Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Rita and I entered Montford Park from Cumberland rather than Montford in the dark at 5:30 this morning. We walk through the park most days, but usually we approach from Montford. That's the side closest to our house. I realized this morning that side is also better lighted.

We set out today to do our regular route in reverse, and that brought us to the dark side of the park. I wasn’t fearful as I entered. But I was aware of how strange it felt to be walking into the park’s unlighted half. If there were danger here, surely it would be lurking on this side. So I was more attentive than usual to shadows within the shadows, behind the restrooms for instance and along the treeline.

This got me thinking, as usual, about places – about how the same place can be different places, each with a different aura, depending, in this case, from which side it is approached. Clearly the same is true depending on time of day, time of life, identity of person approaching, identity of people in the place.

Places are in this way like books, each different according to its reader. It is a commonplace to observe, that we bring different ideas, different resources, to the books we read, the places we visit. But it is important to remember. We get into trouble with each other when we assume we are all experiencing the same reality.

I enjoy the multiplicity of readings each place invites, the resulting ambiguity of meaning.

Because I am observing places I also notice graffiti, which is abundant in our town. Graffiti changes a place. Lately I’ve been enjoying the one-word poems that graffiti artists have been scrawling on walls in my neighborhood. Like places, the messages themselves have different meanings, different auras, depending on who is looking at them, when in their lives, and even perhaps what time of day: a graffito in the shadows of midnight may seem more menacing, for instance, than the same message in the light of midday.

Even the words themselves invite multiple interpretations. A common graffito is MOMS, which is a reference to the magic marker, a common tool of graffiterati, which says of itself “marks on most surfaces.” It is also clearly an invocation of moms, our mothers, our original caregivers. Thus, the mark is at once a transgression and an appeal to the one who judges and resolves transgressions (or once did, anyway). It is the multiple reading that makes the message interesting and poetic (albeit now terribly overused – someone's lately been painting MOMS on trees!).

Here’s another I’ve seen recently: TRIDE. I assume the artist is working on the edge between “tribe” and “tried.” Perhaps also "pride." There may be other references as well. Another graffito is SOIL. I’m not sure what motivated this, but I find myself thinking simultaneously of the soil of filth and the soil of tilth. And is it verb or noun?

It’s lovely what these youngsters compress into a single word (why do I assume they are young? And even as I question myself I think I am probably right, relative to me they probably are). And here I am an oldster admiring graffiti that many of my peers regard as a blight. Indeed, I'm ambivalent myself. It's still interesting.

What of the graffito NIGER? What does that mean? Is it the river, the nation, or something more sinister? Either way, the root is the same, though the meanings are world’s apart. And if what was meant was something sinister then was the misspelling intentional or ignorant?

Again I am struck that readings are necessarily multiple, and also by how much more value there is in holding open, preserving, multiple readings, multiple auras, of place or object or message, such as a graffito, rather than locking them down to one or another. The tendency to do that, to fix the meaning, erase the ambiguity, seems to miss the point, at least of the graffito.

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