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On Index Cards

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Reading Moyra Davey in an Age of Uncertainty: On Index Cards

An abbreviated version of this review was published in the Brooklyn Rail, September 2020

The fridge

“A well-stocked fridge always triggers a sort of atavistic, metabolic anxiety, like that of the Neanderthal after the kill, faced with the task of needing to either ingest or preserve a massive abundance of food before spoilage sets in.” We are in the opening fragment of “Fifty Minutes,” the first essay in Moyra Davey’s new collection, Index Cards.

I’m reading in a state of distraction, and it’s not long before I am called away: it’s time to decide how to resuscitate the days-old curry, combining it with last night’s pasta for bulk. We’ve not been to the grocery store for nearly three weeks, surpassing our old record. Today marks two months in my partner’s Providence apartment, worrying a groove into the floorboards.

Davey’s metaphor of the Neanderthal’s kill is fulfilled in a description of a scene from Peter Greenaway’s film, A Zed & Two Noughts, in which “he uses time-lapse photography to show an animal carcass wither away before our eyes until all that’s left is clean white bone.” This is the destiny of the well-managed fridge.

When the chaotic world is out of order, you reach for what you can control. When Davey describes the cyclical “ordering and chewing” of fridge management as her “metaphor for domestic survival,” I am paying attention.

The reader forgets her lines

The artist Moyra Davey began her career as a photographer—her Copperheads series from 1990 features tight-focus images of the American penny, Lincoln’s countenance degraded by use, devalued by the recession. Beginning in the early aughts, Davey has turned increasingly to film and text, and in particular to the form of the essay. Across media, Davey’s work is marked by an interest in the analog—dusty VCRs and worn record sleeves, like the one that graces the cover of this new book—and an engagement with literary and social history. Spending time with the work, we’re reminded that the contemporary is beholden to the obsolete, that we live among, with, and through old technologies, old ideas.

The fifteen texts in Index Cards—essays of fragmented and sustained prose, diaries, lists—were initially published between 2003 and 2019. That I am engaging the work in a charged present is never far from my mind, what with updates from the Times pulsing on my phone. It could be no other month but May, no year but 2020. While I do not think a book should be judged against the unanticipated context of its publication, I do think that we would be remiss if we didn’t try to catalogue the new resonance a work acquires in a moment like this, and that the modality of its apprehension acquires, too. I am talking about reading.

Before the description of the well-managed fridge, a mere two sentences into “Fifty Minutes,” we come to this bracketed line: “[narrator forgets her lines, begins again from the top].” We are left to wonder, who is the narrator? And what lines are there to forget? Those familiar with Davey’s work will know that “Fifty Minutes” is a transcription of the 2006 video piece by the same name, but this is unannounced in the book, and so we read the bracket as a feature of the text, along with this one in the next paragraph: “[long pause; narrator again forgets her lines; off-screen voice tells her to wait five seconds and start over].” This language of the theater and the cinema anoints the reader as the enactor of the text; she is given a role. However she decides to interpret it, she leaves this first fragment and journeys into the book aware of herself reading.

Reading the self

In addition to being among our best essayists, Davey is an essential reader of our times. Indeed, all of Index Cards could be read as a meditation on reading and its relationship to labor (creative, domestic), illness, gender, history, and selfhood. The essays are rich with allusion (Genet, Walser, Woolf, Baldwin, countless others), though the references are handled without pretension—it amounts to an honest indexing of one reader’s very good library.

Among Davey’s extensive reading list, the personal and informal are privileged. She writes of the draw of “lists, diaries, notebooks, and letters” in “Notes on Photography & Accident”; reads Jane Bowles’ “deliriously long and repetitive reflections on the minutiae of her life” in the book’s titular essay; maps the correspondence of Mary Wollstonecraft onto the lives of her sisters and a familial history of addiction in “Les Goddesses.” Through the diaristic texts of others, Davey reads herself. “[R]ecorded in an almost unconscious manner, these passages allow us to insert ourselves into the scene, to feel interpolated by the text,” she explains in “The Problem of Reading,” invoking Roland Barthes, a lodestar for Index Cards. For Davey-the-reader, the diary entices for the possibility that it might supply, from the welter of banal detail, a moment of “accident,” like Barthes’ photographic punctum, a spark of identification or recognition through which the reader encounters themselves. For Davey-the-writer, the equation is more complicated.

The fifteen essays venture into the third person but twice, and only for a few paragraphs at that. The “I” reigns. While the relationship between writer and “narrator” is not entirely simple (“Fifty Minutes” ends with a note declaring it a work of autofiction), the reader does get a sense that Davey is engaging forthrightly with a history and a politics that is her own. Any tension between Davey and her narrator, herself, animates a central concern of the collection: disclosure.

We sense greatest access to the writer in diaristic texts like “One Year,” which represents the passage of twelve months in two pages of personal detail: “Hands burning despite 0.25 Clona.” These texts invite the reader into not just the writer’s life, but her process—notes that surface in the diaries recur in more finalized form in other essays. This confers a sense of intimacy, but it comes at a price: for Davey, the “dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold on to time” is followed closely by “the anxiety of being read, the fear of wounding, and, just as strong, the dread of being unmasked.” In the “Transit of Venus,” she wonders, “Why would I want this stuff made public?” Perhaps the wager is best articulated in the epigraph of “One Year,” in a quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “[…] the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.”

Reading in an age of uncertainty

The essays in Index Cards do concern us, for Davey’s candid narration of the self, and also for the uncanny way her reading reaches out to our own.

Soon after the well-managed fridge of “Fifty Minutes,” we find the narrator reading the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg on the subway. She describes coming to Ginzburg via “Reading in an Age of Uncertainty,” an article by Vivian Gornick published in the LA Times a few months after 9/11. In the wake of the attacks, Gornick turns to the unflinching “stillness” of Ginzburg’s prose when other artists, other metaphors won’t do. She recounts, for instance, trying to cross Broadway when the light changes: “I stopped on the island that divides the avenue and did what everyone does: looked down the street for a break in the traffic. Not a car in sight. I stood there hypnotized by the grand and vivid emptiness.” Gornick begins to think the empty avenue reminds her of a Berenice Abbott photograph from the 1930s, but stops herself, “unable to step off the sidewalk into a thought whose origin was rooted in an equanimity that now seemed lost forever: the one I used to think was my birthright.” Davey writes: “For Vivian Gornick in post-9/11 New York, daydreaming about the city stretching backwards in time is a cause for anxiety, a reminder that historical continuity and the promise of a future are no longer things we can take for granted.”

I read this, I think of New York, its emptiness, and of the narrative rupture we are experiencing now. I pick up the New Yorker, which has arrived a few days late, and I find that Maggie Nelson, too, has turned to Natalia Ginzburg. In “The New Calm,” published 13 April 2020, Nelson writes about Ginzburg’s essay, “Winter in the Abruzzi,” which recounts the death of the writer’s husband at the hands of the fascists. His death, she notes, marks the “murder of Ginzburg’s faith in a ‘simple, happy future, rich with fulfilled desires’.”

This confluence, this readerly synchronicity is characteristic of Davey’s essays—she enacts it throughout Index Cards. Here, it reaches through Davey’s text to remind us that in an age of uncertainty, we read to historicize our uncertainty. In reading Index Cards amid the pandemic, we historicize the act of reading in crisis, both personal and historical.

The inability to read

“As I write this essay, the reading I do for it is a mitigated pleasure. Sometimes it feels like a literal ingestion, a bulimic gobbling up of words as though they were fast food. At other times I read and take notes in a desultory, halting, profoundly unsatisfying way.” When Davey writes this in “Notes on Photography & Accident,” I understand. It’s no commentary on Index Cards, but on the position of a reader—right now, reading is not easy, and at worst it can feel perversely irrelevant. To allay fear and anxiety, and perhaps a feeling of uselessness, one instrumentalizes reading either as a stay against time, managing down the words of a page as the seconds of a day, or else as an attempt at direct engagement with the world, to an overwhelming, impossible end.

This readerly malaise seems not uncommon. Maggie Nelson begins her New Yorker piece with the question, “I don’t feel much like reading these days; who does?” And yet, the essential draw of reading abides, and my impulse—like Davey, Gornick, Nelson—to look to my bookshelves for solace is strong. So what is a reader to do?

Taking this essay as an opportunity, I rewatched those of Davey’s films I could find online. The first thing to note is that many of the video works, particularly Fifty Minutes and Notes on Blue, are shot inside Davey’s New York apartment. With the camera mounted, Davey paces in and out of frame, the hall, the bedroom, reciting lines as they are fed into her headphones. From lockdown, these interior scenes are startling: I think of Zoom, and of the faces of my students and friends framed by their childhood bedrooms, by my screen. I hear the noise of a fan, and I remember that there are other rooms, other places. In Notes on Blue, I look through Davey’s window, through my browser window, to the adjacent building, the city beyond, and it’s as if there were an entire world out there.

There is a further sense of presence in Davey’s videos, one especially relevant to a would-be reader: while difficult to dramatize, reading is one of Davey’s most charismatic subjects. In Hemlock Forest (which also becomes an essay in Index Cards), we are treated to shots of readers on the subway; in My Necropolis, disembodied voices read and translate Benjamin aloud; in Fifty Minutes, we read along with Davey, the camera trained on the newspaper. These scenes depict reading, but it’s the sequencing of these vignettes that strikes a readerly sensibility. Davey’s videos are instructive for readers of her essays because they are edited in similar ways, the vignette being formally analogous to the fragment. Lydia Davis, in “Fragmentary or Unfinished,” writes that a fragmented text is “less mediated” than a strictly finished work, and “[t]he less mediated a work is, the more personal […] and the more private, the more closely involved a reader feels in the process of the work and the more she or he participates or feels participation in the creation of the work, whence its generosity” (Essays One, 224). I feel this readerly participation when I watch Davey’s videos, and so just as the forms are analogous, I feel that my engagement with them is analogous, too. In viewing Davey’s video work, there is something of reading.

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Fifty Minutes, 15:24, Moyra Davey, 2006

On paperbacks

In the titular essay of Index Cards, Davey relays this “tender ode to the newspaper” from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 novel, The Heat of the Day: Connie and Louie “hoard the papers, savor their smells and textures, take pleasure in the brittle sounds of pages being turned and folded, empathize with their thinning bulk in war-rationed Britain and long to feel them” (58). This account of the physicality of the newspaper makes me feel a sense of longing. I am reading Index Cards on my computer, the publisher having been unable to mail a physical galley. Sitting here on the couch, I want the accidents of reading, the noise of it.

Many of the texts in Index Cards are or have been available in print before, either as separate editions or addenda to Davey’s photobooks and exhibition catalogues: Dancing Foxes, a Brooklyn-based press, has published especially beautiful editions of Les Goddesses/Hemlock Forrest, i confess, and Burn the Diaries, all of which are included in the new collection, and all but the last of which are still in print; The Problem of Reading (Documents Press, 2003) and Long Life, Cool White (Yale, 2008), which features the essay “Notes on Photography & Accident,” have been physically unavailable for some time, though PDFs of each circulate on the internet; and in 2018, Davey won the Scotiabank Photography Award, and the ensuing catalogue features the texts of “Les Goddesses,” “Burn the Diaries,” and “Opposite of Low Hanging Fruit.” This last book, though available, is expensive, and its scale is meant to suit the well-printed photographs, not the essays, and so the pages are quite wide, which can make for an arduous read.

Beyond these editions, relatively few of the texts can be found elsewhere, and never together. The collection and publication, then, of Davey’s essays in paperback marks a new period in the life of these works—they are available for a different kind of circulation and thus a different form of readerly engagement, one that seems utterly appropriate to Davey’s work. When Davey writes of reading Ginzburg and Jane Bowles on the train, when she notes that she’s “cut Genet in half to read on the subway” or “cut [Violette Leduc] in three parts,” we know she is not reading art books. The form of the paperback figures prominently in Davey’s work—dusty Gallimard Editions in the videos and photographs, these passages about books in the prose. As such, Index Cards feels like the completion of a cycle: now readers will take Davey’s paperback off the shelf, out into the world. The paperback is sized for travel, and so it gestures to a time when we can leave our homes again. For now, with the help of the US Postal Service (which happens to feature prominently in Davey’s photographic work), paperbacks facilitate the kind of travel we can do from our apartments. Maggie Nelson writes that she reached for Ginzburg’s essay about collective precarity in times of crisis “for its stern and tender fellowship, which it delivered […] across seventy-six years and 6,331 miles (much farther than six feet away).” The book-as-form reaches across time and space to broaden and uphold the community of letters. This is engagement with a text as participation in what Davey terms the “great connective tissue that makes up our reading.” Reading is how we are social at distance.

The problem of reading

Among my favorite paperbacks as a young reader was my beaten copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I remember loving the novel, but not much beyond that—the prose and plot are lost to me. What language I do remember from the book comes from a blurb inside the front cover by Doris Lessing: she describes Vonnegut as “one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we know best.” I recall being affronted by this: who was this man Vonnegut to travel where only I knew to go? And to presume to name those places? I didn’t understand a key principle of cartography: in surveying and labeling, the map recreates the territory. To name the place we know best means to recognize it anew. The problem of reading in any age, per the penultimate essay in Davey’s collection, is always what to read. Which is to say, which text will make for the best map?

The readers in my life are trying to chart their days with the literature of contagion and plague. Intrepid friends convene over Zoom to discuss The Decameron and Defoe; I settle for their think pieces as my long-unread copy of Camus’ novel languishes on my shelf. Eschewing works of first-order topicality, I proceed to an outer valence of relevance (Ghosh on climate change); to diaries (Anne Truitt’s Daybook and Prospect); to fiction short enough to flatter my attention span, rich enough to sustain me (Davis, and Diane Williams); and then to full-scale evacuation plans (a journey up The Magic Mountain, or through Tokarczuk’s Flights, in the hope that it might provide one). What of these have I read? Vanishingly little. Instead I’ve read Moyra Davey.

I’ve returned to Davey’s films and essays year after year. As a writer, I take permission from the fragmentary form of the essays, and I admire the internal logic, the intuition of their deep structure. As a reader, I return to Moyra Davey for her understanding of the readerly enterprise, of how essential it is to creative labor, to living. She writes, “I write about being deformed and remade by things I read.” This is as succinct a declaration of her subject, of the subject of Index Cards, as one could give.

On the question of what to read, Davey is similarly succinct: “what if the most gratifying reading is the one that also entails the risks of producing a text of one’s own?” I like this formulation: to read is to risk the need to write, which is the need to think in public, to disclose. To read the past (and reading is always a staged encounter with the past) is to risk imagining the future (writing’s province).

Sitting here at this borrowed desk, I read Moyra Davey to deform a nervous landscape and to remap it, to remap my reading, and I read Moyra Davey to write.

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