BLUE BURLAP THING
I’M TWELVE OR THIRTEEN WHEN my parents bring it home. It’s approximately four feet tall, a large blue oval, its surface tufted and kinked with sisal hairs. The weaving is three-dimensional, the center of it emerging from the wall like a pair of lips turned vertical.
My mouth is good with Polish sounds. I can pronounce easily the artist’s name, Mag-da-len-a A-ba-ka-no-wicz, and these weavings she produced in the 1960s and early ’70s, which made her famous, called A-ba-kans. Most Abakans would be too large for a private home, many the height of a wall or taller, best suspended from a vaulted ceiling in a gallery, their shapes held open with taught wires, carefully positioned hooks.
Blue Orchid, as our piece is titled, fits well enough in the foyer, the first thing ambassadors, journalists, local contacts will see when entering. My father hangs it himself. And we stand before it, a few feet away from the blue pursing of its mouth. What do you think, my father asks. I am used to this question. Family folklore has it that my first word was “picture,” that as a baby I lay on the ground and made variegated designs from the lint of the rug, small fingers plucking pieces of colored fuzz, placing one against another, my own design created on top of the Persian carpet underneath. I often go with my parents to the unheated studios of artists, examining watercolors pulled from stacks, oil paintings with their fresh and glistening strokes, saying which ones I think are best.
The acquisition of Blue Orchid is not in itself much of a story. My parents are well-known here at the galleries in Warsaw—these American diplomats who are building a fine collection of contemporary Polish art. Let us know, they ask the dealers, if there’s ever an Abakanowicz available. One day, my parents get a phone call. We have one for you.
What do you think, my father asks again. I am staring at the woven folds, the shifting blues, the soft and roughened texture. Despite its scale and hue, I recognize what I am seeing. Vagina, I tell him, it looks like a vagina.
In that entryway, when the front door opens, an angled bar of light from outside falls against the facing wall. The sunbeam slides, narrowing as the door is pulled shut again, moving across the bent surface of Blue Orchid, hard lines diffused, rippling over the fur of the flower.
Light is softened by its contact with Blue Orchid, but the weaving is also changed by its interactions with day. In summer, Blue Orchid’s blues seem speckled with green and yellow. Polish winters—soot-gray, clouded-over—turn Blue Orchid to petals somber in mourning.
In evening, Blue Orchid goes darker than the darkness around it. Both presence and absence, it seems to jut from the wall and collapse inward.
Neither light nor its absence is neutral.
After the artist’s death in Warsaw in 2017, The New York Times runs an obituary of more than 1,300 words: “Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sculptor of Brooding Forms, Dies at 86.” One photograph shows an enormous weaving, Red Abakan, displayed in The National Museum in Wrocław. It looks like the big sister to Blue Orchid, the same pursed outline, the same lack of embarrassment at what its body expresses.
The obituary recounts Abakanowicz’s various periods of development, her early work with the Abakans, the burlap sculptures of human creatures she created in the 1970s and ’80s, her movement into the use of bronze and reclaimed tree trunks, the installations of anonymous crowds of people that define her later years. But no matter the medium, she attempts to evoke “the weight of political oppression, the desperation of the individual and the sufferings of the natural world.”
These days, I think a lot about my vagina. I say the word vagina and its many synonyms.
On the television, a shot of an American boulevard filled with people walking. The crowd bristles with the anger of placards, signs stapled to wood. A blur of movement. The crowd, shifting, stopping, stepping, is pink and its many variations.
There must be thousands of heads cushioned in pink hats, knitted, crocheted coverings. Pussy, they are called.
Most blue orchids are white flowers dyed. I watch a video on the internet. A woman makes what she calls a wound on the spike of a Phalaenopsis. She soaks a piece of cotton in blue dye and wraps it around the open cut. By the next day, the tint has traveled up to the inflorescence—the flowering part of the plant—white petals already veined in turquoise.
I wonder why Abakanowicz chose to make her orchid blue. Unnatural hue. A color that comes from wounding the stem, foreign pigment introduced.
To live with a piece made by a great artist is to interact with excellence in an intimate room. There is no barrier. No pane of bulletproof glass. No velvet-roped partition. No sign warning, Do Not Touch the Art. About Abakanowicz’s early work, art historian Michael Brenson writes in Art Journal:
To enter the ‘Abakans’ and to remain inside them is to listen to darkness, to feel the soft fabric as skin, to allow the sensation of interiority to become a condition. The interiors, or voids, of the ‘Abakans’ are like independent organisms with realities of their own. Abakanowicz makes the invisible as essential—and as sculptural—as the visible.
I enter Blue Orchid as a way of meeting other darknesses.
Every day when I arrive home from school, I stand close to the weaving. I place a hand on the place where the lips meet, there where the tone shifted from pale to navy. I feel along the seams. Sometimes I slide my fingers inside Blue Orchid, until I can press against the wall behind it with my palm. My arm is eaten. I am shoulder-deep in textile.
I do this for years.
What kind of violation is it to touch the woven labia? Do I invade the art? Am I forgiven because in entering Blue Orchid I enter myself?
For nearly seven years, I serve as a faculty member on a college honor board. Most of the cases of sexual assault come down to questions of consent. What is it? How is it given? How is it taken back? When is someone incapable of giving it?
We read timelines. We speak with witnesses and the respondent. Almost always we discuss drinks consumed. Beer or hard liquor. The time between shots. The slurring of speech. Standing or sitting or passed out.
Once, a young woman wakes for a moment and then wakes again in the daylight, her memory like a light shut off in a locked room, a torn condom wrapper on the floor near her shoes.
Once, a woman lies beside a sleeping body. She doesn’t know how to pull the panties up from her ankles. There’s a bruise the shape of a thumbprint on her wrist. She stays for hours in his bed.
Once, a woman feels hands squeezing her breast. Fingers clamping her nipple. Hands shoved between her legs.
Once. There are so many onces I lose count of all the times I’ve said, This was the most disgusting case so far.
Every day on the news, a new violation. An actor. An anchorman who says good morning to millions of women. A senator. A president.
Consider the women’s work of those pussyhats—each one a small, knitted opening, made by hand, the pattern a simple rectangle folded and stitched. But in the crowds of tens of thousands, the hats are more than themselves. They are the conversation of genitals and gender and color, of what is vulgar, of what excludes, of what is kept out or in. Larger, they are a pink Abakan for a later century.
Pinched between my pointer and thumb, the weaving has the thickness of a woolen rug. If I hold a portion of Blue Orchid and pull, the material stretches a bit. But the thing isn’t fragile. It feels like a rough garment, dense enough to keep out December winds or the wet snow that comes in January. “All the ‘Abakans’ resemble clothing,” explains Brenson. “Some suggest the black robes of a peasant priestess that, even without her, would preside over and become the sanctuary of a transformative rite.”
When my parents hang Blue Orchid in our residence in Warsaw, so that it is the first thing people see when entering, they are telling me, There’s nothing to fear; there is no shame here.
Some guests laugh when they see it. The Poles—even the Jesuit priest invited for dinner—lift an eyebrow, impressed. Abakanowicz, they say. My best friend gasps, covers the shocked O of her mouth. Vagina, I tell her, vagina.
To look at Blue Orchid every day when I come home from eighth grade is a transformative rite. Eventually, I learn to stare back, to gaze at even the cleft, the dark hairs that curl. I learn to ask: What is beautiful? What is obscene? What is worthy of my consideration, my critical eye?
For twenty years, I try to write about Blue Orchid, the blue shadow it cast across my adolescence.
When I discover installations by Abakanowicz in Prague, New York, DC, the bronze bodies seem as if they’ve been put there for me to find. One February, I walk between the hard shapes of her Agora, at the southwest side of Grant Park in Chicago.
Later, in my fourth book of poems, I write:
Because every crowd at times
seems cast in iron, a roughly human
shape repeated, these nine-foot figures
don’t so much surprise as reassure:
this is the city. As if by agreement,
they lumber about while standing still.
Some are turning toward the park,
and others face the street. Except,
above the chest there is no neck,
no face for facing anywhere.
We might say they’ve lost their heads.
The Polish artist and her assistants
polished each by hand, some bodies
modeled on the surfaces of bark
and others mottled fruit. If this
were a photograph or a sketch
of a mob scene, we would miss
how small the installation makes
us feel, just as citizens must have felt
when standing beneath the marble
colonnades in ancient Greece,
columns like sequences of soldiers
or long tallies of the dead. Indeed,
the artist (we learn from her statement)
has molded the countless in metal
or clay, the public square of history,
where a throng can shift from politics
to shopping to the sharpened end
of a flagpole. All forms are rooted
in concrete. Some sink. Others
try lifting metal feet to walk away.
Standing among them it’s clear we’re
much the same—three-dimensional
from the front, and from behind
the dark relief of hollowed trees.
Blue Orchid isn’t here in this poem. In fact, what I say about Agora feels in every way the opposite of Blue Orchid, hard and inflexible metal where the weaving is soft and pliable, distancing to the blossom’s openness. Blue Orchid is a single body. Singular. Agora is bodies and bodies and bodies, all of them stripped of the specific, of clothes, faces, genitals.
If I type the words “Agora” and “Abakanowicz” in a search engine, the internet will show me dozens of photographs of dozens of iron figures stepping forward. A crowd of photographs. Photographs in the many hours of the city.
Photographs from fifty angles at fifty times of the year. Narrow photographs. Wide lenses. Close-ups of metal feet. The variations in the photographs so minor as to make all the pictures alike.
Like Abakanowicz, I am distrustful of large groups. In another article by Michael Brenson, this one appearing in The New York Times, the scholar explains:
Her music is shaped by the traumatic memory of this century. Her figures without arms and heads and her scraped, even flayed wooden poles are reminders of the violence of World War II, which she experienced as a child. Her head-size, baby-size and adult-size sacks heaped on a floor or against a wall suggest concentration camps. Her stumpy tree trunks are clear references to the violation of nature. Her anonymous crowds waiting for orders are images of obedience under hard-line ideological rule.
I prefer the quiet enclosures of the Abakans to later pieces like Agora, monumental gatherings.
I attend a rally in the small city where I live. Several thousand people show up on a Saturday morning to circle the square. The same pink caps. The same signs stapled to wood spikes.
Although this is not a gathering “of obedience,” I can feel nonetheless my own isolation among the moving figures.
I stay an hour—but the crowds, the crowds—then walk to my car a few blocks away.
That afternoon, I fold myself on the couch, beneath the soft creases of blankets, my dog curled like a gray stone against my legs.
My parents have been trying to sell their apartment. The realtor emails to ask for some changes. Another lamp to light the kitchen. A table moved from the entryway. And can they please hide the blue burlap thing that’s hanging in the living room? A number of prospective buyers have said they find it distracting.
My mother says her only concession to the realtor’s demands will be to close the orchid’s lips. I am amazed to learn that the lips are poseable—how much Blue Orchid still has to teach me after so many years.
I wonder what would make the Abakan less of a distraction. Should we seal the lips with a row of enormous safety pins? Sew the petals shut with a piece of red yarn?
My father says, I’m not going to try teaching these people about art.
And where does the realtor want my parents to put Blue Orchid? In a closet? Under the bed? What is the appropriate hiding place for a large, woven vagina?
And more questions. Does Blue Orchid get her period? Does Blue Orchid experience drying? Yeast infections? Discharge? Pain?
Is the weaving ever aroused? Does she ever long to be rejuvenated? Does she worry about her smell?
Now I have made Blue Orchid fully female. Although, wasn’t she always?
Recently, I try to write about Blue Orchid again, this time as a sonnet:
The weaving hung inside our entryway,
held by a pair of hooks, a Rorschach test
made three-dimensional, its disarray
of petals, its anther unsuppressed.
Some called the art obscene. If what we saw
was what we thought we saw, then this was body
blossoming, split lip, an inkblot maw
that could give birth to us. I loved the gaudy
beauty of a thing most often small,
now four-feet tall, dyed sisal bristling.
My hand desired it. And in that hall
I often touched its stigma, the thistling
of its fibers, the hooded softness there
that felt so much like my own skin and hair.
The ideas seem right here. The weaving as a test of seeing. As a way to assess the viewer. The weaving as a way of knowing what we believe about ourselves. That I loved Blue Orchid. That I learned what others thought about the hiddenness of women’s bodies by observing their reactions to the Abakan.
But the sonnet? I’m less sure that the form fits Blue Orchid’s form.
Yes, both poem and flower are constrained. They find ways to exist within stricture: the frame made by the page or that made by the loom.
And, yes, they both belong to tradition. Those fourteen lines and their history, the rhyme scheme named for Petrarch, the ones for Shakespeare and Spenser. Or the custom of turning blossoms into a woman’s flowering. Think: O’Keefe. Think: Mapplethorpe.
And, yes, the sonnet is a small place in which the poet might consider love, or faith and the divine, might mourn the loss of something. And these same topics have sometimes been assigned to the intimate landscape of the vagina.
But, here, what feels less appropriate about my use of the sonnet is the form’s ability to make complexity appear simple, to smooth out what is wiry and wild. When I regard Blue Orchid, I understand that nothing has been disciplined. In fact, the Cartesian order of the warp and weft has been curved. They’ve been shaped to the upward sloping of the labia, the little indentations of the clitoris.
For years, I try to write about Blue Orchid. And here is the weaving again, casting a blue shadow across these words.
In me, Blue Orchid evokes only tenderness. Even now in this year, it is not a pussy to be grabbed but a beautiful cunt, both holy and hole and whole, soft and fleecy. Blue Orchid invites a respectful gaze. I no longer touch the weaving, except in memory or imagination.
In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry explains how poets and writers use language to construct objects that have dimensionality, weight, and movement in a reader’s mind. Scarry cites the essayist Joseph Addison, who writes of the “special love we have for ‘the concave and the convex’ because those shapes are sympathetic with the shape of the eye itself…[S]ince many blossoms have this very shape, and like size, shape surely contributes to the special imaginability of flowers.”
And it is true. I don’t need to stand before Blue Orchid any longer to picture its sympathetic shape. Anywhere I can close my eyes and summon an indigo arching. Devouring or pushing out. Mouth of the world.
JEHANNE DUBROW is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Dots & Dashes (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition. Her work appears in New England Review, The Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas.