What verb would carry the tension of moving across the streets of Cairo, Illinois? It isn't a space you can simply drive through, pass through, or site-see since the sites are enough to singe your sight; the cliche about seared images finds its truth in that modern catastrophic space. Route 51, neglected, takes you there, past the waves of social abandonment. Gas stations closed, lots in rot, and one liquor store with barred windows. The warehouses and brick structures close to the river are large, towering, crumbling. Poised between the Mississippi and Ohio, whose commercial life has by-passed it, the landscape is a surreal mix of lush land, rural decline, and the aftermath of late-sixties race riots, as if Watts had been set down in the middle of Kansas in 1965 and left, all but forgotten. The difference is that the race war in Cairo, the last segregated city in Illinois, and already all-but left to its fate, lasted years.
Beyond the broken remains of racism's nightmare, the scale of the town that should hold 20,000 and now has a population near 2,000 makes it impossible to comprehend initially. It is rare that in America a traveller has to construct a narrative for what is encountered. We've become accustomed to so much sameness, readily apprehending degrees of difference in an eye's reach. The only word that comes to mind after witnessing those remains on the plains: plague.
Something horrific has taken place, still people live there. You see them clearly against that vast backdrop of broken brick structures. Boys are playing basketball on grass-invested asphalt; a man in his 40s walks with purpose; families sit on their porches in the day's dimming sun; teens gather in the liquor store parking lot; a windowless building named "Club 51" promises dancers, and you can only think of the pretty girls in that parking lot and what it is they might otherwise do way out there in the middle of farmland and swamped by those huge rivers.
And how long before the following occurs:
To enter the city you pass through a tunnel that goes under the railroad. Hanging above the entrance to the tunnel is a huge blue steel gate. The land outside of town (mostly farm land) is also protected by levees. But, should the pressure on the Cairo levees become too great, the city drops the gate at the back end of town and then dynamites either the Ohio or Mississippi levee further up. This drastic action allows the flood water to pour out over thousands of acres of farm land and so relieve the pressure on the city levee. At that point Cairo becomes a sunken island surrounded on all sides by nearly sixty feet of water. The scheme of a lunatic no doubt. Some day the rivers will win.We have our own Old Testament tales to borrow from if need be. After reading the scenario above, how not to reach for a post-Katrina image (from Taryn Simon, of course)?
Or even of her work with the Tsunami ravaged (above)? For that kind of cataclysmic exposure saturates the imagination, starting a process of absorbing the future encounters with misery and the dreadful, lending some sense in the wake of the troubling and troubled passage through the landscape that seems to prophesize a flood. But if there is another haunting in making some claim to having been haunted by what we witness, it is the sensation that the images overlaid and the meanings lent are insufficient, our confluence of the two a wrongful cultivation. The metaphors of flood and destruction and the dire consequences of poverty are temptations better laid aside.
The goal then is to hold at once to the unknowing bewilderment and anguish of the original seeing and the discovery of a language and analysis that will do justice.