The Real Curtis Follows The Imagined

Rekdal Follows Wiggins, The Real Curtis Follows The Imagined

It turns out that Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate really ought to follow Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher rather than the other way around. This was a happy coincidence for me. The painful complexity of fathers and male privilege are powerful currents through both of these texts. White male privilege, both overt and subliminal, quite specifically, is a definite commonality. If you read one of these books, you should also read the other. Reading Shadow Catcher first grounds the aspect of Edward Curtis’ story, a background which allows the reader greater focus on Alexander Upshaw in Intimate; on the dismissive disconnect as well, the abyss separating Curtis and Upshaw, the true nature of which Upshaw was well aware of and Curtis fairly oblivious.

Paisley Rekdal frankly reveals racism and historical racist policy toward indigenous America, a familiar topic yet with a new and refreshing method. In this she also brings her racially mixed heritage and its accompanying societally-wrought issues and import into the spotlight.

All of this – all of these issues and themes – are situated firmly amongst my own interests as a reader, writer, thinker and human being. Yet I found myself very slow to love the book. I found the writing precise and beautiful, found each section well-crafted, recognized the text as interesting, but I was more than halfway through before I really wanted to read it, and the reasons why are the aspect that I want to unpack and explore. I always want to love a book like this; a book not only recommended by someone whose previous selections have not failed me as a reader and ponderer, but one which intelligently approaches a topic I care about; by a writer who can, in short, really write. Because of this, I hesitate to cast any sort of negative eye upon such a book. In fact, it is really difficult for me to do so. I’m afraid to complain!

But I want to learn from this reading and from this writer, so I am asking myself to be honest about what is bothering me. First and possibly foremost, it takes a very long time before the idea of Rekdal’s story and Upshaw and Curtis’ stories inhabiting the same text feels right. My experience of more or less the first half of the book was that it felt like I was reading two books at once, going back and forth too quickly between one book and the other without a sense of present or impending unity. In retrospect I understand the trajectory laid out by Rekdal, yet it never completely gelled for me. The way she brought in her father’s perusal of the Curtis book (followed by her own perusal of the same) seemed random at first and too much related to an agenda later. While I ultimately enjoyed the project as individual bits, I never felt a sense of the whole project having integrated. In fact, I didn’t like the poems about the photos, for the most part – I actually had the thought, “I know I should care, but…” –  and despite the fact that I love hybrid works and the idea of combining prose, poetry, visual art, and music, this particular text wasn’t, for me as a reader, cohesive. In other words, the individual elements were related but not successfully unified enough.  I would have liked Rekdal to have elaborated more thoroughly the through-line between her own cultural and ethnic no-man’s-land identity and Upshaw’s liminality. Certainly both were quite compelling on their own and can easily coexist in the same work, but there was a gap in history between them here. In other words, despite what I know about racism in America, what I felt was that Upshaw is gone and lost to the tragedy of racism and cultural genocide, but she Rekdal is here and now and teaching and writing (and addressing that same issue as it pertains to her selfhood) and in that she has an advantage. I don’t want to come away from this topic feeling like his experience (Upshaw representing here all of indigenous America) trumps hers (Rekdal representing, it would seem, racially-mixed-and-therefore-oppressed America) which is a terribly minimizing thought or feeling. I dislike it that I felt set up to compare them, which is a thing I don’t even believe in.  I don’t believe that one person or one community’s experience “trumps” another’s. I realize that I am particularly sensitive to this issue, as such discussions constituted the fabric of my parents’ teaching and have always been with me; but since racism, liminality and cultural genocide sit amongst the overarching issues in this text, I don’t think it’s just me thinking what I’m thinking, or more correctly, feeling what I’m feeling – an important distinction. But maybe I am wrong, and what they (whoever they are) are thinking is that it is about…photography. The role of photography in illuminating identity. And it is, in fact, about that. Probably more than the other issues I’ve discussed here, but that is right up-front and visible and easily discerned.

I want to reiterate here that by the middle of the book, I was in.  The problem, I think, isn’t that it never works, but that, due to the issues explored here already, it took so long to get there, and when I finished, I remembered that. The problem is that I said to myself, “Well, yeah, in the end, it turned out to be an interesting and worthwhile book.” That I remembered the first half as a kind of a chore and that I singled out the poems as something I didn’t like reading. *Disclosure: I am not a fan of ekphrastic poetry in general, so this may not even be specific to Rekdal’s poetry.

If I consider it in light of what I am working with in my own hybrid propositions, this text stirs up a great worry about being up to the challenge of creating cohesive hybrid pieces. Not that I won’t do it, but it scares me a little. I remember reading a book, when I was very young, from my sisters’ book stash – I think it was Up the Down Staircase – in which letters and notes are used to illuminate life and relationships within a high school, including a love letter from a student to a teacher which was handed back corrected in red pen for grammar and such, and the student subsequently commits suicide. Though I’ve never revisited the book (and so may be incorrect in this description), what I have always remembered from that long-ago reading was that the use of something different than the narrative was exciting…enchanting. It was something I thought about over and over for years. The sense of the creation of hybrid works as a puzzle has excited me ever since. I feel compelled both as an artist and as a general human being to look at issues and ideas through many different lenses, saying as I go, “No, no, that’s not completely it, how about this? No? Not that either? Well, let’s try this, do you see now?” And I see this in Rekdal’s book, but I wasn’t with her all the way – it was easy to stop to make Spirograph designs with my son or walk my little hound in the woods. What I want is that when what I am saying is only partially exposed, and I have to offer up another medium or a piece of another genre to get at it better, the reader will say to his or her own child, “Hey, not now, kid, give me twenty more minutes and then I’ll make designs with you, I promise!” and what’s more, the reader’s little hound will have to go chew on a bone or something.

For me, in short, Paisley Rekdal’s book Intimate is like a unique and fantastic dress with some un-hemmed edges and a bunch of threads hanging out of the seams. Perhaps the fabric of the bodice or the sleeves are not quite attached in a way that falls right, even though they are a nice part of the design. I love those sleeves and that bodice, could we just tweak the way they’re attached, maybe?

With all of that, however, it nearly kills me that I was not on campus or even in town when, not long ago, Paisley Rekdal gave a talk.  Someday, I swear, I am going to be in the right place at the right time.

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