José Parlá: Walls, Diaries, and Paintings
The Devil is Beating His Wife (detail) © Mark Bradford
ADMIRERS OF THE DECAYING WALL, the crumbling edifice, and the forgotten ruin are many, and you can always count on a masonry enthusiast for a fancy prose style. But if you want to find a true poet of dereliction - a troubadour of the trash heap, even - you could do a lot worse than starting with Baudelaire.
In his 1851 essay, "On Wine and Hashish," the poet wrote of a city-walker who stalks the street rather than strolling it as his dandyish flâneur might, and more out of necessity than a desire for detached, delighted observation: the rag picker.
Here is a man whose task it is to gather the detritus of a day in the capitol. Everything the great city throws away, everything it loses, everything it disdains, everything it breaks, he catalogs and collects. He consults the archives of debauchery, the clutter of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice. Like a miser gathering up a treasure trove, he gathers garbage for the god of Industry to chew over and transform into objects of use or pleasure.
Baudelaire's attraction to the rag pickers's daily trudge was born out of admiration. He saw their practice as analogous to the poet's, who might spend "[an] entire day wandering in search of rhymes." But the rag pickers's "project" of scavenging - which of course to them was no joy, just everyday life - takes on an even deeper air of solemnity and grace when one thinks of them as archivists of urban ruins, smartly sorting the previously-owned material of life, foraging for what we've left behind, what has become extinct, outmoded, or unloved, finding proof of where we lived and the stories that we told about ourselves, and evidence of ways we didn't want to be anymore or have simply just forgotten that we once were. When things fall apart, you want those who pick up after you to have excellent curatorial taste....read more