Most people relish voyages, can’t wait to get out of town to lighten winter blues. But the impulse to hit the road never seized me. I gulped my sanity in doses close to home. Travel: I saw it as the contrary of place-based affections. Journeys often unmoored my ship of state. My body could draw to a halt in the face of racing contemplations. I was a thing that kept on thinking.
“I have traveled widely in Concord,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, a wry lift of his lip curling the page. Explore “your own streams and oceans,” he advised. Learn the joys of voyaging at home. His peer, Margaret Fuller, drowned at sea when she blundered from her homeland soil. She shipwrecked with her Italian family. She never learned the benefits of staying put.
Recently, though, I’ve been increasingly interested in reading against my tendencies, rather than solely into them. Whether or not I love a piece, I’m always invited into a previously-unconsidered perspective; It’s not hyperbole to say it enlarges my view of humanity.
And then a conversation on Twitter sparked an epiphany: I saw a poetry conversation (fostered by Paige Lewis and Kaveh Akbar) about the way long poems insist on taking up space, taking up room, and can thus be seen as powerful political gestures, especially for writers of color, queer writers, and women writers. This notion struck me powerfully. I’ve been wired since girlhood, by factors ranging from my Catholic upbringing to low self-esteem, to shrink, to make myself smaller, to avoid bringing attention to myself. Perhaps, I decided, my comfort with small poems had underpinnings I should interrogate.
Laura Freeman was first diagnosed with anorexia aged 14. A decade later she had begun to rebuild her life but still struggled with her attitude to food, eating small portions of the same thing for months on end. “At 24, I’d got to the point where I was recovered enough that I could eat, but only in a very formulaic way,” she says. “I had a pretty boring diet. It was more about getting through each day.”
Then one day she read a passage in Siegfried Sassoon’s 1928 Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man describing “a breakfast of boiled eggs eaten in winter”. It changed everything.
Young's story is one of three detailed pictures across the country that Eubanks draws to illustrate that automated systems used by the government to deliver public services often fall short for the very people who need it most: An effort to automate welfare eligibility in Indiana, a project to create an electronic registry of the homeless in Los Angeles, and an attempt to develop a risk model to predict child abuse in Allegheny County, Penn.
Behind the examples in this thoughtful book lies the realization that the relationship between the spectator and art is inevitably complex. After all, we can’t return art or history to a lost past; as the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion observed: “The backward look transforms its object. ... History cannot be touched without changing it.”