Touching Egypt: Art Accessibility

*Recently Artsy reached out and reminded me of this article (written last August) and the importance of art accessibility. Also, I should note that things are continually improving, as exemplified by my friend Claire Kearney-Volpe who offered a Co-Lab through the NYU Accessibility Project, to help Cooper Hewitt bring art accessibility to their design museum*

“You can’t touch the artifact!” said a female voice in an urgent museum whisper. In fact we’d been directed to the pieces in The Met’s Egyptian collection that are touchable by blind patrons by another museum guard, who clearly had great love of his job generally, and this aspect of it in particular. He shushed his alarmed colleague and explained to her about art accessibility. You’d think all the guards working the Egyptian wing would be informed of this unique aspect, or at least that they would have looked at the exhibits they were guarding over and learned what the signs clearly state, but people don’t read.

My boyfriend Alabaster told me that several people stood staring aghast during the course of our tour, and that one woman nearly screamed when she saw me with my hands on a sarcophagus until her husband pointed out the braille title card and the printed sign explaining that the object may be touched by BLIND PATRONS ONLY to enhance their museum experience.

You may be jealous and confused, but don’t be! Out of the approximately 26,000 artifacts in the Egyptian collection, only a handful may be touched. The rest must be explained verbally, which is just not the same thing.

I have been on several “sense” tours at NYC museums over the years and, while I appreciate the impulse, it often feels like they are phoning them in in order to check the accessibility box. Take for example a sense tour at The Met wherein our tour guide described almost every object as “very colorful.” Or the time at MOMA, when, at the top of a tour of Soundings, an exhibit of contemporary sound art–perfect for blind people right?–we found ourselves sitting on portable stools in front of a silent piece–the only silent piece of the exhibit–with a tour guide who, in an effort to encourage us to commune with the art, sat on the floor with her back to us and began to meditate.

I haven’t a very long fuse for the unbearable and soon I was fuming, not the least because I could hear the happy buzzing and whirring and chattering of a dozen or so other pieces–and as you may have noticed I like soundscapes a lot! Still, I felt somehow guilty for not appreciating the effort, so instead of having a tantrum, I handed my headset to the tour coordinator, claiming a terrible back spasm, and Alabaster and I got out of there to enjoy the museum in our own way.

He described in great detail some of his favorites–Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian –and I was able to ask questions when I didn’t understand. Even though I used to see and can readily access visual memories, I find it difficult to assemble descriptions into an art object visible to my mind’s eye. But, with great effort, enthusiasm and empathy on the side of the describer, and intense and artistic concentration on the side of the listener, it can happen that a heretofore-unseen object can manifest in the mind’s eye and occupy mental space as vividly as any object once-seen. As with all translations, this one is not perfect but it is wonderful.

Friends of ours with a similar dynamic–Caroline (visually impaired) and David (sighted)–went to Paris and were delighted to find that all museums were free for blind people. It made so much sense that this should be the case, since, really to get anything out of the museum experience, only a few objects can be described and integrated at a given visit. There are no cursory glances for blind people. All must be savored and chewed slowly if it’s to make any impact, and so what might take a sighted museum-goer a single trip to see, could take several for a blind person and her trusty describer.

Godin presents crushed lockers at the Whitney MuseumBack in the states, it never hurts to ask about art accessibility. At the Whitney, we were pleasantly surprised when, upon asking if there’s a discount for blind patrons, we received the good news that it would be free for me–whether this was policy or not was unclear, but it was nonetheless welcome and, in addition to having a fine time talking through the art, with many articulate gestures on the one hand and far-flung questions and analogies on the other, we apparently attracted attention. More than once, Alabaster caught strangers filming or photographing us.

Which brings us back to our Met tour on Saturday in which I was able to touch Ancient Egypt. It was really cool to feel the mane of the lion goddess, and squeeze the nose of a king’s sarcophagus, but my favorite part of the tour, and the reason it far surpassed the tour the Met organized a couple years back of the very same objects, was spending time reading the hieroglyphs with the help of our personal Egyptologist (and voiceover artist extraordinaire), Lloyd Floyd.

Before we learned which artifacts I could touch, we started the tour at a colossus where Lloyd Floyd described the pharaoh’s many titles, spelled out in hieroglyphs, and I found it difficult to concentrate, but later, with my hands on the hieroglyphs, the meanings that he explained corresponded to a sense impression–just as you, my dear sighted reader, may take information in through your sense of sight while listening to information regarding that description.

I realized how incredibly enlightening it was to hear what the signs meant when I was not splitting my brains trying to keep the image just described in my head at the same time as incorporating information about the object described. In other words, incorporating two abstract concepts into my poor pickled brain at the same time is exponentially harder than incorporating one abstract and one concrete–or in this case granite!

That’s not to say that, as mentioned above, it is not wonderful to receive a description of an art object, but it takes a long time, and when the description of what is seen comes at you alongside esoteric context, the brain easily boggles! However, with my hand on the hieroglyph my ear became very attentive. Besides, feeling the shapes and being able to participate in the discussion of whether the thing under my fingers, and their gaze, represented, as the archaeologists claim, a horned viper or, as our senses suggested, a slug, was a precious moment, not to be underestimated.

Not all museum pieces are made of virtually indestructible granite, but there are other ways of creating environments of art accessibility. Through models and replicas and many other ingenious tactile analogies as described in an article at Art Beyond Sight. Mentioned in that article is a brief warning to be careful not to make the experiences segregated:

“Some museums offer visitors in-depth tactile investigation of selected works, Godin experiences art accessibility at The Metfrequently in an alternate space. It is crucial that this not become a “segregated” program, but rather a supplementary educational approach to gallery programming.”

I agree with this, and believe the experience of others to my even being in a museum makes the whole experience educational in a multi-faceted and fun way–nothing like freaking out sighted people on a Saturday afternoon at The Met!

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Winter Wonder Maze: My first week without a home of my own and blind

I wish I could claim “winter wonder maze” as my own term for Alabaster‘s mother’s incredible Xmas installation–involving 42 trees, countless elves, Santas, snow babies (little snow men), thousands of feet of garlands, lights, a train set, and whole mountain ranges of glistening cotton snow, but I can’t. It was he, with whom I set out vagabonding, that comforted me with the coinage.

Winter village with train set in front of TV playing scary movie with closed caption, "We're gonna come find you. I promise."

I had been struggling with my inability to navigate the path to the kitchen which cuts through the living room–the nexus of Xmas décor–not only because there are so many obstacles but also because in order to do so one must pass between the watchers of the giant TV and the TV itself. Moving slowly and uncertainly as I do, prolongs my status as obstruction on the one hand and moving picture of interest on the other. I told Alabaster that I could not bring myself to do it. He reminded me that it would be easier when the Winter Wonder Maze came down. But that will not be until January 2.

It was Alabaster also who, when I apologized for not being more present because I was concentrating so hard on just getting around the house, made the connection between what I am experiencing and John Hull’s struggle in Notes on Blindness, which we saw last month at Film Forum.

Towards the end of the film, Hull and his wife and kids travelled from England to Australia to spend time with his parents. He had not been seen by them since the final calamity struck in England, and their shock and awkwardness regarding their adult blind son combined with his feelings of incompetence in an unfamiliar place, made the visit one that was uncomfortable physically and psychologically, gladly left behind and never to be reenacted. In the film, the trip to Australia represents a climax of struggle for John Hull, after which Hull experiences such a sense of relief that it leads him to his ultimate acceptance–almost embrace–of his blindness.

It’s true that I, like Hull, feel a little helpless and useless in this unfamiliar environment, but it is different insofar as Alabaster’s parents only know me as a blind person, and seem mostly curious and accepting. On our first full day here, his mom took me on a touch tour of the house so that I could feel the elves and Santas and trains and villages with church steeples set in snow. The biggest obstacle to my comfort is that I’m really bad at being a blind person. While I feel ok stepping slowly around the several Xmas trees and candle-laden tables in the basement living area to get from the couch where I sit writing to the bathroom, I prefer it if no one is watching me play this very unexhilarating game of pinball.

Once alabaster’s dad came downstairs just as I hit the couch on the far side near the bathroom, but on the wrong side. So with him looking on, I had to negotiate around the couch, Xmas tree number 33, hit the glass cabinet (gently and as a comforting reference point) to slide into the bathroom with a sigh on my side, and some little congratulatory remark on his.

Godin in red, hand on hip, standing in front of winter wonder mountain village on top of mantle.

I work hard to do my slow bumbling thing out of the sight of others, which is why traversing the path of the TV and train room to the kitchen is unbearable, and I generally hop on the Alabaster train. This is not necessarily less embarrassing than going it solo, but simply gets it over with quicker.

Other parts of the sprawling house are easier to traverse because they are less spectacle inducing, though it must be said that the architect was stingy with right angles. The stairs into the basement living room where we work ascend towards the front door so that it is just a matter of turning the corner to the left to slip down the crooked little hallway to our bedroom on the main floor. Well maybe not so easy, for there are several fickle Christmas wreathes extending from the wall like the human-arm candelabra holders in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.

When we first visited a year and a half ago, it was springtime. If I wanted to get to the upstairs living room or kitchen I would follow the ungarlanded rail guarding the stairway and hit my comfy chair to sit and experience TV with one ear and listen to social media with the other. Or, I could turn right at the end of the railing, following the path of the mantle, into the dining room (which in other seasons is decked out in a nautical theme) and continue on into the kitchen, thereby avoiding the whole discomforting road between the couch and the TV. Unfortunately, that path is closed to me until the snow melts.

I guess this all begs the question why I’ve put myself in this position. Why have I left my comfortable Astoria apartment where I’d been shuffling from room to room for nearly 17 years, for parts unknown? Our plan is to be hobo artists for a year and then settle somewhere–maybe back to NYC, but probably not. And although I could not imagine taking this trip by myself at this point in my life (both for practical reasons as well as reasons of the heart), the experience is, by design, unsettling. A learning experience. Will I succeed in feeling more comfortable moving through the world as a blind person at the end of it? Will I be better at it? I don’t know.

The fact is that I never imagined staying in that Astoria apartment for so many years. I did not even imagine staying in New York for that long. When I arrived in New York to attend grad school, I had academic stars in my eyes. I thought I’d continue to move east for a while, slipping into some professorial path that involved feeling at home in many cities of the world. I’d already moved from my home in San Francisco to New Orleans to New York, and forayed to Paris during my first two summers in grad school, but then the adventure–at least as a forward moving trajectory–stopped.

Many factors changed my destiny and my mindset: my distractibility, my blindness, my ambitions, academia, downtown performance, karate (specifically a talent show night that put being a comedian into my head!), and a feeling that academia was not exactly what I had wanted when I was a kid, but seemed the most likely.

Strange to say that the ADA has done great things with education regarding blind people since 1990, but less in what is possible after school. Getting a college degree and continuing onto grad school seemed the least resistant, most doable path for me.

Blindness forced a desire for comfort and stability that was not in my nature. When I was a visually impaired teenager, my biggest fear regarding the high probability of future blindness was a loss of independence. These days I’m not so independent physically, but my mind feels quite free.

Although I did not pursue a career in academia, the mission remains the same: to think expansively about blindness as both a physical experience and a metaphorical  construct that is in dialogue with some of our most fundamental conceptions of humanness. From my dissertation to my short-lived standup endeavor                                                                                 , my solo show to this article, I attempt to expose and collapse distinctions between these two ways of thinking about blindness, to trouble the waters between the literally blind and the figuratively blind, seriously and with humor.

But how can I continue to fulfill this life’s work if I close myself up to the world? I think the comfort of living in the same place for so long made me less open to humanity in all its particulars. So I’m out here in the wilds of Colorado, not yet having an adventure in the ordinary sense, but priming myself for it.

winter wonder maze view from front door, including  descending stairs , with garlanded  rail and Christmas lights extending into the distance.

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Distillation Installation: With All Four Senses and Remembered Sight

Godin with head at Stravinsky's level on braille table top

Seventeen years of living in a three-bedroom Astoria apartment distilled into one art installation: so much lost and gained; so many things dismantled and recreated; so many memories… I lived and worked in every room of that home. Beginning in the front room with my first guide dog and the boyfriend whose munificence allowed me to remain long after us, to the back room where I came into being as a blind person and an artist. Once I looked out the window to fire escape and cherry tree, the identical buildings across the yards, but, upon my departure, I saw only a pixilated rectangle of light.

I last moved towards that window to open the curtains for Stravinsky, a creeping pothos (Epipremnum aureum) I bought to commemorate the untimely death of my second guide dog Igor. Igor’s poem, To Stravinsky, ensured that his plant spirit would occupy the living center of Distillation Installation. Also his small relics made into a piece whose description sounded, “Glue on memories.” (I audio labelled title and description cards with my PenFriend, dots that speak with my voice when touched with tip, analogue/digital magic!)

Finally, in later years, I came to rest in the dark corner room, dubbed the bat cave. Its purple walls with a genie providing pulsating light and smellscape in the last days, days when future was uncertain about everything except the important things: art and love, love and art, warm stability with our two hearts knocking out a stronger beat, keeping up the simple hard tune, “desire is suffering, desire is suffering, desire is suffering…”

So much potential had to be tossed. Braille books and maps, fabrics that wanted sewing, yarn that wanted knitting, paints that wanted painting–so many things collected and hoarded in the late stages of dissertation-that-wanted-writing. Throwing so many things out seemed so sad–so much potential lost that I conceived making an installation out of some precious drops of it. for months, I put things that might be of value in one corner and made bags for the street scavengers to pick through and utilize, minimizing landfill.

Godin with her hand sewn dresses hanging high.

I’d decided years ago that I had enough clothes and began repurposing. Too many things in the world. Too much crap. I kept ahold of my crap so that I would not be so tempted to buy new crap. With that in mind I first put fringe on deconstructed sweater and kept on with my refashioning old things into new by hand sewing. But of course, there are always things to buy that are not clothes–technology and musical instruments–and I can’t make shoes…

Distillation Installation manifested in the once-living room, the home’s center, with tin ceiling painted over long before I arrived. As I worked, around me as I sorted, discarded and built, its cracked paint fell about me in apocalyptic chips.

The braille blinds were the first part of the installation. “See ya later world,” I thought as I sewed double-pages of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde braille book together, and lay them in cascading strips from the wrought iron double bar curtain rods bought in the early years of domesticity.

Then began the odoriferous papier-mâché experimentations. If I’d had a budget I would have invested much more heavily on smells, because flour takes a scent, is cheap, and good for sticking odd things together (pink taffeta on shovel) and mummifying others (drum music on accordion), but aromatic distillats, the cells of plant matter burst asunder to capture their aromas in oil or water, are rightly expensive. In the end, I could not give each piece a signature scent. But the room was scented: eucalyptus (Eucalyptus plenissima) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) bubbled in the ultrasonic diffuser in the Never Be Sorry exhibit, and in the corner under Prague Castle, a fan diffuser blew sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) and black spruce (Picea mariana), while the hanging braille cranes were lovingly spritzed with orange blossom water from the bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium).

Godin tilting sunglasses at hanging braille origami cranes.

My origami braille cranes–not a thousand as planned, but a lot–hung from wire hangers suspended on the five blades of the dusty ceiling fan with three colored lights–blue red green–in the center sockets for a soft organic look.

Beneath sat Stravinsky on his personal braille-mâché tabletop–the last-minute decision that worked well to create small gasps when the curtain opened on the night of the goodbye tours.

I see it all in my mind’s eye and am proud to have done this thing–compensatory vanity! And why not cover over the mirrors (if I can’t look at myself why should anyone else?)–the gilt one sacrificed its mirrorness first, covered over by gold dust and finger paint scrawl, “Never Be Sorry,” another poem-inspired exhibit.

and “by following the scent” near the end–mirror removed from useless vanity, covered and dusted in mist and pink lipstick. Goodbye to the stage and the music and the light. Hello dazzlement and words and another trip in new places. No guilt just a bomb left behind, time tick tocking until another home will be made and destroyed, until the end when I leave all homes for the last time, leaving behind a fine distillation of my experience of the world, overwhelmingly flavored by brilliant hallucinations and this long eye disease my life.

Godin pointing at her self portrait, an abstract finger painted head on a reflector tape wall.

[All images by Geo Geller. Check out our conversation in Distillation Installation HERE!]

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Helen Keller Quotes Explosion

Star of Happiness promotional shot. Godin kneeling in silver and black with loop pedals. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.You kneel on the floor with two loop pedals in front of you. Above you hangs a projected red curtain and an empty spotlight. you say, “Oh, fuck it,” and hit one of the pedals, which causes The Star of Happiness theme song instrumental interlude to play.

“I was born with a degenerative eye disease called…” you hit the loop pedal twice quickly in order to catch “cone-rod dystrophy.”

“This means that, since I was ten years old, I’ve been going very slowly blind. I’ve occupied many positions on the sight/blindness continuum. I’m more blind than sighted now, but it’s not always been like this. Perhaps for you, going blind is the scariest, or at least one of the scariest, things imaginable. For me, thinking about losing another sense, especially hearing, is really scary.

“When I started reading books by and about Helen Keller, I suddenly developed a ringing in my ear. It was likely psychosomatic. (Wouldn’t have been the first psycho symptom I’ve exhibited.) Around that time, I had a dream: I was Helen, in the last years of her life when she was confined to bed by old age illness. We were insensible to sights and sounds As she had almost always been, but now, unable to move, we were deprived of the incessant, impulsive force that had launched her, a crazy deaf blind caterpillar, feelers electrified and electrifying, meteorically into a world that could not get enough of her, and of which she also could not get enough.”

Behind you on the screen, images of Helen from earlier in the show slowly spin around the projected spotlight, then break away.

“Now, after living nearly ninety years of a life that included such varied occupations as…” you pick up “political activist” and “vaudeville performer” into the loop and continue, “and ” after World War II, after America dropped bombs etc., she became an officially sanctioned, unofficial…” you catch up the following into the loop, “ambassador of American peace and good will,” and continue. “Two million Japanese welcomed her when she visited decimated Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They loved her that much!

“but my dream was set in a time past all that, so that I experienced what it would be like to have a sensory existence that extended no farther than the cocoon like bedding in which we were wrapped. Excepting slight tremors and vibrations through the floor, And the occasional touch of an attending hand…” you hit the loop pedal, “THERE WAS NOTHING.”

“However, in the double visioned way dreams sometimes unfold, I was trapped in her immobility with her and seeing her inert body as if it were an out of body experience, without much height or distance. The perspective was split: both inside feeling out and outside looking in.

“The in-body perspective was that of the cornered small animal trembling with the desire to escape, that of the suddenly quadriplegic wishing impotently to die, that of the tongueless victim left alone to tell her tale.

“While the out of body perspective was that of the achingly detached observer, that of the nonsensical buzzing fly, that of the sole audience at a wake. From here, the bed on which we lie, appears, in my mind’s eye, to be a tabula rasa, our body a lumpy virgin landscape.

“But this is my nightmare, not Helen’s. Helen believed that there was an eternal, heavenly, fully sensing body waiting for her to step into after death.”

You hit the pedal and pick up what Helen says, “It gives me a deep, comforting sense that things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal.”

You say, “Now she is the star of happiness to all struggling humanity.”

Helen says, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

You say, “If Helen Keller fell down in the woods would she make a sound?”

Helen says, “I was strong, stubborn, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.”

Helen says, “I am not dumb now.”

You put down the mic and hunch over your workstation on the floor. You feed Helen Keller quotes from one pedal into the other, adding to the increasingly chaotic mix. Above and behind you in the projected visionscape, images likewise become disjointed and frantic.

Helen says, “Every one of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow men, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”

Helen says, “It is not required of every man and woman to do or be something great. Most of us have to be content to take small parts in the drama of life.”

Helen says, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers.”

Helen says, “I really care for nothing in the world but liberty, liberty to grow mentally and spiritually, untrampled by tradition and arbitrary standards.”

Helen says, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”

You hit the loop pedal one final time and the theme song plays its refrain, “Wonderful star of light wonderful star of light wonderful star of light…”

You are done. you look up into the audience, then crawl stage left as if you will exit, but stop at the edge to sit and apparently observe the strangely calm cycling of looping fragments. The soundscape grows louder while the lights, almost imperceptibly, grow brighter, until the stage and the audience are drenched in artificial light.

Crescendo.

Whiteout.

THE END

Star of Happiness promo shot. Godin in silver and black bent over loop pedals on the floor. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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Aroma Victoriana

Often we associate the Victorian Era with a degree of primness that falls helplessly into parody–nowhere better illustrated than in Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)–but as with all eras, the Victorian presents a dark underbelly as well as a laced-up exterior. I shan’t elaborate on the entirety of this dichotomy, but content myself with the extremities of Victorian perfumery, from the nosegay to the nether regions of the civet, and from the ancient coaxing of flowers by enfleurage to the explosive manipulations of chemical compounds.

Let’s start with the era’s namesake, who set the tone for the ladies in her realm and beyond. As the Perfume Society says in a delightful article called The Victorians, From Violet Posies to Va-Va-Voom, “Queen Victoria was ‘not amused’ by plenty of things, including the over-lavish use of fragrance. Anything too ‘sexy’ – along with the use of cosmetics and wearing of make-up – was associated with ‘fallen’ women, prostitutes, those of questionable morals.”

 

Hence, simple fragrances suggesting a single flower such as rose or lily were often preferred (even if the formulas were complex and sometimes, as we shall see, artificial).

 

However, as the Perfume Society goes on to relate, even Queen Victoria enjoyed a racy scent when it was given her: “Creed actually presented Victoria with a surprisingly heady scent, in 1845, ‘Fleurs de Bulgarie’, which she wore throughout her illustrious reign:  a waltz of Bulgarian rose, musk, ambergris and bergamot.”

 

Fleurs de Bulgarie still exists today, though it is unlikely all the ingredients are the same as they once were…

 

Unlike many of its familiar citrus kin, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), is not generally consumed, though its peel gives Earl Grey tea its distinct flavor, and its essential oil offers a bright uplifting scent that has been used extensively in perfumery for centuries. It was a key component of the original Eau de Cologne (1709).

 

As G.W. Septimus Piesse puts it in The Art of Perfumery (1857), “When bergamot is mixed with other essential oils it greatly adds to their richness, and gives a sweetness to spice oils attainable by no other means, and such compounds are much used in the most highly scented soaps. Mixed with rectified spirit in the proportions of about four ounces of bergamot to a gallon, it forms what is called “extract of bergamot,” and in this state is used for the handkerchief.”

 

As we shall see, a great deal of aroma Victoriana went into the hanky, and hence the lasting power of a dearly bought fragrance elevated its value.

 

Our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, writes this of Rose (Rosa damascena, R centifolia): ” This queen of the garden loses not its diadem in the perfuming world.”

 

Rose may be thanked for the development of modern perfumery, as it was likely one of the first materials to be distilled by the Medieval Arab alchemists. The authors of Aromatherapy summarize:

 

“Rosewater purified the mosque, scented gloves, flavored sherbet, and Turkish delight, and was sprinkled on guests from a flask called a gulabdan. Prayer beads made from gum Arabic and rose petals released their scent when handled. … Following the translation of the Western classics into Arabic in the seventh century, Arab alchemists in search of the “quintessence” of plants found it represented in essential oils.”

 

As I discussed in Distill My Heart 2, spirits, whether of alcohol or plant matter, symbolized a pure and incorruptible manifestation of the mundane and corruptible world. Hence, the Medieval alchemists took a great interest in distillation, which crossed the disciplines of perfumery, medicine and booze-making. It is likely that rosewater/oil, along with distillation and Greco-Roman learning, (re)entered Western Europe as one of the many treasures brought back during the Crusades, which in turn sparked the Renaissance.

 

Ambergris is not for the faint-hearted! In his section on “Perfumes of Animal Origin, Septimus Piesse explains that there is still in his time a great debate concerning the origins of these foul-smelling lumps which periodically wash onto shores from Ireland to Japan, but offers this first: “[Ambergris] has been particularly found in the intestines of the spermaceti whale, and most commonly in sickly fish, whence it is supposed to be the cause or effect of the disease.”

 

The stuff is then puked by the whale into the ocean where it floats for a long time and is pickled by the salt water and finally washes ashore.

 

As Wikipedia tells it:

 

“Ambergris occurs as a bile duct secretion of the intestines of the sperm whale and can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast. It is also sometimes found in the abdomens of whales. Because the beaks of giant squids have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the substance is produced by the whale’s gastrointestinal tract to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have eaten. The sperm whale usually vomits these, but if one travels further down the gut, it will be covered in ambergris.”

 

Now that we know what it is, we must ask (with less auspicious results) what clever bloke thought of using the stuff for perfume, for it seems not to smell very nice. In fact, using the assertions of others, Piesse suggests it smells like shit. Literally…

 

“A modern compiler, speaking of ambergris, says, ‘It smells like dried cow-dung.’ Never having smelled this latter substance, we cannot say whether the simile be correct; but we certainly consider that its perfume is most incredibly overrated; nor can we forget that Homberg found that ‘a vessel in which he had made a long digestion of the human fæces had acquired a very strong and perfect smell of ambergris, insomuch that any one would have thought that a great quantity of essence of ambergris had been made in it. The perfume (odor!) was so strong that the vessel was obliged to be moved out of the laboratory.’ (Mem. Acad. Paris, 1711.)”

 

Hence, our friend Septimus includes ambergris in his book not because he uses it himself, but because other perfumers do:

 

“Nevertheless, as ambergris is extensively used as a perfume, in deference to those who admire its odor, we presume that it has to many an agreeable smell.

 

“Like bodies of this kind undergoing a slow decomposition and possessing little volatility, it, when mixed with other very fleeting scents, gives permanence to them on the handkerchief, and for this quality the perfumer esteems it much.

 

“Essence of Ambergris is only kept for mixing; when retailed it has to be sweetened up to the public nose…”

 

The “sweetening” apparently adds rose and vanilla, which make sense, and musk, which does not, as it too derives from the interstices of an animal–from a glandular sack located near the anus of the poor little male musk deer.

 

The animal secretions apparently find their use as fixatives on the hanky:

 

“This perfume has such a lasting odor, that a handkerchief being well perfumed with it, will still retain an odor even after it has been washed.

 

“The fact is, that both musk and ambergris contain a substance which clings pertinaciously to woven fabrics, and not being soluble in weak alkaline lyes, is still found upon the material after passing through the lavatory ordeal.

 

While we’re on the unsavory subject of animal secretions as fixatives, we might as well pay homage also to the harried civet cat whose butt was scraped for its odorous secretion and used similarly to ambergris and musk.

 

Happily, by the end of the Victorian Era, chemistry figured out how to create synthetic fixatives. In 1888, Albert Baur discovered a musk-like odor while attempting to create a more effective form of TNT, and the first synthetic musk blasted into the world of perfumery! As musk is one of the foundational base notes in perfumery, and because today the killing or torturing of animals is no longer tolerated–for cosmetic purposes anyway, synthetic musks are used almost universally in modern fragrance. In this case, I think we can all agree that synthetic trumps all-natural!

 

Septimus Piesse tells us that it was fashionable even in his day to pooh-pooh the use of musk, though “nevertheless, from great experience in one of the largest manufacturing perfumatories in Europe, we are of opinion that the public taste for musk is as great as any perfumer desires,” and he assures his readers that “Those substances containing it always take the preference in ready sale—so long as the vendor takes care to assure his customer ‘that there is no musk in it.'”

 

Besides telling customers that an ingredient that they believe themselves not to like is not present, the Victorian perfumer mangled truth in advertising by creating fragrances named for flowers that are reluctant to give up their scent. For example, “The Parisian perfumers sell a mixture which they call ‘extract of jonquil.’ The plant, however, only plays the part of a godfather to the offspring, giving it its name.” He goes on to give a recipe for this “Jonquil” which includes jasmine, tuberose, vanilla, and fleur d’orange (orange blossom).

 

Likewise Lily perfume is but imitation:

 

“The manufacturing perfumer rejects the advice of the inspired writer, to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ Rich as they are in odor, they are not cultivated for their perfume. If lilies are thrown into oil of sweet almonds, or ben oil, they impart to it their sweet smell; but to obtain anything like fragrance, the infusion must be repeated a dozen times with the same oil, using fresh flowers for each infusion, after standing a day or so. The oil being shaken with an equal quantity of spirit for a week, gives up its odor to the alcohol, and thus extract of lilies may be made. But how it is made is thus…”

 

Septimus Piesse gives a recipe for “Imitation Lily of the Valley which adds rose, cassie and otto of almonds to the fake jonquil recipe. Interestingly, he does not shy from imitations, or from sharing the recipes of deceit.

 

Before leaving you and Aroma Victoriana, I wish to impart a bit of wisdom found in two books separated in time by nearly a hundred and fifty years that convey nearly the same criticism of the historically secretive perfume/fragrance industry.

 

First, I’d like to quote the entirety of the introduction of Perfumes, wherein the case is made for treating fragrance like we do other art forms (in order that perfumes be critiqued and analyzed with all the vigor we do films, books, cuisine, etc.), but I will content myself with this:

 

” the perfume industry, in a hoary, unbroken tradition of self-defeating behavior, has done everything it can to avoid viewing its work as art. Perfume companies do not generally keep archives. They change formulas without telling customers. They discontinue their classics. They lie about contents. They hide the perfumers and art directors responsible. They shill shameless copies of great ideas and hope no one notices. They’ve even withdrawn advertising from magazines that criticized their work.”

 

As the book’s authors suggest, with the help of the internet, where recipes for natural perfumes and critiques of industry standards are the norm, the fragrance industry will (have to) bust out of its dark laboratory and join in on all the scrutiny and exhilaration the public sphere has to offer.

 

I will leave you with our Victorian perfumer, Septimus Piesse, who saw this necessity even back in 1857:

 

“As an art, in England, perfumery has attained little or no distinction. This has arisen from those who follow it as a trade, maintaining a mysterious secrecy about their processes. No manufacture can ever become great or important to the community that is carried on under a veil of mystery.”

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things aromatic and alcoholic*

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