SPECIAL ISSUE #39: Damon & Naomi

Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011 | |

Photograph by Naomi Yang

by Damon Krukowski

At the Museum of the Moving Image, an exhibit on nineteenth-century motion-picture games explains this principle: when vision is interrupted, the mind retains an afterimage of what the eye had seen. If a light illuminating successive images flashes, the darkness between causes us to merge this afterimage with the next, which we sum to one in flux rather than two in succession. If a light is constantly shown on successive images, we see only a blur. That is: interruption is necessary to the illusion of continuity.

In the car driving home, I think this must also be the structure of memory -- images that we retain in isolation, but sum together as they flash in our minds. Perhaps this is also the structure of dreams. Dream logic emerges as we work to make sense of the succession of images, separated by blackness.

Issue #39 soundtrack: Damon & Naomi "Judah and the Maccabees"

Thus Chris Marker’s La Jetée: memory presented as discrete images (stills). If we cannot recall the image immediately before or after, we cannot recall motion. Nevertheless we work to sum these images together, and make sense of them in time. The logic of memory is the logic of trauma.

* * * * *

Visit to the La Jetée bar: C. has given us directions out of a dream -- “Take the only street with trees.” The area is not far from our Shinjuku hotel, but in a direction we never walk. (I remember friends saying on our first visit, “Don’t go that way.”) We keep to the main streets, to avoid getting lost, but see no sign of the old drinking district he had described. And then: a street with trees. We take it away from the neon, into the darkness. There are blue tents in the bushes, shelters constructed by the homeless. It is a weeknight, the street is otherwise empty. We come to a crossroads -- in one direction, more blackness -- in another, the old ramshackle district of bars. C.’s directions worked.

Wandering among the bars, La Jetée is still hidden. We ask another “mama-san.” She graciously leads us there. It is up a flight of stairs. No way to look inside before opening the door…

* * * * *

At the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side -- interior rooms, banned from use by building codes, were walled up rather than changed. Some later reopened, with interior windows added to satisfy requirements for light and air…

When I sang about this, I imagined someone still living inside when those interior rooms were re-opened. I associated the darkness of these spaces with a lost language.
Hide my eyes from the light
And say the words that I can’t understand

Adapted to the singer’s point of view for a later chorus, this becomes:
Hide the light from me
And say the prayers that I should understand

* * * * *

Sitting with my mother at the kitchen table, I ask about the jacket I saw in It Happened One Night -- both Clark Gable and the sleazy character on the bus wear the same cut, they are only tailored differently. She knows the name of the jacket: Norfolk. How did her father buy his clothes? Were they on a rack? Thinking about it, she recalls the view from their apartment on Riverside Drive, windows facing upriver -- warships at anchor. They moved to 86th Street when? It must have been very soon after the war began, because she remembers being on 72nd Street when she heard about Pearl Harbor, and what would she be doing on 72nd Street when they lived on 86th Street? The wind off the river was so strong she had to walk home backwards from the subway on Broadway. Suddenly she remembers: a tailor used to come to the house, and fit her father for clothes. “A Jewish tailor,” she says. “Where did he find one of those?” I say, and make her laugh.

* * * * *

Show at the New York Public Library of 1960s mimeo books and magazines -- this thought: that a “poetics” should enable one to identify poetry in new places, not just in other poems.

This is the test of a useful poetics, because arguing about poetry itself is circular and pointless -- we already know all those things are poems, from someone’s point of view. No need to establish the hierarchy from our perspective.

So poetics does have a function -- it is poems that do not.

Wasn’t this Cage’s insight into music?

* * * * *

On Beacon Hill to see an early music performance of Sephardic songs -- the venue is a building I’d never noticed before, an abandoned synagogue on the north side of the hill.

The musicians are in the center, on the bima. There are two galleries for the audience, at right angles to one another -- these must have once separated men and women. The space has the haphazard dimensions of the interior of a city block, but covered over with a skylight. There are several layers of painted decorations on the crumbling walls. Palm trees.

During the performance, the singer chooses to face one gallery, and then the other, in turn.

* * * * *

At a restaurant, Dad says to me, “Since we see you so rarely, you should order the caviar.” I suggest we split it -- I think maybe he wants the caviar, which is why he’s urging it on me? -- and that way it will cost no more than two other dishes at the table. No, no, he says, he doesn’t like caviar the way I like caviar. Anyway, it always makes him uncomfortable. Uncomfortable? Yes it reminds him of the trans-Siberian railroad. “You know the story,” he says, as he always does when introducing a story he has kept to himself. It seems that on the trans-Siberian railroad, if a train was coming from the other direction, the one he and his family were on would be diverted to a sidetrack, where it would wait for hours, even days. While there the conductors would lock all the doors and windows -- because wherever they were, however remote, people would eventually arrive, with plates and cups, begging for food.

Once, my father and his family were in the dining car as the train sat like this. They were served caviar. Caviar? Apparently the meals came with the tickets. “It wasn’t luxurious, by any means, although after prison camp it was certainly a shock.” And while they had the caviar before them, people were banging on the window glass, hungry.

I say I’ll have something else. He insists. So I insist we split it. We do. He has the tiniest taste. (I eat the rest.)

* * * * *

Saw Sunny Murray with Sabir Mateen, at the Unitarian Church in Amherst: Sunny Murray played as light and free as his records -- that skittery, constant, calming sound. But seeing his body language, I felt he was simultaneously playing traditional tunes in his head: ballads with breaks, turnarounds, solos. When he started a song on the brushes, alone, I was sure he was waiting for Ben Webster or Lester Young to join in. And he hummed -- atonal humming, like the memory of a beautiful song without the melody or the changes. Just the space for its feeling.

* * * * *

As I leave my parents’ house, my father looks away. Is he hurt? Depressed? There is so much he wants from me, I think. Or so much he thinks he wants from me. The guilt I take away is like cases in my hands.

* * * * *

Takuboku Ishikawa’s Romaji Diary -- like Campana’s Orphic Songs -- Boethius’s Consolation -- the dream of a writing so complete that prose and poetry are equally needed. Also Pascal’s Pensées -- these are thoughts, events, that must be recorded, and the form they take is a mirror of that necessity.

And if I wrote in a language no one could read, like Takuboku, could I include it all? Takuboku gave his diaries to a friend and his wife, and therefore to an audience. So from whom was the romaji shielding him? His family -- his rivals -- but not from those closest. Circles widening out.

* * * * *

Dream: with Dad in some kind of basement cafeteria, I am questioning him about something and his face clouds over. He says there are family secrets I don’t know. Like what? I am pressing. Like his middle name, he says. Face becoming completely closed and dark, shrinking away from me behind glasses. “The middle name is Magarshack. Like the writer,” he says. Like the translator, I ask? “The writer,” he says. The distinction is lost on me. Out in the street, 86th Street walking west with Mom, I say Dad told me his real middle name. “Don’t do that!” she yells at Dad, who is suddenly there too. Why not? I say. “Now you know he is born under a blue sign star,” she says. It is a frightening idea. Then in a highway restaurant with Dad, in Vermont -- it is divided over two stories (!), with multiple dining rooms, antiseptic. He tells me how he once worked there -- it was a fine restaurant then -- while commuting to Lincoln, Nebraska. This is somehow connected to the secret of the middle name. He shows me how far it is on a map. Then, he says, he stopped (commuting? working? writing?).

* * * * *

John Wieners walks into the Poetry Room at Lamont Library to give a reading. He opens a book (his own) and begins. But then he stops, and looks at the page like he has never seen it before.

I recognize something in that gesture: looking at one’s work, and finding it at times intimately familiar and at other times foreign and strange.

If Wieners’s work weren’t true, it would never be familiar to him. And if it were always familiar, it wouldn’t be so true.

* * * * *

My own reading at Lamont Library. N. is there. K., who has been staying with us, is also there. A few students.

I spent so many hours in this room, years ago, listening to recordings of poets reading. Stein. Stevens. Ashbery.

The sunlight is low, and the room is overheated, as always.

I am overcome with feeling. Something other than pride. It is hard to read clearly, because for a moment I am near tears. There is a recording being made.

* * * * *

Do we only tell each other’s stories? Ask others to tell our own? Can we tell our own? Or is that what stories are for -- to tell someone else’s, and allow another to tell yours?

Damon Krukowski is the author of The Memory Theater Burned (Turtle Point) and 5000 Musical Terms (Burning Deck). Naomi Yang is a photographer and graphic designer. Together they are musicians (Damon & Naomi, Galaxie 500), and publishers (Exact Change).

"Visit to the La Jetée bar" and the accompanying photograph are excerpted from the new book Afterimage, by Damon Krukowski with photos by Naomi Yang, which released this month from Ugly Duckling Press. "Judah and the Maccabees" by Damon & Naomi with Ghost (2000) will be reissued in January 2012 from Drag City. Yang's work is currently on view at Aviary Gallery in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

For more of their work, visit damonandnaomi.com and naomivision.com.