Notes from underground

Mar 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

You remember the durndest things when you’re hunkered down in the storm cellar.

There were these three coffee table books in our living room that I obsessed over as a kid.

In my earliest memories, I’m sitting alone at a low table compulsively flipping through a collection of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photos in a book called “The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater,” an M.C. Escher book, and a glossy, bound photo essay about the 1974 Louisville tornado called, somewhat unimaginatively, “Tornado!” (Yes, there was an exclamation point in the title.)The combined associative effect of these images on my developing psyche is difficult to articulate, but it seems clear to me now that those solitary experiences were formative, and all these years later, I think of those books regularly.

While it’s unlikely that I consciously drew correlations between the books as a 5-year-old, I’ve often wondered how the images and their streams of association have mingled with and catalyzed one another in my little mind-brain. What they all shared in common, I realize now, was a persistent presentation of the uncanny — a word I use here to describe the feeling that something is simultaneously very familiar and utterly foreign.

Meatyard’s photos frightened the absolute bejeezus out of me and were, in equal measure, totally irresistible. The desolate American geographies in his simple compositions were populated by children and adults normal in every regard but for the grotesque, distorted masks they wore, rendering the familiarity of the human form as something completely alien. Likewise, the impossible geometry and physics of Escher’s lithographs suggested that things might be other than they appear and that what’s apparent to our senses may be underwritten by a co-operation of unseen but interconnected forces.

In hindsight, I can see how my fascination with the tornado book worked in a similar fashion. What I understood in my 5-year-old waking life to be my home (Louisville, the Highlands, Cherokee Park) was recognizable but essentially altered in the photographs of that book.

The most memorable picture in “Tornado!” showed the Daniel Boone statue at the bottom of Eastern Parkway about a half mile from where I grew up. The statue’s iconic profile, which I’d admired on countless car rides, looked exactly the same in the picture as it did in real life — it was a photo, after all.

But the difference in the terrain between the world as I knew it and the one described by the photo — where Boone stands alone in a completely devastated landscape — elicited an uncertainty that was really unsettling. Similar to the way I looked at the Meatyard and Escher books, the world I saw depicted in “Tornado!” very nearly approximated the neighborhood I lived in but was, in some distinct and singular regard, different.

I had an odd feeling last Friday that seemed to operate on the same dissonant principle of the uncanny that guided how I looked at those books as a kid. The way the day unfolded seemed different to me than what I’ve come to expect from a seasonal tornado warning, which is not very much at all. There was something different in the way the guy on the radio was acting, something different in the way people were responding.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Louisville Metro has had a closer shave since ’74, and while it may have culminated in something of a non-event in this city, our neighbors — people we know, people who live close to where we live — were hurt last week. As of Monday, 34 people had died and countless others are now living somewhere that is suspiciously similar to the place where they awoke Friday morning — but only just.

I’ve been thinking about the geographical boundaries of my sense of community. Is it some kind of gerrymandered district that bends and snakes through the Midwest up to Chicago? Does it run like a river, flowing impossibly backwards up to Cincinnati? Does sympathy run out like an FM signal when you get too far from home? I’m not sure, and it’s a weird thing to think about. I hope my capacity for compassion goes really far, maybe even up to Canada. I know it goes at least as far as Borden, New Pekin, Maryville and Madison, Ind., and Carol, Henry, Trimble and Morgan counties in Kentucky.