then, inherently ‘after’… even if the event portrayed, if no longer immediate, has immediacy? King addresses this question palimpsestically, placing one memory on another, artist on top of his subject, so that the display is continuous, past indistinguishable from present.
Narratively – most of the poem is prose – King’s diary weaves between London, circa World War II, and New York, pre- and post- the attack on the Twin Towers. In reference to the London bombings, King shows us a ‘conventional palette’ using black and ‘different whites (2)’ to nuance what is otherwise a polarized ‘then’ and ‘now’ visual, and, in so doing, draws an unexpected super-real, or ‘surreal’ polemic about side-taking as dialectic.
White: the opposite of black. White. I never want to
shock. I want to squeeze the heart and remind us that there is
still a shudder in us. Maybe the same shudder we saw in
medieval paintings. White: there is the white that stays all the
way in the background and there are the others: the ones that
move all the time; the ones that take to the corners; the ones
that show warmth (2).
Using black and white to explain the complexities of political events in which a government may or may not be complicit in unintentionally affecting or intentionally engineering is dangerous; using it to describe the organized slaughter of human beings is not. It’s an undeniable paradigm – death is the opposite of life. And while the sides of 9/11 are poly-tiered and multi-multiple, the difference between dead and alive really is that (ironically, on the part of King… as if to emphasize degree?) black and white.
Human behavior, however, is shaded, and, in motivation, infinitely, or at least 6.6 billion people sided. After the London bombings, a young girls’ mother goes ‘into the rubble with a man she didn’t know and they fucked (5).’ This aptly illustrates the difference between event and effect, between cause and consequence. Event and cause produce rhetoric – ‘this is why they had sex… Hitler, Churchill, etc.’ Any argument about why they did is irrelevantly academic. Effect and consequence are too tangible, base and raw, they are, to the havers, undeniably un-scholastic and viscerally experiential – ‘and they fucked (5).’ King lets the vulgarity of desperate human activity unsettle; he will not allow the ‘disparate,’ the ‘unruly (7)’ to be de-constructed, or tidily labeled. This refusal to name is not artistic bravery, but delineation in the name of absolute accuracy. Referencing Mark Rothko’s Psyche reunited with Cupid, King simply states, ‘When they make love, Flesh is Untitled (10).’
There are only two paintings of September 11th. ‘Before’ and ‘After.’ Two regular prepositions that express the obvious, and while the obvious is verbally stated in life with infuriating frequency, I argue it certainly isn’t portrayed enough – and therein lies exigence, thus King’s lucid, plaintive illustration of urgency. Grief is not shapeless; it has a surface. Bold strokes of hope – ‘the surreal knocks’ (20) – should be drawn again and again all over it. This is the epitome of purpose.
Nicole Mauro has published poems in numerous journals, including 580 Split, Skanky Possum, Mungo vs. Ranger, Outlet, Syllogism, Milk, and Big Bridge; recent poems have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, and The Argotist. Her chapbook in homage to New York School poets, Odes, was published in 2003 (Sardines Press). She is currently at work on a series about raptors titled Prey. She teaches rhetoric and writing at The University of San Francisco, and lives in the Bay Area with her daughter, Nina, and husband, Patrick.