Thursday, November 18, 2010

Robert Hill Long on The Kilim Dreaming

I asked Robert if he would say a few things about his book and he graciously sent the following essay.

Where my writing touches on nature it often concerns paradise, whether this or that place is Edenic/Arcadian, a peaceable kingdom lost in mythic past; or a place beyond death/after this life, a heaven or Elysium for the just and the brave and the virtuous; or a parallel to our world but invisible except to private imaginings (as it is in my personal life), the dreams of cults, the prophecies of shamans or utopians, where all is as it might be—as it could or should be Only If—(fill in your hypothetical ideal conditions here).

The poem “Hemlock” (which closes my earlier book, The Work of the Bow), set in Colorado near Aspen, is in part about how people pioneering west in search of a paradisal future brought with them—unknowingly, half-knowingly, or fully aware—seeds of old European/eastern botanical culture, along with their books of Homer & Virgil, that altered the landscape and the culture-scape of the West, and brought old death to new earth. Another poem in that book, “The White Ibis,” takes the matter up in a more direct way: how any human incursion (in this case, real estate development of Carolina barrier islands) into a previously unsettled habitat destroys what can be protected only by leaving it alone forever.

In “The Spear Lily” and “The Kilim Dreaming” (as well as in “The Wire Garden,” once part of The Kilim Dreaming but now a limited edition of elegies for my father) my essential aim was to retool the Garden of Eden myth, starting with the moment that the two human inhabitants realize they’re stuck together in what might have been a paradise—except for what humanly happened to each of them. As Robert Hass so casually put it as a premise: “In the life we lead, every paradise is lost.”

The core metaphor—the heart of both narrative systems—is a mythic garden where a pair of strangers, after becoming acquainted, find that they must mutually negotiate their sense of belonging (their place on the earth, their place in each other’s life); examine their responsibility to tradition (the cultural past), to community (the present) and to posterity; and finally, come to terms with having permanently altered each other’s identity, and how this in turn will alter their destinies.

In “The Spear Lily,” the protagonists are survivors of sexual abuse as well as sexual outsiders: the woman an urban, middle-class Bay Area prostitute, the man a Dutch coffee dealer and avowed celibate after years of gay prostitution. Neither has family nor a partner, but over the course of an afternoon, each considers what their sharing of similar life-stories entails. Would they make sensitive partners, granted each other’s history of violations and tragedies, and each other’s differing strengths of character? Would each be a good candidate to ‘protect the other’s solitude,’ in Rilke’s phrase about an ideal marriage? The Dutch man proposes this is worth thinking about, but as in Milton’s poem, “The Spear Lily” closes with a woman and a man leaving a darkened garden together, without any resolution about either’s future.

“The Kilim Dreaming” is fundamentally about how a Turkish rug dealer’s attitude toward the welfare of innumerable women who live as rug-weavers changes after he meets a younger woman who not only possesses some very rare kilims, but is apparently capable of supernatural communication—with him, with a recently dead woman who was her nurse/chaperone, with other weavers she introduces him to. In short, he encounters the cultural remnants of Amazon matriarchy and changes his life and business practices. And like “The Spear Lily,” “The Kilim Dreaming” is also a romance about the mystery of displaced, shifting identities, about the stripping of veils and masks, the relative costs and consolations of maintaining solitary illusions and of mutually sharing disillusionment. But while “The Spear Lily” was pure fiction (other than some of the botanical settings), “The Kilim Dreaming" was first inspired by a nonfiction profile of a Turkish rug dealer, and gradually built out of research into the history of flatweave textiles in the Anatolian region. It does have a San Francisco connection: one of my primary sources was the book Anatolian Kilims by Cathryn Cootner, which catalogues the Jones kilim collection at the de Young in San Francisco.

It meditates on weaving (presuming natural dyes/wools/practices) as the closest human analogue to what the earth does as a total system. (“The Spear Lily,” which I wrote before “The Kilim Dreaming,” is more straightforwardly based on the Adam & Eve conundrum, and set in the San Francisco Botanical Garden.) In “The Kilim Dreaming” I was committed to telling a longer story, developing the characters more deeply, but also to portraying how the concept of a paradise-garden is transformed into a valuable artifact, a purely human object. I was also pursuing a formal analogy between the sonnet sequence and rug-weaving. In their traditional forms, both depend on standard measures of length and width—the loom’s warp and weft designed for certain sizes (the 3x5 of a prayer rug; the 9x12 of a main tent rug, the 14 lines times 10 syllables (12 in my case) of each sonnet. Both can (hypothetically) be endlessly lengthened—the red carpet runner unrolled for visiting royalty, the thematic or narrative sequencing of sonnets; both depend on the rhythmic joining of the abstract to the concrete—the knots that join dyed wool to patterned images, the accentual-syllabic joining of syllables and linguistic elements to imagery and metaphor and story. Another formal intersection, for me, is how flatweave techniques favor repeating geometrical images and visual rhythms, while my thinking about the poetic elements of syllabics, rhymes, cadences and verbal music is a sort of musical math designed to represent people living the mystery of earthly existence.

Back to the cultural and paradisal aspects, though, here’s a useful generalization: Anatolian rugs portray a heaven seen from earth, while Persian rugs portray an idealized earth seen from the eternal perspective of heaven. (The word “paradise” itself derives from the Persian word for a walled garden.) So each is rich with paradoxical suggestions about time, and about the functions of desire and memory in depicting the intersection of the mythical with the actual. Rugs are not only image repositories, but cultural repositories; their commercial and cultural values are inextricably knotted together, warp and weft; yet they are made be walked on, sat on, eaten on, prayed on, and among some nomadic people they retain their oldest function: portable flooring in a world where the pastoral life and country itself is a homeland not to be desecrated by permanent dwellings, which are in any case an illusion. Many rugs are composed of one or more central “fields” and one or more “borders”; common images in Anatolian kilims include fruit trees and flowers (but also a figure thought to be a relic of Neolithic goddess-worship, and winged creatures who may be angels); the oldest surviving fragment from the fifth century BCE has representations of horses, deer, and humans together in a liminal state between the wild and the domesticated. And of course every ancient kilim is composed entirely from living materials extracted from the weaver’s environment: wool, dyes from vegetables, fruits, insects, woven on a wooden frame.

I think of the old inscription-on-stone best known in the paintings by Poussin and Guercino of bucolic pastorals: “Et in Arcadia ego”—And I am in Arcadia. Is this, as some critics think, evidence of Death being a tagger in paradise, where the chiseled graffito means “I’m in Arcadia, too, like any other place—you can run but you can’t hide from mortality”? Or is it what Simon Schama terms “a wistful epitaph” about what works of art have in common with gravestones: a formal, compressed testimony, designed to communicate as long it exists the mysterious privilege of having lived as a name on an earth where most of what exists inhabits its essence with no name for itself, no memory (that can be communicated to us), no history, and no future? Kilims are not only colorful memorials to the tedious (but perhaps social and companionable) hours of nameless women. Kilims announce, after their fashion, that the weaver was, at least this once, a visionary medium between the past and the future, and her artifact contains the coded patterns and colors necessary to understand how she conceived the world and abstracted its mysteries—which would outlive her, along with her kilim.