Speech Acts for a Dying World
19″ high by 20″ wide
I thought a long time about whether to alter this quilt’s perfect original symmetry of twenty inches square. The design, by Yvonne Fuchs, called out for such a premise: neat, ordered, tidy, structurally sound. Even-keeled, if you will. But with the advent of 500,000 dead Americans from the covid-19 pandemic, our world was none of the above. We were not even-keeled, neat, ordered, or even structurally sound, given the riots in the Capitol in January over the continuing big lie of the election. I feel this keenly.
When our guild proposed a challenge, calling it Sounds and Voices, I was all ready with a design in my head of a vision of people beating pots and pans in solidarity with the essential workers in New York City, a rite that has its origins in the protests in Chile years ago: women in the streets beating pots and pans, protesting in what was known as a cacerolazo. These sounds and voices of a cacerolazo have spread to Spain, to Mexico, to many other cities around the world, but coming home to America as show of strength for those in the early days of this pandemic. Knowing now the roots of this sound, I wonder if it wasn’t also in protest: protest against our inability to take our American-made gumption and beat this thing soundly. But the virus is boss, no matter what we think, no matter how many pots we bang.
After too many weeks inside and of not traveling more than five miles from our home, I got up from the computer where I’d just seen the image above, and said, “We have to go to the beach. Today.” My husband and I had tossed the idea back and forth many times, but all of a sudden we just had to go.
We took some photos of a grandson’s quilt, had a burger at a local shop and even grabbed a few groceries at a new-to-us store: in other words, we refreshed, just for a few hours. Back home, in looking at my ideas for the challenge quilt, they too, had to change.
Less than two weeks after our trip to the beach, this awful number came into the news around me. You all know the statistics: how many more dead than our wars or combined wars, how many families with that proverbial empty seat at the table, how this number will not stop here, but keep going. And now I realized that I would change the quilt’s dimensions and purpose, making it 19″ high (for Covid-19) and 20″ wide, for the year 2020, when our pandemic started.
I started quilting while watching QuiltCon lectures.
This quadrant is about the noise: sounds, voices, getting larger and more obstructive. It’s the daily statistics, the numbers, the news, the anxious waiting for vaccines.
This quadrant has the wind, clearing my mind, corralling the noise and sounds into a restricted space, even though they try to expand. The starfish is on the beach, a transition between the offshore refreshing winds, and the ocean calling out a rhymthic hushing of the clenched ennui in our world.
Beach at the top, descending into the sea, with lots of shells, some of which I brought home with me.
I thought I was done at this point, but I kept thinking about all the references to hand-work and stitching at QuiltCon this year and last. How do I stitch a shell? A starfish? Questions with no answers are my needle and thread.
This quilt is in memorium to those who have died, and the title is taken from a poem by Peter Gizzi. I spent a long time with this poem, using all my rusty creative writing/reading skills to tease out the meanings from his words. This section shown is the final set of stanzas. It references voice with its “whole unholy grain” and I took grain to mean the quality of it, the chorusing of voice, but then he cuts to an allusion of paradise, that place where the dead will congregate after death. Grizzi carefully charts the passing of time with his naming the constellations in the sky: a hunter, a bear, all undergirded by the “sound of names,” calling out for the dying, the naming of those who are sick, or gone, or merely absent in a rest home or a hospital.
He ends the poem with the line “the parade of names,” a bell-like tolling, a constant recitation in our obituaries and our news stories, a clear marking of those leaving this world for the next. It’s this era’s verion of John McCrae’s classic poem In Flanders Fields, a short poem about the dialogue between the dead and the living, a reminder of those buried there, keeping watch yet battling onwards, wanting us to
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep.
While their enemy was about territories, and the next war’s was a horrific grinding of ideals and democracies under the hand of one small man, we must catch the torch, and not break the faith, no matter what our foe. Death is death. Those who are gone can never come back, yet are alive in memory and stories, fragments of lives told with the sound of our voices.