Saturday, April 30, 2011

What I Think Denis Wood Means When He Says "Everything"

Toward the end of our discussion on Solnit last week, we made a brief and runty attempt to tackle the word infinite—how it’s hinted at & suggested in art and writing, what effect the suggestion of infinity might have on a reader or viewer, etc.

The talk stuck with me because I’d been rolling the topic around in my head since I was a teenager. I am a compulsive abstractor. A conceptualizer. I have a lot of pictures of groups of people taken from very far away, but not too many portraits. (I think people look best from really far away, either waving or walking.) I’m into types and symbols. I’m into ideas, not people (or, not people qua people—I’m into what people represent, what they stand for).

I don’t care about community. Or, I only care about it in theory. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the open studio of a friend who lives a few blocks away. When I went up to tell him I was there, he said, “Oh, it’s great you’re here, because there are a lot of people from the neighborhood you should meet.” I don’t want to meet people from the neighborhood. Or, I don’t want to meet them from the neighborhood because they’re from the neighborhood. I rarely meet my neighbors and am deeply apathetic when it comes to local elections.

I blame it, predictably, on my upbringing: part New York City and part semi-rural Connecticut. “Community” in Connecticut is staked on distance. You pay for the privilege of being able to go for days without actually seeing other human beings. “Community” in New York, as far as I could ever tell, was staked on a perverse pride in being able to make enough money to survive. I always found it easier to treat people in New York as contained bursts of information or service. (Benjamin’s “shock” theory is useful here—you’d die of exhaustion trying to dignify and parse the pathos of any given city street at any given time). There’s a lyric by the songwriter Bill Callahan that I like very much, and it goes, “Alone in my room, I feel like such a part of the community / But out on the streets, I feel like a robot by the river, looking for a drink.” I sympathize. Thinking about community fills me with god’s warmth; actually being at community events makes my palms sweat.

By extension, I’ve never cared much about place. I am always surprised when I visit my brother and see him wearing a VIRGINIA t-shirt, which he must’ve bought when he came to visit me during college (go hoos)—and I’m surprised because I don’t have one, and I’ve never had a t-shirt or hat that advertised any place I lived or worked in. (Though when I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, I considered buying a t-shirt that said Little Rock, Arkansas, in part because when I moved back to Brooklyn, all my friends asked me how I liked Alabama. The whole city and state of Arkansas is just brutally underappreciated.)

I’m taking the long road around to talk about Wood, but in order to convince you I haven’t lost sight of the point, here’s an assertion: I think that the smaller the expression is, the more profoundly it can invoke the infinite.

I don’t want to structure my thoughts here as Solnit vs. Wood (even though the temptation is logical and obvious), but what I will say by way that Infinite City feels torrential to me. It’s messy, it’s an information dump, it’s wildly opinionated. It attempts a kind of life—or, it attempts, I think, to make the reader feel like the book could just melt into reality, or extend itself into it. It has an enmeshed quality. It’s eager. It’s maximal.

Everything Sings, by comparison, feels whispery and humble. The maps tend toward abstraction, and the narratives within—and between—them is subterranean. Take, for example, “Police Calls.” The two biggest numbers, i.e. the two most commonly reported crimes, are in the southern part of the neighborhood: “motor vehicle accident” and “vehicle blocking passage.” Then turn back a page and look at “Signs For Strangers.” Surprise: The places where there are the most traffic signs is also the place where there are the most vehicle-related police incidents. It’s an obvious conclusion, but the experience of piecing it together as a reader is satisfying. Or take the passage from “Trees in General” to “Broken Canopy” to “Disfigured Trees” and later, “The Age of Trees” and read it like the story it is.

Or, on the more abstract end of the spectrum, just look at “Wind Chimes.” There’s no delineated space at all, just a near-synaesthetic representation of sound. The book is filled with invitations to resonance and connections—invitations, really, to poetry, or at least to narratives whose weight lies in ellipses and off-stage exchanges. I admire that.

And I think that part of the way he achieves it is by taking a microcosmic approach and working on a very small scale. Raleigh, North Carolina, is a city with no immediate cultural heat. I doubt young teens dream big-city dreams about living in Raleigh. (Charlotte is bigger, and for what it’s worth, I always thought that Chapel Hill was more fun.) And Wood isn’t even working with the whole city, just a single neighborhood, and in several of the maps—“Sound Walk” or “The Light at Night on Cutler Street”—only a portion of that neighborhood. He spends some time aggregating history but more time focusing on his—and his collaborators’—own observations.

The result is that the book feels less like the result of research and more like the result of a practice, an attitude. Sit and watch. Write something down. Listen. Walk around and report on your block. When I read “Sound Walk,” I hear it. And as I hear it, I’m prompted to try and make my mind aware of itself, its perceptions, and its attitudes. Everything Sings isn’t about Boylan Heights at all; it’s a book about being where you are. The information is washed away by the life that runs through it.

And I’m moved by the book because I think it contains an implicit challenge. My block is the last place I’d think about visiting because I’m there all the time, but on the other hand, I know very little about it. The reflex—mine, at least—is to pay attention to other places because I imagine my block will always be there to investigate when I want to. Of course, what ends up happening is that I’ll move and realize I wasn’t really living where I just lived. I’ve had this experience over and over again. And the challenge, then, is to frame the picture, focus on your immediate surroundings, to apprehend your habits and your indifferences.

“Some guy on Cabarrus had a lovely sweetgum cut down—in its prime—to stop the gumballs dropping on his Corvette,” Wood writes at one point. We don’t just get an explanation for the absence of a dot on the map, we get the Corvette, and its annoyed owner, and we get the sticky thing falling out of the tree, and we can see this guy getting annoyed and thinking about what the heck he’s going to do with the tree because damn if he’s going to let is ruin his car (which is not described as red but I just imagine is red anyway), and from this one line we’re offered not just the lay of the land but how it feels to walk there, too—we’re offered spirit. Wood’s patience in making the maps is a devotional exercise: It’s him recognizing the spirit of all these things he could easily ignore. And there’s the abstraction, I think, or the suggestion of the infinite—this belief that the smallest and most easily taken-for-granted places have routines, idiosyncrasies, variations, infrastructure, history, change, sights and sounds—that, to use his words, everything sings, but it falls on us to listen.

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