The Frozen Sea Within – by Kathryn Hunt
This essay was first presented at the 2012 Artist Round Table (ART) in Port Townsend, Washington. Each year a group of photographers gather together at ART to have a weekend-long conversation with other artists to develop their appreciation and understanding of using their own unique voice to make work that matters. Pictures by some of those photographers are presented along side this essay by filmmaker, poet and writer, Kathryn Hunt.
We work and live inside a great unknowing, an unknowing that seems to be a part of our nature. The mystery lives inside us, in our cells, no separation between. It goes by the name of rain, or stars, or stone, or human face. The unknown is our playground and our grave. Always, every day, we walk through that darkness and light. We understand only a whisper of our own quick existence, our passing life, and that briefness and opacity connect us to the vast expanse of the living heart, the great mystery itself. We feel our way along in the currents of the sea, among mountains and valleys, to know where we are and what we are made of.
I’d like to talk about the narrative and the reflective voice in art—in literature, photography, painting, sculpture, and dance, all of it—and how we as makers of art might think about the narrative and reflective voices in our work.
These twin impulses in art help us, in the case of narrative, to locate ourselves in the world, with all its beauty and terrible hurt, its hard and soft surfaces. The reflective impulse arises from the need to make sense of beauty and suffering.
I’ve been at work on a memoir, and these two impulses are an important part of the work of the memoirist. What the memoir writer is engaged in is looking at the incomprehensible past in light of subsequent realization, in light of who we have become, who we are now. Who we understand and experience ourselves to be. In memoir there is often a strong sense of a narrated past that comes alive and is present in the telling: This happened and then that happened and so on. The narrative voice is temporal and gives a sense of forward motion to the story, even when we’re looking at the past. The narrative voice moves us along the horizon of the story.
The reflective voice is the voice that communicates a strong sense of what the teller of the story has concluded about her experience in the world and what her experiences have meant to her. This voice opens the way to vertical movement and allows the reader to plunge in and find something in himself that the story is speaking to. This voice takes you deep into the art of the story. It’s an ineffable presence in the work, one that arises from silence and waiting. It leaves room for the reader or viewer to find something of themselves in the work, it invites them to respond out of its meaning to their own lives. In my experience it’s what sets art apart from other commendable work.
As an artist or writer, you are the only one who can feel and know what something means to you and say that through your work in a way that reaches others by allowing them to glimpse the meaning of their own life in what you have created.
This is what Emily Dickinson said about it: “If I read a book,” she wrote, “and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
Emily Dickinson was laying down a marker. She wrote nearly eighteen-hundred poems and left them in sheaves in her room when she died. Only a handful were published in her lifetime, although she seems to have known precisely the fevered brilliance and scope of her own poetry. She made her art to an exacting standard: one that might take off the head of a reader, or chill him to the bone. That was her measure.
A poem, a painting, a photograph—how can it be true enough in pitch and form to take the head off somebody, or ease open someone’s heart. How art does that remains a mystery and investigating that mystery in any medium is a life’s pursuit, an avocation.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” Franz Kafka wrote in 1917, when Europe had come apart in the madness of the trenches and the civil war in Russia. A high school English teacher first introduced me to Kafka. That same teacher also gave me Shakespeare and Chaucer, and with Shakespeare and Chaucer I first began to listen to something in myself, something that came to me by way of art. The beautiful language of Shakespeare—its iambic pentameter cadences—echoes in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass more than four hundred years later, the ten-count, tick-tock line of the heartbeat and the clock. Kafka with his axe for the frozen ice within and the lyrics of Shakespeare and Chaucer began to speak to me when I was sixteen years old. In their work I heard something I desperately needed to hear about my own life.
I saw Hamlet, my first Shakespearean play, with my high school English class. Even though the language was difficult for me to understand, I responded to the music of the it and understood enough of the broad outlines of the story, its narrative line or voice, to sit up and pay attention—the murder of Hamlet’s father, his mother’s betrayal, and Hamlet’s wavering uncertainty in the face of that. But it was the reflective voice of the play—full of anguish and conflicted love and fealty toward his parents—that drew me deeply into the play, I understand now. Some inchoate, wordless part of me heard that voice echo in my own life.
The Old English of Chaucer was even more difficult. But Chaucer gave me the concept of story as journey, his motley troupe literally walking toward a distant horizon at the edge of the known world. Life as journey—all of wandering across a vast landscape. The horizontal line, the narrative voice.
Chaucer’s reflective voice provided the journey’s meaning. His tales helped me recognize the reality of human vanity and blindness and of our relentless self-interest. Chaucer gave me his hapless travelers and their human weaknesses—so easy to laugh at—and he managed to do it in such a way that I understood that those human tendencies were most certainly lodged somewhere in myself as well. And all this from story, from language.
During my last year of high school I worked as a waitress in a soda fountain at the Highline Pharmacy, in Burien, not far from SeaTac airport. It was 1968. When I look back on that time in my faraway youth, I can see myself, a girl dressed in a tight white dress from Sears Roebuck. She has tied her blonde hair with a ribbon at the nape of her neck. At the end of each shift I went home with my pockets full of tips, the quarters and dimes that turned the corners of my pockets gray, as if soot had fallen there. In the evenings, I washed my white uniform by hand in the bathroom sink and hung it up to dry. I painted over scuffmarks on my lace-up shoes with white polish. My head was full of imaginings. The world was opening out into itself and there were moments I felt myself to be part of the exquisite unraveling.
There was a bookstore next door to the Highline Pharmacy. I went there on Saturday afternoons while I waited for my mother to pick me up after my shift at the soda fountain. I worked on the school paper as a feature writer and photographer. My journalism teacher had loaned me her old camera to take pictures with. It would be a few more years yet before I bought my own 35 mm camera, a small trusty Leica that fit perfectly into my hand. My journalism teacher allowed me to go alone to the darkroom in the basement of the school. I loved the solitude of the darkroom, I was comforted by being alone in that dark space, with the red light that kept safe the images. I spent many hours watching ghosts float up out of the chemical bath, blurs, hints of something that finally took shape, a man or a woman toward whom I’d turned my camera.
In the bookstore, I remember feeling uncertain of myself, awkward, as if I didn’t belong there, hesitant about what to buy. I must have stood near the tables by the door many times, lifting and opening books and putting them down again. I was ignorant of my own desires.
Home was difficult territory for me. I remained torn between the impulse to use all my strength to somehow make right my mother’s inconsolable life, and on opposite days to flee her house and its attendant heartache as soon as fate would allow. Though I did not know yet how literature would teach me to survive those years, I had discovered the cunning ability of books to lift me into the world of the imagination. I was determined to take some of my wages and spend it on a book, something without much tangible value but that somehow embodied a world that beckoned me. I must have felt my purchase might act as a talisman, to help gain me entrance.
A woman ran the bookstore. She wore a long slim skirt with a jacket and black-rimmed glasses. One day during the summer before I went away to college, I announced my intention to buy a book and asked for her help. She picked up a book, handed it to me, and said, “I think this will be right for you.” The book she handed me was not a book of stories, as I had hoped and expected it to be. Instead she placed in my hands a book of photographs. It was called The Concerned Photographer and was edited by Cornell Capa. It was the first book I ever bought myself. I’ve managed to hang onto it through all the moves of the last forty-some years.
The photographs in the book are all in some sense engaged with the world, with its suffering and its beauty. A rain-slicked street in Paris that André Kertész photographed. His single bird in flight against a painted wall in New York City, simple and beautiful. Images by Werner Bischof from Indochina, which we were just learning to call Viet Nam in those years: women walking along a railroad track holding hands, baskets balanced on their heads, a line diminishing toward the horizon. A one-legged boy playing ball in Italy in ’49, just after the war: Chim Seymour’s shot. Two Negro children playing in the geyser of a fire hydrant, Harlem, 1967: Leonard Freed’s photograph. A scratched image of Trotsky, in 1931, by the great Robert Capa, the editor’s brother. Buddhist monks hurrying through falling snow: Bischof again.
Like memoir, a photograph is always engaged in a conversation with the past and maybe that is why the images in the book I bought that day moved me, move me still. A photograph says this moment happened, a unique, irreplaceable moment, gone forever. Except, of course, a photograph is also a moment captured, held, cherished because it has been seen. Photography speaks of moments that have gone by and will never return. And also of moments—amazing and consoling—that you can visit, like the past itself.
I have looked at The Concerned Photographer a hundred times in the years since. When I was eighteen, the images in that book began to show me the power of art to reach and shatter the brittle confusions of the human heart. I came to see the way art could make my heart race and my body dilate with pleasure. I saw that art had the power to introduce me to a part of myself I didn’t know or have the words for, or had already forgotten. The arts “are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away,” Katherine Anne Porter wrote in 1944 about the catastrophe of war.
Looking at the photographs in the book, some of the troubles in my own young life began to clear away, and I could see the world and my place in it a little differently, if only for a moment.
I began by saying that we live inside of mystery. Mystery lives within us. Art is a way to use everything we have inside of us to understand ourselves. It lets us look in silence upon our own minds and hearts. Our art gives us a way to understand something about what the world is made of, and what we ourselves are made of. This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “To me photography is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organization of the forms that give that event its proper expression.” (Italics mine.)
A photographer doesn’t stand in front of her subject and ask herself what it means to her. All that is already living inside her, ripening toward that moment when she makes the one image that will say what she must say.
Cartier-Bresson also said: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Our photographs and poems and paintings will mean something to others only if they mean something to us. They are not going to shatter the frozen sea of anyone’s heart or take the top off anyone’s head, unless our own hearts are open and tender.
Kathryn Hunt is a writer and filmmaker and lives in Port Townsend, Washington, on the coast of the Salish Sea. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rattle, The Sun, Willow Springs, Orion, Crab Orchard Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review, among other publications. A collection of her poems,Long Way Through Ruin, was published by Blue Begonia Press in September 2013.
She has also directed and produced documentary films. Take This Heart, a feature-length documentary about children in foster care, was broadcast on PBS and honored with the Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism. No Place Like Home was screened at the Venice Film Festival, among others.
Kathryn works as a freelance writer for foundations and community organizations. She’s earned her living as a shipscaler, waitress, short order cook, printer (of wedding invitations!), and food bank coordinator, and was a founding collective member of three independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest.