Deirdre Logue

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Reading the Desert

by Deirdre Logue

A Death Made

Watching Frank's films, which open and close with his grandfather's last moments, made me think of my own endings. Frail and oblivious, I am hoping my fall from grace will be short and painless. Knowing it will be so much more besides, I struggle to absorb Frank's stark images. It takes a while to adjust to the light, but once inside his proposition, Frank proves an irresistible draw: his films are a magnetic field that surrounds us both.

Less isn't more in Frank's films, less is less, and we don't get much of that either. Frank's films document the taking away of so much — the telephone, the cabinet, the lamp, a breath — all stolen away from the lens in an urgent, almost mean kind of way, as if we've had a fight. Frank begins by taking away everything he doesn't need, which, as it turns out, is almost everything.

After these removals, the scene is set and Frank moves with precision into preparation, action and reflection. The framework is so simple, so spare at times, that the sound of his voice arrives as a shocking intrusion. Frank's self-portraits are carefully organized; nothing is approximate or taken for granted. We see Frank as he would wish us to see him: lean and focused. He is pure purpose.

Frank's films are a consideration of detail and always he begins with questions of form: the composition, the shape of the light, the picture plane revealed. What he is busy recording is not the place where he is, or his journey, or his hopes. He is recording instead the place these might have rested, once, when he was still human. The pictures of his grandfather do not show death at work, instead, they are death itself, the raw embodied experience, endured again and again in an endless walk across the desert.

Frank Like Me

I do not wonder who is taking these pictures of Frank because even though I know there has to be someone else, these pictures are by Frank and Frank alone. His room, where he trains for his walks, is like a desert in miniature: flat, dry, barren, hard, full of snakes and rage. Teeming with potential thieves, this place is a temporary map. Like me, Frank starts only what he knows he can finish. He chooses small spaces at first to test his abilities. He overprepares, turns the camera toward his efforts and takes his last steps for the first time.

Once the room is clear, it is time for the larger room of the desert. The clearing never stops. What he is showing us, frame after frame, is the act of clearing the room. For the sake of his invisible pictures, Frank's teenage defiance is quickly overcome by barren stretches of land. Fanning from his tired shoulders, the desert becomes wings. The longer he walks, the older the young Frank gets, and like me, Frank gets better-looking. His aging accelerates as he gets closer to what he wants. Frank is becoming familiar with this place, we see him as part of it now, realizing he will not be turning back. Like me, Frank prefers ground to sky, and likes to pretend he needs no one. Driven by the impossible, Frank tends toward the immersive.

As Frank walks, the serpent rises. He drinks the dead man's water and skins a snake on principle. Frank asks the scorpion to give in, just this once, for him. His beard grows slowly to better outline his face. What looks like water turns out to be gasoline, while air becomes fire. Bathing in a mirage of soap, Frank stays clean. And swallows, loudly.

The Learning Curve

Watching his films, I learn that deserts may not receive more than ten inches of rain per year. Deserts are often covered with rocks and pebbles and surfaces much less glamorous than those silken mountains of fine red sand reproduced in airline magazines. I learn that deserts aren't so much about what they have, but about what they don't have. Deserts are cold at night because they lack cloud cover to retain the day's warmth. What kills most often isn't heat or thirst, but lack of food.

Some deserts don't see rain for fifty years, though fog may bring reprieve. It arrives overnight and leaves a magnificent dew, dripping from sharp needles. Droplets touch down on seeds, some of which have lain in a dormant state for thirty years, waiting for this very day when just enough moisture will arrive to waken them. At night, bats drink from short-lived cactus flowers. In the morning, desert locusts emerge just as small plants bloom for the first and last time.

Watching Frank's films, my romantic attachment to the desert wanes and I can better regard the menace, the crust. The Sahara looks like Africa's necklace and Frank follows along the throat. Entire days slip past as he attempts to record his picture. He labours, fighting panic. I learn to keep going.

Sky's the Limit

Lately I have felt tearful, thin-skinned, paranoid and distrustful. Events accumulate on my surface. It's very different from the horizonless horizon of the desert, where the optic nerve is released in a succession of panoramas. Returning from a trip to London, my eyes are still turned inward, recoiling from the congestion and surveillance cams. My flight from Heathrow to Toronto is still in progress while I write this. The sky outside my face-shaped window is 39,000 feet above the soil and concrete and ocean below, yet it looks a lot like its desert cousin, sharing a beautiful strangeness. Lacking the warmth of the desert but having many of its other characteristics, the sky is inhospitable, vast and unrepeatable.

I have been up in the sky many times without ever once hoping for it. Instead, I have always wanted to go to the desert, but managed only once. My parents used to vacation in the Arizona roadside, and it was there we took our last trip as a family. We were soon torn apart with confusion as my dad, unbeknownst to us, suffered from dementia. At night he would wake me up over and over again to help him find the car keys. Each day as the sun blazed onto the golf course just outside, my dad stayed indoors and watched the Weather Channel with great concentration, his hand trembling as it hovered over the remote to prevent unwanted channel change.

On a more recent trip to Arizona, I travel without my dad (and from then on it is the same; this trip marks a new moment of decline — when we greet each other we are also leaving, we are both alone in a new way). My girlfriend, mother and I drive for three hours around the Apache Trial. Terribly carsick, I cling to the passenger door and notice signs that seem to guide or point us forward. I take pictures with a small disposable camera purchased at the last place we saw people. Back home, the pictures show the difference between signs pointing in the right direction and signs pointing in the only direction.

On the flight I watch the film Juno. Like the lead character, my sister is also pregnant, and I hope my dad will feel ready to go after the baby is born. He knows nothing about her baby, which is due close to his birthday on September 10, seventy-six years ago. The beginning of one life and the end of another. Will my sister's child make it easier for me to say the last words as if they were enough?

My dad keeps fighting. Caught between living yes and no. Why won't he give up and give in, release himself and all of us from this terrible stasis? I want his death to come sooner than later, and in this wish there is also the beginnings of writing, and an inevitable delay. I watch the films again and see Frank's grandfather about to die. Ready or not, he is moments away and I know I have to write about this too. Most often when I look, I can see Frank walking again, facing death, pushing past his fears. The writing is not a way to speak about my father or about Frank Cole, but a suggestion, a whisper, of how one might approach what cannot be said.

The plane still in the air, I see the sky, clouds underneath us now like the coarse salt on the desert floor that willingly take the shapes of Frank's boots. How much longer?