Part of her forthcoming book THE HOPE OF FLOATING HAS CARRIED US THIS FAR (Coffee House Press, 2015), Quintan Ana Wikswo’s THE DOUBLE NAUTILUS is a suite of photographs, poems, video installations, and solo and collaborative performance. The great Swiss lake stretches its wet along new sewn seams of dirt. Twists of road and perched rock snake along the Alpine borderlands of Italy. Below the Baltic Sea, two enormous chambered nautiluses fall so profoundly in love with one another, growing alongside one another, twisting and turning outwards in a meticulous southward calculus of spiral architecture until, the longing unbearable, they leave their shells to mate on earth. Millennia later, their abandoned shells are disturbed by the creation of sub-atomic particle colliders in Italy and Switzerland, and two scientists go down into the shells in search of answers, and each other. The sheen of this place seems a kind of membrane, as though a thin layer of mineral oils have lubricated its surface, and now I feel this chamber is instead a corridor, a canal, a means of passage for what I cannot say.
For the first five years of my life, I played up above, alongside, and within SLAC, the particle collider at Stanford. In later years, I spent time at CERN, where a love affair with a dark matter physicist introduced me to unimagined misadventures within the corridors and tunnels beneath the Alps. There is a certain starry-eyed romance of the intellect associated with particle colliders – sites of cosmic mystery, and scientists forever poised on the precipice between theory and proof. Between the two, a chasm. In many late-night conversations, I watched the scientists at CERN display a seemingly unbearable, excruciating yet delightful longing for answers from an enigmatic cosmos…an obsessive quest that has always seemed to me to resemble erotic frustration. Within the friction are mysteries large and small: why are we here? why are the shells of so beautifully nacreous, when their sea creature inhabitants are nearly blind?
excerpt from THE DOUBLE NAUTILUS
by Quintan Ana Wikswo
The alpine borderlands of Italy, our twists of road and perched rock structures – the softness of our soil was never more than a false promise, for below it all is rock and fundament. Along some distance, the road follows the enormous twisted corpus of these spiraled beings, these half-mined husks that came to grow around their flesh – their annulated chambers whorl beneath the Alps, the high lands near Athens, and into the blackened angry forests of the Slavs before vanishing deep below the flatlands at the Baltic Sea.
Amidst this rise of mountain that forms the creatures’ crest? The bronchial lung of the particle collider, and its quantum mysteries of matter.
These were the early days of the particle collider, and the geology of its future home was under scrutiny. Because of the structural engineering research for this multinational enterprise, contemporary scientific inquiry surrounding the origin and structure of our nautilus was briefly reinvigorated. Its possibilities ignited a tide of curiosity that promised to raise all ships.
Project funds, peer reviewed articles – anything seemed possible.
It was late summer in Rome, and I had arrived in the lecture hall of the mathematics building – early, earnest, and half-hearted – to prepare for my lecture on Spira Mirabilis, Bernoulli and Torricelli. I arranged the chairs in an array of thin, long strips with few rows, somehow hoping this would settle my nerves. Averse to caffeine, I had taken several espressos, each with two cubes of ice: they arrived in my stomach with such abrasiveness that I wondered if I should soon give frictive birth to pearls.
I opened the windows to let in the damp air of early morning.
I was setting a prospectus upon each chair. It contained my credentials, my area of specialization in the spirals of Theodorus and Fermat, of Archimedes and Euler and lituus and Cornu.
The light streamed into the room from the north.
She entered, a stern and curious assemblage of spectacle and movement and intent.
There are hawks whose bodies hunt in similar equations. Their success calibrated on a commanding pitch of directional flight, a calculated angle of descent.
She critiqued my publications, and I checked all her equations. There were rare moments in which I could look at her while her head was turned, and I wished to run my fingers along the channels of stretched flesh below her breasts, across her slip of nose, her stabile and confident armature of bones that arrayed themselves in delicate jaw line, shoulder, hip.
We were a continent of want, all flesh and blood and brain.
Some mornings, I wake down here with bruises that cannot be explained. At times they encircle my body in a logarithmic array. As the height of the chambers lower, I find myself on my hands and knees, and the luster of this shell seems more her skin than stone. There is a seashell scent to it, and I dip my mouth to lick its sheen as though the hollows of her hips narrow to define a place where I can extract some nourishment from her. My tongue leaves a trail of saliva along her length, stretching for miles upon miles of endless need.
Going down, one must fill the ears with cotton, and bandage the eyes with gauze against this cryptic, nacreous half-light that can neither illuminate nor obscure.
I wonder: could the iridescence here be the source of trouble?
The nerves of my cornea, arrayed in logarithmic spiral, break down within this nautilus. Perhaps it is the similarity of biologic architecture that causes destructive interference – a nest of spirals in the eye, with the impact of Medusa’s tangled snakes: at first the sight grows dim, then begins to blur until a white night of opacity descends.
Mine is a visual madness.
This kind of light begs an eyelid’s shuttered gaze.
When the vista ahead cannot be comprehended or believed.
THE DOUBLE NAUTILUS is supported by the Corporation of Yaddo, Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus, and Byrdcliffe Colony.