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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Tracy Farr — The Blind Astronomer

page 135

Tracy Farr

The Blind Astronomer

My first memory is of the brightness of light, light all around.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1985

In every life there's a first remembered image. Some claim it early, from before their unfocused eyes learned to see: the moment of entry into this world, the flash of bright light that accompanies the first inspired lungful of air. For others, it's the pattern of cracks on the ceiling of their bedroom, or the inside of the cave formed by the sheet on their parents' bed, or the favourite picture on the favourite page of a favourite book. My own first memories are cool white snapshots from a hospital bed.

In the middle of last year I sent a postcard home to my aunt from Minneapolis. The postcard reproduced a photograph that had dazzled me, stayed with me above all that I'd just seen in the cool halls of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The photograph showed the artist Georgia O'Keeffe in the desert, the hot sky white around her, O'Keeffe glaring directly at the camera. Her trousers were black, her shirt white. She surrounded a bleached cow's skull, stark against the black of her trousers. Georgia's eyes stared out at me from the image, wide and unblinking, black as uncooked beans.

She had my aunt's eyes: I was struck by the likeness as soon as I saw the photograph. It was as if Aunt's eyes had been plucked out and stuck into the frame. But it wasn't just the eyes. As I stared at the image, the unnerving brow became Aunt's, too, and the rest of the face, even the way she held her shoulders. And before I knew it, I was staring into a mirror, a time-warping, three-way mirror: Georgia; Aunt; me.

Aunt is an artist, too. The large, broad-brush, harsh-coloured studies Aunt favoured as a young woman have given way to tiny, page 136 detailed perfections, minutely observed. She is well known for her earlier works, but both critics and the public are often surprised to find that the perfect, postcard-sized later works are by the same artist. They're like visions of different worlds.

Even though we see each other every week, even though we speak on the phone more often than that, she often types me letters on her electric typewriter, sending me anecdotes, recipes, clippings from magazines and newspapers. Aunt likes to leave a paper trail. She employs her once-angry artist's eye in gentle observations, these days. ‘I saw my first Internet cafe this week,’ she wrote to me recently. ‘Next time I'm passing, I shall gird my loins—wander in and see what it's about.’ Aunt is always girding her loins.

It was Aunt who taught me not just to look, but to really see. She taught me to look with an artist's eye, and that's what I've done in my work. I've seen the planets with an artist's eye, charted their courses with a sense of the beauty their paths carve through space. I know that most people think of astronomy as an exact science, maths and physics pure and simple. But I know the truth—that if you can't see the beauty, the art, in the heavens, then the physical laws might just as well break down and spin all the globes out of control. It's the beauty of the system that is its point. Seeing with my artist's eye has taught me this. It is a gift Aunt has given me.

I have Aunt's body too: wide hips, small breasts, broad shoulders, big, flat stable feet. We share eyebrows, and noses. And, unlike my father—her brother—we both have Gran's eyes: black, piercing. Impossible to read.

Aunt wears trousers in creamy cotton, tailored shirts in neutral shades. She keeps her hair short, and has let it fleck with grey. It is in this that we differ: I have a love of colour, in clothing, hair and nail colour, favouring bright, clashing colours, choosing them for the ways the juxtaposing colours assault my eyes. Peacock blue with clashing pink, blue and green should never be seen, stripes with florals, hair dyed flame red, fingernails painted the colour of spring grass. Aunt once told me I dressed like a blind woman, not meaning it as the compliment for which I took it.

I left the exhibition, stopped at the gallery shop and bought the page 137 postcard, then sat on the grass outside to write a message home. Staring at the reproduced image I was back with Aunt, back in myself: the staring black eyes, the slit of mouth, the high, bothered forehead, thick eyebrows, the straight, no-nonsense hair.

My friend leaned forward, opposite me in the shade on the perfect grass near the columned entrance to the Institute of Arts, watching me lick the stamp, watching the upside-down, black and white woman.

—You're not gonna put it in an envelope? You're gonna send it just like that?

—Yeah, course, I said. Why?

—It's so beautiful, what if it gets damaged in the mail? You should put it in an envelope.

—It'll be all right, I told her. I never put postcards in envelopes.

I posted it to Aunt that afternoon as we walked back to the hotel in the centre of Minneapolis for the afternoon session. The conference, Orbiting Worlds: Astronomy into the Third Millennium, had been the usual mix of stimulating, illuminating, and just plain dull. My brain had been on overdrive for a week. I'd skipped that morning's sessions with the notion that a break might refresh my mind, but I still couldn't focus, couldn't concentrate. I slipped away early with some like-minded friends, and we headed from the hotel bar to a rib joint downtown to a student bar by the river to I don't know where. I woke up with my head resting on the toilet seat in my hotel bathroom, and left Minneapolis later that day with a hangover that lasted all the long way home to New Zealand.

My first ever memory is of bars on the side of a bed—it would've been a cot, of course: I was only just two. I can see a door through the bars, and I'm matching the uprights of the door frame with the upright bars I'm looking through. In Aunt's telling of the story, as in my memory, the room and all its fittings were heaven-white, my head a dark smudge on the pillow. I seem to recall the whiteness vividly, but it might just be from repetition, from hearing the story so often.

You always hear the stories often, in my family. Aunt has taken over from Gran as our storyteller. Repetition enforces the stories, reifies them: the heaven-white room story; the ‘what makes stars’ question page 138 at age three story; the biting the doctor at age four story. Even if I hadn't been there as a central character in those stories, seen them with my own eyes, I'd have a mental image of them from their telling and retelling.

There's a photograph of me on that first remembered day, that Aunt has. I'm wearing a sleeveless shift with a poodle on the pocket, and I have little cat's eye sunglasses on. Aunt stands behind me, bending to place her hands on my shoulders, turning me towards the direction of the camera. The sunglasses hide my eyes as I stand, posing, on Gran's front step.

The glasses were to protect my just-repaired eyes. That first remembered day was the day they unbandaged my eyes and released me from hospital. I've always wondered if that's why my first memories date from then, from after the operation—if I just couldn't see well enough before it to remember. At least, not to make sense of anything. As if the images had to be seen—focused on—to be remembered, to sear into my little receptive brain.

My brother teased me, years later as we lay bored on olive green vinyl beanbags making up taunts at random, inspired no doubt by some grisly TV show or comic.

—They took your eyes out and put them on your cheek.

—Geddout. Did not.

I went back to reading my magazine, but our father pounced through the doors from the dining room, booming.

—Who told you that? Did your aunt tell you that?!

Shaking. Angry.

—What? I dunno.

—What? No one said.

Because they had, you see. My brother had accidentally hit on the truth: that in that first remembered time, in the hospital, the doctors had taken my little two-year-old eye out, popped it onto my cheek while they severed muscles, then popped it back into orbit, my little mooning eye. They chopped it out in order to make it better. Then popped it back in to let me see, give me my memories, let me make sense of the world.

page 139

I arrived back in Wellington at eight in the morning, flying into a howling southerly. I caught a taxi straight to work, to drop off my slides and all the notes and papers I'd accumulated in Minneapolis. My boss made me coffee, and we stood by his window watching the wind hurl itself at the city, talking of weather, and scientific delight, gossiping about colleagues. We remarked on the circling one does at conferences, the grouping and ungrouping, pushing and pulling, coming under the gravitational influence of both the gassy giants and the truly stellar. I felt like a little cold outer moon, all gas and wind, the remnants of the hangover still aching behind my eyes and in the pit of my stomach. I went home and slept for sixteen hours straight.

I didn't see Aunt until later in the week. We were keeping to our usual Thursday habit, a ritual maintained whenever I wasn't working nights: I brought wine, she cooked dinner, and I would crash for the night on the spare bed in her studio, warm with wine and paint and turpentine.

Sitting down at Aunt's kitchen table when I arrived that evening, I saw the postcard I'd sent from Minneapolis propped against the pepper grinder. The funny thing—awful really, disturbing—was that my cautious friend, she of the suggested envelope, had been right after all: the postcard had been damaged in the mail. A solid patch on the picture side was scratched out, perhaps by some sharp-edged sorting machine. There was a perfect, even rectangle where the thin laminate of printed paper had been etched from the photograph, leaving the blank, rough, white card exposed.

The scratch covered—obscured, exactly—her eyes. They'd scratched out Georgia's eyes. And, eyeless, it was almost impossible to tell who she was. She wasn't Aunt any more, nor me—not even herself. So much of her had been in her eyes.

Today as I waited at the train station, the sun's dying light hit the track, showing a milky streak curved across four of the railway ties, like the spine of a big fish picked clean by eager teeth. In the instant before the train pulled into the station, over it, obscuring it, I made sense of what I'd seen: it was a peacock's straggly tail feather, its eye eaten away, or maybe just tucked under the sleeper's wood, out of my page 140 sight. As I boarded the train, I stored the feather in my mind: something to occupy my time, to roll over in my mind on the way to work.

Aunt once told me that peacock feathers are bad luck. But I've always and only seen their beauty. The spreading tail of a peacock, a universe unfolding into colour and movement, the starry sky and all things good. And how could those hundred shimmering eyes be anything but lucky?

I've been thinking about eyes, about vision, alot lately. It's becoming precious to me, because of the prospect of its loss. Because I am losing my sight. Not all of it, just most of it. A degenerative condition, the doctors tell me; no, not related to that long ago operation, quite a different matter. Nothing they can do, they tell me. Like having a clenched fist held in front of each eye is the way they like to describe the vision I'll retain. Why bother just holding those fists there, I want to tell them, why not just punch my lights out and be damned? The horror of it.

It's not bad yet, my vision. The rate of loss, of degeneration, is different in each individual, they tell me. In the half light it bothers me most, when it's neither dark nor light but something in between, indeterminate. And if I try to stare at something, often the middle blanks out, a black hole forming in the centre of the object so that I lose its detail. But my peripheral vision remains acute. I can pick up a dropped needle from the floor, zeroing on it without hesitation. I catch sideways glimpses of myself in shopfront windows, yet I have trouble seeing the detail of my face in the bathroom mirror. And I can capture images like the peacock feather straddling the railway struts, unsought images that creep sidewise through my eyes to my brain, images that don't make sense but that I collect and store, against a time when that visual input is no longer possible.

When I was a child, there were phrases that I misheard, that I used as malapropisms. Mind's eye was one: I never really understood that it wasn't one's own eyes that were being talked about, rather than one's imagination. His eye, yours eye, mines eye. I had yet to learn the grammar; I was hungry for meaning, meaning first and foremost, and if I could make a sense of a phrase or a word, I'd run with it. I'd use page 141 the words, but not appreciate their true power and meaning until years later, when I saw them written down somewhere, in context. Family jewels, that was another one. I had no idea of the genital connotations of the phrase, I just thought it meant one's valuables.

And so it does.

So here it is, in black and white: I am losing the family jewels. My eyes, that is. Or their use. No use clenching fists in rage, raging against the dying of the light, the coming of the night.

Instead, I am preparing.

I am filing away images, so that I won't lose the links they have to memories: taking long, last looks at photographs I may never see again; staring long and hard at each of Aunt's paintings; noticing feathers on tracks, family resemblances, every tree and flower and sunset, the colours in a basket of vegetables, the pattern of milk as it mixes into my tea. I watch every man and woman and child and commit their precious faces to memory.

I am sending postcards to my mind's eye, to surround myself with rings of perfect, remembered images. Aunt's artistic eye is asserting itself in this, helping me sort the sheaf of postcards. Her eye—the artistic eye she has taught me to use—is the curator of this collection of mine. And as in any good art collection, I am seeking not only the purely beautiful, but also the challenging—my gallery has its Guernica and Piss Christ as well as sunflowers, waterlilies and illuminated haystacks. Aunt's eye insists on balance.

And, of course, I am watching the sky.

As I walked up from the railway station tonight on my way to work at the Observatory, in the dimming light the stars and planets started to show themselves with their familiar first faintness. I described my own arc up the hill through the Botanic Gardens, the day's fading light rendering featureless the path, the plants and trees to each side. In the grey half light, my feet reassuringly plodded the remembered way to the half-globe buildings in which I spend my working days and nights. Here, I am making plans against the time when I can no longer see the glow of the heavens.

Sitting at my desk, I insert a plug into each ear. My eyes focus on blips on the computer screen that are the visual data from the telescope, page 142 as my ears focus on the noises that are their transmutation to the audible. The synchrony of the data sets—of the visual with the audible—is sublime. A satellite comes into view, speeding across the screen, and I hear its track break across my mind like a wave, from right ear to left ear, the amplitude of the sound reflecting the size and distance of the hurtling metal. I detect nuances of sound and rhythm now that I would never have heard when I started to learn to read the heavens in this recodified form. Aunt whispers behind my eyes, between my ears, through my body—for these are all the same, are becoming one—gird your loins, and I close my eyes, press my fingers to the keyboard, and log my observations.

Aunt has also taught me that seeing something not only captures it, records it, but can fix it. So that, in comparison to the fixed film of seen memory, the image not seen is loose at the edges, its elements mobile and changeable. It holds the promise of universality.

I am freeing myself from the fixedness of the seen.

With my mind open to the universe, I hear the heavens' ebb and flow as music. It is the incomprehensibly wonderful revelation of music first heard after only ever having seen black spots and lines on a white page. As my ears open and my eyes close, I hear the planets dance.