On Shapelessness

This time of summer is the shapeless season: at mid-day, humidity leaves the corner doughnut cart encircled with an aura, the crullers limp with condensation. Rather than do its regular job of illuminating, sunlight leaves a distracting halo around hubcaps and glittery toenails. Meanwhile, all the tomatoes and peaches and pregnant ladies are growing so fast, borders seem beside the point.

The other day on the way to work I re-read Charles Wright’s poem “Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness,” in my dog-eared copy of his Black Zodiac. For Wright, ever obsessed with mortality (“Out of any two thoughts I have, one is devoted to death”), shapelessness means something different – rather than uncontainable, fecund warmth, it’s “waking each morning at dawn,/ or before, some shapeless, unfingerprintable dread/ On me like cold-crossed humidity,/ Extinction shouldering, like a season, in from my dreamscape.” The normal activities that give a day its shape – “Rising, feeding the dogs, bringing the newspaper in” – do little to alleviate Wright’s sense of mortal unraveling.

This kind of gloom arrives in many forms, and not just for the septuagenarian Wright was when he wrote Black Zodiac. A body becomes shapeless when its tenant doesn’t know what to do with it, how to move it or work it or give it pleasure. A city, even a teeming city like New York or Los Angeles, becomes shapeless when a person moves through it along the same grooves again and again; or when its careful planning loses its sense of logic, as in a war or natural disaster.

Most frightening to me is that to give in to shapelessness sometimes confers a certain pleasure, like that of slipping into a warm bath or falling asleep in the back of a car. For example, I am very near-sighted. Walking home at night in my neighborhood, I sometimes remove my glasses and look directly at the traffic signal – the circles of color spill from their outlines and blur together, absolving me of the responsibility to see them. Lucille Clifton wrote, “I take my glasses off/ So I can see,” but I remove mine so that I have to see, and think, a little less.

But however momentarily pleasurable, to remain in such a state is to lead a drone-like or depressed existence. It’s perhaps our wish to be shaken out of shapelessness that artist Todd Shalom’s participatory walks aim to address. Todd has been leading walks that “take their cue from poetry, where writer and reader collaborate in creating and gleaning new meanings for the world” for the last decade. Since 2010 he has led them primarily through his New York-based organization Elastic City. I met Todd at an artists’ retreat in upstate New York earlier this year, and he first intrigued me because he was trained as a poet – he got an M.F.A. at the California College of the Arts – but was no longer “practicing.” He had published a few poems, then, fed up with the poetry world and feeling restrained by the page, he went to art school. Despite this switch, the influence of contemporary poetry – in particular its tendency to assume form by renaming the familiar, shuffling and restraining its parts – is evident if you go on a walk, as I did one Monday night.

It had been raining all day, with thunderstorms predicted just as the walk began. Nevertheless, twelve people showed up to the Jack Geary gallery on Varick Street. The atmosphere, at first, was one of a nervous group of school students on a field trip: people stowed their umbrellas and quietly and cautiously approached the art. A description of Todd’s work in the gallery catalogue offered a buyer a custom participatory walk that started from an address of the buyer’s choosing. It could be a physical address or a poetic one – “166 N. 3rd Street” or “heaven.”

Todd gathered us around an image of several road signs on the shoulder of a highway, seen as if from a moving vehicle. The signs were blurry, but their messages detectable. If you could write a caption to this photo, what would it be? People called out, their answers caught between clever and earnest. “Falling astigmatism,” one short-haired woman with glasses volunteered. “Fast walk,” said a young man in a tank top whose open sides revealed his skinny ribs.

When you are in a funk, and your friends tell you to snap out of it and try something new, their advice might lean on the metaphor of vision. Think “Look up!” or “just look around you” or “look at yourself!” Looking does play a strong role in an Elastic City walk, as does deliberately not looking – toward the walk’s end, participants paired up and took turns being led along city sidewalks with their eyes closed. But most surprising, and most in line with Todd’s background as a poet, were the prompts that urged participants to tease out text from the illegible world around them. These exercises, on the night I went, followed the subtle arc of human development. We began by closing our eyes and improvising the sounds of a painting (babble), then moved on to captioning the road sign photo and titling compositions that we made on the street using a frame made of our fingers (pointing, naming). Finally, we organized the text we saw around us – in ads for coconut water and parking garages – into poetic lines. Huddled at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, reading our found lines off our iPhone screens, it felt momentarily like we were presenting the city with a shape it had never seen before.

Bringing the hidden names of things forward; catching the stream of your vision frame by frame by composing it as one would a photograph; all of this seems to me an antidote to shapelessness – both to the drone of routine and to the “fine furniture, crowding the room” of mortality, in Wright’s words. But in the form of Todd’s walk, the antidote also encourages a kind of border blurring, a process that reassigns shape rather than jettison all outlines.

“it is the hard/ edges of things/ i am avoiding/ the separations” wrote Clifton. So “i take my glasses off/ and then i cannot tell/ which are the leaves/ and which the angels/ like blake/ like that man/ who lived with lepers/ not noticing what was sin/ and what was grace…” Physical vision and poetic vision (Clifton: “visioning visions vision”) both act like tides, constantly bringing things forward and pulling them back. What we notice – and whether because of it we are elated or in despair – seems to depend on a careful calibration of looking and not looking, form and formlessness. “Whatever rises becomes a light,” writes Wright, speaking to the confounding simultaneity of living and dying, bloom and rot: “…Whatever holds back goes dark –”


Featured image via shutterstock.com. 

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