from Untitled, 2004

for Agnes Helen Mauldin Giffin

 

Some drugs make me go,
My God, death is everywhere
constantly present,
but then make me go, OK, fine,
let it come. I was sitting
above Maya Lin’s Wavefield,
at Storm King,
watching this tree
become a kind of evil giant
clawing at my friend
laying face down on a bench,
and then watching
those clawing fingers
become the hooves of several
galloping horses trampling him,
and I was just like, Well,
those are his weird demons.
It seemed like a good thing
they were there, trying
to destroy
my oblivious friend. Meanwhile,
across the surface of
Lin’s undulating hillocks, thousands
of green beak-like articulations,
like the spikes
on the sweet gum
gumballs you love to
scavenge on the playground
in fall, opened and closed.

 

Elsewhere, stumbling around
Mark di Suvero’s oversized
steel-beam sculptures,
phallic only if ‘phallic’ means
insecure, cognate as it is
with Blähungen,
German for ‘farts.’
Dominating the main overlook,
his little tyrant with arms spread wide,
enormous beam suspended between
his leglike struts, like
a statue of Pollack or Kandinsky,
swinging its big
brush like a hard wish.

 

If this were a modernist poem,
that tyrant would be a character,
would dream
like the city of Paterson
or be apostrophized like Crane’s
Brooklyn Bridge. My friend and I
watched him from under
a bower protected from rain,
so small from where we sat,
sharing a granola square
dripping with honey,
and he came to figure something
within me, the lifeworld of that
angry little kid I was,
which crystallized into
a repertoire of anticipatory behaviors
that have long-outlived
those they were devised to piss off.

 

Across from our little shaded spot,
there was a bunch of
new art by young artists
against climate change
(you can thank us later),
and it was all so bad
and flimsy and condescending,
and it made the whole place
seem kind of depressing, like,
all this for art? The park is
right off the highway and
it’s basically a retention pond fed
by the interstate’s ditch. Didn’t help
that one of the eco-artworks
was an LED traffic sign
that in this context I thought
might say something like,
“Nobody has ever loved you” or
“Deez nutz,” which is what
hackers make those same signs
say in situ,
but instead, it said
something cheesy like,
“Global warming at work,”
which would make a
dumb old dad chuckle
and then it’s back to how
many more fracking
disasters till Game of
Thrones comes back?

 

There’s an art
to being an artist
which is the art
of making yourself
be seen as an artist,
and this is the thanks they get,
us actually thinking
that they’re artists. It reminds me
of pictures of young
biennial artists
striking poses
in front of their works
which are themselves side lit
and slightly out of focus
like an Olan Mills backdrop.
Hey, look at me and my art,
it’s such big art!
Maya Lin at least
had the foresight to put her art
down in a kind of basin
so it doesn’t compete
with the mountain and all
the trees behind it, and there are
a few relatively modest pieces
scattered around the place
that are really enjoyable,
and mostly, like Lin’s, tucked away,
but all I remember is
di Suvero’s stupid steel beams,
and just by being there,
my friend and I were
to some degree condoning
his narcissism. Like,
“Good job, little buddy, that’s a real big art”
And the little tyrant straddled its hillock,
sinking in on one corner,
with its arms outstretched,
“Myeh, you’re gonna listen to me now!”

 

Even high as hell, our loafing
felt like we are being paraded
in front of the art, for the art’s sake,
like sushi on a conveyor belt.
The Whitney was the same way,
queueing up to get
looked at by the art. And everyday,
I’m at the archive
taking care of the art, lovingly
housing it, tenderly conveying it
forward in time, all
for a day so far in the future
I will certainly be dead, but
the art will still be there,
enjoying the services
of a new recruit.
What does it matter?
When I die,
feed me to the art.

 

We were permeated by dampness
like two Victorian orphanages,
catching glimpses of the badgers
who live in the overgrowth
manicured to frame the art.
The fucking art.
Agnes, it felt like the end of the world.
We said, Why aren’t we making
tear gas instead of art? We had
visions of violence and
flames and death for
water and ciprofloxicin,
for a simple dwelling place
fit for human life.
But some elderly visitors
toddling onto nearby buses
broke us from our reverie.
The park was empty so
close to closing time. You were
at home with your mom,
probably being your usual
living bulwark against fear
and cynicism, but I couldn’t
help feeling, strolling
among the big, stupid art,
that all your potential would be
clipped by this stupid culture,
by its all-consuming wish
not to know anything about anything.
Hopefully, you can find a hill
like the one above Wavefield
on which to watch it all burn.

 

Agnes, from the Greek, hagios,
meaning both holy and accursed,
pure and unpure, whole and divided.
It refers to what is set apart,
what’s present but doesn’t belong.
Maybe you are my life’s exception,
outlining it, giving it a shape,
midway on life’s adventure, and not just
the shape mortality makes of it
with its clean edge
but also what about it shrugs off
the epithets that would cling to it like laundry,
odd or unreasonable desires,
however humble and unremarkable,
that seemingly out of nowhere
have animated me and which tie me
to that domain where I am no longer
or not yet this legal entity
with a name useful
only for bearing fault
but instead the featureless
“person of that time,”
which a (now uncertain) future might
poorly imagine must have lived
and labored and died here,
but for what reason they won’t
ever really be able to say.

 

Dying death takes with it even
the dignity that ought to have inhered
in mere living and does so
without pride, that is,
the trace of life that death is in turn dies.
“All is ephemeral,
both what remembers
and what is remembered,”
wrote Marcus Aurelius.
That’s how fucking sad
everything is, because
it isn’t sad, because sadness dies.
When the owl in Schuyler’s
poem “Korean Mums,”
which he had watched “huge
in the dusk, / circling the field,”
is killed by Robert Dash’s
Airedale Terrier, Dunny Doo,
Schuyler thinks,
“I’ll / soon forget it,”
and not only the owl
but also, “the garden, the breeze / in
stillness, even / the words,
Korean mums.” Even
consolation dies. The splotch
a life makes on time’s surface,
like the one in in Agnes Martin’s
painting Untitled, 2004,
doesn’t suggest anything
in particular—no secret whose
divulgence might recuperate
its splotchiness,
transforming it into a blessed sign
of a once living presence,
a little ash between the eyes
ready to authenticate the
meaning of life—just that
who or whatever we believed
could have reclaimed us
is no more. How to turn that
into a value though not
into one that can be liquidated?
You die and some people mourn,
but then they die, and then
you’re just a name
on Ancestry.com
some distant progeny tries
to project a personality onto,
and not even a Mormon can
use the splotch of your name
to dereference your immortal soul.
“Not even your name will be left,”
Marcus reminds us,
whose name ironically
still gets dropped.
Why put all this into a poem,
then? A vain project by
any definition, a festering lily,
to be Shakespearean.
If not that middle-class muddle
of truth and beauty, then what?
A paeon to secure a sinecure from
some long-dead Medici?
“If you can imagine you are
a grain of sand,” Agnes Martin wrote,
“you know the rock ages.”
And what about the rock
as it sails through a beamer’s
windshield or cracks
a Pinkerton peon’s
polycarbonate visor?

 

Sometimes our anxious
concern for the people
in our lives is what
drives them away, but that
is only a structural mercy
so they don’t get pressed
into the service of
our miserly egos.
Maybe solipsistic
alienation effected by
aesthetic experience is
a hygienic practice of
nonviolence, so that
staring at impenetrable paintings,
like Untitled, 2004 by Agnes
Martin or Wind, Sunshine,
and Flowers by Alma Thomas,
ignoring the redemptive
political fantasies
obscenely proffered on
the labels next to them,
affords us some protection from
prestigious forms of
legitimate cultural authority.
The splotch is then a kind of reset button,
an exorcism, an atrium of being
where pleasure is indifferent to
its recognition by others.
The domain of life minus the fear
of death and its extortive hook,
which is just to say life
swinging freely from death’s pivot.

 

Agnes, you are the limit
its swing approaches, a zero
carved on the far side of my boundary.
I mean, you are part of me
but a part that in reaching back
fails to find me, and I am part of you
but not the part of me
that wants to live forever.
You inevitably go on being your own thing
buffeted by desires both public and private,
some obscure demiurge bubbling to the surface
apparently to rediscover its motive force
in a Chicken McNugget or a Barbie doll,
fully exhaustible in their premeditated consumption,
only to find desire remapped,
with the intensity of its original
weirdness, onto the random shape
of a nugget or some miniature plastic
accessory liberated from the doll—
marginality has its charm—which
renews what consumption expropriated.
The peculiar pleasures and aversions
that arise simply within you
are an endless source of disengagement
from the shrewd devices of
all-pervasive advertising,
which will offer up an endless series
of possessions as panaceas
to the disease of simply not possessing them.
You can always go back
and look at a painting by Martin or
by Alma Thomas or Clyfford Still
to reset the distance between yourself
and the possible future selves spit out by
nefarious algorithms as satisfied Agnes,
happy Agnes with these side effects,
moisturized Agnes, health-conscious Agnes,
Agnes the conqueror, Agnes the plucky
housewife, stuffy headed Agnes
with a big, important meeting in the morning,
Agnes who made the smart choice
for retirement, Agnes who is adored
by her cat for choosing Meow Mix.

 

What I want for you is only that
you keep a practical distance
between yourself and your
identifications. It’s easier that way
to hold onto them and keeps you
not only from becoming
a boring enthusiast but also and,
more importantly, from thinking
that your commitments immunize you
to the charms of a broken culture.
Truly, “fate is kind,” as Agnes Martin wrote,
but it’s not enough to leave it at that.
Knowing you’re screwed either way
is just the first step toward
that Archimedean point
on which the future teeters between
being or not being and which is reached
only by first denying it exists.

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Lawrence Giffin

Lawrence Giffin is the author, most recently, of Plato’s Closet (Roof Books, 2016) and an afterword to Robert Fitterman’s recent book Rob’s Word Shop (UDP, 2019). Poems have appeared in Elderly, Prelude, Apartment Poetry, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor at Golias Books. Links to work and other info can be found at www.lawrencegiffin.com.