To find the right words to talk about Beverly is to find the right words to talk about silence. Years separated the moment of Beverly’s death from the moment when Todd Meyers stood on her porch, stealing looks past the new tenants’s shoulders into her home. Ten years of silence. He hadn’t known she had died; nobody had called or written to let him know. Silence sutures Meyers’s patchwork of musings about his relationship to Beverly, an unlikely pair brought together by her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and his uneasy preoccupation with chronic illness. Not quite strangers. Not quite friends. He returned to Baltimore to search the spaces she had left behind, to work through the bristling realities of this complex relationship.
“So, so, so in the absence of her I direct
my words at the hollow space of her.” (197)
This hollow space is not empty. If silence undergirds the grammar of their relationship, then images give form to Meyers’s words and to Beverly’s life.
All That Was Not Her is drenched in images. Meyers wrestles with the “images that surrounded her” (19), encounters that “get under the skin and get stuck in the image of thought” (35). Images of her burrow inside his body, his mind, his memories of his relationship with her.
When Beverly died, a silence settled upon those images.
These images become his alone.
The rest is silence.
Images do analytical work for Meyers. He thinks with the dissolve, a cinematic technique that emphasizes the passage of time and the lingering of the past in the present, and in terms of series — multiple images — images that stand alone, images that blur together, images that speak to each other; he searches their contours for meaning with the acknowledgement that images are hyperkinetic. The past and the narrative present are woven together; it’s not always clear where one image starts and another ends.
No photographs of Beverly appear in the book’s pages, nor does Meyers include those of others he references, like Carrie Mae Weem’s Kitchen Table Series (1990), photographs of a Black woman who sits at the kitchen table as others pass through the frame, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes (1980), a series of near abstract landscape photographs that inspires a reflection on the ellipsis, the dot dot dot, the in between. For Meyers, the punctum (Roland Barthes defined it as the detail in an image that punctures or wounds us, an intensively subjective experience) exists between images; Images, he writes, “resist revealing themselves…[they are] hostile to knowing” (26): there is an integrity to the image that makes it more impermeable, less vulnerable to the analytical violence of the anthropologist and the “easy translation of the scene to the word” (17). The image, he suggests, offers a way out of the quandary of academic writing that foregrounds definitive conclusions rather than leaving a space for multiplicity; in short, images encompass presence and multiple temporalities: there is something more faithful to Beverly in image than in word.
I was moved by Meyers’s reflections on the unfinished: the errors, failures, and obsessions inherent to the work of an anthropologist. They left me wondering about the incomplete images of Beverly in his sketchbook (Meyers studied art as an undergraduate), and how they might still linger in the world. Might these sketches, with their half-shaded forms, speak to the elusiveness of a subject whose form slips out of our grasp in our attempts to retrace it?
Margaux Fitoussi is a visual anthropologist. Her film work has screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, Director’s Note, Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris, Cultural Pinacothèque in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, NYU Gallatin Galleries, in New York, and SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin. Her translations have been published by AUC Press, Archive Books, and Liverpool University Press. Before beginning her doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University, she studied religion at Harvard University and history at UC Berkeley.