Readings — From the June 2014 issue

Islands

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By Hilton Als, written on the occasion of Peter Doig’s exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this spring and published in Transition 113. Als’s “I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love” appeared in the December 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I am writing this some while after standing at the edge of the bay for the first time. The bay’s edge runs parallel to the water, from east to west in a not-at-all-straight line. For students of master prints and drawings, a line occurring in nature is the original mark or beginning, inspiring artists from da Vinci to Picasso and one or two hundred others to wonder how to approximate that line’s naturalness on the page, in an artificial medium, just as I am trying to use another artificial medium — prose — to describe what I see: the water’s edge, little white pebbles embedded in light brown sand at the lip, sand that turns brown and then browner as baby waves wash up and over a little sandy beach like the one I stood on this evening. There was a moon, not full and not at all poetical; a small craft hobbled back and forth on the surface of the black bay water like a legless man. I could not find irony in anything I saw. That bit of moon killed me. The sky’s largeness and generosity reminded me of how pitiful I can feel on islands, where one’s ideas about the place amount to so much sentimental or ideological bullshit next to shoeless island dwellers with rust-colored heels tramping through pig shit putting pigs to bed, or other island dwellers sitting, legs spread, on a concrete step leading to a little tin-roofed house, a house with one or two rooms and black people coupling and talking their coupling in a bedroom in that house, maybe under a window crammed with stars. I like it here. I stay on this island on weekends, when I visit a friend who lives here, a friend I love like no other. It’s far north of the island my family came from originally, which is smaller, mean, and turned in on itself, like an evil-smelling root. Looking down at the black wavelets in the black night bay, their patterns visible to me because of that piece of moon, I could not help but think of lines — lines made in nature, and then lines on a canvas or in a drawing, and how those lines were not really very different from lines of writing brought together to describe sensations such as the love I feel on this island with its bay.

Earlier in the day, my friend and I came down to the bay with a picnic. After a while, my companion rolled his trouser cuffs up; he walked to the water’s edge and then put his feet in the water. I did not join him. In my mind’s eye I could see his flat, skeletal feet in clear bay water and suddenly I felt such sadness: he could walk away from me at any moment, walk across the water like Jesus or Robinson Crusoe and set up shop on another island, with some other island dweller. Love can make you feel as though you’re shipwrecked; love can make you feel as lonely as an island. Watching my friend standing in the bay water, I wanted to call out to him: Come back! Come back! He had not gone. Yet I feared he would, leaving me behind with all that love and potential and bay water.

The ripples, not waves, made by the turn of the water near my feet at the edge of the night bay sounded like a dog’s tongue lapping in a bowl half-filled with water, or perhaps the waves lapping sounded like two human tongues meeting inside mouths joined together less out of comfort than boredom, saying, We might as well, what else is there for us on this island but the tedium of being ourselves alone, our jawbones snapping into place as we stretch our mouths open, not to accept each other, but to accept the hope that can sometimes happen between two people sitting on a bed in a house on an island, let’s call it Barbados, in 1970 or 1971, years before I stood at the wide-open mouth of the bay.

I am not predisposed to the tenets of geography. East and west remain, for me, abstractions that my mind and body cannot make real, since east and west do not relate to the experience of where I am standing in my mind just now, which is near a bay on another island looking into water as if I have a right to it; Marianne Moore said that. In any case, I don’t have a right to anything, certainly not an island, which cannot be owned but only leased by its citizens. Islands belong to themselves. But I cleave to knowing my friend’s island as a way of protecting myself against the memory of other islands I’ve had no choice but to visit at one time or another, like Barbados, which has bays, too.

When I am not standing at the edge of the bay on this northern island, I live on another island — Manhattan. Unlike other islands, Manhattan is not a cloud-dump. That’s how Elizabeth Bishop described Crusoe’s Caribbean island — as a “sort of cloud-dump” — in her 1971 poem “Crusoe in England.” She goes on:

. . . All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much?
And why sometimes the whole place hissed?

Manhattan hisses — with savagery. It’s an island of bodies, while other islands steam with the hissing of volcanoes — volcanoes that dare you to forget that some islands came into being because of volcanic eruptions or tectonic shifts. But no matter how islands like Barbados and Trinidad, say, came to be formed, you can feel them percolating beneath your feet as you walk to market or up to the graveyard, or on your way to meet a lover. They bubble with impermanence. The whole thing might sink in a minute, just as volcanoes erupt in a minute, and it’s that potential impermanence, I think, that contributes to an island’s lonely feel, even in Manhattan, where you have to fight to be alone even if you’re lonely.

Standing at the edge of the bay, which is a body of water that’s connected to an ocean or a sea, and formed by an inlet of land — standing by the edge of the bay for the first time, I didn’t want to think about Manhattan, which is to say I didn’t want to think about my life without my true friend, he whom I love like no other and who introduced me to that northern bay in the first place. To think about my life in the city would be like creating an island that excluded him — an island composed of streets that don’t lead to the edge of a bay but end in rivers, and not to get all Langston Hughes about it, but my whole life I have known rivers but not bays, and not love, not like this. My friend’s love can feel like the best part of islands and their various intensities, their occasional lushness and aridity, colors that hurt your eyes and skin, smells — peppers, onions, frangipani — that can hurt your skin, too, while shattering any idea you might have had about your own originality: the smells and colors on certain islands in the Caribbean are you and you are the smells and colors because for the most part island life is small and intense and no one who lives there or spends any time in that part of the world escapes being absorbed in the din of its colors, the orchestra of its smells, the horizon line where sea and sky meet and go on and on.

I want to go on with my friend forever, not least because he wants to know who I am; he wants to see me, and that includes knowing something about my past, and that past includes, of course, my first experiences on islands. He wants to connect my past of water and tectonic shifts with his island, and the bay. One memory: My younger brother and I were sent to visit our mother’s enormous family in 1970 or 1971, when we were around ten and eight, respectively. Being sent away on summer holiday meant leaving behind our social lives in Brooklyn, where pebbles were embedded in concrete and streetlights relieved the darkness and one would see and smell, on summer nights, acrid children in striped T-shirts, musty earth in vacant lots, rusting car parts in vacant lots, older children sitting in those non-automotive cars smoking cigarettes and pinching the small nipples on small-tittied girls whose long legs in their Bermuda shorts or denim cutoffs were like osprey legs in that they would have trod delicately through bay water, had there been any as lapidary as the bay water edging toward my feet moments before I recalled visiting Barbados as a child, which was not the great adventure some parents, like my own, expect their children to have, especially if those parents are interested in geography and are familiar with the terrain they are sending their children off to see, partially in the hope that their past experience will make their children, whom they cannot see, behave in a way that is responsible to the landscape that the parents themselves used to have their wildest dreams of escape on, to which they won’t admit, needing to believe in the fiction of family, of geography, in order to maintain some sense of who they are.

The mind unfamiliar with geography does not know how to define any one place. That summer in Barbados: I could only make sense of it through the character of the people, various someones I could touch or sit with at the foot of a stunted coconut tree, people who smelled of themselves, their island. Nevertheless, the homesickness my brother and I felt in Barbados (our first long trip away from everything) could not be assuaged by anything, nor was it in the least mitigated by knowing each other. Our loneliness cast us further apart than we had ever been. We were guests, charges, therefore our behavior had to contain a certain forced humility. This further emphasized our separateness. The only way we could be in the least bold was to reject each other. We refused to share any experience and agree on its value. The dust rising from the road and settling on concrete walls, on the fronts of houses and in our hair, did not affect us the same. When we had to accompany one of our mother’s relatives to market to buy blowfish, or pork for stew, or something equally foreign, one of us resolutely “liked” this experience while the other did not. Until we arrived in Barbados, my brother and I had wanted to be as similar to each other as two people can be. In Barbados, one thing in particular was different: my brother did not dream of one of our older male cousins swallowing my tongue whole and then spitting it out on a plate, then commanding me to lick my own tongue up, which I couldn’t, being tongueless. In short, my brother abandoned me to myself on that island, he who knew what an island was, as though I did not, starting and staring at the water. At home, our mother and sisters had protected our natural timidity. On this trip to that place neither of us could ever call home, my brother had to be as different from me as he could allow.

He became less timid, yet more afraid to be thought unconventional. On that island, where blue — really, violet-colored — seawater stretched to points east, west, north, and south, points I had seen written in various books but could not make any sense of, he became what he is now: mindful of the fact that he cannot look his girlish brother in the eye. Before Barbados, I had never seen so many black people who disliked one another, or who did not have photographs in their homes. The people we saw quarreled with one another in the streets, in front of their homes. They kicked skinny dogs that hung around their yards with heads bowed; the dogs took as much hurt as those hurt people took from one another. Their fucking sounded like hurt, too. The fucking my brother and I heard those people do occurred after lunch, after they had eaten their strange food and the sun was so hot it was ugly. My brother and I sat not-together on opposite sides of whatever house we were staying in, listening to their bodies breed more misery. There was nothing else for those people to do in that place except dissect one another in the cruelest language imaginable, and breed more people who would behave the same way everyone else did.

My brother’s hairline hair was a dark blond that was nearly the color of the sand shifting beneath my feet at the mouth of the bay I stood at so many years later. In Barbados, my brother wanted to join that community of men who talked their sex as much as they performed it. At least in Barbados, his thinking went, he would be recognized as a male (and overvalued as such), not just as the brother or son of so many girls (in Brooklyn we lived with our four sisters, our mother, and our mother’s mother), girls who talked and talked to men as if they weren’t there. Late in our stay, my brother invited two girls into our aunt’s home, where we were staying. My brother invited these two girls in when my aunt was out being unkind to people. I can recall the two young girls looking as thin and vulnerable as my brother and I must have looked then. My brother demanded that I lie on top of one of the girls as he lay on top of the other, on the floor. He wanted me to be less the girl I had become and more the boy he was inventing himself as, right before my very eyes. I stood over the girl my brother had chosen for me as my brother lay on top of the other girl, both of us writhing in imitation of all we had ever heard other men say to women, listening outside their bedroom windows. The young girl lying beneath me wore a green school uniform and a brown beret. I stood over her for what felt like forever, as forever as standing at the edge of the bay would. No words came out of my mouth as I lay on top of the young girl, not daring to move, since what I wanted, she wanted, which was a fatter, bigger, larger tongue that would swallow her own whole, just as I began to be afraid of this: that my brother would never leave the family we were born into, doing everything, including fucking, just as they all have, and perhaps always will.

The only photographs I took back from Barbados that summer were photographs of the young girl I could not kiss, photographs I took moments after our non-exchange, since I couldn’t really touch her, she being myself. Once the photographs were developed and installed in my mother’s photograph album, I could not write this girl’s name on the back of the image. I never looked at them again. Labeling photographs was a habit I had developed in Brooklyn, where the people I lived with or my parents’ relatives kept photographs of relatives from Barbados they had never met, keepsakes that didn’t mean a thing. They kept those passport-size portraits taken in a photographer’s studio against backgrounds meant to resemble small churches, or bamboo groves, in plastic binders whose covers showed brightly colored flowers in 3-D, or bay water at midnight, with boats on it. The photographs were arranged by my mother in a haphazard way; she was the least sentimental person I have ever known. I wrote the names of the people I could identify on the surface of the pictures my mother had collected because I feared, somehow, that unless I did, everyone connected to my family would be forgotten, long before I began to want to forget them.

There was one photograph my mother owned that never ceased to interest me, though. It was oval-shaped and framed in fake gold leaf. Originally, the frame and the image it contained had belonged to my grandmother — my father’s mother. The image was of my grandmother’s nephew, after whom I was named. hilton rolston was the name written in faint black script at the bottom of the photograph. In it, one could see his full lips and straight black hair parted in the middle. One could also see his wing collar, tie, and jacket with fairly wide lapels. It was taken sometime in the 1890s, just before Hilton Rolston left Barbados to pan for gold in California some forty years after the gold rush had ended. I don’t think he knew where he was going, except toward a dream. He was pretty. Perhaps going to California and dying in the gold rush that kept never happening for him was a way to be himself, far from the horror of feigned intimacy that defines family life in Barbados, like most other places. I don’t know a thing about him except what my grandmother told me. Hilton’s portrait is one of the few things she brought with her when she emigrated from Barbados to Brooklyn — that and another large painted photograph, of my grandmother with her father and brother, that was destroyed, along with everything else she owned, in a fire in a house she had bought for her children long before I came along. My mother was given Hilton as a gift, shortly after his namesake was born. In that portrait of Hilton, he appears to be more dead than alive, even though he was photographed and painted when he was alive. The photograph is a memento mori, really, which is a quality that all painted photographs share. And it is what I might have looked like — another memento mori — had I been photographed recently, and the photograph had been painted over, standing at the edge of the bay.

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