Rachael Peckham

After Reading Guy Davenport's "The Death of Picasso"


Usually in a G or B flat, capable of five or six harmonics, and I've grown to dread the sound, its perfect loud-spoken pitch. I swat at Joel's hand rubbing my back, curse into pillow and poor Joel resigns to the shower: ten more minutes. I will make us late. And he will make me coffee, anyway (his too-sweet coffee), because I have given him my summer--the two of us working side-by-side at a boys' camp in central Maine--when I should be studying Ernesto "Che" Guevara's diarios for a Spanish translation exam I must pass the following fall, two years into my doctoral work. Work hustling me out of bed; work reading Che; work caring for 250 homesick boys. But I do care, am quite in love, in fact.  Rise for it every morning--for Joel, his four-year-old, Darius, and three-month-old Golden Retriever, Jack-Jack. For all four of us nesting in a two-room cabin (so I can know what it will be like someday living with them) directly across the dining hall, listening in bed for the call.


Form hurled. Not as "an operation that repressed the visibility of what was happening [but] form hurled at the viewer." This is how critic Robert Kolker explains Sergei Eisenstein's use of montage. (I am trying to write the sound of a loon's wail--it is impenetrable in language.) "It was to be visible, legible, and powerful, a way of making the viewer sit up and take notice." [1] I am no film critic, but there is something striking to a writer about an aesthetic of edits, of cutting together--two seemingly contradicting actions, but in that contradiction something happens. To cut together produces new time. For Eisenstin, it is not linear, but emotional, the montage performing time in scenes that are "discontinuous, stretched out, repeated." [2] (Somewhere between a girl's scream, and a loud door hinge.)


At camp, there are no transitions between activities, no grand narrative stringing the events together. A half-hour of archery is succeeded by an hour of cookie baking. Kids choose from a list of more than fifty activities, combinations that are endless. Set against nature, the day needs assembly, I suppose, needs a structure of blocks. I notice it, too, in Guevara's diarios, and in Guy Davenport's "The Death of Picasso": two texts composed of journal entries--word blocks on the page--stacked and placed together almost haphazardly, hurled.


Flag Raising

Davenport's essay is set on a small Dutch island, where he is working on a book, and living with a companion, a man named Sander, who "maps the island with compass and sighting sticks, reinventing geography and surveying." [3] In another time on another island in the western Pacific (pronounced Io-jima), a group of Marines form an image marbleized in America's collective memory: this is the emblematic picture of flag raising.
      Deep in the woods of central Maine, present day, some boys form a sleepy circle around the flagpole. The camp doctor checks to see if her son has brushed his teeth, throws her head back when he yawns: I guess not. There is a rumor circulating the infirmary that a case of impetigo, a highly contagious skin infection, is spreading from bunk to bunk. The staff meets. Soap must be thrown out and replaced. Towels trashed. Every day I ask Joel to look at a spot here, a discoloration there. Oh my God, he teases, and then like fathers who make fart-noises on kids' stomachs, he plants his mouth on me. But tonight I'm not in the mood. Only ten pages into Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries, and I can't go any faster, holding a Spanish dictionary in one hand, and los diarios in another.
      And so much requires my attention. The puppy has peed, has eaten, has chewed on this-or-that. Darius scolds him, hitting. Joel scolds Darius, shouting.  No hubieran comido tanto melon muchachos! Ernesto y Alberto Granado are stealing fruit in the bow of a ship. At least, I think they are; they could be in a shop. Or shipping fruit. It is difficult to say, and not in the way that Davenport's "The Death of Picasso" is difficult. For starters, the diary is written mostly in the imperfect subjunctive. (Too long since I've conjugated verbs.)  "The Death of Picasso" oscillates between past and present, offers no neat translations of its Dutch, Greek and Russian passages. But the disorientation is productive, speaks to Davenport's project--Now I am shouting.The puppy has gotten a hold of my dictionary and is throwing up paper piles all over his kennel crate.  "Ah is an undictionaried word," indeed. [4]


A free internet translation site lets me punch in the words. Vrijdagheid als kameraadschap maar dubbelzinnig genoeg: men moet een gegeven knaap niet in het hart zien. [5] A language calculator, a post-modern machine, this site, and out pops the absurd like a burnt piece of toast, no toost: "Friday-driven as friendship but ambiguously enough: one does not have to see a data knaap in the heart." A Steinien, Tender Buttons feel, it has. And my favorite, Moedernaakt, waarachtig, met een starende blik op zijn penis. [6] "Mother nude, definitely, with a staring can on its penis."
      A staring can on its penis--I rather like that, will sit and think on that can for a second.



We eat quietly, some of us still quite asleep. I sip Joel's too-sweet coffee, pull my sweater tighter around me. We exchange a knowing glance when someone at the table asks us why we're so tired. As if they don't know. We have a lot of sex, I want to say. It's circulating around camp that Joel has brought his girlfriend up here to work alongside him--Joel, who was made a widower less than two years ago and is already involved with a woman ten years younger. Joel, who does not appear to be grieving enough by everyone else's standards. Yet, people appear to be supportive. Slap his back, shake my hand. But you never know what they're really thinking, unless you happen to walk by their cabins on nights when they're sitting on porches, talking, gossiping.
      For the most part, our days at camp end at 9:30--"lights out" time--and on days we're "on duty," at midnight.  I am assigned a bunk of gregarious, giggling eight-year-olds, and on nights when I'm in charge of their sleep, Joel brings a backpack full of stolen cookies and CD's to play on the porch, sitting with me until my male co-counselors come to relieve me of my duty. On these nights, I don't care what anyone says.


12 Germinal. 13 Germinal. This is Davenport's journal structure. Germinal. What is that, a friend asks the other day in a campus coffee house, the name of a month? Do you speak Dutch? No, do you? Beside us, a toddler with long hair and a coat like a dress plays Scrabble, throwing the pieces at the legs of our table, scattering W E E (always so many E's). The significance of letters dropping at my feet, divorced from meaning, is not lost on me. I return to Davenport, re-read the same damn page because I am distracted, or because this essay's structure lends itself to a disruptive reading that Barthes would see as productive: "a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations" in that moment of looking up. [7] But I am looking down, at W E E and the Bohemian child with the long hair. I write the three letters in the margins, beside Davenport's 12 Germinal, and try to assemble a word out of them. Ewe. I am satisfied. My friend, later: That was a boy?



Back in the cabin, Joel reads to me Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps." To remind me there is pleasure in reading. But the poem in Joel's mouth only entices me to make love--his agenda?--not read. I put down los diarios for the second time that night.

The next morning, Inspection at 9:15 sharp. We pull back covers, find candy, books, toys and more toys, and sometimes feces. When it's your own kid, it's different. Since coming to camp, Darius has wet the bed several times. His cries stir me awake; my sleep drowns out bugle calls, but I am so attuned to the little body asleep in the next room, won't let Joel within a foot of me until I can hear Disney rewind and automatically shut off. (Is he out? I think he's out.) Hours later--after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies--Darius is sitting up in wet sheets and crying for Joel? Me? His mother killed in a car accident? I nudge Joel awake, and he is up so fast, mechanical, changing sheets and shirts. When the clean piles run out, between us he goes, this little, startling muscled body/ this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making.
      If I can't fall back asleep, I read. Ernesto y Alberto are fighting again--over a wipeout on the bike, over a dinner of mate on another frigid night, over the money Ernesto is hoarding for the bathing suit he promised to buy his girlfriend once he reached Miami. But Ernesto, he's so fragile with his illness, his asthmatic condition--contradictory or characteristic of the strong fighter in him?--and Alberto hugs his friend's feverish body on the bike, or shoots his arm up with adrenaline in the fits of asphyxia, or stands at the shore of the river damning and praying for Ernesto all in one breath, please just make it to the other side. That is how I read it, anyway.


So much comes to mind--een herinnering, una recuerda--my toddler brother clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder after he fell in and we searched the house for him, my mother registering the thought and running running towards the pool, diving in. Babies can hold their breath underwater even before they learn to swim, an instinct carried over from the womb. Memory itself as montage, the thought occurs to me now.


Activity Call

Third period. Swim instructional for the kids who don't pass the swim test. Joel and I are sitting on the camp's dock, kicking the lake's surface and squinting at treetop peaks, at osprey nests so high I worry about the yearlings falling out. And I think of the way Davenport writes "The Death of Picasso"--in fragments and sketches--while managing to evoke a clear sense of the scene around him: "Fog until almost noon. Wild glare in lakes over the sea. It has been but a month from putting in the eight-by-threes, treated with creosote and laid a foot and a half apart in the long northernish rectangle of our cabin's base..." [8]


I am assembling. Davenport and Sander in one cabin, myself and Joel in another. Davenport is writing a book; I am reading one. In both, questions of nature and civilization. For Davenport, "civilizedly as savages," [9] with the narrator handling a camera aimed at naked another, out in the open, tourists approaching: "Golden smile, glans roused and uncapped, left hand toying with pubic clump, right fist on hip. People, Japanese and British, Toyota executives and bottlers of marmalade, rounded the corner..." [10]
      For Guevara, the opposite. In search of the savage. Best-Friend-Alberto takes a picture of Guevara in hospital scrubs and full ridiculous beard--proof that they are roughing it. Lástima que la fotographía no fuera buena, era un documento de la variación de nuestra manera de vivir, de los nuevos horizontes buscados, libres de las trabas de la ‘civilización.' [11]
      In one shot, Joel and I have escaped camp for a night--to Bar Harbor where his parents have given us a hundred dollar gift certificate to a charming B&B--and I am in my swim suit & the jean shorts he can't help but run his hands underneath, rubbing the crease where cheek meets thigh. We set the camera's timer, position it on a fence, & snap a picture of the two of us embracing, kissing, on the B&B's porch. A photo that now sits, framed, in my childhood bedroom de los nuevos horizontes buscados at my parents' house.


Free Swim

Below on water, we admire a white-throated couple, chicks riding piggy-back on the mother. Loons mate for life. A sentimental song. A storm will come up over the mountains, water roiling without so much as a warning, and in between thunder an eerie yodel--untranslatable, something else--as they're calling out for each other. They're like us, like people, Joel says. The sound echoes throughout the camp, scaring the kids, the way my childhood sleep absorbed the sows' squeals from barns down the road.  Joel, hands clasped above his head. They're divers; you won't hear a splash, so look for the concentric pattern, and wait. There have been tales of loons swimming underwater for five minutes at a time and half a mile or so underwater. Apoyé de nuevo mis sueños en el regazo acariciador cuando volvía a oír de nuevo la advertencia del mar. [12]  


Montage. Translation: "the assembly." With "The Death of Picasso," the reader must stitch together the narrative, use the blocks to build a meaning. But the essay requires a cornerstone, an occasion on which to build. For Davenport, Picasso's passing, the death of a genius. It earns its own journal entry: "18 Germinal: We hear on the radio that Picasso is dead. He was ninety-two." [13]
      11 February 1948: Eisenstein dies of a brain hemorrhage. He was fifty. Legend has it his brain was preserved for science for its abnormally large size--a sign of genius.
      4 January 2005: Davenport, art-genius, friend of Pound and other geniuses, dies of lung cancer in a small Kentucky town. I read somewhere that he liked to eat fried Oscar Mayer bologna with Campbell's soup.


The builder Eisenstein might shoot "20 Germinal," might block the scene with that Catholic genius, Picasso, at "wine bread, table," [14] showing it again--with slightly different position--and then again, and then see how it plays against Sander masturbating under a tree in the rain, "his streaming eye." [15] Not a natural progression, no organic order ("For Eisenstein, the shot was raw material and the montage the film artist's tool," writes Kolker) but for a dissonant effect, for discord.  Davenport's project, too? I'm not so sure. There is a continuity--at least seasonally, emotionally, the way Eisenstein saw time: germinal --> floreal --> prairial. Not Dutch after all, my friend, but French for seedtime --> blossom --> meadow. But you were right; they are months, indeed, in the French Republican Calendar:

The months in order--beginning with one corresponding to the Gregorian months of September and October--were Vendémiaire (meaning "vintage"), Brumaire ("mist"), Frimaire ("frost"), Nivôse ("snow"), Pluviôse ("rain"), Ventôse ("wind"), Germinal ("seedtime"), Floréal ("blossom"), Prairial ("meadow"), Messidor ("harvest"), Thermidor ("heat"), and Fructidor ("fruits"). [16]

      By this translation, "The Death of Picasso" takes place in March, April, May, then. The Season for Lovers, for Rebirth. I am wont to say "Resurrection" next, but the French Republican Calendar favors "a more scientific and rational system." [17] Only Reason. But what of this Sander character, and his suggested sexual addiction, alongside Van Gogh's plugged ears at Gauguin's bawdiness? What reasoning are we to draw from the pairings? When Davenport writes of finding Sander, eyes streaming, sex erect, he repeats over and over "Itard's Victor...all the way to the cabin." [18]
      We are always translating.



Round the kids up, rope them in, head check, head check again, and if even one is missing the search begins. My mother running towards the pool, diving in.  These little boys, so homesick for their mothers--they're going to fall in love with you, everyone says when I announce my summer job, but I find that their mother-ache mirrors my own.
      "The pathos is one all teachers feel, all parents." [19] Montage is all pathos, all for moving the audience. Een herinnering, una recuerda: I watch my twelve-year-old brother cut a path in the grass as he drives the big red lawnmower. He sings to a cassette player, headphones cupping his ears while he makes rings around the yard. My mother and I hear at the same time what sounds like a scream, look at each other wide-eyed and mouth agape, and because I can't bear to run outside and see, I tell her I'll call, and as I'm dialing the last -1, she is running running to the rhythm of baby boy, baby boy baby boy--singing to his music so loud over the shrill machine. He's singing. And it echoes a scream like a loon's cry.



The campers bang thunder on the tables for chicken cordon bleu--their collective favorite. The meal is more about power, a concession on the part of the staff. Nevermind that on Visiting Day (when the parents, on foot, swarm the camp's driveway), shrimp cocktail and gourmet desserts are served. Feasts fit for royalty, and most of the families are--American royalty, that is. Last year Schwartzenegger's son. This year, a Rothschild's kid. And they all want chicken cordon bleu. A chicken doughnut.
      Even the occasional feast leaves Ernesto y Alberto hungry for something more--women, booze, dancing. Algo baboso y salado conimos, pero no distrajo nuestra hambre, ni satisfizo el antojo de Alberto... [20] They manipulate the townspeople (read women) with innocent-enough appeals: We are doctors, on a tour to help the leper colonies of Latin America. It works. Ernesto forgets his girlfriend and the hoarded bucks for her bikini--or rather, he does not forget, but despairs after receiving a letter announcing the break-up. And all the while, Alberto pines after a prostitute on the ship's deck, begging Ernesto for the bikini money. Please, compañero, please give it to me. At least, that's how I read it.


Rest Period

We spend it making love in the bathroom. Standing up, gripping the sink. While Darius watches cartoons.


Color War

Camp is divided into two "Native American" tribes, Gray and Maroon, led by "chiefs" regaled in head-dress and war-paint. The political incorrectness is so blatant, Joel and I make up a Racial Insensitivity Award for the day. I sit out during most of Color War, read in the cabin, or on the bus ambling towards camp after a trip to see the seals in Camden Harbor. Shift slightly in my seat when Ernesto witnesses the cruelty and mistreatment of the Peruvian mountain Indians at the hands of Civil Guard soldiers. Treated worse than animals, he notes. When Alberto points out to a young Indian boy that one of his steers' horns is stabbing another's eye, the boy shrugs his shoulders: "Pa′ la mierda que le queda por ver. [21]  I have no idea if my interpretation is correct, but it moves my daydreaming to a place the Eastern Abenaki Indians hunted and fished on, now Camp Manitou. The Abernaki, who lived off porcupine and beaver in the fall and summer and moose and caribou in the winter, trading furs with other tribes for cornmeal and tobacco. [22] Where are they now? The book falls in my lap, Joel tipping my head against his shoulder. I dream of birds that cover the lake solid, and I must maneuver around them as I swim.



Sometimes we sneak out--the three of us--and go to McDonald's to buy Darius a happy meal, a respite from the table-banging-for-chicken-doughnuts. Other times, we skip dinner to play. Joel shows me how to swing a baseball bat. He watches me run the bases, the puppy nipping my bottom, charging home plate.
      To avoid hitting a cow, that's how they went down.  La Poderosa (The Mighty One) wedged between rocks like a weed, grazing the cow's leg. La pobre Poderosa. The adventure not over, Ernesto y Alberto cross into Peru on foot, missing their bike, its feminine article.


Evening Activity

"Warmer, and with an earlier lifting of fog." [23]  Joel's dad, Joel Sr., stands, his back to the lake, addressing the entire camp. A history they should know. Centuries later, just as World War I broke out in Europe, Dr. E. E. Gillette would choose the lakefront for a fishing lodge he built with a stone from each of the 48 states, plus every element then known -- including gold -- embedded in the lodge fireplace that still bears his initials. (Not included: Shellshocked in the war, Gillette was committed to an insane asylum, and he never saw the camp again. [24])  Joel Jr. sings a few songs on the guitar, closing the ceremony. I want to stay and listen to his sweet tenor, but Darius is restless, asking to go back to the cabin. We walk. Up the hill, I listen for my lover's croon, barely audible now.


The camp's slogan, "A Good Time Had By All" (now, "Summer Never Dies") and I wonder if Gillette would be pleased, or if the slogan is a mockery of the alienation the death he felt, despite the love and sweat and efforts of his creation, this camp. He built a community, and then was committed. Wilderness. Institute. Crazy as a loon.
      "I tell [Sander] that he can go back to Amsterdam anytime he wants, but to Dokter Tomas." [25] What voyage does Davenport imagine they are on? Davenport must know Sander won't want to go back to the mainland; Sander must know Davenport needs him to stay on the island, to help write his book. "You keep my imagination alive," the narrator says. [26]
      When it comes time to leave camp and retreat to our separate ends of the country, I tell Joel to be strong, no tears. All the way to the airport. Our boy and our puppy in the backseat. One, I say, arms folded. [27] Two. Joel retrieves my suitcases from the trunk. Three. I climb over the console to give Darius a hug. Clutching this little, startling muscled body, my laugh turns abruptly to a cry, impenetrable, surprising us both. It's terrible. Spoken in gasps--Four--"I have to find a way to get closer to you."



We sing the dirge in a hushed voice every night. Day is done; gone the sun. Davenport's last entry is dated "1 Prairial." Recovers the reason and discovery of "why the sky is blue," but ends with red Mars. Passion. In the penultimate entry, Sander smelling "hay and urine, olive and soda the pileum" on the narrator's skin. [28] Joel and I, anxious to finish the song and get back to the cabin. Only then will time return, with the television flipped on, and a beer snapped open. We'll make love under the hum of an air conditioner propped precariously in the window above our bed.
Eisenstein will bomb in Hollywood, return home to find "the Soviet...solving the sound-film issue without him." [29] I'll cut to him (Eisenstein? Davenport? Joel?) rowing out past the loons--they dive whenever we get close--clutching each other's back (kids are coming) in an anchored canoe, pulling pants on lying down, one oar floating a vector towards shore.



[1] Robert Kolker, Film, Form and Culture (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002) 50.

[2] Ibid., 51.

[3] Guy Davenport, "The Death of Picasso," The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing (Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003): 59.

[4] Ibid., 59.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] Ibid, 64.

[7] Roland Barthes, "Writing Reading," The Rustle of Language  (Berkeley: U of California
Press, 1989): 29.

[8] Davenport, 56.

[9] Ibid., 63.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Diarios de Motocicleta: Notas de Viaje por America Latina (New York: Ocean Press, 2004): 35.

[12] Guevara, 30-31.

[13] Davenport, 59.

[14] Ibid., 60.

[15] Ibid., 70.

[16] "French Republican Calendar." Britannica Online 13 Feb. 2006 <http://www.library.ohiou.edu:2166/eb/article-9035356?query=floreal&ct=>.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Davenport, 70.

[19] Davenport, 61.

[20] Guevara, 81.

[21] Why, when all it'll ever see is shit. Ibid., 121.

[22] "Camp Manitou Through History," < http://www.campmanitou.com/indepth/.>

[23] Davenport, 58.

[24] "Camp Manitou Through History," < http://www.campmanitou.com/indepth/>.

[25] Davenport, 63.

[26] Ibid., 71.

[27] Ibid., 59-60.

[28] Davenport, 72.

[29] "Sergei Eisenstein." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia 13 Feb. 2006