This happened to me a few years ago. It was October, the afternoon of the only day I had to spend in my hometown before flying home. The three days previous had been spent in a fairly intense group psychology workshop in Alexandria, Virginia (coincidentally the town I was born in), which I’d entered without knowing anybody and which I’d left feeling quite invested in the well-being of new friends. The night before I had spent stranded in the Denver airport with a canceled flight, barely sleeping on the hard floor. I’d arrived cold and very weary that morning; the day had been spent in a series of brief and happy but quite poignant encounters with family and friends.
I was going to meet J. in a little bookstore, at the new art gallery which is in the building which once housed the city library. I was late and so wondered if I had missed her, but she had mentioned wanting to see the exhibit; so I went in to look. I recalled she had said it was something about political refugees, but I did not recall anything specific (remember, I was coming off of about an hour of fitful sleep, which had followed three days of very intense psychological work in a different time-zone, and I had already done quite a bit of hurrying that day, trying to fit in a number of friends in the one day I had in town). As I entered the exhibit (thru the exit) I saw that each piece hanging on the wall was a beautiful silver-print photograph, black & white, maybe 2'x1', and almost always of a human subject. Some were up close, some were distant; some were in groups and some were single. All ages, all races, male and female; sometimes just looking into the camera, sometimes caught at some off-guard moment. What they had in common, as became clear when now I read the words on the walls, was that they were all displaced people1, relocated or fleeing from political persecution or war or some other total disruption of their life. All of them had been made to flee from what they had known and were uncertain about what would happen to them.
As I walked in, I was not really looking at the photographs. I was looking for J., and I only registered the photographs as objects. They were in fact quite beautiful, but I barely noticed even that, at first. I thought about the strange question of aestheticizing suffering; about the making of beautiful images to call attention to human sorrow, and whether, and how, this worked. But the artistry of the photographs themselves was undeniable, and they certainly “drew me in;” the best photographs are a magic synthesis of chance circumstance, brought under deft and light organization—a quality they share with the human face itself: fragile, but ordered in a mysterious proportion. The exhibit was organized in a somewhat labyrinthine way; photographs seemed roughly grouped according to time and place (the exhibit covers six years of fairly recent history), but the walls of the rooms, while fairly open, were also not quite orderly; it was possible to not know quite where you were. This may be fine if you are leisurely looking at pictures on a wall, but it makes it hard when you are looking for someone; there is always the possibility that your friend has circled ’round behind you. Of course one does not call out in a quiet art gallery just to see if someone is there. So I kept walking, looking from room to room; but I was also slowing down, noticing the photographs more and more. I remember one of a woman doing washing: the arc of the clothes she is beating dry unfurling behind and above her spraying water in a baroque curl. There was another of an old man with glasses sitting alone, filling most of the frame, his arms around his legs, what seems a look of being utterly at a loss on his face. There was another of a little boy in a field, a long row of train cars off behind him. There was one of a camp in Africa, huge hillsides facing each other, covered in tents. Face after face after face was looking out at me or looking past me—in fact they were all doing both. And suddenly saturation point was reached; I too was doing both. I was looking at them, but I was looking past them too. And yet I was also looking for a face.
I am not sure I can explain what happened next. It was as if the glass slid off of the photographs and the whole room, the whole maze, Escherized. I do not know whether I began to spin, but a feeling of vertigo came over me. I was no longer looking at surfaces; I had fallen, been lifted, into a space where questions were not made of words but were living energies moving through me. All the different planes of the question—art, aesthetics, life, my life, my life in Seattle, my life in Salt Lake, my life in Alexandria a day and two and three days earlier—all folded or unfolded in a kind of terrifyingly huge origami. There was nothing intellectual about it; it was as though all these issues had become wild animals bounding towards me with jaws open, howling from all directions. All my senses were simultaneously opening up and shutting down. I knew with an indisputable sense of recognition that I was in the middle of a poem—this is the word that happened to me (I can only put it that way) right then. It was not that I was taking notes for a poem but that I knew I was in the electric center of where poems happen. A poem by a friend2 flashed through my brain—he's at an aquarium with his toddler son and something happens—
…—I blinkbut in my case there was no one to speak to, and no voice, only a rush and roar in my ears. Again I was passing through the membrane that is the question about art and life. All those faces, people I do not know, but could know. The face I wanted to see but was not there. The stories of their lives—the lives they thought would happen that were interrupted, the lives that were happening now, after the shutter had clicked; those relocations further in the past (all the black and white photographs of the 20th century were starting to fly through my mind in a windstorm); and those too recent to be shown here--people whose lives were uprooted by tidal wave, hurricane, war, famine, earthquake. Somewhere, microscopic in all the whirlwind, like a ragged serif on a footnote, a little picture of me huddled on the floor or the Denver airport with my own laundry spread over me for a blanket. But it was not me I was feeling; it was the whirlwind.
—no—violently start forward, find the tank
right up against my nose, almost, the wild pant
of my own breath fogging the glass. The distant
sound is my own voice, anyone’s voice, chatter-
ing at my son…
I don’t know how long this happened; I feel sure it cannot have been even a full minute, or I would have fallen to the floor; but time was telescoping out. My heart was pounding and my breath quick and shallow; and though I “knew” I was standing in a photography exhibit in the city I had grown up in, that knowledge was fast becoming as irrelevant to me as the knowledge I’d once “known” year before when, wading in a mountain lake, I’d stepped off an underwater ledge and found myself, non-swimmer, out of my depth in freezing water. Suddenly there were arms around me, my friend pulling me to shore, and I “knew” not to panic, not to struggle, I remembered stories of drowners drowning their rescuers... I was supposed to go limp and let myself be carried, right? But that knowledge was inaudible, itself drowned out by the blare of horns and terror that was filling my mind. Fortunately my friend was a better swimmer than I was a struggler. So too now, dizziness, growing panic, and a welling-up cry of inconsolable sorrow was drowning out the trivial detail that I was in a public room with a set of social expectations. Had I opened my mouth in that crowd of faces, I am not sure what would have come out.
I was staggering toward the door like a drunken man, when, suddenly, I was saved by the ringing of my cell phone. I answered, oblivious to protocol. I knew immediately, without looking, that it was J., but what I said was, “is it you?” By the time I made it outside to speak with her, my composure had melted like jello. The moment I tried to vocalize what was happening, I choked and could not speak. For where I was, there was only one language, and it had only one inarticulate word.
J's voice hauled me to shore; and I eventually was able, shakily, to drive. But I knew I had not “finished”; when I made it to my friend S.'s house about ten minutes later, I both wanted and did not want to try to say anything. It was precisely the same feeling as when one knows one has an unpleasant physical process to go through that will make you feel better afterwards--like needing to vomit, (or more picturesquely, to re-locate a shoulder, a friend suggested later). I trusted S. implicitly and knew I could tell her about it; but I was also unsure whether “it would still be there.” It was still there. Even now I can feel moments of clenching of heart or a faint echo of a too-big space in my mind as I recall it (if there is a poem here, it will not be “recollected in tranquility.”) I cried-- I shook-- I sobbed-- for what I think was twenty minutes. What was I weeping about? Even now I don’t think I can say “why.” The terrible sorrow, the huge scale, the fear (trauma) from disorientation, my own personal losses, the fragility of our stories—these were all ingredients, no doubt, in what I was feeling; but I find it very resistant to summary. Only one thing I said in the immediate aftermath—sitting on S.'s couch, her hand on my back, my face drenched with tears, in a moment where my trembling had quieted down enough to let me speak—keeps recurring to me when I think over that hour. I don't claim it to be profound; it may even be trite. But it does not go away. What I remember saying to S. is: “the biggest thing in the world is a human face.”3 Later that day I saw friends who I had been with just before I’d gone to the exhibit. I looked at them differently. Everyone I saw, in fact—I looked into their faces for a long time.
1 The exhibition was Sabastiao Salgado’s collection called "Exodus"
2 “Transparent, ” from Shells by Craig Arnold. Craig later disappeared while climbing the volcano Kuchinoerabu-jima in the Ryukyu islands off the Japanese coast. This essay is dedicated to him.
3 Would I stand by this qualifier, “human,” today? The question is appropriate and in some sense inevitable, and I am tempted to answer it negatively; but I could only alter the text of my recollection at the risk of falsifying it. Whatever the impossible contours of the whirlwind, the place it touched down for me was in the realm of the human. It does not seem to end there.