Imitation of Life by Zack Finch

Slide 1 

The way it happens in my family is this: the dead body gets donated to a hospital, preempting the possibility of a funeral or wake.  I know it is a noble gesture to give your body to science, on one hand, permitting medical students to learn its anatomy first-hand.  Plus, it’s super easy—the hospital takes care of all the details.  Six or twelve months later, they host a public service to which other families are invited.  I hear it’s very nice. At the end you get a bag of cremains tied off with a ribbon— blue for one gender, pink for another.  I hear it’s very nice.  Some of the medical students are there, to speak or read a poem.  I’ve never been to one, but I hear it’s very nice.  I hear it’s really very nice.

Slide 2

I watched Seeing with One’s Own Eyes the other day, the documentary film by Stan Brakhage.  In the opening shot, the forensic pathologist holds an elastic ruler up to measure various parts of the dead body, pressing here, pressing there— gently on the throat, tenderly on the chest. The camera pulls in closely as the pathologist holds the dead man’s hand within his live one, like a massage therapist. Rotating the limbs, articulating the fingers. Vulnerable softness of the belly. A stained shirt the pathologist files away. Three or four people in white lab coats are working in a windowless room on three or four different bodies at once. There is no soundtrack. The whole film is mainly closeups that linger on scuffed knees. Blackened toes. A circular saw cuts into the skull —it smokes as it cuts—and the wet, rounded maze of the brain is lifted from its casing.  The interior lining of the skull is iridescent purple and blue like the mottled interior of a mollusk’s shell. There is a workmanlike way of going about the business of extracting organs, cutting into viscera, sawing into the rib cage with long V-shaped incisions, removing the sternum.  I know a poet who once took a gross human anatomy course, haunted the cadaver lab for months and emerged with a book of poems called Cadaver, Speak.  But no one speaks in Brakhage’s film.  The scalp is peeled back and the face is unmasked.  The whole body is an empty suitcase in the end.  Shot of the coroner in the corner, wearing a blue bowtie and turquoise shirt, talking into a Dictaphone, recording his findings.

Slide 3

Emerson wrote just a single sentence in his journal on March 29, 1832: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” He doesn’t describe what he saw when he opened it. “We do not know exactly what moved Emerson” to open his dead wife’s coffin in the first place, writes biographer Robert Richardson, “but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience.” “I cannot get it nearer to me,” he wrote, of the death of his five-year old son Waldo, who had succumbed to scarlatina two years before.  Emerson had left the Christian ministry by then, and the essay “Experience” speaks about the anxieties of grieving and mourning when one stands outside the religious traditions that offer assistance about how to grieve and mourn. “We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream when the factories above them have exhausted the water,” he wrote of his emotional drought, his inability to cry.

Slide 4

How do we approach each other across our physical removes?  How is your grieving going?  My habitual sphere of action is reading and note-taking, watching or looking, libraries and museums. A few years ago I was walking to the Morgan Library in Manhattan when a white van careened onto the sidewalk thirty feet behind me. The person it killed wasn’t me, but a woman wearing a blue coat. Later I learned her name and that she had been pregnant. Shocked that I had gone untouched but the stranger and her child had been suddenly expunged, I sat down in a pizza shop for half an hour, nauseous and trembling. Then I took the subway north to the tip of the island.  Through Fort Tryon Park, I walked blindly. I noted a day moon, forsythia, daffodils, some people playing baseball.  I went inside The Cloisters, I stared at some medieval sculpture, I wrote down what I saw as if my golf pencil, tiny banister, could hold me upright:

Christ the king with missing fingers

Torso with rest of body missing

Fragment of an angel

Christ with missing head

Christ without his nose

Pair of angels missing wings

Virgin Mary missing head both arms one part of foot

Queen with missing attribute

Apostle with severed toe

Slide 5

I’m no Christian, but the painting The Descent from the Cross, attributed to Rogier Van Der Weyden, moves me deeply. A gray cadaver is being lowered from the cross, while the faces of the mourners below are adorned with tears shaped like whole notes on a staff. A silent music circulates between them, melting their mute and disparate despairs into a single composition.  Grief doesn’t just reside within one person personally. It is moves and slides between us. “Many people think that grief is privatizing,” Judith Butler wrote. “But I think it furnishes a sense of community.”  

Slide 6

I don’t know if there’s any way to be present to it. Even when it happens right beside you.   I once had a friend who died beside me.  Before he was my friend, he had been my client. I was working for the Agency on Aging, assisting elders who were living remotely in rural Vermont, on their own without friends or family.  After two years of visiting him every week, Cecil grew sick at age 86, and I made arrangements for a terminal care facility to take him in.  An ambulance drove him there, one of the slow ones.  When I came to visit him the next day, he was right at the cusp. “He’s been waiting for you,” said the nurse. At his bedside, I followed his breaths, I traced the outline and duration of each breath, I inhabited the pauses as the space between the breaths got longer. His open mouth reminded me of a drain. He fell through it, finally, but I only knew this a few moments after the fact, after it had happened. Then I spent a couple hours beside his body astonished and alert, totally beside myself. “I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling,” Butler writes, “but it would have to be a story in which the very ‘I’ who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling.” I use quotations only to indicate the kind of speechlessness which can be filled only by the crutch of others’ speech, by mute gestures or by the close-up of a face. Afterward, stunned that I could stand up, staggered by my still living body, I drove home.  It was winter, it was snowing or it was going to snow, and I felt like I had entered another world, akin to this one.

Slide 7

We don’t have professional mourners in this country, not that I know of. But we do have lots of performance artists, poets, filmmakers, people who fill the role of the professional mourner, the functionary whose techne is to make the boundaries very thin, to let us feel how infra-thin the skin is between presence and loss, you and me. At Marina Abramovic’s MOMA exhibition, for instance, she sat in a chair ten hours a day for three months. Ticketed patrons could sit in the empty chair across from her. Time after time, they sat down in the chair and looked silently into the artist’s face and began weeping. Abramovic wasn’t mourning per se, she wasn’t doing anything really, but her simple presence caused people to break down. People waited hours and hours on line for this chance. “Professional mourners control a psychological experience,” artist Taryn Simon writes, “by directing and embodying the emotion of others.” When mounting her own exhibition An Occupation of Loss, Simon hired twenty-three professional mourners, from eleven countries around the world, to perform inside the Armory in Manhattan. Each mourner or group of mourners was stationed inside a tall concrete silo—eleven silos in all, positioned closely together like the pipes of a cathedral organ. Patrons would enter the silos one by one, where their presence would cue the performer to begin. Or you could stand outside the silos and listen to all the songs at once, as they blurred into a thick smoke. A cacophonous exhaust of sound, a dense root-mass of voices burning off the global pandemonium of death.  When I listened to a recording of it last spring, at the height of the first COVID lock-down, it was like hearing everyone at once, from their solitary apartments, crying out in every language and in every key, in protest against the force of distance itself, in protest against all those deathbeds going unattended. 

Slide 8

The preachers are usually dull and dogmatic, Emerson complained. Same for poets.  They don’t speak sufficiently out of their own experience. In the speech he gave to graduates of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he described the experience of listening to such a preacher, who droned away, while outside the snow was falling fast. “The snow storm was real,” Emerson noted; “the preacher merely spectral.” Far better to look out of the church’s windows “into the beautiful meteor of the snow.” Where Cecil had gone.  Into the meteor of the snow. As a reader, I am pretty patient.  I can make my way through entire essay or boring poetry reading if at some point there comes some meteoric phrase that feels like it has passed through the fire of thought.  I come to art to be quickened, spurred, pierced, to be placed into right relation with vulnerability, with transience. How fast the whiplash comes. How soon the whole thing shorts. That which is always going to happen, the snow that is both falling and is going to fall, the blackbird sitting in the cedar limbs. “Rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions,” writes Sarah Ahmed, “we need to consider how they mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, between the individual and the collective.” For a person to be unable to do this work, concluded Émile Durkheim toward the end of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, “would be to break the ties that bind him to the collectivity, to give up wanting the collectivity.”

Slide 9

I want the collectivity— I want it more than ever these days—but I don’t know if I’m truly capable of it. My sense of separateness, my aversion to group psychology, my sense that fascism is always lurking around the corner...Maybe I’m too far gone, my self-reliance too ingrown. Maybe reading and writing, looking and listening, is as close as I can come. What I would like most right now, I wrote in my journal last summer, is to be on a train headed for the Lower East Side, where the “Grief and Grievance” exhibition had opened recently at the New Museum. I took my son to the Clark Art Institute, instead, our local museum. We wandered for a while then stopped in front of a painting of Christ carrying a cross.  What’s this, he asked, sitting down on the bench. While he sketched quietly in total concentration, I described the events that led up to the crucifixion. Later, on the car ride home he asked — dada, when’s the last time you cried.  His face looked serious in the rear-view mirror. It’s the same question I had often imagined asking my own father when I was young, but never did.  Where we come from, emotions are pretty private. Sometimes it feels like the closest I can come to my father—to anyone at all— is the copy of Philosophical Investigations with his handwriting penciled lightly in the margins. The reason I love my copy of the Investigations is not because I cherish Wittgenstein per se, but because I love to read my father’s handwriting, to feel what he was thinking in a particular moment. In remark #246, for instance, Wittgenstein asks, “In what sense are my sensations private?—Well, only I can know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it...” He goes to great lengths to debunk the notion that feeling is private and un-shareable, the other’s pain essentially unknowable. It’s clear that Wittgenstein felt compelled to debunk this idea of privacy because he lived in a bunker, because he lived in a fly bottle. “The proposition ‘Sensations are private,’ Wittgenstein wrote, “is comparable to [the proposition] ‘One plays patience by oneself.’”  In the margins beside this sentence, my father has penciled a little translation:  Patience = solitaire.  I place a tiny star beside it.  Perhaps my son will find it. 

Slide 10

The other day I saw a music video by the singer Moses Sumney. He was just sitting there silently facing the camera in his living room, listening to his own single as it played, called “Polly,” about polyamory I imagine, but this was March 2021, and so the singer was alone with his laptop. Shortly after the first verse began, his first tears emerged, and his whole body shuddered.  He squeezed his eyes tight, opened them again, rubbed his face with the palms of his hands, ran his hands through his hair, like a bride getting ready to have his picture taken— and that’s when this huge smile broke out across his face, unbridled sunlight, spelling utter relief. Now he was prodigal, now he had returned to himself.  For this catharsis to have come, you sense he needed you to witness it, he needed this most private moment of working through some loss—I have no idea what it was— to be made public. The solipsist is an exhibitionist. The exhibition is of something completely common.  

Slide 11

And so, as the year wore on, I began to make a study of tears. Tony the mail carrier brought me The Tears of Eros by Georges Bataille. He brought me Tears and Saints by E.M. Cioran. He brought me Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears by Tom Lutz. In his work Introduction to Metaphysics, philosopher Henri Bergson says there are two ways of knowing something.  In the first, you go all around it.  In the second you enter into it.  I read Peter Brooks’ The Melodramatic Imagination,about how melodrama emerged in the early 19th century when secular performers began to do the work of re-sacralizing the world, to fill the void left behind by decaying religious traditions. All the voluptuous artifice and tearful excess we see in melodrama are a response to the feeling of having no adequate language. Melodrama’s performative tears are an overcompensation for a muteness that is both personal and cultural.  Gesture, music, the shining glyphs of tears.  The white space I insist on using in my writing, the glottal stops and gaps and enjambments. 

Slide 12

In my copy of Stanislavsky’s treatise on acting, I have underlined the passages that describe how to conjure up an “emotion memory.”  Basically, you remember something emotional from your own past, but you may also  “acquire material from life around you,” Stanislavsky writes, “from...books, art, science, knowledge of all kinds, from journeys, museums and above all from communication with other human beings.” The last production I did as kid was Peter Pan. A play in which I got to fly; a play in which nobody dies. Yet what I remember most is an encounter I had with a member of the cast named Brian, a dancer maybe nineteen years old, who played one of the “Indians.” During tech week, he learned that his parents had died in a car accident. He went away for a few days, then came back in time for opening night.  In the second act, the two of us had to spend maybe sixty seconds in the wings together, waiting to make an upstage entrance, crouching between the back of the stage scenery and the scrim, which I remember was cobalt blue. One night while waiting there, he asked if I wanted to see him cry on command. It was like being beneath the bleachers with a boy a little older and much more experienced than I. In my memory, it happened every night, this little ritual between us.  And I was always shocked by how, just as quickly as the tears had come, the moment was over, and suddenly we were both running onto the stage to do battle with Captain Hook, who was fleeing a crocodile that had swallowed a clock. 

Slide 13

Mallarmé once referred to the form of the chandelier as “a tear that never completely forms or falls.” The chandelier-tear was a nearly Messianic sign for the French poet because it hung in such perpetual suspension: it was his symbol for the complete catharsis that the perfect poem would enact if it ever dropped. After his eight-year old son Anatole died, Mallarmé went to the theater more than ever.  He needed that “Old Style Melodrama” “to replunge him...into the people” like a poker into cold water.  His unfinished elegy for Anatole lives on in the form of a couple hundred scattered fragments—little hanging chandeliers suspended on each page.

                                                larmes, afflux    


                                                de lucidité, mort

                                                se revoit a travers

                                                [tears, influx


                                                of lucidity, dead one

                                                is seen again

                                                sheer through]

Slide 14

Fred Wilson made a series of chandeliers out of Murano glass so dark red it appears black. Speak of Me As I Am: Chandelier Mori was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the first black chandelier ever to be produced in Venice, and maybe the first chandelier to be produced by a Black American artist.  I saw it in Atlanta’s High Museum a few years later, where it hung suspended in memory of other hangings, the countless lynchings of Black bodies never properly mourned. There is something unapproachable about Wilson’s hanging chandelier. Something seems entangled, imprisoned in this frozen tear that resembles music encased in palatial silence, wailing never heard. Its form is organic—like a live oak covered with Spanish moss—but it’s also shiny and highly wrought, like the armor worn by Shakespeare’s Othello before his death in the final scene: “Speak of me as I am,” Othello requested in his dying speech: “of one whose subdu’d eyes / Albeit unused to the melting mood / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinal gum.”

Slide 15

At George Floyd’s memorial that June, the minister’s homily began with a quotation from The Book of Amos.  Chapter 5, Verse 16:  

Wailing shall be in all the streets; and they shall say in all

the highways, Alas!  alas! And they shall call the farmer to mourning,

and such as are skillful of lamentation to wailing.  / And in all

vineyards shall be wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the Lord.

The verse calls upon all of the community’s professional mourners, “those who are skillful of lamentation,” to gather the people into a single body, so that God can pass through it, in the form of tears and wailing. And indeed, the scores of musicians and pastors and family members who came to the microphone to speak or to sing about George Floyd did exactly that, in a ceremony that lasted over four hours. Afterward, the casket was driven to the cemetery in a carriage drawn by two white horses. It reminded me of the funeral scene in Imitation of Life, the film melodrama by director Douglas Sirk, when the body of the Black woman Annie Johnson is driven in a carriage drawn by four horses with tall white plumes, past the hundreds of people lining the street, people watching the procession from the sidewalk, people leaning from the windows, people clinging to the fire escapes. 

Slide 16

Lana Turner’s character is expressionless through much of Imitation of Life, but when Annie is on her death bed, expressing her last wishes, a single tear appears for a moment on her right cheek. It catches the light. Visually, it rhymes with the big diamond in her right ear. Sign of colonial capital, symbolic token of the white star’s wealth, the diamond is a mark of class distinction and racial exclusion. But the tear seems different. It signifies the visceral body, the tearable body, one of the few conditions we share universally across all our differences. If we could be conjoined through that sacrament so central to melodrama’s theatrical enactments, that sacrament of tears, perhaps we could approach some meaningful social solidarity, based upon care for and dependence upon one another; perhaps we could realize what Judith Butler calls “the possibility of community on the basis of ...loss.”  Theoretically, this community should be possible if only because “all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”

Slide 17

It’s spring now. The snow has melted. We’re getting our vaccines.  At the same time I can’t help but wonder what, in our headlong drive to return to normal, we will have learned through this whole ordeal.  Emerson imagined that there was something stupid about calamity — we can learn nothing from it. “What opium is instilled into all disaster,” he exclaimed in “Experience.” “There is at last no rough rasping friction, but only the most slippery sliding surfaces.”  This feeling of sliding from moment to moment, of learning and retaining nothing: Emerson calls it “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Unhandsome meaning ungraspable. Can the rituals of writing and painting and film and the performance arts help us grasp our collective condition?  I don’t know.  But the other day the mail carrier brought something else, a book called The Topography of Tears, a collection of photographs that the artist Rose-Lynn Fisher developed of her own tears and those of others. She explains her method in the introduction: each tear was saved on a glass slide, left to air dry, then viewed through an optical microscope. The resulting photographs look like abstract landscapes seen far above the earth’s atmosphere. They resemble “an ephemeral atlas” of the terrain she has crossed.  They document her desire to get closer to something—the source that secreted these tears in the first place— as well as the desire to achieve some distance from them, by making something out of them: something formal, something you can share with others, some slide show of your travels, the year you went nowhere, saw no one. 

Zack Finch’s poems and essays have appeared or will shortly appear in journals including New England Review, The Adroit Journal, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Poetry, Boston Review, Tin House and elsewhere. He is currently completing a first book of nonfiction lyric essays, of which “Imitation of Life” is a part. He teaches writing and literature at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.