Dropping Off As We Speak:
Southern’s Place in Memory

by SHAELYN SMITH

To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. —Georges Perec The things you think of to link are not in your own control. It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. —Anne Carson

The Wikipedia entry for Tuscaloosa, Alabama tells us that: “Tuscaloosa is mentioned in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It is suggested in the first chapter that Boo Radley spend time in Tuscaloosa because it might make him less highly strung.”

*

I was robbed at gunpoint my first week in Alabama. I moved from Brooklyn, and the incident felt somehow like an oxymoron, or a punch line I didn’t quite understand upon the first telling of the joke, and still sit to ponder the laughter around it sometimes, when I’m alone. But, you know what they say, this town like any town—something about god and guns and football. And there’s so much more than that. There’s an echoing here, the southerness that can be felt in the gut, with or without the gun, in the flatness of the country outside the city limits, an echoing that brings me to my knees.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station” meditates on purpose and motive of place. She questions the capacity for detail through the vehicle of a little family-run automotive operation. Here, the abandon and absence of persons allow her to come to a conclusion that someone cares, that through the arrangement of the room and shop she can speculate upon emotion. The space allows her to make assumption, without any there to autocorrect or discredit her estimations. Because of a directive toward the beginning of the poem, we assume she may be accompanied, but in fact, a better assumption made is the experience as a solo expedition into the temporality of a space, and the aura of memory it retains its positional psyche. We recognize the idea of poetic, of lyric, of how these things are innate in the structures around us, and that we not so much impress the ideas upon the spaces as the spaces force them upon us.

Experience, and the memory that will be formed of that experience, will be less important as an independent or free-standing entity than the lineage of the place in which the experience happens. And it will become a part of the conversation. And we often crave this justification. Upon entering a space we can sense its aura, and the aura consists of all the memories imbued upon the space throughout its history. This is true of buildings, of abandoned lots, of empty rooms, of yards and forests and sidewalks and seas. Georges Perec laments the lapse between the personal and the locational in Species of Spaces: “I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin.” Perec ultimately resolves the impossibility of this because, “such place don’t exist and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated.”

The question then is where the connection, or conversion, lies. Whether spaces are simply palimpsests of human experience, or if they retain memory of their own accord. The South is, in many realms, an exception to a rule. The mediations of space are no exception to this exception. Critic Michael Kreyling writes of the nostalgia of the South: “The accuracy and faithfulness of human memory are a necessary fiction cherished by those who think the past we remember is the past that actually occurred, and the at the past lies inert until summoned for human use, and in each summoning the same past.” In order to suffuse a landscape with our own experiences, we must give proper credit to the fictionalized history of the location itself. We must first acknowledge that even if our experiences are different, the location is the same. We must understand that we make memories atop the ghosts of prior memory-makers. We must understand that in doing this, we are claiming a stake in space to which we are then contributing. Thus we become a part of the location as the location becomes a part of us—an ongoing osmosis of narrative. There’s something mystical about this. There’s something magical about the South as an idea of location, as Flannery O’Connor notes in her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in South”:

The discovery of having his senses respond to a particular society and a particular history, to particular sounds and a particular idiom, is for the Southern writer the beginning of a recognition that first puts his work in real human perspective for him. He discovers that the imagination is not free, but bound. The energy of the South is so strong…it is a force which had to be encountered and engaged, and it is when this is a true engagement that its meaning will lead outward to universal human interest.

It’s a myth that is still being built, still being passed along, a story of a story of a story. The location, and the mystery behind it. We pass these things down through the things we leave behind, through the memories we impress upon the space, which the space will eventually leak out—an operation of its own agenda. These things will become a common experience of the place. The particulars are unavoidable, even if we cannot decipher exactly what they signify.

Flannery O’Connor writes in a 1958 letter to Elizabeth Bishop of a trip to Lourdes: “the supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural.” The sanctimonious effects and sacred space of religion are similar to those we attribute to our own memories, but without a place to specifically locate those memories, we are at an abstract loss. The geographies of the forgotten turn us on to something we cannot place necessarily within our own frames of reference, nor can we explain it, exactly. This geography maps out the aura of history. Space then becomes proof of our own memories, our own existences, located. Let’s say the space orients itself and then extends outward from one specific focal point. Let’s say this focal point is the inception of the space’s importance or significance. As the liturgical language of prayer, as something excavated from within and then absorbed from without, can affect our ideas of space and location. Because our ideas, regardless of what is in fact inherent in the space itself, absent of us, are still construed by us. Somebody has been here before.

*

Out southwest Culver Road, the trees turn to cows and pumpjacks, nodding donkeys. The houses are sparse and the cars are sparser, a nervousness simultaneously comforting and calming. Biking these roads, along the Black Warrior feels like something verboten, something embargoed, something illicit. There’s a sanctuary, for members only next to the barb-wired in security post. Two men nod as they fish from a creek. I wasn’t born here; I don’t belong here; I feel so at home here now. A lesser blue heron feeds up from the brush.

My knees seize. The pistons turn over themselves. Sometimes they are doubled up, two horsehead pumps drinking from one well. Church will soon let out. An armadillo crosses the road.

Perec lays this out: “An idealized scene. Space as reassurance.” And this is how space and memory are similar, for we too can attempt to take solace in our memories. As the prayer or memory becomes comfort and repetition, and the comfort we find in the repetition of these filling stations, however liminal. To locate this routine exactly in the layering becomes important. We can say, yes this happened, because this is where it happened. We can drive past a place, or walk through the rooms, or put a photograph on display, or point to a map, and say this is where it happened, this is who was witness, and it did happen because it happened here. As O’Connor notes in “The Church and the Fiction Writer” that upon working with the material, he will discover, “if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth…and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.” We cannot free ourselves from the limitations of our locations, or the limitations of space. We only have what we have within our boundaries. Our thoughts cannot transcend their outposts. We kneel at the altar, the side of the bed. We construct monuments and take certain routes of commute. We choose to stay in the same places our whole lives as if we have no other choices. We say home. We say love. We tell the same stories to everyone we meet. We follow a transect of tradition. We struggle against our own identities. We grapple with our own realities. We entrust others with our narratives. We can hold water with our histories.

*

The myth of the South, for me, lies surely in the atmospheric change. The first time I came to Tuscaloosa the banks were closed for holiday, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert E. Lee’s birthday. The people I met drove me around; we drank from cheap pints of whiskey snug in brown paper bags as we waited for the train to pass.

*

It’s a hot day, the brutal kind of Alabama sun early September that sweeps you off your feet in the drudgery of what is another syrupy dawn. Already, we are finding it difficult to arise from our beds. The day, thus embraced, becomes a progression through the spaces in which we are to, doggedly, act out the living aspects of our lives. In each space, we encounter something new, something different; in each transition between spaces we find ourselves within the parameters of what can be offered through the liminal. These daily outposts serve our lives as punctuation, and though that punctuation offer both reaction and solace. And thus the spaces become imbued with our human emotions and energies, but moreover with our nostalgias and yearnings and desires. The incantation of prayer often happens in an aura of absence or abandon. Prayer becomes a form of reproduction to fill that absence, as conformation for a reproduced narrative that both embodies and transcends time and space. I myself am not religious, but am curious about the narratives that build and surround the religion, and how we ourselves become the translators for the transference. I am curious how the language of prayer can inform and infect a retelling of narrative and supposition of fact. As one of my freshman composition students wrote in her final essay for class this past semester, “I have two homes now—home, sweet home, and Sweet Home Alabama.”

Body, I’ve been body. I’ve been body bent. Bent, body I’ve been, I’ve bodily been. Body blooming. I’ve been bent. Bend blooming body. I’ve been body blooding. I’ve been blood, body, blooming. The way each self hangs on her own self. A different kind of death. Our bones another structure of formulation. Body, I’ve been hanged.

CASE STUDY ONE

Cuban artist Ana Medieta staged her own rape as part of her thesis exhibition at Iowa in 1973. Utterly annihilating her own sexuality. Utterly in control of the incident and the witness to it. She, bound to a table. Bent over a table. Hail Mary. Bloodied and bruised. This she, did to herself. She her own self the victim. To this representation, she, left the door ajar. She didn’t move for almost an hour. Her cohort, her committee, her peers entered. Sat. Silently. Discussed amongst themselves. Perhaps she, at some point, shuddered. For the sake of art, for the sake of coercion. Coercion as a means of convincing. Of convincing of the power of perpetration. She says after, “It really jolted them.” Them being her audience, her observers, her surveillance. They her company. Documenting a performance becomes a new art, a new form of expression, a reiteration of experience. Witnessing said performance: the stands of lilies in the river. Here a photograph. Full of grace. The idea of the thing, and the thing itself. To be there, to be there in the room, for the conception, and to conceive of the intercepted. Eyes wide open. The moment that is neither inhalation nor exhalation. We also do these things for ourselves. We do these things to ourselves.

CASE STUDY TWO

A body is dumped in Lake Tuscaloosa. The police ask a local professional diver they occasionally see at the downtown pub to look for the body. He’s reluctant, but agrees. Two officers arrive at his door at the scheduled time; “Are you ready?” one asks. “Sure,” he says,&gets in the truck. They park near the portage by the breakers. He finishes gearing up. “Here I go,” he says,&goes. Down in the greenish-blue translucence of the manmade lake he searches for a sign, for the body of a woman he never knew. The lord is with thee. How this is preserved—the tender skins of tumescent tragedies. Something gently bumps his shoulder. He pays it little attention, but eventually turns around. An eight-foot Alligator Gar has been following him lower into the water. The pressure is on. It reveals the thin lines of its teeth, shakes its leathery fins. This the source of much of the town’s drinking water. At the heart of the lake he finds her head. The body still missing. Blessed art thou among women. These choices are always our last chances.

CASE STUDY THREE

Boundaries are set up in a performance, but the boundaries can be crossed. The stage does not always act as a barrier so much as a setting. Sometimes the life is dependent on the art imitating it, the aura surrounding it. Journalist Didi Kristen Tatlow notes: “life imitated art, startlingly and crudely.” She speaks here of a performance earlier this year in which artist Yan Yinghong simulated her own rape, standing on her head to reveal the visage of policeman painted on the leggings she wore under her skirt. Blessed are the fruits of thy womb. A male member of the audience, dressed in camouflage pants and a camouflage vest, climbed up on the stage to force a statement upon her statement. He began to grope her. In later performance that same day she drinks black ink from a white teacup. Another man crawls across the stage to touch her breasts. She asks him to stop. He doesn’t. She throws the tea platter at him. It shatters, in a violent twist to a nonviolent commentary upon past violent wrongs. Pray for us sinners. Black ink sprays across the stage. In a third performance Yinghong, an artist known for passively acting against domestic abuse and violence against women, is once again rushed upon. One man takes out his penis. This series of incidents embraces the ugly realities that intentions may not always be well-intentioned and that sometimes spaces open up possibility for the unwanted, if unwarranted. What happens when not all memories are beautiful, but are still a part of the history? Now and at the hour of our death. Under consideration of the un-replicable and uncontrollable, the art becomes unintentionally interactive. A working against of the working against. Boundaries are not always obeyed. Boundaries are often penetrable.

A current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City attempts to translate the idea of aura through a reappropriation and repositioning of location-based performance art of 1970s Manhattan. Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance and the New Psychodrama is wound through the labyrinthine 4th floor of the museum patching together video footage, photographic archiving and props from these performances, many of which the artists requested not be recorded, many of which were invitation only, site-specific and time-dependent. Does the place of performance exist before it’s history, or does the history determine its place in the performance? Like ships passing in the night, their transects invisible, destinations different, a reverberating symbiosis of time and place. Before the debut of “The Kitchen” Mike Kelley ran through a series of dress rehearsals where the only engaged and active audience consisted of the participants themselves. A pause in time to stop a vicious cycle. The object in space becomes its own signifier. Jack Smith, who was responsible for the titular rented island, lived in a loft on Greene Street, which was more like an organized junkyard comprised of urban detritus collected from the streets of SoHo. This was his home, and also his theatre. He didn’t last there long.

How you display something in authenticity that was intending to be seen in a particular place, at a particular time, and often, by a particular audience. What serves to represent these things are often not telling of the work as a whole, but rather offer tiny clues and insights to what might have been. Surely it doesn’t do justice to the original, but there’s something incredible about being able to access the evidence left behind. Buildings and structures that are bare bones and slight suggestions about what used to be. There are only the stories, and the ghosts, and perhaps a large boarded-up mansion that we can physically access. We must intuit, then, the history of the original, and make up our own myths based on the remains of what was, and layer upon this our own traditions and rituals. The New York Times review of the exhibition makes note that so often the work on display was, a the time, “meant to exist only for as long as it stayed in a viewer’s mind,” but that “that ethos of evanescence” reverberates through the museum, instilling us, seeing it now, with a mythical linkage to the past. And there are certainly ways to talk about this. And certainly it’s been talked about. The aura of memory, likewise, acts cursory to the body, and the body’s location in time and space.

Walter Benjamin claims in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” This brings us to idea or motive or cause of recourse—we treat the experience as authoritative, original and authentic, but the authentic experience may lie in the affect rather than the effect. We make our memories where we happen to be. And where we happen to be already has memories imposed upon it. In his memoir Southerner Harry Crews notes: “If I think of where I come from, I think of the entire county. I think of all its people and its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness.” I wonder too, then, what manipulation or maneuvering can influence this outcome through revisiting, re-performing or re-embracing these memories, if nothing can be as accurate or authentic as the original. If not, then how is it we come by our own histories, and the histories of the places in which we find ourselves? We must construct new authenticities. Embracing subcultures and the formulaic South, as well as profiling a cultural memory loss of the collective conscious that is continually trod upon by new memory, may defer, or massacre our attempts to preserve this.

The psychology of identity and location argues that exterior locations and structures affect and influence our internal emotional landscapes, to what particular ends, for as Alain de Bottom notes in The Architecture of Happiness, “there is beauty…which is stronger than we are” and this “is typically the result of a few qualities working in concert.” The manipulation of the concert in which these qualities work to create beauty has more to do with memory or history than actual, authentic experience. When we commit something to memory, it informs our sensibilities of manipulation. This is dependent upon a homeostasis between the body in space and the mind in memory because, we as spectator make real the experience of the performance. This becomes something in which we can stake claim, but cannot own, as, Benjamin writes: “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” The fabric of the memory becomes a mimicry of the original event. The mimicry takes the form of a story. And this is how we repeat history.

Benjamin also notes: “it is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function…the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.” The depreciating value of our independent experience is countered by the spaces that construct and inform this experience in a lineage of experience. We begin to become the history of the space itself because of what Southern studies theorist Scott Romine identifies as, “the faulty seam between desire and reality” and “its formal recognition that the one can never fully penetrate the other.” The art of reality is that all these assumptions hold true. Even in recognition, the mystical can never fully penetrate our attempts to understand it, just as these attempts will fail to stand upright on their own. The location must be there to offer it support, and a basis in which to send down roots.

A recent New Yorker article investigates methodologies and modalities of prayer through Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, which the magazine had excerpted in the previous month’s issue. In the article, author Casey N. Cep questions how one should pray, and notes that in the case of O’Connor: “the task she set for herself, to invigorate her dulling faith, was accomplished by the deliberate, contemplative practice of praying in her own words. By refashioning the prayers she inherited and practiced every day at Mass, O’Connor was able to find new language for belief.” She balanced the tradition with her own needs, and supplemented the language of tradition with her own suspension of experience in space. We determine this based on scales of the pleasure of the experience, and the information we can take away from the particulars experience. The prayer is a means of tracking the proverbial game of experience, and the constructed idea of the personal, through the dense undergrowth in a black night with little other than a penlight of faith to guide us.

We must build the narratives of the space of our own lives, through memory, but memory is inextricable from aura. Romine speculates on the inherent Southerness of this idea: “Narratives tell of, present, and portray desire even as they use and embody it...narrative’s distinctive capacity to account, in the broadest sense, for desire’s operations as it is decoded, cut loose from more regulated forms of territoriality, and then reattached more tenuously and flexibly to themed spaces, localities and superficial territorialities.” The aura, then, of location is embedded in the place, and the memories held in and emanated through the landscape. Making personal the political, or performative, allows us to collaborate in the narrative myth-making. It is in that that we find our own experience elided by the aura of past experiences brewing in the location. Locating a memory in space is often more important than locating it in time—the meditation on moment, temporality, memory and the inconsistencies that arise become artifact when specified upon a map. But we must preserve it, and we preserve it through observing and absorbing and reconstructing the traditions of the past. Peggy Phelan conjectures: “mimicry, I am more and more certain, is the fundamental performance of this cultural moment. At the heart of mimicry is a fear that the match will not hold and the “thing itself” (you, me, love, art) will disappear before we can reproduce it. So we hurl ourselves headlong toward copy machines, computers, newspapers, cloning labs.” And we can claims these reproductions as truth, but the aura haloes around our heads.

The aura of these filling stations, “the thing itself”, is the most impossible to encapsulate in any other form than direct experience. Because that is something we cannot recreate. The authenticity of direct experience, as opposed to indirect observation, needs a physical notation in order to relive, and also to relieve. In outrage, we upend the expectations and also forage a new way for new experiences to be built. And in that place, as written in the introduction to a “Haunted America Series” installment of Tuscaloosa: “You will see the history…but you will also see the shadows of that history. The things left behind. They are a part of that history, too.” The Hill of Crosses in Northern Lithuania contains more than 100,000 crosses of various material and sizes. The origin of the effigy is unknown, but is under no jurisdiction and thus can be added to, or taken away from, as desired. What consumes what and what presupposes what, and thus controls the memory as it is transposed upon a different location. All of these things overlap and overlay and underscore each other as we recount and reencounter certain remainders and reminders. We ourselves are the constant unreliable narrators of our own lives. Every time a story is told we are reaching both forward and backward. Every lie a story is told. And this is how history is created. And this is how memory trumps history. And thus, as Dorothy Allison ends her short, lyric memoir: “I can tell you anything. All you have to believe is the truth” (94).

CASE STUDY FOUR

Notes on the Miracle Cross Garden—Prattville, AL, 09/07/2013

Mid-day sun&dirt the color of rust in the sun, hell is hot hot hot. The stove and other appliances. Revelations 21:8 mentions the 2nd death, which also may be the turning over at noon. You whisper in my ear before we get out of the Jeep that you are crazy about me. And we are all a little crazy around one another. Across the road a small hut fire pit the right the outhouse what plants padlock prayer request. Kingly needs cypress, hemlock. Harshly this fine after-noon, it’s a right not a privilege. The nature and the human nature overlapping each other but not for common ground, for one growing above a car hood. The wasps just inside the door, two or three dozen clustered on the door handle, the cool metal must provide solace for each prayer request come by. You grab my hand. You let go. Another car comes crashing around the curve and you hang yourself from the nearest cross, a human crucifix in the red heat of the afternoon, the paint come splashing down around your tennis shoes.

*

I don’t know you well, yet, but I beg you to take me to the Cross Garden because you have a vehicle and I do not. You respond with a refrain, and a resounding “when the sun carves eerie shadows across the weedy red dirt.” We go the next weekend, to see William C. Rice’s effigy to his own rebirth in the name of the Lord. And I don’t remember what you were wearing and I don’t remember what I was wearing but I do remember reading portions of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men out loud to each other as our hands turned over the wheels, dipped out the window into the Alabama air: “one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence; that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.”

Along Highway 82 I fall in love with you. You are tossing your keys in the parking lot of Jim’s Roadside BBQ and they catch up on the telephone wire. First throw, and we laugh. We are stuck here, in this time, until the keys come down. You start throwing your shoe up to dislodge the key ring. And, “It is,” Zelda Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to F. Scott in 1930, “very good to have something to love.”


Works Referenced

Allison, Dorothy. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. New York: Plume, 1995.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. Ed. Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. 297-307.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Filling Station.” Poetry Foundation. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Carson, Anne, interviewed by Will Aitken. “The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171 (Fall 2004).

Cep, Casey N. “Inheritance and Invention: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast. 12 Nov. 2013. Web.

Cotter, Holland. “Nothing to Spend; Nothing to Lose,” The New York Times. 31 Oct. 2013. Web.

Crews, Harry. “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place” in Grit Lit: A Rough Southern Reader. Ed. Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2012. 3-15.

de Bottom, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage International, 2006.

The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Higdon, David and Brett J. Talley. Haunted Tuscaloosa. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Hughes, Catherine. “Is That Real?: An Exploration of What Is Real in a Performance Based on History” in Enacting History. Ed. Scott Magelssen and Rhona Justice-Malloy. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2011.134-52.

Kreyling, Michael. “Nostalgia, Alternate History, and the Future of Southern Memory.” The South That Wasn’t There: Postmodern Memory and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. 176-194.

Perec, George. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Trans. Ed. John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Catholic Novelist in the South.” Stories and Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: The Library of America, 1988. 853-864. Web.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” America Magazine. America Press, Inc. 30 Mar. 1957. Web.

Phelan, Peggy. Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance and the New Psychodrama. Cur. Jay Sanders. New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013.

Romine, Scott. Introduction. The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008. 1-26.

Tatlow, Didi Kirsten. “Artist’s Take on Sexual Abuse Turns Ugly,” The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2013.

SHAELYN SMITH is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.