Lake Effect, Spring 2010, Volume 14: The Borders of Diane Arbus

Curtis Smith


The Borders of Diane Arbus

For the past twenty-five years I’ve worked with special learning students in a public high school. I know the fringe dwellers of this world better than most, the left behind, the unbalanced and frightened and angry. Looking into a young person’s eyes, I engage once again in the imperfect science of understanding. The directness of gaze, the nervous blinks—here are my signals to reach out or retreat, here are not faces but clue-filled maps governed by legends as mysterious as they are familiar. Twenty-five years, and I still make mistakes, failing to decipher the hints laid before me. Despite my daily stumbles, I don’t divert my eyes, knowing a signal may wait in the next furrowed eyebrow or curled lip. I must unconsciously carry this teacher’s expression into public for I can’t count the times I’ve been swooped upon by retarded adults amid the milling throngs of malls and fairgrounds. Usually they’re seeking directions, and their chubby fingers mimic my destination-pointing hand, their departures marked by at least one backwards glance, a reassurance they’ve set upon the correct path. These bewildered souls will never comprehend the Dow Jones average or how their microwaves work; yet, in a passing moment of recognition, a context void of the years-long history I share with my students, they’ve read something on my face that I have yet to understand.
I am a writer. When asked in interviews or appearances why I write, my standard answer is Because I can’t draw. This elicits smiles, a chuckle or two, and I’m relieved to have narrowed the sometimes uneasy distance between author and audience. The smiles subside, and we all settle in, more comfortable in our conspiracy of self-effacing confessions. Still, there is always a twinge in my gut, a tempered regret. My response is as true as it is trite. While I am blessed for having stumbled upon my art form in this world of endless diversions, the writer in me envies the universal language of painters and sculptors and photographers. The visual, unmarred by language or translation, wields a power immediate and primitive compared to the solitary digestion the written word demands.
Recently, I’ve been held in sway by a book, Diane Arbus—Revelations. The book is thick and weighty and oversized, a three-hundred-fifty-two page anchor that drags me into a rapt immersion I fear my novels will never achieve. Some nights I only turn three or four pages, consumed by admiration and wonder and a melancholy strain of voyeurism. One day I will read the book’s accompanying essays. Year-by-year, I will follow the detailed chronology that fills in the who’s and what’s and how’s which occupied the days between her precocious childhood and her haunted suicide. Her image, like the thousands she glided through the dark room’s chemical baths, will develop fuller and richer in my mind, but for the moment, I’m content to view her through the filter of the work she left behind. A print at a time, and as I do in my classroom, I gaze a bit closer, yearning to understand.