Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A bit like a mango

Papai cuts the mango into little squares

Like teeth and bricks and turtles’ backs. He’d like to

Suck the juice off his fingers but doesn’t.

Water moves the yellow fibers off his hands,

The fibers that he’d rather have sucked like noodles.

My sister naps on the couch, she is

Soft, white, a little blushed. Puffy at the cheeks

And mouth. A white peach, curled and settled

In a bowl for a still life.

Mamãe and I eat the mango squares at the kitchen counter.

Mamãe says the mango’s too ripe.

It’s always too ripe. She says something

And laughs up some sugar,

Her big front teeth like the bricks and turtles’ backs

We eat.

Papai eats standing. My sister’s eyes flutter,

Her waking lips butter

With a lick followed by

An unraveling of arms, of roots.

She’s sweet and awoken and always ready

To eat.

My skin has a bit of green,

And now, in the summer, a flush of red.

The louder voice, the eyes that curl

With a smile, the words –

That are bright and unclear,

That are difficult to see but easy to taste –

All suggest I’m blown with yellow.

A bit like mango, a bite like me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, Squatter's Children

Squatter's Children

by Elizabeth Bishop

On the unbreathing sides of hills
they play, a specklike girl and boy,
alone, but near a specklike house.
The sun's suspended eye
blinks casually, and then they wade
gigantic waves of light and shade.
A dancing yellow spot, a pup,
attends them. Clouds are piling up;

a storm piles up behind the house.
The children play at digging holes.
The ground is hard; they try to use
one of their father's tools,
a mattock with a broken haft
the two of them can scarcely lift.
It drops and clangs. Their laughter spreads
effulgence in the thunderheads,

weak flashes of inquiry
direct as is the puppy's bark.
But to their little, soluble,
unwarrantable ark,
apparently the rain's reply
consists of echolalia,
and Mother's voice, ugly as sin,
keeps calling to them to come in.

Children, the threshold of the storm
has slid beneath your muddy shoes;
wet and beguiled, you stand among
the mansions you may choose
out of a bigger house than yours,
whose lawfulness endures.
Its soggy documents retain
your rights in rooms of falling rain.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Squatter’s Children, is one in a series of poems that Bishop wrote whilst living in Brazil. Bishop often looked at her world closely and in small parts at a time. In Bishop’s collection of poems devoted to Brazil (compiled in Questions of Travel), she is consistently aware that her eyes are that of a foreigner, yet she is never afraid to see. At times, Bishop shows that it is through looking at the world closely that we understand it. Other times, she shows the strikingly opposite: even if we attempt to see it all, we can still remain estranged and confused. In the case of some of the Brazil poems, this unsettling truth is a commentary on harsh social realities related to poverty.

In Squatter’s Children, Bishop takes a scene and elegantly breaks it apart, showing that it is only after you see each part dissected that you realize that all parts are inseparable. Bishop starts off the poem by taking us “On the unbreathing sides of hills,” the hills of the favelas in Rio. We are somewhere “unbreathing” – without life, suffocated, and still. A sun gazes onto a girl and boy with a “suspended eye.” The setting speaks to the unbreathing quality of the hill: the suspension of the sun connotes a sense of fixedness, and the children, who are in turn “alone,” are trapped in the sun’s motionless gaze.

This set triangle, however, is soon to be broken. The sun seems to take in large breaths as it sheds “gigantic waves of light and shade.” Other elements begin to quickly appear, reappear and disappear, also like the very rhythm of breath. But is this movement relieving? Clouds pile up into a storm: they move closer together, a movement that altogether blocks and caves in closer to the boy and girl. The children, too, begin to move as they “play at digging holes.” But the openings they attempt to make in the ground are impeded – the ground is too “hard.” A similar sense of restraint is felt when they can “scarcely lift” the tools they use.

Up until the end of the second stanza, there is no mention of sound. We move from quiet stillness to quiet movement. We watch in silence. Bishop introduces sound as she did with movement: it happens like a cascading effect, one movement or sound bumping into and intensifying the next.

Sounds fire off with the “drops and clangs” of the children’s tools that cause the children to laugh, in unison with the “thunderheads” of the storm. The laughter becomes the storm as it “spreads effulgence” and strikes “weak flashes of inquiry,” which are in turn described as “direct as is the puppy’s bark.” The laughter, the storm and the pup together harmonize in a direct but weak sound.

The laughter carries light up into the clouds asking a wordless question. It shoots up and descends like an “unwarrantable ark” – as clear and visible as the rise and fall of an ark, however fleeting and weak. It dives back down with no answer, disappearing into the depths of the ground.

Bishop’s description of this cacophony of sounds is paradoxical: it is strong and clear yet weak and momentary. It is through capturing the precise qualities and strong impact of weakness that makes us understand what it is to be weak.

The rain pours out what the storm has swallowed and incorporated – the children, the bark, and the sun – and answers the “flashes of inquiry” with an echo, or rather an “echolalia” (a word choice that beautifully mimics the loopy sounds of rain). There is in fact no reply. There are only the sounds of what is already there, and we are left with the voice of the Mother, which is in turn as “ugly as sin.” But is it the children’s mother calling them back inside? Or is it the grander Mother Nature? This voice nonetheless serves as a sort of rupture: it breaks through this cycle that has taken place between the sun, the children, the clouds and the rain. The Mother separates them and draws the children back to where they belong.

But there is no dry haven for the children to escape to. The storm has already seeped into them and “slid beneath [their] muddy shoes.” Their homes are seemingly falling apart, as they only have “rights in rooms of falling rain.” The alliteration in this last line lends the sense of something tumbling and constant, like the fall of the rain and the unchanging reality of these children.

We begin the poem in a dry and still place and end in one that is wet and falling apart. The children are absorbed into their surroundings: their movements, sounds and very existence are constrained to the lifeless sides of the unbreathing hill.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Talk to Me (with words?)

SMSlinghot, 2009

Graffiti Taxonomy

I recently paid a visit to MOMA’s current exhibition, Talk To Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects, which is a showing of new (and wacky) object design. This exhibit will prove to you that your personal possessions are not only boring, but also even more lifeless than you may have previously thought.

Several of the artists imbue life in their objects with words, where sometimes the objects speak for themselves (a talking chair, for instance) and where other times the objects give voice to us.

There were two pieces in particular where words were such a force that they themselves became the “objects.” SMSlingshot, a collaborative piece among four German artists, is a wooden slingshot that shoots giant laser beam messages onto buildings. The user types a message into its keypad and then slingshots his/her message into a neon splash on the wall.

The SMSlingshot piece harkens to Evan Roth’s Laser Beam project, where users used a giant laser pen and could draw and write directly onto buildings on an overwhelming scale. Roth, the co-founder of Graffiti Research Lab, is also exhibited at the MOMA. The piece, Graffiti Taxonomy New York/Paris, re-creates the variations on the letter “S” used in graffiti in New York and Paris. The variations are so vast and drastic that the letter itself becomes an object that has been appropriated and altered according to each personality.

Both pieces give voice to graffiti. SMSlingshot is a triumph in graffiti in that it allows people to get away with drawing on walls, because it isn’t permanent. Its main goal, however, is to empower people by giving them the chance to splatter a personal statement onto the public landscape. Graffiti Taxonomy looks at another aspect of graffiti – the art and personal trace of the human.

A lot of social-oriented graffiti (which is what these MOMA artists support) takes after the belief of the British graffiti king, Banksy, that graffiti isn’t about the author, but about the statement s/he makes. However, both SMSlingshot and Graffiti Taxonomy speak to the contradiction that though graffiti uses an authorless language, the presence of the author – and the constraints s/he had to break through – is what gives this language meaning.

In fact, Evan Roth and his team go to great measures to acknowledge and support the artists behind graffiti. In The EyeWriter project, software allows artists who are paralyzed to draw with their eyes. It no longer matters if the graffiti gets out there on the walls. Graffiti is important to them as artists, and they draw on screens from their homes.

The way we think of graffiti is a relatively modern concept, which came about with the birth of spray cans and largely started off as subway art. But graffiti, as an idea, and not necessarily a movement, has existed for millennia.

The artwork on the walls of the Chauvet caves comes to mind after having just recently watched Werner Herzdog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There we are revealed an astonishing series of drawings of mostly animals. But I would like to bring our attention to a wall covered in reddish handprints. According to one of the archaeologists on the case, one can tell by the prints that the artist’s hand had a crooked pinky. Because of this quirky detail, we can identify the artist throughout the caves, where one finds more of his handprints. Though it is impossible to know the intentions behind these prints, it is nonetheless evidence of the desire to leave the trace of the self in a landscape.

Another instance that comes to mind is in one of the chateaux in the Loire Valley, chateau Chenonceau, where I recently visited while studying abroad in France. On one of the walls of its chapel, one finds graffiti dating to around 1500 (which says something or other about God in old English). The graffiti is protected by a layer of glass, suggesting that it has now become a work of value to be preserved. Considering that graffiti is today illegal and is constantly sought out after to be erased, it is interesting that old graffiti is treated differently, almost reverently.

I would argue that the illegal branding on graffiti today has helped to inspire and define it as an art form. Its language is prohibited and restrained, and because of that it often carries a bold sense of purpose, an underlying sentiment of angst. Moreover, the way it interacts with its “canvas” – the environment – is the effect of a rupture: it has to invade the space and call unusual attention to itself in order to be seen (arguably more so than the way a sculpture or painting inhabits a gallery space or museum).

On the one hand, graffiti today isn’t so different from the past – we have displayed over a long stretch of time the desire to create art and express oneself into the environment, into public view. On the other hand, the language of graffiti has evolved with the language of our time. The words themselves have taken on new aesthetics – taking after technology (laser beams) and creating individualized alphabets in an effort to establish oneself in an anonymous artistic field. Graffiti today is a conscious art form, a counter-cultural movement, and in so doing it has created its own alphabet, dictionary and semiotic understanding of words.