I am a mixed media artist and writer living just outside the town of Joshua Tree where I was born. A child of two houses, each set in its own strange desert microclimate, I had to learn to appreciate how nature could (and would) all of a sudden rearrange our yards, our roads, our lives. Naturally I became attracted to the risk, disappointment, and surprise of mixed media. I like the mess. The shards. The cracks in the molding. The faces hidden in the walls and bushes. The times, too, when the piece doesn’t move for days and I stare and stare, waiting to learn what it wants to become.
The visual poems here are from a project called “If there is no spoon in the saltcellar: A Subversion of Emily Post’s On Entertaining.” It started with a roiling sense of irony during March and April’s quarantine: most of us would not be entertaining anyone except ourselves and failing even at that. Despite our gadgets and 24-7 streaming, many of us would feel lonelier than we have felt before, especially those of us who live alone or are trapped in unhappy relationships. The decorum of playing host or holding functions or having to appear in public at all went out the finger-smudged window (why bother to clean it or anything—who is going to see?). And after a month or so even wearing pants or a bra or sitting down to eat began to feel like posturing. Lingering at my bookshelf to see what was left to read, my brain snagged on the word “entertaining” and thought that’s hilarious.
The book came from my paternal grandmother (born 1925) who followed many of Post’s “guidelines” on etiquette especially when it came to dining and hosting. I’ve put to use an array of tactics to upset (tousle, upend, and befuddle) the text and make it new—erasure, blackout, collage, scraping, scratching, ripping, needling, layering, transferring, defacing, etc. Many of the images come from vintage Life Magazines dating as far back as 1931. I find much of Post’s micromanaging (a term as foreign to my grandmother’s generation as “mansplaining” though she would know exactly what I was talking about as soon as I gave examples) to be darkly funny: “If there is no spoon in the saltcellar, use your fingers to take a pinch of the salt.” Oh, my dear! It’s a good thing Emily had advice for that precarious situation—how many people did she save from humiliation? It can be fun to poke at social practices of the past that now appear neurotic and oppressive, and I certainly am having fun doing so. I also can’t help but see the darkness of any text that seeks to regulate and normalize behavior, especially the behavior of women—and I can’t help but acknowledge that the pandemic, the lingering sick-cloud of Trump, and the loss of RBG have set feminism back to 1950’s standards in every aspect. And so viewers may find “If there is no spoon in the saltcellar” tonally complex or maybe even tonally uneven, which is unavoidable, I think, when trying to dissect and pin all parts of the organism.
Many of the pieces in my project use erasure to create small poems or mantras that lift female-identifying persons up out of the mire of stereotypical domestic captivity and reaffirm their individuality and potency. Others are still-life collages of a time that seems at once vintage and present-day. The project is a celebration of women’s advancement and also a recognition of the progress that still needs to be made. I know that my grandmother, who was a feminist and “the hostess with the mostess” would be proud. And she would want you to vote, too.
L.I. Henley is a writer and mixed-media artist from the Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree, California. She is the author of six books including Starshine Road, which won the 2017 Perugia Press Prize, the novella-in-verse, Whole Night Through, and the poetry and art book From the moon, as I fell with artist Zara Kand. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rhino, Waxwing, Tupelo, Diode, Zone 3, Tinderbox, The American Literary Review, Thrush, Ninth Letter, and Arts & Letters. Her essay, “Drive!” was chosen by Jason Allen as the winner of the Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 2020. Visit her at www.lihenley.com and follow her on Instagram @lihenleyart.