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On Expression: Lines in the Fugue

On Expression: Lines in the Fugue

an essay I wrote for school

Crush rose petals between your fingers, or a mint leaf, and it expresses the beauty of its distinctive essence when it’s bruised. I think people can be like that, creating great art and literature out of poverty, sickness, prisons, wars and abuse.

The children of MD Anderson Cancer Center write poems. Edward Hopper, a lonely New Yorker, painted lighthouses, railroad tracks, cafés and theaters that reflected his own reclusive personality. I write vague poetry and draw mazes and cartoons in my notebook to escape thinking of my own problems. Usually I don’t express pain directly, although I have drawn a picture of a blood pressure cuff around my brain to depict a headache. Most art and literature is a cryptic expression of the pain we’ve endured. Some of our expression is to take our minds off our pain, like a dissociative fugue. Some expression is an attempt to stash away some happiness and beauty, because the dark days are just around the corner. The essays “You Owe Me” and “Edward Hopper and the Geometry of Despair” caused me to ponder the motives behind my artistic and literary expressiveness.

Part of the point of art is that it is seen, and of poetry is that it is heard. It is examined and we are acknowledged. It says things that we can’t say any other way. At the cafe where I hang out, a woman called Mary tells me stories about her encounters with Sasquatches: feeding them, running from them, talking to them, and being raped by them. I thought about the stories, they make sense if “Bigfoot” is her code word for the homeless people in her community. Mary isn’t as insulated from the streets as I am. I think art can be like “Bigfoot,” a code language. I can tell about my suffering in a way that undamaged people can feel comfortable with, and enjoy. It isn’t the self-pity of someone who is sick, abused, or impoverished if it is formatted as an adventure. The children of MD Anderson Cancer Center “don’t often address their cancer directly, they write about thunderstorms or animals” (Arnold 34).

I was surprised to read about how prolific in writing the children of MD Anderson Cancer Center are. It doesn’t surprise me that Miah Arnold often had to facilitate by writing what the children dictated to her. When I was a third grader I was sick with something the doctors had trouble diagnosing. It had symptoms like nausea, facial pain, fevers and general weakness. Doctors batted around words like leukemia and rye syndrome. I laid still and dreamed in hyper-color, scenes from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” that my mom read aloud. I spent months lying in bed dreaming about the beautiful places my mom had taken me fishing, and about drinking orange soda at the counter of the Charlo Cafe, a dingy little restaurant in my home town, but a happy place. Months later, they found abscesses in my face and treated me, and it was over. Although I was seriously ill, my experiences with sickness didn’t produce poetry, or art at that time. I was simply too sick to draw.

This long sickness left me with a hunger for beauty, a fear of being stuck in my own mind, with only a few shreds of remembered beauty to wrap around my shivering soul. I drink beauty in and memorize the details of my favorite cafe, where the waitress rolls her eyes at the Bigfoot stories and mistakenly pours me decaf. I can sense this attention to the details of the cafe in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk (Bent 48-49). I appreciated exploring his work because it has a familiar feel to it. A longing to remember the good places is in his paintings of lighthouses, theaters and cafes. He’s not interested in painting the palaces of Europe, just the comforts of his own grimy life.

In High School I became fascinated with perspective and architecture. Once I spent three days and nights drawing a building to scale, three times larger than the picture it was taken from. I was enchanted by the lines. Time passed and felt like it does watching TV.

Part of the appeal lay in the challenge: architecture is an exercise in logic; like a fugue or an algebraic equation, all the elements must resolve themselves symmetrically. One can fudge the perspectives of a mountain or a tree, but because it is largely composed of lines, a building’s perspective makes any lapse glaringly apparent. (Bent 45)

When Emerson said that “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” I think he was talking about the “holy of holies” where the mind is absorbed in the lines of a building, the lines of a poem or song, the lines of a beautiful face. The lines become a sanctuary from ourselves (Emerson 78).

I’ve been lost in Baghdad, and I’ve been in several major car accidents, but the closest I’ve been to death was standing between my dad and the television when I was two-years-old. He had been back from Vietnam for six years, and he zealously guarded the mind numbing distraction from reality that he found in watching TV. He jumped up and drop-kicked me out of the way. I almost died.

Studies have shown that children who had endured physical abuse, are more sensitive to the expression of anger on faces than a control group was, but we don’t recognize sadness and other expressions as well (Pollak 789). This difference in decoding expression might explain my latest type of drawing. I love to find photos of iconic people and redraw them. I discovered deep pores on Gandhi’s skin, from the heat. He has the same satisfied curl to his lip and squint in his eyes that my gentle grandpa had. I feel like I can understand that moment in his mind, in 1939, especially when I pose my face in the same squinty smile. I’m afraid of the social reproach I might find if I drew Stalin or Hitler, and I shudder when I examine the faces of the early Texas Rangers. I’m not brave enough to extract the emotion from that loud of a face yet.

I’d drawn people when I was younger, but for different reasons. I ripped the pages from Vogue magazine and studied the geometry, color, and smell of beauty, to try to capture the attractiveness of a woman to keep for myself. Now I draw people to apprehend emotion. I like to draw old people with wrinkles that show me the fears and joys they wore like clothes through the years.

When Edward Hopper draws people, he’s drawing their relationships, or lack, as a story of a moment like in Room in New York (Bent 46). When I draw several people, my view of them is more interactive than his was. I show them talking and looking at each other, he doesn’t. I am a fairly social person, he wasn’t. More than pain is expressed in art and literature, personality is.

Drawing a thing brings an intimate knowledge of it, that doesn’t come from simply looking at it. Writing a word brings a depth to that word that simply reading it doesn’t. We try to express the abuse, cancer, and despair as a means of catharsis, but instead, we own it at a deeper level.

My last drawing was an attempt to understand the suffering of others. I drew the back of a slave who had been bullwhipped, from a hundred-and-fifty year old image. He had smooth African lines of face and torso, crisscrossed by scars that bit all the way down to exposed spine. I suspect that this man was chosen as the subject of the photo because he was the most beautiful of the severely scarred. His dark skin contrasted the white scars boldly. His young vibrancy and smooth skin contrasted the rough texture of the scarification with as much distinction. He wasn’t revolting to look at, just the opposite, he was truly beautiful in the saddest way. I couldn’t make myself draw all his scars. I ended up leaving big blank spots on his back. Drawing has become a form of guided meditation for me, and I only have so much courage. My mind questioned this man’s childhood, abusers, descendants, his physical and emotional resilience to abuse, and his afterlife. What sins he had, he paid for in suffering, more than Jesus did.

I desperately want suffering to have meaning, to be examined, to be memorialized with honor. I want to say that Edward Hopper’s despair produced immense beauty and that his moral torment, sleeplessness, and depression had profound meaning. I want to see purpose and reason in the suffering of the slave, and in my own past. I think I might be trying too hard, like a writing teacher trying to wring meaning from the suffering of the dying children she works with. Suffering is futile. The expression of humanity, is not.

Works Cited

Arnold, Miah. “You Owe Me.” Brooks 29-42.

Anderson, Paula. Paula’s Art Web. June 11, 2013.

Bent, Geoffrey. "Edward Hopper and the Geometry of Despair." Brooks 43-52.

Brooks, David Ed. The Best American Essays 2012. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pages 2012. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance." Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature and Selected Essays. 1841. New York: Penguin, 175-203. 2003. Print.

Hopper, Edward. Edward Hopper: His Paintings, Biography, and Quotes Web. June 11, 2013.

Pollak, Seth D,and Pawan Sinha. "Effects of Early Experience on Children’s Recognition of Facial Displays of Emotion." Developmental Psychology Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2002, Vol. 38, No. 5, 784–791. Web.Jun 11, 2013.

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