The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue


Sometimes on these long walks with my camera, the whole city seems to pour into the streets, yet when I scroll through the photos later, there is an emptiness to the scenes, as though they’ve been vacated on command. Other times I am out earlier than usual, before the sun rises. This is because of jet lag, but usually there are also sweeping worries, or the astonishment at an unexpected revelation, or the preparation for a new journey (in this past week, all of the above). If I thought I was alone with the moon, the streetlamps, the unfolding clouds, a few days later I would find evidence of other life: a shadowed figure just inside the frame, a hand, a blurred face.

I took two photos of a butterfly I passed in the street yesterday. In the first, the butterfly is drinking nectar from a broad white flower, its yellow wings beating the petals methodically, a little lazily. The second photo is captured five hours later on my way back home. The butterfly does not move. There is a wind around it, which makes its wings flutter slightly, as in the first photo, but life is now absent. The flower, I confirm at home, is a trap.

A week ago I wrote down the following: “There is no linearity when it comes to dreams, only simultaneity.” The word only is such an absolute, isn’t it? In this case, of course I’m right, for inside the vacuum of sleep, anything is possible and everything happens at once. But this morning I see I’m a little wrong too: sequencing also must be acknowledged. For me, it is a backwards sequencing—retracing my steps to the origin of a niggling thought. Because a dream’s logic is based on the logic of an endless maze, I can’t be sure that locating an origin point is possible. Can one even pinpoint the moment one enters the maze? Sometimes the dream might shift point of view—as when the I becomes a she or a he, and then later the she or he reverts to the I—and this jolt can be considered an origin point. During a lucid dream, in which you are aware of the fact that you are dreaming, and can even direct the scene, it is possible to note exactly when and how the maze starts to turn on itself or to turn on you. But the real triumph for me is to identify the path of a dream from point Z to point A. This morning, with the lingering jet lag, I reach this triumph five times, and each time there is the feeling of stepping into a deep bank of snow. The thought about simultaneity came together the previous week possibly because of this jet lag: when I first returned from Taiwan, I woke up at four in the morning, and instead of trying to return to sleep I encouraged the dreams to play themselves out for thirty minutes more, sometimes for another hour. By then I would start to wonder about their logic, their uncanny threading of anxieties, all the transitions—sequences—that connected them. And then I would get dressed and leave the house with my camera.

Since moving into my parents’ apartment on Sanford Avenue, I have been trying to fall asleep with the covers over my head, like a little bird.

One night I watch a Senegalese film on my laptop. I am so tired that I am asleep for most of it. While drifting, I suddenly “understand” Wolof and think I know what is going on. But when I open my eyes, the scene does not correspond to what I have been dreaming. A jarring, a disappointment, a return to reading subtitles on a small screen, and then, very soon after, back to sleep. It is the most pleasant bit of somnolence I have ever experienced. I drowse all the time in moving vehicles (as soon as they start gliding along the highway or on the rail tracks or have settled in the air at the desired altitude, a mechanism springs open inside me and releases a steady flood of dead weight), but drifting in and out of sleep along with this film feels natural and light: my eyes open and shut to the rhythm of my breathing, and I am whirling inside a cocoon of new language, absorbing the story that plays itself out in my head.

Once again I make the mistake of thinking I can move on immediately to a second film as soon as I finish watching the first. But the story about the woman in green wants to hang around my neck for a while. I’m happy to be haunted, but a little anxious about it too, if I am honest. I wish the story didn’t have to end. The filmmaker is alive, which means that indeed this story does not end yet, but I mean I wish she would keep on filming this woman and make it one lifelong lesson in women in green. I watched this film the way I tend to dream: I come across so many striking details and am convinced that they are true, but upon resurfacing to the real world, I see them from very far away and start to realize how much of it is in fact a distortion in perception. For example, recently I remembered how a man I was in love with for years finally acknowledged me one day. I was so ecstatic that I let him have his rough way with me. When he finished, I was in complete shock. With my head hanging off the edge of the bed, I watched his cat look at me with pity from its corner of the room.

Everything about this apartment is new, including the balcony, which is supported by a white Greek column that replicates the columns lining the building’s facade. Against this column is a stack of cardboard boxes. One box contains a camera that I used when I first moved to New York. Once, I left this camera hanging on a bathroom hook in a restaurant on Mott Street. When it was returned to me the next day, I saw it as alien. First, I was surprised that it was returned at all. Then I wondered if I had left the camera in that bathroom on purpose. I came to suspect too that the photographs inside it were not mine. If they were not, then the camera no longer belonged to me. For this reason, I have never been able to find the camera, even though it lives in one of these boxes.

In another box is a collection of small notebooks I had kept during a year of financial uncertainty in Los Angeles. The scribbles inside them have become illegible to me. I open them only when I am working out a problem, such as a book on travel that I have been writing for several years. I can’t be sure how to resolve this illegibility, whether I should wait for my handwriting to clarify itself by perhaps sleeping for a little while, despite the hour, or by opening the other boxes on the balcony. For now, what I am searching for must be re-created. I am thinking about a line I had written about photography, taken from a book I was reading about photography, how a photograph does not capture memory but instead the certainty of someone’s existence. I remember also writing a line where I wondered what sort of certainty the photograph captured about the photographer’s existence. For example, sometimes I don’t remember taking a photograph, yet there is the image inside my camera and there is its timestamp when I print it.

I am looking for an explanation about photographs so I can understand something about time. I am also looking for an explanation about time so that I can understand something about photographs. Ever since a period when I watched movies exclusively about time travel, the two are connected. I want to know how exactly. But the young physicist I’ve contacted does not like my questions. I ask her what is the minute hand. She gives me a long explanation. I ask her what is the hour hand. Another long explanation. I ask about the second hand and about the nanosecond. Again, she is long-winded. Every answer presupposes another hypothesis, branching off into a new iteration of theoretical and contradictory multisyllabic jargon. In the end, I berate the physicist for being a fraud. She defends herself: “I have never pretended to like science. But I know how to tell time.”

We had an eclipse recently. I shut my eyes against it, and that same night a man in a movie told me all the words for bird in all the languages he knew (twenty). Now, for the past ten minutes, I have been staring at a large sparrow perched on my sill, its wings paused in their breathing ritual. I hope that soon I can remove myself from the eclipse, that I’ll find my way back to color. But I’ve heard that, in fact, infinite color lives inside an eclipse and that an eclipse is unforgiving only if you lose your way in it. I suppose I have no choice but to surrender to it. I must not struggle. Eclipses are not supposed to last long, yet this one has managed to stretch itself out. I wonder how such a thing is accomplished.

I think about an essay that describes the photograph of Robert Walser dead in the snow, and take down his book Looking at Pictures to search for it. I remember that the piece begins with the description of the photograph, with a reproduction of the photograph itself on the next page, and then looks at the body from another perspective, with mention of bystanders and intrusive footprints and a wayward hat. Only when I am studying the book’s table of contents do I wonder how Walser could have written about a photograph capturing the aftermath of his own death. Even an hour later, after acknowledging that my impulse to reach for Looking at Pictures was wrong and that I should have been looking to another source, part of me is still convinced that the essay appears in this book.

I once kept a notebook of the same photograph printed multiple times so I could flip the pages as in a flip book—but except for what looked like a breeze through the grass, there was no movement. Whenever I think about this notebook, I can recall what it was like to look at photographs as a child, and I also think about what it is like to look at them today. A photograph signals motion, which partly explains why I did not take any last year, because of what the city was going through. Even though that time was precarious for everybody, I was actually very much at peace.

A punctum is what triggers the memory of a dream. Dreams need triggers in order to be remembered.

I am looking at a map of stars. I turn the page and there is another map. According to the book, stars have existed since something called 313 B.C. I say “something called” because the year 313 is an unbelievable scope.

I continue to misspell “Cixous” throughout my book, almost willfully. I think of her now to dispel this morning’s dream: Somebody was in the apartment. There were dark-blue hues in the bedroom. As I lay on the left side of the bed with my arms draped over my head, the book I’d been reading was slipped from my hand, out of sight. I stayed still, even when I could feel the figure coming around to my side of the bed. But when the dream ended, I saw that the book was beside me and the figure had evaporated. The dark blue was starting to whiten. It seemed to me a long coma had just passed.

One night, I turn on all the lights in the house. The sense of danger is minimal, however, given that I am armed with a firecracker.

For the next few days, I do not write because of a sudden onset of body aches. Sometimes there are chills. At exactly 2:30 p.m., I have to lie down on the bed with the covers to my chin. The view is of the kitchen, where shafts of sunlight sift through the curtains. This sunlight acts like a general anesthetic: as soon as I concentrate on this yellow sky, everything inside me shuts down and I am unconscious for what seems like a whole day. In fact, the sleep lasts only an hour. Sometimes I wake up with the memory of words being put together. Just now: “whether or not” and “may or may not be.”

At the doctor’s office, I photograph a jumbled collage: centered in the foreground is a giant plant, while behind it is a figure that can almost be seen. It is a figure in shock, the opposite of motion. Later, while preparing the image for print, I see there is another face that’s been captured.

I had a job in Munich: the river where surf happens had collapsed, and the town below was submerged.

I had a job in Beijing: the floods opened up a rift in the earth.

I was photographing actors on the side before the rift occurred. I fell in love with one, of course. He wasn’t very talented, I saw that right away, but he tried to teach me what he knew, because an ignorant man who has an audience can pretend to be more skilled than he is. I found his lessons amusing, if a little confounding. He wanted to teach me how to laugh, and how to cry, and also how to cry and speak at the same time. I already knew how to laugh, and I was pretty sure I knew how to cry. It was difficult for me to cry and speak at the same time, however. Sometimes, of course, there is the need to explain something of the self, not to make excuses but to make sense, and this need comes out as a wail and a supplication at once. I told him that I was photographing actors because I liked all the voices that came out of them, including the garbled ones.

I buy a tape recorder and press RECORD at night. Each tape lasts two hours, and the click of the tape wakes me up and then I have to change it. One day I will use a digital device that can run for hours, but for now I rely on the online junk shops that sell old electronics, and look for tape recorders, cameras, any recording devices. I want to record everything. I want to know what is happening inside the city. On the nights when the cold is unbearable, my actor sends me his voice in an email, and I record it from there. He recites lines he remembers from school plays. Today he looks at the latest discards with me online. In a video call, one salesman takes out a camera and assures me that it works. He demonstrates politely, but his eyes narrow as soon as he stops talking and belie his certainty. Then his smugness returns. He points out the stamp at the base of the camera. “Look at what else it can tell you,” he says. And once again, my concern about time unfurls like a flower. It is a moment of vertigo, like standing at the edge of the platform while a subway car rushes into the station. Only after I’ve bought the camera does it occur to me to ask the salesman whether time works at all. But the answer is in the stamp he has shown me: TIME, TAKE YOUR

What does it mean to rest in a dream?

Yesterday I thought it was Wednesday, and in my dream it is Tuesday. When I wake up it is Monday.

Time does not belong to me but to a woman with rocks in her pockets. She lives in a photograph in a museum in Taipei. She has made me understand something about time finally. I regret that this “finally” did not arrive sooner for me to rescue her, although its iterations—“already” and “for now,” for example—needed to exist first before she walked into the river. With her, I think there will always be a “finally.” It is what the great Odysseus searched for, the present, home, which is an end point, it is what all odysseys consist of. Relief is the meat of her legacy.

On my way home from the doctor’s office, I sit down in front of somebody wearing a coat of dark feathers. She is a cosmos of gray and black. She has no intention of leaving the subway car. Instead, she grabs hold of the railing above her head with both hands and lets herself hang there. A few stops later, she is still swaying, but now she is quite stiff, without independent gesture, as though there is not a body but only air filling the coat. But I see her hair. I see how her head has lolled forward, her gloved hands wrapped around the rail.


Wah-Ming Chang

Wah-Ming Chang lives and works in new York city. Dreamstamps is a book in progress. “A Protective Archipelago” is one of many collaborations with Celina Su.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues