decomposing with mayfield brooks in “Sensoria: An Opera Strange” by maura nguyễn donohue
December 15, 2022
maura nguyễn donohue is the Writer-in-Residence for Platform 2021: The Dream of the Audience and Platform 2022: The Dream of the Audience (Part II). Her reflections on the Platform 2022 performances and events are posted, accumulatively here, in Issue 14 of the Danspace Project Online Journal. Her reflections on Platform 2021 can be found in the Online Journal Issue 12 and in the Platform 2021-2022 catalogue.
In this essay, donohue returns to the words of Alexis Pauline Gumbs (along with others) as a way to digest and decompose her experience of the keening wail and whale of mayfield brooks’, Sensoria: An Opera Strange.
This essay is offered in both audio and text. Read or listen below.
So there is actually a digestive truth to the idea that the ancestors we lost in the transatlantic slave trade became whales. Is sediment sentient?
– Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Instagram
I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.
– Fred Moten, “the undercommons: fugitive planning and black study”
When I swim back through the oceanic journey of Platform 2022 which coincided with a profound navigation through the weathers of care for a post-fall-with-Parkinsons-and-dementia father, I can still feel the salt on my skin and the sweet sting on my various tender cuts. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, quoted above from her Instagram page and quite often from her book Undrowned: Black feminist lessons from Marine Mammals in my writings for last year’s Platform, reminds us that “Salt is an ancestor…Salt is time.” One of the residual savories of The Dream of the Audience (Part II) was, in part, the chance to gather and gently shed salt in good company and to come, finally, at the closing of the Platform to witness a wail in mayfield brooks’s Sensoria: An Opera Strange.
As I have wondered over these past two summers about audiences, our need for them and our responsibilities from our place among them, I’ve come to a belief that one’s most important audience is our final one. Ram Dass said we were all just “walking each other home” in his Conversations on Loving and Dying with Mirabai Bush. To be carried in an energetic embrace across the threshold of death; to be seen off, sent off, heard and held at our passing; to not die alone, is to ask for one final audience to be granted. Few of us are privileged to experience a gentle rest into soft earth or as Alexis ponders in the excerpted post above to resist a worse fate by defying continued forced participation in what James Baldwin called “the roughest game in the history of the world.” Perhaps this, in the end, was the final dream—to have been seen, to have been heard, felt, known and grieved for by a loving audience.
We are, at present, swimming in a sea of grief. That sea includes death, but it is also so much larger, encircling all sorts of sorrows. In a better world, many of these disappearances would be avoidable, even unimaginable. For now, given the loss-filled waters we inhabit, how to better navigate through them, and without drowning?
– Cindy Milstein, Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief
In the year leading up to the lockdowns of COVID-19, I was a grateful witness and participant in many conversations and contributions from Danspace Project’s Kin and Care Research Group with iele paloumpis, devynn emory, Angie Pittman and Jaime Shearn Coan. We rode a gentle stream that branched off from the deep river of the 2016 Platform Lost and Found: Dance, NYC, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Will Rawls. Among the many conversations, death was a regular topic with devynn working as a hospice nurse and iele as a death doula. Death in the United States has often been a deeply closeted experience or too often for young, Black men excessively, violently public. When my grandmother died in Viet Nam, we sat with her body in her home for days, the family cleaned it, the entire village came and participated in the rites, carried her through the rice paddies and buried her. She had, quite strategically and graciously, opted to give her last breath close enough to our family’s annual ancestral gathering in honor of my murdered grandfather and uncles, so my mother and I could be there and she could be memorialized with the men. It’s been 25 years since my bà ngoại’s passing and while the rest of the family gathered for a big celebration there, here, just yesterday… we barely stopped.
In a time intent on rushing back to a supremacist normal, it is at many shared moments together for Platform 2022 that my simplest act of resistance came. Over and over, the act of resistance was the sacred pause. As Cindy Milstein offers, it is in our grief we grow a new grace, especially when we gather together in it. “Crucially, we have a way, together, to at once grieve more qualitatively and struggle to undo the deadening and deadly structures intent on destroying us. Cracks appear in the wall.” In the final work of the Platform, mayfield’s strange opera carried the epic losses of the transatlantic kidnappings, the increasing climate catastrophes and the particular singularity of one person’s absence, for mayfield their deceased dance partner Indira Chandrawti Suganda who died in 2009 of AIDS-related causes and to whom the performance was dedicated.
The page, the screen, the linear flow of a sentence even if wrapped in poetics cannot match the generous transcendence that mayfield orchestrated in Sensoria: An Opera Strange. It has left me soaking still in a sonic resonance of deep low frequency, it is echoing from such subliminal depths in my heart that even to language this brings the well of tears up in my eyes. In mayfield I meet a modern banshee, a spirit left to bend us over in their all-encompassing keening. In the gift of songs and piano play was a much-needed immersion within a deep wail that swims in the sea of our collective grieving for many individual deaths, global genocides and the suffering of the offsprings.
A whale fall is the scientific term for the process of decomposition after a whale’s death. In a kind of eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving,” there is a communion offering that the whale gives once passed, falling to the ocean floor and resurrecting life through many ecosystems and nourishments. mayfield’s ongoing research into whale falls allows this phenomena to reach each of us through a variety of mediums. During the performance we hear mayfield’s conversation with the whale:
Whale, I cannot go to the depths.
I won’t be able to breath there.
Whale said: You can’t breath here on earth.
Your ancestors sent me here to remind you of your impossible existence.
When you fall, you will die and be reborn again.
You will replenish the ocean with your cellular body
And you will mingle with the cellular bodies of your ancestors before time
More of this conversation, as well as other writings and images can also be found in the project’s accompanying zine, made in collaboration with writer and designer duskin drum, and visual artist Caedron Burchfield, brings us into alignment with their ongoing research using whale fall “as a place to decompose the grief and rage of dealing with anti-black violence” and the “auditory resonance of whales and wails.”
This was rare. This kind of together, even here, felt rare and transformative. It felt like a moment years ago on a Saturday afternoon in October when Darrell Jones asked those gathered in the Parish Hall to place our warm hands on the floor and I wept with elders, mentors and strangers. I would dare say it felt like a necessary singularity blended just for my cellular structure much like the tea that mayfield had brewed for the audience and provided during two breaks in their performance. A few years ago, as part of my on-going Tides Project works using reclaimed plastics, detritus and oceanographic phenomena to examine my diasporic legacies and disposability culture, I built Abyss, an installation and improvisation series. This was a drop into a restorative death practice, a recognition that the place where the whale fall falls is both the end and the beginning. It is the place where line becomes circle, where the cycle spirals. And so, I recognize how particular my need was to receive mayfield’s invitation to lay down on the floor of the sanctuary and drop into the depths.
During many too-hot-to-sleep summers as a child, me and my five younger siblings would lay down in a line on our living room floor while our father would read us stories or he’d spin his own while we all sat in our 70s station wagon while mom spent her $20 a week on our groceries. As such, it was deep old comfort to let go into mayfield’s storytime and lullabies. Lama Rod Owens defines a Buddhist sangha, a community, as a “space where we’re rubbing against each other and we’re coming into contact and there’s conflict…We see our interactions as pointing us back to things we need to look at more closely. We’re being reminded to practice patience and kindness. Practice vulnerability.” As I’ve often written, it is the Platforms that have become a village green, a congregation and community of the curious. And, within mayfield’s care-full configuration of the evening, I felt held within the vulnerable place of laying down in public while they sang to us of the “opportuuuun-ity for communing in commuuuuuun-ity.”
Precisely because a living being may die, it is necessary to care for that being so that it may live. Only under conditions in which the loss would matter does the value of the life appear. Thus, grievability is a presupposition for the life that matters.
– Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
I gave witness to mayfield belting out repeatedly “Where is the whale? Where is the WAIL!?” With a salted, wet face, they eventually smiled over a bucket of water and in their exhausted post-whale wail voice, they once again comforted us allowing for the boundless resistance that is inside the radical softening from grief. The evening was full of crooning, playful childhood signifiers (the Platform catalogue shows a sculpture that also decorated the altar made of hair ballies) and the potency of storytelling as legacy work. bell hooks explains in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black that the orature serves vital maintenance of culture, history and defiance “Within the world of my childhood, we held onto the legacy of a distinct black culture by listening to the elders tell their stories. Autobiography was experienced most actively in the art of telling one’s story.”
In Sensoria: An Opera Strange, we are being told many autobiographies. mayfield is the oracle, delivering messages from beyond and below in a salty dreamscape. During one passage, as they channeled the whale’s decomposition so closely and carefully, I lay on the floor and felt myself ready to depart. I could feel the end of everything and gently pondered in that massive cellular shift if I was ready for the fabric of the universe to pull apart yet. I too felt myself oozing out into the edge of the breakdown, the break apart, the breakout. I thought “I’d always hoped I’d be with family, but at least here, I am with kin” and prepared to dis-member and depart. However, Newtonian physics prevailed and the show continued. I re-member-ed my various selves and rejoined the living. “This may only be a dream” said mayfield.
DISSOLVE TO BLACK.
What I know is I am proud of you, for the depth of work you are doing, for the layers you are uncovering, for the changes you made when you learned that what you thought was rock bottom was just a reflection of a sound you were making called ‘need’… … this is not the bottom, this is life.
– Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals