Seattle-based writer Rebecca Brown casts a sensitively tuned eye toward the human condition. Her books combine ferocity (of attachments, longing) with the gracefully humane. They often verge on the violently comic. The interrelated stories that comprise 1992’s The Terrible Girls include the piece, “Forgiveness,” which opens with the line: “When I said I’d give my right arm for you, I didn’t think you’d ask me for it, but you did.” The story goes on, detailing life after the amputation: “We kept my arm in the bathtub, bleeding like a fish.”
2003’s Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, a searingly tender autobiographical account of caring for her dying mother, strikes a much different tone. Its chapter titles organize the course of her mother’s illness: “Anemia,” “Tremor,” “Chemotherapy,” “Baldness,” “Vomit” and “Cremation.”
Brown, who for the past couple of years has taught student writing workshops at Cranbrook Academy, has wide-ranging projects, but each has this focus: A voice intent on and successful at crafting a sensibility solidly outside the register of familiar.
Her newest work, Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, continues this undertaking, but again in a different manner. The collection consists of 15 postcard-size, expressionist portraits (most oil on canvas, none bigger than 4 inches square) by the artist Nancy Kiefer, and 15 of Brown’s narratives responding to them. Kiefer’s powerful paintings are of smudge delicacy: Swaths of black and midnight blue are startlingly offset by sections of color: red, pink, green, yellow. The portraits hint at rather than depict beings — a baby, skull, mask, pumpkin, youth, man, woman and rabbit — some with hair, some without.
Moving through this book, looking at the images and reading the texts, it becomes apparent that Brown and Kiefer delve into violations, shock and loss, as well as the reconstructive processes that follow.
Each of Brown’s luminous texts imagines and inhabits a character the way an actor might. Any detective will tell you that getting to the bottom of a crime scene requires exacting task work. Brown’s text “Work” for the painting “Blue jar,” starts off as a detective novel: “I found the bread crumbs in the woods and followed them. I shouldn’t have.”
Then, further on, “The bodies are stacked like cords of wood but not as neat … I pull them out and straighten them as much as they can be what with their, some of their, broken arms and legs and backs, femurs tibias spines.”
The piece “Pilgrim,” after the painting “Violet,” presents a different character, one who’s displaced: “I walked until my shoes had holes were tatters were nothing my feet were bare. Until my feet were blistered calloused cut until my clothes got holes then turned into rags then nothing and I was covered with nothing with only skin but something enough, yes, something hard and thick enough to keep me from getting to where I wanted to get wherever that was away from me therefore I went.”
At the book’s end, the author and artist acknowledge: “Many of these images were painted after 9/11. Many of these texts were written during Abu Ghraib.” Through word and picture, the information recalls people affected by those acts of violence. To process either or both is overwhelming, but Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig’s exploration offers a start. For Brown and Kiefer, the weapon to wield against horror is distinct expression. Their book shows determination to keep feeling and wanting alive, no matter how damaged, battered, blunted, even in the most brutal arena. It is the purest form of hope.
Note: Brown, Kiefer and designer Ado Chan produced this book themselves. The project was funded by the Brenman Jaech Foundation and exhibited at Hugo House gallery in Seattle. It is only available through Pistil Books Online: www.pistilbooks.net.
Lynn Crawford writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].