Nina Berkhout’s This Way the Road is a perceptive, beautifully-written collection concerning love, tragedy (both historical and personal), and humankind’s ability to inhabit the past. Focusing specifically on the worlds of art and museums, the collection explores one couple’s love relationship and the ways in which the past may continue to be an occupied space long after actual historical events are over.
The collection centers around one event in particular: the explosion of the Hindenburg airship. As the surface narrative of the love relationship between Helen, a caption-writer for museum displays, and Jules, an artist, is developed, the story of the Hindenburg flavors everything with a distinct air of tragedy:
A glass artifact falls from scaffolding.
Crashing onto the floor
like a thousand windchimes cracking,
tumbling a nightingale at my feet.
(“Down comes what went up” 2)
Helen, ensconced by day in the world of the past, is entranced and saddened by the way history is selectively celebrated, displayed, and then returned to cold storage after its moment of fame has passed. During the preparation of an exhibition about the Hindenburg, she meets and falls in love with Jules, an artist of dubious temperament and undeniable appeal. His work centers upon coating found objects, generally from the past, with layer upon layer, until the original objects become quite obscured. Helen and Jules’ shared fondness for the past, and their desire that it not be forgotten, forms an instant bond. Their love is a thing of brightness and beauty tinged with unavoidable melancholy – the impossible flight of the behemoth Hindenburg like an improbable metal bumblebee; the comet-like fall of Phaeton as he streaks across the heavens to his doom.
Didn’t take long he was no common bird
no one night stand no jet of exhaust rapidly evaporating
Jules Murano was no paper cut healing within the hour
couldn’t drift away like a bored balloon
as I did with other lovers, he embedded himself
in my veins like a sand spec landing in molten glass
before it solidifies.
(“Pulling on my tendons as if cables of a hot air balloon” 12)
There is a curious sense throughout the collection of Helen and Jules’ relationship gaining a sepia tint over time, bleaching out, until their life together is as colorless and bland as the layered white objets d’art that Jules creates:
He only paints white
until the object beneath solidifies into a ghostly (ghastly
says Anna, why not just papier mâché) form
(“Preparing another still life” 13)
Whereas Helen is fascinated by the process of bringing static history to life again through her displays, Jules is actively engaged in creating the past. His art is completely focused on the preservation of objects, whether antiques or items of everyday use, and all preserved in blinding white. His belief is that white, like cold, like the north, can preserve objects and history from decay and from being forgotten:
— Jules I hate the cold, bad circulation you know that,
why this obsession with all things north?
— cold preserves, time won’t pass we won’t –
(“Don’t tell me you were layering” 21)
Just as being with Jules requires Helen to bleach the color out of her life, even to the point where Jules controls what she wears in an attempt to preserve his sterile working environment and Spartan mindset, Jules himself is fragile and suffering:
[…] You know,
Helen, a free-floating iceberg isn’t stable. Fact is, bergs flip
without warning. Saw it on National Geographic.
(“Anna in her studio, blowing technicolor bulbs” 24)
It’s part of the irresistible beauty of this book that the reader knows from the start what will happen to Helen and Jules; the underlying narrative of the Hindenburg tragedy is too strong for the reader to remain unaware. It is, however, a testament to Berkhout’s rare skill as a poet that she creates in her audience a sense of mourning and loss in spite of our knowing from the start the outcome of the story:
[…] we know
what happens to Jules and to Helen, see
the featherlamp blazing, Jules crouching in a corner
drinking something clear as hydrogen,
howling at the reddening sun like a loup garou.
So hang on to your skyhorse.
(“Ghost time our time to burn” 38)
History is something tangible, Berkhout implies, something that exists in far more than relics of clothing, china, faded photographs. It is a space that can be occupied through imagination and memory; that must be occupied, so that its mistakes are not repeated. Far too often, however, it is simpler to just box its fragments away and attempt to ignore their voices:
Like the albatross, a bird that once dominated the sky,
these giant airships could no longer reign except as ghosts
in dim museums and between the dusty pages of old books.
(“Opening night sponsored by LORD cultural resources” 66)
The reader leaves this collection with a strong sense that museums are places to be inhabited, and that it is the responsibility of art to evoke. Unlike Jules’ pieces, which in the end turn out to be empty – the original objects gone and only layers upon layers left – the past is more than a shell. It is a place in which one can walk, because what ties us to the past is not the events themselves, or the objects that remain, but the inescapable fact that human emotion is global and stands outside time.