'Sounds heard when the ear is pressed to the walls'
A review of Gaspar Orozco's 'Autocinema'
Know that all of Nature is but a magic theater, that the great Mother is the master magician, and that this whole world is peopled by her many parts. — Upanishads
David Lynch uses this Upanishads epigraph in Catching the Big Fish, a book where he describes his lifelong practice of Transcendental Meditation. Much of Big Fish is anecdotal, recounting stories which animate his inner world and artistic process. “I used to go to Bob’s Big Boy restaurant just about every day,” Lynch says, “from the mid-seventies until the early eighties. I’d have a milk shake and sit and think. There’s a safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milk shake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner”.
In Autocinema Gaspar Orozco visits Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in the poem “One summer evening, while slowing down the car, I think I see David Lynch in a roadside diner.”
The fan turns slowly from left to right. The current of air crosses the room like a thought both precise and abstract — like a black ant imprisoned in a chunk of ice. A man opens a bible at hazard. His eyes pause for a second as they fall, upon the letter that will begin his path. The air makes the corner of the thin page tremble; it wants to run away, but his right hand stays it. He reads a verse in silence, as if his tongue follows the heat of a darkest root. He closes the book and looks out the window. A nocturnal garden, covered with dew.
Orozco’s version of Lynch’s diner is part Lynch movie, part Lynch on Lynch, part Orozco on Lynch, part its own sovereign poem. Orozco borrows Lynch’s diner, and a certain Lynchiness as well. (Do we, or do we not, see a milkshake in Orozco’s poem?) The nocturnal garden works in the poem as a “dark area” without us needing to know that Lynch’s film career began as he was painting a night garden that started to move. The poem, like the air current in the diner, is “both precise and abstract.” It’s a physical space which we can relate to — the muggy air, the trembling page, the big window — but, as in much of Autocinema, it is also static: a mindspace where the reader herself is the “black ant imprisoned in a chunk of ice.”
In one sense Orozco has constructed a Lynchian arena: a red-curtained room, a consciousness, a possible world. After reading the poem, all of Autocinema is imbued with Lynchiness. But Orozco has filled his book with homages. Almost every poem showcases an artist-hero of his, leaving clues as to the type of arena that will be opened on that page. So Autocinema thickens as it goes, continually borrowing imagery and allusions from each new source, snowballing into an impossibly complex world of inspiration and gratitude.
Well, not world: film. The poems of Orozco, himself a documentary filmmaker, are short surrealist prose pieces about films and filmmakers, using the language of films. He has said, “My intention has been no more than to project a small film, a one-page film, onto each sheet of paper.”
The titles (“Film seen on a black square on a chessboard” , “Film seen within a zero” ) describe screens on which the poems are projected. Or the screen, Orozco leads us to think, is his own “skull’s thinnest wall” (46). Or the projector is his imagination and the screen is the consciousness of the reader. Like the role Lynch plays in Autocinema, this idea of projector and screen is refracted, complex, unanswerable. Whatever the projector is, the films land on unusual, intimate surfaces. In Spanish — the original language of the book — “autocinema” means drive-in movie. As the translator Mark Weiss suggests, the title also connotes a “filmography of the self” (13).
Although it’s preferable to read a book in its mother tongue, with Autocinema — in which “self” recedes and dissolves at every turn — Orozco’s work seems to invite a refraction of text. Even in the most capable hands, poetry translation is a kind of impossibility. A poetry translator runs into linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic roadblocks. Even in prose poems, sound, rhythm, and diction are all employed to convey sense — so Weiss must attend not just to denotation but also to “feel.” For example, in the poem about Lynch, Weiss translates “Un hombre abre la Biblia al azar” as “A man opens a bible at hazard.” The odd usage of “at hazard” makes the reader pause. The usual translation of “al azar” would be “at random,” “randomly,” “frivolously,” “by chance”; “at hazard,” while accurate, is slightly archaic and usually means “at risk” or “in danger.” But this subtle introduction of danger to the scene at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant seems in keeping with the menacing tone of a Lynch movie. As such, Weiss has — as all translators must — transformed, rather than reproduced, the text. He may be thought of as a director in his own right, shooting a reboot of Orozco’s movie. One can’t help but imagine that Orozco, with his projections and shadows and prisms, would welcome such a transformation: someone inside his prism holding another prism.
Orozco likes surfaces, what’s on them, under them, “in the letter” (58). In Autocinema “A letter” can be seen“as prism” (58): that is, the light of one lens is refracted into a spectrum of others. Like Charles Simic in The World Doesn’t End, Orozco dekes, misdirects, uses via negativa, vanishes suddenly. “After the rain, in a garden sweet with solitude, at the hour when the lamps are lit, a ghost will arrive murmuring the end of the poem you have always forgotten” (70). You read each line five times until, very slowly, layer after layer, a trail of bread crumbs emerges, a fog clears, there is a form. You find yourself in a surreal, irrational place. Then, just when you are used to absences, suddenly the space is filled with shimmering ephemeral presence.
Behind the film is another film. Behind the actors others lurk. There’s another city within this city. Within the depths of light another brightness flickers. Beneath the words are other words, intoned by other voices. Beyond the shadow drips another shadow. Behind the music another music quietly advances. Other eyes are seen behind your eyes. (75)
The world — its actors, cities, voices, music — overflows with absentness and also presentness. This is not necessarily a contradiction. The Jungian mind is replete with dreams full of archetypes, while emptiness is at the core.
It’s no surprise that the poet’s “I” voice is unreliable. We know few confessional details about the poet from the book. “All of my footprints,” he says, “have been erased” (19). We do, though, know what kind of art he likes: obscure experimental art films, like those by Georges Méliès and Guy Madden. We know — and we trust, I think — this voice, for it is kind. He is the generous guide entering “the garden of moments” for us (28). Then a personal moment slips in: “I chase the name, the merest luminosity that can contain the warmth of my son’s little finger as he sleeps on my left arm” (31). And, unprecedented in the book, an entire poem about his son:
Everything begins with a wave, Santiago tells me, when the blind time of the sea comes forth from his hand. Then the procession begins: the squid with its fixed eye, the whale or the phantom ice floe, the shark and its magnetic gaze, the slender jellyfish, with its fiery sting, slippery as the skin of a lost song. In this, its other life, the hand grants its secret selves their freedom. Inch by inch, weariness draws near each finger and conquers it with the weapons of sleep. Doubtless, the faint parade continues in other waters, in other depths, beneath closed eyelids. (87)
We see them beside each other in bed, making shapes on the ceiling with their hands and a flashlight. The squid, the ice floe, and the jellyfish are temporary, a parade of shadows that vanishes “beneath closed eyelids.” In fact, while we are overtaken by the rich emotion, another more general idea occurs to us: that all the images of the book have been shadows, warm wind, empty forms, as in Plato’s cave allegory. There is no true form of reality. Our world is all reflections, projections. There is no escape, we are not prisoners, and there is no lesson. And somehow we feel lucky.
Orozco doesn’t present life as a palpable structure. It’s a suggestion of a gaseous “long-abandoned theater” (60) drawn in the air. The last, short poem in the book is “In the end”: “Not to be more than the mote of dust suspended in the beam of light and shadow projected into the empty theater” (99). This empty theater of existence is a kind of echo chamber of flitting shadows, feelings, impressions, glowing with presentness and emptiness, all projected back and forth against various surfaces. He assures us that, despite all this action within, the theater is ultimately vacant. Everything vanishes: “I open my hands: they sink into the mist” (57); “If you look … too long, the ash will collapse within you” (69); “You have seen nothing” (72). Art itself — being one step removed from life — might be understood as “Sounds heard when the ear is pressed to the walls” (60). And the poet/guide is just another receding shadow projected on the wall.
What, if anything, holds the empty theater together? “We look at the world once, in childhood,” says Louise Glück. “The rest is memory.” Orozco mentions facets of memory throughout Autocinema: “the gold of memory” (45), amnesia (85), Lethe (85), forgetfulness (64). Memory is the cement holding together the architecture of the abandoned theater, our palace of existence. The irony, Orozco jokes, is that his own memory is terrible, as two old men inform him “in the Rampa Theater in Havana”: “so young and such a lousy memory!”(25)
So Orozco rejects the role — as Wallace Stevens said the poet should be — of “the priest of the invisible.” The soul, like every form in the empty theater, is a fleeting shadow: “The soul is found” in an “endless wave of a mirror reflecting a mirror” (37). The soul, flitting and dissolving, is like a shadow of a shadow.
Slowly the flame crosses your soul, which is each of our souls. The lights respond to the tongue’s sweet call. They ascend in silence to oneness. Breath is light. Truly that flame is never extinguished. I see this on the island that evaporates at dawn. (36)
This contradictory definition of the soul — as a thing “never extinguished” which also “evaporates” — recalls Buddhism, a system which does not accredit the soul (Ātman) but does teach that something is reincarnated. Orozco certainly doesn’t care about the soul as defined by religion; his poems inhabit a space where logic is flexible and flowing, not restricted by dogma, where the soul is an indescribable subterranean part of us, urging us toward ourselves.
“But it starts with desire” (35), Orozco quotes, from Lynch’s Big Fish book again. This desire is not lust but, for Orozco as for Lynch, a drive toward wholeness, or becoming. So each little film-poem in Autocinema can be seen as an opportunity, using art as a portal, to pry one’s way into one’s own life. For him, as for Lynch, the sacred is conflated with the grotesque.
The collapse of the white cathedral. An endless procession of deformed, sick, mutilated archangels. Their fingers reach out to touch me. I was witness to Lucifer’s fall into the frozen river of the eye. The unusual perfection of the shadow of a dwarf descends the worn-out marble steps. A strand of an albino’s hair illuminates the empty sanatorium. Black numbers on a red thread: the ventriloquist’s voice sprouts from the beak of the stuffed starling. The Virgin impales a butterfly on a long pin. Slower and slower the amber flutters. I looked upon the face of light and it was deformed. That’s how I came to understand that deformity was holy. (62)
Here Tod Browning, director of Freaks (1932), is the presiding spirit. The traditional tropes of religion — holy water, white cathedral, marble steps, the Virgin — are outshone by “mutilated archangels.” Orozco loves the balance of beautiful and macabre: the butterfly pinned, the starling stuffed. These — Browning, Lynch, Méliès — are the artists from whom Orozco learned to look at nature, the Great Mother, and glean his aesthetic: “deformity [is] holy.”
There are, in Autocinema, a few inattentive moments. In a book rife with visionary enactments, there are lines which overexplain: “It’s your mind that’s transformed” (81); “In the scene in my head is a woman” (27). He also refers to “a wunderkabinet made by Ulrich Baumgarten (1600–1652),” while a quick Google search leads to the actual cabinet-maker Ulrich Baumgartner and his correct dates (1580–1652). But we happily overlook these, overtaken by the exciting sense, as with Mary Ruefle or John Ashbery, that we are being taught a new language: restless, unsettled, almost punk. Orozco is happy to disrupt any paradigm, even those useful to him: the soul, the film, the poem, existence itself — guiding us first into this theater of contradictions, then leaving nothing behind at all. So he allows the world, peopled by her many parts, to remain complex, shimmering, unstable. For, as Artaud said, “The fixation of the theater in one language — written words, music, lights, noises — betokens its imminent ruin.”
4. Gaspar Orozco, “Gaspar Orozco: Ten Prose Poems from ‘Autocinema,’ part one.”