In their ongoing collaborative column to mine NYC’s arts scene for inspiration, poets Rebecca and Leah discuss the meaning of “wild” in response to both a photography exhibit of the horses of a remote Canadian island and a reading given by Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri.
On a Saturday afternoon, on the crowded local R train, we discussed our responses to the “Wild Horses of Sable Island” exhibit:
Leah Umansky: Do you think what is “wild” would exist without what is “not-wild?”
Rebecca Melnyk: It’s very philosophical. Do you mean “wild” as a perception rather than a state of being? As artists, wildness is not so much an image as it is an innate part of the “self.”
Leah: I sort of think that what is considered “wild” is considered “different” or “othered” and that it’s only based on someone’s labeling it so.
Shakespeare’s Caliban and Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Cathy are labeled “wild’ in someone else’s tongue in comparison to some other character or way of life. Photographer and poet Roberto Dutesco addresses this problem in a pure, mystical, almost humanistic way in his gallery exhibit, “The Wild Horses of Sable Island,” at 13 Crosby Street in Downtown Manhattan. His photographs document the island’s only inhabitants, shipwrecked horses, in all their displacement, their utopia, and their untouched beauty. The only humans the island has ever seen are near-outcasts: abandoned sailors, convicts, and pirates.
Some of his photos are matted uniquely. He has drawn nautical images that give a marginalia-esque feel to them. Dutesco adds his own mythology to the photo “Play” by drawing fish with fringed tails, seahorses, a pegasus, Sable Island’s geographic coordinates, and a Canadian timeline of boats.
A connection is made immediately between writing and art, something innate, unexpected. This exhibit makes you want to be a “lost boy” in this Never Never Land off the coast of Nova Scotia and lie in the blond field, watching the horses as you stare up at a horizon untouched by human hands.
The significance of wildness was also present the previous evening, when Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri appeared together for the first time to read at the New School. The reading was a benefit for the library at the Brooklyn Waldorf School. Franzen read “Emptying the Skies,” a journalistic piece he wrote for the New Yorker last summer on the decline of songbirds in the Mediterranean due to poaching. The birds are considered a delicacy, and as they “fly along their migratory path on their way to reproducing,” their wildness becomes their death. Here, the wild presents the possibility of danger, unlike the horses of Sable Island.
Franzen mentioned Michelangelo, who believed that animals should be valued as highly as humans, and St. Francis of Assisi, who on his deathbed was surrounded by hundreds of circling birds. What is wild communicates something significant on a higher level that might not necessarily be labeled. Lahiri said that when she writes during the day, she “is in a fog,” with “limited visibility.” To truly perceive, this fog must protect against any forces that seek to cultivate the wilderness of the artistic process.
Dutesco has lived in his own fog while photographing horses on Sable Island. After spending the day observing the horses, he would journal about them. As Roberto is also a poet, we were, of course, interested in his craft and process.
Leah: What do you see as a connection between art and poetry?
Roberto Dutesco: It’s all free expression—inspiration. I wrote poetry for one and a half years, every morning and every night. I never revise my poems.
This lack of revision is suggested in the way Dutesco photographs the horse’s hair—abandoned and without constraint.
Rebecca: Your photographs are so inspiring that people are now going to want to travel there—and the landscape and the horses will run the risk of no longer remaining “wild.”
Dutesco: It’s very difficult to get to, even by boat, and the government is very strict about who can go there—over the years people have wanted to turn it into a national park—but that hasn’t happened.
His horses seem Biblical—holy—like the first horses on earth, perhaps even the first angels. It is as if they are trying to communicate with the camera’s lens, trying over the many years, perhaps since the first documented shipwreck of 1583, to adapt to our eyes.
The fiction reading continued to return to a place where “wild” and “labeling” conflicted. Speaking of research in the context of his writing, Franzen said that “facts constrict my freedom.” Lahiri talked about her constant awareness of another place, India, where her parents were raised, while growing up in New England. When Lahiri read from her new work—two parts of a novel she has yet to connect—we were able to witness her in the “wild,” the unhinged pages of her craft, trampling through words that may soon find their place on another page. Lahiri was reminded of her “normal self” when an audience member asked how her writing process has been affected “since becoming a mother.” Lahiri’s identity, the question presumes, immediately shifts from that of “writer” to that of “mother.” Perhaps unfairly, she is thought to lose some of what is “wild” in art when she takes on the domesticated role of a mother. Lahiri answered by explaining that, as a writer, “she is nourished by [her] children” because “children are constantly decoding the world, and you have to explain a lot of stuff. . . which is what a writer does.” A writer decodes the world to both him- or herself and the reader at the same time.
Roberto Dutesco has attempted to decode the world through his “Wild Horses,” and they are roaming around as you read this, unaware that they are wild.
Leah Umansky is a teacher, a concert-junkie, an anglophile, and a poet in Manhattan. She has had poems published in The Paterson Literary Review, Magma Poetry (UK), and Cream City Review. Visit her poetry blog I Am My Own Heroine for more of her work.
Rebecca Melnyk was born in Canada. She is a poet and writer studying in the Riggio Honors Program at The New School. She is also the poetry editor of 12th Street and an intern at The Poetry Project.