Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

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