The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

The Letter

Yesterday, Azure and I found a letter in a second-hand book on ecology.
The letter was from a prisoner in a New York State correctional facility.
It was addressed to a woman in Queens, New York.

The letter used the word "nigga" extensively, and threatened to kill the
married "nigga" who was fucking his woman, whom he loved. It was four
pages in length, and veered wildly from death threats to protestations of
love. It was awkwardly written, and the prisoner apologizes for the poor
quality of the paper, almost school notebook paper, the kind with the thin
blue lines.

My impulse was to 'make a work' from the letter, which had been discarded
in the book, to use the text in one or another fashion. But the text
seemed too powerful, too angry, too sad, to do anything with it. I talked
it over with Azure and our friends. At one point, I was going to throw it
out; at another, file it away as a reminder of the vastly different worlds
present in slaughter-america under the bush regime. I finally decided the
best was to remail the letter in the original envelope to the original
recipient. Perhaps she had lost it, perhaps it had frightened her so much
that she subconsciously left it behind when she turned the book in for
textbook credit. Our friends gave us two stamps and tape, and with the
envelope resealed, I sent it on its way though a local mailbox.

On the envelope I wrote, 'found this in a book and thought you may want
it.' I didn't sign it, the separation was permanent.

I had an odd sense of loss, which haunts me. I have used found materials
if they 'resonate' before - for example, webcam images that are then
transformed, arranged, semantically 'intensified.' But this letter was too
strong - or if not strong - violent - or if not violent - symptomatic - it
was too dis/comforting, as if real life permanently intruded on what, in
my work, in all work, can be at best metaphoric conceits, no matter how we
think otherwise.

The letter was uncanny. It demanded, it appeared to demand, to be read,
absorbed, to fit in, as if returning were a coward's way out - for there
was no indication that she would have done anything but discarded it,
perhaps after class. The envelope was thick, immediately evident within
the pages of the ecology text, surely she would have put it away,
somewhere, anywhere, if she had wanted to save it. And the undeniable
violence of it all mitigated against this, I could only imagine that she
had moved on, that she wanted as much distance as possible from the
writer, that the letter was a reminder of an uncomfortable past, one which
could never be absorbed, could never fit in with her current lifestyle.
The letter was close to illiterate, she was in college, and the text was
somewhat advanced, with a cdrom illustrating ecological processes, and
quite clearly often played.

There is a weakness and pretense in all writing, in all art, as if 'my
love is like a red, red, rose' said anything at all that rearranged the
molecular epistemology of things on the planet. Art murmurs presumably to
the soul, it calls us to action, makes us feel better about the world, or
gives us an expressivity for the violent tendencies of the times. Or it
allows us to push the boundaries of comfort, dis/comfort, in new ways, for
dis/comfort speaks in art of a 'newness' that is non-existent. It takes
one letter in a book on ecology to contradict each and every other form of
cultural construction, a letter from a sender who had no idea whatsoever
that it would form the punctum of an essay, nor, I suspect, would he care.
He would care about his woman who was no longer his woman, his love who
had betrayed him, and he would kill the perpetrator of that betrayal who
surely was not her.

This short essay can't go anywhere, it can only point to a found object, a
letter, which could not be subsumed. And within that lack, on my part, is
an incredible selfishness, that the debris of the world is there, in the
first place, to be used. To be primordially used. To be used by a writer
or an artist. To be absorbed, to be robbed of originary content. And while
that may be the premise and promise of art, it remains a hole in this
page. Debris is never debris, or it is someone's, or it is no one's, but
it is never debris, just like there are never vermin or weeds, words which
I detest for their inherent elitism. Debris is nothing but the world, and
it is the world which rends and renders artwork useless, meaningless, at
best with meaning grafted by the reader who has no choice.


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