Friday
Jan142011

Hinges

By Grace Dane Mazur



AK Peters/CRC Press
November 2010, Paperback
150 pages
978-1568817156

 

Reviewed by Amy Minton


 

Grace Dane Mazur speaks with an accent that is neither American nor British. Her voice shimmers in the space between continents, between worlds and eras.  She channels Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, and Katherine Hepburn while commanding a hyperbolic array of adjectives: "superb," "wondrous," "pendulous," "unquiet," "fulsome," "overbosoming."  She lectures and reads her work with the bearing of a queen.  She coddles like an earth mother, and she encourages minor mischief by example.  If you find yourself in a dark wood, like Dante did, you might choose Virgil, the light, to guide, or you might choose Mazur—the wise woman, the mothering protector, and the childlike explorer. 

Mazur’s obsession is the underworld, or rather the means by which literary, historical, religious, and mythical characters enter this world, negotiate its perils and wonders, then exit with wisdom or knowledge. The title of her book, Hinges, provides the focus of her obsession. The book’s epigraph is from Virgil’s Aeneid: "The awaited / Time has come, hell gates will shudder wide / On shrieking hinges." That oscillating piece of hardware appears prominently in a number of color plates in the book, chiefly in images of the Gates of Hell and other forbidden kingdoms. Like an art historian, Mazur points out odd details that bind the images despite cultural and chronological gaps separating the artists. What binds them, of course, is text: Greek and Roman mythology, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic writings, and even botanical and anthropological observations. When the artist offers an interpretation of one of these texts—as does Milton with Paradise Lost, Homer with the Iliad, Fra Angelico with Christ in Limbo, Albrecht Dürer with the Passions, Parmenides with the Proem—abrasively loud or destroyed hinges show up, even when there is no artistic need for the objects in the composition. Mazur asks, "What is going on with these hinges? Why do they howl and shriek in certain situations? Why are certain artists so painstaking in their depiction of them?"

In one of the meditations of the title, Mazur visits the deep, underground caverns of Lascaux, France. At the time of her visit, the caves were not open to the general public so she had to obtain a visitor’s permit from the government. The caves are difficult to locate in the fields of Southern France. They are not marked because visitors are unwanted. The gate protecting them is forbidding and heavy. Her guide is cantankerous and demanding, an old man who deliberately disorients her by extinguishing all lights when underground so she may adjust to the darkness. Or should I say that he reorients her? Her eyes must be altered to see the details in the cave paintings, details such as the evidence of a pointillist method of painting by which the artists ingested colored ink to spit upon the cave walls. Evidence that the artists used the existing ridges in the cave wall to imply an animal’s spine. Evidence that these human ancestors were not clumsy children drawing with thick crayons, but trained and exacting, capable of creating a Sistine Chapel far beneath the earth’s surface.  Mazur tells of how her stern guide turned his light to the cave wall encrusted with microcrystals of calcium carbonate.  The crystals are partly responsible for holding the pigment for 17,000 years, Mazur writes, and "the surface does not allow for erasures."  Thus began Mazur’s long-lasting obsession with the underworld as repository of artistic mastery.

Mazur’s present work as a fiction writer, editor, and instructor allows her to translate the ancient rules of the underworld to the application and study of fiction and poetry.  She guides the reader through two stories, "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield and "Music from Spain" by Eudora Welty.  In both we can find the markers common in ancient depictions of Hell: the hinges, the uncanniness, the blurred delineations, the distorted languages, the strange guides, the face-to-face meeting with Death, and the hurried exit.  Mazur also outlines what the act of reading demands insofar as our downward spiral into the works of literature:  "We want and demand to be taken in, completely.  But we want, at the end, to be able to take ourselves out of the confabulated world, to put it from us."  

Like Mazur’s interests, Hinges oscillates between science and art. Before hinging into literature, Mazur was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, studying the microbiology of silkworms. She gives a mind-bending account of the microarchitecture of a silkworm eggshell when viewed with an electron microscope:

…in cross-section, their architecture is like some mad postmodern construction of a Greek temple with a castle on top.  The planks and beams of this castle are made of protein fibers in a matrix, much like the fibers in fiberglass...  I was overwhelmed.  I would think of a story of a German scientist looking for the first time into one of the earliest electron microscopes, turning to his colleagues, stricken.  "Gentlemen," he said. "We are looking up the pant legs of God."

The book itself is nothing less than a muse. Mazur’s fluttering between nature, art, memoir, and scholarly arguments (such as the superiority of a particular translation of The Odyssey due to the use of the verb "fledge") can be quite dizzying, but that is the purpose of the muse. To disorient and reorient.  To open the mind, as if on a hinge—whether rusty or brand new. To dazzle with a view up the pant legs of God.