Thursday, February 25, 2010

Faces Hanging in the Air

Morning light coming almost horizontal through the windows: the sort of light favored by trackers, because it outlines little shifts in elevation with shadows. If I turn my fingers right I can see, quite clearly, the involuted ridges and valleys that make fingerprinting possible.

Across the street, pink blossoms on the trees in the Rite-Aid parking lot. There are also tall trees, of the aspen or poplar sort, standing leafless with their branches pointing straight up at the sky; the victims of an arboreal hold-up. They don't believe this Spring-in-February nonsense.

A TriMet bus rumbles to a stop, interrupting the sunlight. Briefly I see a blond high school student's face; I think of Ezra Pound's “petals on a wet, black bough.” Then it rumbles on again, the sun comes again, and I have to peer against the glare to type: my reflection on the netbook screen, my beard gleaming silver and gold, the rims of my reading glasses sparkling, the chiaroscuro transforming my features into a strange intricate shoreline. I try to see past all this to what I ought to be writing about, but the sun is too much for me. I shouldn't have taken this seat by the window.

But I always take window seats if I can get them. I love to be inside looking out. I like old-fashioned houses with little windows. Windows for looking out of, not for displaying yourself in. There's a deep misunderstanding behind all these huge modern windows, the same misunderstanding that played out in literature last century as Realism: the idea that if you only made the window big enough and transparent enough you could erase the difference between inside and outside -- the failure to recognize that it's precisely the frame, the narrowness of the aperture, that makes the glimpse of the other world so compelling. If we wanted to be outside we could simply throw on a coat and go outdoors. If we wanted real life we could slap shut the book and call a friend. It's something else that we want, more complicated than that. We want to be both here and there, both safe and exposed. Nothing irritates me more than windows without molding: there's a whole totalitarian ethos embodied in that style of window, in the refusal to accept the mediation between inside and outside, the refusal to accept that people must be able to hide in order to be fully human. You see it again in modern coin design, where the faces spill right off the coin. No borders, no boundaries. No inside and outside allowed. I don't need or want to know what Jefferson looked like. Jefferson is dead. I need to know how we are holding his memory, what locket we're placing him in. The frame is really far more important than the face, and when you refuse the frame you refuse to enter into the conversation that makes Jefferson meaningful to us now. Where do we gather to look at him? What do we look through to see him? That's the question. Refusing to ask it is itself an answer: it says, we don't gather. We each look and see our own personal Jefferson. There is no table to gather around: there are only glaring disembodied faces of dead men hanging in the air.

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