BooksWeekend

An Author’s Ode to Eyelashes

In place of the Surrealists’ obsession with the eye, poet and visual artist Tiziana La Melia’s debut collection adopts the eyelash as an emblem.

Cover of The Eyelash and the Monochrome, design by Typesmith, image by Tiziana La Melia, “body drain” (2015), ink on paper, 21.6 X 27.9 cm. (all images courtesy Talon Books)

didn’t have the book long before it got sopping wet. My partner had been watering the Queen of the Night cactus that hangs over the corner of the record cabinet where I wantonly pile the books I’m reading. The water seeped through the soil, overflowing the terracotta dish and pooling on the purple face of poet and visual artist Tiziana La Melia’s The Eyelash and the Monochrome, whose cover curled like a set of cosmetically crimped follicles.

This warped book now ripples as I turn the pages, creases lending sonic and haptic textures that, oddly enough, seem to amplify the book’s poetics.

They pond

Listen to swallowed air

withering in pails of water slinking.

I pond they swallow

Open to any page in The Eyelash and the Monochrome and some similarly startling, deliciously clunky spume of language comes tumbling out. Words jostle and verses churn. In fact, churning might be the best way to describe La Melia’s poetics: She thickens language and renders the fatty parts of speech, producing the verbal counterpart of the glinting, speckled trout that lies gutted and rumpled on the table in an opulent still life photograph within the book.

Pages 78 to 79 of The Eyelash and the Monochrome, Tiziana La Melia, production images from 3 Pockets di O Getti (2013)

As with many of the images in this generously illustrated book of poetry, the colors and textures in this photograph are riotous. Among the mess of forms on the wooden table, I spot a boiled lobster encased in its crimson shell, three gold hoop earrings, a buffed silver platter, glossy magazine paper folded into origami, a length of nylon rope, a copy of the The Wall Street Journal, fresh citrus, and sprigs of rosemary, in addition to the trout. In other words: a strange and vaguely Lenten feast.

La Melia’s images — a mixture of installation photography, computer generated artwork, drawings, paintings, and photocopies — share a definite sensibility with her writing. The compositions are sensuous and playful. Surfaces have their day, as if wanting to prove themselves anything but. Here, counterfeit is the genuine article, and mutability is profound. Consider an encounter with a duckweed-covered pond: “A split second before stepping over the edge, I experience an oozing schism and stop myself from falling into the water. From far away I perceive the dots as a solid plane, easily mistaken for concrete painted green.” As with the pond’s deceptively solid surface, things in La Melia’s writings appear to be other things: “The Eyelash functions like a whisker,” we are told, “and the whisker bears some relationship to the brush […].” “Lick a toad but it’s a stack of bills.” One wonders what may happen “When what appears to be cooked chicken is a bee.”

Page 56 of The Eyelash and the Monochrome, Yellow Pages Improv, magazine cut-out (detail), variable dimensions, 2014 (photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

This masquerade, with its current of transformation — of green concrete into mossy pond, frog into money, fish into napkin, language into image, and image into poetry — is one axis on which the book pivots. It presents a vision of the world through the meshed locks of blinking lashes, a gaze that obscures images and disrupts their flow.

In this respect, as also in her “she-dandyism” (to borrow a term from fellow poet Lisa Robertson), La Melia’s work reveals connections to Dada and Surrealism, variously refracted through Pop Art, feminist materialism, and other influences. Like the Surrealists, La Melia is preoccupied with perception and vision. In place of the Surrealists’ obsession with the eye, however, her work adopts the eyelash as its emblem. Delicate yet needle sharp, slight yet unbreakable, sensuous, uncanny, the eyelash can detach from the self and turn up again, “like the one I saw on my cheek this morning.” Eyelashes protect the eye but can also “scratch the delicate skin around your eye and cause a minor infection.”

Working detail from pattern for The Eyelash and the Monochrome (Spread 4), on page 32, eyelash graphic by Sylvain Sailly (2014)

Throughout the book, La Melia puns on the (eye)lash as a whip (one section, for instance, is titled “8 Lashes of Baby’s Breath”) and calls attention to its eroticism in lines like: “Is the Eyelash all I need to draw to make a perversity?” and “The lower baby-doll Eyelashes are very, very innocent.” These coquettish lashes come into relief against the backdrop of “the chaste, white monochrome,” which is the book’s other axis, functioning as weft to the warped eyelash. La Melia couples the eyelash and the monochrome to make a miniature cosmos or, perhaps, a tragicomic duo.

The poet is at her computer, cursor lingering over the virgin page: “A black line the width of a single eyelash blinked. Occasionally it moved across the blank,” she observes. At another moment, her attention lands on “two houseflies sexing … on blank walls,” and this vision folds into her meditation on “the insect mesh [that] was a door reposed, for use both as a mattress and a sieve.” Computer screens, blank walls, and screen doors are all manifestations of the monochrome, whose fierce monotony is interrupted only by the pulsing cursor and “sexing” flies.

Gazing at the monochrome, the mesh, the pixels of a computer screen, she reflects: “I wondered how the simple weave of something you stare through every day might begin to organize the rooms in your mind.” I wonder about this too — the effects of repetitive mediations of the senses over long stretches of time.

I think of classical sculpture’s classical edges.

Repetitive and monotonous and irreversible like cellulite.

[…]

transparency itself unveiled, finally transparent to its own

vacuity (81)

As La Melia constructs oppositions between monochrome and eyelash throughout the book (paralleling those of chastity/looseness, regularity/spontaneity, mechanical/organic form, etc.), she simultaneously unravels them through writing and image. The flirtatious eyelash at first commands more attention, but with time we find the prudish monochrome is not without charm. The monochrome, displaying all the generosity of a blank canvas, plays the straight man to the dramatic eyelash, creating the very grounds for its performance. After all, it’s:

in that quiet valley of a blank in which the Eyelash spoke to me. The moment felt like the edge, like performing a full split, like having the perfect arc in my foot. Awakened from that sluicy haze and taken to the margin’s chasm, I let out a giant sigh of relief; to be emptied of an identity allowed me to enjoy the lack around me. It felt like wearing lace.

The Eyelash and the Monochrome (2018) by Tiziana La Melia is published by Talon Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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