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Secret Machine

by Brenda Miller


My loneliness is a secret machine,
a flying featherbed in the blue
of a hydrangea . . .
—Christopher Howell, “Galileo”


I.

In Tara Parsons’s monotypes, airplanes fly at you from many angles: sometimes head on, or buzzing away, swooping straight into the stratosphere. Sometimes they tilt a bit, as if nodding their wings in your direction, but most often they stay a course away from the center, grazing the edge—a nimbus of white wings and tail, an empty body that punctuates otherwise deep fields of blue. At first glance this blue seems harmless, and the planes themselves oddly cheerful, like stenciled decorations adorning the room of a child: one who wakes happy and calls out for his mother—not in distress, no, but wanting only to share his glee at all the airplanes that greet him.

Tara works all day in her studio, and sometimes at night, cautiously blading the stencils of the same airplane—a toy model of a Continental Airlines jet—and then pulling them through the press to see how they will fly. Sometimes you feel the uplift, and sometimes the breath-catch of touchdown, but most often you’re reminded of that pause in the middle of the long flight, a stretch of time when the plane settles in—you feel suspended in that blue, with no clear destination, and you think maybe you’ll be up here forever, reading your book, doing the crossword, dozing, waiting for the rattle of the in-flight service cart making its second rounds.

When you see these prints in Tara’s studio, hanging from a line by clothespins, you can get a little dizzy: this multitude of jets inching forward, both in motion and deathly still. And you try not to notice that some of these planes startle back, rearing above a black plume, or sometimes they spiral down the page, leaving ghost images of themselves behind. Sometimes these prints, Tara tells me, are altered by accident: a slight shift as she makes the hard crank of the press wheel, and what emerges from that plate comes as a surprise, no matter how carefully she’s cut out the stencils or applied the wide swathes of ink.

There’s something about them that makes you uneasy, these passenger jets and their invisible cargo: they threaten to creep out the corner of the frame if we glance away, and then where will we be? With only that sky to seize us? A famous sculptor comes to Tara’s studio, and turns to each wall, the prints hanging in their gentle rows, all those planes flying, and says, is this about 9/11? And his question is wary, as if to say, because if they’re all about 9/11, then I don’t want to know. So how can Tara answer?

She turns the wheel of the press and another print emerges, the blue unpredictable, volatile. I started working on these images out of fear, she says. It’s hot in the studio, and the stenciled planes are precise, and sometimes she has to keep cutting new ones because ink stains them, they get a little bloodied, and so they’re no good anymore, they’d ruin the effect. And so she has to keep cutting, hunched over on her stool, the exacto knife quite exact, exacting.

The famous sculptor says Tara must not start loving her planes too much, or else they will become too pretty, and we don’t like pretty; no, we need that edge to make it beautiful, that little bit of antagony, the pull between two opposing forces—the will to live, the lure of death—to make the image hold fast, not disintegrate the way planes are wont to do, the way any solid thing heaved up in the air will naturally incline to fall. Okay folks, the pilot says, so calm in the face of it, we’re beginning our final descent.


II.

My friend Eden is afraid of flying. Whenever she boards a plane, she concentrates very hard on keeping the craft in air. We all have to think good thoughts, she says, shooting glances at her fellow passengers, but most of them seem oblivious, arguing with the stewardess, or with a child, or just tuning out altogether, sleeping with their heads thrown back, their mouths open in horrible, wide O’s, as if already struck dead. So she does it herself, thinking the plane will fly, the plane will fly, like an old woman at her rosary, until the stewardess comes by and taps the seats to bring them back to a full, upright position.

Tara turns the wheel again, and again. I think of her there in the dim light of the press room, and the prints accumulate, the planes leaving the hangar and taking flight—each one circumscribed by prayer, the slightest touch, but enough to keep them flying. She reminds me of her namesake, the Tibetan deity Tara. This Tara manifests in multiple, colored forms: Green Tara, for action; White Tara, of the mind; Yellow Tara, of wealth; Red Tara, for joy; and, most holy, Blue Tara for protection. Blue Tara, according to Buddhist scripture, is “the remover of obstacles.” She “teaches us to transform the distorted energy of wrath and anger into the wisdom of clarity.”

Tara’s blue prints emerge from the roller, each one different, but each one holding steady, those planes in a holding pattern. What I’m trying to get at, Tara says, is the moment just before the next thing will happen... And she tells us later, her face disintegrating: I lost my best friend in 9/11, why can’t I just say it?

Because it’s unspeakable. So she rewinds time and the planes do not make their terrible turns, those cuts in the blue air. She is printing her monotypes, saying her rosary, she is dancing the Dance of Twenty-one Taras; she keeps turning the wheel, that Tibetan prayer wheel, the groaning revolutions you hear on the high ridges of the Himalayas, spinning out a continual Om Mani Padme Huhm into the charged air.

She hangs them with clothespins—they bend the line in a slight curve—and now I see what they remind me of so clearly: prayer flags, those fluttering cloths, edges frayed, you see strung on high ridges in Tibet. You can buy them yourself at the little hippie shop on Main, string them in your backyard to border a garden, or hang them inside to animate empty thresholds between rooms. These flags waft continuous prayers into the air—prayers for protection, prayers for peace. Sometimes it’s the Wind Horse flying among the calligraphy, but most often Tara’s image stamps the rough cloth again and again: duplicates of one woman guarding the skies.


III.

I have always believed in a vertical purity...

There’s a moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto: the orchestra has been beating a careful pulse beneath the soloist’s violin—a viola plucked here and there, a steady percussive beat in the background—and then suddenly, without your knowing it, the orchestra has vanished and the violin soars out there by itself, light-headed in space. It floats untethered—no, not floating but flailing upward, into the stratosphere, trying to reiterate melodies the orchestra has already negotiated, but the air’s too thin, it won’t quite make it; the violinist tries though, and in this striving cuts a path through the brain, stenciling its own shape: that sharp triangle of wings.

And if you listen to this music carefully—if you set aside everything else and just listen, eyes closed, hands at rest in your lap—you’ll feel that violin right behind your eyes, the place where a deep pool of lamentation abides, before specific tears shape themselves for a specific grief. And just when you think the violin will have to quit, to clatter broken-stringed to the ground, a viola edges back in to help: plucking, sidling up the way you might approach someone in pain, unsure if she really wants help and so you just hold out your hands to see if she’ll grab on...

And she does. Well, it’s rather like that: the violin falls back into the orchestra’s arms, and takes up the song in full force, all of them together and rejoicing at being together again, unharmed, laughing even at the way the violin got lost there for a minute. And you, the bystander: you can breathe again.

...and the air steps back from each body in song...


IV.

The prayer flags keep waving, a zephyr of praise that keeps the world’s grief cooled. And I think of Galileo, his theory of falling bodies, how predictable it is now: the time it takes any two people to land. And Tara keeps printing her monotypes, untitled, the isolated planes never touching down. “The moment before the next thing . . .” Not the impact, not the explosion we’ve already seen—again and again—as if by watching we might somehow make amends . . .

          the sky a pale plate
          of nothingness—nothingness—
          then the cirrus-cloud tails
          rushing through.

Tara delays the planes, rather like the trains of De Chirico, paralyzed by “The Enigma of an Hour,” halted, yet moving; never arriving, never departing; keeping company with the dead who don’t yet know they’re deceased. She is not a painter of still lifes, not an artist who would place nice figurines just so on a wrinkled cloth: statuettes of Mother Mary, perhaps, or Kuan Yin, two saints who keep their heads tilted to the side, just so, their faces ripe with compassion for those who suffer. But her monotypes are still lifes of a sort: the one plane flying still through her life. Memento Mori. Stalled Life. The plane stalled overhead. As if it, too, could feel a premonition and rear back, try to keep at bay whatever will happen next.

And never happens next. Not here. Not now. But grief, too, can be a secret machine that keeps humming long after you’ve clicked off the engine, shut the door on it, walked away. You sit in the kitchen, drinking coffee and passing the time, thinking how to decorate your rooms, those empty thresholds beckoning. Maybe you listen to Beethoven and swoop your arms through the air, a maestro conducting by proxy such music. Or perhaps you’ll watch the prayer flags wave in the garden, flapping their respects to whoever passes by. But that engine keeps purring. And you might wish only for those planes to spin back into toys, harmless, seized in the hands of a child who loves them.


Note: The italicized lines in sections III & IV are borrowed from The Ghost Trio by Linda Bierds.

 

Brenda Miller is the author of Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002), which was a finalist for the PEN American Center Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. She has received four Pushcart Prizes, and her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Georgia Review, Utne Reader, Fourth Genre, and The Sun. She is co-author of the textbook, Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003). She serves as editor-in-chief of The Bellingham Review. (5/2007)

Tara Parsons is an artist living and working in New York City. Her sculptures, installations, and prints have been shown at the Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité in Berlin, Germany; Rochester Contemporary in Rochester, New York; Fashion Center public art space in Manhattan; International Print Center New York; and Dam Struhltrager in Brooklyn, among other places. Tara was a fellow in Aljira’s Emerge 6 emerging artist program and currently has a year-long studio residency in New York through Chashama. Since 2001, her work has mostly dealt with the loss of a close friend in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. (5/2007)


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