Thursday, June 16, 2011

Explanation as Composition: Provenance #4

The provenance of this work was written during a collaborative writing session at LACE on 30 January 2011. Writers include: Amanda Ackerman, Harold Abramowitz, Kate Durbin, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Teresa Carmody. Event writer collaborators: Aimee Bender, Allison Carter, Mark Z. Danielewski, Carribean Fragoza, Veronica Gonzalez, Janice Lee, Harryette Mullen, Janet Sarbanes, Anna Joy Springer, and Stephen Van Dyck.

Sidebar: Literary Impact of the Work

Alice Adams was a prominent philanthropist and patron of the arts; her home in Chicago served as a Midwestern salon for important artists, writers, and intellectuals of the time. The work was thus seen, presumably, by the many influential thinkers who passed through her home. Among her guests were Katherine Anne Porter and Raymond Chandler, whose respective biographers have noted the presence of the work in their writings.

Porter was apparently thinking of the work in these early sketches from 1931 of the story that would eventually become “Hacienda,” published in 1934.

A little stone trinket dug out of the mud at the edge of the river. Its tiny jade eyes sparkling through the black wet earth. Such a tiny trinket she could hide it easily, clutch in the palm of her hand when she walked to church on Sundays, she could slip it quietly into her cleavage, still not quite a “cleavage,” but rather a large valley between her budding breast mounds. Between the breasts, a place for secrets and valuables. Some coins to pay for the coffee, a letter slipped into a sweaty hand by the boy down the way. It would’ve been a good place maybe for the item, but she liked to feel its dark stone edges, carved little teeth and nostrils flaring. She fingered them quietly in her grip. The work had come into her possession the way so many ancient clay whistles or arrowheads had, as if waiting to speak to her about something from long ago that was not only lost with time, but deliberately smashed and buried right back into the earth.

She kneeled at the river outside the hacienda, ready to wash it over the smoothed rocks.

This girl, Lourdes, lived near a demolished hacienda, burnt to the ground. Her family had set fire to the bushels of corn they had themselves grown. They captured the hacendados, gave themselves permission to hang every single member of that family. The hacendado, the wife, the children. Lourdes saw it. Didn’t ask questions. This was post-revolution central Mexico. The ashes, years buried in the ground still blackened the earth.

Lourdes was not allowed to keep anything, leave everything where it belongs, buried in the ground. Let it rot, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the ghosts and the worms.

But the work, half buried in the mud; its tiny body so precisely cut was too fine, its little eyes and laughing tongue. What a wonderful secret to sweat into the palm of the hand. What a wonderful scratch on the chin with its granite paw. Talk to the little work, such a wise and funny little creature. Laugh with it because it’s so delicious to laugh with it alone in the fields away from everyone. What a sweet thing to keep, such a thing that is not to be kept. To own the ghost and own the worms, withhold death and withhold forgetting. What a mouth! It should not be forgotten! What a laughing to be found at the river. A loud loud laugh drowned out by the waters also laughing. What a stirring thing to pray with this work between her palms. Without knowing how it got there: so many things plundered, so many things haunting from the earth, it didn’t matter.

The work also makes a brief yet pivotal appearance in Raymond Chandler’s supernatural story “The Bronze Door,” his attempt to move beyond the hard-boiled detective stories he had been publishing for nearly a decade in the pulps. “The Bronze Door” was published in November of 1939 in Unknown magazine:
Doctor Harry Lewis left his office at 7:48 P.M. On his way home, he stopped by a Chinese medicine shop to pick up his daughter's prescription. His daughter, Henrietta, was prone to bouts of anger, rage, strange dreams at night that kept her awake, and stories she would whisper into her father's ear, her father who couldn't really listen, a man of practicality, rationality, believing only what he could see and all too ready to give his daughter away to the label of yet another hysteric girl lost to the night. Mrs. Yenwui Wu had something in addition to the prescription that night, a strange box to which was affixed a sealed white envelope. "Open the envelope, but not the box," she instructed, and before he could ask anything in response, she dismissed herself behind the red curtains, and even Dr. Lewis knew better then to follow her.

When he arrived home, 207 East Antin Street in Leeds, he crept into his office, softly closing the door behind him. If he was heard, he knew Ms. Duchaney, the caretaker, would insist on giving him a day's report, something he both feared and detested. He opened the envelope, pulling out the letter inside.

Dear Dr. Lewis,
The box which you currently have in your possession contains a very special object. Under any circumstances, do not open the box yourself.
Hide the box in a safe place, and on your daughter's sixteenth birthday, give this to her as a gift. Tell her it is from you. Ask her to open it in your absence.
Follow these instructions exactly and you will not hear from me again.
A friend

Dr. Lewis was a rational man, and under most circumstances would have regarded such a letter as hodgepodge. He was though, today, in a strange mood, it had started to rain outside, and the letter gripped him with something he had not felt in a very long time.

As far as we know, he followed the instructions exactly. The following is a small portion of the diary entry written by Henrietta on her sixteenth birthday, exactly one year after the doctor received the strange package. Most of the diary was destroyed in a fire, seven months later. Only the following portion remained.

Today I received a strange package from my father. He thrust it upon me as if he was happy to be rid of it, but when I placed my two hands upon it, felt a slight hesitation as he slowly loosened his grip and let me have the "gift." The box was dusty, and I opened it slowly. Inside, I found THE WORK, a strange object, and I felt the same horror creeping up behind as I felt in my dreams at night, the dark ones lurking behind the shadows, waiting for me to close my eyes, in the dream, so that they could approach. I stared at it, and was mesmerized by the horror seizing my throat. My father found me at suppertime still staring into the box. He didn't say a word, but forced the box out of my hands. I never saw THE WORK again.

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