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Book Reviews

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Something About Looking at the Earth Like Maya Lin

"I try to give people a different way to look at their surroundings...that's art to me." - Maya Lin

1. Something About a Nail

The summer I was ten years old, my grandfather hammered a nail into a cedar tree with the heel of his hand. My cousins and I had called his bluff; we hadn't believed him when he told us that, as a carpenter in Tacoma after the war, he'd never used a hammer.

My hands are like the Finns, he boasted. My hands are stronger than Russian tanks.

Holding a three-inch nail against the tree with thick fingers, he swung with the full force of his gigantic frame. The head of the nail went further into his hand than the tip did into the tree. But when he pulled away, hand ripped and bleeding, the nail stayed sticking in the bark. My cousins and I stood and gaped, full of admiration, love, fear. Nobody touched that nail for the rest of the summer, and it stayed sticking out of that cedar for as long as I can remember.

Twelve years later, at his funeral, I sat with the same cousins around a bottle of Finlandia vodka and recalled the story of the nail. They didn't remember it. Neither did my aunts. Neither did my grandmother, nor my father, who had pulled a white t-shirt over his head and wrapped his father's fingers before driving him, bare-chested, to the emergency room.

It's the best story I have of my grandfather, and yet I have to doubt that it ever happened.

2. Memory, Loss, and Mirrors

Plato asserted that by turning a mirror round and round, one could with time reflect all the stars and heavens—and by doing so contain them within the mirror. This is how we experience the world: by spinning round and round in it, reflecting it all through our senses. But the reflections aren't always so accurate: our world-view or experience, what we might call our subjectivity or bias, creates slight bumps and flaws across the mirror's surface. We color our experiences with the memory of the past, and when we remember one thing, we remember the flaws, too (and thus create new ones).

The story of the nail may very well have been a dream I misremembered into reality over time, bending the mirror in my head into a funhouse carnival shape until something new appeared. I can't believe it ever actually happened, based on what my family tells me. Rather, it must be an invention of interpretation, a way of remembering my grandfather's strength to comfort me as I watched him get older and sicker.

An artist-friend once justified his drug use to me by saying: "We all gotta do something to make this earth seem less real." But the poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, in "Facing It," describes a world seeming more. In the poem, he is standing before Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., his image reflected in the black granite, the names of those who died engraved such that they overlap like prison bars across his reflection. He turns one way, the stone releases him. He turns another, and he's back inside the memorial, names of the dead holding him there. He ends with an image he perceives in juxtaposition:

In the black mirror

a woman's trying to erase names:

No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

The sensual projection of sights and smells that plays across the Platonic mirror in our heads—a projection Nabokov called "a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness"—follows whatever unique shape our experiences of love or war have left. And while it might seem cruel to believe this brief crack is anything less than reality, isn't it crueler to imagine reality as something unwavering, unchangeable? To eliminate the effect of the self—isn't that just another kind of eternal darkness?

When she was 21 years old, Maya Lin's design was selected as the official memorial in Washington D.C for the Vietnam veterans. Still just a student, Lin anticipated the effect an engraved mirror of black marble could have. The most important thing, she's said, was "the acknowledgement of a loss." For veterans and visitors alike, for you or me or Yusef Komunyakaa, her design puts us face to face with The Loss. We don't just view the names and feel The Loss of individual life, we see ourselves viewing the names; see ourselves still alive, lucky survivors of The Loss. I see someone else in the black marble and try to imagine the perspective, what it must be like to be them, because the reflection in the mirror must look different to them. The power of Komunyakaa's poem derives from exactly that: looking at the mirror-memorial through the poet/veteran's eyes. We see that woman erasing names, and then we see her again, this time brushing a boy's hair.

On a Saturday morning last year, my wife and I walked through Maya Lin's latest show, Three Ways Of Looking At The Earth, at a gallery in Chelsea. Twenty-odd years after the Vietnam memorial, Lin has now defined her idea of art as "Focusing you on a new way of looking at your surroundings." By assembling topographies from familiar objects, Lin takes an architectural perspective on geography and gives the viewer a new way of looking at the natural curvatures of our surroundings. By building a hill or wave out of more than 50,000 upright 2x4's, Lin emphasizes the details of a hill or wave; she illuminates the slight differences between the individual pieces, the way the singular planks compound and change and grow until, over time, they create something massive and different and beautiful.

3. "Happy families are all alike."

I remember the second to last time I saw my grandfather alive. It was 2000, and he was confined to a hospital bed in his home at the base of Mt. Rainier in Washington State. The house was a lakefront cabin he had built himself, although I assume he had the help of a hammer. I remember the trees that surrounded it, the pine cones my cousins and I would use as weapons in miniature wars. I remember a cedar tree with a nail in it.

I remember being 20 years old, home from college on the east coast for the summer. Because of my grandfather's health, my grandmother had been debating whether or not to take her annual trip to Reno with her friends from church. She wanted to be sure someone from the family could be with my grandfather while she was away. It was just a weekend; a nurse was there twelve hours a day. I volunteered to stay knowing my grandfather might not make it another semester, and it might be my last opportunity to spend time with him.

I don't remember if it was a Friday or Saturday. I don't remember what the weather was like. I don't remember if I had long hair yet, or when exactly it was that my grandmother commented that long hair made me look like a fat girl. I do remember arriving in time to meet the nurse, a wonderful, big-hearted and big-boned Jamaican woman my grandfather had nicknamed Mama. When I asked if I could call her by her real name, she waved a hand in the air and said it would only confuse things. I don't remember her real name.

I remember my grandmother taking me into my grandfather's room to give me instructions. She shook my grandfather awake to list the rules. She waved an arthritic, diamond-laden hand at me: "No matter what he tells you, Joey, no coffee, no cookies, no schnapps." She looked down at her confused husband. "You hear me, old man? Doctor Moses said no coffee or sweets!" My grandfather was sleeping about 20 hours a day and he barely recognized me. But he recognized when to agree with his wife of 61 years. "Yes," he said.

I remember she told me, as I helped her up the driveway to her friend Rosa's car: "You can have as much coffee and cookies as you like, dear." When she was gone, I went back into my grandfather's room, and we looked at each other. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking, but I imagine I was trying to see something of my future self in him. I imagine I must have been sad and terrified—he could die, or I could have to change a diaper. I was afraid. But I said: "So Grandpa, how 'bout a cup of coffee?" and I remember he smiled, slowly, and he raised a shaky arm toward the kitchen. "And a cookie."

I sat next to his bed the rest of the evening while a Mariners' game played on the small portable television. He fell in and out of sleep, but I remember thinking the important thing was just to be there. If he was awake when his favorite Mariner came to bat, the head-shaven Jay Buhner, he would point a shaky hand at the TV and say, "It's the bald man!" I would nod and say, "Yep, that's him," but otherwise I don't remember anything being said between us.

I don't remember if I found the old two-volume copy of Anna Karenina on a shelf somewhere, or if my grandmother had given it to me before she left. Her name was written in the inside cover, dated 1944, the year my grandfather was fighting with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. I remember how her handwriting in 1944 matched exactly the birthday and Easter cards she sent me at school. I remember taking a volume into my grandfather's room after Mama left for the night. It was not the room he and my grandmother had shared when he was well, but a guest room with better light in the mornings and a nicer view of the lake and Mt. Rainier. I watched my grandfather breathing for a few moments, his hands and jaw shaking even in sleep, and then I sat and opened the book. I remember the first lines: Happy families are all alike.

A few pages in I heard my grandfather's voice: "Billy," he said. My father's name. I looked over at him. He was looking right at me. "Joey visited today," he said. "He's a good boy. Joey. Good boy. You have a good son." I remember trying to think of something to say. I remember being conscious that this was a moment I would remember forever. We looked at each other for a long moment. I needed to say the right thing. And then he was asleep again.

I remember putting the book down and going to the window. I remember crying, not from sadness but just from the emotional weight. I remember the moon reflected in the lake outside like a giant white fish. I remember thinking that, that exact simile.

At his funeral the following spring, I told the nail story instead of this one. I don't remember why, but it occurs to me now that this memory might be just as much invention as the other, something I concocted to help me believe my grandfather and I were closer than we were in reality. I suppose that's okay. After all, is Maya Lin's hill of 2x4 boards any less "real" than any other hill? Is the reflection of a woman erasing names on the Vietnam Memorial any less real than the reflection of a woman brushing a boy's hair? Perhaps.