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Journal, Day Three

By W.S. Di Piero

Ingmar Bergman, whose movies are like graphs of his psyche, said that he aspired to be like the anonymous craftsmen and guildsmen who built medieval cathedrals. This from an artist who made an art so idiosyncratic that his black and white movies are like scratch marks on glass. If you want anonymity, consult the Maya brick-makers of those grand cities in Guatemala and the Yucatan. Clay bricks found on digs bear playful, delicately incised drawings the brick-makers knew would be forever covered by stucco, literally bound into the monuments of their culture. They drew buildings, faces, animals, parasols.

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Ruins are structures of loss, evidence of cultural forgetting, and haunt the (apparent) wholeness of the presence. We’ve become so self-conscious of what’s left behind, what our mark might be. Albert Speer contrived his architectural philosophy of ruins, that new buildings constructed to the glory of the Reich would be designed so that, if they fell, they would make a beautiful, memorable heap of stone and glass and steel. In the 1970s I spent several weeks visiting ruins of indigenous populations of the Southwest. No timed tickets necessary then, though the more exotic sites, like the Anasazi cliff dwellings, were already drawing tourists. Chaco Canyon was different. The Pueblo Bonito complex had neither guards nor guides. Anybody willing to drive the miserable thirty mile dirt and gravel road to get there could crawl through the main free-standing terraced apartment complex, five stories high at its rear wall, or the Grand Kiva (the largest underground ceremonial chamber in North America) and walk away with whatever shards and beads they could find. One day a small TV crew showed up to film an interview with an Anglo raised by Navajos. I asked him what sort of plumbing tool the Pueblo Bonito builders used to build such a high, smooth-planed, perfectly perpendicular walled structure. “How they plumbed it? With their eyes.” On one trip I ended up on the Hopi Reservation, in Tewa Village, up on one of the three mesas in Arizona. This was before tourist routes were marked and only shortly after an alternate snake dance—the most private and significant of Hopi ceremonies—was “performed” for visitors in addition to the religious one closed to non-Indians. (How the snake figures in so many religious cultures: Athenians traced their ancestry to a snake god; in India a stone is laid in a building’s foundation to stake down the head of an underworld snake that would otherwise upset civilization; Eve and the snake in the tree; St. George pinning to earth the youth-devouring worm.) Snake dancers took delight in finding the fattest, worst-dressed white lady in the front row then dropping a rattler or two at her feet. I bought a bowl from a woman who had a small table outside her house. I still have it. The dyes have faded a little, I think because it wasn’t fired long enough in the manure-fired kiln, but for forty years now it has been a small constant pleasure. Fifteen years ago, I found myself in Phoenix and decided to make my way home via Hopiland, as they call it, with the notion of finding “Beth” the potter. Once I found Tewa Village again I suffered the usual Hopi amusement of dealing with an Anglo. “How do I get to Beth’s house?” “Go that way a little, then go that other way, you’ll see it.” “I’m trying to find Beth’s house.” “See that house down there, she lives right there somewhere.” I finally found her screen door, knocked, and she invited me in. I stepped inside the door, greeted her and the others in the small room (the TV was on, some youngish guy was passed out on the bed, a couple of female elders were sitting around talking), and told her the story of the bowl. “I’ve had your bowl for 40 years and wanted to thank you for making a beautiful thing.” What a stupid thing to say! But that’s the best I could do. Come sit down, she says, patting the chair next to her. I sit. “My nephew’s not so good. You know him? He has to go get dialysis now all the way in Flagstaff. I’m not too good. I don’t make many bowls now, only a few for the Craft Fair in Santa Fe.” No curiosity about me—why should she be curious? —or my beautiful bowl. Consider bad kidneys.

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During the 2004 Presidential campaign I was living in a Chicago hotel for a few months where the staff are mostly islanders, except for the boss housekeeper, who is African-American. Jamaican maintenance man, Trinidadian chamber-maid, Haitian desk clerk. When I lingered in the lobby or walked down hallways, the different musicalities of their voices sweetened the air. Then I’d go to my room and turn on the TV—I don’t have one at home so on the road I’m a junkie. Talking heads snap and whine and growl in homogenized tones and nowhere accents. They’re just and righteous; anybody who disagrees is ignorant and un-American. Popular political discourse in America has never been pretty, but now it’s relentlessly, deliriously anti-grace, anti-lightness. Its vocal style is American Tough. It hates, because it fears, finer tones and critical nuance, so it ridicules them. The herd bleat happily and follow. And the news media, those fools, bark alongside their masters.

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We’re a country dragging a Jungian shadow, ostensibly hating in others what’s most deeply our own. We insist we’re a humane, charitable people, yet as a body politic we hate and fear the poor (as the historical Jesus of blue-in-the-face fundamentalists did not). We embed our cherished individualism in inane cultural conformity. We value force over learning, thickhead “resolve” over critical deliberation, uniformity over contrarianism, the monstrous over the exquisite, poetry-as-anodyne to poetry-as-provocation. After the 2005 tsunami the President reminded the world that it’s not the $300 million the USA was contributing to the relief effort that matters, it’s the generosity and goodness of the American people. Why must we work so hard and talk so much to remind the world and ourselves that we are good? Our compassion, when it exists at all, is usually opportunistic and self-exalting. At a public meeting with Laura Bush during the 2004 re-election campaign, a woman who had lost a son in Iraq interrupted the First Lady’s talk and asked why her daughters weren’t fighting in Iraq as her dead son had? The woman was swarmed by other women in the audience who screamed at her: “Four more years! Four more years!”

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, January 31st, 2007 by W.S. Di Piero.