Blast | November 18, 2022
“Odd Secrets of the Line” by Lily Lloyd Burkhalter
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “I have been fixated on the making of marks, artful or ordinary, for as long as I can remember,” Lily Lloyd Burkhalter confesses in this enchanting essay that explores the line across art forms, continents, and time.
All images are of the author’s own textile work. Photography by Peter Evan Costas. Find him on Instagram @peterevancostas
Odd Secrets of the Line
Lily Lloyd Burkhalter
“Follow the line,” said the professor, handing me a squat black microscope that fit neatly in my palm. We were to find a textile and describe its fiber structure. The room’s drawers flew open in a flurry; boxes lost their lids; Chinese, Greek, Japanese, and Bolivian fabrics fell onto the table. I didn’t choose the indigo-dyed, hand-embroidered Agbada robe from northern Nigeria so much as its color pulled me in, mirroring a particular Bamiléké cloth I’d been thinking of ever since I left Cameroon.
I hesitated. By then, I’d started to question what it meant that someone like me, of European origins, kept feeling tugged to objects from that part of the world.
But everyone else seemed to know already what they wanted to study, and I liked the robe’s heft, how its indigo sea was striated by dirt at the hem. It was too big to spread out on the table, so I peered into one corner at a time, learning that the robe was dyed on a thread level, not at a fabric level. That the composition of the embroidery thread (wild silk) differed from that of the woven ground (cotton). For each observation, two questions. Every time I refolded the cloth to inspect a different part of it, its mysteries compounded. Time compressed, accordion-like, and the allotted hour ended.
I folded the robe and tucked it away in its drawer.
In the southern edge of the Congolese River Basin, a kingdom known to its neighbors as the Kuba, “people of the king,” flourished throughout the latter half of the last millennium. During three centuries of isolation from influences outside of Africa, the Kuba developed an original form of geometrical art and one of the greatest textile repertoires in the world.
There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that I want to tell you. It involves a Belgian official trekking via motorbike to the territory of the Shoowa, a northern group particularly renowned for their sensitivity to surface design. But I can’t speak of a “meeting” and ignore the ruptures such encounters caused: the Belgian colonizers’ early twentieth-century sacking of the capital, Nsheng; the instability and political turmoil wrought by colonialism and global trade, visible in formal shifts in textile production as Kuba elites sought more eye-catching designs to declare, and preserve, their authority. A work always echoes what surrounds it. Art, so central to Kuba life, absorbed and delineated the shockwaves of history.
Still, the story goes that when a Belgian arrived in the Shoowa village in a cloud of dust, the engine puttering to a halt, it was not his motorbike that caught the attention of the reigning king but the pattern its tires traced in the dirt. The king instructed an aide to copy the tires’ imprints and named the pattern after himself: “Kwete’s design.”
Around the time King Kwete found his pattern, if he did indeed find a pattern in this way, Emily Dickinson sat at her desk with an envelope and began its ritual opening. She was interested in more than simply removing the letter. Tearing some edges, cutting others with surgical precision, flattening the folds, she meticulously created a unique paper form with each missive received. Over time, the painted surface of the poet’s desk would bear witness to this act—notched with fine incisions.
I have been fixated on the making of marks, artful or ordinary, for as long as I can remember. How often inspected, this one scrap of paper: torn into an approximation of a square, upon which my mother’s looped script breaks down into tidy rows the household’s monthly budget. I look at my notebook, filled with scrawled reminders to myself. I recall mounting a concerted effort around the age of thirteen to reshape my handwriting. It fluctuated wildly for a few years. From the evidence available—written on the title pages of her books, her name and the dates she finished reading them—my mother’s handwriting appears to have remained consistent. Only the name changed once she married my father.
After the close-looking exercise in the fiber class, the professor assigned an article to read about the relationship between surfaces and lines: traces, inscribed on a surface, versus threads, themselves a surface. And how of course traces can be additive (ink on paper) or reductive (tire marks on dirt, notches on a table).
To which I’ll add a third category: lasting traces—my mother’s effort to track her new family’s finances, the cuts on Dickinson’s desk sending word of the gestures performed there—versus the ephemeral: tire tracks washed away by rain, effacing any evidence that might support the story I’ve repeated. What happened next, though—the twentieth-century trade of tens of thousands of Kuba textiles—there is proof of that, sitting in the corner of the classroom in Chicago in a cabinet marked H.
The school’s collection holds four embroidered prestige cloths from the kingdom of Kuba. The Kasai velvets, as they’re sometimes called, are intoxicating works, each a unique choreography of texture and form. Whoever made these particular cloths divided the surfaces into three, sometimes four, sections and explored the geometric possibilities of composition by rotating, reflecting, and interlocking the smallest integral element of an embroidered motif.
Cans and cannots. I can picture her: the embroiderer licking the raffia thread and rolling it on her thigh to soften it. She threads it through an iron needle. Onto the cloth that a man has woven from split younger leaves of the raffia palm, upon which she has made no preliminary guidelines, she draws the lines with stem stitches. She fills in the space between with cut-pile work, repeatedly pulling a thread under the weft. The tightness of the weave, rather than knotting, holds it in place. But I can’t know this: What pops into her mind as she bends over the fabric? Her daughter? Her lunch? A neighbor’s snide remark?
She cuts the crown—the highest point—of the stitches and rubs the cloth with her hand to raise a pile.
An often referenced idea about what poetry can do that prose cannot: enjambment. From the French enjamber, to straddle, to step over, enjambment is the division of a syntactic element across the white space of the page, which slows our reading down or speeds it along. But also: the poetic line as “a dissecting table” to hold two unlike terms (“the sewing machine and the umbrella”) in relation to one another. The line uniting, even as it divides.
In the spirit of New England thrift, Dickinson’s flattened envelopes were destined to serve as paper for her writings. Made in an era of printed text, these late manuscripts, sometimes referred to as “scraps,” belong outside their time, resisting any translation to typographic norms. They are primarily visual, tactile objects—the creases, puckers, and folds of the carefully prepared substrate are as much a part of the text as her handwriting, her dashes, capitalizations, and variant words.
“When Dickinson approached her compositional space to write,” Jen Bervin writes in her introduction to The Gorgeous Nothings, an exhibit of the envelope poems in book form, “she was reading and responding to her materials, angling the page to write in concert with the light rule and laid lines in the paper, using internal surface divisions, such as overlapping planes of paper, to compose in a number of directional fields.”
Beyond what the substrate suggested, Dickinson further divided her compositional space by making columns to break her poetic lines even shorter. Jen Bervin, again: “One would think that such a space would feel carved up, crammed, but it doesn’t. The page feels bigger yet, as if there has been an insertion of space.”
I cannot see an envelope without thinking of one of my closest friendships, with a bilingual American, which was formed through a prolonged epistolary exchange. We had met at a writing conference during our last year of college, and both of us were planning on moving to France the following fall. That summer, she worked as a maid in a hotel in Oregon, where her coworkers called her “Sarita.” That was how she signed her letters. I can’t remember what I told her about my life in Virginia then. That’s the nature of letters—you keep only one end of the correspondence. What I do remember is this: we talked about how composing a poem felt like crafting an object. There was something about the arrangement on the page, the breakage of lines, which allowed one to really, physically, hold the thing. I found the vocabulary in grad school later: about how time—the poem’s succession of images and ideas—is converted into space, held within the poem’s very shape.
By the time S— and I met again in Paris, where I lived and she’d come to visit from Clermont-Ferrand, a period during which the delayed question of will-they-or-won’t-they hovered above us, we still talked about poetry. We also talked, a lot, about our girlhoods and the objects that grounded our recollections—how tactile memory, the weight of a thing in your hands, was capable of snapping you back to that lost continent of the past.
It wasn’t by a chance opening of a certain cabinet that I found the Kasai velvets. I had searched for them in the collection’s database after reading an article about raffia textile production and use among the Kuba, drawn to the description of their function as funerary gifts. Within the Kuba kingdom, I read, the cut-pile embroidered cloth is known as winu (plural buiin). Though many buiin are produced and traded as a light, portable form of currency, the Kuba fabricate these cloths for their own use as a chart of social relationships. In Ilueemy, the land of the dead to which the deceased travels by crossing a river, social hierarchies are thought to be parallel to those of the village. Thus, the rank of the deceased must be visibly established: Kuba titleholders are buried in layers of decorated textiles, with a winu as the final covering. During the ritual confinement of mourning periods, textile production increases to replenish the depleted stores.
My use of the present tense is suspect—that article is over thirty years old. Another art historian observed, somewhat euphemistically, that with recent “difficulties in maintaining supplies of textiles,” the Kuba display raffia cloths on the body and then return them to a family storehouse, for use in another funeral.
S— was by my side in Paris as my behemoth of a family opined on what kind of life I should live. The sole daughter of a dead woman and the only one of her children to have moved back to France, I dutifully sat through dinners with extended relatives I barely knew, attempting to quash the gnawing feeling that I didn’t belong in those rooms. Feeling underdressed in a curated apartment overlooking the Pantheon, I fielded questions about my future during a time when I was the most rudderless I’d ever been, the only clear directive being to write. The hostess (a second cousin once removed, whom I hadn’t met before) had been close to my mother, I was told. She would look at my face as if trying to see past it, through it, digging for a trace of the woman who made me, the woman I’ve never known. Every dinner had this stinging flavor: I felt like I’d been invited as the ambassador of a country in which I’d never stepped foot.
“You know,” S— said with her characteristic mix of care and bluntness, “you’re allowed to say no.”
A radical suggestion. No, I didn’t know I could turn down an invitation. It wasn’t just a sense of obligation; looking back, I think a misplaced hope motivated me, too—a hope that these familial ties would help me make sense of who my mother was. That I could find her if I followed my maternal line.
Instead of answers, I have the objects she left behind, with their attendant mysteries. Letters from a priest in Salamanca, who signed his name illegibly. A bristly sculpture of a panda. A dozen Hermès scarves, the iconic carrés that signify—that bellow—fille de bonne famille. Ninety square centimeters of thick silk knotted elegantly around her neck for every baptism, marriage, funeral, or fête. I shaved my hair in college and wore them around my head.
It’s possible we might not have understood each other at all, had she lived.
It’s when I read that for the Kuba “To be buried without traditional attire is said to be equivalent to being buried nude” that I realized: I didn’t know what clothing my mother wore to her grave. The question possessed me. I imagined every outfit I’d seen in photographs. The light gray wool skirt with its matching vest? The navy dress with deep pockets? Where did all those clothes go? What would it reveal, anyway, if I learned what she was buried in? It wouldn’t bring her back. It wouldn’t tell me anything. Still, this burning sense that—if I could only picture the fabric—I would know, I would know, I would know.
The professor and I meet to discuss my research on the cut-pile cloths. I’ve spent the whole semester thinking about what the material world reveals to us and what it won’t. I’ve memorized the way the embroidered patterns evolve across the surface, devoured every book I could find on the subject, and still, the textiles are imbued with mystery. I try to voice my despair that these velvets arrived in a private collection with their unique histories silent. That I can’t meet the people who made them. Their social and spiritual meanings are obscured without an understanding of the context in which they were created. Were they made specifically for trade? Were any used in funerary displays? If so, whose? What about the embroiderer? Who taught her how to divide the woven plane, to make the patterns grow across the surface in this way? What was traditional in her methods? What was new—an intuition she felt tugged to follow in the act of composition, something entirely her own?
Instead, I tell him I’ve been thinking of the cloths in relation to Dickinson’s envelope poems, how both set surface and line side by side, how their internal divisions expand— explode—space. I’ve been approaching the velvets as poems, in a language I can’t decode.
He wants to make an introduction—I should meet the curator of an upcoming exhibit at the school’s museum. The Language of Beauty in African Art, it’s called. “How has African art been evaluated—and by whom?” the press release asks. I scroll frantically down the page, letting loose a little yelp when I read, “Beautiful art often plays a role in interactions between the material world of humans and the immaterial world of spirits.”
I’ve still been thinking about the indigo textile from Cameroon, you see. When I encountered it within the context of its making, the n’dop cloth unlocked an understanding of textiles as something other than functional, or decorative. Cloth as code: the geometric patterns delineate an entire cosmology. N’dop is not a relic. It exists in the present tense of Bamiléké and Bamoun rituals, stitching a continuity between the living and the dead.
“Care to go to mass?” my husband asks. It’s Easter Sunday. He wants to sing. Why not, I say. We stand, sit, kneel, repeat. It’s been years since either of us has done this. For most of that time, I’ve described myself as agnostic. A lapsed Catholic. He has an untroubled relationship to this space. Though not a believer, he feels that participating in these gestures, as his parents and grandparents and generations before have, links him to his history.
I pay close attention to the scripture—noting how the Gospel according to John, sending the disciples to Jesus’ tomb, makes no mention of the missing body but focuses, rather, on the burial shroud left behind—and zone out during the rest. I was raised in this religion, with much more intensity than my husband. Catholic school until ninth grade. A particularly fanatical branch of my family took me, almost every summer in my childhood, to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. I think that the last time I went to church, it was in France. The prayers tap into a different part of me there—the melody of that language. My mother’s family loves to remind me that she was quite devout. It hits me like an anvil, as I sit in the pew this Sunday, that I don’t believe. I don’t. A thread that once connected me to my mother snaps. As the deacon strides down the aisle to spray the faithful with holy water, I flinch.
“We forgot to bring an umbrella,” my husband whispers—loudly—and I laugh with a wild irreverence, with unbridled relief.
I cannot see an envelope without thinking of the red leather binder that came to me (from whom?) with all the letters my mother received in the final months of her life. That longing for the missing half of the correspondence. What was she writing about her life then?
It’s possible that I started writing letters to friends because I knew this was something she did, too. A gesture that unites us.
Raffia fibers are coarse, and so, to soften the long wrappers worn against the skin, Kuba artists pound the textile, battering it with heavy sticks. The process of making the cloth thus ruins it. They cover the holes with patchwork appliqué: repair through embellishment.
If there is a more apt image of the way loss might engender complexity and beauty—that desire, that necessity, to make from what remains—I do not know it.
Throughout the time I wondered about the clothes my mother was buried in, I asked no one. I gathered a list of potential sources: my grandmother, my godfather (her brother), her close friend (the witness to her wedding). What if none of them remembered? Couldn’t bear to think that.
Couldn’t bear not to ask.
I began with her friend, whose memory generally functions like a steel trap, but she blinked and shook her head. “Ask your grandmother,” she said. “Anne would know.”
We sat on her front stoop, on a quiet tree-lined street one spring night in Brooklyn. It is hard to find words for this disappointment.
I flew back to Chicago and finished school. Phone calls with my grandmother were spent exchanging news. I almost asked but didn’t; it never felt right over the phone. After graduation, I began working for another professor and spent my hours handling her collection of worn linen napkins, scraps of black lace, damask ruins. What has this kerchief witnessed? I wondered, running my fingers over its topography of mendings.
Cloth! So ordinary, so ubiquitous in our lives that we barely see it anymore. Cloth as a site of transcription, where the line and the substrate are composed simultaneously. The relationship of parts to the whole: inspected closely, a woven field gives way to individual threads, lines moving in a rhythmic choreography: over, across, up, under. And the past—always— embedded there. Holes, frayed edges, unravellings.
“Cloth holds the sometimes unbearable gift of memory,” Jenni Sorkin writes, “And its memory is exacting: it does not forget even the benign scars of accident: red wine on a white tablecloth, water on a silk blouse, dark patches beneath arms on a humid summer day.”
Cloth as a stand-in for the body, as a container—the final container—for the human form.
I blurt out the question, unexpectedly, to my father. I hadn’t planned on asking him; I’d assumed he wouldn’t remember. We rarely talk about my mother. His wife and my husband are with us at the table; the dinner plates have just been cleared.
He answers my question with another: “Why do you want to know that?”
After a flash of annoyance, I think that maybe I shouldn’t have conjured his dead wife’s body in front of his new partner, but it’s too late. My question lingers in the kitchen. A sharp silence follows. He finally tells me that she was buried in the clothes she was wearing the day she died: a forest green-and-brown skirt and blouse. My heart sinks. I have my answer, but the fabric won’t materialize in my mind. I want to ask, What kind of skirt? What kind of blouse? Cotton, wool, plain, striped? But his eyes have clouded over.
I sit with the surprising detail that it was the same outfit she wore while dying—ordinary clothes slipped on one foggy morning late November, what should have been an ordinary Friday, an unremarkable drive.
“Was that a common practice?” I ask my father. He shrugs. Then clears his throat to add, “She walked away from the scene of the accident”—and here he places his finger on his temple—“with just a scratch.” Down the side of his head, he traces a trickle of blood.
His gaze drifts away, far away, toward the kitchen cabinets, but not at fixed on them either. He is thinking—I know it—about how what killed her was all internal, how preventable it might have been. The crash itself didn’t even stain the clothes she was wearing. It barely left a trace. Only a small mark, quick cut—just a scratch.
Lily Lloyd Burkhalter is a French-American writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Current projects include independent reporting funded by the Pulitzer Center, a novel structured by the logic of the loom, and an essay collection about textiles, loss, and language. She learned to sew in Cameroon and to weave in Chicago.
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