Issue 37, The Opposites Game
Poem by Brendan Constantine, Art by Cornelia Parker and moi
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?
It’s a rainy morning in London, and a lot has changed in the two weeks since the last issue. Two Sundays ago I decided to get on a bus and go to the nearest art supplies store - something I don’t think I’ve done in nearly two decades. I picked up some beginner oil painting supplies and distinctly remember feeling a sense of fear – and not knowing at first what was wrong.
I came back home and threw myself into learning oil painting. In about 10 days I have made 5 artworks - a surprise even to myself. I now know what the fear was, too; it was my subconscious being faced with the idea that I’m all out of excuses and that certainly my life was going to change. Despite never having done oil painting before, the paintings arrive almost like water, moving on the path of least resistance.
Someone recently said to me “You are not a problem to be solved”, and I was stunned – stunned at how as a designer, my education has been hard-wired for problem solving, externally and internally. I don’t think I ever questioned to what end the solving was for. The answer almost always is power - power to companies or to the user. What else can we do in a world organised around power?
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Today I want to share a poem with you by Brendan Constantine, one that tends to surface when senseless violence is in the news cycle again. It’s a little on the longer side, so feel free to watch the video reading of the poem instead:
The Opposites Game
for Patricia Maisch
by Brendan Constantine
This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. My life had stood
a loaded gun, it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –
Had stood ? Will sit
For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –
Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That's stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts
and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It's a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?
A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You're so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It's a whisper, a star,
it's saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone's ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president
of Stupid-land? You should be, When's the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it's a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl
snatches it from my hand. Nothing's decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.
There's a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.
It's a diamond, it's a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It's the moon, it's a mirror,
it's the sound of a bell and the hearer.
The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.
Well, maybe. Maybe it's everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn't say. It's words and the spaces for words.
They're looking at each other now. It's everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.
It's everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it's a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.
Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems
I love this poem so much, because it shows how clearly as children we understand the antidotes to power – flowers, pillows, kittens, love, the moon, a museum, a star, art, etc. We know deeply what living means, and yet as we grow up the systems around us collapse our realities into a state of very few possibilities.
This week I went to an exhibit at the Tate Museum showing the work of the artist Cornelia Parker. It’s rare to see a celebrated artist who’s work retains the playful curiosity we all have as kids – I am endlessly fascinated by people who are able to pull at that thread even as it surfaces more questions. Parker takes something imbued with power – money or silverware or guns or rattlesnake venom – and casually neutralises it.
If what you’re after is some more inspiration yourself, I recommend The Sample, a newsletter that curates a new type of newsletter to your inbox every time, or check out some books from my curated Bookshop.org list.