The Persistence of Memory

What’s the most beautiful of all the things given by God is this body of Hélène Lagonelle’s.

Hélène Lagonelle’s body is heavy, innocent still, her skin’s as soft as that of certain fruits, you almost can’t grasp her, she’s almost illusory, it’s too much. She makes you want to kill her, she conjures up a marvelous dream of putting her to death with your own hands. 

—Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Man Ray, Anatomies, 1929.

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929.

How is it that violence is also beauty?

What undergirds the aesthetics of violence: an aesthetic to be found and celebrated in photography, fashion, film (as well as everywhere else)?

To what do we ascribe the desire to mark, interrupt, violate those whose beauty we find, as Duras does above “too much?”

Is it that same mythologized impulse that caused jealous women to knife cut the faces of the women whom their lovers betrayed them with, or the Old Testament god himself turning Lots’s wife into a pillar of salt as she glanced back at her burning city?

And does the object of violence need beauty for violence to be bestowed upon it? Is violence a state of mind for the bearer of it, or is it just something that befalls one, comes with the territory; that is: the territory of being female?

I was twenty-four years old when real violence descended on me, the kind I had the thought during which: “I could die here. Right now.”

The details don’t matter much. Or: they do, but they are not your details. They belong to me. The person that snapped on me that day had been in the process of becoming undone for weeks, and I was too young or stupid or both to recognize the increasing dangerous pitch. It was late June in the south. An apartment with no air conditioning. I was in the process of folding laundry and then a moment later I was pinned on a couch, a man’s hands around my neck. Squeezing hard. I started to black out; he released his grip for a moment before I lost consciousness. Somehow I got out of the room I was trapped in, and then out of the house. Running down terraced, residential streets in the middle of the day, hoping to find a sane-looking neighbor that could let me in to use their phone.

It was just that one time, but the physical body has a memory, as does the emotional one.

I went to a healer the day after I had been attacked, and after a long reiki session she told me that I needed to come back in a week, no charge. My energy was better than before, she said, but still “very out-of-whack.” That sounded about right. I felt out of whack, whatever “whack” represents or is. There had been no visible marks on me when I visited her that afternoon, but later that evening I watched in quiet horror as a red wave encircled and crawled up and around my neck as well as across my collarbone. Unmistakable red shadows of everywhere I had been held and gripped by him. The markings stayed for a week. A week in ninety degree heat in the south where there was no chance of disguising or hiding such a fact. Then they faded. A year later to the day, the marks returned, exactly as before, and again remained a week. If it hadn’t happened to me and you told me that it had happened this way to you, I probably would not believe you. But it did and I learned something then. The body, I understood, definitely has a memory.

As does the mind, conscious or otherwise. I would dream of this event, or of him, or of every possible and horrible permutation or periphery of circumstance, nearly everyday in the month of June for ten years. Most years the dreams had a theme: friends didn’t believe me. Or worse, they did and told me to just get over it. Or: I did not leave after the attack and instead stayed with him. Other times he would just appear in the dream where ever I was, hovering menacingly on the outskirts of the main plot. Silly subconscious: whenever and where ever he appears, he IS the plot of the dream. A short villain with a goatee and a power complex. One I am grateful to be rid of. At least I am mostly rid of it.

Man Ray, Anatomies, 1929

Anatomies, Man Ray, 1929

June is a month of uncomfortable anniversaries. June is the month I married this beast of a person; June is also the month he tried to kill me. I had a dream about him last night. He took up too much space in it, too much of the plotline. I awoke thinking about necks. Photographs by Man Ray of his lover Lee Miller, a series where he’d excise her exquisite neck from the rest of her body, treat it in the Surrealist style, and then title the series “Anatomies.” Is an excision itself grounds for violent practices in art? Arguably not, but then again when Lee Miller left him a few years after the “Anatomies” series were taken, he did create the ready-made “Object to Be Destroyed,” with the following instructions:

Cut out the eye from a photograph of one who has been loved but is seen no more. Attach the eye to the pendulum of a metronome and regulate the weight to suit the tempo desired. Keep going to the limit of endurance. With a hammer well-aimed, try to destroy the whole at a single blow.

Object to Be Destroyed

Object to Be Destroyed, Man Ray, 1932

The eye pictured in the ready-made is Lee Miller’s. So you tell me.

I thought too, of the Duras quote above, from her famous quasi-fictional, quasi-autobiographical novel The Lover. I was reading a lot of Duras in my early twenties, and I’ve come back around to revisiting her as of late. The passage about Hélène Lagonelle has been scored into my mind since I first came across it more than twenty years ago.

Lastly, I thought about my own neck. About an image of it that did not exist yet.

The neck is the jugular. It is what the head hangs on, and also that on which one is hung by. The neck connects the lower and upper chakras of the body, literally the body to the mind. The neck is what we adorn with jewelry, that we protect in cold weather with turtlenecks and scarves. There are seven bones in the neck, all cervical vertebrae. The uppermost bone, the C1, is also known as the “Atlas” bone. Like the titan who held the world on its shoulders, the Atlas bone supports the skull, the spinal cord, arteries and is the attachment point for many muscles in the neck. Notably, it is also the thinnest and most delicate bone in the entirety of the neck. A last bone, the hyoid, sometimes classified as a neck bone and at other times as a bone related to the skull that happens to exist in the neck, is the Adam’s Apple, a U-shaped floating bone located just under the chin. It is the only bone not connected to another bone in the body. The hyoid is also the bone that is most often broken in strangulation victims. It is the piece of me that was not broken on that hot afternoon in late June.

Neck: Hyoid Intact

Neck: Hyoid Intact, Stacy Platt, 2017

Unlike Man Ray’s excised necks of Lee Miller, my neck is still very much attached to the rest of me. It holds a head on it that carries memories like these within it, as well as much better memories since then, and a body that has moved past that place, that time, that person I was and that he forever remains, existing somewhere both beyond and between us both. Especially in the dreamtime during the month of June.

 

Past Selves, Meet Yesterday’s Flood

O my floating life
Do not save love
  for things
    Throw things
to the flood.
—Lorine Niedecker, Paen to Place

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

How do you tell yourself to yourself?

What is your process for remembering, for mediating experience, for archiving the self?

Are you someone that has meticulously kept all of your correspondence—from a lifetime before email, when handwriting was personal, and a natural individual identifier—and bad adolescent poetry, journals, videos, photographs and ephemera? Is it packed away in boxes and covered in dust or is it somewhere accessible, that which you access with something approaching a kind of regularity? Do you know, to the precise location, exactly where all of your hidden, secret, past and present selves reside?

Maybe you identify with this and have these collections, these accumulations of your autobiography. Or perhaps you’re the other sort: the person that has been able to light a match to her past, put it into a bonfire when it no longer serves you. When those important junctures have occurred where you are, to paraphrase Rilke, required to change your life or die, you are that one who is determined to move forward into an unscripted future, never looking back at those relationships and events and interior monologues that drove your past feelings and actions. A person emphatic and decisive, even when they cannot be sure of outcomes. A person less concerned with what-ifs, and not particularly nostalgic for the past. Yours or anyone else’s.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

So I’ve always kept a journal. And had the old ones stashed in various places, but always together. In the past year, the place where I live has experienced an extraordinary amount of rain. In May and June, this spot of land where the prairie meets the desert got twice the expected rainfall for the whole year. Sometime last month, I chanced to open the closet where the journals resided after a particularly heavy night of torrential storms. I didn’t open it to check for water damage, but instead to retrieve a book. And then I saw: all of my journals, twenty years or so worth, were all soaked through with storm water. They were stacked neatly atop one another, directly under the only spot in the entire space that held water. The journals swollen and sticky with gum residue and running ink. Dumbstruck, I immediately scooped them up and, not knowing what else to do, carried them outside to a table, opening them up and leaving them in the arid Colorado air.

I began to survey the damage.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

I’ve always joked to close friends that the universe doesn’t bother to deal in subtleties where I’m concerned. Only heavy anvils of allusion and metaphor will do. In  extreme examples, some higher power surmises, will I ever truly “get” any lessons and take them to heart. So it seemed particularly inauspicious that of the entirety of our household goods, only these personal historical objects were affected. Affected probably isn’t the right word. Laid waste. Obliterated. Unrecognizable.

If the universe was trying to send me a message, it seemed particularly pointed and blunt. Let go of your past, could be one of those messages. Get over yourself, already, could be another one.

It was certainly a past, or a record of a past, that had been transformed.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

First loves. Failed loves. Bad choices. Life-changing travel. Things that inspired me. A record of lovers. My unwritten, unknown future, written and wondered about by my past self. Some of it still legible. Much of it looking like another language, or pentimenti, or a secret code.

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

I have always been the collector. The archivist. The keeper of words and images and past longings and past potential selves. I don’t revisit these accumulations often, but there has been something reassuring about knowing that they are there, that they exist. As if my hand on a page spilling words and sentiments five, ten, twenty years ago can, if coaxed, relay something back to my present self, fill in some gap of understanding, if and when the need arises. It’s been an equal, if converse, comfort to revisit old journals and commonplace books, photographs and letters and know how far from those persons, those could-have-been-selves, that I’ve come and detoured from. The many doors and rooms of the psychic mansion that remained closed (some, after venturing through for a short time); a fact for which I remain grateful.

Beyond anything else, the thing that is most striking in this is the revelation that is handwriting. The notion of handwriting itself has almost become anachronistic, a throw-back to an inefficient and sentimental way of doing things and communicating. I’ve heard that penmanship, and even cursive, isn’t taught to children any longer, and that seems to me both sad and to make a kind of pragmatic sense. Who writes in longhand anymore? When you once were able to identify someone, in voice and person, by their hand, what takes the place of that now? Their email address? Their social media handle? Caller ID?

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

Untitled, from the series Waterlogged, by Stacy Platt

When my mother died last year, I immediately set about searching for things in my possession that she had written to me. Something about her handwriting was evocative in a way that little else was. Throughout her prolonged sickness, I found witnessing her handwriting deteriorate as her illness progressed touching and poignant in ways that were gut-wrenching, reminding me that even while she was still alive that everything shifts and will come to an end. One’s entire life and conception of self, how they understood time, and people, what they valued and what they reviled—all the things they both could and could not say, that they knew or never cared to know, that all ends when they do. What’s left behind is everyone else’s interpretation. Their conjecture of another’s lived life.

If I ever thought about what might happen to these journals, it was always something mundane: my daughter would get them at some point, or, in a pleasant anonymous fantasy: they would be found at an estate sale or thrift store, and sifted through and wondered about by strangers. Instead, the flood has answered this question with emphatic disregard for any desired outcomes. It has rendered the reliquary of my past an offering of object-ness from which to make something else. In making these images, I am offered the opportunity to refashion my past, look at it as a thing-in-itself as opposed to a thing (a life) that happened to me, make peace with it, and then be granted permission to tear all the pages out, and allow them to continue to deteriorate.