Eyes Set Far Apart or Close: The Art of William Sulit, the Language of Carolyn Forché

by Beth Kephart

It was the way he walked, then it was the way he moved his hand: over the buckled rectangles of Canson paper, beside the trays of color, in a room that smelled of linseed oil. I had followed him there, to the third floor of his West Philadelphia apartment, where the only window opened to the sound of a jumprope game and the smell of laundromat Tide.

We were young, but I didn’t know it. I thought that if I watched him paint, if I reckoned with his watercolors, his sketches, I could halve our differences—the making of the man traced through the making of his art. How his colors always seemed mixed with dust. How his solitary people struck me as infinitesimally lost. How the only exits from the mazes he painted were too small to admit passage. How the mood he beckoned with his brush was the atmosphere of elsewhere.

Sulit, William. Say Your Name. Charcoal, graphite and watercolor on stained paper, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I could not decide if the strangeness pooling on his pages was a beautiful strange or a disturbance, if what he painted was what he remembered of his Salvadoran childhood—the labyrinthine coffee hills; the coconut-frond shade; the sound of gunfire aimed at birds, aimed at schools; his family’s white linen set up against his grandfather’s defense of the campesinos—or how he imagined himself into the America that he did not call home, but where he had come to live.

Explain it to me, I’d say, about the art, but the man I was falling in love with could not, and asking twice was pressing hard.

I watched him work. I held his art. That one summer became a life. Marry me. Yes. He walks the same way now as he did before, but his black hair has turned white, and his hand is scarred by the shatter of the glass hummingbird nest, and sometimes, like yesterday in the sun when he kissed me, I see the years inside his eyes. He leaves sketches behind in the rooms where we live. I study the sketches like trespass.

Explain it to me, I’ll say, about the art, but my husband does not. He says the story is always the same: when he draws or he paints his hand moves, and nothing else. He says that some of the sketches I love best are not the best sketches. He says that he is interested in the quality of the lines and that the quality of the lines is not a function of the way he remembers, he imagines.

But, I say, and point. To the woman with parrots roosted in her hair. To the chubby angel hung from strings. To the couple wearing houses on their heads. To the girl lost on a lonesome street. To the horned man with the goat on a leash. To the boy who confesses behind a mask. To the old woman who exposes her naked age to no one at all, and is it the exposure of the age or the absence of an audience that my husband means to draw, but he won’t say, will only say that there is something off in the composition, something his hand, next time, will fix. The eyes on the faces of my husband’s art are set either wide apart or close. The mouths on those faces are complicit. The angles of the homes are sharp as blades. The earth, and then the sky, is hatched and then, with the grinds of yesterday’s coffee, stained.

I wonder if my husband’s art, after all these years, is speaking about us. I wonder if it is, still and first, speaking to or of his Salvadoran past. I ask. He says (he repeats) that the art doesn’t speak, does not wish to be discussed.

“The heart is the toughest part of the body. / Tenderness is in the hand,” wrote Carolyn Forché in her Salvador poem, Because One is Always Forgotten.” She was writing out of the country’s civil war, which she had (as a woman, as a poet) witnessed—writing in memoriam for a man whose coffin had been “rock[ed] into the ground like a boat or cradle,” but I steal the lines out of context for the knowing in them and for the ways they help me reckon with my husband’s art. I steal, too, from her Salvador memoir, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, reading Forché’s words for the beauty she finds inside the country that nearly killed her, that did succeed in killing so many of the ones who never left. There is dust in her colors, I think. Eyes set far apart. Birds. Memory on a leash. Losses dangling from strings.

The memoir:

From the peak of the volcano, city and sea are visible, and the whole of the country as it shrinks to its place on the maps, small and poor beneath us—a country that had for a time grown large under the gaze of the world. Before the war, tapirs lived in the mountain’s folds, monkeys and iguanas, coyotes and even jaguars…. Hundreds of species of birds alighted here, a thousand butterflies, and the streams ran clear through Guazapa’s ridges to the rivers.

Before the war, my husband lived there.

Shortly after the war began, he left.

I should not need to speak of my husband’s art, but when I do, Forché joins the silence. She writes toward the country where my husband comes from, with the atmosphere of elsewhere. She sees into the strange, she lets us dwell there, she walks the land, she finds her way through. She speaks (I like to pretend) to me, so that maybe someday I will unspeak my questions—grow satisfied with watching the hand of my husband work across a buckled page, accept the art as nothing more or less than muscle and ligament and bone.

Again and out of context, I find appeasement within these lines from Forché’s poem, “Message.” Maybe she wrote her words for Salvadoran warriors, but I take them as sustenance for an old, still vital marriage.

… Link hands, link arms with me
in the next of lives everafter,
where we will not know each other
or ourselves, where we will be a various
darkness among ideas that amounted
to nothing …

Maybe I steal them, but I will make their wisdom, in time, my own.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of more than two-dozen books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her newest collaboration with her husband—an illustrated journal of art and poetry—is Journey: A Traveler’s Notes. Her new memoir-in-essays, Wife | Daughter | Self,is due out from Forest Avenue Press in 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.

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