Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow
BY ZACK FINCH
The only seats left were in the middle of the row below a screen so large it had no edges. My mother must have gone to the restroom or for concessions, because when the coming attractions came to life, I lost it, I was alone, I wept silently, I knew she was never coming back, and in some sense maybe I was right. For by the time she had returned with the candy or the soda, I was already up ahead, my eyes dry now, the pictures moving into me like a drug. It doesn’t much matter what the movie was (it was Grease) except that it represented something new, a world without parents; I studied it closely, its laughter and its swagger, the same way my son does with the stuff he sees on Netflix and Disney Plus. I don’t know what effect these images have on kids, but I know they are indelible.
In Chris Marker’s La Jetée, a man gets injected with a serum that lets him travel freely across time, something he can do safely because he is anchored firmly by an “image of childhood,” the face of a woman standing at the end of the jetty at the Orly Airport in Paris—from jeter, to throw, jettison, to be thrust out—where he was often taken as a boy to watch the planes take off. The huge airplanes on the runway are like something out of Homer, those sleek ships preparing for war. The man believes he saw someone die on the jetty one day, though he can only recall the face of this woman with windblown hair at the end of the pier. It is never stated who she is. Neither is it revealed, until the film’s final frame, that the death he observed that day was his own, for a person who is permitted to re-enter his own primal scene will never return.
Of the first time I went to the movies, the part I remember best is the doe and the fawn tasting the first blades of grass poking through early spring snow. Then they are dashing through the meadow toward the woods, the mother calling “Don’t stop!” The fawn makes it to the thicket, breathless and elated, but the trunks of the trees have turned darkly elegiac, like the legs of adults to whom one is unrelated. “Mother, where are you?” Bambi calls into the meadow, filling up with snow now and dark. His voice sounds tinny and dysphoric, like it’s bouncing off the walls of a cavernous Hollywood sound stage. When the stag appears, with its rack of heavy antlers, he speaks slowly, spacing out the words “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” Then we are given Bambi’s left eye for fourteen seconds of silence. That’s a lot of silence for a Disney cartoon. The movie’s power resides entirely in that lurch.
Not everyone harbors the fantasy of childhood as some innocent glade. In his poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” Robert Duncan calls it a “scene made-up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place.” Like a lap or a bed or a still from a movie, it’s a made place, but one which feels incredibly real within the bee-loud project of remembrance. Once upon a time, there was a letter O, it was lunar, it was dilated, or it was a portal hung with vines, and we passed through it into the world. In some cases, a person on the other side was there to greet you, hold you, let herself be suckled by a hungry, predatory infant.
When The Elephant Man came out in October 1980, I begged to be taken to see it. In the opening shot, the camera pans over framed photographs of the man’s mother; it hovers over her eyes, her nose, the perched mouth. I had just gotten my first pair of glasses, and had to keep taking them off and putting them back on, wiping away tears, fumbling with this new piece of equipment, which nevertheless failed to distract me from the violent spectacle unfolding on screen, the elephant man being beaten by Bytes, the man with the iron crop, or by the night watchman with his stick. Throughout this ritual desecration of innocence in black and white, Joseph Merrick, the so-called “elephant man,” clings to the photographs, the only possessions he is permitted, his votive talisman in a theater of abuse. If you look closely, however, you will see that director David Lynch cast two different actors as Merrick’s mother. From this doubleness, we must infer that “mother” is a fabricated origin, an ideal distributed across multiple faces.
Going through stacks of photographs after his mother’s death, as he recounts in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes is searching for a photograph of his mother, not a photograph of the mother. “I don’t want to reduce my mother to the Mother,” he says. When he finds one that genuinely reflects the person he has in mind, it’s his mother at age five standing inside a glassed-in conservatory. He calls it the “Winter Garden” photograph but refuses to reproduce it for readers. He doesn’t want to turn his mother into a specimen of Mother. He had only recently nursed her through her terminal illness, caring for her as if she were his very own child, holding her lips to the small ceramic bowl she liked to drink tea from. In the end, Barthes reduces her to a universal figure anyway: the girl in that Winter Garden photo symbolizes “the Sovereign Good of childhood.” She has become “my little girl,” emblem of all innocence. He cites Nietzsche: “A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.”
Exterior shot of a seaside meadow. Three children are moving as a group, holding hands, androgynous, on the cusp of sexuality, keenly aware of the camera they are shying away from, the way one shies away from certain knowledge. They are on a road in Iceland in 1965, the narrator of Marker’s Sans Soleil tells us, and the pale sun is limning everything— the edges of the kids’ wool sweaters, their hair the color of struck wheat. It lasts for seven or eight seconds of silence, the smallest child refusing to look toward the camera, his hands stuffed in his pockets. Their faces pulse like relics from a world before images, before visibility; the road they are walking on is a border or a path, the kind that children in a Grimm fairytale must walk. The camera is the wolf.
Yes, the universal swallows up the particular. For this is the nature of images. It is why Barthes concludes that any study of images must be “the impossible science of the unique being.”
I talked with my mother the other day. She lives in California, I live in Massachusetts, and we’ve been speaking on the phone several times a week during the pandemic. She used to go to the Tivoli Theater, she tells me, on 44th Street in Manhattan, where the double-features cost a quarter. She remembers seeing The 10 Commandments and Spartacus—the longer the better, since her home-life was so precarious, stocked with yelling and unfulfillable demands. One day her mother beat her with a dog-chain. She spent as much time as possible in the public library. Some mornings she let me climb into bed and snuggle under the covers. That’s when she told me how, when she was four, she and her infant sister were farmed out to Long Island to live with an aunt or various foster families—step-cousins in Levittown, for a few months with a couple from Norway, where she was offered lentil soup, which she refused, and lived in an unfinished attic. Eventually she was taken back by her mother, who had remarried, and the abuse continued. Her mother was also a survivor of abuse; all the men in that family for generations back were drunks who “broke the doors down” when you closed them. On Friday nights—paynight—my grandmother’s mother would take the girls to Prospect Park’s Long Meadow where they would wait on a bench until dawn. But my mother broke the cycle of abuse. She swerved the other way, into the lanes of love and maternal attachment, a devotion grounded firmly in care, intimacy, relatedness—those three grass blades in the snowy meadow.
People must never be treated as a genus, I know that. The particular, that’s what’s real. But the real? The elephant man whispers good night to his images. As soon as it gets formulated, into sentences, the real congeals like a photo of a home movie. “The fiction that photographs can ‘tell us’ anything,” as Peter Handke says in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, the book he wrote in the months after his mother’s suicide, in which he tries to be as factual as possible about her. “A sudden west wind is soughing through white flowering meadow,” writes Susan Howe in her essay on Chris Marker: “Facts are perceptions of surfaces.” In the photo my mother’s face is effaced entirely by shadow.
Instinctively, the psychoanalysis I prefer is that of the object-relations theorists in England after the Second World War. For writers like D.W. Winnicott, the bond between the mother and the infant is decisive. So much depends upon the way she holds the child so it can feel itself reflected in the screen of her face. In its classical formulations, psychoanalysis had neglected mothers completely. Winnicott, by contrast, studied individual mothers in his clinic for decades, he wrote to them in his essays, and he tried to emulate them in his work, believing that psychoanalysts should hold their patients in ways that ordinary mothers hold their children. The problem being, according to Adam Phillips’s essay “Playing Mothers,” all this mother-reverence eventually produces an inability to analyze motherhood clearly, or to understand the complex identifications that elapse between mothers and children. Mothers get normed into canonical fantasies, sphinxes without riddles. Psychoanalysis turns the mother into an idol, dear reader, an object of belief.
Kramer vs. Kramer, which I was taken to see in 1979, opens with nineteen seconds of silence, the camera trained on Meryl Streep’s face as her character sits at the edge of her son Billy’s bed, stroking his hair, white clouds painted on the bedroom walls behind her. She says I love you, don’t let the bedbugs bite, and kisses him, and stands up, and goes off to pack her bags, and by the morning she’s in California. We are given no detailed explanations of her departure. We just know that she needs to go, she’s suicidal, she needs to recover herself apart from her roles as mother and wife. Back then the movie was praised as progressive, for showing how a man could learn how to mother. But of course, it wasn’t feminist at all. Streep’s character is absent for most of the film. She’s off in California somewhere, finding a job, going to psychoanalysis; the movie takes no interest in her—it only cares about how her absence gets filled.
1979 was the year my little sister fell ill, too. She had a disease the doctors couldn’t name. My mother spent most of that time in the hospital. Inside of this lurch, I learned to occupy myself. I turned to books, to movies. I wanted to be in them—perhaps I could fill the emptiness that way. I focused first on plays and musicals. To have a song for auditions, I rehearsed “Low Down Saggy and Blue,” a melancholy tune from Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure, one of my favorite cartoons, sung by a stuffed camel, a blue, transitional object that had been jettisoned by the parents of the boy when he got too old. I sang it for my mother when she returned from the hospital. I must have felt a little like Billy, from Kramer, in the Central Park scene when he learns to ride his bike. “Don’t stop pedaling!” his dad calls out. “How do you feel?” “Good!” Billy calls back. It must have rained recently, the way the pavement glistened.
The first night home from the hospital after our own son was born, my wife had him sleep in a bassinet beside the bed, though I had wanted him between us, as close as possible. Later, she preferred a kind of cry-it-out method, to teach him to self-soothe, whereas I believed that someone must immediately pick him up whenever he began crying, to show him we were there, we weren’t going anywhere. These disagreements intensified, and pretty soon we were calling a couple’s therapist. We went to that office for three years. It was there that my wife announced she had filed for divorce. We’re finished. I remember driving to work after that session, along the road that hugs the curving river, nearly out of my body with some combination of terror and elation. I was being reborn.
The arduous path that opens after birth, Winnicott argues, is the path we follow for much of our lives with the aid of objects—blankets and stuffed animals, at first, become books and movies later. The whole cultural field becomes that immense “potential space” where we track footprints, lacunae. It’s the field we are forever crossing, or standing at the edge of. The past few weeks, I have watched a doe and a fawn cross my front yard every evening. I hold my breath as they wend slowly toward the street, grazing the grass. Then one morning I noticed something under the maple tree we planted to commemorate our son’s birth. I walked into the grass and took a close-up of what I found—the fawn’s head completely severed from its body. It had been hit by a speeding car maybe, or perhaps its carcass had been dragged onto the lawn by a fox or bobcat, I don’t know. I cannot make sense of the way the tropes of this essay have commandeered me. And I refuse to reproduce the deer head here. I have decided to retain just two photographs, my untimely bookends: the man getting the serum injected into his arm by men; the infant suckling milk from its mother’s breast. Both series mingle in the bloodstream, the biological and the ideological.
It’s a precarious space, the meadow with white sky overhead, crossed with planes coming or going. It’s like the white screen I confront on mornings when I’m alone, when my son is at his mother’s house, and I’m searching for the thread. It’s a melancholic space, but jubilant too, the way it hums with umbilical energy, a latter-day lullaby. I have the sense, when I’m writing into it, that I’m calling out to you, and that you’re still here.