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On the Shelves of Memory and in the Temples of the Wardrobe
Playing tourist to a city’s energy, a city not your own, is akin to throwing open your wardrobe and allowing the city to dress you in unexpected and untamed ways. You are at the mercy of its interruptions. They break into your train of thought and step, redirect your attention, throw garnish on and rip holes into notions you assumed had been perfectly zipped up. It’s—hopefully—what we readily sign up for when stepping onto a plane or train or placing ourselves behind the wheel. We are asking to be suspended in a place and time both our own and not our own, in a sort of episodic rendering anew of ideas about the self and that self’s little world. Every trip should result in new perspective, punctuated by new design, which gives us new form.
I believe there is a layer of New York that persists “on the shelves of memory and in the temples of the wardrobe.” When Gaston Bachelard quotes Charles Péguy he’s doing so not as a description of New York, but as part of a larger conversation about the difference between image and metaphor, and also as part of a conversation on furniture—the wardrobe, the box, the casket—as images of secrecy and the self. But I like to think it is an apt description of Madison Avenue, on a weekday, during the lunch hour.
New York. I am in its tides for ten days, playing tourist to energy not accessible at home, which is Portland, Oregon. From a visitor’s perspective, skimming the surface on one of New York’s million currents, at once threatening and beckoning to sweep the individual away, there is little duel between the two. They relax into each other and course alongside their variants, a rushing spectrum solidifying into those bastions of the frock: Bergdorf’s and American Two Step and Century 21 and Opening Ceremony and A Détacher (to be detached). A sign, COFFEESHOP, The Viand: A long wall of two-person booths, a cup to go for the shopgirls at Barney’s in black and for a fur coat and for a hard hat and for a suit. I wear my Picasso rain jacket with and without an umbrella, find a star spangled Maiyet on a headless mannequin and slip into Charlotte Olympia’s cat-footed world, searching for some version of a lion. Top foot. I step onto a survival carousel and match heartbeats with Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Broadway, Devoe St.
“We submit to louche textiles. We feel disgust, timidity, and glee. It proceeds by dissociation and division. We observe the simultaneous proliferation and cancellation of origins. We adapt to a random texture, and this adaptation becomes a material movement. We try it for fit. The fibre is stimulating. We’re wearing a metaphor, lightly emanating a stranger’s scent.” – Lisa Robertson, ‘The Value Village Lyric’
You don’t want to spend your money on impotence, on immobility. After Bergdorf’s, I walk out into the mid-day gleam, an in-between building shine reflecting from the glass box entry to Apple and the golden statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman saluting a carnival of traffic, shop windows reflect light back in an upward reaching angle and throw all the shadows into relief. Our faces are, for a moment, masks. There ahead is the Strand’s mobile bookshop, as unassuming as if situated along the Seine. Looking down, it has a backdrop of cobbles and taxis and sale tickets. They are yellow and garish, the tickets, selling, yet all the titles look appealing and I have an overwhelming urge to buy one, a book, an affordable alternative to Bergdorf’s shoe department that will also function as a light lunch. Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. I imagine my trip as an extended lunch break and carry the pocket edition like a wrapped sandwich from the Automat to a sunny boulder in Central Park.
There are books we read that, because of their verse or their prose, the way their words associatively cascade around the page, dress us, swaddle us in their universe. You must enter them with your entire body, or allow your entire body to read instead of just your mind, in order to access the certain cadence with which the words are presented. I’d call this an act of dressing, but then one could use the term “dressing” for almost any act of learning or reading or viewing. We are dressing our psyche and building a closet for our personality, reflected on our bookshelves and mantelpieces, our nightstands and underneath our beds and even in our refrigerators.
I read a handful of O’Hara poems. He cooks me a multi-course lunch in Central Park and I read him while he’s at it: heel toeing up and down Madison Avenue, putting on his clothes and trying to come back into himself and movie theaters and two charms in a pocket on a lunch hour. O’Hara offering up how to be the most well and the most unwell on a lunchtime diner plate, I read it’s frayed pages. Then, I look up and continue reading. I read the park, the streets, the skyline. I read the people. I read the style of their hair and the height of their shoe. I read their briefcase and their Celine bags. I read their unassuming jackets and their running gear. I read where they have been and where they are going.
When the desire for a quieter parade overtakes, I take to the Met and the Neue. On my way, a girl emerges, up from the subway staircase. Tall, thin, leggings setting off her skinny legs and Givenchy curb chain ankle boots, the thick gold chain at the vamp, sturdy shoes still pristine and expensive despite the ageing of garments a city lifestyle demands. Her costume elevates her small frame above the gritty sidewalk. Some people dress as if they have a buffer between their garments and the hustle of the subway, the sidewalk. Their appearance, cool detachment, untroubled by any shock of society or weather, persists. My eye lands on these people, the few islands in a perpetual crowd, sliding cool and slick as silk between shoulders and backpacks. Soon they are behind me or too far in front to follow their easy choreography. But in the Met, the islands are framed and under glass. Captured, contained, on display. Stationary. We move to them, through them. We pause.
“Even our pronoun is tailored. A French seam sculpts it. Ergo, clothing is metaphysical. It constitutes the dialectical seam threading through consciousness through perception… The garment italicizes the body, turns it into speech.” – Lisa Robertson, ‘The Value Village Lyric’
Original inspiration. Gleaned strength. Subject.
Transmitting an undercurrent of energy into the onlooker, years and years after both painter and subject, that particular language of rebellion, has passed, there is an unmentioned glamour to the women and men who remain tall above the passerby, framed and exchanging their fiery reason for image, canvassed now and forgotten save for the painted moment and—if we’re lucky—a few surviving papers about their life, a few lines about how they lived it. I’m standing before one painting in particular, hanging in the Met, of an alabaster skinned, regal figure with black hair and black dress, the thin jeweled strap of which was supposed to have hung limply and suggestively on the soft part of her upper arm, having slipped from her shoulder. The painter—John Singer Sargent—’fixed’ the dress, after having painted her in her original moment of déshabillé when his public objected to such scandal. He originally painted Madame X—the socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau—to increase his standing as an artist and garner some attention. Avegno had Paris’ attention already, as “artful dresser” says the Met. Sargent said of the painting, when he later sold it to the museum “I suppose it’s the best thing I have ever done.”
“Of human attributes, fragility—which is never absent—is the most precious.” – John Berger, This is Where We Meet
At the Neue museum is an exhibit on degenerate art from Nazi era Germany, juxtaposed with Hitler’s vision of correct art: symmetrical, porcelain, smooth, nationalistic, always with triumph. The bulk of the show comes from the catalogue of the ‘degenerate’ works, a tête-à-tête between pure and diseased that Hitler staged to function as propaganda. On one side, all skin deep, on the other, skin turned inside out, pockmarked soul, Kandinsky, Beckmann. I think about how we “read” a room. How we “read” a street, a body, an outfit. How this act goes both ways. We read a poem, a novel, and are “dressed” by this work. We read a room full of artwork and walk away somehow draped by it.
“If we give objects the friendship they should have, we do not open a wardrobe without a slight start. Beneath its russet wood, a wardrobe is a very white almond. To open it is to experience an event of whiteness.” – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
To crawl inside the life of an armoire or perhaps underneath the skirt of the Josef Hoffmann light fixture at the Neue, is to fulfill some ultimate desire to become fully yourself or fully someone else, a reverse birth into a space seen and not seen. Personal etiquette, inside out rebellion, relief from our own frill. But style here is not brand name or souvenir, it is the way we chose to walk beside one another down the sidewalk or into the forest. Style is the way we carry our great sadness, dressed as hope. We constantly borrow our style from the past or the future, where we are constantly looking. Time slips out of our hands as the people rush through the sidewalk, a great sieve of this past/future present and in great energy. Even a pause will keep us ticking. When Berger describes a shared style, a romantic connection, between himself and sometime partner Liz in Here Is Where We Meet, he says the sadness was that “the times being borrowed from were chimera.”
What do we do with the chimera, as real to us as a favorite fiction, as the spoon we chose to bring sustenance to our mouths?
Trevor Winkfield says there is some veracity to the idea that “the people of New York are the true monuments of New York.” He also says, however, that if you reach a spot of pavement that allows for turning your gaze above the churning crowd, and if you are somewhat of a willing archaeologist and not without imagination, you will glimpse layers of the past and the kind of monuments that belong to Joseph Cornell. Cornell kept a compendium of locations: the last bakery to make poppy-seed cakes in Midtown, the routes of defunct ferries, where Oscar Wilde once spent a night. Cornell’s was “…an atlas so thickly populated with phantoms its carrier must have felt obliged to walk down the middle of each street to avoid not only flesh and blood pedestrians, but a thousand specters also.”
We carry our specters, add them to the specters of place and of letter. Specters of the past that live on through us, in reference and in rebirth. Yet, at it’s heart, what is past remains an unrealizable memory. We borrow, we look for purpose, we build upon chimera.
“For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.” – John Berger, This is Where We Meet
I come home to Portland and the whole world has turned green. There is a low horizon line and on it are the last rays of the day, a Sunday. The city is hushed and so is the freeway. I sit low in the taxi seat and try to think about momentum, dripping out of me at such a fast rate already, like an oil leak. I know it will be pooled in places tomorrow. In the stack of books I lugged on my carryon, in the new four inch heels resting silently by my mirror, in my unpacked suitcase of worn and subway rumpled clothes, in the bag of specialty Brooklyn popcorn I brought back as a gift. I only hope it will take me a bit of coasting to slow down again. And that when I decide to slip on one of the oil spills placed half unconsciously around my room, it will propel me back into some variation of speed, some heartbeat shadowing the heartbeat of New York, cloaked by narrative, some wardrobe of suspension.
Veronica Martin is a poet and freelance writer living and working in Portland, Oregon.