We are trying to piece together the order of perception. We can agree that the windows were frosted and we saw nothing before we entered the gallery. We walked in and we exhaled, and kept exhaling, even the air that rarely stirs from the lower lobes. The hairs on our heads settled, our brains relaxed into their cranial baths, something warm trickled down our spines. Our mouths, which had been poised, fell slack.
We think we felt those things first, before we registered the scent of cedar that filled the gallery. And we think the scent came before we noticed that the far back wall of the gallery, a single cavernous room, was covered floor to ceiling in smooth cedar planks. Our eyes said the room was empty, but the caves behind our noses, under the skin of our cheeks, knew it was thick with cedar scent molecules. We walked into the room, molting electrical energy.
Then we noticed on the side farthest from the door a corroded claw foot tub filled partway with water. Did we see the actual bath before we thought of our brains bathing? It’s possible. It seems most of the time we don’t know what we know. After a moment, a slight clanging alerted us to the two tubes draped over the side of the tub, which connected to a coffeemaker sitting on the floor, clear water in its glass carafe. Water flowing from the coffeemaker into the tub shook and lifted one of the tubes. The other tube presumably sucked water from the tub to the coffeemaker.
The hot front part of our brains wanted to churn into it: why a coffee maker, why a bathtub, is this foolish? But something, not a thought but adjacent to it, sifted over us: the coffeemaker was a heart. A simple circulatory system—kitchen counter, rustic bathroom. Mug of black coffee, end-of-day body. Some of us stuck a finger in that water, but we weren’t sure what we wanted to learn.
The longer we stood in the room, the more we began to think of the artist and how she arrived at this empty, occupied space. We still felt extraordinarily calm, but we realized it was not the calm of absence but of excision. She had begun with many ideas, decades worth, many mistakes, with rolls of unused chicken wire, with uncertain relationships, rehearsals of old arguments, diagrams in notebooks, elaborate fantasies, fragments of memories and dreams, with tubes and plaster, paint and bricks. She wanted to be everything, have everything, use everything. But her stubborn, haunted will cut and cut until she had just the two, three things she needed. She made a clear and simple room, the aftermath of a controlled burn. Teeming with ghosts.
One is supposed to leave after a while: our senses dull; as happy as a show has made us, we grow restless. On the floor by the door sat a stack of posters and a sign that said “Take One.” The poster featured the artist’s name—Virginia, of course—and a blown up photograph of a chain tied around a cedar trunk and the muddy tracks of an off-camera truck pulling the felled tree from a bog. Another photograph appeared on the show’s flyer: four stumps, a thick spray of sawdust, and the sagging pants of a man, a chainsaw on the ground by his boots. The flyer said that the wood, the tub and coffeemaker were taken from the Tennessee farm on which she’d grown up.
She had this whole room, she could have put anything in it. She went back to her past and cut it down. She dragged it out of the swamp. She shipped it, planed it, sanded it, and nailed it to the wall.
What an enormous racket we made in the woods, when we were young,
a thousand miles away from this place. An obliterating smell.
The textures we left behind were mostly jagged.
Chainsaw, wood splitter, truck and trailer.
Pulled up to our brick bunker and laid in the winter’s wood.
Flecked with sap, smelling of gasoline, sawdust fluffing our hair.
We were nature people.
We could take it apart because we loved it. And no one else loved it as we did. The language of a lover and abuser are sometimes indistinguishable: I love you, I know you, you’re mine.
We took the old jeep deep into the forest, fought with the primitive paths.
There were always chains in the jeep, a saw,
and holes in the floor so big we might have lost our legs.
And a rifle and a lamp.
We’d train them on deer in the night, stop them in their tracks.
Virginia, we think we know you; we were there, where we owned things roughly and they owned us, and now we’re here, where things are ideas and we move in a colloidal suspension. We are all a long way from home. The boards are smooth, the scent is strong, we are calm and clear. We’ll take a poster, tape it above our bed, but we don’t want to leave. Out the window, around the corner is the chain we dragged behind us snagging four states’ worth of debris.