January 23, 2015KR BlogBlog

The line and the body

I recently spoke with a friend, a visual artist, about what it means to draw a line—how the inherent arc of the human arm, the joints of shoulder and elbow and wrist, are echoed in the movement of the line, and how artists can train themselves to hide that biology, the motion of their drawing straight forward.

We were having this conversation in relation to Cy Twombly’s work. Twombly died in 2011 and is known for paintings that include scribbles, scrawls, and bits of language, especially from Greek and Roman mythology and the poet Mallarmé. His canvasses were often very large and consisting of cohesive fields of color. A large number of these can be seen here.

Twombly’s lines, his shaky hands, are one of the things that first drew me to his work. There is rarely a scrawl that does not suggest the body’s own pulses and tremors. This is, of course, a cultivated effect for Twombly, and the artist reportedly spent a great deal of time painting and drawing in the dark in order to find this line, a line that is entirely his, in turn making his paintings so singular.

Painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers—so many other artists must constantly face the question of how their body is reflected in their work. To what degree do they want their body to be visible and recognized by the audience, or to what degree do they want the work to subsume the body, to even erase it? I personally prefer Twombly’s trembling line to a line trained to be straight, just as I prefer the audibly gasping breath of singer Polly Styrene to a recording digitally stripped of exhaustion, or the stitches of a hanging Louise Bourgeois sculpture to the factory clean of a Jeff Koons animal. It seems more honest to me.

As a writer, I am interested in finding new ways to bring the body back into my work. I think it is, at times, possible to avoid these questions that other artists must face, as we can pretend we are simply writing, that the page is somehow free of the body’s influence. The computer screen, especially, can encourage this fiction. Yet I know my body finds its way to the page in so many ways—that as the coffee speeds my heart my words come more jangled, that greater white space enters my page when I write near the hour of sleep, that even my voice changes if I turn the notebook sideways and let my hand continue for longer lines. I remember a friend, wondering at the structure of her prose after childbirth, suddenly elliptic in a way it had not previously been.

Most of the writers who have become my favorites over time somehow include the body in their work. There is Hervé Guibert, who will interrupt a progression of thought to make explicit the shit or pleasure of his body at that moment. There are Emily Dickinson’s dashes, which have always suggested the immediacy of the body and its edges to me, and even more so when I first saw the script and envelopes of The Gorgeous Nothings. There is Akilah Oliver, whose poems reveal again and again that both language and memory are embodied things, with reverberations and breath.

My impulse at times is to make a text tidy. A text without the body reads as cleaner, more polished, and it is hard even after all these years to break the lessons of early literacy, that texts should be neat and ordered things. The body is never a neat and ordered thing. It can’t be, and to try to make it such is to betray it. So I hope my writing will be like a Twombly shake, that when I have written something neat and polished I can find a way to make it gritty again, like how drawing lines in the dark will inevitably show the pulse and angle of the elbow. This is the more honest way to write, and so to me, the more interesting, too.