Welcome to Baltimore

Welcome to Baltimore

2003-04-21

Picking up Lance Olsen’s theme of thinking as digestion, Michael Martone chews on what’s Avant Garde about Baltimore.

Welcome to Baltimore (aka) Charm City (colon) A Charm Bracelet of Half-Baked Delicacies

or

Xenophon’s Anabasis and the Collapse of the Avant Garde into Waves of Ecstasy

There’s an epigraph:

A motto or quotation, as at the beginning of a literary composition setting forth a theme. [Greek, epigraph, to write on] - American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

“Hey, Rock, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” - Bullwinkle J. Moose

The GI Bill Considered as the Indian Removal Act

What brings us to Baltimore? We can thank a forward-looking piece of legislation at the end of a war, the GI Bill, as the material impetus for moving this art of writing into the university. Our university affiliation, the professionalization of our activity, the tribal organization of our guild, the expected enaction of academic ritual as expressed by conventions. Viola: Baltimore. The story of the literary artist and art and the now sixty year integration with an institution founded in the Middle Ages would be an interesting story if I had time or if that was the task. Instead, consider this: This culture has been successful at impounding its artists in a kind of reservation. The university provides an inoculation frame, a context in order to order, to control, to make sense. This gathering? Have we rabbited from our reservations? Have we escaped the context of this definition? Baltimore is a port city. This convention may be considered as our island of quarantine.

The Avant Garde Taken Literally as Expressed in Xenophon’s Anabasis or The March Up Country, The Rouse translation

From Book Four: They reached the mountain on the fifth day. When the first men reached the summit and caught sight of the sea there was loud shouting. Xenophon and the rear guard, hearing this, thought that more enemies were attacking in front…But when the shouts grew louder and nearer, as each group came up it went pelting along to the shouting men in front, and the shouting was louder and louder as the crowds increased. Xenophon thought it must be something very important; he mounted his horse and galloped to bring help forward. As he rode he heard the soldiers shouting “Sea!” “Sea!” and passing the word along in waves.

Derrida Consumed by Crabs

1966. Derrida arrives in Baltimore, twenty-nine city blocks north of where we are now, to deliver, for the first time on these shores, the obituary of the author. At the very moment the construction of authorship in America is evolving from the romantic individual genius to the romantic individual genius with tenure. Later, Derrida is taken to a crab house on Belair Road where he is instructed in the procedure for disassembling the steamed Maryland blue crab. He is a quick study. He becomes proficient at removing the carapace, the feathery lungs and mustard some consider a delicacy, adept at cracking the claws with knife and wooden mallet, extracting the lump meat from the compartments of cartilage. The flesh of the crab is like soap. The act of consuming consumes him.

Why Do We Eat Human Flesh?

Some of us eat human flesh and drink human blood. Weekly. We do so in the context of the Christian faith, in the setting of the church. Art, too, is framed deviance. If the Avant Garde is regarded as a transgressive movement can it transgress the frame that makes it art? Is that, in fact, the only transgression left to transgress? The Catechism of the Catholic Church in America was written in Baltimore, Maryland, the Roman Catholic reservation. A catechism is a book that gives a brief summary of basic principles in question and answer form. Is there a brief summary of basic principles, a catechism, for the Avant Garde? Can art ask questions that have answers? Can it exist outside the picket fencing of its own inquisition? Must art be art? Must flesh transubstantiate in order to be consumed?

The Women’s Industrial Exchange

on Charles Street dates from the 19th century when it was founded to provide women a means to market the fruits of their domestic labor. There one can still purchase handicrafts - clothing, ceramics, paper ephemera, decoupage, lace and linens, millinery, jewelry, quilts, and souvenirs - as well as consumables - baked goods, preserves, candies, and herbs and spices. There is a tea room too. The Women’s Industrial Exchange excites me! The building is a kind of portal. Until his recent retirement, it even had its own doorman. A portal that, indeed, leads back to the past, but more importantly, a portal where the products of anonymous artists appear spontaneously to then be consumed by the visitor. True, the art that materializes on Charles Street is not of the genres we would here today recognize as the art of the Avant Garde. But its delivery system is for me current. Art that appears. Art that is found. Devoid of signature. My favorites are pieces of utility that have been transformed into the useless or the useless made into the useful - bread dough baked and glazed with silicon then affixed with googly eyes and magnets - the utilitarian on the verge of metamorphosing into art. Finding a Duchamp in Baltimore but without the baggage of “Duchamp,” a museum nowhere near, readymades without the anointment of Art. The Women’s Industrial Exchange takes us back to this future.

The Row House of Gertrude Stein Is For Sale

The Row House of Gertrude Stein Is For Sale

The Row House of Gertrude Stein Is For Sale

Once when looking for an apartment in Baltimore, I found an ad in the classified section of The Sun offering for sale a row house in the Druid Hill neighborhood once owned and occupied by Gertrude Stein. This caught my attention. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the notice was the authorial intent that by informing the reader that the row house was once owned and occupied by Gertrude Stein this would, in fact, be a selling point as persuasive as the parquet floors and the mahogany bannister, the leaded windows and the renovated kitchen. I had a chance, once, to purchase the house where, it was advertised by the seller, Raymond Carver wrote the short story “Cathedral.” Or was it the house where what happens in the short story “Cathedral” happened? Either way, the space was promoted as valuable, that these actions, the writing about something or the something that was written about, now dust, no not even dust but something simply over and gone, had, in the end, coin. Had added value in the calculation of real real estate. How curious this preceived desire to inhabit the habitation of a name, to possess the apostrophe of another’s possession. “Gertrude Stein” as brand is known how? She wrote all those words, all those books of words, ordered all those words and all those books in order to construct a phrase or two that would stick, that stuck, that infected the reader, that reordered his or her own row house of DNA, own chemical charm bracelet of memory. “A rose is a rose is a rose” is a kind of row house block. See the optical illusion of the foreshortened front porches as you look down the street! The repetition of the marble stoops. The repetition of the painted screen doors. “There is no there there” was the epigraph of my thesis written in Baltimore, Maryland, in an apartment on Charles Street, before I saw the ad in The Sun offering for sale the row house once owned and occupied by Gertrude Stein had even been written, had even been thought to be written. Gertrude Stein wrote “There is no there there” it is said, about Oakland, California. I alluded to “There is no there there” to associate it with Fort Wayne, Indiana. I am reading this to an audience, in a hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. I have no idea where or in what house Gertrude Stein wrote “There is no there there,” but I suspect that it was as true there as well, as meaninful or not there too, that there there was no there there.

The Western Most Eastern City; the Southern Most Northern City; the Eastern Most Western City; the Northern Most Southern City

Baltimore. When I was thinking of moving here to go to graduate school I talked to George Starbuck, who wanted me to move to Boston instead. He said: “You don’t want to go to Baltimore. It is the world’s largest small town.” Perhaps this art thing is not about transgression but in the situating of itself and one’s art, of one’s art between the spaces, on the lines. Not so much the breaking of boundaries, but the inscription of elaborate Venn Diagrams on the culture. The waves of overlap instead of the tide rising. Not the context of no context, but the context of context alone.

Martone Consumed by Crabs

The summer before Harbor Place opened, Martone wondered down to the Inner Harbor of Baltimore in the hope of capturing what coolness there was in the city. Looking into the water, Martone discovered an infestation of the harbor by crabs, doublers in fact, crabs in the act of mating. The salinity of the bay was such as to allow the crustaceans rare access to this most often sweet inlet of the massive estuary. The Latin name for the Blue Crab translates thus: Beautiful Swimmer: Delicious. There were millions of them, doubled, making millions more. The articulation of their graceful motion through the water. The architecture of their passion. The narrative of their cheap horror movie choreography. It is envy he felt, envy that the anonymous phenomenon of Baltimore, in its display, had again been more imaginative than he, a trained professional.

Xenophon, in Retreat with His Army through the Present Day Turkey, Races to the Front, Fearing the Worst

But they had made it out alive. There it was. The way back home to Greece. The men in the vanguard were shouting. “Sea! Sea!” which in Greek is pronounced ” Thalasa! Thalasa!” Onomatopoeia. The sound of the waves of the sea crashing over Xenophon as he, the leader of this disastrous exposition and the historian of the same, charged to the front. “Sea!” “Sea!” In English, a homophone. Going forward in retreat. To be swamped by human language, to be consumed by it, its ecstatic reaction to the steady static of the world.

The Constellation Is Not the Constellation; The Constitution Is Not the Constitution: Frigates Considered as Vehicles Embodying Change

The USS Constellation displayed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor currently undergoing renovation is not one of the six original frigates of the US Navy. What you see is the remnant of a later ship of the same named built to fight slave trading in the 1850’s, an interesting story, but one suppressed in favor of the fiction of origin for commercial touristic reasons. The USS Constitution in Boston is the oldest commissioned warship in the world. The oldest commissioned warship, except that through renovation none of the original ship survives. The 18th century ship you observe has been completely consumed by its own maintaining. It is timeful and timeless. It is hard to regard these ships as works of art, these floating fabrications of stories. We try to make sense of them as we eat our crab cake sandwiches. We consider their wood sides transformed, we recall, to iron sides by means of a poem, a poem that saved the ship from scrap. We regard the complication of their riggings while we savor our crab cakes, crab cakes not made of crab but pollack dyed and flavored to be crab.

The Aesthetic of the Half-Baked: The Maryland Beaten Biscuit

I apologize for this bracelet of of false starts, postcards all caption with little message save this: “Wish you were here.” And here you are. I am both a producer and consumer of art and the art I produce mostly consumes other art. The metaphor the Avant Garde maintains is that there is a difference between production and consumption, the performer and the audience, me and you. I am here to tell you that these distinctions are not distinct for me. There is not the world and the art of the world. Artifice is all and its arrangement the lookout of us all in both of those roles. I offer these half-baked ideas, not even ideas. Notes, then. Notes of notes. Half-baked notions on the notion of notion. I am here suggesting the aesthetic of the TV dinner, the pre-cooked and flash-frozen, the heat and serve, the shake and bake, the poppin’ fresh, the just add water, the just add meat, the process of the processed, the condensed and reconstituted, the pre-packaged, the some assembly acquired. I am the maker of parts made of the wholes. The recipe for the Maryland Beaten Biscuit, a kind of hard tack, an Eastern Shore delicacy is this: Flour, salt, butter, and milk to make a stiff dough. Mix and beat for thirty minutes - preferably on a tree stump - until all the air is removed and the dough blisters. One hot typically swampy humid summer in Baltimore, I had a hankering for some beaten biscuits. One place to get them here in town is the Women’s Industrial Exchange. I ask the woman behind the counter for some beaten biscuits who then told me they didn’t have any. “Hon,” she said, “it’s too hot to beat.”