Berry Grass is originally from Kansas City, got their MFA in Tuscaloosa, and now lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia. Their chapbook, Collector’s Item, was published in 2014 by Corgi Snorkel Press. Their essays appear in The Normal School, BOAAT, Bedfellows, Hobart, and Sonora Review, among other publications. When they aren’t reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.
Hall of Waters
Excelsior Springs, Missouri, was named an All-America City in 1974 by the National Civic League, and it truly is. My hometown, like so much of America, is the product of black labor and black intellect, taken by whiteness & celebrated like white achievement. Named for a poem by Henry Longfellow (himself a believer in white superiority), Excelsior was founded at the site of an iron manganese mineral water spring near Fishing River, in Clay County. Travis Mellion, a black farmer, discovered the spring’s benefits – the water clearing up his daughter’s scrofula, splashing away the king’s evil – and was stamped out in the history books by the doctors and pharmacists and charlatans who soon claimed the other springs in the area and built a health spa industry for politicians and Hollywood stars, until the spa’s health claims were found to be bogus and the town dried up. Excelsior Springs grows more resentful each year of its shrinking population & fingertip-grip economy. It turns its resentment towards difference of all kinds: migrant labor, native persons, queer kids, anyone who isn’t white. Its resentment is All-American. And it’s such an easy metaphor: Springs/wells/marginalizations. That what a place keeps underneath it is actually the thing that sustains it, makes it gush forward. But the truth is wells get used up and springs trickle to spit.
The Hall of Waters is an art deco masterpiece built with WPA money. Inside are curves of brass, thick lines of pale teal, and appropriated motifs of Mayan water gods. Serving today as City Hall, it was built around the site of that first spring. On the ground floor you can still visit the world’s longest water bar, swill down the sulphur, gulp calcium, pretend you’re better off for it. On the third floor is the municipal court, windows adjacent to the police station, where the rulings that uphold white supremacy daily sound out by gavel clap. And it’s all so healthy, isn’t it? So restorative? To soak in our nature’s superior water and pretend that superiority is therefore nature. To pretend that the concept of natural is natural.
To the Artist Donald Judd, who Founded an Arts Community in the Town of Marfa, in the Vast Desert Nothing of West Texas, Instead of Ever Returning to Excelsior Springs
I once told my mom that I was “probably the most famous person in town” just because I was once ranked 63rd in the United States at the Poke’mon trading card game. I played the fool in that red Mercury Villager and I knew it. I knew that our town had college national track champions, had Major League Baseball players. The fame that people hope for their kids is athletic. It’s all they know. My dad, my grandpa, they still wished for this kind of success for me, even after I was beaten for running like a girl, even after I was teased for reading girly books, even after I was on stage kissing a boy for all the town to see.
I hadn’t heard of you yet, Donald. Nobody really speaks of you in Excelsior. Maybe it’s because you got out. You got out & you did not come back & there is no memorial plaque hanging in the Hall of Waters, there is no installation of your work around town. There is no permanent gallery dedicated to you at the town museum, which is located in a decommissioned bank vault, which treats its own history like a privately held bond, you give up your history and it’s never paid back to you. An exhibit of empty bottles & still thirsting for story.
The athlete breaks down, becomes smaller, comes home, opens a shop. You went to the desert & your work scaled bigger. People visit Marfa now. There’s a Prada store there. Excelsior Springs has one factory left & everyone buys their clothes at Wal-Mart or Goodys. Did you know they resented you back home? Did any of this bother you?
To strip away from yourself the waters of youth, that was your intended minimalism. But you also took the horizon maw of the desert & partitioned it to boxes, smallnesses, like how Excelsior made you feel, and that was your minimalism too.
Vichey Group Iodide Spring
The inpatient clients at the drug & alcohol rehab facility I worked for could do exactly three things outside of the building: 1.) they could walk two blocks down to church on Sundays, with employee supervison. 2.) They could stand on the side of the building, away from tourist traffic, to smoke. 3.) They could walk across that side street to sit at the old Vichey Iodide Spring. So much quiet reflection. I never found out what the Vichey Group was. One time a client brought me a fragment of an arrowhead he’d kicked up from the dirt near the spring. Did this town ever reflect on taking these springs from the Missouria & Osage people? White people in this town are addicted to meth & alcohol & monetizing what isn’t there’s. This wet town on a wet hill. This town of colonized currents.
My father spent time at this center. It took him five 30-day stays before sobriety stuck. He found that higher power, one of those steps, I forget the number, I wasn’t a counselor. All I did was care for the folks in social detox: give them a meal, make sure they’re comfortable, talk with them through the comedown. People want a bed because that feeling of being clean will wash over them in 3 days or 30 days and they’ll be a new person, but that’s never how it really feels, even when you pass all 12 steps. Baptism. Baptism. Baptism. Baptism. I barely remember mine, age 13 at the old Methodist church, which used to be the new Methodist church, my eyes closed tight as a pour of water from a brass vessel slicked back my hair. That was it – no dunking, no bathing anew. I’d remember the same feeling a few years later, taking my pubescent body that wouldn’t grow breasts out of the shower. I felt nothing.
Donald Judd’s Untitled (Stack), Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York
Donald, this is my favorite of your plexiglass stacks. Twelve shelves sitting hydroponic green, vertical, as if every front lawn in my neighborhood growing up together made a ladder leading to nothing. I see this green & I see nature, hear Fishing River trickling, smell my mom’s overgrown garden. You saw this green & saw industry, motorcycle lacquer, the sheen of bass boats, you saw production. You thought nature inert until you complicated it with a few boxes. You wrote that “the box is a neutral form, that it has no symbolic meaning.” But I look at your stack, green as grass as my last name as the confines of family, and all I see is symbol. All I see in every box is a symbol I stand in. People deny my personhood because I am just a symbol. I stand waiting in line for the women’s bathroom and I am just a symbol. I stand out in public and I am green, I am a monster. I move from room to room, each identity a box, the more boxes the more I am a monster. What we mean when we say monster is “symbol.” What we mean when we say boxes is “confine the monster.” Donald, you wrote that “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” But you never quite got there — two-dimensional canvas or three-dimensional box, your use of space is still symbolic because it is boxes, boxes all the way down. I want to know: What is actual space when you are a monster? What if actual space was more than where I am stacked standing?