Great acts of destruction haunt us: photographs of Nazi book burnings, piles of shoes, the loose paper that floated in the air after the Twin Towers were attacked. These losses find order in lists. We engrave the names of our dead in war monuments. We catalog our libraries and museums in order to notice loss.
I have been reading through French poet Henri Lefebvre’s recently translated list poem, “The Missing Pieces.” Compiled from various sources, it is an 83-page list of objects, memories, and people that have been lost, destroyed, or never made.
In some instances the losses are heartbreaking—“Totally deaf, the father of the writer Regis Jauffret never heard the voice of his son”—but other times, the loss is also a creation—“In 1961, the sculptor Arman pulverizes a contrabass in front of Japanese television cameras.”
We are captivated by lost treasure, unsolved mysteries, the compelling questions of what happened and what could have been. It seems that every year another headline touts the discovery of a garage sale painting that is a missing masterpiece. Vivian Maier lived her entire life in obscurity; her photographs were very nearly lost. Vincent Van Gogh’s brother bought all of his paintings in order to bankroll his brother’s lifestyle. In so doing, he kept them safe from destruction.
To be lost is Biblical. We are found in Christ. But what about the things that have faded away? The never-was? The never-again-will-be? What did we lose the three days Christ was dead? But also, what did we gain?
Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet a day for a year. At the end of the year, he destroyed them all.
The sonnets are lost. But the process of making them—of rhyming and metering and twisting the phrase—was gained. The ghosts of art linger.
Austrian artist Otto Muehl said, “I cannot imagine anything significant if nothing is sacrificed, burned, destroyed.”