by Su Wu
Sometimes, on days when I can still see a reason to make declarations, I will insist that there is no such thing as inside and outside, and that we’ve created this distinction just to hold something dear, and to carve out of the world a smaller world.
But territory has won practical expression—even as the days blur, the barrier holds fast between interior and exterior space. We are selves contained by doors and borders, and coverings and disinfectant, and by the perimeter of this body and its struggles to stay alive
I tried to arrange a former black box theater into a garden and noted its contours: a clutch of white ojos de poeta where the risers once were, a shower installed in the projection stall, a fussing that Lily once described to me so beautifully as “organizing the weeds.” I wondered, like Jamaica Kincaid, “why must people insist the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility that comes with being a human being?”
In the months of making the work in this show, Lily planted nigella seeds that bloomed lavender before the flowers fell off, and looked a bird in the eye, and I, too, found seemingly endless ways to say to my friends that I was sad but not sad enough not to love life anymore, or another way of writing, “the same stanza of a poem over and over in hopes of understanding it,” as Lily says of painting.
I was deep in “longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances,” from the Robert Hass masterpiece with its classic opening lines. I look it up because Lily uses the word “luminous” in an email and I remember first learning it here. Hass writes of the particulars that erase ”the luminous clarity of a general idea,” by which he means the particulars that keep the edges from dissolving into one another, just as longing finds solace in precision and seriousness, in the days Lily calls, “everything, all at once."
Or maybe we are just tired of a certain sublime, and don’t need to be overwhelmed anymore. I’m thinking, per Martin Berger, of the Ahwahneechee, the inhabitants of Yosemite Valley who named the smaller formations and seasonal waterways, not only the grandest peaks and waterfalls. “Attempts to describe the region through massive rocks and waterfalls do not exhaust the conceptual possibilities for characterizing a region,” Berger writes of the formations for which the European-Americans had no concept, or did not find worthy enough to name.
As I reread Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” I find more and more in common in this poem, too, with Lily’s work with their floating unplatonic forms, these shapes that illuminate rather than dissolve, laden with the specificity of what Lily calls “transitional objects on their way to metaphor,” like the color of the liver spots on a poisonous foxglove.
What are objects before they are “an elegy to what it signifies”? This is what Hass writes: “moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. / Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, / saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry."
Mary Ruefle says it better, too, in one of my favorite poems: “I’d like to teach / a young starling to speak, / but clearly and distinctly / so his words wouldn’t be / like human ones.” And so, too, it is in these paintings, which shine a very bright light on small things, and make those things marvels in the noticing; they are landmarks of us at our very best in the moving territory of our attentions, and almost tremble to contain their own expansiveness, in return for being seen.