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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 4, December 2013

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Charles Tarlton
Oakland, California, USA


Art and Memory: On Stanley Pelter’s “Arc Walk”

The tension at the center of Stanley Pelter’s “Arc Walk” occurs where the vectors of art and memory intersect. On the line of art, the first four tanka mainly consist of brief portraits of an (old) man shaving, of his looking in the mirror, raising the chin to stretch the skin on the neck, a tight “high” smile to reach whiskers on the chin or under the nose. He soaps his face, strops his razor, and checks the edge with a thumb (or so I imagine).

Between the tanka in this chain, prose passages trace in a progression the ultimate failure of (the same, another?) narrator to capture the subject’s interesting way of walking on crutches—the “arc walk.” After the first tanka, the simple aspiration to draw the subject is announced, “but not like this. Not sitting at a fractured table, Not eating. Not even when he shaves . . . .” After the second tanka, the desire is refined—“Want to draw him in motion,” but it is hard to do, the subject moving away and changing. After the third tanka, the subject shifts to “His walk. It is that I want,” and the memory of that walk and its uniqueness contrasted with more ordinary “mass produced straight line walk . . . .” After the fourth tanka, we come to the heart of the matter. “His walk is different,” the narrator says, “a reality of rearranged motion.” The narrator’s own way of walking (straight line, efficient, dull) “lacks potential for awe.”

And we are at the center of the poem now. Here is the walk the frustrated drawer of the piece yearns now hopelessly to capture with a pencil.

Wherever he goes 2 wooden uprights land in front. Crutch landing. Swing. Siamese twins. Not always. Getting on a bus is a different mishmash of connections. Successful, wing-through line is weighted balance with a circular rhythmic interior, is non-lineal propulsion. A sweeping motion, it is an arc, somewhat like an upside down rainbow, the bottom half curve of a full moon.

A dramatic mood shift takes place in the fifth tanka. Here it is:

ice cold river
blurs spaces
between front and back
beyond its ripple surface
single leg reflection

An old man on crutches lingers in that last line, but while we are left trying to figure out what the first four lines could mean in context, the fifth prose section introduces a seriously negative turn. The narrator protests the old man’s difference from the rest of us, but questions whether the uniqueness of the walk might in itself provide justification for the old man’s malady which, the narrator speculates, might just be “a motion to live with not get over, a stand-alone action that will kill him.” It may be a handicap, but in the world of walks it is something lovely to watch.

I started to wonder at this point whether a further stress was being created in the poem by the narrator’s inability to capture the motion of the walk in a drawing. There might be sufficient beauty in a cripple’s walking on crutches to justify his suffering, Pelter seems to be suggesting, but only had the narrator managed in time to get it down on paper.

The sixth tanka begins as if it was carrying forward the shaving allusion, blending it with the walking on crutches in its first three lines

upside down arc
swings cheap aromas
into adagio drifts

but then deviates sharply in the last two —

remember bombs
that explode night

The sixth prose passage contains the final lament. “Still want to draw that different rhythm,” the narration says, taking the prose progression to its last step. But, alas, that was never to be. “Then, when I drew every day,” the passage continues, “he was always in a different place, with insufficient this or that. Never did I draw his DNA strain of arc walk. Never knew it was a death sentence.”

Only now does the ironic realization come fully into view. The old man (if he was really an old man, ever got to be an old man) likely died from the same congenital malady that made his walk on crutches so interesting. Or, maybe, we could put that the other way; only its faithful rendition in a drawing, a drawing capturing all that was fantastic in that swinging walk, like a 7th simple machine, passing through its dynamic arc, might have provided some justification of the old man’s suffering and some solace for the poet-drawer. Anyway, there was something inevitable about it all. The old man was never around when the narrator was drawing; but, more than that, as the only hope lay in the executing of an impossible task (I keep imagining the same inevitable and ultimate failure to do the impossible that still gives Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” its power) deferring it all indefinitely was the only possible strategy.

The last tanka takes us back to the beginning

in that childhood fix
days jump

when the child-artist cannot yet realize the significance of the model always right before his eyes. He leaves the arc-walking figure out of his drawings

sketch book collusion
replete with marks
exclude him.

By way of conclusion, I would drag us all back to a small, passing observation early in the poem. The poet locates us in the scarcities of post WWII Britain and, with a slight air of historical bitterness, observes

When young, when ever poorer, when hand-held movie cameras were more rare than wartime eggs, this is not a hurdle easily jumped.

Stanley Pelter is a year older than I am, but while his childhood was spent in wartime and postwar Britain, I was living in very different circumstances in Southern California. I say this just to emphasize his remark about cameras and eggs. We had an 8mm movie camera that my father had got in payment for extra weekend work dressing shoe store windows. There was a shoebox of film spools in my mother’s stuff after she died, little movies of children, parents, grandparents, and other relatives, none of them recognizable exactly, but all of their walks captured precisely.



Arc Walk

moon mirror
alters his face
smears of soap mask him
in a rattlebag
of cheap scents

Definitely. I want to draw him. But not like this. Not sitting at a fractured table. Not eating. Not even when he shaves, staring at his stretched image in a small mirror with a crack edging out from a missing corner. Even holding one end of an old leather strap that sharpens a cutthroat razor travelling close to a soap-spattered throat. Even in a compact position more easy to draw, this, too, is not how it is meant to be.

preparation
is a sharp left turn
unwilling model
his warped skin
still quite attractive

Want to draw him in motion. When young, when even poorer, when hand-held movie cameras were more rare than wartime eggs, this is not a hurdle easily jumped. If he walks I, drawing, will be behind him. His scale diminishes step by step; a considerable hurdle. Anyway, he often needs me by his side. I never know when he might slip. Often he is away before me.

into another high smile
his stifled image
sleek magpie
swaps pencils
for a rabbit’s foot

His walk. It is that I want. Although an angle away from orthodoxy, it is not unique. There is a lot to learn about his walk. Even now, thought processes are needed to kick-start it. Mechanistic care is required. Mass produced straight-line walk is, by comparison, weaker. Repetition is its game. Yes, of course there is a bit of variety. There always is. Mostly, it is a method of our getting from everyday here to a similar there.

checks rechecks
his cutthroat blade
for an uneven edge
with one strong leg
one mind walks backwards

His walk is different. Want to draw it. Starting point has to be a reality of rearranged motion. My walk is finely crafted, a regular straight line. Efficient. Dull. Lacks potential for awe. Appropriate placing assists his swing. Wherever he goes 2 wooden uprights land in front. Crutch landing. Swing. Siamese twins. Not always. Getting on a bus is a different mishmash of connections. Successful, wing-through line is weighted balance with a circular rhythmic interior, is non- lineal propulsion. A sweeping motion, it is an arc, somewhat like an upside down rainbow, the bottom half curve of a full moon. But his snow walking scares me.

ice cold river
blurs spaces
between front and back
beyond its ripple surface
single leg reflection

Sometimes wish with all my heardheartfastbeats he was as one with us. Yet do watch that walk. Love it. Can watch it all day; a swing that works, a motion to live with not get over, a stand-alone action that will kill him.

upside down arc
swings cheap aromas
into adagio drifts
remember bombs
that explode night

Still want to draw that different rhythm. Then, when I drew every day, he was always in a different place, with insufficient this or that. Never did I draw his DNA strain of arc walk. Never knew it was a death sentence.

in that childhood fix
days jump
sketch book collusion
replete with marks
exclude him


Editor’s Note: “arc walk” first published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 1 (Summer 2009), pp. 91-93.

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