Scheherazade – IX — Ephemera
A vast outer space of feeling, the vacuum of gain and loss, the breathtaking cosmos of memory and all of its twinkling stars of ephemera.
There’s a photograph of me that week I spent in the Maine house dividing up the family photos into two piles, a week spent working my way through our vast collection, trying to be fair in my brother’s absence, to be a good umpire, an honest judge, a wise Solomon splitting our pictorial inheritance down the middle, one nice picture for this pile, one nice picture for that pile.
After a few years of worrying about it at 3AM I finally got myself out to the East Coast to split everything up – like Voldemort distributing his soul into horcruxes, backing everything up for the Apocalypse. My thinking on the split was that there’s no way both our houses are going to burn down the same day and, counting on the reasonable interval between inevitable disasters, my brother and I could always just keep dividing and photocopying what we’ve got, cutting our past lives in half and letting the memories grow back like cemetery earthworms.
This nightmare of a New England barn fire consuming our family photographs would keep me up at night. I would imagine the flames burning the dime-store photo album covers and the plastic liner sheets, then licking at the photos, curling them up on the tongue like red fortune telling fish. I would prop myself up on my pillows, wide-awake now, and I’d picture the volunteer firefighters standing on our front lawn watching the “Macomber” blaze burn itself out. I’d check the 3AM clock radio and imagine the firemen shaking their heads about the faulty alarm and the overgrown access road that blocked the trucks and them mumbling “waan’t to code,” watching the old tinderbox incinerate. “Droy as a matchstick.” I’d see their faces all orange and aglow, their chins raised like firefighters in cautionary insurance advertisements. They’d try to mask their excitement by harping on the out-of-towner’s dereliction.
“Waan’t to code. Blocked the road. Waan’t to code...”
Obviously you can’t tell all that from a photo of a guy in a room sorting pictures but you can imagine it sort of, now that you know the back-story anyway. You certainly can’t see the great school of red fish funneling out of the attic roof into the night sky, sailing off like souls at the end of a weepy science fiction movie, but I could, and the dread got me out there from Seattle to do all the splitting and dividing.
In the picture I’m caught mid-curation in the overcast afternoon light. It’s dark enough that table lamps are on and modestly haloing out in the exposure. Rubber-banded stacks of photos, albums, broken topped shoeboxes, steel boxes for slides, yellow one-hour photo sleeves holding 35mm negatives and framed memorabilia cover every available surface of my bedroom – the nightstand, the carpeted floor, the quilted bedding, the wooden strips of window sills. Golden speaker wire is draped over my bed. An extension cord winds out of the room and into the hallway past the orange toaster-wire glow of the rusty space heater and the plastic-dome record changer.
You can see the crap, overcast, rainy weather through the window behind me. I’ve got one hand on a hip, the other is scratching the back my head in the posture of near cartoon puzzlement, maybe overwhelm from the staggering quantity of scenes and faces, relatives, and friends arrayed and stacked in front of me on every available surface. I’m not sure it’s really all that great a picture compositionally and all the rest (it was taken on a timer), but it’s a keeper because truthfully they’re all keepers.
In my family we are inveterate collectors of images and in a consistent but patternless way have accumulated a staggering amphitheater of faces – faces that I don’t even always remember or recognize, faces in postcards, paper-clipped faces scissored from National Geographic, faces of family friends whose names elude me, faces ordered in Rexall discount sets of ten, faces from journeys to China, to Cairo, to the Statue of Liberty, from somebody or other’s dad at a school picnic.
Other than Time there are no natural predators in the Maine house for life captured in photography and the wardens will tell you point blank that no picture has ever been discarded here, a policy that has led to this staggering abundance of photographic wildlife. We are graspers and hoarders of the first order; we are not pruners. Every picture must be saved, every visual artifact a treasure for some possible future. The tree that spawned these moments may have withered away long ago, but its petals remain fixed on the ground, frozen in the Autumn that gave birth to them, scentless, perfectly distributed, Gaussian, Zen-like, trapped in a glass bulb.
The crush of detail in the picture of me sorting invites closer inspection: there’s a record arm caught in flight, mid-song, an album cover with a watercolor flower against a lamp, what must be the big speakers mentioned earlier. There’s a chunk of missing plaster on the wall by the queen size bed where crusty wall lathing is visible. There’s a glass of wine, a brick of convenience store cheese, a blue and red box of Stoned Wheat Thins, a Burgundy shaped bottle of red wine on the night table and a cork and a corkscrew beside it. You can see the cork is still in the corkscrew. You can make out a cluster of wood knots in the window frame, the slight bluing of veins on my visible hand, the shadows of my hand’s tendons, and the features of total strangers in the photos on the floor. A sea of impersonal detail.
The whole scene, the crowded world of its composition, the near and far of it, all of it is perfectly focused, the even-handed neutrality of the wide-angle lens. I look at it now and imagine the oily, blue-green optics of the lens that took it, that orbited coolly, that glistened in the dark for a flash, its polished lens glass curved as smoothly as the arc of a planet, that rendered details upon details on every hair of light, that painted worlds upon worlds, stories and feelings appearing wherever attention is cast, visions flowering out from the tiniest of pinpricks like the nested dreams of Indian deities.
And far below the camera’s eye, eclipsed, a neighboring world-in-miniature creates the photograph’s illusion of life, a vast soulless desert where the light-swept sands of silver salts shift and flicker in the bitstream, indifferently rendering an image of a man and his things – his precious, precious things – an image viewable only at a great distance, from some vast outer space of feeling, from the vacuum of gain and loss, from the breathtaking cosmos of memory and all of its twinkling stars of ephemera.
Next Chapter & Full Text:
Feel something. Twice a week.