I have no idea how many letters have passed through my hands in the last two days. Hundreds and hundreds of pages – ink: fountain of course, blue, black, red, even aqua, and pencil too – paper: all types ranging from thick cardstock to linen, to sketching paper cut into long ribbons, and miniscule squares with bird-like scratches made with a sharpened pencil. And the penmanship is outrageous – perhaps because they are written by artistic hands unable to keep up with ideas and emotions, rivers of domestic details like the state of one’s dinner or one’s health, and the landscape – the luminescence of the moon, the bite of a wind, the fear, uncertainty, longing, teasing and flirtation. I finally had to quit at five pm; the personalities of Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz were starting to swirl in my head, become real, and because I was reading them in chronological order, I felt like I knew what was going to happen to them and they didn’t, their letters expressing their innocence of the great upheaval that was to come in their relationship, the pain and sorrow, and abandonment. Finally, I picked up the box I was going through and carried it back to the librarian, asking her to keep it for me until morning. “It’s too much,” I said. “I’m exhausted by their lives.”
I arrived yesterday morning in New Haven. An early train and cab brought me to Yale. And it is very beautiful. Every structure is brick, stone, carved, curved, rooflines are peaked, windows are stained glass or diamond crosses, the church bells ring and chime delicate, surprisingly sweet melodies, iron gates open into courtyards, pathways are large, trees too. It is so historical it almost shouldn’t be allowed to accommodate the young except maybe history majors. During the day I am at the Beinecke Library, a building built in 1963, its exterior supported by four points, and its interior shaft housing 160,000 rare books and manuscripts including a Gutenberg Bible. It’s a bold building, windowless, quite daunting actually. There are a lot of rules once you’re registered to use the materials. No pens, water, coats, cell phones though laptops are allowed. No notebooks with coils but pads of paper are okay. Today I took off a shawl that I had draped across my shoulders because I was getting too hot and I was told I have to wear it or put in my locker. Another time I was holding one of the letters in my hand and I was told that the papers were to be kept flat in their folder and I was to touch it minimally. Of course, it made sense, hand oils and such, but I was gone so far into the contents that I lifted it up, angled it for my eyes as if it was written to me.
All of the correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, business and personal, is kept here, I believe it’s over 200 boxes and each box could easily hold 100 letters. I am most interested in the letters that Miss O’Keeffe wrote so I have been concentrating on hers. It is astounding how many, often seven a day she said, and often at least two of them to the man who would become her husband. Though, if we compare daily output of emails today perhaps this is not so unusual and a keyboard is much easier on the hand than a pen. Her handwriting is almost illegible to me but interestingly she uses the page like a poet: lots of white space and dashes; even her thoughts are like glimpses, the briefest of scenes. She bounces all over seemingly with no thread to tie it all together for the reader but somehow it is tied together by her own personality. I find that she reaches forward, almost off the page, looking for answers to her life. She is stirred, restless, uncertain, bold, daring, insulting, truthful, angry, apologetic, flirtatious. She is often cold, mostly her hands. She has trouble sleeping or trouble waking up. She says often she has nothing to say or she writes she is feeling alive. She knows she is different from other people, thinks they are stupid, and wonders what they think about. She is lonely yet loves her aloneness. She is depressed or feels brand new. What she feels surprises her. The discovery of herself is her greatest joy and she is self-absorbed. She writes in fragments, on scraps, on folded scrolls, on letterhead and there is such an energy I wonder why the paper didn’t catch on fire.
I am falling deeply for this artist I plan to fictionalize, even though she hits children across the face when they displease her. And though, I’m not a great admirer of her work, I am an admirer of the woman and the landscape of her vision.
Last story. A man walked into the library this morning with a few friends. Not sure what they were doing there; they didn’t seem to go through the rigorous id check that I did. It seemed like they might have been looking for a particular young woman who was leafing through a medieval text of some sort. The four of them huddled around the priceless book, whispering. The man was asking questions about it and the dark haired woman was answering. When a security guard approached the man and instructed him to keep his ipad on the table not on his lap, he smiled and agreed. It was James Franco!
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