Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Owls Head

Rosamond Purcell

The Quantuck Lane Press ($25)

by Michelle Mitchell-Foust

In Rosamond Purcell's Owls Head, the search for things is the thing. Archivist, collector, artist, and consumer, she searches for eye-catching detritus in the small town of Owls Head, Maine and negotiates the purchase of found objects with local scrapyard proprietor William Buckminster. Purcell then takes the things home and makes other things—simple. And yet Owls Head is not simple, as the things Purcell makes are not simple. Three memoirs are embedded in Purcell's Owls Head: that of a man, a place, and a woman refining her aesthetic.

Buckminster handles the task of keeping and giving away the mountains of things with the grace and patience of a benign ruler, even in the face of an aggressive faction of concerned citizens who wish he would clean up the place. Purcell says: "I saw him too as a kind of deity from a Down East pantheon of gods that included the Lobster God, the God of the Outer Shoals, and the hardscrabble Potato God." Throughout she sketches his prismatic character as iron worker, host, gossip, historian, collector, rebel, philosopher, husband, merchant whose methods are a mystery—and all in the context of the "almighty thingness of our all-American world." Purcell gives us his voice, too, as he revisits objects from Owls Head that have been translated in Purcell's studio:

B: I don't remember but I remember this, though
R: —yeah—
roller skate.
If you see anything you want back…
No, no.
Is it—what you told me—arbor vitae?
Lignum vitae.
Lignum vitae. Oh, it's stuck on there—
A very…heavy wood. Matter of fact it doesn't float. Maybe dragged
      up by a scallop fisherman.
Why was it in the water to begin with if it doesn't float?
The ship probably sank.

Buckminster is the thin, serious figure balancing on the precarious mound that is Owls Head. At one point in the biography, Purcell superimposes a ghost image of British collector Dr. James Petiver (1658-1716) over Buckminster, imagining the collectors past and present standing side-by-side: two men "prepared to admire the minuteness of much of the naturalia of this place as well as to take the chaos of its artificialia in stride."

Interesting, too, is the relationship we see developing between subject and biographer in Owls Head. Purcell is a character in the life of her subject; in Buckminster's presence, she becomes the being who wants. She holds up whatever she's found—a horse harness that has grown roots, or a swollen 78 rpm record that sounds like "A New Year's Eve broadcast from the ballroom in London might have sounded to the soldiers in the trenches in France in 1918"—and Buckminster gives the nod or not, keeping some items "high and dry," for his own use, though as Purcell knows, "it's not for models but for love and it's no fair asking to buy them." In searching for the objects of desire she grows to wonder, as she did in childhood, "how 'want' looks"—and tries "not to look like a ridiculous Victorian" when she is turned down.

Want looks a great deal like Owls Head to those who recognize the place as a "terrifying chaos" that wants organization. But mostly Owls Head is a town with a house and a scrapyard and a barn and a mammoth collection of wooden lobster buoys—a collector's paradise whose gravitational pull Purcell cannot resist. She borrows a quotation by architect Philip Johnson (an allusion to a house built by Buckminster's relative Buckminster Fuller) to describe Owls Head: "nothing to do with architecture and all to do with dreams." As she watches Buckminster stabilize the barn, she says, "The staircase to the second floor was free-standing now, with no step at the bottom or the top. The elements of the building stood around me like pieces of a set. 'Under the Big Top only two days count, today and tomorrow.'" Purcell's circus reference is interesting in light of the fact that the objects at Owls Head are testaments to history, yet what the archivist/author/photographer perceives is what happens to these objects down the road, as weather and "translation" work on them. She notes, "Sometimes the stages of an object's evolutionary sequence are in plain sight."

Purcell defines "translation" as "to transfer from one place/condition to another." In order for translation to result in something approaching the sublime, the reader must understand the vocabulary of the image as well as relinquish the conventional classifications for things. Purcell acknowledges that "systems of classifications are [also] inventions":

I exhume the frame of a typewriter, its vestigial hammers like the ribbings of an ancient echinoid. Where does the sea end? At what point does a manufactured object turn into an organism? Do objects drown? Do they ever possess a life—beyond batteries—that might be taken away? Is an object transmuted into another substance ever, like a fossil, turned from flesh and bone to stone? When does an inanimate object become worthy of a scientific name? I name the typewriter Underwoodensis corrupta, a close invertebrate cousin to an echinoid….this typewriter aspires to the same lofty class of object as the book-nest, it too comes from the place where metaphors are made.

Owls Head is a project of nested metaphors and the joy of renaming, and Purcell's writing isolates her artistic process and refines her aesthetic. She sees in the piles of Buckminster's barn a resemblance to artist Robert Wilson's "installation of the hollow elephant, the decrepit Bonapartist watchman, mechanical rats, and opera music." Regarding her studio art—what becomes of much of Owls Head naturalia—she distinguishes herself from surrealist/collector Joseph Cornell:

I understand all too well the impulse to Joseph Cornell-box the world. Beyond a tropism for weathered surfaces and idealized microcosms, I share little of Cornell's vocabulary of lyric opera singers, celestial charts, and marbled papers. I admire his work but am wary of the romantic yearnings the constructions—so attractive—provoke in me. In the end, many of these boxes fill me with regrets. I turn away toward a closer observation of the teeming and intermingling between organic and inorganic forms, of what happens between the ice and the inner tube, the sun and a glass plate negative, the rain and a roadmap.

Purcell sees intensely how organic and inorganic forms work together in the life of an object in the wild, and she knows profoundly, "as Owls Head is a place of tireless consumption, of active burial and renewal by mice, squirrels, bees, beetles, ants, and worms, phenomena such as strings of pearls are illusory, soon dissolved by the sun." She exchanges both worm and pearl for word, for Owls Head is a prose poem, too. Not much since Walt Whitman's Song of Myself have we seen such a catalogue of Americana. Whitman writes:

My brain it shall be your occult convolutions!
Root of washed sweet-flag! timorous pond-snipe! nest of guarded duplicate eggs! it shall be you!
Mixed tussled hay of head, beard, brawn, it shall be you!
Trickling sap of maple, fiber of manly wheat, it shall be you!
Suns so generous it shall be you!
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you!
………………………………………………………………….
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
………………………………………………………………….
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In Whitman's poem and in Purcell's memoir, America holds still for us, awaits our careful scrutiny, during which we realize that the place is always in motion. The difference between the two approaches is that, unlike Purcell, Whitman was writing America through its people—he writes the egotistical sublime that makes himself (the human) the body of America (organic to organic)—while Purcell writes America through its things, what man has made and time has remade. Purcell acknowledges the biology of the inanimate object, considers context and associates in forensic detail. She is unafraid of what scientists may refer to as "the evil weed of metaphor" and metaphor's cousin synecdoche, which may, in stretching circumstances, move meaning away from the thing itself, rather than closer toward it. She asks herself, concerning "the ideal Platonic object—was a single leg, for instance, still a chair?" And she writes:

We are in the trenches somewhere, all the time, as far as I can make out. However apocalyptic these war scenes, their density owes everything to Owls Head. As a typewriter may also be a fossil echinoid, so piano wire is the horizon off the French coast and a piece of stained lace a bloody stretch of road. One thing becomes another, the shafts of a bird feather a broken Romanesque arch, sewing threads tangled military scrap, and an ape hanging in a museum window becomes the victim of a lynching hanging from a tree.

Purcell's Owls Head has a marvelous section of notes and photographs, but no index, much the way its namesake has no map. The digging is the pleasure. Another famous Maine resident, Stephen King, said in an interview that because we humans have so little time, we are lucky to get to know one or two places. Rosamond Purcell knows Owls Head, and as a result of this stunning book, we can too.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents