16 December 2009

excerpt from Charles Bowden piece in January Harpers

By Charles Bowden, from “Contested Ground,” which appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Orion. Trinity, a collaboration between Bowden and photographer Michael P. Berman, was published last October by University of Texas Press.

As a child, I could not color within the lines. Nor interest myself in children’s books. I also had trouble with categories, and this I have never outgrown. I have trouble understanding the concept of eras, I question the line in our culture that separates organic and inorganic, I talk to trees but also speak to rocks, I distrust chunks of meaning called the Ancient World, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the American Century. I falter around words like progress.

Time has also been a problem since I cannot keep the past in the past, cannot believe the present is pure and freestanding, and think the future is simply a place we imagine.

I cannot really fathom hierarchies and so I believe in evolution as a fact but not as a meaning. I understand that the man is more complex than the pigeon but I do not feel this fact nor really believe it. My first crayon drawing was of a worm thinking of a man.

I am certain there can be no comprehension of the present without the past, just as I am certain the past is not past. And there can be no comprehension of the present without all the tribes, human, animal, floral, and stones, river and dry wash, at the table taking part in the talk.

Nor do the disciplines convince me. Science cannot be kept safe from poetry, the cyclotron must deal with St. Francis and his Little Flowers, and the wolf cannot escape the force of the lupines blue with spring. I also believe in the wisdom of microorganisms. Scholars of dung heaps command my attention.

Years ago, I concluded that all concentrated forms of energy in human hands become dangerous. The state mutates into the tsar, the lane becomes the sterile corridor of the freeway, the fire morphs into a nuclear pile, the songs go corrupt and become propaganda. Freedom becomes slavery and valor descends to shock and awe. God becomes the Church.

I do not know what art means but I know what it is. Edward Hopper is in Paris between 1906 and 1910 and he is lonely because he is always lonely and will always be lonely. He is the figurative painter, an idea then slipping from fashion, but his paintings capture desolation so complete it will take decades, until the summer of 1945, to replicate what he sees in his mind. The young woman has dark hair and sits on the floor with a white sheet under her, one half pulled from the bed. Her chemise is awry, black hair blooms between her legs, and one foot basks in a shaft of yellow light penetrating her lonely chamber. Her lover has left, or more likely has never come. She is warm and the world is cold and so slowly, ever so slowly, she will become chilled and become one with the  world.

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