Chronicles of a Reader: the common S E N S E

Today‘s blog is written by Elissa Favero, writer and art enthusiast.


Readers/Scribes reading to clothing artifacts. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit
Readers/Scribes reading to clothing artifacts. Photo credit: Jonathan Vanderweit


“Beauty is vapour from the pit of death.”

For the last six weeks, I’ve been coming to the Henry every Wednesday to read from a book about a hawk season in the fenlands of eastern England. To describe J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine as only that, though, would be to diminish it. Baker’s small book is extraordinary for the fineness of his observation, exquisite for the way his language summons color, temperature, light, movement, and longing. It is made all the more beautiful for the death that haunts its narrative. I had seen praise for it but hadn’t yet read it. Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E was my pretext.

I read Baker’s book out loud to images of specimens from the Burke Museum of Natural History, printed on humble newsprint and bolted to the walls of the North galleries in piles, or to garments made from feathers, fur, or guts and presented in glazed metal carriages in a double-height gallery downstairs. These arranged skins, both the images and the finery, are like Baker’s writing, beautiful. As it was for The Peregrine, death is part of their marrow.

“…[H]e hung motionless, tensing and flexing his swept-back wings, dark anchor mooring white cloud…The wind could not move him, the sun could not lift him. He was fixed and safe in a crevice of sky.”

Mostly, I’ve read in the upstairs galleries, with their gatherings of images suspended against white walls. There, my eyes adjust as light coming through the open skylights weakens and brightens. I hear the drone of the HVAC system, feel its draft, and pull a wool blanket–furnished especially for the exhibition–tighter about my lap. I read, each time, to an image at eye level. I like to feel the thin paper with my fingertips, to connect the trajectory of my voice to the reach of my hand. There isn’t a word of Baker’s that has struck me as false or misplaced, but sometimes I find a passage especially remarkable, and I copy it into a leather-bound notebook I share with other reader/scribes, repeating and slowing my delivery to match the pace of my hand. I’ve been thinking, as I do this, about parallels. The areas of each specimen that were touching the image scanner are in focus, while what was farther away is blurred. Likewise, passages that touch me make their way to the page verbatim, while the other parts of the text are obscured, lost. They linger only as clouds of spoken words, hanging in the air.

“The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds.”

The Henry invites museum-goers to take an image from the North galleries home with them. When someone pulls a sheet, the newsprint tears, breaking the hum of air and incantation. I feel a pang of loss. But I think, too, of the tearing sounds the birds in Baker’s book make as they fly and also of the tearing noise the tiercel makes as he pulls apart the bodies of his prey: woodpigeon, gull, lapwing, wigeon, partridge, fieldfare, moorhen, curlew, plover, duck. There are parallels here too, I think.

“Woodpigeons, gluttonous innocents, rise like grey breath from every frozen plough.”

My empathy shifts with what I address, though the images in the North galleries are unlabeled, and I guess at what I’m reading to. I give counsel through Baker’s words. To a predator, I provide as a model the mostly successful hunting behavior of the peregrines. “The short days of winter are lean, and you must eat,” I think. “Here, then, is how you stoop.” And to the woodpigeons and other prey: “This is how you avoid death.”

“I feel compelled to lie down in this numbing density of silence, to companion and comfort the dying…”

Rebecca Solnit writes in her recent book The Faraway Nearby, “A bestiary is buried in our language.” She refers to the great bear, Ursa Major, whose constellation gives name to the far north of the Arctic, to the Hog’s Head of the Cork-Kerry coast in Ireland, to the bashful human behavior we call sheepish, to the beelines we make in our directness, and to the things we crow about in our excitement. Our proximity to animals has fed our observations and fueled our imaginative language. “Language is humankind’s principal creation, a pale shadow of Creation, and one that needs to come back again and again to the nonhuman world to renew itself, to draw strength and color,” Solnit writes elsewhere.

But there is also a gulf that can never be bridged here. The images and objects I address, already long dead, will never understand Baker’s words or even interpret the rise and fall of my voice.

And so I read with no hope of response. But in my reading, I attend and attend to. I give account and am accountable for. These are the bounties and burdens I gain in exchange for my small sacrifice of time.

Elissa Favero has worked in education and public programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and at the Seattle Art Museum. You can read her essays about art, architecture, and landscape at Yellow Umbrella and geek out with her about local art and art happenings at Art Nerd Seattle.

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