excerpts from But Also This—Correspondences for Etel

And also this then—light flickering in the museum, though through the window so not mechanical, two guards coming together and conferring in low tones, looking at their watches then parting ways, changing shifts or galleries, a rasping wheezing coughing from one or more museumgoers, things happening and yet to happen in sequence without flow, or more precisely when recalled later-now in narration becoming sequences, images corresponding to what’s spurred or rushing in, radio static coming from the guard’s walkie, Etel’s paintings in sequence or viewed as a whole, to turn from such color in still flickering light cross-hatched upon the far wall like a film projection, to look out the museum window, “the banks lost in shadow,” down on the street the queue to enter extending down the sidewalk and up against the queue to enter through the metal detector and into the courthouse next door, slant-light of afternoon through the scaffolding enmeshing the half-constructed museum’s expansion wing, soon to block out the light, surrounded by the same fencing that had been used for the vacant lot holding-pen mass arrest site during last year’s riots, recalling having found satisfaction in once composing the sentence “we watched as the construction worker took a shovel to the shins of the celebrity architect,” someone’s holding a sign reading “Gravedigger / Will dig for food,” and there being a table in the gallery, books secured to its surface, opening a soft-bound collection of Etel’s writing, paging through to “Jenin,” reading then photographing then later-now transcribing:

Weeks after the carnage a young man was
trying to learn, from a book, how to
become a builder of cemeteries.
But he never found a piece of real-estate
for the burying of the dead.
He therefore abandoned his studies
and joined an underground organization.
No one knows where he is, or if he is still
with us.

But also this—to walk home from the museum, through the downtown streets with storefront windows boarded up, first due to the lockdown and then to the protests, plywood now painted and tagged up and down the streets, a gallery of anonymous art and poetry and slogans and the names and more names each day, murals more current than the daily newspapers, claims to public space and its ornamentation given that with all the bars and restaurants closed for months a kind of extended viewing hours having obtained, public art without the committees or gatekeepers or permits or cops, updated daily and nightly as quickly as the feeds from Minneapolis, from Atlanta, from Rochester, from Kenosha, from Vallejo and East Oakland, the news and images and altars and counter-monuments to the dead, to walk along a length of concrete spray painted with near indecipherable verses, in manifold languages and signs, sigils only the initiated could read, in alphabets and fonts only a liberated future might understand.

And then this—a security guard slowly pulling a set of hinged boards, having been folded upon one another and now expanding so as to cover the storefront windows, as if unscrolling a leporello, to reveal in spray painted signs and letters lines from Etel’s The Arab Apocalypse: “In the sky a solitary coffin is floating from one horizon to the other…”

But also this—the  next day, or some proximate day, though not just any day but any day of plague and death and fire and revolt, standing again in the museum, or more precisely slouching, in front of a monitor playing a looped video of various protests intercut against a soundscape of percussive sounds—metal upon metal, boots on pavement, ambient shouts and clipped chants—the camera’s street-level gaze zooming in and around, until bodies and faces become pixelated into blurred abstraction, aestheticized data points in the editing software, devoid of the lifeblood of representation, much less the historical specificity the wall text attempts to claim for the work’s political import.

And then this then—the soundtrack blurring with similarly arrhythmic sounds coming from elsewhere, outside the headphones attached to the gallery wall, beyond the gallery, until they overtake the video’s closed sound-loop and in their growing volume and insistence break through the cloistered space of the gallery and draw one’s aural-spatial perception outwards, to the window looking down upon the street below, where masked protestors heave forward against a line of cops, a thick chain being thrown around the neck of the museum’s namesake’s statue—metal upon metal—boots pressed against the concrete plinth to gain leverage for pulling, back and through and into the street, shields holding the cops at bay to carve a moving haven for the heave-ho, as the din and roar of the crown finds a rhythm to match the grasping rocking pulling of the chain by many hands, from above the statue’s shadow dilates and distends upon the pavement like a sundial loosed from planetary time, and then—the slow tipping of the statue as it leans forward, hovers in space and time like a photograph capturing gravity taking a breath, and then all at once falls to the ground.

And so then—turning away from the window to see the giant doors of the museum’s freight elevator open, the guard inside and wordlessly—almost motionlessly—beckoning in, entering together yet standing apart in the far corners, masked and silent, the thick horizontal doors slamming shut—metal upon metal—the elevator more spacious than the jail cell to come, its capacity designed not to human scale but to that of oversized canvases and sculptures, the weight of bubble-wrapped art objects and their provenances, along with the handlers and special-event catering staff, the chambered echo of such freight lowering through the intestines of the museum until reaching ground level, doors opening with an unoiled metallic creak and letting in the sounds of the growing riot outside, along with the images refracted through the tinted windows of the entrance. To follow the guard, walking calmly but assuredly across the lobby and into the gift shop, past the display of Etel’s books, untouched in pandemic time, figures outside now banging against the doors and windows, the throbbing off-kilter bass notes of reinforced glass resisting and muffling the blows and scrapes, the backside of a riot cop pressed up against the door, a rock or potato bouncing off the glass above their head, batons swinging, the guard calmly reaching into the gift shop’s jewelry display and pocketing some items, never breaking stride, simply walking through and towards the side doors, in one motion pulling a key from its chain and unlocking opening exiting through the side door, holding it open for all to leave and thus holding it open for those outside now rushing in.

But also this—outside now, mixing in with the crowd and its unruly disorder finding its order in shared unruliness, pulling one’s mask up and hoodie down, getting out of the crowd’s way precisely in order to join it, to adjust to its rhythm and counter-forces, taking a baton-shove in the back, finding a gap, helping lift the fallen statue up and off someone’s foot, people laughing and cheering and kicking and tagging within the larger yelling and chanting and pushing and shielding, a dropped phone spinning face-up on the pavement, capturing video of the ARGUS helicopter circling in the sky above, its searchlight casting down from the sky like a negative sun, handheld lasers and mirror-shards refracting the light back in disco-ball patterns, is it a protest or a celebration, adjusting the masks, one on another’s shoulders to spray-paint over the security cams, the riot cops unable to attend to the looting in the gift shop, now attempting to forge a line between the building and the masked bloc, someone taking a tool to the façade, where the slant of sunlight hits the now-shattered glass doors in such a way as to reflect back a fractured view of the crowd, so that some “we” could see itself, “seeing themselves as one,” the cracked-mirror effect perhaps a truer representation of the scene, that “we” an image of momentary collectivity framed by the museum’s windows and revolving doors, co-creating what will have been for all those who were there in the event of its light, so that a sense of themselves-ourselves in that moment—we’re doing this, this is us doing this—makes for a brief punctum in the irruptive temporality of the riot, such that the recognition of shared agency in an otherwise spontaneous forward-push of focused rage might create if only for the duration of a shutter-click an image to capture in one’s mind, even as it splinters and falls to the ground in pixelated shards of glass now crunched and crackling beneath the boots and clamor, the derangement of the senses be it from tear gas or the poetry of new vowels being ushered out of verbing throats through masks and street siren’d air, a break in the line, a riot cop’s helmet rocking back and forth on the pavement, as headless as the now decapitated statue. Someone then using tools to scrape and hammer and chip and dislodge the names of the donors embossed upon the façade of the museum’s new wing—metal upon metal—each metallic letter, loosed from its endowed provenance, now flung into the air, the sun reflecting off each, “ideas made visible,” forming a kind of airborne concrete poetry that only the partisans of negation might read in the weighty microclimate of tear gas and glitter.

But also this—later, having remembered, now recalling, a scene in Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo, where upon taking a landowner’s hacienda the rebel troops enter the grand ballroom and, unlike the cultured gringo, are struck by their reflections in the gilded mirrors covering the ceiling-to-floor walls:

The men and women of Arroyo’s troops were looking at themselves. Paralyzed by their own
images, by the full-length reflection of their being, by the wholeness of their bodies. They turned
slowly, as if not make sure this was not just another illusion. […] One of Arroyo’s soldiers held
an arm toward the mirror. “Look, it’s you.”

And his companion pointed toward the reflection in the other mirror. “It’s me.”

“It’s us.”

The words made the rounds—it’s us, it’s us—followed by the sound of a guitar joined by many
voices, and the cavalry troops came in, and once again there was entertainment and dancing
and gaiety—indifferent to the presence of the two gringos…

That moment, then, however gently ironized by Fuentes, of self-recognition in the trick of light and reflection, not a moment of individuated bourgeois self-appraisal but instead the formation of  a collectivizing “us” via an image available to the soldiers only upon seizure of the wealthy’s means of reproduction. A reflection not of one’s image, but of one’s being, as Fuentes puts it, and once that being is understood by all as a hard-won and shared the celebration can begin, indifferent now to the gringo’s colonial gaze, as the capture of the hacienda frees them—however temporarily—from the yoke of servitude to the propertied class and the severing of one’s laboring body from one’s self-recognition as a free historical agent, deserving of a ballroom feast.

But also this—later-now spurred to remember a scene from Muriel Rukeyser’s novel Savage Coast, based on her time as a journalist in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, where after being stuck on a train unable to enter Barcelona to cover the antifacist  People’s Olympiad, two of the American partisans walk into the city to view the preparations for the city’s defense:

"I suppose we'll be talking about this for the rest of our lives," Peter said, on the road.
"I keep thinking: we mustn't dramatize it." But as he spoke, the village rose up about him,
the chalk-bright houses, the black sashes of the men, the guns, the challenge of trucks
pounding the blank road…

Answering his mood, Helen said, "But they dramatize it, don't they? It dramatizes
itself. They know, sooner than we, that it is the historic moment."

And so we are given a dramatization of this realization, that certain historical ruptures gain a kind of collective self-consciousness that outstrips one’s ability to adequately represent it in narration.

"It's the thing to do—everybody out during General Strike," said Peter. "You know:
out on the streets May first."

"I'd like to see a May Day that looked like this."

"This is May Day," Peter answered. "This is what we rehearse."

—   Oakland : 2020-21

David Buuck lives in Oakland, CA. He is the co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics (tripwirejournal.com), and founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics. Recent books include Noise in the Face of (Roof Books 2016), SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013), along with the chapbook The Riotous Outside (Commune Editions, 2018). He teaches at Mills College, where he is the chief steward of the adjunct faculty union, and at San Quentin's Prison University Program.