by Robert Lunday
out now from Black Sun Lit
When you look intently at the landscape, it imprints itself on your face. You see the world with your entire face, with the entire physiognomy. Physiognomy’s not only the sense of an entirety, the shape of a discrete thing in the mind, where inner and outer coalesce, but also the sense of the remainder that surrounds that discrete object.
But how to frame it? Sandor Gilman writes of patients with a double physiognomy – seeing oneself with a deformity, altering the countenance away from it – making a mirror, a dark mirror, out of one’s insanity – a mis-measure from one side (say, the doctor’s) or the other (say, the patient’s). The rest of us suffer from inanity: face like a gray cloud raining down its rich resentments.
Life’s of photographic origins. The first soul was a pigmentation, a living scar – indelible, bacterial, body coterminous with spirit: soul the exact body. Some legs, for example, evolved into jaws. The mouth has its ways of traveling. See the food-trap mask fronting the brain: outfoldings of the stomach, which is an engine of the feet and hands: faces that are mostly mouth, mostly open, mostly inside yawning over the outside – threatening it with consumption, or worse, irrelevance.
Smell was the first soul. Turn towards the odor, swim in it backwards. But it teaches us only about the mind that surrounds us – not about the self-mind. “We must not confuse response with understanding, expression with communication.” That’s why “the nose is the safety-valve of the face, a sort of second-degree mouth”; and smell itself would still function quite well as a mind, a civilized mind, as a basis for all the arts and sciences, if the nose weren’t content essentially to live in semi-retirement, there in the chaise-longue of itself, with a good view, centrally located.
In our world, it’s more that these grimaces, these demonic refusers of the inner infinite, are beating their wings all around, alighting on the slower among us who have not properly sealed their masks. The grimace is one’s inability to accept the mutuality of face, to be a slave to the faces you make.
She sees, upon waking, her own face in the mirror, through the veil of hair. Something looks back: a force like lightning that seems the spirit’s unease, its uncomfortable fit in the facial form, in the body. She puts her face in her hands, blocking the field, closing the matrix. This is hiding, or a machined attempt at effacement. The robot will reveal itself, but meanwhile, the uncanny thrills us with simple removals and reversals.
When she woke, she seemed already made up: her cheeks rouged with morning, her eyes inside eclipse-marks where the night was still passing through her; and her chthonic beauty, the bottom teeth gleaming above the level lip, the top teeth hidden behind the backlit clouds of her eyes.
The Genome, a face entirely inside and outside at the same time. Gnome: secret inhabitant. Beauty-mark on the race.
Beauty an axis: what turns, moving all forward, generative, blessed. A balance, and in the balance a nose, a plumb, a center. Stature, said Montaigne, is the only beauty of a man: gyroscopic balance for those who stand their ground. The center knows the boundary intimately. They meet not on the surface but in the depths, where root and tendril cross, scribbling existence. Balance against chaos: cosmetic gestures, sun and blush. Most of the cosmos is eye shadow: dark matter, the gravity of bedroom eyes, dark rounding the light.
A balancing act. Looking at the face is taking a measure of all that the world can fit into us in one moment. It’s not beautiful, because beauty’s the line between memory and immediacy. Menelaus chased something triangulated between himself, his tribe, and the gods. Helen was beautiful because she was no one’s, not even her own. She was the glint of immortality on the turning edge of a mortal frame.
Her greeting was her beauty, a sense that all was possible; saving them, laying down the sacred in warm tones. Absolute; and everything else bent toward it, as lines toward infinity. The I begins in horror at itself: a momentary representation of the infinite, the moment itself that fills the consciousness with air, self-cinema.
George Santayana called the sense of beauty the immediate, across from morality and its sense of the eventual. To reach and to grasp: fair and kind, sisters under the skin. “The beautiful acquaints us with the mental event of conviction.” There’s its danger: better the turning, just missing its full effect, and escaping us, leaving the beautiful-in-memory that’s fair without face, sunlight in the back of the brain.
Iris descends from heaven to urge Helen out to a sight from the walls, the assembled familiar faces of the Greeks – an image of now, to supplant the tapestry of the recent past she has been hand-filming in her palace rooms to see what’s now. Yet only in memory do the soldiers come alive in her exposition to Priam, naming each glorious figure, there on the plain. She enters her own veils, which lathe her exile into the air; veil on veil, so that she seems to walk out of and into herself’ (though we’re tempted to deny she’s there at all). In H.D., Helen in Egypt:
the incomparable host
with Helen and Achilles
are not dead, not lost;
the isles are fair (not far)…
…her metonym, for she’s fair and far in this alternate myth. Wound into the original,
a simple spiral-shell may tell
a tale more ancient
than these mysteries
so that past and present overlap, like the veils.
(H.D., whose name is a mask with slits, but allowing sharp, bright light as from white sands; her poems put a blush back on the hard stone of antiquity, arrange the living vinery and blossoms around it; and the consequent shadows, lifting and falling in imitation of the veils.)
Beauty the zenith of expression. “A pledge of the possible conformity between soul and nature.” So much of being human keeps its home on that “possible.” “Pledge” to the American ear is “covenant” (covering) – a space, a real estate. America the Beautiful – we try to fit all the ugliness into the the, but it seeps out. America’s the poem writing itself between the county roads and the interstates, in the side-streets, the sluices.
“The test of beauty is what it cultivates.” Memories not of the face itself, but of the gaze. “We must labor to be beautiful” – cultivation, manufacture, and birth.
On the ramparts, there – walls that are not yet in flames:
– she stands, a small figure, though Stesichoros and others placed her in Egypt at the time (land of infernal ironies). Could she have been in both places? How much beyond the face comes out of the face; or, how the beyond adds beauty. Somewhere just past sunset, for beauty’s the power of turning: the pre-cinema, the fiction of movement as old as the human. The underworld was always first and foremost a revival theater.
…the power of turning, cusp of being where it borders annihilation…
…she was not stupid; perhaps a bit fatuous, deliberately, and almost always instantly forgiven. But why, on the other hand, does Homer put her grief-song last? Perhaps because she was the cause: fate’s face, at a distance, full on the horizon, framed by the bluest skies, the calmest seas.
Is she not amoral? But morality’s the spirit’s perspective on where it was. The superlative of beauty, something so general it can be mistaken for the eventual, sees itself as always where it was. And so for Yeats, she’s the grandmother of the epoch about to end, the two-thousand-year face of power-without-knowledge. And following, power joined to knowledge: techne. The engines of the coming Christ are awesome; but history is merely the eddying of time around a faultless face:
with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire.
With beauty like a tightened bow…
for courage must be equal to desire. One’s own face, too, is to be sought after.
Equivocation’s her authority: not that beauty is truth, but that it follows nicely enough in that direction, to be continued. Maybe the most beautiful thing is the absence of fear. She speaks nostalgically, but to weave her different, contradictory selves. Her existence is the face of certainty about the present.
Though she was veiled, the beauty itself could not be veiled: modesty a pure veiling, a gesture, glamour still beauty’s original order or grammar; modesty merely the profile of her sparkling nakedness after a bath, the profile just that instant entered as you glanced. The shadow of the alcove has barely asserted itself, and still tricks your eyes with the glitter of what you think you might have seen: the beauty, full-face, as it were, though written in profile.
Helen’s face, though immediate, is not simultaneous, but occurring in duration. Attractiveness, beauty’s root and purpose. Conferring life in two directions – a circling back. A sovereignty, although she herself, there on the walls, is merely the dangerous boundary between sovereignties. We see only if we have the faith of seeing. The faith of seeing’s in memory, memory concurrent with seeing in the present: and in the future of futures, where is the mind that nobility made simple as a fire? In our beautiful machines! So symmetrical now (now from where I am in the future of futures, dizzying height, where the hand no longer leaves a trace on what it makes. And no more believing: no more tenets, no more taking).
For Helen is recessive: a vague longing for the past, velleity towards the future; the confusion of general and particular; a shadow of calculus, mathematics of balance; attractiveness in its name a movement toward something nowhere/everywhere: compositeness, averageness, where face meets sky.
Her perfume was the sense of something just the other side of dying. Beautiful poison, beautiful to the deeper brain beneath seeing, where only an odor of the world gets in: nostalgia, the way home, the past with a thatched roof.
A race of beings, warriors, made of parts, even their souls made of parts, fragments tumbling toward a fame of death, one dying moment of being more than an armored clatter of parts: Helen, for these men, was wholeness. This warrior, the being whose desire is focused like a spear already thrown: no fantail of potentiality, no field at all, but only the spear that arcs, falls, and marks the mortal reach.
What men carried on their shields was more real than the lineaments of their faces. The device captured their “rare conceits and gallant resolutions”; it measured out honor and promise, past fused to future. Lying was the glue. The impresa was an undertaking, an effort at being. As shield, it said: strike me, test if I’m real. In Gombrowicz’ Ferdydurke: for there is no shelter from faces except in face: the opposite morality, perhaps, from Levinas’ economy of self and other: “Nothing but face; to hell with philosophy!”
Her eyes swam in her face and her lips were their own speaking. She was any room’s complexion. Every truth began at the apex of her smile. Every thought began as a hair on her head: point without dimension, as she’s the reach toward pure awareness, shriven of all longing or regret (oh, she gives voice to the latter: but it’s only decorum: she is comportment, a living statue – or, as tradition argues, simply a ghost).
For William Sharp, composing in drag as Fiona Macleod, Helen is the superlative of both beauty and war. “What mortal can say enough about the beauty of woman to satisfy himself?” She must always turn a corner ahead of us. “For in truth there is no such thing as Womanly Beauty. Instead, there is the beauty of women.” And beauty might be all idea formed on the look away; or on the inability to look away. He speaks of a Persian poet: “Seeing what a perilous state man had brought himself into, Allah had pity. He took man’s conception of Beauty which to His surprise was in several respects much superior to Eve; and, having dissipated it with a breath, rewove it into a hundred lovely ideals.” Not beauty as abstraction, but as the physiognomy that becomes an everywhere, that will not let us escape a continual chasing after its wholeness.
Somehow what was most beautiful about her is that she feared neither past nor future, but took only the face of certainty about the present – which is in truth not enough for a soul, for we need the three faces of Prudence, a three-sided coin: we need Recollection and Foreknowledge along with Immediacy: Immediacy lacks a face without its frame of regret and dread, nostalgia and expectation. But when you’re beautiful, others think you stand alone.
Gorgias’ defenses of Helen: first, the power of rhetoric. If Helen was constrained by the power of speech, “a powerful lord,” she’s innocent. For “persuasion has the form of necessity.” And if it was love that made her do what she did, she’s innocent, because “the things we see do not have the nature which we wish them to have, but the nature which each actually has. Through sight the soul receives an impression even in its inner features.” Startling impressions enter our eyes, and linger, replacing the present with a piece of the past, or (in fear and anticipation) the future. The faces of things are not always before us. Sometimes a god’s wings beat the air, and Love, as Gorgias remembers, is a god.
Fluids flow, defining and destroying localities. Eyes make a river, a rain, lips are vermilion volcania over a living deep. Descend down to the skin, get lost over the cheekbone, a distant shadow of the ear’s galactic spiral. Phantoms cause grief. Think of Helen, here and in Egypt: as simply as the sun slides through the sky, simply to be where it is. She’s transfigured from the thousand uses of the peripheral vision; levitated in lust, fluid and plasma of dreams. Hair, a million thoughts, multiplied into glamour by a good day’s sun, before a battle.
Rilke’s Malte speaks of a woman who, like many city-people, has worn out all but her last mask: the face of desperation being the last mask of the spirit. He’s about to rush by her, there at the corner of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, for “when poor people are reflecting they should not be disturbed. Perhaps their idea will yet occur to them.” But it might be that the woman has no back to her face, because she has no past. The city has robbed her of it. The empty street is alive, and bored, and causes Malte to stumble and make noise. The woman pulls away so suddenly, her face tears away in her hands. He stares at the hands, disturbing though it is to see the inside of a face.
That faces can be lifted, like veils; like lids, pages, layers: science fiction less than it is fictional morality. Nevertheless Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face is a cinematic lyric: a father, a doctor, to blame for the destruction of his daughter’s face, dedicates his life to giving her a new one. He’s the cartoon Faust, Mad Scientist. His daughter is lovely everywhere in the film except in her face, in the porcelain of her cheeks, brow and chin; and the naked eyes. It’s never a monster-face we see, but an abstract mask: a Garbo contour, with the milk of glamour, beauty raised several degrees of generality, pedestalled on a Givenchy collar.
Anais Nin says of L’Inconnue de la Seine that it felt as if shooting into the river would kill the girl again. The mask published for her was this: a spreading to the horizon of the expression, an expression of acceptance of a moment without boundaries – as if one could live forever in the moment of dying. Not a soul, but a personhood that takes up residence in heaven or hell – concepts that aren’t about eternity at all, but the extension of one’s paltry ownership of pieces of time. Rather than this soul, the girl’s expression projects the sense of a sublime place, a place where landscape or seascape are coterminous with the face: inside and outside lower the canal locks, and transfer their contents.
Robert Lunday is the author of Gnome (Black Sun Lit, 2017) and Mad Flights (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002). A former Wallace Stegner fellow and recipient of the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Nonfiction, his poetry and essays have appeared in Drunken Boat, Gulf Coast, The Boiler, PANK, River Teeth, Agni, and elsewhere. He lives in central Texas and teaches at Houston Community College.