Watching the Hand Dig:
Allen C. Shelton’s ‘Where the
North Sea Touches Alabama’
Reviewed by Rowland Saifi
Allen C. Shelton, “Where the North Sea Touches Alabama”
University of Chicago Press
2014, 272 pages, softcover, $20
“When will we have sleeping logicians,
sleeping philosophers?” –Andre Breton,
“Manifesto of Surrealism,” 1924
In early maps of the “New World” the western most reaches of the continent either vanished into the edge of the map or showed, for instance, what is now California as an island. One reason for this is that the cartographers were not making maps from direct experience, but rather from what indigenous peoples sketched out in the sand when asked what was farther west. Maps were, at this time, highly prized intellectual property, but what is significant is that in these early maps, the terrain they portrayed was a conceptual space, a place of narrative. The edges of what was empirically known hid those monsters of the sea: dragons, giant fish, and creatures with torso heads. The maps, a real navigational tool (despite the tangled tracery of rhumb lines), did not exclude the narrative adjacents of mythology, story, and lore.
Mapping is a key element in Allen C. Shelton’s “Where the North Sea Touches Alabama.” In fact, at the very beginning of the book Shelton presents us with a map, one that is difficult to read because of its idiosyncratic geography. The map is in two sections: one that resembles a map of Shelton’s childhood home and the other, which looks similar to a water table, shows the North Sea. Connecting the two sections of the map is the path made by the coffin of Shelton’s friend and central figure of the book, Patrik Keim. The coffin begins its travel from where Keim was buried after his suicide, to where it surfaces, transformed into a Civil War era coffin, near Shelton’s family home in Alabama.
Shelton, a SUNY Buffalo sociology professor, offers a text that is ostensibly a sociological study, but the book, like early cartographic efforts, doesn’t limit the boundaries of the map it draws, but includes the narrative, the impossible, the emotional, and becomes a conceptual topology. There are many layers in the book including Patrik’s work, his life, Shelton’s family, the history of his childhood home and family, his marriage and divorce, his son, furniture, livestock, and countless theorists. And here lies the connection to maps and to Shelton’s connection to Keim’s work, which “reflected in the construction of his work, particularly in the adhesives that he used. The rubber bands popped and the glue would come unstuck. There was a built-in decay in his work that crept just beneath the surface.” The work becomes about material and time, the process of making, but also the process of being unmade.
Shelton navigates the regions of personal narrative, eulogy, and critical study of Keim as visual artist and friend, while confronting his own cultural context, that of Alabama. His search is informed by copious endnotes that comprise mostly the critical foundations of his thoughts and take up nearly half the book. The endnotes themselves become a layered narrative of landscape concerted with great attention to material and place with each layer revealing and obscuring the one before, which not only activates the critical approach of the endnotes, but also creates a conceptual object much like the objects and conceptual pieces produced by Keim. Like Shelton’s desk made of church pews made from the surrounding woods, it carries with it the history of the place and of lives lived reencountered in new contexts.
Shelton, in writing the book, becomes so haunted by the things around him that, in conversation with an Evangelical, he is advised to get rid of all his old furniture and replace it with new, to “exchange furniture soaked with history and complicated networks of exchange and memory for the well-upholstered, empty pieces from Sears, whose lifespan is limited.” The material of the object carries with it a map of its history, and that history repeats. In this way Shelton connects the structure of the book, the critical and memoir poetic, with mapping and Keim’s collage and installation work.
Coffins, burials, and tools of burial—variation and recurrence suffuse the book and create a rhyme. But each instance of an object is in context. The objects change their position depending on the history following each item, but at other times, and importantly, the context summons the subjects. Shelton writes about finding a shovel:
I approached the tangle of wire, I saw what I thought was the spade I used to cut the edges of my grandmother’s grave. The tool had been stolen years before while I was in Iowa teaching. But here it was. Like a loyal hound it had found its way back home and lingered around the property waiting for me to return. My heart was pounding. I was trembling. My shoulders felt its weight. At ten feet it was clear it was an illusion. It was a cheap plastic-handled spade, the plastic stained with enough grime to resemble wood.
The context of the land summoned the shovel with which he dug two graves, just as Alabama summoned the coffin—and here is the way a coffin from the Civil War becomes his friend’s coffin, how the North Sea can touch Alabama, the inversion of object and context. It is a refreshing approach to sociology. Rather than simply report, Shelton seeks, it seems, to illuminate the ontology of his friend Patrik’s life and work through the environment of its construct: the American South, a place of cycles, of destruction, building, destruction, rebuilding, of birth, decay, and renewals. It becomes, as Shelton writes, “the labyrinth hunting a monster.” Rather than isolating a subject, like Keim’s art, and attempting to illuminate the context of Alabama and Georgia with it, Shelton inverts the approach and uses the context of these places to talk about Keim and his art. We, like a map-reader, discover new points of narrative interest in each new glance.
Shelton does not pretend to be objective, he allows the entirety of an experience—both dream and reality, myth and history—to rebuild the context of his friend’s art. By activating these layers in his prose, the reader experiences the affect rather than to simply be told of it. Revisit Shelton’s prefatory map after finishing the book and suddenly it is perfectly legible—it is a map of the landscape of the book and here, at the end, we cannot but double back, to return to early causes and find bones underfoot and brush the dust from a corpse that inexplicably is related to us.
Rowland Saifi is the author of “Lit Windows” (Spuyten Duyvil, 2016) as well as the novellas “The Minotaur’s Daughter” (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) and “Karner Blue Estates” (Black Lodge Press, 2009). His work has appeared in Fact-Simile, Marginalia, Bombay Gin, and elsewhere. He is the co-founder of Pinball Editions and teaches writing and literature in Chicago.