B is for Boxes
Louise Nevelson was the daughter of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms in Ukraine. In her forties, she walked the midnight streets of New York, Little Italy, Skid Row, gathering scrap wood from trash cans, scrap wood with nails sticking out. She said that she was giving the scraps “an ultimate life, a spiritual life that surpasses the life they were created for.” She also gathered wooden vegetable boxes and wine crates. At dawn, in her studio, she dipped all the wood she had found into troughs of black paint.
Later, she would arrange the scraps in boxes and display them in art galleries. Later, she would stack the boxes full of scraps and make walls, and then installations, and monuments, and altars, and a chapel.
My younger son convinces my wife and me to gather sticks and daisy-like weeds with him wherever we go—the playground, the greenway, the field beside the church. Sometimes, he ignores the sliding board, collects fallen leaves instead. He loves to work with cardboard boxes from the grocery store, dog food boxes, diaper boxes. These he crayons, and climbs in, and builds with, and tears into pieces.
I want to give him my attention, be present to him, but I also want to start writing again. I try to think of a way forward. Later, while he naps, I will try to find some scrap—a detail, a sliver of memory, a chunk of text I might quote from—and to cobble from that a sentence or two. Maybe I’ll puzzle together a box of words. Later, if I have enough of these, I will try to arrange them, stack them, fit them into an essay of many small parts, a segmented essay.
In her thirties, Louise had drawn figures, had sculpted with terra cotta and plaster—nudes, ducks, owls. Some sources say that she first thought of working with old wood a decade later, while she and her son Mike were searching the streets for firewood. Others say it was when he was serving in the war overseas. She said, “it was secret, they couldn’t inform us, and for six months at a time I didn’t hear from him. It threw me into a great state of despair.” She said, “my work was black.” She couldn’t locate her son; she couldn’t get other materials for art; she turned to old wood and black paint and boxes. Louise put some smaller boxes inside larger boxes, draped them with velvet that was thick as shadows. She imagined that people who saw the boxes would respond to the velvet, lift it up, pull it aside, make their own views.
When my younger son holds the phonics bus and presses a red plastic letter, it says, “ay, ah, ah, alligator, chomp!” At two, he’s a self-taught reciter of the alphabet song; depending on his mood, he croons or chants or shrieks the names of the letters. “He likes to a-b-c,” I tell my wife. I write an abecedarian poem (each line starting with a different letter of the alphabet), then I try an abecedarian essay. I realize that I like to a-b-c too. I’ll try any song, any pattern, any magic word that lets me push back the gloom. When the video shows the two-legged light bulb marching down the street, my son dances and calls out the word shine. He asks me to play “This Little Light of Mine” again and again. I hear this on the news: at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou led the counter-protestors in singing the same song. He says, “We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”
1943, Nierendorf Gallery: the gallery owner agreed to show Louise’s drawings, but was not impressed when he looked at her sculptures. He said, “There is nothing to them… refugees from a lumber yard.”
That same year, Norlyst Gallery: Louise’s first exhibition of sculptures she had made from found wood. She called it “The Clown as the Center of His World.” With chair and bed and mirror pieces, she assembled circus characters: a wild bull with nodding head and swinging tail, a tightrope walker, trapeze artists, a dog, some seals. Not one sculpture was sold. She took them home and burned them.
At the discovery museum, my son goes to the fun factory on the roof, stands at the bubble tank and blows bubbles. He dips both hands into the sudsy liquid, then his forearms. I can see where this is going; I’ve seen him eat from a snow drift face-first, seen him lie down in a puddle, move his arms and legs back and forth. He believes in total immersion, sees chances for joy wherever he goes.
1958, the Grand Central Moderns Gallery: Louise installed Moon Garden. According to Life magazine, it was “composed of 116 boxes and circular shapes stacked or standing free. They are filled or covered with odds and ends of wood…. Everything is painted black.” Louise sold seven of the boxes.
In Louise’s studio, many cans of black paint. She said, “There is no [other] color that will give you the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement.” Here, a skinny scrap of wood that looks like a frail man, a wasted king. Here, a long box that suggests a casket. Louise paints them black, puts the king-scrap in the box. She could build him a crypt, build him a garden.
Louise won’t lid, or shut off, or seal Sky Cathedral, which is a section of Moon Garden—her assemblage, her all-black wall of thirty-six crates fitted together like altar niches—one crate framing dowels like eggs in a juggler’s hands, one crate a puzzle of lava spills, one crate a tumble of clouds, one crate a handful of bone shards. Each crate is a rectangular mouth, exhaling shadows instead of breath.
My son becomes engrossed in his dump truck, sandbox, and the rocks in our driveway—so of course he crows when he first sees Parksville Beach, of course he enthusiastically sets to work. Even though it isn’t really a beach—just a crowded manmade shore jutting into the water a few miles past Ocoee Dam No. 1, just a small square of dirty sand trapped inside a concrete frame.
In an exhibition catalog, Louise wrote that she was searching for “a new seeing, a new image, a new insight. This search not only includes the object, but the in-between places—the dawns and the dusks, the objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and sea.”
Maybe I should teach my son to pray this line from the Sarum Primer, 1527: “God be in my eyes and in my looking.” Maybe this is what I need when my son wakes in the early morning, crying for his stuffed Elmo, a diaper change. Maybe this is what I need when I can’t segment or a-b-c my way to a new essay, when I sit with a blank notebook, a blank screen—new eyes, dawn sight, in-between sight.
My son’s first word was more. When he was very small, he loved to grab my wife’s phone, to look at my laptop and see what I was working on.
1959, Museum of Modern Art: Louise makes Dawn’s Wedding Feast—an all-white, abstracted installation of plinths and altars, a wedding cake, a chest, a mirror, a pillow, bride and groom and guests in the form of columns. Julia Bryan-Wilson, an art historian, said the feast looked like “a mad machine, a splayed open engine with its guts and gears exposed.”
Daisy-like weeds grow all over the county where I live, wherever there’s ditch, margin, scarp, their centers a yellow smudge, scruffy petals a dingy white— but my son christens them pink flowers, and so they are.
1961, the Martha Jackson Gallery: Louise had decided to do a gold show next. She made Royal Tides: she chose boxes, furniture legs, columns, round picture frames and toilet seats to suggest moon phases and the rays of the sun: she painted them gold.
While I stare at a scrap I’ve written, my son plays with his phonics bus. He presses a letter, and I’m distracted by the bus blaring, “ex, ks, ks, x-ray fish, glub, glub.” Soon, we’re watching a YouTube video, and I’m learning this: also known as the x-ray tetra, it’s a small see-through fish found in the Amazon River. I type, delete, type again a question I’m trying to find the words for. Could we ever peer into each other until we see the sources of the light that comes through us?
Then my wife walks downstairs, and my son runs into the hall to greet her. In the half bath, she changes a bulb. “Want help,” my son says. “I help you.” He shuts and opens the door, shuts and opens it again. He makes dark, he makes light.
1971: Louise creates Luminous Zag: Night, one hundred and five all-black boxes containing knobs, baluster pieces, and serrated planks. Louise said, “it’s only an assumption of the western world that [black] means death, for me it may mean finished, completeness, maybe eternity.”
T is for Tributary
My great-grandfather lived in an attic apartment, in my aunt’s house on Vermont Avenue. He tended the succulents on his windowsill, snake plant, aloe vera. I knew him, called him Pap like my mother did. He loved flowers, had raised peonies and hydrangeas. When he was fourteen, he’d started working as a miner for the Elk River Coal Company in Clay County, West Virginia, then was a miner in Marion County, and I have a flicker of him, a crumbling memory, zinnias and pink lozenges, the bright of him that imagination gives me—a flaring match, here and now gone again. He was an avid pipe smoker and boxing fan; he rapped the floor with his cane when Ali flattened Smokin’ Joe.
Bear: [ber] v. as in bear a burden, a load, a weight, bear testimony, the sore backs and throbbing shoulders of laborers in 1915. Water boy, millworker, railroad hand, trackman, I try to hear the ballads they heard, the rush of rivers, the babble of shoals, the blue notes, the songs Pontine Nolan sang for the people who remember him. Although Nolan and Pap did not know each other, they lived at the same time, could have been the same age: Nolan who tore the trees apart for the making of furniture, Pap who tore into the earth’s seams for the harvest of coal. One man full of splinters, one full of dirty dust.
Pontine Nolan lived in Chattanooga after he had come north, in a Black neighborhood, maybe Blue Goose Hollow, maybe a shotgun shack, or the bottom of Cameron Hill, or the shabby edge of the city, or in what one observer called “a forest of brick and iron smoke stacks,” or near the Tennessee River. Nolan worked at the Loomis & Hart sawmill, might have cut boards for headboards, armoires, vanity tables that would be trimmed with mahogany and ivory.
Pap was white; Nolan was Black. I’d like to believe that Pap would have shared with Nolan a pan of biscuits, a jar of water, a table, a seat on the train. That Pap would have listened if Nolan had told him he had a hope, a worry, a dream. And I’d like to think that learning about one of them could add to what I may know about the other. I first read about Pontine Nolan in Once I Too Had Wings, a book made from the 1908-1918 journals of Emma Bell Miles ninety years after she died. Only three pages about him. Miles remembered Nolan singing the blues for her, telling her what he had seen in the red hills of Georgia before he moved away from there, the terror he had felt.
And when he wasn’t at work? I imagine Pap cooling his feet in a shallow creek, Nolan fishing the Tennessee, pulling in a carp, a spotted sucker. They might have worn similar things: blue bib overalls, flannel or chambray shirt, undershirt, homemade drawers, sack coat, canvas cap, Rockford socks, hobnail shoes or rough stogy-boots.
Pap might have gone to the Grand Opera House, might have heard a quartet sing “Down by the old mill stream where I first met you. Pontine Nolan might have gone to the White Elephant, the Liberty Theater, might have heard Ma Rainey sing “Look what a hole I’m in.”
Pap was born in Clay County in the village of Procious near the Elk River—or Pe-quo-ni, as the Lenape called it; according to some historians, Pe-quo-ni means “the walnut river.” The Elk River is 172 miles long. In 1875, white men were greedy for the riches they could extract from the Elk watershed. Senator Frank Hereford said that it “runs through a country heavily timbered with pine, walnut, cherry, oak, poplar, maple, hemlock, and sycamore of the best quality.” He said that “the cannel-coal of the Elk is inexhaustible.”
The Tennessee River is 652 miles long. The Tanasi, the Cherokee called it; some historians say Tanasi means “meeting place;” others say it means “river of the great bend.” Miles saw the river “swollen and muddy,” fed by creeks of green water.
On December 31, 1915, Nolan and his friend Preacher Snooze visited a boardinghouse; they sang and played their guitars for Miles and some women who worked in the hosiery mill. Miles described Nolan as “bronze-colored, loud voiced;” later, she called his voice “velvety.” Pontine Nolan sang, “Let me tell you my sad dream;” he sang fragments of songs. His wife was probably at a chicken stand. He had been running the saws; his left hand was injured, but he could still make music. Snooze was there, but Nolan must have talked more, or made a stronger impression on Miles: in her journal entry, Nolan was the main character; his songs and his stories about Georgia made the evening memorable for her. I read that Pontine Nolan went home at nine-fifteen p.m. After that, he’s gone. Miles did not write about him again. I search the internet, but I find no other trace of him.
Georgia could be a bad place, Pontine Nolan told Miles and the women at the boardinghouse. Miles wrote Nolan’s account in her journal: Never had trouble with nobody there myself. I like the money; they pay off in gold. But having to get out and go to work at three in the morning with men who had Winchesters on their shoulders, and these amateur guns—Lord! You’d run on to dead people laying by the railroad. One time we saw a big nice box, went and looked in, and bless the holy Lamb, there laid a boy as big as Lonny. Every time I go around there, I hear about somebody being killed. They won’t work a black mule by a white one down there.
Maybe my great-grandmother told Pap there would be a better life for them, more peace, or a safer home for their children, if they moved to Marion County, if they started over someplace else. She had grown up on a mountain near Ivydale, near Booger Hole. Maybe she lived on Pilot Knob, or Velvet Knob, or Painter Knob. When she was fourteen, she and her younger sisters hid in the woods while their stepmother threw dinner plates, a woman fuming in hateful rage. According to The West Virginia Encyclopedia and several newspaper articles, Booger Hole was the murder capital of Clay County. Henry Hargis vanished, and the blood of a Jewish peddler was found under the hay in a barn, and the clockmaker’s body was thrown into Rush’s Creek, and in 1917 Preston Tanner was struck by a splitting maul and burned in his cabin, and Lacy Ann Boggs, age eighty-four, was shot while slicing apples for a pie after she told her neighbors that she knew where a body was buried. Lacy Ann and the others could have been Pap’s neighbors, his kin.
Before that, my great-grandmother’s uncle James was tied to a hemlock tree by Confederate bushwhackers, and then they shot him to death.
I imagine this again and again: on a raft, in a passenger car, I’m crouching or sitting and there in the creek, beside the tracks, I see an object but can’t tell what it is, a thing obscured by the murk of the water, the speed of the train. A large rock, or a fallen tree, or broken concrete with rebar, or a wooden box. I don’t want to think it could be a body. There’s its shape, there’s its shadow, there’s its effect, I see how the thing I hope is only rock or fallen tree changes the flow and the speed of the creek, hear how it changes the air that whistles around the train.
Pontine Nolan sang whole songs and parts of songs that night in the parlor of the boardinghouse, and maybe Miles laughed, maybe she clapped her hands. Nolan sang “Pallet on the Floor,” “Stagalee,” “Home Sweet Home.” He sang, “kiss my girl good bye,” sang “come here honey.” He rag-timed, he riffed, he tapped the floor.
In her notebook, my grandmother described what her mother cooked for a holiday meal: “Jar of green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, cranberries, oyster dressing, chicken bought at the company store, penned up overnight and butchered by Dad.” It was what Pap’s labor could provide, his loads of lump coal, nut coal, egg coal, and slack coal, add to that what money my great-grandmother made from sewing dresses and pajamas and coats for neighbors, from taking in boarders. My grandmother remembered their cramped house on First Street, coal shed, privy; she remembered the bedroom she shared with five brothers and sisters, the folding beds. It was a time when “a few more dollars meant a lot.”
Hammer, mill file, oilstone, gritted whetstone, animal fat: these might have been Nolan’s tools.
Pick, shovel, auger, tamping-bar and needle, small hat lamp and can of oil, can of blasting powder: Pap’s tools. Red liniment and bluestone rub for Nolan’s sores, and for a cut hand that wouldn’t close, for a lace of scars (some bruise-blue, some still red, enflamed), and slices, and nicks. For Pap’s cough, make a tea from mullein roots, whiskey, horsemint, the bark of a black gum tree. For sore knees, tie a string soaked in turpentine.
In 2016, a thousand-year-flood destroyed homes in the communities of Procious, Bomont, and Camp Creek. The Elk overflowed its banks, rose to more than thirty feet. Some families lost everything, had to live in campers and tents on Walgrove Road and at Blue Creek.
Extant: [ekˈ-stənt] adj. as in still existing, not destroyed or lost, the several surviving journals of Emma Bell Miles given by her daughter to a university library, the paper easy to tear, the Mead spiral notebook, three subject, wide ruled, where my grandmother started to write down her memories of Pap and the coal camp where they had lived, so many blank pages, more than half of the notebook empty. In my kitchen, an offshoot of Pap’s snake plant lives without much water or light. Miles called the Carolina Paroquet one of the “shadows from the past,” thought the lost bird might still exist deep in the Everglades, “surrounded and protected by the silence.”
There might be irises and yellowbells at Pap’s cabin site in Procious, some dim trace in Booger Hole, flood debris or dried mud, trailhead or riverwalk, grassy circle or fifty-foot metal sculpture where Nolan’s home might have stood in Blue Goose Hollow.
I imagine rivers that bend, noisy floods, eddies washing away the memories I cup in my hands. Nolan’s back at Loomis & Hart manning the rip-saws, shriek and whine, metal biting wood, I can’t hear him anymore. Mouth of the mine, Pap climbs aboard the mule-powered man-trip, fades from view.
I try again. Icy winter nights, they might do the same things, the distance between them diminishing. I see him look for sticks to burn, creep out while his wife snores, and shiver in the alley outside a hall, and press his ear to brick, and hear a rag, a ballad, a shout, hear a man sing about leaving town on a train.
Y is for Yucca
Misnamed with the Taino word for cassava (a completely different plant) by Gerard and then Linnaeus, the yucca genus originates in the hot parts of the Americas. Including about fifty species, it’s characterized by a tall woody stalk, a circle of stiff leaves, and creamy bell-shaped flowers. Yucca flourishes in the poorest soils, in the barrens and the badlands, on roadsides, in sand dunes.
In southern Appalachia, in graveyards and at the sites of former farmsteads and vanished cabins, untended plantings of y. filamentosa—with its clump of sword-shaped leaves and showy burst of pale flowers—green and ghost what has gone back to earth.
Y. filamentosa is sometimes called Adam’s needle and thread because of the long threads raveling from its sharp-pointed leaves. According to the botanist and slave owner Stephen Elliott, “the leaves of this plant twisted and tied together are used for strings, ropes, and even cables for small boats. It appears to possess the strongest fibres of any vegetable whatever.” Y. filamentosa is also called silk grass, or bear grass, or Confederate flax, or tie-plant, or meat hanger; its leaves were used by white Appalachians for stringing up hams in smokehouses. Or used by the Cherokee in poultices and salves. Also called everlasting, or ghost in the graveyard, for yucca’s mass of white blossoms that seems to float above the ground.
In the deserts of California, y. brevifolia “bristles” and “stalk[s] drearily” and grows “shaggy with age,” Mary Austin writes in The Land of Little Rain. Y. brevifolia dies slowly, Austin reports, and then “the ghostly hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power to rot, makes the moonlight fearful.” Night lizards and wood rats live inside its dry limbs after its death; ladder-backed woodpeckers and northern flickers build their nests in its empty trunk. Austin saw y. brevifolia in Death Valley and on the mesas. It was called tree yucca, and then supposedly some Mormon settlers thought it looked like Joshua of the Old Testament stretching out his arms to welcome them, and now its common name is Joshua tree.
Tallest of the yuccas, it’s a drought tolerator, a night breather, and can live to be three hundred years old. And might be extinct by the end of the twenty-first century, or limited to a few Joshua trees hanging on in small refugia at higher elevations—extinct because of too much climate change, too much heating up and drying out, and not enough yucca moths to pollinate it, too many invasive species and too many wildfires, too many desperate rodents damaging its rough skin for sips of moisture.
I hope there’s still time for us to learn a leathery gumption from the yuccas, a we-can-change-our-ways from bear grass, a you-might-survive from the Spanish bayonet that offers its tender daggers when we are hungry, its flower stalks for us to roast over a fire. Y. gloriosas and soap trees and our-lord’s-candle, with their soft tips and seed capsules and saw-toothed leaves, teach me that some words should be guarded and others should be poured upon the ground. After wet winters, Joshuas can branch profusely, can flower and fruit. After too-hot summers, there is a wise one weeping for the water-hungry cities and the blasted mountains and the ice shelves breaking apart like windowpanes stomped by a boot. Maybe the wise one will play the fool and win on love by a cut of the card deck. Or maybe that’s sap-head talk, the tomorrow-hope that spoonleaf spreads to Adam’s needle and thread, the buzz that I drink up. When my lidded sun and my cloud of dust-where-a-mountain-stood shut out all but the slenderest thread, and when my skin grizzles beneath the blinding eye, and when my face is abraded by a blast of grit, oh let me take it in.
Flashy and pungent, yellow buckwheat favors ground where nothing else grows, its long thirsty roots reaching down through fissures in the olive-drab shale. Lena Artz might have dreamed about it, might have hoped she would find y. filamentosa, maybe even the rumored prairie violets. She went to the shale barrens. She may have first seen the barrens when she was a girl on her father’s farm, and now she was forty-four, a teacher, a scientist, now she wanted to know again the leather-flower that grew there, and wavy-leaf aster, and the delights in primrose scent, in shades of orange and gold. She hiked up fire trails and followed old road-ruts, and she climbed the steep banks of Devonian shales, and she warily inched down the loose gray slates, down what she would describe as the “rugged and precipitous outcrops” not far from the Cowpasture River. She meant to have a long and careful look at “the most barren parts of the shales” and the “crevices of the harder layers of rock.” In 1935, Lena Artz was writing her thesis Plants of the shale banks of the Massanutten Mountains. When she went to the shales, she measured buckwheat roots, she collected specimens for the herbarium at the university. She found bluebells growing on cliff-edges, she found blazing stars, and bird’s-foot violets, and wild bleeding heart.
Adam’s needle and thread, y. filamentosa, and yellow buckwheat remind me of Jesus’s parable of the sower, in which a reckless farmer goes out to plant a crop and scatters the seeds any which way. I imagine the stony ground and the hand-flung seeds and the unnamed fruit. Imagine springing up too fast, being scorched too soon, having no root. The rabbi saying that the seeds are like kingdom words, the good soil is like listening ears. When my son was three and not talking much, my wife and I tried to open the world to him whenever we walked or drove to his preschool, tried by naming for him mailbox and cow, steeple and leaf and bucket truck, chicken truck, log truck. We were flinging words, we were praying against stony ground.
The yucca giant-skipper—a yellow-banded, brown-winged butterfly—is thought to feed on mud instead of flowers; it makes its home wherever its favorite yuccas grow. In utility corridors. In scrub. In the serpentine barrens that the botanist and explorer William Bartram described in 1791: “chains of hills whose gravelly, dry, barren summits present detached piles of rocks.” In the bone heaps that Bartram saw nearby: “white, gnawed bones of ancient buffaloe, elk and deer, indeterminably mixed with those of men, half-grown over with moss.” See there, in gravel, in powdered bone, see Adam’s needle and thread, y. filamentosa, and moundlily yucca, y. gloriosa, yielding their leaves to the skipper mothers’ glued-on eggs. See the yuccas giving their roots to skipper caterpillars who feed, and expel silky tents, and tunnel like hungry miners through the yucca-crowns, the part where stem joins root. Before the skipper pupas can unwrap, and dry, and hurtle through the air, there is wind, or is it breath, or a word, lifting the yucca hairs, the skippers’ just-hardened wings.