On Slaughter and Praying: An Essay in Two Parts

Part One. Before Getting to My Desk 

Before getting to my desk this morning I’ve woken to the back of Luke’s spine in blue light and understood for the first time that is the image I have been dreaming of after working the “I” entirely out of a poem that didn’t need it. The poem has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the cataract over a saint’s eye as Fra Angelico finished painting it in fresco five hundred years ago, everything to do with what, if anything, an angel could tell Mary about what she’s getting into when the angel comes to tell her she’ll bear the child of God. 

There’s some blue light involved, a bent and sleeping spine. Some lucky rainfall on the day of his birth, eight years ago.

Before getting to my desk this morning I have crafted a paper grocery bag—thank goodness paper grocery bags still exist!—into a costume for Luke for school, fastening it with butterfly clips. What are those? He asked when I said the two unexpected words together. Restore me to the wonder of anything named. What love? Hélène Cixous might say, as she did when she wrote of Rembrandt. Then I showed Luke the clip’s shape was like a butterfly rather than explaining it is just a metal clasp that opens between thumb and forefinger. I suggested we use them rather than taping so that the bag could be easily removed for sitting, for reading, for recess. He agreed. Then I cut from the bottom plastic sheeting of a reusable grocery bag (the kind that stand straight up using this sturdy plastic on the bottom) one round nose and two droopy triangular ears. I taped all three to the face and sideburn area and stood at the bus explaining he was Stick Dog, a semi-obscure cartoon character some children know and some don’t. Cixous again, writing, it’s about our captivity, reminding me that most of what we do for each other, most of what we cut, glean, and shape to wear, hides from us our essential fear long enough to bathe us in a captive beauty. 

Before getting to my desk this morning I read a beautiful poem by the Hungarian Miklós Radnóti, who died in a ditch while performing forced labor during World War II but whose notebook of poems was found upon his exhumation in the raincoat that covered his body, a poem that contains lines about the end of summer “bath[ing] in the sun,” and a “pain that wanders around / but you start again as if you had wings.” The notebook nestled in consolation next to his dead body for over a year before it was found. 

Before I get to my desk this morning my window has reminded me with its frame of the contrasts of a Mark Rothko painting available in nature’s browns and blues, and my dreams have been filled with the strange creatures that inhabit the canvases of Arshile Gorky, especially those with names like Tracking Down Guiltless Doves. Who, what hunter, tracks down guiltless doves, I think before I can stop myself. Start again as if you had wings. Okay, Miklós.

Before my desk calls, the purple irises have sprung up, lovely weeds that must have something tasteless at their heart, for the deer have left them. And the flowering pear tree that snowed petals down on us all last week as we went from the car to the house to the car to the house, to soccer, to baseball, to band, and back again—that flowering pear readies itself to rain pollen next.

Before I get to my desk a bird of the same type that is dead near our tiny fish pond has visited the dead one’s body. Don’t talk about it, my older says—all of twelve, and worried my younger will notice, as older notes he must bring his trombone home today or miss the performance. Don’t show him. It’s too sad. Later Stick Dog will not see it.

With my older, I hold myself back from telling the story someone told me about poet Robert Desnos saving a whole train car of Jewish persons from the Holocaust, inspiring each of them to recite a poem aloud to him until the guard could no longer see them as he’ d been trained to—as inhuman—but as fulfilling this fundamental human function of reciting words even unto what is surely oblivion. Could humans be shot after such a thing, though the ditch called to them? These persons were saved, but Miklós’ widow had book, not man, afterward. Here is Miklós again: All this could happen!         The moon is round today! / Don’t walk past me, friend. I save these stories for a day my older can hear them, but when is that day? Soon, I fear—or worse, already past. In a way I would not have picked for him, another story has already been told to him, one seemingly ahistorical yet closer to home, where we live in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in which twenty children are murdered in their classrooms. Should I begin to tell him about Desnos, he might ask me what this has to do with that. And what would I say?

At my desk I wonder how Stick Dog is faring in his classroom. Perhaps the best moment of my life passed this morning when I held the two tines of the butterfly clip in my hand above his small back, one hand on his neck, him saying a little tighter, a little looser. 

Start again as if you had wings. Yes. How do essays and poems talk to each other? Can one art sing to another as I did in my pew those years ago as a child, a call and response rooted in marrow and bone? The essay tells me (from the Latin) to try. The poem says sing, make. What would a trying-song be? A making-try? We are with and we are of the arrow.

Would Cixous have me make something? Would Cixous enact in me another of many slaughters? If I’ve learned nothing these few years in my small town struck by sudden violence, all is slaughter and prayer, and yet before I get to my desk the world is opening—why go to my desk at all? All this could happen! Miklós whispers to me, looking up from his shovel, touching the pocket where the poem is stored, is safe. The moon is round today! 



Part Two. A Covering Snow, or On Picasso and Cixous


__ Captivity __

Again we’ve dragged the boys to midtown Manhattan, the both of them inclined instead toward the park or street food, toward anything else, but we go to Picasso Sculpture at the MOMA, explaining that rather than the flat paintings they critique as not as good as what we do they’ll be seeing sculpture, ideas made plastic. Some of the pieces, I’ve heard or read somewhere, are just folded paper napkins Picasso made to please a bored sister at a restaurant, the kind of thing the boys do when they’re feeling generous. I say this partly to entice and partly to annoy them. We’re inside an ongoing debate about the efficacy of modern art in general; their interest in winning it means they will be quiet through the rooms, assembling arguments for the drive home. How wrong we are to want to travel all this way to look at these pieces, they’ll say, having looked nonetheless, moving steadily one room ahead of me so that I am quickly alone, intermittently so; it’s them and it’s Picasso creating that space around me, causing me for a moment to be aware of some limitation I can’t name.


__ Bird (1931–32), plaster __

In the fifth room I see it: Bird. It’s white and sits on its belly (no feet), perhaps a foot long and half a foot wide, in an early room, as the artist began to try everything at his disposal to grow, change, see, and feel the contours of both the inner and the outer landscape. (So: bike seats, heating elements, paper, sand, springs, sheet metal, colanders.) For Bird, humble plaster for a simple upturned head and flayed wings. Later in the car I will try but fail to explain that when I look at this small shape surrounded by larger bodies I think worship. I think praise.

Has a little bit of the human capacity to gaze in wonder at the body of a foreign thing (and at the foreign in us) entered the artist’s hand and transmitted into this bird? I can feel it suffusing the plaster as hundreds swirl past, catching the exhibition in the days before it closes. Cixous—discussing Derrida this time, searching, really, for him—talks about trying to know the inside self, in this case through the act of reading a book: at the beginning of this whole book, to begin, there will have been this moment of separation within me, the instant of opening what must remain closed, and then, the dazzling effusion of blood, frightening, sudden appearance of what can only be interior.

What is this moment of separation? Surely I’ve felt it, here at the museum, or when I am away from someone I love, or when I am away from myself, untrue to an interior effusion. The famous book she is discussing is Derrida’s Circonfession (in English, Circumfession). I am not a good student and have not read it—but to my blood-born poet’s ear it’s a mix of confession and circumference. The long way around. It’s a making and a try.

I am feeling something of the moment of separation in front of this bird the longer I stand with it, though with is an inadequacy of language. Perched head up, tail up the bird asks what is interior, what is exterior, what is not me? Nothing is not me, I would tell bird through glass. You are me, you are the one I choose—not those in the other galleries, eleven in all, spanning sixty-two years of work. Bent absinthe spoons, burned cardboard guitars, the lion design that would end up fifty feet high in a park in Chicago. Them too, them later. But first you: your plaster runs through my blood. Look at how foreign my hands become, standing in front of you, trying to take your picture. My hands are no more mine than yours. 

Finally I leave him in his glass box. My blood is back under the membrane of my skin but I sense it, coursing. I go from circa 1930–32 through several more rooms. I am working my way up to The War Years.


__ Breath Work __

Night terrors, or their possibility, mean my younger boy is asleep in our bed. The night after the exhibition, awake but not moving much among sleepers, a song’s in my head, perhaps related to the bird, perhaps not. Like a bird’s wing it would fold into the prose of Cixous, but it’s mine not hers and I don’t know what it means or why Cixous has anything to say about Picasso or me or the plaster bird: My wound is the door. My insomnia is the wound.

It’s not insomnia that I have exactly. It’s not a problem the way a wound is not, actually, a problem. It’s a problem the way anything noticed or felt enough to wound is a dazzling effusion. At the moment of waking—dazzling, effusive—I am outside my body. And the outside is full of the artifacts of inside; perhaps this is part of what drew Picasso to his materials, since using them pushed him inside himself, showed on the outside the possibilities he’ d been harboring in other travels and in dreams.

My insomnia acts as a pleasing wound. One minute asleep, the next pleasantly awake. My husband is next to me on one side, my boy on the other, and I have the room to turn my head and look over the rise/fall of his small sculptural form out to the tree that is my all-weather companion. I am pleasantly awake outside my body, and also asleep in the tree’s swaying wind. How cold is it? What time is it where I am (where am I)?

Where I am, the engine of my boy being alive is not far from me, or not yet far from me. Even so, sometimes there is glass between my bird and me. And outside my body I am not necessarily anything but a wound in wind.


__ On Doors __

Cixous has a bit to say on the concept of the door, that keeper of inside/outside: first vision, which acted then, for me, without my knowledge, like the revelation of a door. There is a door. In the world, there are doors.

first vision, which acted then: it’s possible in speaking of first vision she is talking about a childhood consciousness, revelation acting upon her without her consciously knowing it. She is not the first to posit the artistic impulse as being akin to or born from the one experienced in childhood, but probably everyone (not only the artistic genius) has felt this. My boys argue that this is the essential fraud of modern art, that the resulting art is child’s play, although in making their very argument I fear they strip themselves from first vision in favor of the act of critique. But their argument is not entirely wrong or new. Picasso himself would agree, having famously said, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Some may not remember first vision or consciously perceive it until they are asked to do so by the object of art—painting, sculpture, poem. Certainly children are closer to spiritual experience, will drop down the well of spirit more readily than adults; adulthood is a mopping up of what washed out of us (blood and other things) while we were children. 

The argument that reconciles their point of view and mine is that some of the artist’s job is to recall that state children easily enter as if passing through a doorway where the door has been removed, as if passing through air. That state simplifies matters, though: a piece of it is the elimination of the idea of the door. So, not simply to step through the open doorway, the doorless door, but to conceptualize the opening as never having been framed by the door: this is the state of childhood and the task of the artist.

Part of this artistic, childhood temperament is a fidelity to close proximity to the outside world. In my case that was a world of ocean, wind, and sand. From it, creatures were spit up and out of deep places from storms, many-headed. The reckoning with these sometimes pleasing, sometimes frightening other beings led to intermittent but violent confrontation with people and events around me. How does one reconcile the shock of what is truly new and wild with the awareness that that thing is here, in the world, along with team sports and television? In my case I spent my days in tidal pools awaiting my father’s homecoming from his work designing rockets, waiting for the moment his Skilcraft pen with its brushed silver band, tucked neatly into his front pocket, was mine for the evening, as strange as any creature I found that day. All evening in front of the news I’ d worry the band loose between forefinger and thumb. What had the pen’s band to do with the pools full of unnamed creatures? I accepted their relationship; I lived inside their strangeness.

The adult approaches material with a curiosity, the artist with a recovered or restored wonder. Picasso’s materials wash ashore everywhere in the sculptural, plastic world. Bird, wire, body, body, cardboard. Torn and scratched paper. Each is a trove found on the beach, collected for no other reason but wonder.


__ Grown __

I was already grown when I pressed too hard on a wall and a small door opened. By the time this small door opened I had lost the sense of connection between myself and things; I had not worried a band off its pen or seen something move in the moving tide in a long time. But in that moment—I could hear the metal mechanism click, could feel the hinged wall/door spring toward me—the wonder, the fear, and the desire to feel that had driven me into the state of child suddenly awakened. On the other side of the not-door was a chamber, a shelf with a mason jar on which a piece of masking tape had been placed, on which was written orchid food. And so it was that I learned the wonder of the foreign, and the acknowledgment of its innateness in me, was also a function of language. There are doors inside language any time two words are put together for what could be the first time. 

About the door, Cixous continues: Happily there isn’t only the world. Beyond the world is the Other side. One can pass over, it’s open or it opens. Happily one can go there. Where? There.

  (How?) We need a door.

The question of whether the door (of Picasso’s material, of poetic language, of our own foreignness, or perhaps most importantly of the love of another) is already open or whether it opens with added pressure is an important one as regards artistic exploration. How much pressure to apply? What is the difference between noting the opening and blowing through the wall oneself? A dazzling effusion of the self into the world, Picasso’s figures call from the gallery, saying apply pressure! Open wider!

There’s the door of wind in the tree. The door of my boy’s breath and what it does to me to acknowledge it, to match or track it with my own. There is the open question of what parts stay inside of him, parts I don’t and will never touch. And parts I can’t get out of me to give him, to give to the outer world. The outer world, I know, includes him.


 __ On the Relationship of Art to the Body __

The bird sings white. From its glass it sings in a pose of worship. It sings plaster. It calls for someone’s hands to press it, to get out what had been in. 

For Cixous, out-and-in is both an essential and an unbearable separation. Intrinsic to the discussion is the question of death, what she calls the only absolutely ‘impassable’ border. But also love: the uprooted heart in the heart, in the outside interior of me. There is an outside of me.

There is an outside of me. This fact alone creates the paradox of love. In the moment of knowing that one’s own happiness is tied to another, that one’s own well-being is no longer the most important thing, you would think the door would open to an inside. Instead, though, one realizes that there is an outside of me, something one’s own interior self can’t protect. Something
likely to suffer or even die. This is the thought that is terrifying and somewhat unthinkable because we are not outside ourselves but rather stuck inside, watching parts that are outside-of-us walk around, jump too high, cross the street without looking. Outside is a bear in the woods, a stalking beast; but that bear is also in me. I’m the wild animal. A bear’s been seen at my boys’ bus stop, minutes after they were there. Upturning the trash cans, searching for food. Me me me.

But this pressure between the outside that is me and the inside that is me is also the thing pressing down, drawing me to the desk, putting Picasso hands deep in the clay (the clay is me, the bird is me, and the pressure is me).


__ On Material Submission __

Faith traditions—more precisely artistic practices, in the sense that they too abjure the body—insist on submission of the real in order to access the unseen as a necessary condition of creation. 

In every room of Picasso Sculpture, I get the sense of the artist submitting himself to the materials at hand. Each room is a new place with newly discovered limitations, and those limitations are simultaneously internal and external. One limitation is material (as blood limits body). Happily there isn’t only the world, Cixous says, but in any practice that is place-bound (and all practices are place-bound, as well as bound by material), the artist uses limitation as medium. It’s something to lean against. It becomes rigor and creative force. Inside Picasso’s body, yes, every abstract idea, every roiling philosophy, great breakers of supposition and fear, but outside of his body, the materials at hand offer a stay against total abstraction, and provide a resting place from interior fallacy. Outside-in-me is concrete, full of wind, plaster, boys, and birds.

Hence the interior integrity of Picasso’s small wall-mounted pieces, a canvas turned backward to make a shallow box: Object with Palm Leaf. The description below the title is cardboard, plants, nails, and objects sewn and glued to back of canvas and stretcher and coated with sand. Sand partially painted.

Sand partially painted as a piece of language becomes birdsong, prayer, and rainfall. Outside becomes interior if a tender attention is shown to it. The act of painting sand, the uselessness and idleness of it, creates an interior pressure on the piece that speaks to the urgency of the enterprise. Let’s make something with nothing, it says. And in doing so something in me will go outside, something outside will come in.

Object with Palm Leaf is a small box; there are larger pieces, public in nature, scattered throughout the same gallery, but there’s a companion to Palm Leaf called Composition with Glove. (Glove, cardboard, and plants sewn and glued to back of canvas and stretcher and coated with sand. Sand partially painted.) Both were completed along with many wire sculptures Picasso had hoped would be adopted by a committee to honor the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, though in time the committee rejected all of them. Perhaps tired of the ordeal of so many tries or the fallacy of monument—how to honor such a man as Apollinaire with wire, brass, or bronze?—Picasso took refuge in Juan-les-Pins, a seaside town in the Côte d’Azur. There he found his new limitation: palms and sand. We can assume Apollinaire would approve of such a small monument, such limitation.

Edward Hirsch, discussing Apollinaire, writes “the poem appeals to the eye. It has a shapely dimension and thus relates to the plastic arts, especially painting.” He goes on to use as an example of the concrete in poetry, Apollinaire’s “Il Pleut” (“It’s Raining”), which is typed so that the lines resemble “rain running downward across a windowpane.” The melancholy subject—something routine in the “material” of rain—soon opens its universe of possibilities; as the rain falls, Apollinaire suggests we “listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below.” Before the poet mentioned this we had not known we were enslaved, but of course now we see our mistake. Captivity, one of Cixous’ pet concepts, is sometimes (even often) invisible. By increments are we led to see that our bondage is both internal and external (“above and below”).


__ On Bondage __

That we are trapped in our bodies is something taken up at length by many modern writers and artists, among my favorites, the poet James Wright: in “A Blessing,” while touching a horse’s ear, he tells us “suddenly I realize / that if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom.” And Cixous talks about the problem of being in the body, a problem relieved by the momentary freedom of loving another:

A foreignness separates the two from all humanity. Something that beats in their flesh, a blood perhaps, acts like a silent shibboleth. Neither seen nor known the two pass into their secret country. The door to the country is the first look. We enter one through the other. We are there. It’s like having entered into the answer itself. The one that was waiting for us. And immediately the foreign seizes us, already it flows, all strange, in our veins. 

This union, interestingly a first look (like that children experience) leads to new problems. Wright’s formulation of the limitation is “They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs.” The foreignness of another restores in us the foreign in ourselves, avails us of the great universe of unknowns that we carry in our blood, our bodies a “secret country.” Creating art or writing poetry: each attempt at expression is an externalization of this essential problem of the sudden awareness of the foreign in us. It’s not that we must empathize with the other; it is that we are the other. In that context, self-love is both obstacle and unattainable gift.

And Apollinaire again, in love with rainclouds, because a raincloud is as good a lover as any: “those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities.” Once the bonds fall off inside our “first look” at another, and we begin to understand our own vastness, our wildness neighs at us. Love of the parent for a child, or a face’s love of rain, or the love of two horses—it doesn’t matter. Love is circumference. 


__ On Free Love __

Speaking of love: Picasso—for eleven rooms, all through sixty-two years spent wrestling with limitation (the material, the place, the limits of self-knowledge and self-love), working the better to see, hear, feel the strange in his own veins—sometimes puns. One thing is all things; this is surely one of the revelations brought on by news of one’s own foreignness.

Picasso’s pun—in a pair of sculptures both named Eye and wall-mounted to the left of Bird—is that you have to look at the title to see that an eye is what each is, because otherwise each is a woman’s labia crowning a baby. The material (unlimited, limited by what) is plaster with iron-wire hook

This was Gallery 5, post-Apollinaire-Monument-Failure and pre-The-War-Years.

While I have been reworking this section, after the boys took their buses (no bears), leaving the house with just me to fill it, my water has boiled away in its pot on the stove and left white mineral deposits that were meant for my bloodstream. But I needed to stay put and see where this part was leading before I could get back inside my body and up, though I heard the water going up into the air, a reverse of Apollinairian rain. 


__ And Speaking of Bondage __

I have left this part of the essay to sleep and have awoken with another strange Cixous-transliteration, my words from her “world.” In my dreams Picasso’s Bird mates or talks with another sculpture called Death’s Head. I can’t find the door of approach to him yet. Instead, my own words on a scrap of paper: you are tired of holes bubbling up through wounds, of ponds eyed with white. The work of knowing the foreign in me leads, incrementally, to my loving more of the world, more of the outside. I know this, but where do I end and where does the world begin? 

Cixous’ answer, one of many: I am the finite that wants the infinite. Love infinites me. Without you I am a pebble, and my skin closes narrowly over me.

Without you I am a pebble. Over this language my skin closes narrowly. Or rents itself open. One gallery note provides the information that five wooden figures (four called Standing Woman and one Seated Woman), each narrow, eighteen inches “tall,” all in a case together, are made of fir, some taken from “the backs of stretchers,” some foraged from “the forest floor.” This is perhaps my favorite gloss on the exhibition wall. I much prefer the year, the place, and the list of materials. Here, the list of materials itself opens a door: some are the backs of stretchers, some have been foraged from the forest floor. The tenderness of it, a lineage of woods some wild, some tame, but kept apart till then. I am tender as I think of the bones in my body, my boys’ bodies, together in their places, not yet foraged, not yet tame.

Cixous again, pertaining to what can be achieved in a life dedicated to circumferential confession, to searching for the love that is product and sum of searching: Then, under the shock of incredulity, one tries out circonfession: attempt to make oneself spit out the most secret blood so as to try to see with one’s own eyes the interior color—of what?—of one’s own spirit, the personal juice of life, inner proof of the existence of self.

Picasso’s spit out secret blood, his interior color, was fir foraged from the forest floor. Sand partially painted. Inner proof of the existence of self. And something about that proof restores a curiosity. If the self exists, let me find for it its open spaces.


__ Antlers __

Eventually we are no longer trapped, we are momentarily free. This is both comforting and terrifying. At the afternoon bus stop where no one has been mauled by a bear, as I wait for my younger boy (the one who began this essay asleep in blue light, and whose breath accompanies my insomnia), a high school boy comes walking up from the far end of a cul-de-sac. The high school kids get out early and he is in charge of his dogs, so he has given them a good long walk after they’ve waited for him all day. Behind the cul-de-sac are a pump station and a path that runs into a wild woods, past a vineyard, to near the river. He has been walking his blue-tick hound and Irish setter. For a moment all three are wild, something of their most secret blood still visible.

I am the first human they have seen; I am part of their reluctant return, and also part of their foreignness. The boy pauses, in his hand one-half of a rack of antlers from what was once a ten-point buck. We marvel at it together in a big silence; it is extraordinary. We try to imagine the breadth of this span when mounted on a living head. He points out a chip on a lower point where something small has tried to move the body of the buck, still heavy and newly dead. Time collapses. Living and dead change places. I’m wild now, or we are. We’re the mystery. Love infinites [us].

I don’t tell the high school boy about Picasso’s famous bike-seat bull with handlebar horns (Bull’s Head), mounted in triumph at MOMA but hidden in a bathroom in Paris all through The War Years. This was the piece that won me the argument about art with the boys; the piece they couldn’t have done. I don’t tell this half-wild dog-walker about The Death’s Head rising up in bronze from a nearby white display table and resembling a burn victim, its face frozen and its nose collapsed, secreted by Picasso to the foundry in the dead of night to be fired lest the occupying Nazis find him practicing his art, the ultimate interior act made exterior, one that could have cost him his life. I don’t approach The War Years with the boy because I am not totally free. And I can see he may yet be.

He tells me that tomorrow he will go back and look for the antler’s other half, try to restore to the beast his crown, because if he doesn’t, the day after that a covering snow is coming to bury it.


Carol Ann Davis is the author of the poetry collections Psalm (2007) and Atlas Hour (2011), both from Tupelo Press. An NEA Fellow in poetry and a finalist for the National Magazine Award for work in our pages, she has an essay collection (The Nail in the Tree: Essays on Art, Violence, and Parenting) coming out in 2019, also from Tupelo. A professor of English at Fairfield University, Davis lives in Newtown, Connecticut, with her husband and two sons.