TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1989

MOTHERS AS A MOUNTAIN, A PROJECT FOR ARTFORUM

There is no roar as mighty, unless it be that of the tempest-tossed sea, when with redoubled blows the north wind comes beating the waters’ foam between Scylla and Charybdis; or that of Stromboli, or Montgibel, when the sulfur flames enclosed within the earth burst forth and rip open the great mountain, blasting rock and earth into the air in a melee of vomited flames; or when the burning grottos of Montgibel give forth that element which in pain they held, and which wildly gives chase to every obstacle that defies its impetuous furor.

Thus is my desire, and drawn by the force of it, eager to comprehend the abundance of forms strange and various shaped by nature’s cunning, I have wandered amongst the shadowy rocks to reach the entrance of a great cavern. And there—dumbfounded by my ignorance before such a thing—I bend forward, settle one weary hand upon my knee, and with the other fashion a screen of darkness for my eyelids, lowered, closed, I lean and stoop in all directions in order to peer inside, that I might discern what is there, but would not succeed, because of the deep night that governs within. Then would rise in me, suddenly, two things: fear and desire—fear of the grotto so menacing and somber, desire to know what marvels might be there.

—Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Arundel, 263

Translated by Diana C. Stoll.

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DURGA MADRE

TO MY EYES she never aged. For many years—as far as I’m concerned, forever—she remained middle-aged, with slight variations, depending on her mood or the glance of whomever I might be with. Perhaps it was, most of all, her way of dressing, which was like a lady who was somewhat—not frivolous—but girlish (according to what had been her personal idea of girlhood). She was this way until the end; her clothes are proof of this, clothes that she was deprived of, but which were returned to me, after she went into the hospital. After that she was naked. “After,” I dressed her in violet and white, I ordered white and red flowers, but in the church, where a marriage had been celebrated that morning, the buntings were still white and violet.

At first I wasn’t aware of any sign of illness. I only thought that she spent too much time in her parlor full of armchairs and dolls. She only came downstairs for brief meals, went to her bedroom only to sleep, went out only briefly and always for a purpose to the garden or the terrace whenever time allowed. Now and then, but in any case rarely, she complained that she wasn’t taken out more frequently. Yet in the days that preceded her fall, something changed. Then, due to the forced absence of my father—she had always been afraid to stay at home alone—I returned to my old home every evening, to spend the night with her. Before or after dinner, we had long conversations, the tranquil flow of which was never interrupted; there was always something to say, and there were no harsh arguments. The disagreements we did have were, by their very nature, approached with respectful, fearful, at times painful caution, so that we both suffered as little as possible.

In the course of these conversations it seemed to me that she was seriously lucid, but not gloomy, and as if she had achieved an intimate awareness that the complexity of things and of her life and others’ existence could not be unraveled through intelligence, but rather through feelings; as if what was called complexity were none other than a density of thicknesses. There, when I ventured a definition or a judgment, she brought me back to feelings, telling me they weren’t the same as my thoughts, nor could my thoughts dictate them. Afterward, I thought that all this could be seen as a symptom of detachment, that her pensiveness, which wasn’t alien to her life before, but which I now saw as deeper and enveloping, was, rather than a drawing back, better, like a being brought to a different level, new and unexplored for her, and it was this that provoked her to a sort of astonished surprise, manifested like a glance turned inward. When she fell down the stairs she didn’t cry out.

From the time I picked her up until, gradually, she finally lost all power of speech, whenever she spoke to me it was with great calmness, without excitement or fear, with the same cautious delicacy that two lovers might use upon discovering, joined in an embrace or immediately after, the strongest, most mysterious, and serious part of the love that unites them and reveals them—and this gentleness covers all violence, as it does all pain.

At first her head was bandaged. The blood had drained from her eye sockets, where the skin was swollen and purplish. Now that she lay stretched out, she seemed fatter. That closed, still face and that spread-out corpulence made her seem like an enormous frog, hieratic and mysterious, whose ferocity was an appearance. Soon after, the hematomas dissolved and she was able to open her eyes again. The bandages that enfolded her head were removed: her head was completely shaved. This gave her the appearance of an extremely large infant, tender and majestic. And the infant needed everything: to be fed (I myself took care of this while she was still capable of swallowing), cleaned, washed, particularly her lips, which, because they were dried out and flaked, I continually smeared with pink honey. At the beginning she had long periods of sleep, which I was told to shake her from as often as possible. When she was completely awake, her eyes looked straight ahead and seemed unsure where to rest. Now I spent most of my time near this new creature, to whom I felt bound by a strong and nameless affection, this mountain of flesh quietly spread out on its hospital bedding, which I felt in some way to be flesh of my own flesh. However great the distance had grown between us, we were two parts, once joined and now divided by growth, but still always of the same plant. For a long time she seemed unaware of everything. Yet there came a moment, during those days that slowly passed and passed by, when it seemed that her body became active once again and more alert to its surroundings. The illumination in the room was maintained, through a complex system of lights, at a constant level—often I didn’t notice that night had fallen until I looked outdoors. But she was unfailingly sensitive to the change, even though she was unable to look out, of the grand event of daylight fading and night approaching. It is probable that she was also sensitive to the dawn, but I was never there then, so I can’t be sure. The only dawn that I shared with her was the one when death came. (In the square outside, the fresh breeze of morning made me shiver like the first icy wind of autumn.)

Slowly she took to measuring, spreading apart the thumb and forefinger of her good hand, my face—from forehead to mouth, from nose to chin, from eye to eye, from temple to neck—and exploring my chest along the row of buttons of my shirt, to feel the smoothness of my skin and the roughness of my beard, her fingers trying to penetrate my crevices—eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth, the space between my shirt and wrists. We played interminably with our fingers, to discover joinings and hollows. Every morning I arrived, anxious at what I might find, then my anxiety was soothed in her presence, and the hours unwound in a rapport of uninterrupted and mute closeness. Now and then I said something to her, the way children speak to their dolls or to their animals, as if to assure them of their existence. And yet I didn’t feel that this relationship was different from our earlier long conversations. As before, interruption was caused by a decision: I had to leave. I would leave her for the night, waiting for her to fall asleep, but this didn’t always happen, and I would feel her glance following me after I had disappeared from her view. Sometimes when I arrived in the morning I found her awake, still excited and clearly tired from a sleepless night. And each of those times her room had been momentarily transformed, due to some serious accident and lack of space elsewhere, into a resuscitation chamber, as the electronic instruments for life support which had been required by one of her roommates had been active there throughout the night with their beeps and lights, and the comings and goings of doctors and nurses had put her in a state of watchful tension all night long that confirmed the intensity of what was happening around her. She was worn out, but only once she saw me would she allow herself to rest.

And just as I hadn’t perceived how she was getting worse, so too I now allowed the slight progress that the infant was making in trying to renew contact with the surrounding world to deceive me. The broken finger in a splint was an object of long contemplation; her measurings and touching of me became more frequent from day to day; the presence of visitors aroused varied reactions. All this led me to believe, not in a difficult and improbable recuperation, but in the possibility of a life together with this gentle and good infant, free from all anxieties, except the momentary and always rigorously physical difficulties with this creature who would be mine, as in the same way, with many more anxieties, I had once been hers. The circle would close and neither of the two would have to take his own solitude and discomfort out into the world. The light would quietly change between dawn and dusk, between dusk and dawn, every weakness would be dissolved in sleep, every interaction interwoven with shy confidences, with calm memories, with discrete acts of tenuous generosity; and affection, respect, or veneration wouldn’t be eclipsed by judgment. I never thought of the difficulties implied in such an undertaking, or what the outcome would have been in time; for time and difficulty, having reached that condition, would no longer have any meaning.

Finally, we were forced to leave that well-equipped haven. They moved us elsewhere, which didn’t provoke any immediate change. But the immense infant was too fragile, and the apparatus that now would have had to support her was too weak, a fact that killed her soon after.

“The sea rises, the light falls, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other,/ . . . /the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out.”

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated by Marguerite Shore.