photo walk 6.29.2014 (central square, cambridge)

I slept poorly last night, waking around 1 a.m. and nearly frantic with wakefulness. These periods of bad sleep rattle me, since they have the unfair power to derail my unforgiving lifestyle. I took another melatonin and slept heavily until after 8. When I dragged myself out of bed it was like pulling my mind up through jelly or mud; everything was resistance itself. Insomnia and bad sleep come in bouts and I do what I can with melatonin and hot milk toddies and no electronics an hour before bedtime, but still: sleep fractures like brittle bones, and I couldn’t tell you why.

After making breakfast and then lunch (to eat later) in the main house, I came back to the apartment and did homework, felt virtuous staring down at my notes, color-coded. I ate lunch and continued reading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, which had me gripping my own mouth in horror as I read. It’s that good, that real, that immediate; I wish I could say I hated it, that it rang false or felt overdone or was banal and facile. But it’s not. It’s terrifying and too real and got into my guts so quickly, it’s only with great effort that I put it down and went for a walk.

I took one of the cameras out with me. I thought I’d start photographing again. As I walked toward Central Square and passed by the church just off Mass Ave, I wanted to ask the men sitting on the benches by the boulevard if I could take their picture. I don’t want to literally take a picture, which seems like a sly form of theft. I remember how irate and sometimes violated I felt having my picture taken without permission in Korea. As if I stood, insensate, on a stage with props for other people to literally objectify. I don’t want to be that kind of photographer. As I stood hesitating on the street, however, I realized that to do the opposite, to not consume an uninvolved subject with a false sense of ownership, requires me to be involved. I saw I would have to go up to these men and introduce myself. Ask their names. Maybe share a cigarette with them. And then, maybe, after days, I could photograph them. Not just take their picture, but create something. Make a photograph. I’d have to be present, though, and have invested something so that they were not simply objects to be shot and recorded. And I was afraid of putting myself in that position. I would have to engage, which means I would have to open myself and be vulnerable.

I stood for maybe ten minutes on the sidewalk, thinking about this. The three men who had been sitting on the bench got up and ambled away. I stayed on the sidewalk, realizing I was afraid to reach out. I thought about my fear and the isolation it keeps me in (and the photographs it keeps me from making) while I turned the other direction and walked toward Central Square.

Photography has a vocabulary. There’s a style, a way of framing; I can’t say I’m very fluent. But I’ve gotten rustier in the year or more it’s been since I picked up a camera with seriousness. I can’t say what took me away in the first place. Retreat last summer, that took me away. Class and other obligations in the fall, that took me away. The huge stifling pressure of change: that took me away. I felt stuttered and stiff on the street today. I saw things and I didn’t know how to engage them, how to talk with them so that what happened with the camera was a conversation and not just a dead-end caption.

I ended up going grocery shopping. Ridiculously, I wandered up and down the aisles at HMart, the local Korean supermarket, with my camera banging against my hip and eavesdropping on Korean conversations and missing my other language and home. I bought some lunchbox storage containers, since I take my lunch to school, and a kettle for the altar. I’m one of those people who refuses to offer water from anything but a “clean” source. It’s always made me uncomfortable to fill an offering bowl straight from a faucet.

When I walked out the back of HMart, I went back to Mass Ave using a little covered walkway between the buildings. A young man was painting some graffiti on the wall. It’s not vandalism. The entire wall is like a public canvas, and hundreds of individuals illustrations layer up on each other the length of the passageway. I asked the young man if it was legal to do this, what the rules were, and so on. He said he didn’t know. He said no one ever hassled him, so he didn’t know what would get someone in trouble. He noticed my camera and asked if I was a photographer.

I said yes; I don’t know why. Because it’s an aspiration? Because why not–you’re a photographer if you call yourself one, an artist if you make art, and in some real way only you get to decide that for yourself. (Whether you’re a good artist, though…) I asked his name. I introduced myself. He gave me his card, and I said thank you, and then I walked away and took a shot of him putting the finishing touches on a starfish, one of several. His name was Morris.

At the other end of the passageway was an old man in a wheelchair. I thought, I’d like to make a portrait; and so I took a deep breath, walked up to him, and introduced myself. Hi, my name is Seonjoon. What’s your name? He responded to this question with the word “Hamaguchi,” and I couldn’t tell you if that was his name or an answer to the question he heard, but not the question I asked. He didn’t seem entirely present, although he wasn’t entirely absent, either. I asked if I could take his portrait. He said, “I don’t see why not…” So I did. Two frames. I shook his hand again and said I’d see him around, which I probably will. I’m beginning to recognize the people who wait around the bus stops and crowd the boulevard benches. Co-inhabitants of Central Square. I also saw how the better-dressed members of this neighborhood avert their eyes from the people sitting on the benches and the low brick walls, self-consciously disengaged. It was my own disengagement that I came up against when I realized I was paralyzed by a fear of crossing some invisible line with the three men on the bench earlier. It’s there, though, all the same.

I came home and shot four frames of the empty, dim apartment. Main room, bedroom, kitchen filled with glancing light. I have a book review to finish (funny that I can type out three times as many words in a quarter of the time here than I can with that review…) and more French to do. I need to get the review off my plate so I can move onto an application for a translation job, which I need to start so that I can get back to reviewing Sanskrit among French. And maybe tonight will be unbroken and peaceful, a fuzzed frame of indistinct contours, unbroken until the light is already over the horizon tomorrow morning.

All the photographs I shot today were with 35 mm film, the real deal, otherwise I would have posted anything that turned out.


in progress

Dry Lotus (42)


Inscribe. Revise. Rub out but can’t erase. Remark. Earmark: piercing. Empty, collapsed donuts, fallen tunnels in time, entry with a needle, exit with a decision. Hypoallergenic, but never met a metal that didn’t cause an irritation, never met a year that didn’t leave another mark. Incise, impress. Keloidal bas relief, elastin artifice. The skin, the flesh, the body. The corpus in progress.
Image courtesy of DS

close to the ground

Crack in the wall, room 312 Hall of Graduate Studies. Yale, New Haven 2013

Crack in the wall, room 312 Hall of Graduate Studies. Yale, New Haven 2013

Today I took out a camera after months of not being able to touch one, and felt like I do after an illness: hungry but still nauseous, yearning for food but simultaneously unable to eat.

The winter is a dormancy for me. I get certain kinds of work done in winter. I’m often very productive in late December and January, when the cold settles deep and begins to grip harder. But it’s the productivity of doing, consumption, and facts. Grocery shopping, laundry, books cover-to-cover. I run low on creative energy. There is a vital withdrawal from the faculty that writes or makes pictures, and I end up feeling like a twig, dry at the end of both myself and the season.

There are crocuses coming up the front yard. Purple arrowheads on green shafts, close to the ground: I am pierced by them, and miraculously I bleed with receptivity and response. It’s spring.

Glass pane, room 312 Hall of Graduate Studies. Yale, New Haven 2013

Glass pane, room 312 Hall of Graduate Studies. Yale, New Haven 2013

In my class on ancient Chinese literature, we briefly discussed the “Summons of a Soul” poems of the Chuci. One of the students said, “I don’t understand how a soul can be tempted by bodily pleasures.” She was referring to the enticements of food and pleasure listed in the poem, and she sounded somewhat indignant. For her the soul and the body were strictly discrete and of distinct hungers, the soul for the “spiritual” and the body for the mundane remainders. I was shocked. I wasn’t shocked that for her the soul should be drawn to soul-things and the sensorial pleasures of the body are gross aspects of lesser corporeality, but that when I read the same poem I had no such reaction. I’ve spent nearly a decade now laying feasts for spirits; the spirits in my world are always hankering and yearning and lusting. We routinely feed and pacify them. We entice them to calm them and sometimes to guide them toward more metaphysical truths—but never without the bribe of a good meal. “The “Summons” was foreign to my classmate but familiar to me, so familiar I didn’t even question its most basic premise about souls and their appetites. I felt betrayed by myself. There’s been a thinning of my original cultural framework, and overlaying it like new text of a palimpsest is the world I made my own. I made it mine to such an extent I’ve forgotten what I changed it from.

Later the same student asked about moxibustion, which also appeared in the poem. Immediately I thought the Korean word for the herb used in moxibustion, ssuk. It took me a moment to translate the word in my head, mugwort. She wrinkled her nose. “What’s that?” “A weed,” said another student, and I wrinkled my nose. “It’s also a food, and a medicine…and a weed,” I conceded. It felt disrespectful to reduce mugwort to that last, when it is also so much. In Korea ssuk is a small low-growing plant whose new leaves we harvest in spring and make into soups and sidedishes, whose flavor infuses teas and rice, which is curative and nutritive. Its sight, fragrance, and taste have been a part of every spring of my life for eight years.

It is a weed here. It has a mean name, mugwort, to go with a mean understanding. I felt lost again. The smell of burning mugwort is reminiscent of cannabis, although ingestion of the former has none of the latter’s effects. I used moxibustion to deal with the cold numbness which crept into my fingers and belly in Korea. Small rounded balls of dried mugwort had been used to make the precepts’ burns on my arms. I associate burning mugwort with acupuncture and repentance rituals, since I’ve been enveloped in its smoke at acupuncture clinics and during ordination ceremonies. The first student shook her head and frowned. “I still don’t know what mugwort smells like.” I know exactly what mugwort smells like. I was the only one.

Lowe Theater, 34th and 5th near Penn Station. New York, 2013

Lowe Theater, 34th and 5th near Penn Station. New York, 2013

I wandered around for a bit just off the campus this afternoon with a camera in hand, shooting black and white film. It’s an early birthday present to myself. I’ll take a longer walk as is my wont on my birthday next week. But the day was so nice and the feeling in me after so long, I thought: yes. Today.