"A Syntax of Splits and Ruptures," by DJ Lee

DJ Lee

DJ Lee

DJ Lee is a Regents Professor of English at Washington State University. She is an author/editor of seven books spanning environmental history, oral history, and British Romantic poetry. Her edited collection The Land Speaks was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. Her creative essays and reviews have appeared in Terrain, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Vela, and Narrative, among other journals and anthologies. She is currently completing a memoir about walking the Greenland Ice Sheet and a collection of personal essays that weave 19th-century poetry and environmental themes.


1. My mother and I pull into the small gravel lot and unload. At seventy-seven, she proves her strength by lifting the ice chest, but then she struggles to pound a tent stake. “Let me help,” I say. She scowls, gray hair framing her square jaw. Underneath her confidence she’s worried about her ability. I see it in her tense muscles and furrowed brow. I feel it too — what we lose as we age.

“I raised you,” she says. “It should be me guiding you, not you telling me what to do.”

“It’s true,” I say, and I hug her.

Her eyes shift to the desert sage and beyond, to Spiral Jetty, the 1,500-foot-long by 15-foot-wide earthwork sculpture that we’ve come to see. Just now, it looks like a medieval curl, dark and ironclad, lying in a bed of white at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. But I know that as the day unspools, the jetty will change.

2. Spiral Jetty is a recurring destination. I’ve come here for each of the last six years, even though it’s hard to get to, sometimes requiring several flights and a long drive on sketchy roads. The artist Robert Smithson arrived here from New York City in 1968 not knowing what he would make, but as he sat in the place, it seemed to tilt and whirl, and he knew he had to create a spiral. Smithson made a film about the jetty the year after he completed it, which I saw at Chicago’s Art Institute in 2008. One segment shows a dump truck moving some of the 7,000 tons of black basalt into the water. Another follows Smithson as he jogs around the jetty, white shirt blowing against his thin frame. He speaks compass directions and describes the landscape as an incantation: South by southwest: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water. The directions change twenty times — once each for the sixteen quarter winds and the four cardinal winds — but the landscape stays the same: mud, salt crystals, rocks, water.

3. Our tents are up. My mother and I stumble down a steep bank through parched thistles to the sand. The land flattens, and the jetty becomes a sort of path. We step onto it and pick our way among the rocks. I’m aware of waiting for her and of not wanting her to notice my waiting. Every time I visit Spiral Jetty, I’m amazed that it’s still visible. In 1972, two years after Smithson finished the earthwork, the lake rose and covered it, in some ways foreshadowing his own disappearance the following year when he died in a plane crash. The jetty didn’t fully reappear again until 2002 when the lake receded. I’ve seen it wet and dry, snow-soaked and windblown, but never with the lake this low.

Just as my mother and I reach the center, we see something moving on the lakeshore half a mile away. Watery and vague, it seems to be a branchless tree. It wiggles closer and we make out a man wearing a life jacket and sailor cap.

“You have to go swimming,” he says when he reaches us. “You just float. It’s miraculous.”

“Let’s do it,” my mother says, eyes sharp black, purple fleece jacket flapping in the wind.

“I don’t know. It’s so cold.” And I pull my sweater tighter.

4. I’m not entirely sure why I come to the jetty so often. Partly it’s the form, the counterclockwise swirl, its symmetry and beauty. I’m drawn to things that fold back on themselves, like the winding stairs of genealogy, or how I have the same upturned nose as my mother and my daughter. But who isn’t? Fibonacci’s numbers, the geometry describing the spiral, coil inward and outward to infinity. It seems natural that we’re drawn to spirals. They’re organic, found in pine cones, mollusk shells, and the cochlea of the inner ear. Some of the most extreme aspects of our lives, from the super-small to the ultra-massive, are expressed as spirals, like the double helix of DNA and the gases and stars of galaxies. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the shape infusing all existence. “The world is not a total present, like a circle in space,” he wrote, “but a manifest Spiral or Infinite Helix in time & motion.” Possibly, the spiral is the very signature of the universe.

5. My daughter Steph introduced me to Spiral Jetty when she was taking art courses in college. I had tried to talk her into a practical major like computer science or accounting, but she resisted. We developed a joint fascination with the sculpture. One year when our spring breaks coincided, I said, “Let’s go see it.” A mother-daughter trip.

We left from my house in Washington state. The audiobook of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I happened to be teaching, played as we drove. Proust, a writer’s writer. I’d become obsessed with how he wrote consciousness onto the page, captured the mind’s subtle noticings, how it registers a certain impression — the way the light falls on a church alter, for example — and how that impression changes or vanishes altogether, only to reappear and change again. I found incredible delight in those shifts and turns.

Steph, face pressed to the window, wearing her long brown hair like a hood, didn’t seem to be listening. Her new love called every hour through Idaho and Utah. I could hear her lover: “Why are you doing this with your mom? She’s so possessive, it’s weird. Do you love me?”

“Of course I do,” Steph said in a soft tone.

“Don’t leave me! Promise?”

“I won’t leave you.” I noticed how her smooth, twenty-two-year-old face had suddenly changed, small creases growing where she’d one day get wrinkles.

Over the speakers, Proust’s narrator, young Marcel, was peeping through an open window at Montjouvain in the fictional village of Combray, the home of M. Vinteuil, a composer known not for his music but for his devotion to his daughter. He had unfailing belief in her goodness, though she broke his heart shortly before he died by entering into a relationship with a cruel woman. I listened as Marcel spied on Vinteuil’s daughter and her lesbian lover, then felt a hot sting as the lover mocked Vinteuil, said she would spit on his photograph, and called him an “ugly old monkey.”

In the seat beside me, Steph almost smiled. In the novel, the lovers closed the shutters. I turned off the audiobook.

“What’re you doing?” Steph said.

“I’m tired of this.” Although I knew she was slipping away, I did not know that a year later she would disappear.

The Wasatch Mountains bubbled around us, snow-covered and glossy. “Grandma said I should major in art if I want to,” Steph said as we turned onto a dirt road. “She said she had to quit college when she became a mother. She said I should go my own way.”

I handed her the map. “Can you direct me?” We’d lost GPS and Wi-Fi. My mother took her side in many things, and that was fine, if a little painful.

Steph proved a reliable navigator, steering me this way and that as we came to several forks in the road. We drove for miles through grubby pastures dotted with rickety barns, then bumped over a cattle grate, turned a corner, and suddenly, with nothing to prepare us for it, there was the sculpture.

“Oh my God,” Steph said. We leapt out of the car. Hazel mountains floated above a strip of horizon where land and sky met in a smear of blue. In that dreamy space lay the jetty, a heart wide awake in a sweep of mud and water.

Steph bounded down the hill, hair snarling in the wind, kicked off her shoes, and strode through the mud. I followed. We walked for an hour. She noticed how the sand and salt curled into the hollows of the basalt that formed the jetty. I told her I’d read in a field guide that the sand is mixed with brine shrimp excrement and calcium carbonate from the lake bed, which makes it unusually coarse. She started grabbing handfuls and letting it slip through her fingers.

“The sand will eventually bury it,” she said, resigned. But the way she fell to her knees and played with the sand indicated she might like to see nature take its course like Smithson, who saw poetry in the processes of mineral disintegration. Those processes inspired him to create the sculpture, though they were the very ones that would one day consume it.

Beyond the lake, the sun silvered the sky and wispy clouds crept in. “Time to go,” I said.

“No,” Steph said as she wrote her name in the mud with a stick. “Let’s stay with it. We came all this way.” I sensed she needed relief from her lover, and maybe from me too. We walked several more hours, the horizon turning to fire. Soon, a washed-out gray-green spread over the landscape. As we drove away, she said, “Isn’t it sad he died while it was still submerged?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but he knew it was there even if he couldn’t see it.”

6. Perhaps no two artists were so obsessed with the spiral as Smithson and Coleridge. For Smithson, salt — “a spiraling crystal lattice” — was the rhyming structure of his earthwork. Coleridge reached for his earliest memory of climbing a spiral staircase in a mansion near his childhood home of Ottery St. Mary to explain creative form. The staircase traveled upward and outward with “landing-places” or moments of reflection. Art should have an energy that excites the mind, he said, like the motion of a serpent that pauses, regresses, gathers force, then moves forward. Because Coleridge understood aesthetic form as a struggle toward unity, he might have seen that striving in Smithson’s desert sculpture, but Smithson emphasized the opposite. “Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures,” he wrote.

7. When I say Steph disappeared, I mean that she suddenly cut off all contact with family and friends at the demands of her new lover. I knew she was in Vancouver, Canada, but I didn’t know from day to day what she did or even if she was alive. At first, the pain of her disappearance had me banishing any thought of her. Reading a book in bed brought back her tiny body pressed so close to mine I could feel her breathing, and I would have to close the book. Oak leaves on the path I walked near her old high school summoned her and her friends as they rattled into our house and raided the fridge, and I would have to run for home. When a waitress who had Steph’s long legs and broad shoulders told me she was traveling to Spain for the summer, I saw my daughter locked in an apartment somewhere in Vancouver, every move scrutinized, every opinion criticized, and I pitched into a black mood, mind spinning. After a year, I gradually let myself think of her again, let myself miss the buttery scent of her skin, the late-night phone calls asking how to sew a potholder, and even the self I had been before she left. And I wondered if she might have felt fragmented by my life.

She was ten when I began leaving her while I traveled to England to research the British Romantic poets. I still recall the summer I dropped her off at my mother’s house in Spokane. My mother, I knew, would keep Steph busy sewing clothes for her and my father’s border collies and binge-watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but the worry wrinkled on Steph’s small brow as I held her before I left stayed with me.

I flew to Cambridge, where I rented a room in Jesus College to study Coleridge. I immersed myself in his notebooks and became enmeshed with him, his dream of seeing the birth of the planets, “the position of their circles & Ellipses,” or wondering about “those Whispers just as you have fallen or are falling asleep — what are they?” I made my way to and from the library, aware of the precariousness of wanting to get close to the poet’s life while remaining close to my child. But distance tinged every minute with ambiguity. Was it right to leave her?

8. Stone Age spirals carved on rocks across Europe, China, Africa, and North America suggest the first human writing included this pervasive symbol. Spirals can be a way of structuring writing too, a way of seeing from multiple points of view. Repetition with a difference. Some of Coleridge’s critics point to his twisting forms. M.H. Abrams describes The Rime of the Ancient Marineras a “circuitous journey,” where the self the poet starts with is not the one he ends with, and George H. Gilpin calls his poems spirals that allow the poet to find his place in the larger universe. When I began writing about Coleridge and Smithson, I wanted a form that tumbled from one world to another but also stopped at landing-places.

9. “Come!” My mother pulls my arm, trying to convince me it’ll be fun to swim in freezing salt. “Any wounds you have, they’ll heal instantly.”

“Great,” I say.

We wind around the jetty and back to our tents. A group has pulled up in a van, three women in their twenties cooking soup on an open fire. “Where’re you kids from?” my mother asks.

Their flouncy dresses billow. One in big sunglasses says, “Lithuania.”

A man emerges from the back, tattoos covering every inch except his face. “This is a magical place,” he says. “We had no idea it was here. We just saw it online, so we turned off.” We nod, and my mother continues talking with them.

I take the chance to walk the hill behind our tent, flushing out jackrabbits as I go. Spiral Jetty is a swirl of calligraphy from up here, Smithson’s message to the cosmos. In 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, which fascinated the artist as he was designing the jetty. I was ten at the time, old enough to grasp the moon walk as something unprecedented for Earthlings, a new connection with the beyond. I squint at a pelican swaying into the wind, triangular beak lobbed against the afternoon sky. Directly below, my mother slips into her tent, swimsuit in hand.

10. During my time at Jesus, I stayed across the courtyard from the room where Coleridge had lived as a student. A man with gray bags under his eyes occupied Coleridge’s room, and one day, he invited me in. “I always thought it was a fine room because of the windows,” he said. “It has two windows, you see.” He explained that Coleridge would’ve had more light than other students, who had only one window. I equated that extra light to Coleridge’s brilliance. I’d found a splinter of insight about the poet that no one else knew. I held it in my closed palm, proof that being in that faraway place was necessary.

11. Sand turns to mud as my mother and I walk to the lip of the lake. Here, the ground’s thick and white. A salt glacier. “Are we really doing this?” I say, catching my lower lip with my teeth. “Maybe we just dip our toes in and see how cold it is, then swim tomorrow?”

“It’s now or never,” she says in a broad smile. The water laps her ankles.

I wade out. “It’s like a hot tub,” I say, surprised.

“I wouldn’t go that far!”

The water carries us out until we’re chest-deep. We pull up our knees and let our arms hang in a T, floating without effort.

“Didn’t you bring Steph here?” she says.

“Yeah. That’s why I wanted to come with you.” One summer when my mother watched Steph, I returned to find her hair in dreadlocks. “Grandma doesn’t make me brush my hair,” she said, newly defiant. If I had to mark the moments that led to her independence, that would be one of them.

Microbes tinge the water red. We can’t see beyond our breastbones. The setting sun throws a spotlight on us, turning everything to liquid gold.

12. Vinteuil, his daughter, and her lover emerge throughout In Search of Lost Time in the most ephemeral ways. At a party, Charles Swann hears a sonata and follows its melody as an inexplicable happiness washes over him like “a curtain of sound,” opens his soul, and catalyzes his feelings for his lover. Later, Swann encounters the sonata again, but this time it fills him with suffering at having lost his lover. Still later, he finds in the music a strange tenderness toward the composer, whom he images having suffered as he has. Yet Swann has no idea the composer is Vinteuil, a man he knew from Combray, nor that Vinteuil’s suffering stemmed from the cruelty of his daughter’s lesbian lover. But the reader knows.

13. Two years into Steph’s absence, I contacted her through email. I said I wanted to take her to dinner. Our birthdays are two days apart, and I thought she might let me visit. To my surprise, she agreed. I drove to Vancouver, checked into a hotel at Lonsdale Quay, and sat on the edge of the bed waiting for her to come. When she called after a few hours, I picked up the phone too quickly, only to hear her say she couldn’t meet after all. Her partner wanted to take her out alone, and she had to comply. I could hear conflict in her words and in her pauses, resoluteness with tenderness underneath. No matter how much I wanted to see her, no matter how hurt I was, I didn’t want her to suffer, so I said, “Have a great time.”

I wandered the quay looking for something to buy her. If I could just leave her with something, maybe the trip wouldn’t be a total failure. At an outdoor stall I spotted a bone ring in the shape of a spiral. The proprietor, a small, gray-haired woman, was showing a knife to another woman wearing an oversized brown coat. I picked up the ring priced at five dollars.

The proprietor turned to me. “This is the first human symbol,” she said. She squatted, hands wrapped around her ankles, head against her knees.

“A fetus?” I said.

“Yes,” she said as she rose. She turned back to the woman in the brown coat, but that woman was gone.

“Karma,” the proprietor said, returning to me. I was puzzled. “Knife stole,” she said. She told me she usually kept the knife in a glass case, but she’d set it on the table when I came along. Now it was gone, along with the intricate beaded scabbard. She tapped the edge of the table with her dainty forefinger.

“Who took it?” I asked.

“Probably that woman.”

“That’s terrible,” I said, feeling her loss. “I’m so sorry I distracted you.”

“Nooo,” she said. “Ileft it out. Karma’s like that.” She said she bore some responsibility for the theft because to leave an expensive item unprotected was bad karma for her, for the woman who took it, for the knife, and for me.

I gave her a twenty, thanked her, and pocketed the ring. I left it at the hotel front desk and wrote Steph an email telling her to pick it up if she wanted.

14. I carried the idea that Coleridge’s two windows played some part in his genius for a long time. Then one year I bought some used copies of his letters and pieced together his Cambridge days. He was just eighteen when he arrived at Jesus College in 1791. He came in the middle of the night, disoriented and lonely, a mood that lasted. “Cambridge is a damp place — the very palace of wind,” he wrote, and likened the college to a workhouse. In his room, he spent a lot of time sick, “nailed to the bed.” The light from his double windows, I realized, meant more to me than to him. He never mentioned it. Instead, he wrote about the mud clotting the streets and alleyways and swirling through the River Cam. Every direction he looked: mud, which he associated with the desolation he felt. I’ve wondered since if mud didn’t play some part in his creative process.

15. Mud is the language of land and the basic material of creation — sacred clay. Smithson talked about “cerebral sediment,” about how the brain’s climate carried a certain dampness. Both mind and Earth are in a process of continual erosion and transformation. That muddy process, I suppose, is partly why I’ve come to the earthwork on a regular basis. Psychological erosion, the wearing away of narratives I have about myself as Steph’s mother, and about her as my daughter. The jetty seems to balance nature and art, mud and light, to turn desolation into stillness for a few short hours. A syntax of ruptures, and in those ruptures the possibility of return.

16. Vinteuil’s sonata haunts Swann and the narrator, Marcel, for years. Then one day, Marcel encounters a second piece by Vinteuil, a septet, and he’s caught off guard. It is the most original sound he’s ever heard. Piercing and intense, it tears through the air like “the mystical crow of a cockerel, an indescribable but shrill call of the eternal morning.” Even more startling is its source. Vinteuil’s daughter’s lover, he learns, the woman who had caused the composer such suffering at the end of his life, has pieced together thousands of his manuscript fragments to create it. This music, its ability to turn psychological pain and cruelty into exquisite sound, is the novel’s great revelation, the point at which Marcel finds his life’s purpose: to write, to do what Vinteuil had done, spin sorrow into gold.

17. Steph was gone from my life for almost four years. And then one day she called and said her relationship was over. “I feel like I’ve escaped a cult,” she said. And like a cult victim, she was disoriented, lost. Within days my mother and I drove from Washington state to Vancouver. We met her at a hotel because she feared going home. When we arrived, she was wrapped in a bathrobe and her wet hair was curled into a towel. Still, the first thing she wanted was to go for a walk. But it was my mother, her grandmother, she wanted to be with. She dressed, and they strolled for hours along the cedar-lined streets near the Seymour River while I stayed back. I had no idea what they discussed, and less about the bond they had developed over those summers I was away. And I didn’t care. All I knew was: she was back.

18. My mother and I have bottles of water. When we emerge from the lake, we douse ourselves, but it’s not enough. Salt runs down our arms and legs. We stroll back to our tents and eat dinner watching the mountains purple in the twilight. The salt has now dried on our skin. Our bodies are pages across which thousands of crystals spin.

Proust wrote toward the end of In Search of Lost Time that we journey not to find “strange lands” but to “possess other eyes.” The journey to Spiral Jetty is both. Mostly it is a strange land, a place of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and water. But sometimes, for a moment, it nudges me into seeing with new eyes.

The wind moans all night. I’ve left the fly off my tent. Above, the half-moon blazes like a bright pelvic bone, and I step out for a better look.