I Will Keep My Soul Breathes Through Its Skin

Elizabeth Zuba, Diagram

reviews, 11/15/23

Film still – Helen Cammock, I Will Keep My Soul, Siglio/Rivers/CAAM, 2023

Originally published in the 23.5 issue in November 2023

If Helen Cammock’s new book I Will Keep My Soul were an animal, it would be a jellyfish. And not just because it is mesmerizingly and corporeally oceanic, though it is that—ebbing and funneling a fluid and scintillant body of poetry, historical document, archival and contemporary photography, drawings, interviews, essays, music and collage, with the history and community of New Orleans as its waters. But because it breathes through its skin. Necessarily. Anatomically. Like a jellyfish.

But even “through its skin,” doesn’t really do justice to the whole diffuse respiratory process, it’s more like “by” its skin, in that the skin of jellyfish is their breathing apparatus; inasmuch as they wash through the oxygen, the oxygen washes through them. In other words, their breath is their skin is their body is their environment—the outer inner and the inner outer. For better or for worse, skin and breath and environment (and the history of that environment: nanoplastics? marine heat wave?) are a single living entity. There is no dividing them.

Which is what I think Cammock means when she writes, “Today I felt some kind of diminutive/not small but somehow a part of something else that I hadn’t really touched before.” Only Cammock isn’t talking about skin and breath and ambient water, she’s talking about skin and breath and ambient history, specifically Black American history and the legacy of racism and violent oppression, but also joy and art and genius, which we breathe and which breathes us—right now, all the time, systematically, bodily. (Something that she “hadn’t really touched before” because Cammock is British, of Jamaican and English heritage, belonging to a history-environment that is simultaneously different from, diffuse to, and the same as our own.) The project’s title takes its name from the words of a Freedom Rider who, in response to prison guards threatening to take his mattress, shouts, “Come and get my mattress. I will keep my soul.”

Water, like the soul, reigns in I Will Keep My Soul, and not just because it evokes the geography and history of New Orleans, but because diffusion, or “seepage” to use her word, is the foundation of Cammock’s practice. Beginning with archival materials (for this book, at the Amistad Research Center), Cammock follows the memory of materials as they sink and shift back toward the living, filtering and draining between time and space, objects and people, responses and silences. In Cammock’s hands, the soul we keep, what you might call our living breath, glimmers in the movement between.

Continue reading at Diagram.

see also

✼ natalie’s upstate weather report:

May 11, 2023 — It was spring. And then it was not. And now it is again. How far can you throw a ball? What if one could travel along a high arc, across a continent, an ocean? What if you could travel with the ball, see as it might what is above and below? And I wonder what its speed might be? Enough to stay aloft, but slow, not even so fast as a swallow? That was once how a single season felt. Now…


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