No art lasts forever, but some art is much more transient than the rest.
A good friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page tonight that shows photographs of a Van Gogh painting reproduced large on the landscape via vegetation planted on a 1.2-acre plot. The artist is Stan Herd, who specializes in “land art” designed to be seen from the air. Most of his pieces are eventually plowed under or grown over.
The same transience characterizes the work of the well-known artist Andy Goldsworthy, who works primarily with sticks and stones, leaves, ice, and other materials found in nature. Most of his works are not destined for long life either. They melt, get blown away, wither, or are destroyed by water. Even more transient than Goldsworthy’s or Herd’s works are patterns made by artists on sandy beaches or snowy slopes, some of which last only a few minutes before seawater washes them away or the sun melts their borders.
Some conceptual artists play on the notion of transience by doing conventional work but deliberately planning its destruction. And the very nature of performance art is transience. Only the photographs and videos documenting these various types of art have any longevity, although they too will die some day.
It’s supremely ironic that my friend happened to post this particular link this evening that led me to muse about the transience of art—because this evening, after years of uncertainty, I had finally brought myself to put some art into the recycling bin.
When my husband died, in May 2008, he left behind three big acid-free boxes stacked full with 200 to 300 abstract paintings and other artworks interleaved with acid-free sheets. Most of these works were done with undiluted watercolors on paper. Some were done with ink; some were done via photocopier. Many of the paintings are flaking; some are wrinkled. Some are quite good; many are not, partly because Steve never discarded any of his efforts and partly because his mother and I have skimmed off the cream of the crop. They epitomized Steve as much as anything did. They were the best things he ever produced. To whatever extent anyone has a legacy, they were his legacy. And even though we were divorced a few months before he died, they became unofficially mine upon his death.
At least, I took them. A friend helped me clear out the house that Steve and I once shared, which I’d deeded over to him in the divorce. But neither of us could pry open the high cupboards in the sunroom that I thought contained the boxes of paintings. In a near panic, I dragged in a neighbor who worked and worked and finally got the doors open. I wept in relief. Although I didn’t know what I would do with the paintings, they were the most alive thing left of Steve and they had to be saved.
But where does art go when it has no future?
I framed a couple of the paintings for my house. But Steve and I had no children. He had no siblings. His father died less than five months after he did. In short, after I took the boxes to his mother and let her choose what she wanted, I was at a loss to know what to do with the paintings down the line. Like my own photographs, which will be thrown out or deleted by someone unknown to me after I die, his art has no prospective home.
I’ve kept the boxes for seven years. It seemed unthinkable to get rid of any of the paintings. But I recently told Steve’s mother I would bring them to her, along with the quilts she made us, to ensure that they would still be “in the family” if I died. A smart woman, she hit upon the idea of taking some of the paintings to next year’s family reunion in case any of Steve’s cousins want some of them. She couldn’t take 300 of them, however, and most people don’t much care for abstract paintings. The reality is that most or all of those paintings will be thrown out by someone after my ex-mother-in-law dies.
As I was going through the paintings one last time, choosing a few more that I hate to part with, I found myself putting aside some that I knew would never find a home among Steve’s cousins. Then I began putting aside more that I knew wouldn’t find a home. And finally I assumed the role of Steve’s curator, deciding which paintings were best and which should be sacrificed to make things more manageable for his mother.
Who was I to judge that? But it seemed best for me to do it—a favor, a burden, a debt, an obligation. At one point I just sat down and cried, because it seemed I was discarding his soul, a concept I don’t even believe in. I’m not sure which I was mourning more, the art or the artist. In some dimension, they are one and the same.
I Watched You Without Blinking
In the twilight of your sinking
I grew calloused to your grief.
I thought I loved you less and less.
I watched you without blinking.
From the lies about your drinking
I conceived the need to leave.
Words were weapons in my telling. Still,
I watched you without blinking.
Once, you lay in bed unthinking,
Slack. You floated toward death’s port.
But the doctors turned the tide back as
I watched you without blinking.
In the aftermath of stinking
Guilt, my shame came to the fore.
I’d cut the line, so fine, between us.
I had watched you without blinking.
When I strove for our relinking,
You were carapaced with hate.
My hands, outstretched, stayed empty, for
I’d watched you without blinking.
My heart curled gray and shrinking
As your world grew small and strait.
You chose the path toward Not to be.
I watched you without blinking.
You handed off your grief to me.
I cannot keep from blinking.
Now I fight to shed the darkness
Of the twilight of your sinking.
This poem is for and about Steve, my second husband. The third stanza, which may be too inscrutable, refers to his failed suicide attempt. By the time he died he was my ex-husband, but for many reasons I felt much more like a widow than a divorcée. My sense is that this may be the last time I write about him. If you’re fairly new to this blog and are interested, see Into the Confessional and Steve.
The title of this poem comes from a 2004 painting by Ikenaga Yasunari called “I Watch You Without Blinking.” As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write something using the same title. I was thinking of a short story. Instead, I set out to write a villanelle, but it morphed into the quatrain form above while still using a repeating-line motif. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last line of each stanza is the same (with small variations), until the final stanza. The last line of the poem repeats the first line. Every two stanzas have second lines that rhyme, though usually with a slant rhyme.
Caveat: I’m abandoning my principles in making this post. There is nothing humorous here at all, and the few readers I have might usefully be advised to skip it. This post is principally for me to get the refrain of the past six years set down in writing. My friends have heard this ad nauseam, and they’re tired of hearing it. They needn’t read this. They’ve told me I’m not to blame, but I reject that judgment. One can’t absolve oneself of a great wrong because it is emotionally convenient. It doesn’t work that way.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice…
There was more than one nightmare on Elm Street. I lived on the street by that name in our town for 15 years, and the experience was bracketed at either end by deaths. One I had nothing to do with. The other I caused. There were accomplices, including the victim, but I dealt the killing blow.
The night before my second husband and I closed on the first and only house we bought together, a young man—a kid, really—raced his car up our portion of Elm Street, lost control, briefly went airborne, and struck the big sweet-gum tree in what would soon be our front yard. He died on the spot.
That’s what we learned when we arrived at the house the next day for the last walk-through before closing. The police had been so thorough in removing signs of the wreck that it took a moment to realize something very bad had happened. Tire tracks cut across the neighbor’s yard and her flower bed and disappeared into our front yard. On this balmy spring day, thousands of small pieces of glass glinted like ice over the lawn. An elderly woman from the apartment building next door told us what had happened the previous night. “If that tree hadn’t been there,” she said more than once, “I would have been killed in my bedroom.”
I felt sick for the boy and sick about this ominous development. Although my rationalism rejects superstition, my emotional side remains vulnerable. We’d looked a long time for a house, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted this one. I’d been afraid of death most of my life and I didn’t need my own front lawn serving as a perpetual memento mori. Everything seemed marred and wrong. I was prepared to forgo the earnest money and walk away, but when I brought up this possibility, the real estate agent said dismissively, “Well, it’s not as if someone killed himself in the house. I could see that bothering a person.”
We signed. Not having witnessed the accident made it easier to put out of mind. Still, I often thought about it when I looked out the living room windows. Fifteen years later, we were still picking up stray pieces of glass from the front lawn.
In my mind, that boy’s life ended in ice. My husband’s ended in fire.
We had a rocky marriage. I didn’t realize it until almost the end, but he was an alcoholic, and I fear that certain problems of my own caused his alcoholism to become worse. He lied about his drinking, as alcoholics do, and the lying was what really bothered me. Steve—I can write his first name instead of using initials, because what I write can’t hurt him now—wasn’t a mean drunk. Most of the time I didn’t even realize he was drunk. He went to bed early and I went to bed late. I didn’t know he was drinking in the mornings. I didn’t know he went home at lunch so that he could drink; he said it was to walk the dogs. I didn’t know much of anything. After his DUI he stopped drinking at the bars but found creative ways to hide his drinking at home.
Three times I told him if he lied again about drinking, I’d leave. Three times I went back on my word.
The fourth time I said I was leaving, I pushed Steve to call C., a friend of his who had gone through hell and successfully quit drinking with the help of AA. After the conversation he came into the living room, sat by me and cried and said I’d been right about calling C. The next morning he went to work drunk, clung to his boss and told her she was his family now, and was suspended for three weeks.
He begged me not to leave. I knew he probably wouldn’t make it without me; he had no friends in town and was completely emotionally reliant on me. Still, I bought another house and I went to San Diego to move my disabled sister back to live with me—both decisions proving to be additional disasters in the making.
Meanwhile, Steve was reassigned to another job, which he lost after a little more than a week. This time there was no appeal, although I met with the university authorities and did my best to advocate for him. My sister lived with us for two months while I had repairs done to the new house. In retrospect I can’t believe I was cruel enough to subject Steve to that, and even to ask him for help in doing things.
At some point shortly after he lost his job there came a morning when I couldn’t wake Steve up. He was barely conscious. After my sister and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t brought his wallet. When I returned home I went into the basement, Steve’s locus of operations. All of his pill bottles stood empty, along with an empty whiskey bottle. I estimated that he’d taken 200 pills of various types. He hadn’t left a note. He was unconscious for three days and in the hospital for nine. Only then did I really start trying to help him, but it was too little too late. Why not earlier? I don’t know the answer to that question. To say that I was stupid and naive seems insufficient.
The insurance company refused to fund an inpatient rehab program, saying that Steve needed to have failed at an outpatient program first. On his first day at an outpatient program, such a violent fight broke out between two participants that the police had to be called. Terribly frightened, Steve had an accident—he only told me this much later—and never returned to the program.
Not long after that I drove him five hours to an inpatient program that said they had an open bed. When we got there, however, the bed had been taken and the program had been told that insurance wouldn’t cover Steve’s stay anyway. I argued with the insurance company; the program argued with the insurance company. Nothing.
I scheduled him with a self-pay inpatient program locally, but the program required that the patient call to confirm that he’d attend. He never called. Two months later I tried again. He never called.
The day before Thanksgiving, he told me he needed help. After several hours at the local ER, a hospital two hours away accepted him into short-term rehab. Nobody mentioned an ambulance. I drove him up there in darkness; by the time we arrived he was vomiting. The day after Thanksgiving he called to say he was being released. Less than 48 hours in detox? I made the drive again. He said he would never go back to a locked ward. They had confiscated his belt, without which his jeans wouldn’t stay up, and his shoelaces, without which his shoes wouldn’t stay on. He was afraid of the other people on the ward. The next time he had to detox, he refused to go to the ER, so I persuaded him to detox at my house. All I knew to do for him was to make sure he kept drinking water. I had already begun suggesting that he move in with me and my sister, but he refused.
I proceeded with a divorce. The lawyer had said that assets from my parents’ estate, which were earmarked for my sister, could be jeopardized if Steve had a DUI and killed somebody. Much later I found out this was almost certainly untrue. Steve wanted to put off signing the papers, but I wouldn’t let him. When he finished signing, he gave me a look of rebuke and hatred. I deserved that.
I took him to doctor’s appointments, the ones he didn’t cancel or refuse to go to. Once you try to kill yourself, we discovered, many helpful medications are off-limits. Nothing allayed his anxiety. Finally his psychiatrist put him on Seroquel. I thought he was sleeping so much and missing AA meetings because he was drinking. He was, but he also was knocked out by Seroquel. One morning he called at 4 a.m., thinking it was afternoon.
I went to Al-Anon meetings, which I found useless. I called complete strangers from these meetings and blurted out every sordid detail of my behavior and his problem, but there was no consolation. Steve was dying in front of me. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. C. flew in from the East Coast to see if he could help Steve. When I called him later, he was pessimistic. Steve wouldn’t talk to him seriously, he said. Steve was in denial.
Filled with anxiety, I lay on my couch or in my bed day after day and tried to get warm. My bones were cold, a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Nor could I get to work very often. The roof, which I’d had inspected before I bought the house, leaked every time it rained. Then came a major ice storm, which caused a tree limb to drop straight through the roof and attic and impale itself in the ceiling of my spare bedroom. The sun came out then, blindingly, glaring off all the ice-covered surfaces.
When the end came, it was on a day we had argued. Two days later the coroner called me at work, at my ex-father-in-law’s request. Alerted by neighbors, the police had broken into the house on Elm Street and found Steve’s body. It wasn’t hard for them to reconstruct what had happened. Steve had run out of matches and tried to light a cigarette from the stove burner. When the fire caught, it caught him too—alcohol was on his shirt and his beard. He inhaled fire. The police said he could not have suffered more than a couple of seconds. They were soft-pedaling it for me, I believe. Steve had time to stagger into the dining room, grope at a chair, and overturn it as he fell. There were burn marks on the floor. There were burn marks on the buffet. His pocket watch, which the police retrieved, was burned; his wallet was not. At the hospital we weren’t allowed to see his body.
I knew I might be killing him by leaving him, and I left anyway. I didn’t have to do it. There was nothing I had to save myself from. My guilt and grief threw me into a severe depression that eventually forced my retirement and caused physical debilitation. It’s something I’m struggling to fight my way back from. Steve exasperated me with his unwillingness to converse or to plan for the future, yet I have missed him greatly over the past years. He will never leave me. One of the few things I’ve learned in life is that the people you’ve loved never do leave you entirely, even as you go on to love others.
The last time I saw Steve was at our local grocery store. He was wearing his ratty old suede jacket. I threw my arms around him and began crying. His face was impassive. As far as I can remember, he didn’t say a word.