Monday, September 8, 2008

A Forest Grows

Serendipitously - is there any other way? yes, gods, I'm asking you... - I ran tonight by what looked like a shop but is really a gallery...but is also a shop, on Leonard and Withers: the Victor Osborne Showroom. Osborne is a milliner, in a long tradition of Williamsburg milliners, which began around 1819, when Williamsburg was still a relatively young village within Bushwick, then Boswick, or "Place of the Deep Woods." (Bushwick was purchased from Native Amerians on August 1, 1638 - Happy 370th Birthday, Colonialism! - for "eight fathoms of duffels, eight fathoms of wampum, 12 kettles, eight axes, some knives, beads, and awl blades.)

But I'm getting caught up in the trees... In 1819, Noah Waterbury opened a distillery on South 2nd Street, which began Williamsburg's transformation into a hub complete with "docks, warehouses, factories where rope was spun by hand, shipyards...iron foundries, hat factories, and the largest glue factory in the country" (much to the chagrin of local equines).

So today: we have the Victor Osborne Showroom, a shop and a gallery (Eye Level Exhibition Space), the latter currently housing Jessica Grindstaff's solo show, "Forest for the Trees." Grindstaff makes shadow boxes, music boxes, and strange and lovely things out of taxidermy.

Williamsburg then, Williamsburg now...are things the same or ever-changing? And what about serendipity? The title of Grindstaff's show makes me think of a Francis Ponge poem I was reading over the weekend, "Le cycle des saisons," or "The Cycle of Seasons:"

"There's no such thing as random foliation. [The trees] unleash, or at least they think they do, all manner of verbiage, plus twigs to hang it on... They think they can say everything, cover the entire world with assorted verbiage: they only say 'trees.' They can't even hold onto birds, which leave them just as they were rejoicing in their ability to produce such unusual flowers. Always the same leaf, always the same way of unfolding, the same limit, always symmetrical leaves, symmetrically suspended! Try another leaf! - Same thing! And another! Same again! In fact, nothing can stop them except, suddenly, this comment: 'You can't see the forest for the trees.' Another lassitude, another mood-change. 'Let it all wither and drop. Now the taciturn phase, the stripping, AUTUMN.'"

But a rose is not a rose is not a rose, in my opinion, and thinking about shadow boxes makes me think of Joseph Cornell," who, incidentally, is featured in a poem by Malena Morling, "For Joseph Cornell:"

"This is for the Soap Bubble Sets and the Sun Boxes
and for the time that moves like a silent film
through a projector
and for the eyelids of the blind
and for those who are gradually becoming blind
because they don't know what they can't see."

As I was reading about Williamsburg tonight (called merely "Bushwick Shore" or "The Strand" by the Dutch, and not dubbed Williamsburgh until around 1792, when Benjamin Franklin's grand-nephew, Jonathan Williams surveyed the land for Richard Woodhull, a Manhattan merchant who thought that he could transform The Strand into "a comfortable residential suburb" ("Try another leaf! Same thing!"), I learned that in 1819, when the distillery was built, 759 people lived in Williamsburg, growing to 11,000 just 24 years later. As the people came, the trees left, including the ailanthus tree, "imported from China, [flourishing] in the swampy, low-lying areas of Williamsburg, popular because of its supposed powers to dispel diseases arising from swamp vapors. and [the inspiration for] Betty Smith's novel about Williamsburg, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn."

About that ailanthus...these vapors...the alive and dead hats and ships and ships under hats...

Morling loves the ailanthus, so let's end with her:

"In the shape of a human body
I am visiting the earth;
the trees visit
in the shapes of trees.
Standing between the onions
and the dandelions
near the ailanthus and the bus stop,
I don’t live more thoroughly
inside the mucilage of my own skull
than outside of it
and not more behind my eyes
than in what I can see with them.

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