visceral / theme

An intense bodily experience, immediate and unadulterated. The visceral is deep, penetrating, moving the stomach with confidence. It tends to stream from the depths, from the bottom, the earth, washing up through the body. It acts on instinct.


Themes represent basic categories of thought, emotion, or value. While our assignment of themes may at times seem arbitrary or whimsical, they serve to link together artists and movements along non- hierarchial pathways. Follow the themes to look for new disciplines that share qualities with those you already like, or to open up new worlds of Art and Culture.

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Contemporary Ink Millbrae, CA, United States
4 Oct - 8 Nov
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Exhibition Text from Gilbert and George's "SONOFAGOD Picture Was Jesus Heterosexual

“ - leaving his colleagues to indulge in empty verbiage, he pressed forward his investigations in other directions, for he was bold enough to aim at storming God in His most secret strongholds.” Andre Gide; ‘The Vatican Cellars’ (1914) “We think every single person is religious, to a certain degree. That’s what we are, as well. We try to sort out what that means.” Gilbert & George. 1986. Lustrous, ornate, pictorially complex, vividly coloured, yet suffused with tenebrous solemnity, the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures have all of the dramatic visual impact which one might expect to find in neo-Gothic medievalism - in Victorian reclamations of Celtic or Moorish symbolism, for example, regally bejewelled and portentous with romantic mysticism. At the same time, however, the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures possess a darkly graven strangeness, at once archaic and ultra-modern, in which their temper no less than their signage appears deeply contemporary, ritualistic and disturbed. Gilbert & George attach particular importance to the titles of their pictures, and those of the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures seem almost drawn from some futuristic slang: ‘Eesa’, ‘Base’, ‘Dote’, ‘Free Fall’, ‘Rank’, ‘Basket’, ‘Mufti’. Some are taken from Islamic sources (‘Eesa’, for example, means ‘Jesus’), while others suggest a suburban English quaintness - ‘Pixie Hill’ or ‘Good Luck’. The title of the biggest picture of this group, ‘Was Jesus Heterosexual’, also includes two lines of text, running along the top and bottom of the picture. ‘Jesus says forgive yourself/ God loves fucking! Enjoy’. In keeping with the extensive use of texts, words, slogans and found anonymous writings in the art of Gilbert & George, these pronouncements are in fact quotations from graffiti. In the context of these pictures their sense seems simultaneously feckless, mischievous, enlightened and mad - all qualities which might describe the visual language of the entire group of ‘Sonofagod’ pictures. This mixture of the sacred and profane, ancient and modern, coded and explicit, opulent and debased, ornate and horrific, seems central to the sustained force of these pictures on religious subjects. Gilbert & George appear within some of the pictures - ‘Akimbo’, for example’, and ‘Basket’ - as remote, blurred, unreachable figures. They seem to gesture or pose, ghost-like, from beyond a gauze-like membrane in the depth of the picture. This serves to sharpen even further the extravagant imagery in the foreground. Elsewhere, Gilbert & George appear in the halved, doubled, reflected versions of themselves - at once impassive and possessed, human and allegorical, their appearance punning, perhaps, on the dual nature of their single identity as an artist. But the principal imagery of these pictures is taken from a widely eclectic, multi-denominational and multi-cultural range of religious and superstitious symbolism. Islam, Free Masonry, national insignia, Catholicism and Judaism are all represented, as well as an array of folk loric charms: imps, horseshoes, wishbones, prayer medals, lucky amulets. Bifurcated,. reflected down their centres, fused together, mixed, mutated, and crowded into a single, seemingly deafening chorus of beliefs, these emblems become a visually dense patterning of blasphemous iconography. Debased through their transposition into grotesquery, the mutant tokens of this polytheistic anarchy confront us from shadowed half lights of scarlet, royal blue, emerald and gold - the hues of which are at times so rich that they seem to have a poisonous glow. The styles and materials of these amulets and devices are suggestive of all the pomp and splendour that one might associate with both institutional ornament, and the plain or semi-precious extravagance of cheaply acquired lucky charms. Together they present a single texture - neither Godly nor godless, but a vast, heterogeneous patterning of pietistic insignia, at once intricate and foreboding. This is no single attack upon a single faith, but seemingly a rounded denouncement of belief in deistic or supernatural power per se. The array of religious cosmology appears in a state of deranged, confused and debased anarchy - its symbolism becoming a lurid pageant of absurd, impotent monsters, rococo in its extravagance. But the art of Gilbert & George has always been steeped in religious and sacred imagery, as much as it is rooted in the signage and symbols that one could find without difficulty in almost any modern city on Earth. They have presented this imagery as it finds its place as a vital informant of the individual and social experience of being alive in the modern world. In this much, Gilbert & George have viewed religious and folk-loric symbolism as part of a much greater vision of signs and tokens. Crosses and swastikas, sacred texts from the Bible or the Koran, nature and prayer, are seen alongside graffiti or political leafleting, coinage, magnified bodily substances, vistas of buildings or the faces of strangers. And yet the sacred and the secular seem always to exist within the art of Gilbert & George as both ambiguous and interchangeable. In pictures from the 1980s, for example - ‘Black Church Face’ (1980), ‘Life Without End’ (1982), ‘Youth Faith’ (1982) - we find directly Christian imagery and attitude within the pictures, but seemingly re-positioned to present what Robert Rosenblum has described as “new versions of religious truths and passions - a universe of burgeoning nature and beautiful male youths”, amidst which Gilbert & George, “kneel and pray to their own creation.” In the epic quadripartite ‘Death Hope Life Fear’ from 1984, the imagery and composition of the pictures appears less Christian in its imagery and more reminiscent of Indian tantric art; but the monumental pictures which comprise the four appear ceremonial and ritualistic - almost as though each picture was in one sense a guardian image to some manner of theological text. And yet again, from the ‘New Testamental Pictures’ of 1997 (the title itself being perhaps a pun on the Biblical sense), we see in ‘Sodom’, ‘Spit Law’ and ‘Eat and Drink’, the corporeality of Gilbert & George at its most vulnerable and intense, set against reproduced religious texts relating to sexual behaviour. As such, we can see how the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures advance and consolidate a major theme and a crucial emotion - our individual and collective relationship to religion and superstition - within the art of Gilbert & George. But there is a renewed intensity to the imagery within these pictures, which fills them with anger and horror; their mood is one of indictment and rebellion, an assault on all the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief. As such, the ‘Sonofagod’ pictures might be regarded as comprising the ecclesiology of aggressive agnosticism. In ‘Mass’, for example, we see the figures of Gilbert & George, simultaneously halved and reflected down their centres (the effect seeming to etiolate their bodies) quite surrounded by a profusion of crucifixes and crosses. The figures of Christ upon the crucifixes are also halved and reflected down their centres, making a deformed shape which is at once monstrous and reminiscent of a splayed carcass. In their turn, these crucifixes (there are twelve - one for each panel of the picture) are set amongst further crosses which appear almost layered on top of one another, as though creating a tessellation of partially overlapping religious medals. The effect is both horrific and opulent, just as ‘Give It Up’ and ‘Crosswise’ appear to echo the visual luxuriance of some Roman Catholic decoration. Elsewhere, obscenely divided ‘lucky pixies’ leer out at the viewer from ‘Heterodoxy’, while the figures of Christ upon the Cross appear skeletal and defaced, the upper body cowled within bejewelled horseshoes which are themselves inverted. In traditional folk lore, to hang a horseshoe above the door was good luck, but to hang it inverted would bring bad luck. The figures of Gilbert & George stand within ‘Heterodoxy’, reflected down their centre, green suited, their expression simultaneously intent and vacant, all- knowing and unknowable. Around their heads are the faint, luminescent spheres of aureola, suggestive of holiness or sanctity. In many ways, these ‘Sonofagod’ are perhaps the most violent pictures which Gilbert & George have ever made. They present religions and superstitions as evil in themselves, their laws and institutions nothing more than the enforcers of fundamentalism, prejudice, persecution and tyranny. And it is against such dogma and cruelty that these pictures declare their forceful antagonism. As such, we could see the ‘anti-religious’ fervour of these pictures as being in the lineage of Beaudelaire’s ‘blasphemous’ writings from the middle of the nineteenth century - specifically his ‘Fleurs du Mal’ and ‘Journaux Intimes.’ In a critical essay on Beaudelaire written in 1930, T.S.Eliot observed: “But actually Beaudelaire is concerned, not with demons, black masses and romantic blasphemy, but with the real problem of good and evil...” A pronouncement endorsed by Christopher Isherwood’s statement in 1949 that Beaudelaire was “a deeply religious man, whose blasphemies horrified the orthodox...” The same might be said, perhaps, of these disturbing, revolutionary, morally complex pictures, and of the artists who have created them. Michael Bracewell is a novelist and cultural historian. First published in Bracewell, Michael. SONOFAGODPICTURES Was Jesus Heterosexual? , White Cube, London 2006

Daddy, Slyvia Plath

Daddy by: Sylvia Plath You do not do, you do not do Any more, black shoe In which I have lived like a foot For thirty years, poor and white, Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. Daddy, I have had to kill you. You died before I had time-- Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal And a head in the freakish Atlantic Where it pours bean green over blue In the waters off beautiful Nauset. I used to pray to recover you. Ach, du. In the German tongue, in the Polish town Scraped flat by the roller Of wars, wars, wars. But the name of the town is common. My Polack friend Says there are a dozen or two. So I never could tell where you Put your foot, your root, I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw. It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak. I thought every German was you. And the language obscene An engine, an engine Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. I began to talk like a Jew. I think I may well be a Jew. The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna Are not very pure or true. With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack I may be a bit of a Jew. I have always been scared of you, With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. And your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue. Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- Not God but a swastika So black no sky could squeak through. Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute Brute heart of a brute like you. You stand at the blackboard, daddy, In the picture I have of you, A cleft in your chin instead of your foot But no less a devil for that, no not Any less the black man who Bit my pretty red heart in two. I was ten when they buried you. At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do. But they pulled me out of the sack, And they stuck me together with glue. And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. So daddy, I'm finally through. The black telephone's off at the root, The voices just can't worm through. If I've killed one man, I've killed two-- The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now. There's a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. From "Ariel", 1966 List all poems from "Ariel"

Biography

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha From the mid-1970s until her death at age 31 in 1982, Korean-born artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha created a rich body of conceptual art that explored displacement and loss. Her works included artists' books, mail art, performance, audio, video, film, and installation. Although grounded in French psychoanalytic film theory, her art is also informed by far-ranging cultural and symbolic references, from shamanism to Confucianism and Catholicism. Her collage-like book Dictée, which was published posthumously in 1982, is recognized as an influential investigation of identity in the context of history, ethnicity and gender. In her highly theoretical yet poetic video works, Cha uses performance, speech and text to explore interactions of language, meaning and memory. Much of Cha's work balances a rigorous analytical approach with an almost spiritual evocation of transformation and suffering. Themes of displacement and rupture are articulated in forms derived from French psychoanalytic cinema and linguistic theory of the 1970s; Cha studied in France with Christian Metz, Raymond Bellour and Thierry Kuntzel, among others. Drawing on sources and strategies as diverse as concrete poetry, Korean cultural traditions and conceptual art, Cha speaks with a distinctive voice. Cha's exploration of exile and dislocation in her art is informed by her own history. Uprooted during the Korean War, her family immigrated to America in 1962, moving first to Hawaii and then to San Francisco. After years in the Bay Area and time in Europe, Cha moved to New York City in 1980. As an editor and writer at Tanam Press, she produced two well-known works, Dictée (1982) and Apparatus, an important anthology of essays on the cinematic apparatus. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was born in 1951 in Pusan, South Korea and died in New York City in 1982. Over a ten-year period in the 1970s, she received four degrees from the University of California at Berkeley: a B.A. in Comparative Literature, a B.A. in Art, an M.A. in Art, and an M.F.A. in Art. In 1976 she studied at the Centre d'Etudes Americaine du Cinema in Paris. Her work has been shown at the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA; Artists Space, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Bronx Museum, New York, among other venues. Cha was awarded an artist's residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, taught video art at Elizabeth Seton College and worked in the design department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 1980 until her death in 1982, she was an editor and writer at Tanam Press in New York.

Excerpt from "Great Dream of Heaven"

E.V. made no bones about it; he was not a horse whisperer by any stretch. He was a remedy man. He could fix bad horses, and when he fixed them they stayed fixed. That's all he laid claim to. We had one that needed to be turned around real bad. A five-year-old my dad had claimed off the low end of the fair circuit out in Sonoma, running for $1,200 tags. He was good-looking enough with a powerful hip and gaskin but his mind was the size of a chickpea. The one intolerable habit he had was setting back hard against his lead shank when tied to anything solid. The day he dragged down half the side of our pole barn on top of himself was the day we called E.V. He showed up at our place a week late in his usual beat-up outfit: a '54 Chevy half ton with Arizona plates and a one-horse trailer sporting bald tires and a flapping canvas top. He always parked his rig down on the flat bottom and hiked the steep gravel grade up to the house because he had no rearview mirrors to negotiate our hairpin turnaround. He didn't come to our place that often because most of the "knuckleheads" Dad was able to deal with himself, but when E.V. did pay us a visit I always got excited about it. E.V. was a springy little man in his late fifties with an exaggerated limp from having his kneecap crushed in a shoeing accident when he was about my age; about fourteen. He climbed the hill in steady jerks, his gray felt hat pointing straight down at the ground and bobbing with his gait. He had an old patched inner tube slung over one shoulder and a thick snow white cotton rope dangled from his left hand with the loose end looped through his horse- hair belt. I always thought he must have washed that rope regular in Ivory to keep it so white. It was the cleanest thing about him. When he got to the top he wasn't puffing or blowing like you'd think a man his age would be. He just arrived like he'd been air-dropped. "So, Mason, you shipped him off to the killer's yet?" He grinned at my dad so you could catch a glimpse of his few brown jagged teeth and the tiny gleaming diamonds for eyes that jumped right out at you through hooded slits; like Indian eyes except they were ice blue. "Waitin' on you another week I'da cut his head off myself," my dad said, and there wasn't that much fun in his voice. "Apologize, Mason, but I had me a couple errands to run, down in Oakdale." "Errands my ass. You were off runnin' pussy is all." E.V. gave out with a high shrill squealing that was pure animal glee and me and my dad had to give in to laughing with him although my dad cut it off shorter than I felt was natural. We walked down to the round pen in back of the battered barn where we had the gelding trapped, and when E.V. caught sight of all the torn-down splintered timbers from the horse's tantrum he started to giggle again. "Hope that claimer cost more'n them two-by-twelves, Mason." My dad didn't laugh this time. His voice came out with a nasty edge to it. "Time you git done with him he won't be worth a smooth nickel anyhow." E.V. winked at me without my dad noticing and in that wink I understood there might be grown men in this world who actually get a spark out of life and somehow manage to dodge the black hole my dad had fallen into. When we reached the round pen E.V. let the inner tube slip off his shoulder to the dry ground, propped one boot up on a rail, and peeked in at the problem horse. "Stout enough, isn't he?" "Stout in his damn mind," my dad grumbled. E.V. just hunched there for a long while, studying the gelding as he trotted in short nervous circles, blowing snot, tail high and his black-rimmed ears pricked in our direction. "He's not all that dumb." E.V. grinned, keeping his eyes pinned to the horse's action. "He already suspects we've brought an idea for him. Tell you what, son–" He turned to me and as soon as his light eyes fixed on me it was as though a warm hand landed softly on my chest. There was a kindness there that surprised me how much I yearned toward it. "Take this old rubber tube over to that sycamore and wrap it around that big knobby branch. You see that branch?" He pointed to an arm of the huge tree that had always reminded me of human flesh. It was bone white and muscular with red strips of bark swirling down through the deep creases of the trunk like arteries. That tree had always spooked me for some reason, especially when I was little, trailing back through the brushy hills in pitch black. Its whiteness seemed to pop out at me and the very branch E.V. was pointing to was the part that scared me the most. More than once I'd swung a wide circle around it with my old dun mare, making sure it couldn't spring out and snatch me sideways off the saddle. I was a lot younger then, though, and I gradually talked my mind out of fixing on it that way. "Loop one end through like this here, so it cinches up tight against itself." E.V. demonstrated the pattern on his outstretched arm, then tossed the inner tube in my direction. "Better let me handle that," my dad muttered as he moved in as though to pick up the tube, but E.V. stopped him short. "Nah, you let him do it, Mason. I'm gonna need you here to keep this gate propped open. He can manage. Tie it up good and high now, son. We want it way above his head." I took off fast with the tube before my dad had a chance to consider twice. I had a feeling E.V. had just invented the business about needing my dad to prop the gate. I'd seen him maneuver horses through plenty of gates without anyone's help. I had to climb the spooky tree in order to get the tube up high enough where E.V. wanted it, and by the time I got done looping and cinching it down I could see E.V. already had the gelding caught with that white rope of his. My dad was just standing there useless by the gate. I had a real clear view of things from up there and the air smelled like fresh dirt and eucalyptus. You could see far off into the tan, rolling hills where the yearling bulls were raising dust in a line down to the water tank. As E.V. passed through the gate of the round pen the gelding exploded, farting and bucking to beat all hell. E.V. let out with that same high-pitched squealing cackle of his, sank to his haunches, and jerked the gelding's head down hard with the rope. The next move he made was so quick I could hardly follow it. It was like he was dancing a jig and singing at the same time. He flipped that big rope up over the horse's rump so it slipped straight down to its outside hock, then ran hard against it, taking the gelding's hind leg right out from under him. That horse came crashing down on his rib cage with such a booming thump I thought I felt the big tree shake. E.V. was really squealing with delight now as the horse regained his feet and shook himself all over, looking like the sky had fallen in on him. "You see that?" E.V. hollered through his convulsions. "He never even saw that comin'!" My dad was brushing dirt off his ass, trying to act like it was all routine, but I could see the white flush of fear still drawn on his face. Even from way up high I could see that. Then E.V. did a funny thing. He walked right up to that horse's head and blew softly into each nostril while he gently rubbed under its neck right between the saucer-shaped jawbones. The horse seemed to almost nod asleep for a second, blinking and dropping his neck down a notch. "Now he feels kinda stupid. He thinks he mighta done that to himself, see? He's gonna think twice before he bumps and crow-hops through that gate agin." E.V. chuckled and ran his gnarly hand down the horse's shoulder. My dad caught sight of me still perched high up on the tree limb and yelled out with that kind of voice that wants everyone to know it's in charge of things. "You git down offa there now! We don't want this horse to go off again." "I'm gonna need him to tie the rope, Mason. Lest you wanna gimme a boost up there on yer shoulders." E.V. giggled again while my dad grit his teeth and glared at me. I think he was actually jealous I was getting all the action. I could feel it over all that distance to the ground; how cut off he was. E.V. led the horse over to the sycamore and tossed the free end of the rope up to me. I caught the fuzzy tip of it on the first pitch. "Feed it through that tube and fix yourself a double half hitch," he called up to me. "Do it slow and easy, now, so we don't git him worried." I followed his instructions and as I was cinching up the second loop I could see that gelding was getting himself ready for a real set-to. The muscles along his backbone rippled up like a bull snake and dark patches of sweat broke along his bowed neck. I could smell fear as strong as a dead rat in the feed bin. Fear both ways; animal and human. I could see that horse's eyeball roll back and catch me perched above him. I could see everything turned around, from his perspective, and suddenly I realized I was going to be riding the knobby branch while he unleashed his fury and tried to pull the whole damn tree down on top of himself. "Now, you just hang tight to that branch, son, 'cause this bugger is about ready to come apart." E.V.'s voice put the chill on me as I locked my arms and legs around the branch, monkey style. The gelding made one powerful, quick jerk, shaking his head like a lion, but the rubber tube snapped him right back to square one. The branch sprang a little, casting brown clusters of leaves down on my head. I blew sycamore dust out of my nose and watched the particles of it catch sunlight as they floated down to the horse's devilish ears. "You just ride her out, son!" E.V. cackled. "You're doin' just fine!" His voice caught me in that limbo where you know there's nothing on earth that can help you now; nothing can save you, you're caught in the grips. My dad's face was pure white but to this day I don't know if it was me he was scared for or just the plain violence of the moment. The gelding snorted and pawed dirt, trying to figure out the rubber band effect of the inner tube. I thought for sure I heard a deep growl come out of him, more like the sound a bull can make when it's cornered and got its blood up. Then I could see him fix his mind. A suicidal decision passed through him, right down the length of his spine as he stretched out and set all twelve hundred pounds of raw muscle against that gleaming white rope. It was a long, slow, suspended action as the inner tube pulled like taffy and turned from black to grayish blue. Little chips of rubber started to pop off it from the extreme tension and I watched them fly into the heat of the day as though I were sitting way outside any danger; as though I were watching gnats buzz the water from the bank of a river. The branch began to bow and creak beneath me and the whole world bent sideways for a long second. When it happened it was almost slow and lazy. My heart leveled out into simple waltz time as the branch heaved up in a long arc and I saw all four feet of that gelding come clear off the ground and the wide-open panic in that horse's eye when he realized he was actually flying. His flat blazed face slammed square into the trunk of that granite sycamore and it sounded like somebody'd dropped a side of beef onto cold pavement. The branch kept throbbing for a while with me strangling it and staring straight down at the crumpled heap of the horse, flat out cold beneath me, blood rushing from both nostrils. The fat pink tongue dangled loose like a dead trout and the panicky voice of my dad was cutting through from another planet: "You kilt the son'bitch! Goddammit, E.V., you went and kilt him!" E.V. was already straddling the horse's neck and working the rope free. He peeled the gelding's eyelids back and spit on both eyeballs, then blew again, hard this time, in each ear. The horse gave a little twitch of his head and E.V. danced back away from him, giggling like a kid as he coiled up his powerful rope. "He ain't dead, he's just dreamin'," E.V. chuckled. "Unhitch that rope up there, would ya, son? Pass it on down to me." I did like E.V. said and watched my dad stagger toward his fallen horse and peer down at him for any sign of life. "Lookit that blood! Lookit that! That's a dead horse! That was gonna make me a nice saddle horse, now lookit. He's worse'n dog food." "He'll be on his feet in two minutes," E.V. snickered. "And I guaran-damn-tee ya he'll ground-tie with a shoelace, this day forward." "Well, I ain't payin' good money for this kind of a deal. I didn't hire you to slaughter the dang fool. I coulda done that myself." My dad stomped off back toward the house, leaving me still up the tree looking down at E.V.'s sweat-stained hat and the smashed horse breathing in long whistling gurgles. E.V. kept coiling the rope in loose loops and spoke to no one in particular. "Horse is just like a human being. He's gotta know his limits. Once he finds that out he's a happy camper." The horse bolted up to his feet as though on cue and shook himself again, sending long cords of blood flying across E.V.'s rope. E.V. just smiled and held the rope out away from his chest. "I was gonna have to wash it anyhow." He stepped softly up to the horse's shoulder with that peculiar hitch in his walk and grabbed a shank of mane, then led the bay back toward the round pen. The gelding led right along beside him as quiet as an old broodmare. E.V. stopped down there beside the water tank and cleaned the horse's nose out, then gently rubbed its eyes with the cold water and turned him back loose in the round pen. He watched him for a while the same way he'd watched him before, one foot propped on the rail and twirling the tip of his cotton rope. Everything was silent. The light went on in my dad's bedroom. The wind shifted and rattled the tin on the good side of the hay barn. Long after E.V. left and I heard the sound of his Chevy die away into the toolie-fog seeping up through the valley floor, I just stayed high up in that tree. I stayed and watched the night fall and the owls move into the tall eucalyptus and station themselves for the slightest hint of any skittering through the yard. I reached down and grabbed the open loop of the inner tube that E.V.'d left behind. I grabbed the black rubber with both hands and slid off the smooth muscle of the branch, bobbing in space, arms strung out tight above my head, spinning slowly in the cool night air. The whole ranch turned below me. I arched my head back and my mouth went open to the black sky. The giant splash of the Milky Way must have caused the high shrill squealing to burst out of me, just like someone had pulled a cord straight down my spine. My skin was laughing. I heard my dad come out on the screen porch and yell my name but I didn't answer. I just hung there spinning in silence. I knew right then where I'd come from and how far I'd be going away.

Act I, Buried Child

CHARACTERS DODGE in his seventies HALIE Dodge's wife; mid-sixties TILDEN their oldest son BRADLEY their next oldest son, an amputee VINCE Tilden's son SHELLY Vince's girlfriend FATHER DEWIS a Protestant minister Act One Scene: day. Old wooden staircase down left with pale, frayed carpet laid down on the steps. The stairs lead offstage left up into the wings with no landing. Up right is an old, dark green sofa with the stuffing coming out in spots. Stage right of the sofa is an upright lamp with a faded yellow shade and a small night table with several small bottles of pills on it. Down right of the sofa, with the screen facing the sofa, is a large, old-fashioned brown TV. A flickering blue light comes from the screen, but no image, no sound. In the dark, the light of the lamp and the TV slowly brighten in the black space. The space behind the sofa, upstage, is a large screened-in porch with a board floor. A solid interior door to stage right of the sofa leads from the porch to the outside. Beyond that are the shapes of dark elm trees. Gradually the form of dodge is made out, sitting on the couch, facing the TV, the blue light flickering on his face. He wears a well-worn T-shirt, suspenders, khaki work pants, and brown slippers. He's covered himself in an old brown blanket. He's very thin and sickly looking, in his late seventies. He just stares at the TV. More light fills the stage softly. The sound of light rain. dodge slowly tilts his head back and stares at the ceiling for a while, listening to the rain. He lowers his head again and stares at the TV. He starts to cough slowly and softly. The coughing gradually builds. He holds one hand to his mouth and tries to stifle it. The coughing gets louder, then suddenly stops when he hears the sound of his wife's voice coming from the top of the staircase. HALIE'S VOICE: Dodge? (DODGE just stares at the TV. Long pause. He stifles two short coughs.) Dodge! You want a pill, Dodge? (He doesn't answer. Takes a bottle out from under a cushion of the sofa and takes a long swig. Puts the bottle back, stares at the TV, pulls the blanket up around his neck.) You know what it is, don't you? It's the rain! Weather. That's it. Every time. Every time you get like this, it's the rain. No sooner does the rain start than you start. (Pause.) Dodge? (He makes no reply. Pulls a pack of cigarettes out from his sweater and lights one. Stares at the TV. Pause.) You should see it coming down up here. Just coming down in sheets. Blue sheets. The bridge is pretty near flooded. What's it like down there? Dodge? (DODGE turns his head back over his left shoulder and takes a look out through the porch. He turns back to the TV.) DODGE: (To himself.) Catastrophic. HALIE'S VOICE: What? What'd you say, Dodge? DODGE: (Louder.) It looks like rain to me! Plain old rain! HALIE'S VOICE: Rain? Of course it's rain! Are you having a seizure or something! Dodge? (Pause.) I'm coming down there in about five minutes if you don't answer me! DODGE: Don't come down. HALIE'S VOICE: What! DODGE: (Louder.) Don't come down! (He has another coughing attack. Stops.) HALIE'S VOICE: You should take a pill for that! I don't see why you just don't take a pill. Be done with it once and for all. Put a stop to it. (He takes the bottle out again. Another swig. Returns the bottle.) It's not Christian, but it works. It's not necessarily Christian, that is. A pill. We don't know. We're not in a position to answer something like that. There's some things the ministers can't even answer. I, personally, can't see anything wrong with it. A pill. Pain is pain. Pure and simple. Suffering is a different matter. That's entirely different. A pill seems as good an answer as any. Dodge? (Pause.) Dodge, are you watching baseball? DODGE: No. HALIE'S VOICE: What? DODGE: (Louder.) No! I'm not watching baseball. HALIE'S VOICE: What're you watching? You shouldn't be watching anything that'll get you excited! DODGE: Nothing gets me excited. HALIE'S VOICE: No horse racing! DODGE: They don't race here on Sundays. HALIE'S VOICE: What? DODGE: (Louder.) They don't race on Sundays! HALIE'S VOICE: Well, they shouldn't race on Sundays. The Sabbath. DODGE: Well, they don't! Not here anyway. The boondocks. HALIE'S VOICE: Good. I'm amazed they still have that kind of legislation. Some semblance of morality. That's amazing. DODGE: Yeah, it's amazing. HALIE'S VOICE: What? DODGE: (Louder.) It is amazing! HALIE'S VOICE: It is. It truly is. I would've thought these days they'd be racing on Christmas even. A big flashing Christmas tree right down at the finish line. DODGE: (Shakes his head.) No. Not yet. HALIE'S VOICE: They used to race on New Year's! I remember that. DODGE: They never raced on New Year's! HALIE'S VOICE: Sometimes they did. DODGE: They never did! HALIE'S VOICE: Before we were married they did! DODGE: "Before we were married." (DODGE waves his hand in disgust at the staircase. Leans back in sofa. Stares at TV.) HALIE'S VOICE: I went once. With a man. On New Year's. DODGE: (Mimicking her.) Oh, a "man." HALIE'S VOICE: What? DODGE: Nothing! HALIE'S VOICE: A wonderful man. A breeder. DODGE: A what? HALIE'S VOICE: A breeder! A horse breeder! Thoroughbreds. DODGE: Oh, thoroughbreds. Wonderful. You betcha. A breeder-man. HALIE'S VOICE: That's right. He knew everything there was to know. DODGE: I bet he taught you a thing or two, huh? Gave you a good turn around the old stable! HALIE'S VOICE: Knew everything there was to know about horses. We won bookoos of money that day. DODGE: What? HALIE'S VOICE: Money! We won every race I think. DODGE: Bookoos? HALIE'S VOICE: Every single race. DODGE: Bookoos of money? HALIE'S VOICE: It was one of those kind of days. DODGE: New Year's! HALIE'S VOICE: Yes! It might've been Florida. Or California! One of those two. DODGE: Can I take my pick? HALIE'S VOICE: It was Florida! DODGE: Aha! HALIE'S VOICE: Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! The sun was just gleaming. Flamingos. Bougainvilleas. Palm trees. DODGE: (To himself, mimicking her.) Flamingos. Bougainvilleas. HALIE'S VOICE: Everything was dancing with life! Colors. There were all kinds of people from everywhere. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Not like today. Not like they dress today. People had a sense of style. DODGE: When was this anyway? HALIE'S VOICE: This was long before I knew you. DODGE: Must've been. HALIE'S VOICE: Long before. I was escorted. DODGE: To Florida? HALIE'S VOICE: Yes. Or it might've been California. I'm not sure which. DODGE: All that way you were escorted? halie's voice: Yes. DODGE: And he never laid a finger on you, I suppose? This gentleman breeder-man. (Long silence.) Halie? Are we still in the land of the living? (No answer. Long pause.) HALIE'S VOICE: Are you going out today? DODGE: (Gesturing toward rain.) In this? HALIE'S VOICE: I'm just asking a simple question. DODGE: I rarely go out in the bright sunshine, why would I go out in this? HALIE'S VOICE: I'm just asking because I'm not doing any shopping today. And if you need anything you should ask Tilden. DODGE: Tilden's not here! HALIE'S VOICE: He's in the kitchen. (DODGE looks toward left, then back toward the TV.) DODGE: All right. HALIE'S VOICE: What? DODGE: (Louder.) All right! I'll ask Tilden! HALIE'S VOICE: Don't scream. It'll only get your coughing started. DODGE: Scream? Men don't scream. HALIE'S VOICE: Just tell Tilden what you want and he'll get it. (Pause.) Bradley should be over later. DODGE: Bradley? HALIE'S VOICE: Yes. To cut your hair. DODGE: My hair? I don't need my hair cut! I haven't hardly got any hair left! HALIE'S VOICE: It won't hurt! DODGE: I don't need it! HALIE'S VOICE: It's been more than two weeks, Dodge. DODGE: I don't need it! And I never did need it! HALIE'S VOICE: I have to meet Father Dewis for lunch. DODGE: You tell Bradley that if he shows up here with those clippers, I'll separate him from his manhood! HALIE'S VOICE: I won't be very late. No later than four at the very latest. DODGE: You tell him! Last time he left me near bald! And I wasn't even awake! HALIE'S VOICE: That's not my fault! DODGE: You put him up to it! HALIE'S VOICE: I never did! DODGE: You did too! You had some fancy, idiot house-social planned! Time to dress up the corpse for company! Lower the ears a little! Put up a little front! Surprised you didn't tape a pipe to my mouth while you were at it! That woulda looked nice! Huh? A pipe? Maybe a bowler hat! Maybe a copy of the Wall Street Journal casually placed on my lap! A fat labrador retriever at my feet. HALIE'S VOICE: You always imagine the worst things of people! DODGE: That's the least of the worst! HALIE'S VOICE: I don't need to hear it! All day long I hear things like that and I don't need to hear more. DODGE: You better tell him! HALIE'S VOICE: You tell him yourself! He's your own son. You should be able to talk to your own son. DODGE: Not while I'm sleeping! He cut my hair while I was sleeping! HALIE'S VOICE: Well he won't do it again. DODGE: There's no guarantee. He's a snake, that one. HALIE'S VOICE: I promise he won't do it without your consent. DODGE: (After pause.) There's no reason for him to even come over here. HALIE'S VOICE: He feels responsible. DODGE: For my hair? HALIE'S VOICE: For your appearance. DODGE: My appearance is out of his domain! It's even out of mine! In fact, it's disappeared! I'm an invisible man! HALIE'S VOICE: Don't be ridiculous. DODGE: He better not try it. That's all I've got to say. HALIE'S VOICE: Tilden will watch out for you. DODGE: Tilden won't protect me from Bradley! HALIE'S VOICE: Tilden's the oldest. He'll protect you. DODGE: Tilden can't even protect himself! HALIE'S VOICE: Not so loud! He'll hear you. He's right in the kitchen. DODGE: (Yelling off left.) Tilden! HALIE'S VOICE: Dodge, what are you trying to do? DODGE: (Yelling off left.) Tilden, get your ass in here! HALIE'S VOICE: Why do you enjoy stirring things up? DODGE: I don't enjoy anything! HALIE'S VOICE: That's a terrible thing to say. DODGE: Tilden! HALIE'S VOICE: That's the kind of statement that leads people right to an early grave. DODGE: Tilden! HALIE'S VOICE: It's no wonder people have turned their backs on Jesus! DODGE: TILDEN!! HALIE'S VOICE: It's no wonder the messengers of God's word are shouting louder now than ever before. Screaming to the four winds. DODGE: TILDEN!!!! (DODGE goes into a violent, spasmodic coughing attack as tilden enters from left, his arms loaded with fresh ears of corn. TILDEN is dodge's oldest son, late forties, wears heavy construction boots covered with mud, dark green work pants, a plaid shirt, and a faded brown windbreaker. He has a butch haircut, wet from the rain. Something about him is profoundly burned-out and displaced. He stops center with the ears of corn in his arms and just stares at dodge until he slowly finishes his coughing attack. DODGE looks up at him slowly. DODGE stares at the corn. Long pause as they watch each other.) HALIE'S VOICE: Dodge, if you don't take that pill nobody's going to force you. Least of all me. There's no honor in self-destruction. No honor at all. (The two men ignore the voice.) DODGE: (To TILDEN.) Where'd you get that? TILDEN: Picked it. DODGE: You picked all that? (TILDEN nods.) You expecting company? TILDEN: No. DODGE: Where'd you pick it from? TILDEN: Right out back. DODGE: Out back where?! TILDEN: Right out in back. DODGE: There's nothing out there--in back. TILDEN: There's corn. DODGE: There hasn't been corn out there since about nineteen thirty-five! That's the last time I planted corn out there! TILDEN: It's out there now. DODGE: (Yelling at stairs.) Halie! HALIE'S VOICE: Yes, dear! Have you come to your senses? DODGE: Tilden's brought a whole bunch of sweet corn in here! There's no corn out back, is there? TILDEN: (To himself.) There's tons of corn. HALIE'S VOICE: Not that I know of! DODGE: That's what I thought. HALIE'S VOICE: Not since about nineteen thirty-five! DODGE: (To TILDEN.) That's right. Nineteen thirty-five. That was the last of it. TILDEN: It's out there now. DODGE: You go and take that corn back to wherever you got it from! TILDEN: (After pause, staring at dodge.) It's picked. I picked it all in the rain. Once it's picked you can't put it back. DODGE: I haven't had trouble with the neighbors here for fifty-seven years. I don't even know who the neighbors are! And I don't wanna know! Now go put that corn back where it came from! (TILDEN stares at dodge, then walks slowly over to him and dumps all the corn on dodge's lap and steps back. dodge stares at the corn then back to tilden. Long pause.) Are you having trouble here, Tilden? Are you in some kind of trouble again? TILDEN: I'm not in any trouble. DODGE: You can tell me if you are. I'm still your father. TILDEN: I know that. DODGE: I know you had a little trouble back there in New Mexico. That's why you came out here. Isn't that the reason you came back?

Interview Spring 2006

Mhyana: I can’t think of another poet whose writing is as inextricably linked to his parents and upbringing as yours is. Your parents are absolutely immortalized and mythologized in your poems. We Americans have often been accused of disowning the past in order to affirm the present, as if the past has had no influence on us. European and Asian cultures, however, are more careful to respect their ancestors and influences. Do you think this is why, given your Asian roots, you are more intent upon remembering and giving tribute to your parents than most American writers are? Lee: Jalina, I understand my work to be the same as other poets: to manifest in language the original condition of the archetype of The Speaker, that One who participates in world-creating and world-destroying utterance. Within my limited scope, I understand any poem’s primordial condition to be: poem is made in the image of the psyche that made it; psyche manifests in the image of its maker, call it Nature for simplicity’s sake (that is, psyche exists as an image and aspect of the matrix from which it emerged); Nature is embedded in Cosmos; and Cosmos in turn exists as the image and manifestation of that further ground from which it emerged. These concentric circles of ever-widening groundedness aren’t necessarily the ostensible subject of any poem, but this condition of ever more deeply embedded contexts can be heard in the ringing, the depth, the echoing that poems impart to our souls. Now the challenge for me, therefore, has been to uncover the transpersonal significances of my personal biography, especially in view of so many political, sociological, and historical forces undermining any sense of the value or worth of my own being. My mother’s family suffered persecution for being aristocracy, my father’s family for being not of that class. Later, they suffered for being Communist, then Nationalist. Even later, in Indonesia, they were persecuted for being Chinese, and then for being Christian. Finally, our coming to the U.S. meant being Asians living in a country at war with an Asian country. As far as I was concerned, without a spiritual context, I would all too easily fall into one of two kinds of bankruptcies: the self-image of the victim, the sufferer, the persecuted, or the self-image of the American Dream-achiever, a victim of another sort, tyrannized by materialism and the illusions of materiality. Does this make sense, Jalina? Anyway, I sensed, even in early childhood, an infinitely receding background to my life, a thread reaching through my heritage and beyond it. Like threading the eye of a needle, or several eyes of several needles, in fact, that line up beginning with my heart, running through my parents’ hearts, and on toward God’s own oceanic frequency. Or like Odysseus shooting his arrow through the lined up axe heads. This isn’t just my ambition, Jalina, but what I assume, judging by the poets I love to read, to be the mission of poetry in general. Mhyana: Now that you’ve written at length about your experiences as a child, and your memories of your father, are you interested in turning your attention to writing about your own children, and your experience as a father? How do you feel about bringing your living family into the public domain through publishing – is it a violation of their privacy, or a celebration of your love and entanglement? Lee: Poems about my family are, I hope, recognitions and celebration and acknowledgement of our participation in deep connectedness and belonging. “Love and entanglement,” you say so beautifully. Mhyana: Have you been able to read your poems to your mother in Chinese, and if so, what poem do you think was her favorite, and why? Lee: I have not ever had the courage to read any poem to my mother. She has asked others to translate them for her (my sister, say, or an aunt who is bilingual), but never in front of me. She has on occasion asked me, to my surprise and embarrassment, about particular poems. I usually respond, out of some habit, with something like, “Who knows what I meant, it’s all gibberish anyway. I was just fooling around.” Now that I’m thinking about it because I’m trying to answer your question, I sense there is something insufficient about my response to her, something hidden about the way I go about writing poems, at least in regards to my mother. Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that a poem is a “kind of divination”, a mirror of who you are on any particular day. What this leads to is collections of poems that are as disparate and complex as our moods – a wild eclecticism that seems to be more and more frowned upon in book contests. Seeing as “first book” contests are the main avenue to publication for new writers, is it inevitable that these fresh voices will be tailored, snipped, and homogenized to better their chances of being chosen by judges who seem to be favoring more thematic manuscripts? Do you encourage this, or do you think that a collection is more human for its diversity of tone, subject, and feeling? Lee: I’m going to make the presumption that your questions are a form of statement, and I’ll say: I’m with you. Mhyana: You’ve mentioned that the sort of poets you’re drawn to at poetry readings are the ones with extraordinary “inner richness” or sense of universal wholeness - poets who are able to reveal you to yourself, rather than revealing themselves to you. What is it about a poet that conveys this richness to you the most - their words, voice, carriage, magnetism? Would it be possible for a person to read another poet’s work and still get that feeling across, or is it limited to the poem’s creator? What if a poet’s words were revelatory on paper, but the poet stuttered and hacked his or her way through the reading? Would that feeling of connection still be there for you? Lee: I guess I think that reading poetry out loud is an art form all by itself. It is its own medium and, as such, has its own laws and possibilities, different from silent reading to oneself. Some poets write good poems and also channel poems out loud very well. Some poets are better at one or the other. Channeling poems out loud (giving poetry readings), for me anyway, enacts a kind of service not entirely unlike the service poems provide. That is, if successful, a poetry reading can create the zikr or zakhor, that remembrance of our primordial condition of embeddedness in God-head, which certain ancient poetic communities practiced. Mhyana: Speaking of that, I’m familiar with your theory of the “dying breath” (that our bodies are strengthened and revitalized by the incoming breath and conversely weakened by the outgoing, or dying, breath). In order to speak, we must speak upon exhalation – the dying breath. You’ve said that poetry involves this dying breath, because it is meant to be spoken. It is a verbal art-form, and when spoken aloud, the poem becomes one with your body, it becomes more real. But I have to ask you, what about people who are socially phobic, or people who, for whatever reason, are averse to reading their work aloud? Does the dying breath come into play when a poem is read silently? Lee: The dying breath absolutely comes into play when we read in silence, since the breathing we usually call breathing (respiration) is only the most obvious kind of breath exchange known to us, others including exchanges on such deep levels that the only word some ancient practitioners could think of to describe it was dialogue. Dialogue itself is a kind of breathing, in-going and out-going proceeding not only in words and the breath that carries them, but also soul exchanging with soul. The breathing that goes on in reading, even in silence, the in-coming and going-out-to-meet, is enacted on the physical realm in our respiration. Perception itself is recognized in ancient yogic traditions as breathing, obeying much of the same laws. Breathing itself is perception. I hope I make sense. None of these ideas are original to me. And they’re not just ideas, but experiences we have every day, consciously or not. Shy people who write great poems should never feel compelled to have to read them out loud. Those who feel called to read poems out loud probably should not refuse. Remember all the stories about prophets refusing their call and bringing bad luck to everyone around? But then, the same could be said about people who are not called but who belabor us with drivel. Am I being mean?

Tim Conley on Jeanette Winterson

When Jeanette Winterson was asked (so the story goes) by a British newspaper questionnaire distributed among the nation's writers, whom she considered to be the greatest living prose stylist in English, her answer was unequivocal: Jeanette Winterson. Such boldness, such arrogance, which from the six-barrel pen of a Norman Mailer might have been acceptable and even considered flavourful, was not expected from a British writer, let alone a British woman. It could be argued that this and other, similar gestures, faithful as they are to those of Winterson's heroes, Byron and Gertrude Stein, prompted the London literati to revoke the status of darling they had been preparing for her. It is too easy to label, and Winterson (in essay and in fiction) resists the confines implied in the rubber stamps of "feminist", "lesbian" and "postmodern," in spite of the persistence with which pundits apply them. The first stamp is evidenced by the shock-value coverage certain breeds of journalism cannot resist giving her (a sleazy article by one implausibly named Flammetta Rocco in the February 1995 issue of Vanity Fair spends a good deal of column space pondering Winterson's love life), and she bristles against the treatment in her essay, "The Semiotics of Sex" (in Art Objects): What you fuck is more important than how you write. This may be because reading takes more effort than sex. . . . No one asks Iris Murdoch about her sex life. Every interviewer I meet asks me about mine and what they do not ask they invent. I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write. Born in 1959, adopted and raised in the small English town of Accrington by Pentecostal Evangelists, Winterson's maturation was constituted by an intense struggle between conflicting conceptions of sexuality, divinity, and literature. Much of these experiences was eventually fuel for the fire of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), which won the Whitbread Award for First Novel and much praise and admiration. "Small bookshops and word of mouth were the start of my career," she notes in her 1991 introduction to the novel. The stern religious upbringing which gave her an addict's first taste of rhetoric -- she was delivering public sermons at a remarkably young age -- by the same token denied her (where it could) her explorations into other kinds of passion. One of these is clearly fiction itself. "I'm telling you stories," runs the narrative mantra of Winterson's frankly titled novel The Passion (1987). "Trust me." There is a strong current of faith in her work for her work. As desperate and despairing as she draws her characters, Winterson is no catastrophist; her writing does not ultimately drain into the postmodern mise-en-abyme, like that of so many others. In a 1994 interview, she does reject "what I think the Americans call 'closure'", but refers to herself as "irrepressibly hopeful." She goes on to add, Also irrepressibly happy, in spite of it all, which doesn't mean to say that I'm either complacent or indifferent. I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honourable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn't believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you have to look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that. After Oranges the "comic book" (and probably her least interesting book) Boating for Beginners (1985) further displayed Winterson's capacity for irreverence, which seems to be the stylistic saving grace from the conspicuous perils of the author's often archly moral tone. The passionate Winterson oversees with fear and indignation the modern world's great flood of gross materialism, banality and apathy (the empty contrary of passion). Art & Lies (1994), subtitled A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd, is surely her most polemic fiction. Ironically assuming the mantle of Sappho, the poet whose sexual celebrity has endured while her poems have been forgotten, Winterson repeatedly kicks against the pricks: The spirit has gone out of the world. I fear the dead bodies settling around me, the corpses of humanity, fly-blown and ragged. I fear the executive zombies, the shop zombies, the Church zombies, the writerly zombies, all mouthing platitudes, the language of the dead, all mistaking hobbies for passions, the folly of the dead. The quixotic joust between the legitimacies of the respective realities of the imagination ("Art") and of life ("Lies") is ever in her work. Novels such as The Passion (winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) and Sexing the Cherry (1989, winner of the E. M. Forster Award), as well as several of the short stories gathered in The World and Other Places (1998) flirt with fantasy, match fairy tales and labyrinthine cities against recognizable historical backgrounds, swim through what has been variously called magic realism and historiographic metafiction. Art & Lies is declarative and unapologetic: "There's no such thing as autobiography there's only art and lies." From its very title onward, Gut Symmetries presents different conceptions of reality and universality in dramatic relation to each other, within the story of a marriage and an adultery. What gives a better picture of the universe, a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) or a gut feeling? And then there's love. "Why is the measure of love loss?" asks the opening sentence of Written on the Body (1992), perhaps Winterson's most violently expressive novel. This question provokes no straight answer (a pun which might as well be intended), but rather a ruminative, unapologetic introspection on the subject of love's uneasiness: "Love demands expression. It will not stay still, stay silent, be good, be modest, be seen and not heard, no. It will break out in tongues of praise, the high note that smashes the glass and spills the liquid." The first-person narrator is something of a Lothario-under-deconstruction, someone of unspecified sex who reveals in a slowly building collage of anecdotes to have had a variety of amorous experience with members of both. This is a very moving and meditative book. Although she has a pronounced love of the literary, Winterson does make use of other media. She has written two screenplays, one a popular television adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the other entitled Great Moments in Aviation (she has confessed, "My interest in working for film and television is inevitably evangelical"), and recently she has begun to explore the potential of the Internet. When Winterson launched a legal battle with a "Cambridge spiv" who sought to claim many authors' names as domains for sites and then sell the rights to those authors for a percentage of their sales, she recognized the importance of adapting her aesthetics and artist's persona -- fast. The precedent-making victory led to her construction of a Web site (see below) and she has stated her intention "to produce both standard e-books, that is digital text, and enhanced e-books, with pictures, music, choices, links. But I am at the beginning of all this because it hasn’t been done before. That's exciting but I bet my stuff will look really creaky in a few years, like the first steam iron." The PowerBook (2000), Winterson’s most recent novel, is a diffuse set of conjectures on the changes in identity and storytelling the electronic screen provokes. A narrator sometimes known as Ali (Arabian Nights meets Lewis Carroll's Alice, I think) repeats and alters a cycle of stories about tulips, mountaineering, adopted parents, the virtual world, and centrally, love affairs: "the plain texts of our hearts." So, the story so far: eight novels, one collection of essays (Art Objects, 1995), one collection of short stories. True devotees and collectors must look hard to find either Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well (1986), Winterson's fitness counsel, or the especially rare architectural study, The Dreaming House (1998). And of course, there is some savour to expectation – that she will indeed "go on adding to that."

Review of Whitney Retrospective

Many things fly and float in “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005” at the Whitney Museum of American Art: men and women, harpies and angels, birds and beasts, mushrooms and stars. And some things fall to earth, or rather to the museum’s black stone floors, maybe to rise again, maybe not. The whole show, a midcareer retrospective of Ms. Smith’s art, put me in mind of a Victorian fairy tale. The tone is at once light and grievous; dreamlike dramas recur. There are miracles and martyrdoms, bursts of cruelty and hilarity. In a kind of boomerang karma, humans merge with animals, and animals have spiritual lives. Crystal tears pile up in corners; bones and worms are served up for meals. Fanciful as it is, Ms. Smith’s art is also deeply, corporeally realistic. Step off the elevator on the Whitney’s third floor, and you’re in a wonderland version of a pathology lab. Empty glass jars carry the names of bodily fluids they are meant to hold: urine, sweat, saliva, mucus, milk, semen. A rib cage hangs on the wall near sets of internal organs. What looks like a flayed skin sits folded on a pedestal. Each item has a freakish beauty. The ribs, cast in pale terracotta and held together by string, suggest chimes. The organs — male and female urogenital systems — are of a prettily patinated bronze. The folded skin looks plush and warm; it is made from panels of sheep’s wool stitched together with human hairs. Most of this work dates from the mid-1980s, when Ms. Smith had been making art for only a few years. Born in 1954, a daughter of the abstract sculptor Tony Smith, she was raised in suburban New Jersey, went to Roman Catholic schools and didn’t consider art as a profession. As a child she wanted to be a nun. Before and after moving to Manhattan in 1976 she worked as a cook, an electrician, a surveyor, an emergency medical technician and an artist’s assistant. Around the time of her father’s death in 1980 she picked up art herself in a serious way. She has not put it down for an instant. She was largely self-taught and, obviously, fully self-aware. She paid attention to what others were doing, learning a lot from the work of artists like Eva Hesse, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Paul Thek, Hannah Wilke and Louise Bourgeois, as well as from her contemporaries in a fringy Lower East Side art world. She sought technical instruction wherever she could find it and learned as she went. A collaborator and multitasker by temperament, she covered a lot of ground fast. That first gallery at the Whitney encompasses metal, plaster and glass sculpture, drawing, sewing and printmaking. She quickly added painting, photography, bookmaking and filmmaking to her repertory. From the start her art was of a piece with her life, without being diaristic. The mid-’80s internal organs, and the full-body forms that followed, had sources in her childhood religion, with its cult of relics and fleshly mortification, and sensual saints like Angela de Foligno, who envisioned Jesus showing her his wounds and whispering, “Lella, these are all for you.” The work was also the product of a specific social and political moment that saw the rise and spread of AIDS. One of Ms. Smith’s two sisters, Beatrice, died of the disease. So did many of her friends. And its trace, while rarely explicit, is omnipresent in the first two galleries of the show. The second and larger of them is a landscape of physical damage. A female figure made of tissuelike paper hangs from the ceiling, her limbs torn or amputated. A man and woman, cast in beeswax, leaking fluids, unconscious, probably dead, are suspended from metal stands like carcasses readied for butchering. Figures of women crouch on the floor or double over on the wall. One with the flawless face of a classical Aphrodite has wounds, like claw marks, gouged into her back. A standing woman, arms open at her side, is more than just unclothed; she’s stripped of her skin, leaving her tissues and muscles exposed. Titled “Virgin Mary” (1992), she brings one phase of Ms. Smith’s career to a close, while a bronze Mary Magdalene, dated two years later, opens another. This Magdalene is modeled on Donatello’s famous penitent dressed in animal pelts. But Ms. Smith’s feral saint has fur of her own, growing all over her body, as if she were half wolf. The natural world was Ms. Smith’s dominant subject in the late 1990s, when she was immersed in printmaking and in studying taxidermic specimens. A wall-size etching of animals — a wolf, a deer, a cat, a peacock — done in silvery lines on black ground is a centerpiece of this part of the show, along with a Morris Gravesian print of a bird skeleton. Affixed to the opposite wall are bronze casts of the bodies of dozens of small birds looking like tiny mummies, heads aimed skyward. Much of the rest of the exhibition — organized by Siri Engberg, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and installed at the Whitney by David W. Kiehl — tends in that aspiring direction, with a pair of big gold moons painted on glass, a small plaster sculpture of the biblical Eve with arm raised and cast stars placed high on gallery walls. Yet Ms. Smith is not a true celestialist. Her art is far too deliberate, struggled with, and materialist for that. And this is not a mystical show. In the last gallery a bronze sculpture titled “Rapture” (2001) of a life-size nude woman, scowling, exhausted, not young, stepping from the ripped-open belly of a wolf, is more about rupture than about ecstasy. It is creepy-miraculous, pathological-fantastical, in the spirit of the 1980s work at the beginning of the show. Ms. Smith would do well to have her art retain some of this charge of uncertain disturbance as she works away from the abject intensities of her early work. Recently, she has been diving into art history — Egyptian and Buddhist sculptures, Victorian illustration, the 15th-century Flemish altarpieces of Hugo van der Goes, the modernist sculptures of Degas, Medardo Rosso and Elie Nadelman — subtly, even sweetly, inflecting what she finds as she makes the past her own. Too subtly and sweetly for some tastes. In an interview, she has said that in the 1980s she deliberately played with and pushed forward certain unmentionables in American culture: personal mortality, bodily decay, the brutality of dissolution. And now she wants to play with an art-world unmentionable: sentimentality. And this is what she seems to be doing in her current Victoriana, with its portraits of Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, illustrations for Lewis Carroll and riffs on Gustave Doré. Even with a New Sincerity in vogue in art, this is a tricky terrain to navigate, and could lead people to see her work as arch or slight. I understand such a reaction. The first thing I thought when I saw “Rapture” in photographs was “kitsch.” But when I saw it in the context of the show and her career, many other thoughts came to mind, including words that the poet Audre Lorde wrote just after she had a breast removed as a result of cancer: “Maybe this is the chance to live and speak those things I really do believe, that power comes from moving into whatever I fear most that cannot be avoided. But will I ever be strong enough again to open my mouth and not have a cry of raw pain leap out?” For some reason, for me “Rapture” evoked Lorde’s struggle, and seemed a positive answer to her question. Ms. Smith’s art is just that kind of art. Even with its increasing smoothness, it wears moral seriousness on its sleeve, if not tattooed to its wrist. This is not a fashionable style; for much of the art world it never has been. And maybe that’s why, more and more, her art seems to occupy a universe of its own, a floating world where art, like religion, is both high and low, gross and fine, and always about the only essential things.