As I flip through the poems of Constantine Cavafy I can’t help but notice how often and how longingly he looked to the past, both his own and to others that he was merely a spectator, or more appropriately a voyeur of. In his poem “The Window Of The Tobacco Shop” he appears to be a witness to a clandestine love scene playing out before him, but as the poem concludes, he very matter-of-factly describes a forbidden kiss that transpires among the lovers in their carriage ride home. How could he have been privy to this moment if it weren’t his own? Is this kiss manufactured by his yearning? Erotic artifice, seeping out of his mind, triggered by the observation of others?  Or has he cryptically taken us out of the realm of voyeurism and into something more autobiographical? Is Cavafy a voyeur of his own past? In any case, he tends to assert a great distance between himself and the passionate desire he muses about in his poetry. Take “Remember, Body” for instance:

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

but also those desires which for you

plainly glowed in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice — and some

chance obstacle made them futile.

Now that all belongs to the past,

it is almost as if you had yielded

to those desires too — remember,

how they glowed, in the eyes looking at you;

how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

 The desire that Cavafy articulates always seems to take place in a foggy and romantic past. Distance anchors his words with as equal vigor as desire. I suspect homophobia, seeing as that is the primary reason anyone might distance themselves from their queer longing, but maybe the distance is also a matter of coping. By some deductive reasoning, one could possibly conclude that where there was lust and enchantment, there also must have been a great deal of pain. That pain seems to be the missing link between Cavafy’s wistful present and his licentious past. What has taken him so far away from that fusion of his flesh with a contraband other, who he writes about with such affectionate detail? Where is he when he looks back and what has removed him so?

We know that memory alters. How it omits; how it rewrites. We know how it obscures for the sake of survival in the face of trauma. I consider the trauma of homophobia. The trauma of stowing away your desires under a cloak of secrecy. Living a feigned and frightened existence. For an artist I understand how these circumstances produce the anxious need to compensate in one’s work. A world waiting in the wings on standby. An exuberant underbelly of utopic fantasy that, bottled for too long, explodes onto canvas, paper, film and photograph when it finally has the chance to. To such an extent that without this specific lived experience, it may appear excessive, aggressively perfumy, flowery or romantic.

I then consider the collective trauma of HIV/AIDS. The trauma of the body becoming the vessel in which terror resides. I consider my own related trauma, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus being the clingiest of my life partners. I know this feeling of the betrayal, if even potential. The feeling of being cornered, that even in my own body I am not entirely safe. These are not feelings one wants to harbor, so in comes memory, the greatest of abstract expressionists. Life, like a terrible blunder of a paintbrush and memory with its way of letting those discrepancies dry and painting them over anew. But paint eventually chips away and concealed wounds eventually reveal themselves, or if anything remain the framework, the base that the rest of life’s masterpiece will build upon.

So romance isn’t always what it seems. It can only be measured by those inconsistent distances that linger in between each fruitful gesture, just beneath the surface. I can feel the anguish between each of Cavafy’s words. There is a terrible tension from line to line, a turbulent vastness hidden in the silence of his stanzas. It isn’t so much in what he writes, it’s in what he omits. What he remembers and what he fails to remember. What flowers he unconsciously or consciously plucks from the sweeping forest of his experience. Like choosing to admire a dandelion growing from the cement cracks of a cell or looking south with the songbirds as they escape a furiously encroaching winter. Is this my plea for romanticism or a case for delusion? Is there a case to be made for either?

There is so much that can be extracted from nothing. From silence. That “in between space”, as Yasi Alipour has called it, where thousands die and secrets thrive. Or ask John Cage, he’ll know. All that is thought but never said, and all that is experienced but never witnessed lives here, in this nothing. The emptiness between the words in a poem or what truths didn’t make it in the exposure of a carefully crafted images, whether they be artful and renowned, or casually cultivated online in order to express a desired interpretation of one’s lifestyle. It should be understood by now that depiction isn’t truth. That the form is not the content. That looking at the thing isn’t really seeing the thing at all.

Yes, I like to make beautiful photos of the edges (my thing) those frayed and frazzled edges where codes of conduct unravel along trails in the sand. Where bodies most queer may practice and pretend, without any restraint, not even as thin as clothing. These carnal congregations on the outskirts of cities. These structures of desire underneath vast structures of decorum. How I love them so. Just a glance at my images would say all of this without words, but there is a dissonance at play. It’s in the twitch of an eye when you smile and say you are alright, while your world crumbles around you. It’s in assuring a morning lover of their beauty despite misplaced hair and bad breath. It’s the result that renders the process invisible.

I long and I vent about beauty and I meditate between the shifting colors on desire and connection, but there’s much that my pictures leave out. A picture could never illustrate the feeling of predatory vulture eyes that leer overhead, uninvited, but persistent nonetheless. They could never capture the feeling of violation by those determined hyenas that wait with bated breath and laugh at you when they’ve stolen what they wanted. It is hard to depict the form of anxiety that ever potential persecution from hawks who surveil by boat, horseback, helicopter and drone may bring. How do you photograph the decision of whether risking the pleasure of tenderness is worth the consequence? Or the personal histories of shame, humiliation and worthlessness that would lead a person to take their clothes off in public and expose themselves in order to attain that tenderness. Or the ruins of reputation destroyed by small town fiends, never to be returned. What exists in that unphotographed in between is vast and terrifying, so my lens stays fixed elsewhere. There is so much surrounding my viewfinder that I unconsciously or consciously crop out. Elements and obstacles that haunt me, that terrorize me to the point of omission.

To what degree does memory play in my compulsion to present these cruisers, these vagabonds, these sirens and wretched loiterers as beautiful? To what degree is curating exquisite images of this world I find myself a part of an act of preservation? Preservation of something I haven’t even hardly grasped yet, that seemed to slip away before I could grasp it, but that I’d like to forever look back on or forward to? Am I dishonest for omitting the abject? Is hoarding only what is beautiful in itself abject? Is the abject just an elaborate form of beauty after all?

At the age of 60, a decade before he would pass, Cavafy continued to linger on these bittersweet memories.

 

I had in mind to place it on a wall of my room.

 

But the damp of the drawer damaged it.

 

I won’t put this photograph in a frame.

 

I ought to have looked after it more carefully.

 

Those lips, that face –

ah if only for a day, only for an

hour their past would return.

 

I won’t put this photograph in a frame.

 

I’ll endure looking at it, damaged as it is.

 

Besides, even if it weren’t damaged,

it would be annoying to be on guard lest some

word, some tone of voice betrayed –

if they ever questioned me about it.

(From The Drawer, 1923)

To hoard one’s desires, to be damaged by years of neglect, what a fine line to tread for a lifetime.

Sam Stoich’s personal essay, “From Memory’s Drawer,” won third prize in the Eighth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Sam is  a graduating senior in the Photo and Video department at SVA. This is how Sam poetically describes himself: “Stigmata by pleather after a long day with no chauffer, adversity without any real market appeal and me, infected blood suspended in the air.”