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Goldsmith, Kenneth. "Are You Experienced?" Sulfur 41: 201-204.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.
- William Blake, "The Garden of Love", Songs of Experience
I recently received a phone call from a mother of a one-year old girl asking for a curious favor. It seemed that the child, eager to indulge in the wonders of language, had ripped through all of the books for children her age in the local Barnes & Noble. This particular kid loved the sound of language; rhymes in particular lulled her into a trance-state to which she was becoming addicted. In a panic, her mother called me and asked me to compose some simple formal rhymes to slake the child's thirst.
The image of a child in a relative state of innocence, barely able to maintain a vocabulary, yet reveling in the sound of language detached from meaning brought to mind Wittgenstein's struggles with language, meaning, sound and experience:
"I can speak of 'experiencing' a sentence. I am not
merely saying this, I mean something by it... Understanding a sentence is more akin to understanding a piece of music than one might think"
(Philosophical Grammar, p. 41). At what temporal and conceptual juncture do our "Songs of Innocence" become "Songs of Experience?" Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein take up these large questions in their new collaboration, Little Orphan Anagram (Granary Books, 1997). The pages of this children's book gone astray are mixed with light and shadow, sweetness and violence, whimsy and pain; in a way, it's Alice In Wonderland meeting "The Raven."
The title page alone bespeaks of the compound experience that awaits the reader: there are bright colors and polka dots sharing the page with an image of a little girl shedding a tear; this trip is not going to be entirely pleasant. The next page restates this theme: we are shown a glorious image of country life-a rustic farmhouse, lush green trees and busy beehives all captioned by a text that begins "It was on summer's day/ Found myself alone and gray." The book proceeds this way throughout: light children's "rimes" are illustrated by images of ghouls, gargoyles, and insects. Sweet colored patterns of numbers and letters are tempered with screaming warnings from overbearing mothers. Angel-faced children floating about in pajamas are accompanied by lines like "Burns all over but no pain." And, three-quarters of the way through the book, children disappear entirely and the problems of misogyny are taken up: women are sliced, diced, weighed, measured, and scopophilically viewed by menacing male gazes. The book's final pages end on a similar note of doom: violent black jagged fallopian tube-like shapes are dolefully captioned by a text that begins "Yes, forty dents, forty dents & not a minute more."
All of this would be quite gloomy if not for the tension created between the dark content of the book and the buoyant mastery of the authors in their respective crafts. Rarely has a collaboration been so in seamlessly melded and interwoven. One can hardly image Bee's images existing without Bernstein's texts and vice versa. It's a collaboration from the heart, from the family; it's two parents observing the transformation of their children from states of innocence to realms of experience and at the same time observing the changes in themselves as a result of the child rearing experience. Just as Blake's songs are parables for all times of life, Bee and Bernstein, through the medium of the "children's book," grapple with the transformative experiences that never seem to resolve themselves over the course of one's lifetime.
To underscore the perfection of this current collaboration, one must look at Bee's previous book, Tailspin (Granary Books, 1995). Here, we are presented with a book that looks very similar to Little Orphan Anagram: it's the same size and at first glance, even the imagery looks identical. However, upon closer inspection, Tailspin reveals itself to be something quite different: it's a thing of beauty and innocence. The images comprising each plate are appropriated from Victorian clip-art. All the pages are lusciously and laboriously painted (as with Little Orphan Anagram, Bee actually spent over a year hand-painting the entire edition). Symbolist and Surrealistic imagery abounds: there are dreamy images of two women dressed in Victorian garb duking it out underwater, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-like characters probe the depths of the ocean in a hot air balloon, and sexy mermaids embrace in loving caresses. It's dreamy, it's sunny, it's happy-it's light. There are children in this book as well-they're all smiling, playing, and swinging from trees. Even the "violent" scenes have a fantastic whimsy about them; it's a an old-fashioned book, a bit of nostalgia for the sunshiney days of yesteryear. Fragments of appropriated text add to the breezy pleasures of this book: poems by Christina Rosetti, nursery rhymes, instructions on how to draw, and bits of Alice in Wonderland gently skip across the pages. A love of playful language and formal beauty set the stage for Tailspin, which perhaps is Bee's own "Songs of Innocence."
However, something quite different happens in Little Orphan Anagram. The first clues are visual: the field is deeper, darker, and stronger than the previous book. We encounter an aggression and angularity that was hitherto absent. The color is cleaner and stronger, the brush strokes are more sure of themselves, and every mark seems to be executed with a firm sense of purpose. This time around, Bee's image choices are more focused and rigorous; even the compositions seem more geometric, more severe. Judging by the artist's leaps made from Talespin, the reader will draw the conclusion that the book is Bee's medium-she's really at her best here, bringing beauty, strength and intelligence to each page she lovingly paints. It's rare to see a painter feeling so comfortable and assured within the confines of the book format.
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