from ECO ling
“The history that resides within me speaks not only of actions that have happened once, in the distant past, it speaks of actions that have repeated themselves to the point of erasure. The history that resides within me speaks of trees, rivers, wounds, hands.”
This erasure project (provisionally collected as ECO ling) unfolded in late spring of 2021 — begun on the day I underlined the above passage in Christina Tudor-Sideri’s extraordinary meditation, Under the Sign of the Labyrinth (Sublunary Editions).
The history that resides within me speaks of actions that have repeated themselves to the point of erasure.
Over the past several years, I had begun to realize that the unease I’d felt in the U.S. had a familiar feel to it — a particular rhyming of history. For many white South Africans of my generation who left home during the height of Apartheid, the story —privileged, definitely; naive, probably — is usually a story of leaving that terrible form of erasure behind, for something better. But the unease, violence, division, erasure, and political manipulation of the Trump Age made the old suspicions clear, once and for all. I’d left nothing behind.
In that mindset, early 2021, I began questioning directions in my poetic work. By which forensic process could I free voices (“speaking of trees, rivers, wounds, hands”) from the closed texts of my childhood, from the colonial, post-colonial, and Apartheid-era language and history of my country of birth? I followed various paths to new questions, if not answers.
At the same time, my wife — a designer — had been reading about the cyanotype photograms of English photographer and botanist Anna Atkins while using Northern California sunlight to create her own cyanotype record, on fabric, of the plants and flowers growing in our garden, and collected on our hikes on Mount Tamalpais.
I wanted in on the printmaking action. Especially one focused on recording absence in presence.
At that point, poet and translator Norma Cole and I were more than a year into a meandering, glorious, easy conversation that transpired day after day, almost entirely via texts between us. In counterpoint to the isolation and dread pervading that time, our daily conversation created a world in which we found shelter, and from which came a series of collaborative poems (Briefings) which I then printed in cyanotype.
One day, while waiting for a set of Briefings to dry, I grabbed a copy of Rudyard Kipling stories that I hadn’t opened in years — tales of empire — and tore a page from one story whose title had always troubled me. A Second Rate Woman. I saw ECO in the title and LING in the name — and began a process of erasure using pencil and the chemical paints that, once exposed to sunlight, would turn sky blue.
My work on the remaining erasures occurred daily against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of May, 2021, and in the larger collection of ECO lings, about two dozen pieces all told, I feel that echo among all the other threads and concerns described above.
Kipling was a regular visitor to Cape Town (later, my childhood home), guest of another champion of empire, Cecil Rhodes, in a residence that is now part of the University of Cape Town.
In 2015, a memorial to Rhodes was removed from the UCT campus after protests by student activists. I do not know what sits in its place.