Article by Kenyon Victor Adams
April 25, 2020
Sheltering at home has made city life express the kind of stillness usually associated with greener spaces. This observation, though, relies on an account of biological activity that is losing relevance with each new day. The forest in many ways rivals the bustle of the metropolis, and what appears as stillness in the meadow, grove or wetland is actually roiling with innumerable circumstances. Taking note of such fullness requires a different perception than we are often asked to apply, for which the recent silences of streets, stairways, airports, cafes, pools, and paths lends to us— through the memory of their enlivenment—some new and useful skill. It is this skill that underscores the practices of the poet. And it is within such silences, full while seeming spare, that poets have sought to enliven the spaces in which our lives are contained.
James Baldwin argues convincingly that the vocation of the poet is synonymous with that of all artists. Baldwin’s sense of mutuality between the disciplines, evident in his own oeuvre, signals perhaps a central work or concern. I’d like to imagine that a theologian, too, when conversant with artists, joins in the same kind of vocation. Could it bear the name joyworking described by Dr. Willie Jennings? Joy work, as perceived by Jennings, is cultivated in sequestered spaces, communities, often of those facing profound and distinct oppressions. It is the work of survival unfolding into a buoyant, daring, extended triumphant resistance against despair, death, and all of its forces. After so many of our noises have been reduced in this health crisis, it seems that a substantive poetics is necessary to uncover what remains in the silences.
Discovering what remains may, surprisingly, remind us, although in seed form, of joy itself: the uncanny force of joy, its durability as well as its connection to material things: to place and time and memory. Joy is akin to pain, not merely its paradox but its qualitative, reciprocal companion. Indeed, joy may itself be a way of perceiving suffering, but through the lens of the vision toward which suffering dares us to reach. Joy consists of a marvelous scale of perceptions, encompassing inexpressible vastness and smallness.
It seems fitting, in this most distinct of springs, to reconsider the Arts Initiative’s examination of joy. We first gathered artists at Grace Farms for our Practicing Joy convening in the spring of 2018. The program followed a memorably long winter in Connecticut. During which blustering season, the luminous multidisciplinary artist, Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, visited Grace Farms and inhabited the Court volume of the River building in order to further develop Cellular Songs, the latest music theater work in Monk’s five-decade corpus.
Monk’s investigations signal the close observer toward a subject which, like Cellular Songs, immerses the imagination in the negligibly small and awkwardly grand tensions that harmonize, animate, and define all life. Even as she instructs her audience to consider the essential hiddenness of life’s most critical structures, Monk celebrates and warns us about its utter immensity and grandness. This work of taking up the impossibly particular in order to see that which is now and that which is beyond, is a joy-making kind of work. Monk—herself the “happy woman”, the “crying woman”, and the “dying woman”—carries the microscopic units elemental to life as if to an altar, held in hands, in song, and in the bodies of her ensemble. Like the SANAA-designed River building, Cellular Songs expresses being within and alongside, at once. In the same way, joy keeps us in proximity always to other spaces, within and beyond ourselves.