Adios dear lovely Jerry Lane

Jerry Lane 2009 in front of his Book Stop opened 1979 (photo by Richard Pipes for ABQ Journal)

Alaina Mencinger, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

Tue, October 4, 2022 at 9:59 PM·4 min read

Oct. 4—Book Stop owner Jerry Lane often had a stack of books that weren’t for sale. When the bookseller came across a book that he thought someone would like, he’d set it aside and, oftentimes, gift it to them for free.

“He was generous,” said private bookseller Ed Ripp. “He wanted good books in people’s hands.”

A lover of murder mysteries, Lane was the “patriarch” of Albuquerque bookselling, said Mark Holmen, owner of BookMark and organizer for the Albuquerque Book Fair. Lane died Sept. 23 after a year of declining health, according to Ripp. He was 78.

“He was as nice a guy as any of us have ever met,” said Nick Potter, who owns Nicholas Potter Books in Santa Fe. “He was generous of heart and spirit on so many levels.”

They became friends just after Lane opened his used book store, and although their businesses were in different cities, they were both frequent visitors at each other’s shops.

Lane once gave him a paperback copy of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Potter said.

“It was a fiction book that did raise my spirits, and I passed it on to a friend who was in the hospital that needed their spirits raised,” Potter said.

The pair eventually tracked down the movie version and watched it.

“When you interacted with Jerry, you were better off for it,” Potter said.

Lane was born on Feb. 8, 1944 in San Diego, California. He didn’t always work in books; the businessman served in the Air Force for several years, Ripp said. Later, he owned a coffee shop in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, before becoming a traveling gift-card salesman. Lane moved to Tucson in 1973, where he was introduced to the book trade by Laurie Allen, who owned a Book Stop location in Tucson and helped Lane open his own store opened in Albuquerque. Lane opened the bookstore in 1979.

Ripp met Lane soon after Chicago native Ripp moved to Albuquerque in 2009. When the beer boom hit the city several years ago, Ripp and Lane tried out new bars every week. Ripp, a fan of craft beers, said he gained 15 pounds that year.

Rachel Hess worked for Lane for five years in the mid-1980s. She said he could talk to anyone about anything. Eventually, Lane pushed her to open her own bookstore — which she did in 1989.

“He had a habit of helping his competition,” Hess said. “He told me ‘Rachel, it’s time to open your space and spread your own wings.'”

Lane gave Hess a wall of bookshelves to start Rachel’s Books. She was one of several former employees of Lane who went on to open their own bookstores. Hess has since closed the bookstore after having her third child.

Although Lane originally opened Book Stop in Nob Hill, the bookstore had many homes over the years. Book Stop finally landed in a spot on Washington and Lomas, before Lane closed the brick-and-mortar in 2015. But Lane later reopened at 1512 Girard NE over a year ago, with a sign that reads to this day “open by appointment or chance.”

Potter said the essence of the store never changed.

“I think the change was more the address than the business,” Potter said. “I think Jerry was consistent in the books he wanted to handle: good books with fair prices.”

Ripp said that in the 13 years he knew Lane, Lane’s store changed location about five times. Every time, he carried his own books to the new location. And, every few months, Lane would haul a truck full of unsold books to donate to a library in California — not an easy feat, Ripp said.

“I’ve been lifting and shifting books for 30 years, it’s not fun,” Ripp said.

Lane had a good sense of humor, and never stayed cross for long.

“He was a great storyteller, joke teller — such a positive person,” Potter said. “He just stood for good things as far as I was concerned.”

A man once stole a book from Book Stop, Potter said. Lane went running after the man; although he was unsuccessful, the incident was covered by the local news, and a witness described an “old man running after him.” Potter said that Lane thought the description was hilarious.

“He was a fixture on the book scene here,” Ripp said. “He was a force for good and the type of bookseller he was is a dying breed.”

A private memorial is planned for late October.

Lane is survived by a sister in California.

“The bookselling world in Albuquerque and the world at large are much smaller places with Jerry’s passing,” Ripp said. “… He was a beloved man, and I’m gonna miss him terribly.”

The Changing Face of Retail (2013)

By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer

“I own more books than I could practically sell before I die,” said Jerry Lane, owner of the Book Stop, an Albuquerque institution that keeps shrinking as the world of retail keeps changing. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Allen Osborn drifted into the Book Stop on Friday afternoon with purpose, but no hurry. In the little book shop, in an old strip mall near Washington and Lomas NE, hurry would seem out of place.

Jerry Lane, the store’s 69-year-old proprietor, thinks a proper book shop is the sort of place where a customer walking in off the street will find a respectable collection of the works of Ernest Hemingway. Back on the fiction shelves, you’ll find seven titles, including two copies each of “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

It also needs serendipity, which is why Osborn, a regular, was there. He headed to the back, to Lane’s military history section, looking for new arrivals on Marine Corps history. He figures he has about a thousand volumes on the subject at home, and is always looking for more. Online shopping is all well and good, but there’s really nothing like browsing a bookstore, Osborn said: “It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Lane is a canny survivor of what a friend of mine who thinks about urban economics called “the hollowing out of the merchant class.”

At its peak in the early 1980s, the Book Stop occupied what had once been the old Ben Franklin dime store on Route 66 in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood. It had 25,000 to 30,000 books on the shelves, filled 5,500 square feet of floor space, employed seven or eight people and was open until 9 p.m.

By the time I arrived in Albuquerque in 1990, Lane had already moved to a new space nearby, adjacent to what became the Flying Star coffee shop and restaurant. Together, they became a quintessential example of what sociologists call a “third place” – neither home nor work, but an alternative community gathering place. As a business model, the coffee shop-book shop synergy was hard to beat.

“It wasn’t quite a license to print money,” Lane recalled, “but it was close.”

Over the years, though, the market began changing, and I’ve followed Lane since as the Book Stop moved through a collection of successively smaller storefronts that led earlier this year to his new digs on Washington.

The current shop is down to 1,800 square feet, between 7,000 and 8,000 books, and just Lane keeping what he described as “gentleman book rancher’s hours,” Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, retail employment in Albuquerque declined 15 percent from 2007 to 2012. We don’t have 2013 numbers yet, but the latest numbers from the state of New Mexico suggest the downward trend continues.

Part of that decline is the cumulative impact of the Great Recession, which has hit Albuquerque especially hard. A Brookings Institution analysis of the 100 largest metro areas in the country ranked Albuquerque 99th in the country in post-recession job recovery. By nearly every measure analyzed by the Brookings team – employment, unemployment, gross economic output and housing prices – we are among the worst metro areas in the country.

But part of the change reflected in the retail employment numbers, what my friend called “the hollowing out,” is deeper – a fundamental change in the way we shop.

My colleague Leslie Linthicum last year chronicled the sad end of Langell’s, a beloved art supply store where Georgia O’Keeffe and Wilson Hurley bought supplies, but where owner John Langell’s brick-and-mortar costs meant he couldn’t keep up with online discounters.

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter most famously explained what is going on here when he described what has come to be known as “creative destruction” – a burst of innovation that overtakes old with new.

Thus buggy whips and the things that went with them, however fine, were rendered useless by the invention of the automobile, and we travelers were the better for it but the buggy whip makers were not.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re in the buggy whip business,” Lane said, “and you want to say to people, ‘But they’re good buggy whips!’”

The benefits of online shopping are enormous, creating the significant benefit that is driving this change. I buy some books online.

Lane himself sees benefits. Even as online shopping leaves fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar book shops, Internet selling means he can connect with customers who never would have found him otherwise. But it’s not the same.

Osborn didn’t find any Marine Corps books but didn’t seem to mind. And while I’m not partial to Hemingway, I stumbled onto John Baxter’s “Dividing New Mexico’s Waters,” a 1997 University of New Mexico Press history of water law and management in our state from 1700 to 1912. I hadn’t gone to the Book Stop hunting treasure, but treasure it was.

I reached for my wallet, but Lane refused my money.

“I own more books,” he had said earlier during an afternoon of conversation, “than I could practically sell before I die.”

Omoide No Tsukimi             for Ronald Johnson 1935—1998

Allan Graham, Moon 2, 1986, oil on canvas, 83 in.x 91in. Private Collection

Omoide No Tsukimi             for Ronald Johnson 1935—1998

It rises to self-awareness          

Horizon that is always with us  

Black north’s direction

Risen from the belly nightsky   

Phantom blot, inkblack Heian hair

Coiled black pythoness

On moonless nights

Monk sleeves trailed through wet grasses

It hangs eternal there, never sets or climbs

Fulgent Moon 2, lightning struck through

 

 

Lightning flash

Then back to black

What seams this darklight

But black holds back, insists

At backbehindness it sustains

Unreflecting primordial companion

All phases of the moon condense

Moon 2 takes breathing, animates itself

Without horizon other than itself, irregular oval of all moons

Even when full or crescent sickle thin slice on either end

 

 

Blindspot

At last Narcissus lies faceless

Bottom of unsounded pond

Face buried in a silken muck

Thankfully in reflection I am dark to myself

Tarbaby reflections of Moon 2

 

 

Glitters in the total void

Senses steep in unsounded dark

Where darkbather mind

And sunbather eyes intersect

The heart is black and madder

The soul is fishscale black

Thunder underneath the under

Heart and soul begin a fisted journey

To the behindblackness

At our backs we always feel

Always back there behind it all

From head to heel black chrysalis

Hangman’s hood or shiny bodybag.

–Gus Blaisdell

Moon2 is an all black painting by Allan Graham. My Japanese title means remembering moonviewing. The line beginning “Thunder . . . ”, set in italic, varies a line from a manuscript, “The Imaginary Menagerie,” by the visionary poet Ronald Johnson. [Gus’s endnote.]

DAVE HICKEY blurbs Gus Blaisdell Collected

“We hear people talking all the time about Renaissance men. Gus Blaisdell was a Restoration rake, a creature of coffeehouses, bookstores, flaring arguments and happy reconciliations, crazy women and crazier experimentation. This book is a wonderful survey of his enthusiasms and complaints—and a fond memorial of his gift to New Mexico, and Albuquerque particularly. Gus was the absolute, undeniable, real thing. One of the few.”

Gus Blaisdell— Living Batch Bookstore Photograph by Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

Vatic Writing: Evan Connell’s Notes from a Bottle. . .

Gus Blaisdell and Evan Connell–Trinity SiteWhite Sands National Park ©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

            Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel stands as an apparent hiatus in Evan Connell’s formal development. But the peculiar nature of the work is only partly structural–the mosaic technique carried a step further–and the themes it develops are consistent with the rest of Connell’s canon. The main interest of the work resides in the voice or tone of the narrator and in the formal assumptions necessary to this kind of writing, a form that appears essentially new.

            A fragment of Notes, more provincial, lumpy, prosy, and less interesting, appeared in 1959 in Contact 3. Connell there remarked that he frankly did not know what the writing amounted to but that it had a curious fascination for him, like doing a complicated, private dance unobserved. Three years later, very much altered and enriched, the work appeared in full in Contact and was brought out the following year in a hardbound edition by Viking.

            Kenneth Lamott, speaking for the editors when Contact devoted the December 1962 issue to Notes, characterized the writing: “It eludes the usual categories of literature, falling somewhere in the dimly defined but extraordinarily fertile area where prose and verse, fiction and nonfiction, metaphysics and science meet.” Connell himself has said of the work: “I think of it as a work of close association rather than free association;” on the form, “. . . ‘cohesion’ is as close to ’structure’ as I’d care to make it.”  At the end of the editors’ introduction in Contact, writing in the style of the work itself, Connell declares his intention: “It is incumbent upon me to establish some / image whereby / all men must judge / future interpretations, believing / in the value of mine.  This I do tenderly, / humbly / and with a knowledge of utter obligation.” For lack of a better term, such writing might be called “vatic.”*

            Works of vatic literature are as unpopular as they are infrequent in contemporary American writing. It is only a bold or foolish writer who would undertake a work that is in direct opposition to the inherent skepticism of the American temper, that empirical or pragmatic attitude that judges all prophets false until proven valid, and then, at best, as highly dubious. Yet far more important than the climate opposed to such writing are the pitfalls within the medium itself, stumbling blocks that would seem to preclude success from the beginning.

            In a sense, vatic writing, like art for art’s sake, is writing for the sake of writing.  Its joys are the density of prose often archaic in syntax and diction; a delight in (and attention to) rhythm and the well-turned phrase; the precise perception; the terse tautness of apothegm and aphorism; the use of myth, esoteric lore, and bizarre fact; and the viable image. Already the writer has assumed a heavy mantle and runs many risks.

            Should the fatidic tone fail, vatic writing results in rhetorical flatulence. The hyperbolic or elliptical style, together with the mythic lore, may prove elusive. If an image or myth fails to properly illuminate a part of the theme, the writing degenerates into inscrutability. In its attempt to partake of the best of prose and verse, vatic writing raises the question of how far the lyric impulse can be stretched. Or, more generally, as John Wisdom once wrote on the nature of early analytic philosophy: “It is not the stuff but the style that stupefies.” For a writer of Connell’s ability the mere stupefaction of style would be a disastrous result.

            Unlike the novel or sonnet, vatic literature is not a literary form as much as it is a style or posture or stance. A prophetic or oracular voice is assumed together with a style appropriate to the fullest possible expression of that voice. Thus it can also suffer from over-richness. There are a number of interesting assumptions that must be made and met: these are the properties of the terrain as illustrated in Notes.

            The medium of the writing is atemporal, allowing the narrator to range at will through time; the stage is epical. Another premise is that there are necessary, causal connections between past events and future ones; that the past, if it does not completely prefigure the future, is at least exemplary or emblematic of events to come. Unlike the Humean universe of discrete, noncausal particulars, the universe assumed here is well-ordered. The task set for the narrator is to illumine the teleology of the world. The point of view is sub specie aeternitate, assuming the unity of human nature and human purpose, and the position of the narrator is that of the mystic who, as Wittgenstein wrote, views “the world as a limited whole.” The world of Notes, similar to Wittgenstein’s world in the Tractatus, “waxes and wanes as a whole,” and the narrator records this. Atrocity and brutality are the dark of the moon; love and beauty, the full moon. There is, in Notes, an element of Yeats’ philosophy based upon the phases of the moon.

            A crucial problem in this kind of writing, and one tied intimately to the atemporal structure, is the use of a disembodied voice, a narrator without individual, personal identity who changes masks at will; all the masks of time are available to him–he can be all men at all times, a particular man at a particular time–a device that results in the uneasy fact that he is nobody in particular. Space and time become points of recapitulation, coordinates for heraldic moments in the history of the human spirit. 

            Because individual characterization does not occur in vatic writing, there is little if any distance between author and reader, the only buffer being the elegance of the prose, the odd lore, and the incisiveness of the imagery. There is no possibility of suspending disbelief or of learning through the experiences of a character, as in a novel. Consequently, we are given the author’s truths without first having been seduced into sharing his doubts. The relationship between author and reader is litanical–prayer and response, incantation and reaction. Perhaps the greatest single risk here is that all the rich embroidery of a Penelope may issue in little more that a sampler to be hung on the wall; in this case, should Connell fail totally, instead of “God Bless Our Happy Home” we would be handed “God Damn Our Rotten World.”

            If Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is characterized as a mosaic form, Notes, moving even further into the fragmentary, is kaleidoscopic. Connell seems to have had something like this in mind when the voyager of Notes writes: “The barrel turns, the crystals tumble.” This kaleidoscopic form poses an interesting metaphysical position in the book.

            In a kaleidoscope a pair of plane mirrors provides the viewer with an illusion of symmetry. Each time the tube is turned, the pile of glass changes position and the symmetry reappears under a different guise. In terms of this metaphor, the reader’s task is to unearth the principle of order, thereby arriving at the crucial concerns of the work. Ideally, as in the toy, the symmetry should always be present. It is the cohesive constant.

            Connell has further extended this notion to provide Notes with a cosmological model of reality. The world, like the chips in the kaleidoscope, can only be seen as ordered in a particular way. Unlike the toy, however, in the real world man can never get through the illusionary order to that hypostatized world beyond, which W.V.O. Quine has called “a fancifully fanciless medium of unvarnished news.” Connell in Notes asks us to remove our conventional spectacles, to break down the barriers and masks of our vision, and to return from our lethargic atavism with new eyes. If Notes is to be successful, something like an epiphany must take place.

            The voice of the Voyager-Narrator is basically that of Magus–magician, seer, alchemist, sailor, conquistador, warrior, victim, poet, church father, anchorite, heresiarch, philosopher, executioner, and scientist. The major theme of the voyage is to be found in the recurrence of alchemical imagery. The voyager’s quest is to discover within the soul of man a formula that will transform the gross spirit into something precious. The soul is bipolar, bifurcated, Gnostic and Manichean in Connell’s world, and he continually juxtaposes prayer and creativity with brutality, as in the opening sections where he quotes in Latin the Lord’s Prayer, then delineates the butchering of a saint. The beauties of nature are opposed to the atrocities of Hiroshima and the Nazi extermination camps. Animals throughout become insignias of the beasts with the spirit of man, sometimes beautiful in their symbolic expression of human longing; at others, hideous in their viciousness. During the voyage, prehistoric monsters are found still living off the shores or Madagascar and Australia and these merge with the man-made mutants of Japan and Bikini Atoll. Astronomical theories of the destruction of the solar system are paralleled with thermonuclear annihilation; the ritual of execution, particularly the ghastly ceremonialism of gas chamber and electric chair, coincides with the deus ex machina morality of Dachau and Belsen.  

            “Perhaps it is true, / we are like those doves that stand / between cathedral bells / until they have lost all sense of hearing,” notes the voyager, a man who has despaired of Western tradition because of the crimes perpetuated in its name–“We live in the final tepid rays of Christianity”–and who has turned to the Black Arts, Finnish magic, shamanism, and lycanthropy. “Mankind yearns for annihilation. / The earth shall revert to worms and the rolling sea / to plankton.” Reflecting on the great New World civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, the voyager expresses his fear of a world reduced to dolmens and stelae. “One heart, one way,” he admonishes: “Pass by that which you cannot love.”

            Man’s fall, like that of the Wandering Jew, is into consciousness–to suffer in anticipation, actuality, and recollection. “Natural things look upon us / and our wonders with repugnance.” The voyager asks, “What is the color of wisdom?” and announces that it must have the color of snow.

            In Connell’s view, man is caught halfway between the beast and the angel, both locked in moral combat for the possession of the soul of which they are essential complements. We may take the beast to our graves, but during our lifetimes it is capable of atrocities outstripping the imagination. The plea of the voyager asks of our humanity that it be gentle and tender, that it relinquish the ways of terror and look lovingly upon the wonders of the world. The anguish of the voice is familiar in Connell’s fiction: it is Damaso, the fisherman from Chihuahua, at the height of his song; the voice of the young Augustine in the throes of doubt and longing. Magus himself, “poised between the dream and the act,” informs us that “credulity is greatest in times of calamity,” and that the millennium shall arrive when mankind has become unbelievably atrocious.

            Taking a point from an entry in Wittgenstein’s Notebooks–“To pray is to think on the meaning of life.”–Connell’s Notes may best be regarded as a psalter for post-thermonuclear man, the palimpsest of hibakusha.**

Notes:

*Oracular or prophetic, from the Latin vates, meaning seer or prophet. A footnote in the original text reads: “I owe a great debt for the sharpening of my ideas on vatic writing to correspondence with Luis Harss.” [Gus’s original footnote.]

**The Japanese term hibakusha means “those who experienced the bomb” and refers to a psychological disease akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which occurred among the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Gus’s original text footnote credits Robert J. Lifton, “Psychological Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima,” Daedelus, Summer, 1963.) A theme woven throughout the “After Ground Zero” essay is how Cold War anxieties can be seen as a backdrop to Connell’s writing in general. However, Gus writes, “The fear of thermonuclear destruction does not obsess Connell. But what does anger him is the way in which the unimaginable power of today’s weapons has reduced man to a cipher.” Among the works discussed in “After Ground Zero,” only Notes from a Bottle . . .  utilizes the stylistically experimental “vatic” approach.  [Editor’s note.]

1966

Excerpt from “After Ground Zero: The Writings of Evan Connell, Jr.” in New Mexico Quarterly, Summer 1966.

SLIPPING ACROSS

Slipping Across

            The visionary poet Ronald Johnson reading from his manuscript  “The Imaginary Menagerie” reached a short passage so arresting in its lapidary compression that it deserves to be cut in stone:

who once have sung

snug in the oblong

oblivion

Inscriptions are meant to pull you up short. “Stop, Traveler” is the most common beginning on the inscribed gravestones that bordered ancient Roman highways. Inscriptions in this elegiac genre give speech back to the dead. In Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, a stonemason extols his craft:

Words!

Pens are too light.

Take a chisel to write.

            Words, however weighty, bear a curiously unstable relation to stone. In Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo has Claude Frollo point at a book as he gestures from his cell window toward the sphinx-like shape of Notre Dame cathedral and utters the phrase: ceci tuera celá: This will kill that.

            The chapter that follows this moment is called  “Ceci tuera celá” and details the great dialectic of books undoing the Church, a story of freedom increasing through dissemination of the press, of a journey from dark to light, of the spreading literacy producing enlightenment, the testament of stone replaced by the testaments of the printing press.

            Hugo’s main source about the history of architecture was the young Neo-Grec architect Henri Labrouste. Later, as if inspired to counter Hugo’s and Frollo’s prophecy, Labrouste built the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. Free at last of the long-standing French obsession with the classical architectural orders, it is a library that reads like a book. Neil Levine, in a magisterial essay on Ste-Geneviève, Labrouste, and Hugo, reads the architectural details in an extended metaphor not only of the book but of the whole process of printing from movable type–from the names on the façade (which may be seen as type locked into chases) to the books of these authors that sit on the shelves directly behind the places where their names appear on the wall. Labrouste built a book of iron and stone that was functional and free, a building dedicated to contemplation and reading, absorption and study. It became a secular version of Hugo’s description of the Temple of Solomon. “It was not merely the binding of it, it was the sacred book itself. From each of its concentric ring-walls, the priests could read the word translated and made manifest to the eye, and could thus follow its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary until, in its ultimate tabernacle, they could grasp in its most concrete yet still architectural form: the ark. Thus the word was enclosed in the building, but its image was on the envelope like the human figure on the coffin of a mummy.” Labrouste made his library perfectly reflexive and transparent, no difference between the inside and outside.

            Hugo set his novel in 1482. Sixty-one years earlier, 12 March 1421, a congregation of Jews burned themselves alive in a synagogue on Judenplatz in Vienna rather than renounce their faith or be murdered by Christians. A plaque in Latin from 1497 commemorates the immolation by referring to the Jews as dogs or curs. Mozart wrote Cosi fan tutte in house 244 overlooking Judenplatz in 1783. On 12 March 1938, Nazi troops entered Vienna, 517 years to the day that the Jews burned themselves. Rachel Whiteread, a young British sculptor, unveiled her remarkable Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz on 25 October 2000, much delayed by politics from its originally scheduled completion date of 9 November 1996, the fifty-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

            Before the memorial could be built excavations began on Judenplatz to unearth the original synagogue. The first area dug down to was the bimah, the area where the ark is kept and the desk from which the Torah is read. Whiteread’s memorial measures 12′ x 24′ x 33′ and is a library turned inside out: the spines of the books face into the building. It is a cast made in white cement of the library’s interior. The doors, without hinges or handles, cannot be opened. The library cannot be entered because the imaginary interior, far from being empty, is solid: the presence of absence. “Casting the internal–If Rachel could drink a couple of quarts of plaster or pour resin down her throat, wait until it sets and then peel herself away, I feel she would. She shows us the unseen, the inside out, the parts that go unrecognized,” observed A. M. Homes.

            John Baldessari, the California conceptual artist, still has nine and a half boxes of the ashes of his paintings. In 1969, when he realized that he would stop painting, he found a crematorium that would burn his paintings. His motive was to complete the cycle of the chemicals that made up his oil paints by returning them to earth. The original installation at the Jewish Museum in New York was to be an urn containing some of the ashes placed in one wall with a plaque beside it. A major funder of the show said she would withdraw funding if this was done. So Baldessari placed the urn on a pedestal. The urn he chose among the many on offer was in the shape of a book. This was the beginning of conceptual art, the ashes of paintings interred in an urn shaped like a book.

            Horace (Odes 3.30.1) claimed he had written poems more enduring (perennior) than bronze and outlasting the pyramids. In “Lector Aere Perennior”–the reader more enduring than bronze–J. V. Cunningham disagrees with Horace. Every poet depends not just on paper or stone or bronze but on readers for his relative immortality. Yet the reader is a problem. What must the reader do if the poet is to have lasting fame? For Cunningham the reader must be:

Some man so deftly mad

His metamorphosed shade,

Leaving the flesh it had,

Breathes on the words they made.

            The reader dies (the orgasmic “little death” of the text) that the poet may live again. Transported by the words of the poet, the reader transmigrates his soul and “breathes on the words they make.” His and mine become ours, a more amazing dialectic than turning the book of stone into the book of print.

            An epigram by Plato had been a favorite of mine long before Ronald Johnson read to me from his inscription-like “Imaginary Menagerie.” Plato writes that it is said by Socrates to Agathon:

Kissing Agathon, I found

My soul at my lips.

Poor thing!

–It went there, hoping

To slip across.

It is one of the epigrams from The Greek Anthology. Is it somewhere carved in stone? Did each passing Greek read it aloud? Were the lines alternately painted black and red? As the Greek read the epigram aloud his soul too was at his lips, trying to slip across. From his lips to the stone, in a direction opposite that of Socrates whose lips were meeting those welcoming closed lips of Agathon. It is the soul that remembers and speaks in the poem, from within Socrates’ silence.

            But though the soul rises to slip across it is a poor thing because it falls back–desire wants to slip across, believes in its heart that metempsychosis is possible, in its delusion a poor thing. This is the giving soul, the one that acknowledges and welcomes the other, not the Freudian narcissists whose lips kiss only images of themselves. And this happens every time we read.

            When we read we slip across; we do not fall back. The words they made are like the love we had: the poem read through is like the exhausted beloved, over there, on the other side where we just were. The reader succeeds precisely where Orpheus fails Eurydice. We look back fondly. We behold the lineaments of gratified desire, what men and women in each other do require.

            Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (The Jetty, France, 1962) runs 28 minutes and is constructed entirely of stills, except for a single moment of movement.

            A brief synopsis of La Jetée will put the complexity of this moment in perspective. The Third World War has taken place; the earth is radioactive, uninhabitable; the victors rule underground over a kingdom of rats; concentration camps flourish one again. The story is of a veteran who survived the war and who carries within him a single image of peacetime: a woman’s face he had seen as a child on the jetty at Orly Airport. Because his imagery is so vivid the camp commandants subject him to experiments: he is injected, travels to the past and eventually to the future. He finds the woman he saw as a child; they fall in love. The moment of movement occurs after they consummate their love.

            The woman opens her eyes and blinks three times, looking directly out of the screen. She wakes to look at her lover looking at her. He is not seen by us, but his presence is established by a series of overlapping dissolves in which the sleeping woman changes positions as she sleeps and he watches. The sound over these shots is of bird cries reaching a crescendo–so intense the cries sound like squeals of pain, a mysterious jouissance. (Could this be a Blakean moment? “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”)

            One of the abiding mysteries of film is that it is a medium of visible absence. In a notebook poem William Blake asked and answered several specific questions, among them the following:

What is it men do in women require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

            To my knowledge, even using what he called his “infernal methods,” Blake never engraved these lapidary lines.

            What happens when we read a story, a poem, a book, a building? Are we deftly mad enough to slip over? We love what looks back at us, studying to know everything, knowing the knowledge of love is inexhaustible, and knowing also that such work of the imagination is beyond the reach of even our best words. After having slipped across we return to ourselves, our experience enriched. The reader is like Jacob, blessed by the angel he wrestled. Touched on the thigh before he was released, Jacob was left with a limp. The angel touches us before we are released. If there is a new limp once we return from our struggle, our abandon, our transport, it is the happy fault–the felix culpa–that touches another soul, and both are the better for it. The poet gains his brief immortality; and we return to our mortality exhausted and renewed. Within those moments of movement while we read, and remembering what we read, acknowledging the autonomy and mystery of it, we briefly become the kind of person Henry James wished us to become: one on whom nothing is lost.

2003

Published 2012 in Gus Blaisdell Collected. This essay was originally intended for Inscriptions, a deluxe-edition book that was produced by Jack W. Stauffacher in 2003 to commemorate the lapidary inscriptions on the Old Public Library of San Francisco on the occasion of the building’s conversion into a new museum of Asian art. In the end, however, the essay was not used.

Gus Blaisdell’s Writing Studio ©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey