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Essay

Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929 (Georgia O’Keeffe)

 

Twin of the one in my mind, this cross is uneven—blooms like the trunk of a heavy woman, its underside bright as sunset, and under it, O’Keeffe’s hills—like looking at two miles of gray elephants, she said once—a sort of bed where no cross lies down. The sky’s a kind of vanishing of the arcs, blue enough for anyone who wants it. The thin sunset trapped forever under the heavy arms of the cross, sky before sunset free and foreshortened above it. Cross and shadow of cross made one.

 

Photograph of a Crucifixion, 1888 (Charles Fletcher Lummis)

 

And there we stood facing each other, the crucified and I, says Lummis of following the penitentes brotherhood outside San Mateo, New Mexico, to the spot chosen to crucify one of their own on Good Friday. This after their self-flagellations all through Lent. He reports that the man sobbed like a child to be roped rather than nailed to the cross. In the picture the man’s face is covered in black cloth, his body in white, and two brothers steady the cross upright, hold the ropes as a sail is held to wind. Taut.

 

Black Cross Again

 

O’Keeffe has said she thought the cross she found and painted was left by the penitentes: I saw the crosses so often—and often in the most unexpected places. Often enough to feel as if a group of men practiced something fluid and secret in her midst, perhaps among them the man who helped her stretch the canvas for her largest picture—Sky Above Clouds IV—quietly and not at all secretly outside her garage. But the wood broke easily overnight. In the end she required a stretcher made of steel.

 

Lummis Again

 

He was recovering from a stroke but on Maundy Thursday had invited among others the to-be-crucified to table, asking at the end of the night if he could photograph them the next day. At first they acted as if they knew nothing—what ceremony?—but at dawn he was among them when they walked into the hills. Soon the crucified’s head rested on a rock. Behind them hills where no cross lies down.

 

Fishers of Men

 

Of course it is possible to die on a cross just as it is possible to become entirely symbol—pain something made of marrow and bone, something entirely surrendered to and therefore left on earth. It might be a certain kind of gratitude that compels the man. These are things I thought about as a child. I had an overactive imagination and too many church hours to log. I had a long beach at one end of my street, a river at the other and five brothers, two named James and John: the life of an apostle was not so far from my frame of reference. I knew how to bait a hook. One time my brothers decided to fish all night in a camp on an outcropping of rock twenty feet out in the river, and I visited them. They were as primitive and important as apostles, having waded out to the rocks holding their gear above their heads. They squatted there with their poles as I walked home in the supernal light to my parents who let these things happen with a kind of carelessness.

 

Inside the Morada

 

Inside the morada the adobe walls are painted a bright white. In the windows hang curtains or heavy paper. Rough-hewn supports, and enough room for the hermanos—lay brothers of the order—to stand facing each other. It’s said that they never refuse a request for help—perhaps this is why Lummis was permitted to take his picture. Inside here they watch each other draw blood. Perhaps it’s here that the crucified received the four-inch long wound in his side that Lummis reported. You can’t see it in the photograph.

Simone Weil calls the moment when Christ calls out on the cross the moment when affliction, human affliction—a suffering of body and soul, combined with social degradation—enters the mystical body of God. This is a great privilege for him. He has at last crossed the distance between God and God, something only he can do, she tells us, and thinking of this I wonder if such a distance finally blooms as interior or exterior space or a third something I’m incapable of understanding but that would have something to do with perspective in painting. It’s exterior if it’s the distance the penitentes walk together from the morada to the crucifixion point in the hills, or the distance from Sky Above Clouds IV to the ground below (O’Keeffe was so afraid of flying that she did it only when Alfred Stieglitz lay in a New York hospital and later, only for the view). Or it’s entirely interior, the distance I walk from my writing table to the living room, where my two sons duel first with pillows then with swords; I hear the change in weapon before I see it. Or it’s the distance between the swords as they move through space, each swing relative to the other—a third thing.

 

Point A to Point B

 

First the penitentes drew a line in the sand a hundred feet from the crucifixion site and told Lummis to stay behind it. Then having looked through the viewfinder and seen the picture too small, Lummis asked to move closer and was given another line thirty feet from the man on the cross. This is the vantage point of the photograph.

From here Lummis could clearly hear the man begging: Not with a rope. Not with rope! Nail me! Nail me!

 

Inside the Studio

 

In my friend Cliff’s studio are at least thirty faces on different sized canvases. Some other paintings, but mostly the face. He has painted exclusively this subject for many years, telling me that each is new and difficult because of the demands of the real. I look at him and think: reckoner. I have seen these faces change on him before my eyes. In fact I have seen myself change, the muscles of his hand suddenly covering over my nose and chin and eyes with paint. Then two weeks later, twin portraits for me to choose from—one that looks directly at me and one that might, just this minute, turn away forever. I choose reckoner and he lays her carefully in a cardboard carrying case he’s made for me. Next to my painting on the couch, his guitar. I imagine him at all hours with his fingers on the strings, and I have no way of knowing which face will turn and look at him, but neither does he and for this I am unaccountably consoled. He’s told me before he’s the eldest brother and when I think of this I feel the brother portion in him and am grateful in an ancient kind of way.

 

Brothers

 

Perhaps it is the idea of a brother to witness your pain that has brought the penitentes together. I at least would like to think of witnessing as something holy—certainly Mary did as she stayed with the soldiers throughout the crucifixion of her son. As a rule we would like to take each other’s pain, and perhaps the crucifixion is just one example of something innate we know from looking across at each other at a space of thirty (or five) feet.

I have seen this wish manifest between my own two sons—the older needing badly to quiet the younger. After two bad accidents in the first year every time the younger one is remotely hurt now the older asks if we should take him to the hospital. Having felt at a loss to help his brother twice my oldest son lives in fear of just that moment. There’s no quieting such a fear.

But what if witnessing is a kind of cause? Perhaps without a witness, pain disappears. I think of O’Keeffe painting all those years the whiteness of bone, the large whiteness that becomes no one looking, that is only ever a thing washed clean by rain. I would surely turn my head if it would cause the abatement of another’s pain. Unlike Mary I like to think I would walk away from the cross. And there we stood facing each other, the crucified and I.

 

Blows

 

My brother Rick remembers standing in front of the younger children (me included) in order to shield the blows my mother hurled at us as she flew into a frenzy, something she did regularly enough that even at fifty-two Rick seems to pale when talking about it. I cannot remember this but I believe him; because my love for him can grow feral without my anticipating it I know that I would not be alive without him. Nothing I can do takes back that I was not only witness but cause of his suffering. But also he is the resurrection and the light; I am here on the earth because of him. This brings me close—close—to what the feeling of being a brother must be.

 

The Nail

 

Speaking of the divine technique of the crucifixion, Simone Weil writes that the infinite distance separating God from the creature is entirely concentrated into one point to pierce the soul at its center. This is the nail whose head is infinite but whose point is tiny and precise. This is the nail the penitente was asking for, but his brothers, because they would have him live, substitute ropes and therefore open distance again.

 

Preparing the Paint

 

Cliff tells me flecks of mica mix in his white. Cobalt is ground into the cobalt and these are the paints he has always used. He has to send away to someone in Brooklyn for this paint done the old-fashioned way—mortar and pestle, real ingredients—and he shows me the catalogue, one row after another typed on a Royal DeLuxe typewriter. I imagine Cliff with his guitar in a studio in Charleston and this man mixing his paint somewhere in Brooklyn, and I think of the space that opens between them—interior or exterior or a third thing. Again I think of brothers.

 

Tasks before Pietà

 

One child in particular I have looked at again and again when I’ve visited Cliff’s studio. It’s a large painting of a child standing, a toddler really, but his feet square themselves and his hands are held out as if he bears a weight. He carries something in his arms that has been painted out many times. He looks up slightly and stands carrying all that is to be erased of past and future. Cliff says he has quit working on him but I see he keeps him hanging there. He says to truly give the painting up he has to stop and take the painting down. He has to make the stretcher. I know Cliff to be an expert carpenter—he’s told me he makes many stretchers at a time, cutting the wood and joining the corners deliberately, with a kind of grace. I can easily imagine him doing this—have almost asked to watch him do it. I think of O’Keeffe and her brother-helper, of wood versus steel.

Because I grew up in church I find the boy to be a reverse pietà but this is too specific an idea. He cannot, after all, carry his own body down from the cross. Perhaps the distance from God to God is this kind of erasure. Or it’s the rusty leaking roof of the morada, adobe clay bleeding down as the men stand looking at each other before a single wound is opened. Among them the one who will be crucified. And the one who will hold the ropes. And the one who will hoist the cross. And the one who will take the man down. And the one who will rest his head on stone.

And the one who is not there. Who walks out into the hills the day before Easter and finds a cross, paints it black and thick with the brightest possible outline of trapped sunset underneath. And in this way a distance suspended opens where affliction is a grateful idea at once interior, exterior, and something else we only come near together.


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