Me and Jess Talkin' Trash
By Phillip Ratliff
Performance artist, poet, and entrepreneur Jess Marie Walker has two faces.
There's her face when she smiles out of the blue, completely out of proportion to her chocolate-brown eyes and the delicate nose that many a Brookie would pay a good five grand for. Then there's her serious face, the one I usually see arched upper lip drawn tightly, suggesting contemplation or the desire for a hand-rolled cigarette.
This is the face that greets me the Friday morning after my car broke down on Highway 280. I had called her and asked her for a ride, and, after a brusque response, she had agreed, adding that I should call at 7 a.m. and wake her "the hell up."
The next morning she's outside my apartment building vrooming her baby-blue Toyota, wearing the intent, arch-lipped Jess-face, looking like a NASCAR driver during a pit stop, maybe; and as she enters 280 at Highland, I see that this simile is more frightfully appropriate than I could have imagined.
On a mild day. Jess is mostly sassy, good-naturedly launching little f-worded missiles. Then there's those Jess-days that come with thunderstorm warnings. She can be perfectly difficult, given to rants on topics ranging from Western culture to urban sprawl. Today is not a mild day. Tank top, mug of coffee, a bare foot maniacally working brake and gas, on some unlucky bastard's tail, switching lanes, no signal, screech! Hardee's biscuit, and then it's haul ass some more.
"I'm sorry if I have been acting sort of bitchy lately," she says, explaining that work at her mother's mail-order soap business in Chelsea has been hectic. She's tailgating again.
"My boss just says anything to make the customers happy," she continues. "It doesn't matter if it's true or not. As long as it gets them off her case for a while. Then I have to deal with the after-effects. I say to my boss 'You're supposed to be a big-time Christian, right, why are you LYING?' " Jess is a bit like her mother's soap: capable of a rich lather. Zoom and we're in the passing lane, spluttering around both halves of a bisected mobile home. I peer into the cutaway living room, half expecting to see a codger in a La-Z-Boy watching "The Price is Right," en route to his final destiny in a remote patch of mosquito-ridden dirt in Bibb County.
When I called Jess and asked her for a ride, I was not sure what kind of response I would get.
I had seen this perilous side of Jess when I first met her, six weeks earlier, at her gallery and performance space, mono09pod, so called because of its address at 109 21st Street South. That late May evening, Jess had loaned out mono09pod for a concert of improvised music, interspersed with homemade videos on a variety of inane subjects, including one perversely funny short about a guy who falls in love with and I'm talking sexually a tool shed. I walked into Jess's little storefront space and was overwhelmed by the whirlwind of people, the odd assortment of noises, sights, and smells. The sensory overload induced by a dozen or so musicians warming up; and milling about, a pack of wild, screaming kids kids! and hybrid art pieces blending found objects with textured glops of oil paint, rendered me partially stupefied. I do remember glancing toward a clacking dog-toenail sound, catching my first glimpse Wedge a terrifying little black-and-white dog, mostly legs, who spent the better part of an hour neurotically circumnavigating the hardwood.
Mono09pod was subject to forces that could render the whole thing a sproinging ball of haywire. Yet Jess appeared unfazed, maybe even energized. Between pressing the flesh and icing the beer, Jess fidgeted intently with the controls of a 1980's RCA Colortrak. Maybe Jess seemed so completely at home in this environment because mono09pod is, literally, as I soon came to realize, Jess's home. She sleeps, eats, and raises her two kids, Walker and Eva, in a hidden space at the back of the store. Come by mono09pod for an opening and what might you encounter? Walker running full-throttle in his underwear? An assortment of cartooney boinks! and ruhroh Georges! blaring from the TV? The smell of French toast?
Or maybe mono09pod projects something from deep inside Jess Walker.
"I think chaos is always in the world and it's always within us," she says. "As I grow older I learn more efficient and effective ways to deal with it. Sometimes my art is just a depiction of chaos, just pure chaotic noise, and it times it is beautiful; purely an example of how you work through chaos, and you find something that has synergy and then chaos bursts out again, and it's a mess, and that's just the way life goes."
Jess starts by taking fragments from her stream-of-consciousness journal passages- that she cuts and pastes into rhythmic strings punctuated by blurbs and cadenced silences.
Jess's poems take the reader on elliptical journeys through her inner turmoil.
Go down to the river and the screamin' can be heard, 'cause her house
blew all to pieces and she was there inside all the time, waitin' for her sweet
wind a-blowin' off the river in the summer when there ain't no wind to be blowin'.
But when the chill is in the rise, cuttin' down the moon with a sharp-bladed knife, he
is sure to be heard creenin' for my heart, lickin' it all out from underneath my thick
layers. Peel back. Peel away. Peel it back until until the glow to be seen is as yellow
as a sunflower from my daddy's garden shadin' the blisterin' from my white-as-
"Poems like Tears Fell Down After Cryin'" show Jess at work; dissecting her psyche, peeling back, to borrow her image, layers of personal history, unearthing distant parts of the subconscious.
"I'm in search for roots. I'm digging for roots, digging in the ground, through dirt, digging for information, digging for myself inside myself. Sometimes I dig into someone else. This is my metaphor, I have a lot of them related to digging. The processes of life, from origination, through growth, to death, rot, and fertilization of something else that will come from me."
The evening at mono09pod mystified me; her poems still do. After the concert, I asked Jess for an interview, and since then we have covered a lot of ground, roughly 26 miles, to be literal, the distance from Southside to the lawn in front of the office building in Alabaster, where I am lying, exhausted by eight hours under the yoke of a possibly psychotic boss, slapping fire ants and waiting for Jess, who finally pulls into the parking lot, much happier than when I last saw her.
Walker is asleep on the back seat. Eva, on the other hand, is wide awake, and is quite vocal about the fact that she craves convenience-store food, primarily offerings from the sodium- category. Jess ignores such an obviously unreasonable request.
"God, I wish I didn't have to drive," she begins. "I really don't like driving. I thought maybe I could have a really horrible accident and psychologically never be able to drive again because it's so disturbing. Somebody would have to drive me to work."
I check my seat belt.
Then she adds, more sanely: "Or maybe what would be even better is if we had a public transportation system."
Look out the car window at that lonesome little patch of countryside between Alabaster and Birmingham and what do you see? Hilly pasture land? Red-dirt ditches? Scrubby pines competing for the sunlight? How accurately do these images register with us natives? Are we oblivious to what these scenes really look like, unaware of their true import?
The daughter of missionaries, Jess grew up in the Philippines and moved to Chelsea at the age of 15. From her more detached vantage point, our Southern landscape appears shrouded in the past. From beneath this mist of history and associations, a thousand disembodied voices whisper in Jess's ear. This is Jess's gift, the ability to peer beneath the scrim.
"My intrigue with Southern culture is really an intrigue with ruralness. Wherever I go, I look for the rural parts. I guess I look for innocence. It is really hard to find."
One senses this concern with what she calls "ruralness" in so much of her work. In one performance piece for the Birmingham Art Alliance, Jess recited a 20-minute monolog on biscuits, collards, coffee, hound dogs, and love gone wrong while sitting in a rocker chair placed in the bed of a pickup truck. As her recitation grew more frenzied, more desperate, she stood up and pounded out a primitive rhythm with her feet. Other members of her performing troupe joined her in a redneck version of stomp banging on cans and oil drums and headlights.
Driving hadn't always been a matter of schlepping back and forth to Chelsea. Jess had found her artistic voice traveling the South's highways, peering out the windows at the farms and sun-washed barns, talking with the odd assortment of rural characters, like the Shelby County man who raised fighting cocks and blue-tickshounds, and made his own moonshine. Snippets of his gothic tales of gory cockfights have found there way verbatim into some of Jess's poems.
"I had a job in North Carolina so I took a trip through Theodore [near Mobile.] I drove to Athens, drove for two months. At the time I was making poetry pajamas. I would get old PJs from the thrift store and write poems on them. I was really young, learning how to create developing a vocabulary, experiencing a lot, and writing it down."
Jess's decidedly non-linear route from Birmingham to North Carolina by way of Mobile suggests a more circular approach to life and art. Jess is a recycler. Her journals become poetry, and her poems find their way into her performance pieces. Even her personal remains hair and old feminine napkins are woven into fabric or shellacked onto small boxes.
While sloughed-off strands of protein and DNA are suspended in temporary orbit in Jess's art, her personal garbage, she concedes, will ultimately be sucked down the drain.
"Nothing lasts forever. I find it comical, this concern for archivalness. I don't care for my own work like that as long as it's relevant. I keep my art things in polyethylene bags. Who knows what will become of them. Other than that, I don't go out of my way. Eventually it will all become earth."
We barrel into suburban Birmingham. Shoney's, Cracker Barrel and the like bubble up, slowly at first, eventually rising to a boil. We wheel past the Summit, with its Stepford wives and Bible-quotin' Samford kids biding their time over lattes at the Barnes and Noble until the Rapture comes; past the Highway 280 water works, left partially roofless by a recent tornado; on through an obstacle course of downtown construction all proof, perhaps, of Jess's theorem: If not by natural disaster or Tribulation force, then by the bulldozer and the wrecking ball, all is slowly oozing its way back to primordiality.
The next morning I call Jess. I have a few more questions to ask, and some video of past performances to look at. She instructs me to come over, adding that I'd better bring Chinese, "Nothing too spicy because I've got the kids."
I arrive with several little cartons of assorted fare and, surrounded by clutter and crayons and art projects, Jess and I eat and talk about art and relationships, and about how difficult it is to find time to create. Plates of kung pao and sweet-and-sour pork compete for space with a mangy black kitten who insists on taking its supper right smack dab in the middle of the dining room table, as though it were a sort of living centerpiece. As Jess eats comfortably, and I gingerly, on constant vigil against the contaminating effects of airborne cat hair, we talk into the late hours, past bedtimes and the evening news, through dusty sunbeams, toxic orange dusk, and flickering moth-light. All the while I cross my legs and point my brand new European loafers, conspicuously, so as to induce a compliment concerning their sleekness, and she typical Jess obviously notices yet refuses to offer even the pettiest approbation, opting instead to abruptly head outside, leaving me to follow, obediently.
Twelve midnight and the rats free-range 21st Street. Humans be damned; this is their time. Trash time. An effluvium of detritus swirls caustically across the lamp-lighted bridge in front of mono09pod. In its path, rodents follow with screwed up nocturnal courage; over Morris Avenue they scamper, toward Peanut Depot; rat heaven.
Jess's world. She's made herself a home amid the ramshackle buildings and back alleys strewn with dumpsters and brick crates. Surrounded by rodents and refuse and hard concrete, she peers deeply into the chaotic soul of her environment, searches it out, finds its essential order. Her art and her life, it seems to me, confront us city-dwellers with our rambling rat-filled citywide, out-of-whack, urban morass. By God, it's a mess few of us consumers see. But Jess sees. Jess stares down the chaos, picks through it, eats it up and spits it out, spits it out, spits it out clean.
Jess scares the hell out of me sometimes. Walker Percy might diagnose her as suffering from Thanatos Syndrome a kind of zest for death. Her talk of driving her car into an accident; her strange, mumbling poems that seem to emanate from some Druidic past: What makes someone this intrepid and at the same time (forgive me) weird?
"There have been times that I have been very close to the fringes of my psyche. When things could definitely become disaster-like." Sometimes it's painful, dreadful, I think of ways to hurt myself. Other days it's not about pain, it's about energy and existence and adrenaline in pure doses. I could just get in my car and hit the road. Whatever the fuck happens, happens. Job, relationships, self-esteem-I could just disappear from it all."
I understand why Jess might want to exit the scene. I imagine that it's a hard job for a woman whose life is as precariously on the edge as Jess Marie's: two kids, an hour-long, round-trip drive every day, irate customers, bills to pay, an all-consuming endeavor like mono09pod. And then there's art to create, and poems to write.
It won't surprise me a bit to one day hear that Jess has gone feral, reverting to some sort of urban wild women.
Here's how I see it happening:
The year, 2010. I am strolling jauntily through Five Points in a pair of European shoes, in top form, career-wise, yet completely liquefied at the sight of Jess (whom I have not seen since her break with what we non-Jess types call civilization). She crouches like a simian at the feet of Brother Bryan, grunting out her poetic blurbs and picking through a pile of paper cups and peanut shells:
Me: "Jess? Jess Walker, is that you?"
Jess: "Chickens shed wings for lovers cocks, claws drawn until the death is down."
Me: "Uh huh. And how are you. I mean how have you been, it's been, wow..."
Jess: "It is the truth that the rain will wash the dirt away. To tar my face ain't right. To tar my bare feet ain't right."
Me (confused): "Hmmm. Well, you might have heard I got tenure. Yep. Of course I know you don't really keep up. . . ."
Jess: Salt and pepper is good on things like green beans and yellow corn and tripe and the eggs. And especially on tomatoes.
Me: "I think I don't know where this is going."
She pulls out a little packet of tinfoil, unfolds it, sifts through its contents: dirt. She takes a pinch, like its snuff, and sprinkles it on her tongue. Alabama dirt. Red dirt. In my fantasy, Jess craves the Alabama red dirt. I wonder what that means? She eats greedily, like she is satisfying a profound mineral deficiency.
"Okay, well, guess I had better run. Great seeing you!"
She continues to munch on the contents of her foil packet, oblivious to my attempts to make contact. I walk away, despondent, then turn and call out pathetically, almost blubbering: "Don't you like my new shoes!?"
My fantasy won't be lived out anytime soon. Jess has kids to raise, a responsibility that she sees as liberating in that it has anchored her. "I'd have to say that what has kept me from exploding or imploding is my family; before I had children, my parents; now Eva and Walker. I don't think I would have gotten where I am without Eva. When Eva was born, I came into focus. My professors took note, let me follow my own directions. I had gotten to a point where I began to grow artistically. I give Eva the credit for that."
Without warning, Jess begins singing, in a distant, high-pitched voice, a song she wrote while she was pregnant with Eva: "Utero Utero lay your sweet head down in your crib of kudzu vine. Wisteria, mysterious, momma's ironin' your roses, in your crib of kudzu vine. In utero, utero."
Her eerie melody trails off. Silence, followed by cantaloupe smiles. Jess Walker is in a happy place. And here she must stay, domesticated, at least for a time, for the sake of Eva and Walker, for mono09pod, for Sea Oats, enticingly described in her mother's soap catalog as sure to evoke a "tropical remembrance." But the call of the wild can be irresistible, and I wonder sometimes how strongly Jess hears this call. I wonder: how many late nights, after the kids are put to bed, does Jess search out a mug of strong coffee, pack a rolling paper, and howl at the moon like a wild woman?
Copyright © The Southerner 2000.