Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ruined Beauties

Rosamond Purcell

I hesitate to say that I've long been a lover of ruins for the suggestive nuances contained therein, but it's true. The wrecked and the abandoned ignite parts of my imagination like nothing else, so it's not a surprise that this passion has led me to the work of Rosamond Purcell, a Boston photographer/author/artist, who spent twenty years digging through the eleven acre site of a Maine junkdealer, unearthing all manner of objects in varying stages of decay, all chronicled in her memoir Owl's Head.

By chance, I happened upon this book. A friend some years ago introduced me to her work when he showed me a book of her artwork, and something — I don't know what — brought her to mind recently, so I reserved three titles by her at the library, and Owl's Head is one of them. I'm not even halfway through it, but already it has yanked me into that junkyard of wonders where mice nests are discovered in the remains of books and disintegrating bowling pins are raked from beneath a pile of scrap metal. And so on.


I've long been obsessed with the nature of stuff, questioning its meaning, and/or the absence of meaning when we have transmuted our own selves/cells to ash. This was never more profound than when, ten years ago, I began to sift through the many accumulated belongings of my late husband. Every little thing, every objet that he'd treasured, was subject to my judgment: keep? Toss? Give to charity? Every decision weighed heavily on me. I wondered: would I see his shirts at Goodwill, marked 99 cents? His shoes?

Of course, some things ended up in the garbage. I filled, for each of my boys, a large bin of "mementos", and these bins are still in my basement. I gleaned through the many books, kept the signed first editions, gave the rest away. The one thing that I treasured, his wallet, was stolen in a burglary.

So what, then? I've come to peace with the truth that his wallet still exists, somewhere on this planet, even if it's been turned to carbon. The dust of it remains, in the least. For that matter, the dust of everyone/everything we've known, touched and loved exists (curious: if you remove the "s" from "exist" you end up with "exit": everyone/everything we've known, touched and loved exits.) Is there ever any true parting, though, if you view life from this much larger perspective? It grants me comfort, this notion.

But more on the subject of disintegration, in Rosamond Purcell's words, from Owl's Head:

"I exhume the frame of a typewriter, its vestigial hammers like the ribbings of an ancient echinoid.  Where does the sea end? At what point does a manufactured object turn into an organism. Do objects drown? Do they ever possess a life — beyond batteries — that might be taken away? Is an object transmuted into another substance, ever, like a fossil turned from flesh and bone to stone?  When does an inanimate object become worthy of a scientific name? I name the typewriter Underwoodensis corrupta, a close invertebrate cousin to an echinoid. Its appeal is purely visual, of course, but as this typewriter aspires to the same lofty class of objects as the book-nest, it too comes from the place where metaphors are made."

Words to commit to memory, and to ponder.

If you are a regular to my blog, you're familiar with my disintegrating James Fenimore Cooper, which has recently celebrated its second anniversary outdoors. (You may read about it here and also here.) No mouse nesting between the chapters, yet. But there's no rush. These things take time.


  1. I am particularly fond of decay on in-use buildings. The Italians seem to treasure this type of decay the most, whereas the Greeks (for example) would give an annual coat of white paint. It's what makes Italy very special for me.

  2. Oh I'm glad to come here and find this post -- what a fascinating new poet (to me). Beautiful and contemplative. I like that quote you shared too -- this, for example:

    "Its appeal is purely visual, of course, but as this typewriter aspires to the same lofty class of objects as the book-nest, it too comes from the place where metaphors are made."

  3. I find myself pondering the history of the decayed...who touched it? Read it? Used it daily? And yes, we all go back to dust in the end. This is the endless fascination.