Flowering Slugs

 

Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge

 

With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, Arkemy’s experimental film Bingo! features two-dozen old people playing the parlor game in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced into the film for thirty seconds every twelve minutes, footage of snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves.

Another of his tedious films, Topiary, some call “introspective.” Horticulturists shear shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. How is a view from a distant rooftop of abstract laborers silhouetted in glaring sunlight introspective? Every once in a while, a snail inches over tears in rancid linoleum.

In Terra Firma, his best for how short it is, we peer through openings in reflective glass at milling tourists who sometimes crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Look fast, though, at snail-infested grow bags!

In Interstate, a film shot like Formerly a Forest from a circling drone, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north out of town. In the clutter of a people-less picnic set in the shadow of an oak tree, a snail crests a rim, pouring itself into a Tupperware container.

Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. It’s hardly an act when a snail in the public garden below propels itself forward on a single, flat foot, secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” a mechanical voice announces, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, doesn’t he? He overdoes it with incidental noises. Human voices run together.

He’s made a name for himself filming strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. The mollusks he glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers. “Snails,” he tells me one afternoon, “are faceless.” So his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form lines around whole blocks, anticipating blockbusters. They wait at bus stops in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. “You’re going to have to help me with this,” I tell him. “Is not the mundane at some point just mundane? If your films are statements about the environment, why not send a more urgent message? If this is a spiritual thing, tell me about the spirit.”

Arkemy, whose real name is Glen Olson, smiles and asks me what I see when I walk through a wet park. I think of matted leaves. He says, “Get a whiff of it, young man. Scoop our share of soil.” He tells me in a tone that frankly I find condescending, typically Boomer, that like the snail we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to silence me, and it does (it disgusts me), he says triumphantly, “If you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”

At the Height of the Pandemic

 

A man called my wife a cunt today. It was at the height of the pandemic. She was jogging in the park when she pulled down her mask to take a breather. She wasn’t the only one to pull down her mask today, but she guesses she was oldest. Her gray hair, she guesses, made her an easy target. I said, “He fears the asymptomatic carrier.” She said, “He can’t bear the thought of a woman rule breaker.” I said, “If I could I would have a word with him,” and she said, “Why can’t you listen to what happened without wanting to punch someone?” “I’m not punching anyone,” I said. It was at the heart of the pandemic.

 

When a man living in and out of a box runs to catch a bus, at the very sight of him the bus driver not only accelerates but is seen to smile. The man running with his box in his hands yells over the traffic, “May your house burn down and all your children in it!”

 

A sacred pedestrian lies on a hospital bed, a bearded obstetrician reaching between her legs asks her to push. In place of a broken stirrup, a nursing student leans her shoulder into the flat of the foot of the birthing woman. This student’s perspective one place to start, when you look not out, but down a leg to a crowning child.

 

A child heard a man talking on his phone about fuck-you money. She didn’t know what kind of money this was or what you spent it on, only that this man spoke more and more angrily into his phone while walking his dog in his pajamas at noon.

 

Father Finley talks about grace as openness to the possibility that you could suddenly fall in love with everyone in the world. I used to think about this on crowded buses. I think about it now with empty buses passing.

Of civilizatiOns sOOn wiped clean

A Catholic high school teacher sits in his classroom afterhours talking remotely with his therapist about time-tested approaches to groundedness. No prayer tonight. No meditation. Speaking from a different time zone, she instructs him to get to his feet. “Walking around the room,” she smiles, “count every instance of the color blue. Discover your surroundings.” He confesses in the tone of a true confessor that he’s dog tired. What a cloying game anyway, with her color scheme like a New Age theory of mood. But “Fine,” he says, and shares the blackness of the night through his window in a few choice words: “My head feels like it has a spike though it.” “How about circles?” she says. “Can you count the circles instead?” He eyes the clOck, the racing-arOundness Of it, and alsO a circular bell, fire engine red, with its hard hammer. “NO mOre,” he’s taking her tO their affectiOnate impasse, when he signs Off and she writes a nOte tO herself tO ask him next week abOut the feelings awarded him by abruptness. The circles are everywhere, thOugh. The HalO arOund the head Of ThOmas MertOn saying,

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

He lOves writing almOst as much as he lOves putting gOOd bOOks intO the hands Of teenagers. The O’s in the title POrtraits frOm NOrth American Indian Life Open like mOuths. SO dO the O’s acrOss hundreds of spines frOm Mr. Sanchez’s The GOd BOx tO Thich Nhat Hanh prOclaiming at Plum Villiage, ‘My dear anger, I knOw yOu are there. I am taking gOOd care Of yOu.” GOd knOws where the rOund-lensed eyeglasses gO that Once pressed the bridge Of the nOse Of the late artist Keith Haring. The splOtched face in his self-pOrtrait signifies his illness. The upturned palms Of Ophelia, having drOwned in shallOw water, signify an illness. Steph Curry’s ball handling is a real crOwd pleaser. Rachel CarsOn lOOking Out thrOugh birding binOculars reminds the chOirbOy in him mOre Of his grandmOther and less Of Silent Spring, and less Of the lOne O in the deuterOnOmic saying ‘Justice, Justice shall yOu pursue’ / ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdOf.’ SO many O’s scribbled acrOss dry-erase bOards like legends Of civilizations sOOn wiped clean by a member Of the janitOrial staff. Today’s lesson: the cOmbining Of twO simple sentences intO a single compOund One:

Coates admires the pacifist Dr. King. / Coates doubts the effectiveness of nonviolence.

What O’s want to shOw this mid career teacher spring fOrth nOt frOm reading about race in America, and fOr this he feels vulnerable. It’s the canOnical unit On antiquity: In an age of anger, when everybody looks at everybody like they’re exotic, part of what makes a Roman a Roman is her not living outside the empire. Who is exotic anyway? And who is willing to say right now, ‘I am aware of your concerns—you want to be respected’?