Ghosts, the Grateful Dead, and Earth Room


The Review’s Review

“The Ghost in the Stereoscope,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, licensed under CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 When my wife was giving birth to our child, she saw—waiting at the door of the delivery room—her grandmother, my grandmother, and the grandmother of our sperm donor. In daily life all three of these women are dead. In the delivery room my wife’s grandmother was a reassuring presence, my grandmother—and here my wife is likely influenced by my own childhood reports—held herself at some distance, and our donor’s grandmother held a sign in the style of the airport pickup, welcoming our child. Never before had my wife felt the presence of the dead, but in the months of our baby’s babyhood they have been a recurring presence: a tiny man dressed in rags, muttering Latin by our baby’s bed; a man rocking in our nursing chair whom she first identified as my grandfather, then my father. I am scared of the dark and do not take the pleasure she takes in these appearances. But if there is satisfaction to be had from her morning announcements, it is the way they keep present, alongside the dead, David Ferry’s poem “Resemblance,” from his 2012 collection, Bewilderment. In the poem, the speaker describes seeing his dead father in a restaurant in Orange, New Jersey:

It was the eerie persistence of his not
Seeming to recognize that I was there,
Watching him from my table across the room;
It was also the sense of his being included
In the conversation around him, and yet not,
Though this in life had been familiar to me
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
Where were we, in that restaurant that day?
Had I gone down into the world of the dead?
Were those other people really Shades of the Dead?
We expect that, if they came back, they would come back
To impart some knowledge of what it was they had learned

Except for the man muttering Latin, none of the dead speak to my wife. She knows what she needs to know from their presence, from the fact that they’ve come to be near our child. Where she feels clarity and reassurance, I feel, as I do about most things, bewildered. “Unable to know is a condition I’ve lived in / All my life,” Ferry writes in the poem. Earlier in the book he quotes a letter Goethe wrote a friend whose son had died: “It’s still, alas, the same old story: to live / Long is to outlive many; and after all, // We don’t even know, then, what it was all about.” 

—Harriet Clark, author of “Descent

On July 15 and 16, Dead & Company came to New York to play two shows at Citi Field. It was the end of the summer tour for the band, which includes a smattering of former members of The Grateful Dead—Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart—alongside bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and, most notably, John Mayer. This event is, for me, a kind of midsummer psychedelic Christmas, one also celebrated alongside approximately 40,000 other people. It dissolves, at long range, into undulations of tie-dye, dancing bear T-shirts, multicolored macramé, butterfly clips, neon bucket hats, infinity slinkies, skulls shot through with lightning. A varied cast of characters fill the makeshift parking-lot-village (nicknamed Shakedown Street) beside the field: there are aging Heads who were on the road in the seventies and eighties; shirtless twenty-somethings with waist-length hair huffing nitrous balloons in the lot; clean-shaven Manhattanites lucky to be off on summer Friday, one of them talking about a friend who’d recently been indicted for securities fraud. Then there are people who are just curious about the baffling and persistent phenomenon that is the music of The Grateful Dead.

And how to describe this phenomenon, exactly, and the experience of these shows? I might say, “And then they played ‘Franklin’s Tower’ and I cried,” but that means nothing if you haven’t, like me, gotten into the trunk of a car with your best friends, two of you facing backwards while you drive through the Berkshires, watching the reverse movie of the road late at night while Jerry sings: “Roll away… the dew…” I want to tell you something about these shows that’s not just a list of songs and a series of superlatives. “Best weekend of my life,” I told my oldest friend, the following Sunday. He said, “You’re always going to these shows  and having the best weekend of your life,” which is true.  

Someone once told me that if you do anything eleven times, you’ll come to love it. Maybe The Grateful Dead is just the particular thing I have chosen to do over and over and over again. Of course, the band itself was an engine of repetition, always remaking versions of the same thing, night in night out, over the course of decades. I see the unfathomably large trove of recorded live shows as fossilized evidence of the creative potential of recurrence. Dead & Company, which has existed for seven years now, as the result of Mayer and Weir’s surprising collaboration, is itself a remaking. It is miraculous that this band exists. Since the original band formed in 1965, the near-ends have been too many to enumerate: death after death after death, countless shows and tours that everyone said would be the last. There were rumors that this would be Dead & Company’s final tour, just as there were rumors that last summer’s would be.

But on Saturday night, there was a heavy sense of finality, when they circled back to their opener, “Playing in the Band,” for a moving, closing reprise that made us wonder, maybe, if they might really be done playing in the band. Kreutzmann is seventy-six and struggled with health issues throughout the tour; Weir is seventy-four; there are certain facts that one must face about the march of time. After the show, back in the parking lot, my friends and I were elated and also bereft, considering the possibility that all good things really do come to end, that the music might have to stop some time. But then again—it’s all a reprise. In the days since, we have all been rehashing, replaying, repeating the same old songs all over again.

—Sophie Haigney, web editor

The cover of Rachel Mannheimer’s Earth Room features the choreographic score for Yvonne Rainer’s dance “Trio B: Running,” printed in neon lime green on equally fluorescent orange paper. Its interlocking lines and arrows are so thin and so blinding that they almost appear to be laser-cut into the paper, which takes on a peculiar charge in the absence of bright light. The sentences in Earth Room—a collection of linked verse and prose poems cataloging Mannheimer’s encounters with performance art, sculpture, and installation, published by Changes Press in April—form a similarly improbable architecture, built from description so clean and granular that it seems to burn its own vanishing shape into the block of text.

Mannheimer looks at work by artists including Rainer, Walter De Maria, Isamu Noguchi, and Pina Bausch with close attention to their theories of mutability—and to the changing reality of what the viewer can see, and feel. She’s particularly informed by the sculptor Robert Smithson’s theory of nonsites, which he developed while making small-scale geological works in the late sixties. In this series, Smithson transferred rocks and minerals from their natural “site” in the world—what he called “physical, raw reality”—to new formations in the museum or gallery—the “nonsite,” where he repackaged them in rigid metal structures. The text block is something of a nonsite in Earth Room, a location at which to reconfigure an art object at the smallest of scales—here, through minute description. The title of each poem deposits a trace of the object’s site in the world: Berlin, Beacon, Anchorage, Tempelhof, New York, the moon, or Mars. Mannheimer reminds us of that other definition of revision, in which to look at an object closely—to write about it—is to see all the versions of reality to which it is attached begin to come into focus. (For Mannheimer, this kind of looking involves other people—art critics and her loved ones both—and her lover’s face, in turn, is also an object of devoted study.)

Later in the collection, Mannheimer recalls the critic Michael Fried’s infamous essay “Objecthood and Art,” in which Fried disparages literalist art by Robert Morris, among others, for being “fundamentally theatrical,” somehow perverse for casting the viewer as an audience member. “But what Morris describes isn’t viewer as audience,” Mannheimer says. “Both viewer and object are dancers.” I read these poems in awe of their slowness, which, as a historically bad dancer, I thought I’d never be able to match. I tried to move with or against them as they revolved around each other like planets in orbit, first revealing one side, then another, some part of them always obscured in shadow. There’s a mathematical precision to Mannheimer’s work of gesture, even when it looks like improvisation: she calculates the exact distance from which you feel at once very far away from the thing you see and also, as she tells us, “very very very very / very very close.”

—Oriana Ullman, intern