In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes a series of fantastical places to Kublai Khan, the emperor of the fading Mongol Empire. “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear,” he says. “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
I mention Invisible Cities because it is the only point of comparison I can make to Amy Benson’s new book, Seven Years to Zero. Like Calvino, Benson has created a book that eludes easy classification, its contents part personal essay and part ekphrastic prose poem. But rather than using invented cities or dreams as a framework to explore human behavior, she looks to art, both real and imagined, to illuminate our fears and desires.
Seven Years of Zero tells the story of a nameless couple who moves to a city that resembles New York in the midst of a changing climate and the debris of late-stage capitalism. Although the sea levels are rising and plastic bags are suffocating landfills, the couple decides to have a child. Benson scaffolds their journey through a series of close readings of art shows, which, stripped largely of their context and provenance, become poignant and fantastical ciphers.
Building on the truism that good art writing expands the resonance of a work rather than limiting it, Benson allows each piece to become a universe into itself, whether it is a sculpture that collects visitors’ obsessive thoughts, an imagined installation on the grounds of Chernobyl, or the objects and materials of our daily lives. Living in a city where experiences of nature are increasingly rarified and commoditized, Benson argues that art plays an important role in how we understand our changing relationship to the planet. Each chapter in Seven Years to Zero is an experiment in attention and perception, challenging how we look at a work of art, at the lives we build, or at our connection to the collective “we.”
Benson lives with her husband, the artist Douglas Repetto, and their son in Memphis, Tennessee, where she teaches at Rhodes College. She is the author of one other book, The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, and the co-founder of the First Person Plural reading series in Harlem. Recently, we spent a morning chatting over FaceTime about her book, contemporary art, the first person plural, and the future of the human species.
—Julia Bosson for Guernica
Guernica: I’m always interested in new beginnings. What was the genesis of this project? There are so many threads that connect these essays, but each piece feels spontaneous, like an immediate reaction to a work of art. When did you begin to realize that you were writing a collection of essays rather than flash takes?
Amy Benson: I was working on a book project about a story in my family’s history (I had an uncle who died in Germany during the Berlin Airlift, and a lot of mysteries lingered, especially for my mother). I had done research in Germany, and I had four hundred pages of a draft that just didn’t seem to work. I was dreading returning to it. I had images in my mind where I thought, “I’m going to have to go in there with dynamite and blow it up.” This big piece of concrete is sitting in front of me, and I don’t even know how to get in there and work with it. Just before I had to get to it, I wrote two short completely unexpected essays.
I think the very first one was “Ribcage,” a piece about the Storm King sculpture garden. The second was the piece about my husband’s sculpture, the squirrel cage, “Claw Inside the Skull.” They came right in a row. And I felt so much relief. This was the writing I had been trying to do for a long time. Essays that had more breath and playfulness in them. Those essays also came out of years of trial and error, and of reading work that matched my sensibility. Work by John Berger, Eliot Weinberger, Claudia Rankine, Bernard Cooper, Anne Carson, Sherman Alexie.
I wrote those two pieces a week before I found I was pregnant. I really thought that the baby brought them. I say that facetiously, but there was an odd feeling that it gave to me that I could do what I want. I am no worshipper of maternity, but being pregnant gave me almost a sense of license, even before I knew about the pregnancy.
Guernica: The book is written in the first person plural. This creates an invitation, of sorts: the audience is pulled along with you into the art. You are also the founder of a reading series about the first person plural. How did you come upon that as the language or the voice of this book? What sort of opportunities does that open and what challenges were present in that?
Amy Benson: I read some pieces long ago, and I loved that weird feeling of the voice: I found it spooky, interesting, and unsettling. Personally, I had gravitated toward the first person plural for a long time in my writing and had been told for years to stop doing it. The response was, “You may feel that way, but we don’t anything.” But it was one of those things that I couldn’t help. I couldn’t begin to take in the criticism because it was just part of what I reached for, instinctively, apparently. But I feel like I finally found a way that works, a home for the voice. Now, I find this experience very helpful in talking to students: when someone tells you that something is failing in your work, you can often add a “yet” to that. Maybe something does not work at all, but that doesn’t mean that some of the gestures won’t have a home someday.
In this project, I knew that I did not want the interiority of the “I.” I did not want to conjure any of the things that “I” seems to require, like the feelings and the personal backstory. To me, it’s not a psychological book at all. It’s atmospheric and ecological. I’m not making a blanket statement about the use of the first person singular, because I think there are lots of first person experiences and voices that have never been represented—and need to be. But also, I’m persuaded by the theories about hive mind and the question of what is individuality in our culture now. It has always been somewhat of a farce. Certainly, it’s there to prop up dominant power groups. Who gets to be an individual? Who gets to have feelings and to explore those feelings in depth?
I was sick of that first person singular psychological interiority, which I’d employed in my first book, The Sparkly-Eyed Boy. I worked that to death, and I was not interested in writing another personal memoir. That was the challenge for this book—and maybe for the reader, then, too. I am using “we” throughout when it really is “me” having these thoughts and experiences. But I felt like I was trying to get closer to a sense of the demographics of the future. We have used a lot of earth’s resources to prop up a sense of individuality, personal identity, privacy, comfort, and property. If we don’t have that in the future, how do we get comfortable with our interdependence and fragility? How could embracing that actually become part of the good that we might be able to do instead of trying to continue to demarcate and champion and prop up that sense of the all-important “I”?
Guernica: The “we” in this book is a constantly shifting force. “We” ranges from an individual couple to a mother and child; from viewers of art to the creators of it; from city dwellers to the human race.
Amy Benson: I wanted the first person plural to be all-purpose. I wanted the book to feel like art and not be grounded or waylaid or brought down by those other kinds of questions about who the speaker was or where we were. I wanted it to be a little blurry. I wanted to unhook it from the personal. I wanted you to keep experiencing it as a strange fog that you walk into and then stumble out of, in the way you might experience a work of art. I was a little jealous of the way that artists can use personal material but aren’t weighed down by the same personal questions that people level at literature. When you read art criticism, it’s unlikely to be biographical criticism, but that’s absolutely what happens to a book. And so I was trying to position the book so that it might have a better chance to be independent from me in some way. At one point I imagined, if I was asked for an author’s photo, it would just be a crowd with the back of my head somewhere.
There was a moment in the “Year 6” preface that I come back to more than I thought I would. “We are in it. We are in it. We are in it. We are in it.” That’s the hope of the first person plural: a pervasive feeling of mystery but also the sense that we’re not exempt in any way. We are not special. It is about this vast experience of being alive on the earth at the same time.
Guernica: So many pieces in this book have to do with our changing experience of nature and our planet. In some ways, living in the city, we have to travel to “experience” nature just as we have to travel to experience art. Can you speak to the connection between art, nature, and urban life?
Amy Benson: I wanted them to start to feel indistinguishable in the book. That we want to keep up this divide between places with human density and “natural” places. But I think that’s pretty farcical for the most part now that humans and our by-products are so pervasive. And I think it’s a symptom of human exceptionalism. Our refusal to accept that we’re an animal species, among many. And I like the idea of art that plays at the fringes between made and natural things, like Nina Katchadourian “mending” spider webs with red thread or Andy Goldsworthy painting trails of water through the city and documenting their disappearance. Those seem like gestures that are very much at peace with a decentralized view of humanity. And it seems like it’s worth the effort to get close to that way of being and seeing.
Guernica: I am interested in your choice to leave out the title of the work and the name of the artist from many of the chapters. Reading about art without the context reminded me how magical and fantastical art can be.
Amy Benson: By not, for the most part, anyway, naming the artists and art works, I hoped the book read like a bubble. Like a cloud you walk into and then out of again. One thing that I didn’t want to do was to slight the artist in some way or to feel like I wasn’t crediting them for their incredible work. At one point as I was writing the book, I wondered if it should have photographs of the work. I immediately rejected that. It can be great to have photograph, but it becomes a paging back and forth experience. These essays are meant to be a leap into an imaginative space, both for me and the reader.
When I started working with my publisher, Dzanc, they had some questions about what is nonfiction and what isn’t nonfiction. But they just got more and more comfortable with the book being a mix. First, we talked about having a statement of some sort, defining what was actual and what was imagined. It’s not an interesting gesture to me that anybody would be tricked into thinking that I was trying to pass off something untrue as true. Then, we thought we would include in the back of the book a list of the artists and which chapters they appear in, which would then imply that those chapters that don’t have an artist associated with them are invented. And I had been amenable to that level of clarity—the last thing I want is for a reader to feel betrayed because there are a few invented artists and art works mixed in with the actual ones. By the time we got to the final proofs, they embraced the idea of the book just being itself, living independently in some way.
Guernica: There seems to be a new string of crises every day, and even trying to understand the impact of something like the plastic bags we get in stores or the coffee we drink can be overwhelming. What seems to have resulted is a silence—we aren’t really talking about what’s going on.
Amy Benson: I’ve taught for a while a class on lyric essays, and in it I develop a case about the kind of attention required of you by difficult or mysterious works or new forms. And that care and participation is linked in some way to citizenship. That that kind of reading is part of and practice for being responsible out there in the world. I don’t know how much faith I have left in that idea. But that’s my hope.
And it’s my hope that deep care and attention is part of what we do when we make things, either with words or with materials, and part of what we might get sometimes from an audience. I forget to pay attention or get overwhelmed and depressed, and then I’m reminded over and over again by things that I see, by things that I read. How closely to look and to read and to see and perceive and to question my perceptions. Art and literary writing are my favorite ways to have those reminders.
Guernica: How do we maintain our optimism? What’s your optimism practice?
Amy Benson: That’s one of the things I am trying to figure out. I deeply love John Berger. In a documentary about him, there is a point where he vehemently reacts against optimism. He says, essentially, “Hope, I have hope. Not optimism.” I am still trying to figure out the difference between the two. I don’t know how to talk about these things without sounding callous or cruel. I have a biology degree. I was always interested in evolution, and I do tend to think in terms of larger gestures. I remember when I was in grad school, a friend was talking about the idea of the human species being annihilated, and I was kind of like, “Well yeah, that could happen.” He was appalled that I wasn’t more upset that all of this history of thought and art could be destroyed. But this is what happens to species—they change or they die out—and it is ridiculous to think that this wouldn’t happen to us. I don’t want to ignore the pain and the horrors that people face in the present and will face in the future. But people are full of energy and invention and resourcefulness even when we’re not thinking about species annihilation or adaptation. It’s one of the theories of human evolution, right? That humans evolved the mental capacity that they did through extremely adverse conditions.
As an example, every generation is mourning the demise of the English language. People are always panicking that our language, our culture is in decline. That’s ridiculous. We are very attached to these things that we know and that we rely on now. But things change and we adapt. One hundred and fifty years ago we couldn’t have imagined a landscape crossed by wires and roads and here we are. I think that’s why I had to have that imagined chapter about the artists moving to the area around Chernobyl. It is fascinating how those areas bounce back, without human beings. Even under great stress, biological life is still productive and fecund and weird and things survive in different ways. It’s different from what we know now. I’m always battling in myself between attachment and acceptance.