Photo by Jane Silcott
Jane Silcott explores the ideas of beauty and mimicry both in theory and in the wilds of a motel complex.
A friend of mine tells me that a good story generates tension between the narrative and the lyrical, something he learned in a poetry workshop. The narrative goes along the X-axis, the lyrical along the Y-axis, or the other way round, he says. Too much X and it’s flat, too much Y and it doesn’t make sense. This makes writing sound a bit like math, which can be comforting. I like the idea of math, and I like knowing there are people in the world who quantify things that are difficult for me and make lines and angles and numbers out of them.
The other night on the blackboard at the back of the classroom where I teach a writing class, someone from a previous class had drawn a graph illustrating the law of supply and demand, or maybe it was economies of scale, or maybe even the “indifference curve,” with one variable represented on the X-axis, the other on the Y-axis. In the space between was one of those perfect rising arcs that makes you think of soft hillsides of waving grasses and sunsets and other hopeful things, not dreary economic conundrums mulled over by men who look like Warren Buffett.
Our topic that night was definition, so we talked about ideas like persistence and family and love and then how we could define them on paper, one way being to set a thing among its fellows in a category and then to find the elements about it that made it unique. As the students wrote I looked at the graph at the back of the room. On the way home I happened upon a radio show about the meaning of beauty, and I drove on listening to disembodied voices doing what we had been trying to do in the class, pin down something that shivered and slipped out from under us. I wanted someone to say what it is about beauty that startles us so and hoped they would consider proportion and the golden mean, as one of my students (a mathematician) had done in an essay, and then gone beyond that to consider why humans respond so viscerally to something that can be expressed in numbers. But the moments of beauty the voices ascribed most passion to were acts, not visions: people doing good rather than scenes or images of looking good. Eventually someone used the word grace, and one man, David Adams Richards actually, said he’d seen people in the deepest poverty show their true selves “without mimicry.” Mimicry: I thought mimicry was a kind of party trick, not something behind which we hide our “true selves,” but the program ended before I could learn more.
An entry in Wikipedia defines mimicry as a perfectly respectable biological survival tactic categorized by a variety of styles. Batesian mimics, for instance, are creatures that assume the colouration of more dangerous relatives to avoid being eaten by predators, and are named for Henry W. Bates, an English naturalist, but I think of Norman Bates from Psycho instead and wonder if scientists ever consider the confusion the name might evoke. Or do they amuse themselves by thinking that Norman Bates initially looked harmless, but was actually dangerous, so the name could be a scientific paradox, a little joke in the language. Remember Janet Leigh’s scream in the shower and Bates’s shadow against the curtain: if she had not been beautiful, would he have bothered to attack her?
Vavilovian mimicry is the name given to weeds that mimic the colouration and shape of the plants they grow among. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a man who looks at first glance a little like Groucho Marx, and then after closer study, a little like my grandfather, who was born four years before Groucho. This was the late nineteenth century, the moustachioed era, when men grew Fuller brushes under their noses and looked out at cameras as if they were defending themselves from assault. Müllerian and Mertensian mimicry apply to species that borrow traits from one another to fool others into thinking they’re harmless when they’re actually dangerous, which is nefarious, if you ask me, and not a little mean-spirited, but scientists don’t attribute judgement to their categories, and they don’t spend time thinking about the sound “Mertensian mimicry” makes in the mind, but then is it reasonable to divide people into categories: scientists and non-scientists and such, or is that another sort of nefariousness—to imagine oneself fitting neatly into one category and therefore unable or unwilling to consider the usefulness of being the kind of person who can adapt and fit into another?
Last weekend my family and I went to the interior of BC to visit relatives. We usually check into a quiet motel filled with other ordinary families like our own, so it’s not a time when we feel a need for performance or guardedness of any kind. But this was the May long weekend, a paradigm shift apparently, during which the town fills with people excited to be alive and drinking beer. I had booked a motel we’d stayed at before, one of those little places near the lake where the rooms are consecutively numbered units in a long one- or two-storey building that forms a squared-off horseshoe around a parking lot. We have a photo of my husband and daughter in the middle of one of those horseshoes years ago, their bodies surrounded by empty space. Their backs are to the camera and they’re walking toward the lake, which shimmers before them. They’re holding hands. My daughter, who was two at the time, wears a little blue dress that flares out from her legs. Her hand reaches up to my husband’s. You can see in her posture, in the shape her blue dress makes against the sky that this is beauty in its highest form: grace in their fingertips and in the space between them.
When we pulled into this parking lot on this night, we wondered if this truly had been the motel where we’d stayed all those years earlier. A party was in full swing at one end of the lot—a circle of motorcycles, people spilling out of an open motel-room door. As we got out of the car, two young women walked past us toward the party, their faces already smeared loose with alcohol, their bodies linked at the arm, their voices loud. They were moving in that way you do when you know you’re going toward something exciting, possibly sex, and you’re still young, and you don’t know what that’s going to mean to you, but you know you want it, or your body does. Your body is going ahead of you toward the music and the beer and the men and the smoke and the voices jangling out in the night air.
We looked at each other. “Shall we just check out now?” my husband said. We found a place two doors down with no party going on and a manager who promised she never slept on May long weekends “in order to keep a lid on things,” as she put it. There was a group of women on one side of the horseshoe who were yelling happy remarks to one another, and at the end a pod of men, greying and bearded, sat in plastic chairs, their motorcycles parked in front of them. Our room was directly above them. As we walked past, the men didn’t look up, and their voices rolled out the syllables companionably among themselves. Outside our door, I paused to listen more closely to them, my radar tuned for talk of parties. “I’ve paid every month, and I pick them up every weekend, just the way the judge outlined it, so I’m doing my bit,” one of the men said. I braced for the response, which I imagined would be bitter and tinged with long-cherished wounds, but the voice was so quiet I couldn’t hear it, so I went into the room, and the night settled. We slept undisturbed except for the loud sighs of our teenage son shifting uncomfortably on his bed.
The next day as my daughter and I walked toward our car, one of the men smiled and said, “Are you here for the soccer tournament?” I said no, but our eyes met in that shared space that soccer parents recognize anywhere. We’ve stood on the same sidelines in the pounding rain. We’ve yelled the same words of encouragement to our kids.
We spent the day among family, among the various bits of our criss-crossed DNA, where we enjoyed the new baby among us, wondering whose eyes she had and where she got her delicate limbs, and delighting in the way she communicated with us, her smiles sparking out at us, making us laugh and look at each other with a new line of connection, another rising bit of hope arcing between us.
When we got back to the hotel, the men in the room below were busy packing up their bikes. My husband said, “They’re Hells Angels,” and I said, “No, they’re not. They couldn’t be.” “They’re wearing their colours,” he said. I studied them from the safety of our room above, and saw that indeed they were, even the man with the gentle face, who had talked about soccer. They called out to one another over the sound of the bikes. One of them commented on an empty house behind the hotel, an attractive place, well proportioned, with large picture windows on either side of the front door, a place I could imagine us living in, filled with space and light. “Look,” the Hells Angel said. “We should buy that. It’d be a great place for parties.” I didn’t hear the response because they gunned their bikes at that moment and the roar of their engines slammed into us like fists, or declarations.
Jane Silcott writes essays, stories and poems, and she teaches at UBC and SFU. Her work has been published in many periodicals, most recently in Eighteen Bridges, Fiddlehead and Room. Read more of her work at geist.com.