The Angel is My Watermark

Every Middle Age is good, whether in man or history. It is full sunlight and roads extend in every direction, and all roads are downhill. I would not level the road nor remove any of the bumps. Each jolt sends a fresh message to the signal tower. I have marked all the spots in passing: to retrace my thoughts I have only to retrace my journey, re-feel those bumps (37).
Henry Miller, Black Spring.



I didn’t set out to read another Miller so soon after the last, But as I was shelving a book in my Rare Book Room job my eye was caught by a lovely artists’ book – The Angel is my Watermark (by Barbara Beisinghoff).  What a title! I carefully read the book while standing in the stacks. I know some people have some sort of obsession with Angels. I am not one of them. Mine is perhaps more for watermarks. Still, there is something wonderful in it and I really can’t get it out of my head. Turns out the title comes from Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring which was written after Tropic of Cancer. Obviously, I had to read it.

What little I have learned about writing amounts to this: it is not what people think it is. It is an absolutely new thing each time with each individual. Valparaiso, for example. Valparaiso, when I say it, means something totally different from anything it ever meant before. It may mean an English cunt with all her front teeth gone and the bartender standing in the middle of the street searching for customers. It may mean an angel in a silk shirt running his lacy fingers over a black harp (27).

I will admit that about half-way through reading this book a depression descended upon me. The heaviness of the cruel epithets that populate the recounting of Miller’s early life began to crush me down. I wondered how Miller, filled with such bile and objectification, could recover- recover himself! It was at this point that I noticed a small hole in the relatively  ancient paperback version of the book that came to me through the I.L.L (inter library loan). It was a perfect circle, and it went through to the next page, and the next, and next, more appeared and it became apparent that the book had been eaten by worms. I burst out laughing. Perfect!

Sitting in the snow before the place of my birth I remember this incident vividly. Why, I don’t know, except it connects with the grotesque and the void, with the heartbreaking lonelines, the snow, the lack of color, the absence of music (194).

I suppose there are wormholes in us all. The truth is, they were quite beautiful and made me smile to think of the worms digesting Miller before me. I noticed they took it in back-to-front, so, I have that up on them at least– I know which way the pages turn. And, taken as a whole, the book is aching in its love, or maybe just longing, for humanity, even the crassness of individuals, and individual words, can not vitiate the hope.

Miller is brutal in his assault on the pathetic and degenerate only when they combine with stupidity and cruelty. But it can eat away at one. And yet, and yet… worms are the composters of the planet, what do they make but the very majestic living foundation of our existence?–dirt, nourishment, life, a lightening of the crushing dead refuse of the world. The worm is my watermark!

During the journey I wept–I couldn’t help it. When people are too good for this world they have to be put under lock and key. There’s something wrong with people who are too good (95).

The chapter which led me to the book, The Angel is My Watermark, is simply brilliant. I suppose I am a little more like the worms than I like to think- I just get a book and plunge in, it wasn’t until after I read it that I discovered this chapter is quite revered. Rightly so. It is an account of Miller creating a masterpiece, a painting, and the description of the process is an hilarious, true, poignant, brazen, chaotic splendor of the artistic process.

I am merely flipping the pages of my notebook as a warming up exercise. So I imagine. But cursorily and swiftly as I sweep over these notes something fatal is happening to me (51).

He becomes possessed with the idea of drawing and then painting a horse: mistakes lead to modifications to transformations, fire! volcanoes! bedbugs! to the sink, with a nail brush–the Muse dragging him over a bumpy messy road until at last – the masterpiece emerges!
It is a true literary delight to read.

You may say it’s just an accident, this masterpiece, and so it is! But then, so is the Twenty-third Psalm. Every birth is miraculous–and inspired.

Miller is perhaps not for everyone, but there is a fundamental goodness to his work that refuses to cease calling to me, and I refuse to cease responding. Yes, he lets the wormholes lie where they are, and it can be disturbing, but, he seems to ask: they are there–who am I to ignore them?

The angel is there like a watermark, a guarantee of your faultless vision. The angle has no goiter; it is the artist who has the goiter. The angel is there to drop a sprig of parsley in your omelette, to put a shamrock in your buttonhole. I could scrub the mythology out of the horse’s mane; I could scrub the yellow out of the Yangtsze Kiang; I could scrub the date out of the man in the gondola; I could scrub the clouds and the tissue paper in which were wrapped the bouquets with forked lightning……But the angel I can’t scrub out. The angel is my watermark (67).

*drawing by J. Ryan 2014.




11 responses to “The Angel is My Watermark

  1. It’s always interesting where great artists come from. A tough childhood can teach humanity or turn to bitterness, a determination to be as rich as possible no matter the personal cost

  2. “I know some people have some sort of obsession with Angels. I am not one of them. Mine is perhaps more for watermarks.”
    One the many lines I liked.
    “You may say it’s just an accident, this masterpiece, and so it is! But then, so is the Twenty-third Psalm. Every birth is miraculous–and inspired.”
    It is.
    It’s true Miller is not for everyone. I did make a go at his writing long ago but never got very far. Very put off with his excessive use of “cunt.”
    “Miller is brutal in his assault on the pathetic and degenerate only when they combine with stupidity and cruelty. But it can eat away at one.”
    This brought to mind Thomas Bernhard. While I absolutely loved Wittgenstein’s Nephew, my efforts at his other works were less than fruitful. Too much corrosiveness – a little like what Cormac McCarthy does (or doesn’t do) for me although I did like The Road.

    • Thank you. I haven’t read Bernard or McCarthy, but corrosiveness, as you aptly put it, is an element that I don’t usually like, there has to be a strong counter argument, for me, in order for me to weather the storm. And I can easily see how the effort one can or wants to make from one writer to the next could vary.
      An interesting coincidence is that I am currently working with a Chilean poet/artist/activist, Cecilia Vacuña, helping her to archive her work and research on South American Poets. She is a lovely, warm, beautiful person. On my first day on the job (it is kind of a sub-job within my internship with Granary Books) as I was being taught her system for archiving, I noticed she had a huge array of correspondences, one with – yes -Henry Miller! I had literally finished Tropic of Cancer the week before. We had a long talk about him. She was a young artist who wrote to him, and he wrote her back. She said he was, truly, a lovely man, not at all handsome (haha) but wonderful, generous, kind, charming. Eventually she and her boyfriend traveled to Miller’s home to meet him. She, like me I guess, responded to the the part of him that is tender, true, funny, philosophical…anyway, it was an odd moment of serendipity for me! As solitary as I sometimes feel, books have always had a beautiful way to connect me to others.

  3. The worm’s eye view contains all possible knowledge.

  4. Nice angel sketch. A line in your ending quote “The angel is there to drop a sprig of parsley in your omelette” brings more angels to mind; they are Paul Klee’s “A Spirit Serves a Small Breakfast, Angel Brings the Desired,” everyday miracles often overlooked and all. And for something entirely different his “Angelus Novus” about which Walter Benjamin says “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet’

    • I am so glad you pointed to that particular line. I hesitated for a moment over whether to include it- perhaps the quote was too long for…for…When I couldn’t decided who it might be too long for that I actually cared about, I left it where it was as I so delighted in it!
      Love the Klee’s thank you for directing my attention to them. The first seems very much in rhythm with Miller’s quote, (prezzemolo -one of my favorite words in Italian. I think the sound of it captures the spirit, the lithe dancing joy that Miller and Klee expose in their work) while the second has a forlorn, pressed up against the glass look to it.

  5. Pingback: A Bit of Naughty-Naughty | so very very

  6. Pingback: The Heart’s Watermarks | so very very

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