Sep '02 [Home]

Essay

Residency, A Day Book
by Kimberly Burwick


[September, Vermont]

Hello, My Name Is…
"I'm a sculptor," he says in a mushy Czech accent, extending his hand to the woman cradling the latest Harry Potter. She shakes his hand and asks, "Do you know this one?" "No," he replies. "They are not so popular." Overhearing, five people reach simultaneously for the bottle of Pino Grigio, pretend to admire its pastel label, share an uncomfortable laugh. She frowns, contorts her face a little, then remodels a smile as she turns to the woman beside her. A spread of goat cheese goes untouched. This gallery in which they meet displays four large oil pastels: figurative paintings of cows, and landscapes in fuchsia, teal and violet. "I'm from Oregon." "Texas." "A coastal town in southern Maine." A man who has been quietly studying the pastels goes for the cheese, then returns alone to the cows and landscapes. "I am a painter." "A novelist." "Multimedia:  artist/writer." Two men share the beginning of a smirk, then pour a second glass of white wine. Others do not drink but hold dry crackers. They shake hands and introduce themselves assertively to strangers. "I spent the summer with my ex…" "I flew straight from Athens, Greece…" "The last colony I was at…" A woman catches the false note in her own voice and says, "Jesus," then under her breath, her name.

Bodhisattva, the director:
Legs crossed one over the other, knees painfully set into place—a man who has contorted himself into a triangle perched gently on the pillow in the center of the meditation room. A lingering cloud of Tibetan incense rises from the altar in front. Untangling himself, he rises slowly through three yoga positions, inch by inch, until he is completely upright. He approaches the altar, takes the metal spoon and extinguishes two tall flickering candles. In so doing, the vanishing of his shadow. He turns and carves his path across the room to the red door where he will exit. Two residents still holding their eastern positions—fire snuffed out, silence shattered. Seven AM, his day begins. Outside the meditation room, a public garden. And beside the public garden, a private one. He slips into the Birkenstocks he has left on the stairs, raises his head and walks the green divide between public space and private toward the river where he stands and stares into eddies, waterfalls. After twenty minutes, he pirouettes and makes his way across the grass and up the wooden plank to the dining hall, preparing a list of morning announcements. Rising from the breakfast table, another metal spoon between his thumb and first finger. The triple clank of metal on glass; the distortion of verbs, adjectives and nouns; an encoded cryptic message: going, coming, scenic, artistic, process, crafting, objectifying—either a language poem or an extended series of haiku. In the afternoon he rides thirty-five miles. Spandex, clipless petals, a nylon shell with letters that spell, D I R E C T O R. He is off for hours. Winding country roads. The sound of red leaves crunching beneath his wheels. Spaces, the first of the season, between the branches. He returns to the dinning hall with the face of an enlightened one. He scrunches his nose at the first whiff of turpentine and linseed oil, smells that collides with the hint of woodstoves in the air. He gestures to the painters to wash their hands before dinner. Wipes the sweat from his forehead with a used napkin he found lying on one of the tables. Cuts the dinner line.

Orestes in the dining hall:
Three painters, a print maker and two writers at the long rectangular table closest to the constant rush, the river below. The scraping of plates, dusk through the windows. With his left hand he draws the state of Texas on a napkin. Then pushes it across the table toward the butter. He fingers a stack of postcards from yesterday's mail. Smiles at his mother's handwriting. Wilted greens stranded between his teeth. He rises to clear his plate as he touches the clavicle of the painter to his left. Says, between a hiccup and a stutter, to the writer diagonal from him, "I love you." Nearly upright, he bends once more for the zipper of a black leather satchel under the table. On it, a drop of mayonnaise, spilled at lunch, now a fingerprint of black grease. Takes out a manila envelope and says, "These are poems I can show to my mom." He joins the line for coffee and dessert and in so doing, a preview:  he unzips his fly to reveal race car red briefs. Blows a playful kiss on the cheek back to the table. Smiles as he passes his poems pasted to the wall by the bussing station. Swears:  "fuck, fucker, fucking," and the repetition of the word "cock," like an echoic refrain. Yes—his head floats in semi-circular motions, his signature nod—they are his. Twice, his head swivels counterclockwise. He inches up to the mugs and plates, greeting his favorite residents. Arms outstretched like a diver, preparing to hug his friend—and then a lunge. The smiling recipient leans in. Two men patting each other's back, suspended by an embrace. He returns to the table, his envelope of recent poems. Four full pages devoid of profanity, uncontaminated by the word "erection." These he will send to home to mother. He rearranges them. Stamps the envelope. Hugs each of us, again.

Lazarus and the silent studio:
In the writing studios the walls between offices are six inches of hollow wood. The smell of old newspapers, yellowing and unread, beside the couch. Most doors are shut, some are locked, the policy printed clearly—NO TALKING. She is seated in pearls and a blue sweater. The frizz of her hair sprayed into place. High pressure, the clear blue skies outside this vault. Her door is open, and from inside, a large stereo, the volume turned up to five. Also attached, headphones. Music seeps through: a faux opera, the wail of an injured pup, horrible sounds of the throat. Over the music, her elongated moans. Brief pauses. The hope that it might be ending. But then a series of moans again, wails. An older man, bearded, making a phone call in the washroom. A toilet flushing. Above, a hammer's hollow bang:  three men repairing leaks. None of these so exotic as her wandering voice, sounds the dead could only hope to make, rising from their graves to haunt the writer's private studio.

Leitmotif in the life drawing room:
Ten PM. Nine people reclining on wooden horses. The smell of wet oils and acrylics. A cool September night coming in through the window. The exception:  the woman with long fingers, rings she slips on and off, peeling the label off a bottle of red table wine. She lay outstretched on the platform where the life drawing model poses in the mornings. Around her, the others. Some books stretched open on laps, others are stacked on the floor. The reading a casual commemorative act on the anniversary—Nine Eleven. On the hardwood floor, Rilke and Aiken. Koch and Carson. Hirschfield and Didion. From her lap, a young sculptor, molding her voice around the words, reads Notley:  Really I don't know what kind of poetry— / What's the name of the make they / use here—or what kinds of / poetry live people write in the world.[*] Lorca is read first in Spanish by a painter who reads fluently, then in English by a girl who stops at space breaks to sip a Bud Light. Para ver que todo se ha ido, para ver los huecos y los vestidos. He finishes the entire poem. She translates:  If you want to see that nothing is left, see the emptied spaces and the clothes. From the platform where the model poses in the mornings—the exception, again. Her long fingers drift over a copy of Sexton. She is languid, almost beautiful, moving slowly—a cat. Barely curled like a child's handwritten exclamation point, her socks rolled into a ball below her feet. She chooses "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator." And with this, the rearrangement of posture, nine bodies in a chorus of creaking wood. The reverberation of her words:  The end of the affair is always death.… At night, alone, I marry the bed.

Jurisprudence, work-study in the kitchen:
Above the knives, a postcard showing a woman's midriff. Where her breasts would be, an imploring: "Indulge your sense of touch." Beneath the postcard, a family photo: the chef's two children at a karate competition. Action shots:  the six-year-old blonde crouching slightly while raising her right leg to meet her opponent; her older brother centers himself, fists clenched, elbows tucked closely to his sides, staring blankly at the two-by-four held just in front of him by a man in a black robe parted slightly open, held loosely together by a black belt. The kitchen smells of roasting pork. The cook squats next to the stove, then raises himself, arms above his head. Eight AM, calisthenics. He yells to no one, "Give me swine!" then turns to raise the volume of the boom box by the window—Willy Nelson's "You Were Always On My Mind," a soft, contagious melody. He hums, sways. He picks up a butcher knife, caresses the smooth side closest to the blade, smiles, then slices open the package of links. He inhales deeply, the smell of sausage, unearthed. The tattoos around his biceps are impossible to ignore, large hawks with fists, ink that reconstitutes itself in the wake of every gesture. His movements are abrupt and exaggerated. He lunges for a large mixing bowl above the sink, while fifteen small metal ladles fall one after the other from their assigned positions. A heap of clean metal now floating like vessels in the bubble bath he calls the sink. He goes for the links, now burning in the oven, and knocks over the recently arranged fruit bowl on the counter by the stove. Blueberries, strawberries, and cantaloupe—a still-life on the unswept linoleum.

Black and white prints, glossy:
A black lab retriever, in full sprint, enters from the left hand edge and leaps into the lap of a painter who is seated for the photo. Her contemplative mask suddenly disrupted by the puppy's excitement. To her right, a man with a salt and pepper beard smiles widely, holding his cheeks in place for thirty seconds before allowing himself to swallow the crust of bread he's been holding, his mouth now dry from waiting. It is raining harder now, and the wet soaks through the pants of those still seated in front. The Germanic-looking sculptor appears unshaken by the puppy or the damp, his lips not parted but gently splintered, his tiny breaths leaking out into the soggy afternoon air. The first flash occurs too early, the subjects squirm and get back into position. A second flash catches a tall blonde woman wiping her nose. The third flash surprises a man who is zipping up his fly. A forth and fifth come almost simultaneously and shake a female writer from her Emily Dickenson countenance. The straight line of her mouth opens, the same expression she wore in the picture taken of her blowing smoke rings as a teenager. The shot-like bark of a second dog, this one white and shaggy. A flirtatious chase ensuing. A sixth and final flash:  two dogs, one mounting the other, the coupling wedged between painters, sculptors and writers.

___
[* "Is there a right and wrong poetry, one might / still ask as I patronize, / retrospectively, the Iowa style,  .  .  .  ". From "As Good as Anything," Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin, 1998). —Eds.]