INSTAN by CECILIA VICUÑAJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews:
Instan by Cecilia Vicuña
(Kelsey St. Press, 2002)
- When a girl is born, her mother puts a spider in her hand, to teach her to weave. (Cecilia Vicuna, “The Glove”)
- According to E. A. Wallis Budge (The Gods of the Egyptians) the root of the word for weaving and also for being are the same: nnt.
The Kelsey St. Press press release for Cecilia Vicuña’s Instan describes Instan as “a long poem, a series of drawings, a fable, a multilingual dictionary …”. That’s as good a place to start as any. But who familiar with Vicuña’s work would expect anything less than something that ignores as many boundaries as it can? As Lucy Lippard notes “Vicuña has never accepted the boundaries between cultural disciplines, creating a terrain of her own in the interstices …” One of her earliest works is dated 1966, a tiny precario in which a circle, a spiral and other lines have been traced in sand, surrounded by upright sticks and feathers and bits of ice plant that look to my eyes a little like waving (or drowning) hands. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this “earthwork” (in this context, at least) is that laid into the circle is a circlet of what appears to be hair or thread.
In her “autobiography in debris”, quipoem, the image of this work is preceded by an even earlier work: three pages that look remarkably like the drawings in the first section of Instan. A drawn line (a thread?) precedes from the outer margin of the first of these three pages through the typeset words “the quipu that remembers nothing, an empty cord”, through the gutter onto page two, then as it approaches the outer margin of the second page begins to loop itself into letters (“is the core”), to resume at the outer margin of the third page after a brief moment with the typeset “the heart of memory”. The line continues on into the gutter of page three.
The line – or thread – connects. In 1990 Vicuña wrote a piece called “Connection”, which she defines as “the art of joining, union / from ned: to bind, to tie / … / Old English: net / Latin: nodus / knot”. She goes on to quote David Brower: “The earth is dying because people don’t see the connections”; Rene Guenon, who notes that “the connection protects”; and that “In Nahuatl one of the names of God is “nearness and togetherness.”
This juxtaposition of drawn line/thread that passes through typeset words, turns into words itself, and runs right into the photograph of the beach precario made of traced lines, found objects and worked hair or thread, is more than an example of her refusal to accept “the boundaries between cultural disciplines”. It’s a refusal to accept the forces that separate and diminish us. By breaking down boundaries, she’s trying to save the world. “The connection protects.” She’s dead serious.
So, though the drawings in part 1 of Instan are indeed drawings made of letters and lines/threads that turn those letters into words, as well as lines are all looped words, as well as words that loop themselves and leave out (become?) the lines/threads, I see them as much more than just that. And the multilingual nature of the rest of Instan is not simply a reflection of her history as an exile, though that’s not ignored. The whole book is composed of “knots for climbers in the rope of the world.” She weaves. She connects connects connects.
Since I can’t reproduce the drawn/woven here, I’ll just pull out a few phrases that jump at me: “time-------tongue”; “luz-------del-------portal”; changing -------the-------heart”; “re-------late”; la-------leche-------de-------teta-------común”; “word-------loom-------star”. You have to picture my dashed lines as unbroken whirls and swirls and the words as part of them.
Part 2 is called “el poem cognado / the poem”. Though part 1 is multilingual I think that here in part 2, perhaps because line follows line down the page in a much more traditional sense – the poem looks like a poem, at least as I (dare I say we?) have been conditioned to expect it to look (and dear god yes I know millions of poems don’t look like this) – the intermarriage of languages becomes much more apparent and effective:
… luz y del qué
el cruzar …
At least some of the text in part 1 (perhaps all – I suspect all – I didn’t check) reappears in part 2:
… a pond
I noted above my sense of her mission. Here she makes it explicit:
of the ear
Part 2 ends:
Part 3 is called “fabulas del comienzo y restos del origen / fables of the beginning and remains of the origin”:
turns the page
the poem begins.
alba del habla, the dawn of speech.
What we have here is a collection of textual (and though I’m not the first to note it, I can’t help but mention here how close that word is to textural) fragments that point towards “the” (!?!) origin, and what remains of it. But why/how expect more than fragments? What myth remains whole? What anything remains whole? If our world (our myths) did remain whole then there would be no need to reconnect time and tongue, to weave it all back together.
Throughout the whole work, but particularly in this section, Vicuña puts her faith in the artist’s “weak Messianic power”, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase. This is from number two from his “On the Concept of History/Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
In other words, we can more or less redeem the past by more or less taking care of business in the present (since those in the future will continue to be endowed with the weak Messianic power, if we give them a chance – if we give them a chance – they’ll be able to exercise their own power themselves. In a way, then, we redeem the past by making a decent future possible – see how important we are? The past and the future depend on us). Vicuña:
An instant is present,
a filament of sta, a state of being, stamen,
a thread in a warp,
a web in ecstasy.
A bit later:
… “yes, it may be so.”
To be not an estar, but a way of being.”
And the fable proper hasn’t even commenced. To simplify greatly, to pull one thread out of a fabric and pretend that the thread is the fabric itself (it’s either that or simply quote the whole thing): “you and I are the same … dis solve into union … Corazón del tiempo, el instan … the handiwork of peace, the search for a common ground … the music of am … El am del am or … we are only exiled from the inner estar … Love in the genes, if it fails / We will produce no sane man again (George Oppen)”. Remembering Lippard’s “Vicuña has never accepted the boundaries between cultural disciplines …” one might be tempted to add that she has never accepted the boundaries between people (or peoples), at least to the degree that the boundaries become walled-off, patrolled and dangerous borders.
The last two sections are an endnote describing the genesis of and some of the intent behind Instan, and a glossary. Both are worth reading, continuations of the “themes” (if one can speak about “themes” without unraveling the fabric) already presented, and contain lovely twists.
While a vision of merging into oneness and “the all” can be misused to (pretend to) shoo away suffering and dread (e.g. of death) as simply an illusion (see the opening pages of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption for a little insight into how that’s done and what’s wrong with doing it), I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Her quote from Oppen seems to indicate that when Vicuna says “you and I are the same … dis solve into union” she doesn’t want us to lose our individuality, to disappear. She simply wants us to get a little closer to sane. And to get along a little better with one another, and with the planet with which we share this little corner of the universe.
Oppen writes, “We will produce no sane man again” (emphasis mine). “Again” isn’t Vicuña’s word, though she quotes it. Were we ever sane? Whole? My feeling is that I live in a world after any sense of wholeness or sanity has been irredeemably and entirely lost, in which meaningless fragmentation is the always-already, so I tend to think of wholeness as mythological. Maybe when we were hunter-gatherers … back in the garden … but even then … Were we ever anything but fragments? That I don’t really believe in a once-upon-a-time-we-were-all-woven-together, or that one day we could or will be all-woven-together, doesn’t mean I don’t love what Vicuña’s trying to do here. My use of “love” is not hyperbolic. What could be more necessary? What could be more beautiful? What could be (will be) more tragic if (when) we don’t make it?
John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publication is OTAGES; a new chapbook from Bamboo Books, WORLD ZERO, is in press; and later this year, with any luck, NO SOUNDS OF MY OWN MAKING, a 200 pp. hay(na)ku, which in fact includes very few sounds of his own making, will be published by Leafe Press. Recently, he has begun to incorporate photos into his work, which certainly wasn't expected.