For Teju Cole
I want to tell you about a dream. It was of a tree. A drawing of tree. A dream of a drawing of a tree. Once, I wrote to you, You can show me this park and I can name the birds in its trees. And you wrote in reply, You can even name the trees, and we talked about looking without seeing—the struggle to name.
A different day, I returned to my desk at work to find a small green book, A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves. I turned its pages—paper like a memory of trees—and remembered, which is to say, tried to remember. What is the memory of a thing in a dream? It is a memory of a thing. What is a thing? And can memory name?
The tree was black. It had contour but no texture. It was tall and thin and black. The trunk was black. The branches and their few leaves were black. And then it fell, slowly, yet never revealed its roots. What do you call the memory of a shadow of a thing in a dream?
I want to tell you about another dream. I bought a book. I bought a book of photography. I don’t remember the photographer’s name, though she had a name. Inasmuch as the photography in our dreams does and does not exist, I had never before heard of this photographer. If someone was to ask me, What do you remember of her name? I would answer, Wisława Szymborska.
The book and its photographs took shape in a format that does not exist, inasmuch as the format of our dreams does and does not exist. The book was tall, yet its pages were slight of width. Each verso was white. Each recto was a photograph, full bleed. What is a blank page next to a photograph but the struggle to name, to give space?
I purchased the book because it reminded me of you, your images, and the feel of your looking. Reminder leads to remembering—the images were of the backs of men and women, always seated. I remember a focus on position and posture (how their bodies were), print and pattern (how our bodies wear), and place as much as people (how our bodies want).
And I wanted to say to you, This book, these images, remind me of you and your images, but sometimes such a declaration, despite its connection, detaches the artist from place and person. We are related to and influenced by what’s come before. We are lineage and wake. Yet, in the same breath, shouldn’t we also give space to breathing?
We spent a few moments that morning searching the various archives of images available to us. At first, you had misread me, not realized this encounter with this book and these images first took place in my dreams. And yet if you had simply acknowledged the dream as dream, what would we have never found? When we search for ghosts, do you we not find bodies?
And so we begin, out of recollection and connection, the creation of a new collection. I ask you and others, Have you seen this photograph? as I hold up a hand holding nothing. And perhaps they reply in drawings and dreams, poems and paintings, breath and body—or something else, something new.
As I continue to search and research, find and am given, I become obsessed not with the unattainable but with all the things we might and can obtain. I remember you once writing a word I’d never seen or heard before. Inshallah. I read it several times, repeated it aloud—how it flowed and flowered even without understanding, a name without naming, a break from struggle. I looked it up and felt as I had before I’d known. Inshallah.