If ever there were an artifact that captured the sound of life disintegrating, it is Nick Cave’s 2016 record Skeleton Tree. Produced as Cave was working through the loss of his son Arthur, Skeleton is less a pop album than an accidental elegy—an eschatological document finally worthy of the “gothic” ambiance Cave has for years woven into his words.
“You fell from the sky / crash-landed in a field near the River Adur,” Cave chants in “Jesus Alone,” anticipating the death of his child, who fell from a cliff near Cave’s then-home in Brighton, England, not long after this particular track was recorded. “You cried beneath the dripping trees / Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid.”
These prescient first words are among the least heavy on the album.
Like Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” it is impossible after the fact not to associate Skeleton with Arthur, his grieving mother Susie Bick, and Cave’s remaining children, including Arthur’s twin brother Earl. The words and music Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had crafted in the months leading up to the teen’s death seem destined for this reading, in other words, fated to serve as a family’s wrestling with the apparent randomness and purposelessness of Being.
As Cave later whispers in “Distant Sky” as Skeleton Tree is coming to an end, “They told us that our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / But they lied.”
So it is, the singer concludes after recounting loss after loss, that “nothing really matters” as behind him Walter Ellis and the other Bad Seeds moan and sway, soundtracking the grief in Cave’s voice which in “I Need You” seems literally unable to stop its lamentation. It is here, three-quarters of the way through the eulogy, that Cave loses control, his words moving too fast now, the sorrow in his pleading I-need-yous pouring from his mouth, divorcing themselves from the song’s rhythm. Cave is not even hearing his musicians at this point, which is to say he can’t stop: his son is gone, his family is in pieces, and it doesn’t matter if his words outstrip this or any melody hereafter. Nothing really matters.
It’s too much, the record. Too much despair. Too much gushing grief. Too extreme in its nothing-left-to-lose emotional timbre.
But this is exactly as it should be.
For although the nature of trauma precludes its play-by-play recording, prevents a technically accurate recollection and depiction of “what really happened,” I can admit, having experienced something similar to Cave, that in an uncanny way he somehow captured how it feels.
This is why I was afraid to listen to the record for so long—I was afraid it would do too good a job of documenting my own experience.
This fear is, in part, what too kept me from taking in Micah Bloom’s multimedia installation Codex for so long.
Published in 2017 by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, the book version of Codex, which like Skeleton Tree is really a multimedia event that includes a film, is the record of an apocalypse, an agonizing (for those who experienced the event) documenting of pain and loss, fragmentation and deterioration.
Cut with a handful of essays meditating on the decay embedded within Bloom’s images of dead letters, Codex captures the devastation wrought upon Minot, North Dakota, by an overflowing Souris River in 2011, an event which obliterated not merely a community but, in a way, much of the region’s intellectual culture, its future.
Having experienced also the build-up to and aftermath of the great Red River flood in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997, I can say with confidence that Bloom, like Cave, captured the significance and texture of this trauma despite focusing on objects rather than people.
I mean not to compare the loss of a child with the loss a few books or sofas, of course; I mean only to suggest that in having witnessed the destruction of another North Dakota city two decades ago, I found in Bloom’s images the gravity and reverence present in Cave’s Skeleton Tree (but lacking in most documentary accounts of the Grand Forks flood.)
For one after another, Bloom’s photographs arrest the viewer in their brutality, capturing the death poses of the thousands of novels, codices, and catalogues, magazines and manuals washed from homes, libraries, and second-hand shops in Minot that summer.
Bloom’s careful and unblinking eye is that of a coroner in so far as his books are bodies. In a manner simultaneously respectful and aloof he records swollen volumes floating in a receding river like corpses, tattered pages pasted to water-worn stones and covered in crackling mud and microorganisms, dozens of dime-store tales caught in bramble-bushes and still leafless trees, and books both buried and burned with all the ritual of a funeral rite.
Ruminating on these post-gothic images of destruction and death are Thora Brylowe, who sees in Bloom’s photographs a symbol of the coming environmental apocalypse; Sheila Liming, who suggests that books “look like garbage about to happen because they are, in fact, a kind of living excrement”; and David Haeselin, for whom the death of “bookishness” in the West means ultimately that Bloom has captured stills not of a singular event in Minot, but western civilization in full as it abandons the long-form reading of book-objects and uploads its consciousness to the cloud.
Or, as Ryan Stander puts it, the photographer’s treatment of books resembles humans’ treatment of cadavers across time and place. “They are splayed open, missing limbs, gashed and torn. Their knowledge and memories have spilled out and are slowly soaking into the soil,” Stander writes. “Codex traffics in both senses of photographic death…one embedded in the content of the image surface and the other in the viewers’ experience in looking.”
Bloom himself had primed such responses, writing in the artistic statement included in his exhibition for this project that “[The books are] bodies scattered across the streets, neglected in ditches…shamefully exposed, as if from a great disaster.”
As such, the scenes Bloom captures, he admits, are ugly—like so many famous images taken from so many wars over the last two centuries.
In gesturing to the ugliness of the antediluvian landscape, Bloom echoes not only Cave, but another writer preoccupied with the American south—Cormac McCarthy.
“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” McCarthy once told an interviewer, admitting the debt he owes William Faulkner. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
Although the author of Outer Dark, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men is here referring to the idea that aging books typically serve as inspiration for future books, this notion comes to take on a different meaning after Codex. As the photographer and his conspirators suggest, the annihilation of books has itself become the catalyst behind, the subject for, another book. That is to say, many new books—including Codex, which also might serve as the basis for a novel—are only able to emerge after their predecessors have given up the ghost, have been destroyed and recycled into new subjects.
This is the paradoxical situation in which Codex finds itself: a book and an art installation that profits from—or owes its entire existence to—the putrefaction of books and art.
That said, ugliness and death are but part of the story here. For like Skeleton Tree, Codex is crushingly beautiful in the end. Much of the piece—some two dozen images in the book and many scenes from the documentary film—is dedicated to shots of books caught in the arms of still-living organisms: trees, bushes, persons. What is indicated here if not mothers nursing infants, Cave and Clapton holding the bodies of their boys, parents grieving but grateful for the opportunity to give their beloved one last embrace?
Bloom apprehends in the flood’s aftermath living things holding with love and care tiny, broken versions of themselves, some surviving, others not, but all of which rather than being displaced have, in a way, simply come home.
Brian James Schill is a researcher and writer at the University of North Dakota. A long-time participant in the North American punk scene, his writing has appeared in Clamor, Punk Planet, Extra!, Anarchist Studies, Prairie Schooner, and other trade and academic publications. His literary history of punk and postpunk music, This Year’s Work in the Punk Bookshelf, Or, Lusty Scripts, was published by Indiana University Press in 2017.