Kate Colby

Kate Colby is author of four books of poetry, including Fruitlands (Litmus Press, 2006), which won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award in 2007. Other published works include Beauport (Litmus Press, 2010) and The Return of the Native (Ugly Duckling Press, 2011). In 2013 she was awarded a fellowship from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. She is a founding board member of the Gloucester Writers Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she also runs a quarterly poetry series. She lives and works primarily in Providence, RI.

Rainbow Swash

Heading into the city from the south on Boston’s Southeast Expressway, you pass a large white gas tank painted with a ragged rainbow. It looks like the work of a petulant giant.

The design seems very dated, which is strange for something so minimal and aesthetically innocuous. It was created in 1971 and reminds me of the carpeting in my pediatric dentist’s office. Or a pair of contemporaneous sneakers. I can’t quite say why it looks so thoroughly of its time, other than that the uncut colors on the bright white background have a pop-art quality. (I recently learned the difference between a “tint” and a “shade”—that the former characterizes a pure, baseline color with white added and the latter with black. I don’t know how I lived so long without knowing this.)

Another factor that dates Rainbow Swash—or positions it in time, anyway—is the rumored presence of Ho Chi Minh’s profile in the southerly edge of the blue stripe. I’ve known about this for years and have tried to see it every time I drive by, but finally looked up the image online in order to locate the face and telltale long beard. I see what everyone else sees, but can’t say for sure that it’s actually there.

Corita Kent, the progressive former nun who designed Rainbow Swash, always denied embedding the likeness of Ho Chi Minh. But in 1991 the corroded tank with the original mural was pulled down and Rainbow Swash was recreated on a new, adjacent tank, with Ho Chi Minh’s supposed nose deliberately deemphasized. This change rendered the potential face less obvious in order to placate a protesting group of Vietnam veterans. Just to cover the bases, one of the painters hired to paint the new mural was an elderly Vietnamese survivor of the conflict.

Corita, as the artist was known, died of cancer in 1986. Her art is emblematic of the Vietnam War era and its optimistic design sensibilities, which bled into the 80s. The image with which she is most strongly associated is the swash-like Love Stamp she created for the US Post Office the year before she died. Looking at pictures of the stamp and the swash side by side, I notice that in both cases the rainbow’s colors are somewhat out of order, although not in the same way, and that purple is always in its correct place, like a closing bracket. There’s no indigo in optimism.

The most interesting thing to me about Rainbow Swash is the scale of its apparent imperfection—there’s a lot of precisely imprecise detail at the edges of the enormous messy brush strokes (the opposite of lapidary, which interests me equally). Challenges to everyday human scale confuse me.

Driving north from Boston, some signs of the New Hampshire border are the giant tax-free Stateline Liquor stores and the highway route numbers encased in the shape of the Old Man of the Mountain, which is the state emblem and a no-longer-extant source of pride. Prior to first seeing the actual formation, I expected it to be huge, given the scale of its local fame, but the actual series of granite ledges that formed the Old Man’s profile was so relatively small and high up the side of a mountain that from the viewing point on the side of I-93 the figure was difficult to see and remarkably underwhelming. One wanted the face to be of Rushmore-sized proportions, and yet it was so perfectly representative of small-scale New England and its subtle wonders. Still, the presence of a face was unquestionable, its craggy features underscored by an angular stone beard.

The first known sighting of the Old Man was by surveyors in 1805 and it quickly became a symbol of the hardscrabble lives and Puritan values of much of the local population (well, to me it’s symbolic of those things. You wouldn’t find such a big deal made of it in any other state). In 1945 the formation was designated the state emblem and it made its first appearance on the license plate and highway route signs. Ten years later it gained its own US postage stamp.

But by the time the Old Man was first spotted—or known to be spotted, by white people—millennia of freezing and thawing had already taken a toll on the formation. Fissures opened and spread rapidly through the head. That of all the potential rock visages in all the world, this so-recently-adopted state treasure was so seriously structurally compromised is wonderful to me—eons and all of human time are compressed into decades. In the 1920s structural engineers began shoring it up, first with chains, then later with cement, steel rods, protective plastic covering and a gutter to divert damaging runoff. Despite all this cheating of nature, the structure finally collapsed in 2003. Mourners piled flowers at the cliff’s base and an Old Man of the Mountain Memorial is now underway.

The idea was eventually rejected, but a significant contingent wanted to adhere a full-size synthetic replica of the Old Man to the side of the mountain. Instead, you can now pay to view its former outline superimposed on the mountain through coin-operated viewfinders. With the naked eye you see only sheer glacial escarpment, the Old Man’s features completely fallen from the face.

I spent a lot of time in New Hampshire growing up, at summer camp and on weekends at the house of a family friend who is a granddaughter of Grover Cleveland. The rambling, ramshackle house, called Intermont, was one of Cleveland’s summer homes. Lying around there were a lot of dusty objects that should have been in museums, like Grover’s wooden fishing rods and his wire-rim reading glasses, which I liked to wear around the house. Outside, there was a latticed gazebo slowly collapsing under Concord grape vines. I recently had a madeleine moment when I ate a Concord grape for the first time in many years. The flavor is musty and redolent of a time when darker shades of flavor—anise and orange zest—were more prevalent. It’s the synesthetic taste of umber and ambergris—further proof that taste, as in sensory predilection, can be dated.

Not long ago I read about a secret surgery Cleveland had during his second term to remove a cancerous growth in his upper jaw. It was a politically delicate time, amid a financial crisis and heated debate about the efficacy of the gold standard, which Cleveland fought to maintain. The operation was performed on a private yacht in Long Island Sound in an effort to evade the press and any questions about the President’s health or capabilities. A good chunk of his upper jaw was removed, resulting in some facial deformity and speech difficulties, so he was later fitted with a prosthetic rubber palate that restored his speech and appearance. In spite of the efforts to keep the operation out of the news, the story was soon leaked. Doctors claimed publicly that they were merely extracting teeth.

The malignancy and metastatic potential of Cleveland’s growth were indeterminable at the time, but he wound up dying many years later of other causes. I often think about how some kind of cancer could be growing in my body at any moment without my knowing it. In another instance of representational zeitgeist, I see seething CGI cells zoomed in on from the cosmos of the body, like in the revelatory moment of a TV medical drama. The cancer could be local, widespread, operable or incurable. I might have only a few years or weeks to live. In an instant, select bits of everything I’ve ever known or done draw up to my perennially potential diagnosis like metal filings around Wooly Willy’s chin. Un-bang of memory, five o’clock shadow on setting face. Determined whiskers.

So much of our collective cultural memory radiates from Boston, cleaving the land with fissures of history and their negative space. But deep beneath the clefts’ extremes, where the narrow light can’t reach, lie undocumented remnants of other spatial arrangements. I have a hard time swallowing that all of history’s miscarried bits aren’t somewhere collected, cataloged and available for me to sort through and piece together as I choose, into impractical placemats of broken Wedgwood, trysts, intentions and pheasant feathers. That not everything is or isn’t and there you have it.

But information is selected for survival, and the indeterminate is its critical missing chromosome—the epistemological gold standard, a free-floating pince-nez. Have to free up your head face in order to catch it. Tête à tête à tête.

With her cancer diagnosis, Corita Kent was given six months. (Nowhere can I find what type of cancer she had. Was it some kind of unmentionable female variety? The internet is made of its holes.) She continued painting up to the very end, kicking the filings around, opening purple brackets. Now only the permanent possibility of the presence of Ho Chi Minh saves the swash, makes it an indigo stripe on a barber’s pole, spiraling endlessly upwards in place.

Information is dead. What matters is the arrangements—I mean actively. I close your eyes, Cleveland, and put on your wavy glasses. They cast a diaphanous halo around us.

Between the unknown and the unknowable there’s something to do with dinosaur bones. My three-year-old loves prehistory and outer space, and while I can’t access his extemporary understanding of those places, I know I’d like to float there. If space is the shape of the universe, then there’s room and a room for everything.

Specters have only relative extents. Physical and temporal scales are inversely proportionate. Some of the time. The work of leaf-eating ants. Glaciers slowly scratch figures into the earth, calve at the cracked, insupportable ends.

Fissures also run through and connect things, with absence.

The body, its offshoots and upshots are opposites.

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