In Ithaca, the hill I walked up in the morning to school, and down in the evening, is called Gun Hill. It’s named that for the enormous hulk of disused factory which sat (until this past spring) across the street from glossy apartment buildings like a transplanted piece of inner-city
It was fall when the building first stopped me dead in my tracks, on the way down the hill in the late afternoon—through the third-floor corner window, I could see all the way down onto the lake, bright as molten metal. The whole top corner of the building was a burning eye. On clear days I began timing my descent in hopes of catching that moment of light. I sat in front of the factory. I photographed it. I painted it. I tried to write it into a poem.
The chain-link fence around the building is (this should all be past tense but it still feels present) too easy to climb to deter anyone able-bodied and curious. The building’s insides are tattooed, painted, crusted with graffiti—stencils of the face of Edgar Allan Poe, “FATE” in black over doorways, huge rainbow bubble-words battling each other in the main ground-floor hall; on the third floor, on a patch of otherwise unmarked drywall, there are three elegant simple cartoons, and in a small side room, a whole wall lettered in hot pink French reminiscent of Rimbaud, about a fish going over a waterfall.
Two years later I’m still working on the poem. It’s nine pages long and counting. The window-eye, I’ve realized, is like the left eye of Christ in the Pantocrator icon from St. Catherine’s in Sinai. Even when I saw it first in grainy photocopy, that icon’s divided face stopped me, unsettled me, just as the factory did. Both the icon and the factory were embodiments, to me, of the connection between beauty and sorrow that Makoto Fujimura describes as the central tenet of the 15th-century Japanese aesthetic movement called mono no aware, “beauty in the pathos of things.”