Wave Books, 2016
Paperback, 144 pp.
When I was in middle school, we were assigned to make a mousetrap for science class. I remember the feeling of delirium that overtook me as I began dreaming up the mechanical processes that I might bring to life. I tried so hard to enact that dream on the large plank of wood that I asked my parents to buy for me. I placed some contraptions there but no matter how I shifted and turned them everything seemed kind of lonely and ineffective, as if what I was actually making was the diorama of a defunct amusement park in the desert with nothing happening but the sound of distant ticking in the air.
It was an enormous failure, not least of all because I couldn’t have been more excited about its potential. When I looked at the mousetrap, I saw shimmering curls and flips and lines of movement. When my teacher saw it, he saw (this is the story I have overwritten on top of him, anyway) the intellectual limitations of a little black girl. And I wanted, still want, to be able to go back and explain that even if I couldn’t make the thing work, I had a vision. This was, however, the same class in which I wrote “clitoris” on a diagram for the eye when I couldn’t think of the word for “optic nerve,” so I was already pretty much down for the count.
This concept, though, of an imagined Rube Goldberg machine, still lingers inside every one of my creative impulses, drawing lines in the air before I begin a thing—an essay, a to do list, a painted office. It’s hard to explain the calculus of this particular kind of seeing, especially the part of it that has to do with being black and wanting badly to explain that it is inspiration and the full spectrum of possibility and not a void that is causing your inertia.
I saw some evidence of kin in this regard when I visited the Walker Art Center’s unfathomably good show, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art a couple years ago. Especially when I sat in on a conversation with Ralph Lemon about his piece “The Scaffold Room.” This multi-media performance piece involves the artists, Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis, who perform from a constructed, two story “environment” inside of a gallery. I did not see it, I just saw the Q & A, so I had to imagine the performance based on pictures and on the things they said, like, “We read the Kathy Acker, both of us do” and “Surely I can get a flat bed truck and pull it into a field.”
I could barely sit still as I listened—my sense of sight felt to be whitening in the periphery. There was that desire again: the Rube Goldberg machine of a black girl’s imagination. What they described was a work in progress, a construction site, a scaffold inside of which two black women design entire worlds with the things that they say. In Calamities, Renee Gladman manages to bring this same kind of feeling, this unrealized architecture, onto the page. She writes, “You were in a field, an unidentified country, and all the lines were illuminated and lifted out of the ground.”
Each essay in Calamities has about it the quality of Ikea instructions. Instead of a bookcase, though, these are directions for a cardboard device that makes the world look different than it was, like what Michel Gondry might try— a pinhole camera or chakra lenses or Google Glass. The thing she is telling you how to make is pure imagination, it is not something you would or could bring to life—but you can wear it by reading her essays. These sketches inevitably twist and tumble into a beautiful knot of failed effort. And the failure is, somehow, the beginning. A premise for the next creative act. Gladman writes, “I was going to try to draw a grid of light.”
I always enjoy seeing writers approach nonfiction with the incredulity of a large bird trying to make use of an iPhone. At one point, Gladman writes, “I remembered in vivid detail that I had just made a decision to look at the world (ie, sky) in such a way as to produce an essay, but looking out at the world I couldn’t figure out what was so special to say right then.” The questioning of narrative is ever present, to the point where I can’t tell if I’m correct in referring to these short prose pieces as essays, even if that is what they are asking to be called. As if making an oblique offering to a genre that tends to locate itself in place and time, every piece in Calamities begins with the phrase, “I began the day.” The essays end with the author having gotten intentionally lost in the act of watching and thinking. The knot that her path makes is a line we are guided to zoom out of until all letters disappear and we are left with a collection of Cy Twombly paintings. The difference between drawing and writing is a constant conversation that Gladman has with herself throughout the book.
But it’s not just the way she uses drawing as a generative tool and a reference point that makes Gladman’s work seem extraliterary. She writes, “I began northeasterly with pieces of paper on which I’d scribbled the words draw and bird and call someone, and carried those pieces to sites I thought of as ‘church,’ ‘bus station,’ and ‘art gallery,’ leaving each piece in some kind of correspondence.” I couldn’t tell you why it is that we call Gladman a writer and not the successor of our greatest conceptual artists. Heir apparent to Adrian Piper.
Gladman continues, “I began making new slips for ‘acts’ on the bus. I tore the paper with ceremony and hunkered down to make more folds… A person tried to grab one, but I retained it at the same time that I put call someone in his pocket. I thought he might fall to the floor and allow his face to open. I thought he might do something devotional.” Her Rube Goldberg is made out of humans.
When I was reading Calamities I sat in a café where I became gradually aware of two people inhabiting space along with me. One was a man outside holding a cardboard sign and shouting commands at his puppy. Another was a person I normally see on rollerskates, who came in with a limp. I wanted badly to ignore the nagging feeling of concern that I felt for both of them, so I buried my face in the book. But things kept happening to prevent us from ignoring each other. Almost comically so. By nightfall we were engaged in a tiny web of interaction: feeding one another, pointing out the bathroom, looking after the dog. It was as if, by reading, I was enacting a secret scavenger hunt that Gladman had mapped out ahead of time for all of us to follow.
The fact of Gladman’s blackness enters in only briefly, in hazy moments that feel either haphazard or like you made them up. I could swear I saw Michael Brown in there, but I feel almost foolish for saying so, as his body was, or could have been, so gently insinuated. In one essay, the narrator is walking down 23rd street with seven black people. She calculates how to live the scene by questioning the degree to which each possible move might “turn our living toward narrative.” It is clear that the fact of everyone’s blackness is important to the speaker at this point. But she seems constantly and relatably baffled as to how to explain it. Would that gesture be narrative or anti-narrative? So the effort is somehow taken back. Half-heartedly erased. Which is as defiant an explanation of what it feels like to be black and dreaming in a world that doesn’t know how to see you or your dream as any other.
Aisha is the author of two essay collections, The Fluency of Light (U. Iowa Press, 2013) and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit (1913 Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor at Guernica and a staff writer for Autostraddle.