On a warm summer’s night in Athens, Georgia, Patrik Keim stuck a pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Keim was an artist, and the room in which he died was an assemblage of the tools of his particular trade: the floor and table were covered with images, while a pair of large scissors, glue, electrical tape, and some dentures shared space with a pile of old medical journals, butcher knives, and various other small objects. Keim had cleared a space on the floor, and the wall directly behind him was bare. His body completed the tableau. Art and artists often end in tragedy and obscurity, but Keim’s story doesn’t end with his death.
A few years later, 180 miles away from Keim’s grave, a bulldozer operator uncovered a pine coffin in an old beaver swamp down the road from Allen C. Shelton’s farm. He quickly reburied it, but Shelton, a friend of Keim’s who had a suitcase of his unfinished projects, became convinced that his friend wasn’t dead and fixed in the ground, but moving between this world and the next in a traveling coffin in search of his incomplete work.
In Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, Shelton ushers us into realms of fantasy, revelation, and reflection, paced with a slow unfurling of magical correspondences. Though he is trained as a sociologist, this is a genre-crossing work of literature, a two-sided ethnography: one from the world of the living and the other from the world of the dead.
What follows isn’t a ghost story but an exciting and extraordinary kind of narrative. The psycho-sociological landscape that Shelton constructs for his reader is as evocative of Kafka, Bataille, and Benjamin as it is of Weber, Foucault, and Marx. Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is a work of sociological fictocriticism that explores not only the author’s relationship to the artist but his physical, historical, and social relationship to northeastern Alabama, in rare style.
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About the Author
Allen C. Shelton is an associate professor of sociology at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of Dreamworlds of Alabama. He lives in Buffalo, New York, next to Billy Sunday’s first church and an old Italian grocery store, and within a half-mile of an abandoned nineteenth-century asylum. There are no pine trees.
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Where THE NORTH SEA Touches ALABAMA
By Allen C. Shelton
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Where THE NORTH SEA Touches ALABAMA
Patrik Keim is dead. I have the obituary. Patrik was a minor southern artist whose career was already in decline when he died over ten years ago. He never sold enough work to support himself. Little of it has survived. Yet he was a strikingly brilliant, if erratic artist. I knew him. He's part of a bestiary that surrounds me that includes my mother, my father, and my grandfather A.C. and his coat; the dogs Red Cloud, Diva, and Ruah; Pearl, who played solitaire as if she were playing the piano; three horses, a ginger-colored pony, and innumerable lizards and frogs; the men I worked with on the farm—the skinny John Parker, Harrison Murray who taught me how to build barbed-wire fences, and Paul Williams the corn crusher; the delicate cat Nadja, who sat on my lap; the enormous rhinoceros beetle I found on the road; the lilac under the pecan tree; the black cat Eli, the gray-haired woman who was my favorite Sunday school teacher, and my son's cat Kudzu who was mangled by dogs; the boy who lived across the street from my grandmother Mary Pullen and the hundreds of bees and fireflies I caught in peanut butter jars around her house; the bobcat who screamed in the back hollow; the red-haired girl who fell out of a truck; the man with a handlebar mustache; and the rattlesnake I killed on the hillside near the Back Barn. The snake felt like velvet in my hands. They're all dead. I owe each of them something.
Patrik would have immediately recognized that he was the only artist on the list. He would've made a joke to cover how flattered he was. He was vain. "Shouldn't I be listed with the dogs?" He had written a short book of poetry called Dog Eat Dog, so this wasn't a stretch. He considered himself kind of an expert on dogs. His work was unlike any artist's I'd met till then. I'd only seen beautiful art. His didn't even pretend to be beautiful. Patrik's works of rot, decay, and sharp glass exhilarated me. I remember wondering where you could put such work. It couldn't come into the house. His work was like a mangy hound. The frames were flimsy and secondhand, held together with electrical tape. Violence wasn't restrained. It bloomed ecstatically. It seems he was right after all. He should've been listed with the dogs. I couldn't see how his work could coexist on the same plane as my mother's red Victorian loveseat or even alongside my Mexican surrealist print. I was innocent. The work was a view into a different kind of supernatural. There were no angels singing. His was a dusky world marked with red splashes. Everything was turning into a fine dust. But there was a weird vibrancy and even hints at redemption, that the dryness would be burst by a bubbling spring and the rotting pieces he used in his installations restored. The red splashes that oft en marked his work could be seen as a hope for a different future. Now it's easy to see how Patrik's works and the red velvet loveseat my mother gave me were entrance points to another world. What world was it? The Victorian writer George MacDonald describes a place where the dead go to wait for Jesus and the resurrection. It's a pleasant place, but oft en lonely. The dead sometimes climb up into the branches of a huge tree from which they can see those they loved in the land of the living going about their lives. The look is from a long way off. Contact is impossible. For each of us, MacDonald reports, a crowd waits on the other side.
In a rare moment Patrik produced something almost lyrical. It was the first piece I acquired from him. I felt like I'd become an art collector. The piece was a framed eight-by-twelve-inch collage. It had no title. It cost me nothing. Patrik asked me if I would take it. I offered payment. He refused. I think he anticipated that I would be his historian and archivist. In a note he writes: "I have decided to leave Athens again—probably in February. Would you like to have a few small things sent to you? (Otherwise they will be discarded) Sure you'd like to be the official P. K. Archives! If there's anything in particular that you remember and would like to have let me know." The frame is a plain smooth black molding. The first layer is a sheet of off-white paper with black flashes occasionally stabbed across it in broad strokes, particularly in the upper left corner. The second layer of paper, laid in the center of the frame, is a piece of sheet music turned on its side so as to turn the musical lines into the intricately woven bars of some kind of prison. The title is 36 Etudes. In the top just off center is a cow's pink stomach turned inside out like a skinned, yawning penis. From its mouth pours a trail of black blocky lines that wind toward the lower right quadrant of the frame and into the right ear of a bald, shirtless man. He has sagging breasts. His arms seem extraordinarily long. His hands are spread like butterflies over the stumps of his legs amputated at the knee. He is blindfolded. He's sitting in a rounded, cushy chair tilted to the front and side that makes it seem he's about to slide like Jell-O into open space. Out of this left ear, the same blocky bars—now red—start up again and march in a regular interval to a tractor with a driver plowing up the bottom left quarter of the frame. A sheet of graph paper is laid on top of the music. The center of the graph paper is cut out so it frames the musical bars, and the hole is colored with what looks like black smoke.
At the very center is a Soviet-era tractor. There is no visible driver. The tractor is stationary, waiting to be turned on. If it could be turned on, what would happen? At the end of the first chapter of Capital, Marx imagines a table coming to life, or rather he senses the liveness inside it staring out at him from what he calls a grotesque wooden brain. Seen with discernment, what appears to be an inert commodity is more akin to a prison cocked up on wooden legs waiting for the right moment to "dance." What Marx meant by dance is a sly reference to the popularity of table-shaking during séances. This was an indication for Marx not of specters but of the liveness trapped in the prison house of objects. In Marx's conceptualization, the entire room, with every object in it, could soon be dancing. A dancing table is just one moving castle in a swarming landscape. Turned on, the tractor's relationship with the music would become clearer. Is the music an artifact accidentally uncovered in the turned dirt, or is it the tractor's job to plow it up? Patrik's designs are caught between these two poles. This is what kept him alive as an artist. Toward the end of his life this magnetic field was broken. If he could've started the tractor, he would've plowed the music under. The legless man is a prophecy of his inability to move.
While Patrik grew more locked in space, I zigzagged across the country from job to job for nearly ten years. I became unable to distinguish between certain dreams and memories. I have this memory of driving into a small town in western New York. I parked my Toyota truck on the square. I knocked on a door next to a tavern. A woman came down. I no longer remember anything about her. Upstairs, overlooking the street, I sat down to a dinner party. I didn't know anyone there. Whether I dreamed this or it really happened, I couldn't tell, but I remember Patrik's work. It was faithful. The filmmaker David Lynch (Patrik admired Blue Velvet) took an account of two estranged brothers in the Midwest. One brother travels five hundred miles on a riding lawn mower to see the other on his deathbed. Lynch pushes the eeriness into the landscape surrounding the lawn mower. At night the silos hum. A dead possum gets caught in the mower's blades. Aft er Patrik gave me the piece, I'm sure he forgot about it, though the cow's organ, the amputee, the easy chair, and the tractors continued to reappear in his work. He was haunted by these things. What moved to the background was the music. Once the tractor was turned on, it could've been used as an escape vehicle or to push the eeriness away from himself. Either one of us could've traveled a different five hundred miles toward the other. Neither of us did. This piece hung on a nail in the Finger Lakes district of western New York, Walla Walla, Tacoma, Des Moines, Las Vegas, South Bend, and now finally Buffalo. Patrik's piece was a map of my future travels out of Alabama following that same blocky trail that initially drew my grandfather Eli north. He went to school at Columbia. Pearl had gone with him. But their time there was temporary. They returned to Alabama with a mahogany and wicker living room set that now sits in my apartment in Buffalo. How could Patrik have known about Eli?
On the surface it didn't make sense. How could Patrik become an integral part of my world from Alabama? He did. Perhaps that's all there is to it. But there are perplexing continuities. Mary Pullen, my grandmother, was a librarian. Patrik worked as a librarian at the University of Georgia. Like my other grandmother Pearl, he collected stray bits of paper that he had filled with lists and notes. Pearl stowed them away in books, creating unintentional collages. On a blank counter check from the First National Bank, Pearl had copied how each of the apostles had come to his end for a Sunday school lesson and then stored the slip of paper in Xenophon's Anabasis along with a note detailing the short history of the Confederate officer John Pelham buried in the city cemetery. This was part of a garden club meeting. The date and the house address were written across the top. She had unintentionally constructed a history of her home and the shift s in the sacred world by adding John Pelham and Xenophon to the list of the apostles. It was a bloody list. Matthew died in Ethiopia. He was killed by the sword. Mark made it to Alexandria to be dragged by horses through the streets. Luke was hanged in Greece. John was boiled in oil but survived. Then he was exiled to the prison island Patmos. Later he was freed and died an old man in Turkey. Peter was crucified upside down outside Rome. James was thrown from the southeast corner of the Temple a hundred feet to the ground. Then he was beaten to death with a fuller's club. James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded at Jerusalem. Bartholomew was whipped to death in Armenia. Jude was shot with arrows. Matthias, who replaced Judas, was stoned and then beheaded. Judas hanged himself from the branches of a redbud tree. Andrew was crucified. Thomas disappeared in India.
Patrik would've read this as if it were a recipe book. The ways he imagined his death can be inferred from his work. In a collage there is a body, face down, arms slightly spread out from the torso. The appendages are chopped into pieces. Another collage shows a list of shock doctors in the United States. Two doctors are in Buffalo just down the street from me. I can easily see a convulsing Patrik strapped into a chair. I'm sure he could, too. The image was probably just under his eyelids. Sharp edges abound in his work. However, the very means he used to exit is never depicted. God, it seems, was torturing Patrik by keeping him alive. His bloody martyrdom was temporarily rescinded. It looked for a time like he would become more like Thomas than Peter and just disappear. Patrik would not have that. His long retreat to his small apartment and death wasn't glorious. He was coming apart toward the end. He became increasingly moody. He abused his medications. He didn't show up for work at The Globe where he bartended and did odds and ends. He was fired from the bar. He was targeted by boys with golf clubs. And then there was always the depressing lack of money. I couldn't send him any. And he wouldn't have taken any anyway. My bills from my divorce and ricocheting from job to job across the country were astronomical. My retreat ended in Buffalo, hardly glorious, but I was more like Xenophon than Patrik.
Xenophon was an Athenian mercenary who led the retreat of ten thousand Greek mercenaries from Mesopotamia to Greece after the defeat of their employer in a dynastic dispute for control of the Persian Empire. He describes this in his book Anabasis. Xenophon was a student and a friend of Socrates. He was with him at his death. Exiled from Athens during the Peloponnesian War, he was employed by Sparta and given an estate. I keep the copy in which I found Pearl's slip of paper on my desk. Xenophon survived defeat. He was no martyr. No statues were erected after his death. In his great work there is no visible nostalgia for Athens, where he was born. Instead he conceptualizes himself as a Greek. Around me as I grew up in Jacksonville, Alabama, were statues of dead martyrs. In the town square there was a Confederate soldier staring north. Off to the side was a large rock with an iron plate hammered into its face commemorating the Confederates who died in the hospital set up in the Presbyterian church. In the city cemetery there was a delicate Italian marble statue of John Pelham. Pelham was a local Confederate hero. He showed a genius for artillery and the ladies. He was killed in 1863 in an indecisive skirmish at Kelly's Ford. His body was purportedly shipped home to Jacksonville covered in wisteria cuttings from his admirers. He was twenty-six years old, still boyish and extremely handsome. This was the origin of wisteria in Jacksonville, a thick skeletal prosthesis of vines and blooms that now shares space with the hickories and lilacs and cat briar. The effect was to start the creation of an entirely new dreamworld of Alabama, unimaginable if John Pelham had lived. His death baptized the landscape. His contribution as a living man was his astute use of horse-drawn artillery. Dead, he was as a doorway between this world and the supernatural. I would see him whenever I accompanied my grandmother to the cemetery to tend the grave of her husband, Eli Landers. Pelham changed the shape of haunting in Jacksonville. The purple clusters of blooms entered the local botanical mythology, along with the Christlike dogwood buds and the red flowers of the Judas tree. John Pelham would step up alongside Jesus in this Protestant world to command the dead. I waited for my commands in this world. The Civil War was the great trial. It defined the women of my family from my mother back to my grandmothers. The men seemed untouched.
Patrik worked on the outsides of books as my grandmother Pearl did on their interiors. Titles became parts of new bursts of writing. Their stylized prints were surrounded by Patrik's broader, wetter strokes, and then, to hold everything in place, he bound them in layers of rubber bands. The effect was to make the insides of books a sealed-off world in which the cover was like a door. By themselves these examples are terribly thin, even desperate. Pearl wouldn't have added Patrik to the list of dead men. His books wouldn't have ended up in Mary Pullen's library, but each of these women was preparing me to see Patrik when I first encountered him as a graduate student in Athens, Georgia. I was on my way to supper downtown. There was an art show in a gallery on the way. I stepped in. I'm not sure I even remembered his name the next day. But why would I? He didn't initially resemble either John Pelham or Xenophon. But something was already different. The installation I saw was a tower of glass panels splattered with blood, like an accident on the farm when a small bird would impale itself on barbwire or when I cut my hands on the tin sheets for the barn roof. Patrik was standing by the door to the bathroom bent over, trying to drink from the water fountain with his heavily bandaged hands when I first saw him. I had been fitted for this moment. In Franz Kafka's famous parable of the law with which he sets up the conclusion to The Trial, the protagonist Joseph K. listens to the parable alone in a strangely dark church. K. has been involved in a mysterious court case. Increasingly he's alone. The exact nature of the charges is unfathomable. The court system exists outside of the state in the shadowy parts of his city, but its reach and power are astounding. For Joseph K. this parable is an announcement of his guilt and execution. The door to the law is fitted to a particular person and that person alone. In his account the penitent never passes through the door. He memorizes the guard down to the tiniest detail. He recognizes the fleas in his beard. As he's dying he asks the guard why no one has gone through the door. As the guard shuts the door he says, "No one else could gain admittance here, because this entrance was meant solely for you. I'm going to go and shut it now." There isn't the slightest hint that either the guard or the penitent peered through the door left ajar. If they had, wouldn't it be the place the Victorian fairy-tale writer George MacDonald called the land behind the North Wind on the other side? Mary Pullen loved this book. Wouldn't the land on the other side, like the door Kafka imagined, be fitted to the individual outside it and that individual alone? Kafka's account doesn't take up this question. The crowd on the other side waiting for me to cross over is as peculiar and idiosyncratic as Pearl's inadvertent collages or Patrik's intentional ones. No one but me could enter through this particular door where Patrik is the guard. And if anyone else could catch a glimpse through the door, wouldn't the landscape be an empty blank space? While for me it would teem with color and the green ankle-high clover from A.C.'s heifer pasture.
Excerpted from Where THE NORTH SEA Touches ALABAMA by Allen C. Shelton. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Where the North Sea Touches Alabama