A Primitive Mind
if I could know
in what language to address
the spirits that claim a place
beneath these low and simple ceilings,
tenants that neither speak nor stir
yet dwell in mute insistence
till I can feel utterly ghosted in this house.
—From “Toward the Solstice,” by Adrienne Rich
When I wake in the night in fear I regain the knowledge that no child lacks: the world is alive and in dread; it is, as the ancient Greek philosopher Thales claimed, “full of gods.” The time is invariably between three and four in the morning. I sleep fitfully until a little after five, when I get up and walk a four-mile loop, part of which is along the Arroyo Seco, a dry riverbed that begins to the north, in the folds of the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles. I never want to get up, and every morning revisit the same tired argument about why I could—and should—stay in bed, but I do. Anne Carson said that “the poet is someone who feasts at the same table as other people. But at a certain point he feels a lack. He is provoked by a perception of absence within what others regard as a full and satisfactory present.” I am a painter, but this same lack drives me out into the morning dark.
If once I brooded endlessly about received law and rule and their injustice writ large, now my attention to such things is at best pro forma, its larger part given over to discerning the untranslatable, the insupportable rule, whether of what I call my psyche or of nature’s vast spaces. The day’s first rule then is to be out before first light, the darker the better, the better to hear the trees. Not their sound in a wind or of leaves underfoot, but the lowered voice of their slow inclination toward me, out of the dead objective field of our cultural imagination. To hear this requires that I myself become still, that my turbid waters clear. I do this with poetry.
In the pockets of my sweatshirt I carry typed passages, folded into quarters, which, when the light comes up, I pull out and memorize. In the dark, I reach down into the storehouse of memory, equally dark. This morning it was Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” which begins:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun.
Earlier this year, over several months’ time, I completed a painting that contained an afternoon in Buckhorn Canyon, a preserve of Jeffrey and sugar pine, incense cedar, alder, and oak at 6,400 feet in the San Gabriels. It was late May; it had snowed and was still snowing, and I held the snow in my ungloved hands and endured the cold as if this could propitiate the gods of my undoing, who in 2005 had shipped me off with my family to Los Angeles from the Midwest. I would come to learn that I was wired for the light and silence of a northern winter, and that, with Czeslaw Milosz, who during his many years in California yearned for his native Poland, “the compass of my dreams always points north.”
To call out winter while I worked in the Los Angeles summer, I called out poems that, when uttered in good faith, concentrate the mind (as drawing does), becoming words with power and, as such, a cord, a laundry line, which I can follow hand over hand to the canyon of memory until I am Stevens’s snow man, his
listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
This re-visioning, this return, is coextensive with the making of the painting, its hundred orchestrated decisions and movements that unfold consciously and not. The poem, unfolding in time, is its interior soundscape, which enables me to orchestrate the movements: eyes taking in the palette. Which colors? Ivory black, a little yellow ochre, flake white—don’t over-mix with the palette knife, you’re not making cookies. Which brush? Sable or bristle? Round, flat, filbert, bright? Which size? Straighten spine to ease the ache of standing, pull a #2 flat from the honey jar, look at it, set it gently into the trash—it’s perished at the hands of my rough treatment, having been scrubbed into the canvas to work in the color, only to be eaten by solvent and medium, its bristles broken and dried, flexibility gone, tiny-haired workhorse. Refill the baby-food jar with medium, dip in another brush, replace the cap on the jar to contain toxic solvent. Make a mark on the canvas. Another one. Stop. Step back. Wipe brush with rag, choose a painting knife from the peanut butter jar. Hatch into the wet paint as if you are threshing grain—faster, faster, until your tensile strength equals the pine needles you would render: the brush is too soft to find them. Remember Gary Snyder: “Lifting a brush, a burin, a pen, or a stylus is like releasing a bite or lifting a claw.”
It is that elemental. In line with poetry, which, says the literarycritic Northrop Frye, recreates “something very primitive and archaic in society. . . . primitive in the sense of expressing a fundamental and persisting link with reality.” And, he continues, “every mind is a primitive mind, whatever the varieties of social conditioning.”
“A Mind of Winter,” 2010
Oil on canvas; 48 x 48 in.
Madeleine Avirov is a painter and writer in Los Angeles. A recent essay appears in the Summer/Autumn 2010 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Her work may be found at madeleineavirov.com.