The Air Sculpture [essay] by Thomas E. Kennedy

The structure resembles a cheap imitation of a gaudy Disneyland castle—a gray, mottled, plastic blow-up adolescent dream, and I am standing in its vestibule, alongside Nora, the current fire of my loins, who has accompanied me on the train from Copenhagen to Århus, which is the second largest city in Denmark—in northern Jutland, the peninsula that juts up from Germany.

A young, blue-eyed, sweetly-smiling Danish woman representing the event organizers in Århus explains that this is an air sculpture and that the eight of us—diverse foreign writers living in Denmark—will be reading from our work in its inner chamber. I have a contract for the reading that says I should read for ten minutes and will be paid five hundred dollars but does not specify that I will be required to read inside an inflated plastic air sculpture which, as far as I can see, unlike a Disneyland castle, has no windows or escape hatches.

“Are there no windows?” I ask the pretty young Danish woman.

“No,” she says with a reassuring smile. “But this sculpture has traveled all around the world to many great cities.”

A tall, thick-shouldered Danish fellow steps up to me and points at my feet. I stick out my hand and introduce myself. Clearly nonplussed as he shakes my mitt, he says, “Your shoes. Remove them.”

“No,” I reply. “Are there no windows in here?”

“You have to take off your shoes,” he explains, then smiles, “We will not require you to take off your clothes.” This apparently is an example of disarming Danish humor. Disarmed, I remove my shoes, and he gestures to a rack alongside the entrance where other shoes are lined up, but experiencing an attack of anality, I decide that I will hold onto mine and tuck them beneath my arm. I have never before been ordered or even requested to remove my shoes in order to read my poetry translations. My shoeless feet feel vulnerable. Why do I have to remove my shoes to read poems?

Another woman, a redhead, closes and seals the vestibule door flap, then opens a flap of plastic on the opposite wall to reveal a strange series of passageways zigzagging inward; it makes me think in an unpleasant manner of 2001, A Space Odyssey, although this is 2010, and I am shoeless in Århus, and there are no windows or escape hatches.

The tall, thick-shouldered Danish gentleman is now explaining to us eight diverse foreign readers about the air sculpture. “It is important,” he says, “not to open the outer door and the inner door at the same time or the structure will be in danger of collapsing upon us.”

I wonder if this is another example of disarming Danish humor. “Are there windows or escape exits!” I call out.

Everyone laughs, although my query was not meant humorously.

I am perspiring heavily, my shirt stuck to my back, sweat running down from my forehead, and I wish to put my shoes on again.

The young pretty Danish woman who has organized the event says encouragingly and not without an appropriately modest pride, though with an edge of potential desperation in her eyes as though she senses I am about to behave erratically—perhaps she sees the same edge in my eyes, “This air sculpture has traveled throughout the entire world.” A queue of Danish men, women and children wait outside impatiently beneath a light rain to buy tickets for the readings. I have never before seen men, women and children impatient to buy tickets for a poetry reading and wonder whether what they are really impatient for is to see eight foreign writers sacrificed to the air sculpture.

Looking into the strange series of science-fiction like passageways beyond the pinned-open back flap and noting that the plastic floor is damp, as are my socks now, I hear myself say, “I’m not goin’ in there.” I did not know that I would say those words and wonder distantly what Nora might think, but decide that whatever impulsion has inspired my protest was correct.

The young Danish organizer’s pretty, blond, blue-eyed smile goes tight.

“You can keep your five hundred bucks,” I say. “I’m not goin’ in there. I’m sorry.”

Beside me, Nora puts her sweet pink lips to my ear and whispers, “Are you sure, Tom?”

“I’m not goin’ in there.” I am already tugging on my shoes. Nora touches my shoulder and gazes compassionately into my eyes. “Are you really sure, Tom?” she asks.

“Fuck them,” I explain. “I don’t have to, and I’m not.”

The redheaded woman who pinned back the flap to the strange series of passageways unpins and closes it again, then goes to the front flap to lift it open for me. “Some people do feel claustrophobic in here,” she says.

“You can keep your five hundred bucks,” I say. “I’m not goin’ in there.”

 ***

Nora and I sit in first class train seats across from one another, feet in each other’s laps, sharing a pint of vodka. I have not only stiffed myself out of the reading fee, but no doubt out of the refund on the train tickets as well. I wonder if I should have gone into the main chamber of the air sculpture after all, but every time I ask myself that question, I picture myself perspiring and shoeless, socks damp, trying to read with expression my translations of Dan Turèll and every time my answer is, I’m not goin’ in there. The correctness of that decision has been reinforced on the platform as Nora and I waited to board the train by a Polish poet who did go in there and said to me, “You were right. It was extremely claustrophic in there. Danes assume that everyone will accept to be imposed upon.” I take comfort in his words, whether or not he was merely trying to humor or console me.

Nora smiles at me with her street-sweet mouth while enchantingly kneading my big toe. “I never imagined you would be claustrophobic.”

“I’m not,” I say. “I just couldn’t go in there.”

She says, “I imagine it would be unpleasant with the condensation from all those bodies clinging to the plastic walls and dripping from the ceiling.”

Shuddering proverbially at the thought, I pour another vodka into our plastic glasses. We are alone in the first class compartment, late on a weekday evening, flying across the green Jutlandish countryside, and we have voluntarily removed our shoes and placed our feet in one another’s laps in order to play with each other’s respective toes. I get the better of this exchange for her feet are feminine and pretty, nails polished a shiny plum, whereas my own are damp, black-sock drab.

Brown eyes glistening, Nora says, “Pay more attention to my toes. Stop composing the letter in your mind to that Danish woman organizer.”

“I’m not,” I say.

“I can see you are,” she says.

She’s right. Feeling compelled to justify my behavior, I have drafted a mental letter and am now into the second revision, but for some reason get waylaid thinking about Johan Herman Wessel, a Danish poet of the Romantic era who wrote two lines that I covet: I sing of–but no; I am not singing, I am saying it quite directly/Though so direct neither can it be said to be. I wonder if Johan Herman Wessel would have gone into the air sculpture.

 ***

Back in my tiny Copenhagen apartment, Nora exhibits her proficiency with the milk of human kindness by unbuttoning two buttons of her blouse and smiling that street-sweet Nora smile with her little pink bow of a mouth.

The vision of her cavalier passage, as the Danes call it, takes my breath away. When sufficient of it has returned, I say, “As the great bard Fergus said, I see a land where I could bury my weapon.”

She likes that. “Are you feeling tit-elation?” she asks and undoes another button. “After all,” she says, “what’s a little cleavage between friends?”

 ***

Quite early next morning, I rise while Nora is still snoring quietly as a cat, and I quietly unburden my heart to the computer in an email to the sweetly-smiling Århusian young lady. I suspect that she will reply with passive aggression—that is to say with no reply. Though I know I should know better, I wish to state the facts as I see them in writing to her. Air sculpture indeed! After clicking “send,” I worry for some half hour about all of the possible repercussions of my behavior. One is not supposed to act like this in Denmark. One is not supposed to be noticed in even the slightest unfavorable way. Denmark has an ingrained culture of polite imposition. If one is noticed in an unfavorable way here, other people continue to smile at you, but when you are not present, their eyes meet at the mention of your name and slight smiles beak their lips. This is, of course, complete paranoia on my part, and I know it, but indulge it to the point that I imagine myself drummed out of the Danish Writers Union, the Danish chapter of P.E.N., the Translators Federation, and the Danish Speakers Guild. Perhaps my green card will be revoked. Perhaps I will be forcibly ejected from this ancient kingdom that I so love. Perhaps I will lose Nora, too—turned off by the weakness of my claustrophobia and unwillingness to “be a good sport”—and I suddenly begin to think she is more important to me than I realized.

 ***

We lunch that day, Nora and I, at a semi-basement restaurant on Dr. Tværsgade named Jomfruen—The Virgin. Descending the steps into the restaurant, Nora links her arm into mine, and I think of the air sculpture into which I refused to go. Perhaps I should have gone. But I couldn’t.The restaurant is pleasantly empty—only one table taken. “Have you a table for two for lunch?” I ask the waiter, a tall west-Jutlandish fellow with a Cape Cod beard.“I think we can manage that,” he says with the slightest of ironic garnishments at which Danes are so adept. “Are you a Dane who moved to America?” he asks.

“No, I’m an American who moved to Denmark.”

“They have accents, too,” he says.

“Well, everyone has some kind of accent,” I say.

There is an intriguing dish on the menu called bakskuld—a type of flounder called dab, a flat fish. I ask the waiter how the fish is prepared.

“Now that fish would definitely be served dead,” he says. “First it is air-cured for twenty-four hours, then it is salted for another twenty-four, then smoked for yet another twenty-four. And then I fry it.”

Over the bakskuld, as I scrape the succulent, salty, smoked flesh from the flounder’s skeleton, Nora grows expansive, speaking about fractals and the golden ratio and the Fibonacci Sequence. Pointing her fork at me, she says, “Nature is described by math. Physics is an art, not a science. The way the branches grow up a tree, the way the leaves grow off a branch, the way the shell of a pineapple’s geometric patterns develop—that’s all applied Fibonacci. His sequence is also mentioned in Dan Brown, but only as a code breaker and password which belie its full significance.”

As I squeeze the juice from lime quarters onto my fish and close my eyes with pleasure when the meat hits my tongue, taking draughts of aquavite so the fish can swim down my gullet, she goes on, though I don’t understand much of it, something about the mathematical formula for a fractal including phi—ø—and the simplest explanation of Mandelbrot’s fractal formula being z = z squared + c (which is constant) which makes no sense unless you understand it as an iteration where z is a new number each time you plot it on the coordinate plane, so imagine a thousand iterations plotted on a coordinate plane, and if you assign colors consistently to the different coordinates.

“Guess what it does?” she asks, smiling with her pretty, naturally pink lips and amber eyes, I suddenly realize, the color of Wild Turkey bourbon.

“What?” I ask, wondering if what she says makes sense or if she is displaying a hitherto concealed madness.

“It creates an image that will repeat over and over again throughout thousands, millions, an infinite number of iterations…The image that recurs looks simply like: an inclined Buddha!”

This truly sounds like madness to me, but who am I to say what is mad and what physics, and I can only marvel at the sight of her intoxicatingly brown Wild Turkey eyes and her sexy pink bow of a mouth forming those possibly mad words, if they are mad, and the memory of the night before tit-elates me and combines with her madness or her grasp of physics, further combines with the salty-smoked-limed flesh of the bakskuld, and the extremely civilized and chilled taste of the aquavite, all combining to produce in me an extreme sense of well-being which is the polar opposite of what I felt when I was told that I would be reading in that air sculpture in Århus not twenty-four hours earlier, and I wish I could have been more gracious of manner when I refused to go deeper into the air sculpture, down those frighteningly zigzagging passageways into the heart of the heart of the windowless blown-up plastic castle, though I know I had no choice and perhaps it is all explained by Mandelbrot’s fractal formula or the Fibonacci whatever it is, and maybe if color-coded consistently, we would all show ourselves to be inclined Buddhas.

 ***

That evening, we listen to music. Nora puts on a Coltrane CD, “My Favorite Things,” and I watch her cross the Persian carpet to the sofa, a willowy fifty-five-year-old in black leotards, black sweater, long platinum hair, a red scarf opened out about her hips. She sits on the sofa, sidewise to me. Nearly a dozen years older than her, I realize she might well be my last duchess and how fortunate I am that she seems to like me.

Listening to Coltrane’s soprano, I think about the breath that he sculpts into those magnificent sounds, then about the way human voices ride on the breath of our lungs and are sculpted by our mouths and teeth before being bitten off and delivered on to human ears. But then, I am thinking about the air sculpture again, about whether one can really say it is sculpted of air. The various forms of the plastic material that contains the air do the actual sculpting. Well, then, I think, it is an air sculpture—the plastic material is a kind of mold into which the air is poured, so to speak, as say molten bronze would be poured into and shaped by a mold. It occurs to me that in a sense our bodies themselves could be said to be air sculptures in movement, constantly sculpting the air surrounding us into various, ever-changing forms, now a dancer, now an inclined Buddha.

I realize that I have become obsessed with the air sculpture. It has become a symbol, perhaps, of my vulnerability. In all my years of giving readings, hundreds of them, I never walked out on one before because of the conditions. Now I have. The air sculpture has set my limits; it has sculpted my will, turned me into a substance which yielded to its boundaries as surely as the air within its variety of forms does. It is still sculpting me, sculpting my thought as I sit on my sofa alongside my lover. I gaze at her.

Nora begins gently to rake her long fingernails down my bare arm, the back of my head and neck. My eyes meet hers. They are smiling with pleasure at the pleasure she is giving me. I realize that I have always wanted to be with a woman who would spontaneously do that with her fingernails to my skin, who wanted to caress me. And she, too, is a sculptor, forming, sculpting a new direction to my consciousness, sculpting a place for herself there, as well as sculpting the air in my lungs into a panting sigh.

“I like that,” I whisper.

She whispers back, “I get hot when I touch you.”

 ***

We make love as Lady Day sings from the stereo “I Wished on the Moon,” lyrics by Dorothy Parker, with the sweet reedy back up of Ben Webster’s tenor horn, and I note that her pink mouth beneath me in the dim light is at once street-sweet and tough and intelligent and ecstatic with glinting teeth, and I look into her wild amber eyes.

“I wish I had blue eyes,” she whispers.

Why?!”

“Because you’re crazy about blue eyes.”

“I’m more crazy about your mouth,” I say and touch her lips with my finger tips, thinking how strange, how could I have ever guessed that in 2010 at the age of sixty-six I would be fucking a lovely willowy fifty-five-year-old woman with a street-sweet mouth and wild amber eyes while we listen to Lady Day’s beautiful phrasings?

 ***

Next morning there is an e-mail from the pretty young woman in Århus assuring me that my train fare to and from the air sculpture will be refunded and expressing understanding that I declined to enter the structure, and couldn’t we somehow make this unlucky occurrence right again and put it all behind us? I write back immediately, assuring her that I consider it already to have been made right with her kind and gracious message and that it is all certainly behind us.

 

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of this 1935 recording of Billie Holiday singing “I Wished on the Moon.”]

Thomas E. Kennedy‘s 30+ books include novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, translations, and anthologies. Most recent are the four novels of his Copenhagen Quartet: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen (2013) and, in 2014, Beneath the Neon Egg, all from Bloomsbury Publishing worldwide. He has published hundreds of stories, essays, translations and poems in American and European periodicals such as Kenyon Review, North American Review, Epoch, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, New Letters, Southern Review, Sewanee Review, South Carolina Review, American Fiction, Frank, and Poetry Wales. His stories and essays have won an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, the European Competition, the Frank Expatriate Writing Award, and a National Magazine Award. Kennedy was born in New York but lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. Read more at http://www.thomasekennedy.com/.

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