What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Lynn Freehill-Maye's "The Trouble with Owning a Grain Elevator"

Silo No. 5 (Photo by Lorna MacDougall)

Unlike Buffalo industrialist Rick Smith, in Lynne Freehill-Maye’s absorbing “The Trouble With Owning a Grain Elevator” (“Currency,”, July 31, 2016), I don’t own a grain elevator. But recently I’ve found myself somewhat obsessed with one – Montreal’s massive, abandoned Silo No. 5. I first encountered it two months ago, when I was cycling the Lachine Canal. It sits on the edge of the canal like a beached leviathan, dripping rust from its many vents, spouts, scales, and conveyors. I was immediately drawn to it, visiting it several times, photographing it from various angles. Why? What is it about this particular industrial ruin that attracts me? I was hoping Freehill-Maye’s piece would help me understand the basis of my intense interest. But her focus is on Smith’s creative efforts to repurpose his silo. He’s converted his site into an event space called Silo City. Freehill-May writes,

When I visited again, this summer, Smith and Watkins took me to the riverfront mezzanine area, where celebrations often take place. We trekked up some newly installed metal stairs to what once was a conveyor belt between elevators; it had become a platform from which to view performances along the riverfront. “This is one of those great man-made amphitheatres, like a Red Rocks,” Smith said, referring to the Colorado concert venue. “You’re surrounded by these canyon walls.” As we walked into the silo where indoor performances are held, Smith yowled like a territorial cat; the sound echoed for a full nine seconds—the room’s long reverb, combined with the silos’ savage grandeur, have made the site particularly well-suited to concerts and poetry readings. The poet Philip Metres has described it as “the gentle ghost-grain future rising out of the rude concrete brutalism of the past.”

That “the room’s long reverb, combined with the silos’ savage grandeur” is very fine. But it doesn’t quite get at the root of my Silo No. 5 fascination.

There’s a book by Susanne Lange titled Bernd and Hilda Becher: Life and Work that I wish I could find. Amazon sells it for $186.26, which is way too rich for my budget. The Bechers’ subject matter is industrial structures, including grain elevators. Amazon’s note says that Lange “argues that industrial building types impose themselves on our consciousness as the cathedral did on that of the Middle Ages,” and that her book is the first one “to delve deeply into the sources and vision behind the evocative and melancholy beauty of the Bechers' work.”

Melancholy beauty – that’s closer, I feel, to what draws me to Silo No. 5.

In her piece, Freehill-Maye mentions a book – David Tarbet’s Grain Dust Dreams – I think I’ll check out. Silo No. 5’s melancholy beauty lures me on. I can’t get enough of it.   

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