Monday, August 13, 2007

Acts of Salvage: Fragments of a Work in Progress


When at last you are reduced to this, when there is nothing left to relinquish, what else is there to do but build anew? To gather materials for a new shelter, a place where you might live and call home and dwell, where you might, once again, remember what it is like to be possessed of your own wounded self.

Especially here in this city whose inhabitants seem perpetually to discard solid dwelling in endless hope of renewal. If they haven’t lost everything, they act as though they wish to. Whole dwellings – entire kitchens, bathrooms, baseboards, windows with curtains still attached to their frames -- all slung into dumpsters shoved upon front lawns like glacial erratics, leaving incongruous moraine scars in their wake. Whole neighbourhoods vanish and reappear in a strobe of constant renovation, jagged slow-motion, replaced by the fresh, brutal facade of the new. The map replaces the territory it once marked, and the entire city is left homeless. At night it curls itself in architectural renderings; by morning the ink has leaked into the soil and only framed-in skeletons remain, stark shadows against the brittle dawn.

The homeless are believed to slide into dereliction due to some absence or excess. There is something we are presumed to lack, some instinct for stability or some talent at grabbing what is available to be claimed. But perhaps what we lack is a destructive urge, this desperate flight from entropy in a city that tears itself apart in a ceaseless quest for renewal. It is true that we do not resist the downward pull of things over the edge.

And undoubtedly you, too, have felt the downward pull of things over the edge, sitting in a commuter train or driving along the parkway. Cringing against the chaos waiting upon your arrival at work or home, filled with rage or ennui, you’ve longed for an escape. You’ve looked into the midden of sleeping bags piled against a highway overpass and wished just for one inarticulate moment that you could curl up against its girders and step out of the maelstrom for just one night.

There are so many ways to be homeless in this city. Sterile condominiums furnished to satisfy a binocular gaze. Silent, empty homes built to garage unused sectional sofas. The doors are locked but there is nothing of value behind them. All the life has gone out of these places, if it was ever permitted to enter.

And in this way I am no more homeless than you are: I have merely admitted it. I have enumerated my losses. And it is only out here, amid the discarded ruins of this lost city, that I might recover them.


In this city there is a woman whose possessions have scattered over years like kernels from a careless hand. She knows better than almost anyone the ways that life is centered around the accumulation and vanishing of possessions. A life, like a city, is built upon a mound of discarded objects, found and forgotten. But just as the visible parts of a city are only the tip of the tel, beneath the surface of a life is its own midden, a lost mound awaiting discovery by an archaeologist of memory. She knows that eventually you get used to these losses. You must, because so easily you learn to carry recurring heartaches in their place.

At night she sits at the window of a rooming house that lurches and settles and sighs around her. Its warren of rooms reminds her vividly of a jewelery box she once kept. As a child she would peer into its many compartments, touching like a talisman each of the little pins and necklaces, the red rose tea figurines, an owl and pussycat brooch set, prize ribbons, a gilt heart. Covered in pink-painted cardboard with a moss-green velveteen lining, the catch didn’t hold and one of the hinges was broken, but the jewelery box was solid enough to hold its hoard. It sat on her dresser, smelling of dust and Nivea Cream.

She doesn’t know where the jewelery box is, now. The last time she remembers seeing it was in a broken box shoved under the eaves of another rooming house. Her heart lurches, and in memory she reaches back as if to retrieve it before leaving. But that house is lost to her, as this one soon will be, and the jewelery box only one of many treasures left behind. In the night she imagines the gilt edge of the pussycat pin, its hard clasp a reminder of the weight of possession, the sharpness of loss.


On this night she watches something emerge from the darkness in the laneway, a cat carrying something in its mouth. A kitten, the one precious burden it will not leave behind. Four times the cat retraces its steps, a dark shadow among other shadows. Four times it vanishes into a derelict outbuilding, carrying another kitten, and finally it does not reemerge. And the grain of an idea begins to grow in her mind, a thought of ballast against the windblown journey of her life.

In the morning, before the agents and architects arrive, their footfalls rough and careless in the rooms as they measure and calculate and claim, she visits the outbuilding, and breaks in, almost by accident. An ancient lock snaps off in her hand and the door sags open, its rusted hinges uttering welcome and warning. Inside is a jumble of dust and furniture and cartons. For a moment she starts, certain for an instant that all her lost treasures have ended up here. But the boxes hold another trove: books, china, clothing, a cat and four kittens. Lost objects, things she might rescue and redeem.

And that night while the moon waxes in slow ascent she appears and vanishes like so many other things in this city. Four times she crosses between the house and the laneway, a dark shadow among other shadows, carrying the precious burdens she will not leave behind.

[A fragment of a work in progress, modified slightly from its previous appearances at Reading Toronto and elsewhere.]

1 comment:

WH said...

Very interesting reflections, Amy. I do think this expanding universe inherently contains entropy. My office closet is an example. So is New Orleans, a few miles fom here. It was a city falling apart, begging for something to wipe it clean, but no one wants to talk of the neglect that existed in the city for so many years. If there is indeed a universal law of attraction, then perhaps NO is an example, not that I wish such suffering on anyone, let alone my friends and the place I was born. I am merely pointing out how the city laughed at the possibility, openly discussed for years, of finding itself underwater and destroyed. I have been to NYC many times, and I think your description is apt: it tears itself apart constantly in order to re-invent and rebuild itself. So do supernovae . The mandala keeps spinning.