The Dance of Bison Jack by Sarah Drew
“Chew, but do not swallow.”
My instructors enjoyed repeating the phrase. Yet how can a young girl dance without sustenance? I threw away my paper bag during lunch period, repulsed by my own appetite. I kept the green apple for the rush of sugar it provided to help me up the stairs. Perhaps, if I had read from the Journal of Bison Jack during those ripe, vulnerable years, I may not have performed in front of blinding lights only to weep in the darkness.
Very few have moved me without explanation, biography and background. In fact, every poet I studied at college was introduced in great detail. However, the disconnect that Bison Jack purposefully creates between himself, his work and the viewer is a real revelation. His journal has given me a profound coping mechanism that might have saved me from my younger, tormented self. I am finally learning to experience the light that exists in darkness.
Although I have yet to meet the man behind the words, in a recent installation of
his work, he wrote To write a poem you must first learn how to build a house around
a moment. I can’t seem to let go of this line. I have become obsessed with it, not unlike my infatuation with darkness during adolescence. In fact, this line has wrapped around me much like the spider web at the beginning of Monster, the short film that accompanies these words. Bison Jack believes that only words of consequence will threaten, awaken, change and destroy the simplicity and frailty that humans know too well.
During a recent Bison Jack installation, its creator Jason Armstrong Beck took a dormant storefront in downtown Savannah, Georgia and converted it into an awakening. By looking into the installation’s small viewing circles—planning to absorb the story of another—I had no idea I would relive my own.
While experiencing another installation, I latched onto the words Be there for the frowns you will meet along the way, and the smiles that hide the truth. Just be there. Ask for nothing in return. And, one day, all of us will be there for you. Although it’s hard to be a neighbor to someone unfamiliar and in need, he knows we must. I am now just beginning to understand the power of his words.
Let yourself die a little, he wrote in another poem. Suddenly there was beauty in empathy and grief. With these words Bison Jack welcomed every aspect of human nature that is weakness. I felt the reassurance of his words; it’s okay to make a mess of life. It is how we recover from that mess which means the most. From a young age we are taught that when one door closes another conveniently opens. It’s best to run away from pain and pursue pleasure and the promise of a new day. Since the cycle of life is inevitable,
everlasting loss is seen as temporary darkness. After reading these words I had a strange desire to seek darkness in another. I wanted to explore the depths of sadness, loss and grief as a means of liberation.
See yourself through other people’s eyes, he writes. Perhaps, it is only when we reflect with no barriers that we begin to scratch the surface of our own story. All creatures crave companionship. We plead for pillows to lean on. We yearn for a constant, unwavering hand to hold, a body to touch and eyes and ears to open. If only someone had chosen to look out from my eyes, they might have held my young hand and guided me from the stage.
One night, via email, I asked Beck if he ever fears the gravity of his own words?
He replied, “I have feared my inability to put into words what I am trying to say. I still fear that, but I have learned to be patient. As children we tend to build our lives around moments. For some, those moments become bonding memories; for others, they become walls. But, for all, they are defining. I don’t fear the gravity of my words but I often fear the gravity of their implication.”
Taken from his installation The Lesson After All, he says, it appears that when it comes to matters of the heart it is rocket science after all. I was never given the chance to dance with falling petals. I was always trapped in the choreography of another, my expression strangled and malnourished. With the words, rocket science, I believe Beck helped me understand the hardest thing of all. People love the promise of patterns. There is comfort in repetition. I repeated movements as told. I disobeyed my body for fear of stepping out of line, missing cue, breaking pattern and slipping from the grip of my partner. Yet, in The Lesson After All, I felt as if I was being allowed to dance freely in Bison Jack’s words.
Although still new to the world of Bison Jack, I do know that his words have stirred action, physical movement and attempts at resolution. During his various installations, I have felt uplifted, hopeful and courageous, while other words have left me haunted, sorrowful and uncertain.
When I asked Beck, whether he had faith in Bison Jack, he said, “I have faith in his vulnerability. I think if Bison Jack was real, and you showed up at his house, you would have always just missed him. If you found out what hotel he was staying in, he would have just checked out. And. If you interviewed him by phone for the local newspaper – you would end up writing the story of your own life.”
I imagine by now, that Jason Armstrong Beck, and his alter ego Bison Jack, are off somewhere trying to piece together another part of the world. But, if I ever get to meet the man behind the words, I hope he asks me to dance.