The Midwest |

In the Realm of the Pheasants

by Melanie Janisse-Barlow

‘Our profession is covert, therefore little understood by outsiders.’ –Lynn Crawford, Paula Regossy, 2014.


I remember one early morning on Brush Street in Detroit in the early nineties, a whole flock of pheasants exploded out of the long grass as my car passed by. They were disturbed by two ambulance attendants standing in the middle of the field. As I drove by, I felt my breath catch in my throat. It happened so quickly, the sun dead centre in my eyes, the birds blotting out aspects of my view in tiny, peppered movements, the ambulance lights flickering along in unison for a moment, making for a light show so beautiful and horrible that I didn’t know what feelings to have.

Now that I am back in Detroit, I miss the pheasants. However many times that I tell myself they are likely all gone, I find myself retracing my steps to see if I might not be looking hard enough for their appearances. It feels as though, in tracking them like this, I am being cruel somehow. There is a strong sense of guilt that comes with keeping one eye peeled as I move around the city. Why tease them out? What is the purpose?


Detroiter Lynn Crawford’s story Paula Regossy, found on ∞ milea monthly online Detroit-based art journal—is part of a new book of fiction that works in response to a variety of artworks, chosen by the author. In Paula Regossy, Crawford utilizes painter Peter Williams’ works Untitled (fig. 1), 2013, and Pussy Galore (fig. 2), 2013 as a starting point, following the impressions and vibrations of the works themselves through the writing process. Crawford’s Paula Regossy is the unfolding of a reportage of a ‘covert profession’ as seen through the eyes of two characters: Hoss and Paula Regossy (anagram for Pussy Galore). This undisclosed profession has rules and tones. It is a profession that insists on privacy and gigs are given only by those in the know to those also in the know. Everyone knows the parameters of this profession, and has chosen to participate, wholeheartedly. There can absolutely be no publicity, honesty or, on the other side of the spectrum, any illusions gearing towards the romantic.

Hoss, the speaker in the first section of the story ‘Agency Overview’, provides readers with a warning: ‘Any interference and amplifications’, Hoss believes, ‘will be dangerous to the participants’. I think back to my pheasants, who have likely left downtown because of people like me, looking for them incessantly. It only makes sense, that when something is being hunted down, the strictures around their appearances increase. They find deeper place in the brush to exist. I consider going further into things to seek them out, but get tripped up. How do I know if I am the right one to go looking for them? Am I in the know, or not? I have been gone for so long, that they will not recognize me. At this point I have to acknowledge that my hunting them down has become a problem. It’s just that I really miss them, and before, I could just see them without a lot of rigamarole.

Field note: We all know what we have gotten ourselves into, being here, doing this. Are we lonely, or fine? Are we tucked deeply enough into the brush?


We are early. Soon there will be a special poetry performance, happening within Jason Yates’ installation Homemade Ice Cream at Wasserman Projects, featuring performances by Marsha Music and John Sinclair. These performances are part of a porousness that I will try and explain later. For the moment, I am standing in front of a piece called Elsewhere (for Mark Blake)— an ingathering of ephemera covered in a uniform matte black. There are ducks and cookie jars fashioned as boot-houses, a droopy eyed basset hound and wooden tulips, to name a few of the dozens of things deeply crowded onto a few shelves set up along one of the gallery walls. While my brain knows that I am looking at an overcrowding of individual kitschy objects, they read overall as a monolith in monochrome. Out of the encrustation, my eyes have deciphered a small coquillage bear—a puzzle piece that loosens itself out of the uniformity, as if personally calling out to me.

My grandmother, ill with rheumatoid arthritis had once worked in this fashion. She was kind of a sad person, but she taught me to play poker with the over cheerful reds and blues of plastic poker chips, while she chain smoked Virginia Slims. On a good day, her gnarled hands would move from shell to object. Suddenly a mirror frame would be covered, or the back of a fancy hairbrush. Determined to accomplish the work she would work, placing one slow shell at a time.

I want to reach in to this memory and grasp her gnarled, belaboured hands, to see her again in her last living space in the penthouse at the top of Victoria Park Place in Windsor, Canada. I want look out over the icy river from this vantage, Zug Island quietly chugging, the lazy freighters making their way through the small throngs of ice. I want to be back there. My strange childhood was a view of the muted ochres and muddy brick reds of Detroit hugging the steely grey river from that giant window. It was the click of poker chips and thickets of mirrors framed with shells, shells adorning baskets, shells everywhere that my grandmother glued one by each to everything in an act of revolution.

I am riveted to my spot in the gallery trying to tear through the monochrome black paint, to invade the coquillage bear with my own selfish honeycomb of remembering. The black paint is a tough elastic skin that impedes my penetration. I can’t really reach in and take what is is I want. Not quite. To be honest, I am getting a little frustrated. The richness of my own memories are as intangible as the original object I am trying to penetrate. I am looking into the shiny skin of another kind of creature, my memories absorbed into something more general. Isn’t that memory though? Just as soon as we are confronted by the portal that brings us towards them, we are left with their husks. This is a universal loneliness.

I look around feeling suddenly needy. My friend Derrick is beside me, explaining to a small group that the wooden snowman with the wire strung sign overtop—the kind that your eccentric aunt likely bought at Winners, on sale—was one his mom had at some point. ‘It says Merry Christmas y’all, or something across the plaque, I think.’ He seems perplexed as to how to access the evidence of his memory in the artifacts in front of us as well. There is now a small crowd of us standing there, silent now, as if finally accepting the truth of things. Nothing is personal, really. I am not even entirely sure that anyone cares at all about my grandmother’s shells. Perhaps that is the point.


Field note: I fear shining a headlamp too crudely at yet another portal.

Since reading Lynn Crawford’s introduction to Paula Regossy on ∞ mile, I have been visiting Peter Williams’ former residence on East Grand—or at least how I imagine his rooms to be—in the late mornings with my second coffee. According to Crawford’s description of Peter’s home in the forward to Paula Regossy:

‘Peter’s home, an Arts & Craft bungalow on East Grand Boulevard, was a terrific space to visit, mostly because of his company but also because of what he did with rooms. Wood floors, rugs, art, windows, light, plants, oddly stacked soup cans on his kitchen counter all came together to form a warm, welcome society of things engaging.’

I think fondly of this house on Grand that I have never seen. I try and imagine at least the edges of it. When I do this, I am always sitting alone, surrounded by the worn and auric objects that pad my largely misunderstood and definitely under-visited surroundings. I sit there alone imagining what it might feel like to enter the hearth of a man that I have never met—a hearth that doesn’t even exist as a physical place anymore. Really, I am visiting the ghosting of a portal. The arc that takes me there, is Paula Regossy. It is a sturdy limb, or perhaps even a fox hole. Twice removed from the hearth of Peter Williams.

We leave, but never really go anywhere else. We return, or re-emerge and there are new in- gatherings that might not know how the terrain was just before. They may not even care. But, we all care about Detroit in all of its layered glory. Within its palimpsest, we stoke our tiny suns. We are hiding under the dark of the city and we want you to find us, but not really.


You have been hiding for so long. We are all unsure if you will open your door at all, being that we are gauche, announcing the entry to your portal for all to see, making it vulnerable. What is this, that you have been sitting there waiting for some one to come over? The loud and oftentimes callous preside over public spaces, but the quiet make hidden sanctuaries that glimmer underneath the veneer of what is seen. I have kept your secrets. My intentions are kind. I want to bring my light to meet your light. Kapeche? Will you hurt me? Maybe I should just leave this all alone and keep walking down the grey street, ignoring you as much as possible? I don’t know. Somehow, that seems kinder, but the light through your windows is a warm yellow. You have assembled sights that feel sad and familiar, worn by the patina of life just enough, that I can feel their hum. These rooms are clearly not rooms, but beliefs.

Perhaps they are shared, I don’t know. Here is what I really want to tell people: come over, but please don’t be jealous.

Paula Regossy talks of this:

'I understand the cringe factor, I really do when you hear words like bath, scent and meditate, especially in the context of dailiness. I am sorry. I also understand--and this might be worse--these words may make you feel inadequate. Or sad. They might make you rue your timed gym showers, your drug store baby oil or the fact you do not have bath. You might feel left behind winners so feel pushed to find a bath, purchase something nice to put in it, learn how to meditate. If you do pursue these things you might be enriched, thankful. Or not. You might gain nothing. No radiance, no focus, no calm. You might even feel worse than before. You might regret your waste of time and money on useless additions. Please know I am speaking about what works for me. Not making suggestions for you.'

Can you just come over and shine in my sun for a while, without blocking its penetration into the world, or wanting your own opportunity to create resonance? I fear that we are all killing each other by being rude guests, forgetting somehow how hard it is to forge such a blazing interior sun along a such a wide stretch of concrete. The bits of comfort I have built in my loneliness are burgees. They are mine, but also for you. Please approach delicately.


Field note: Create hard surfaces for poets to meet on. Create rooms for friends. Have guests.

There is no one place of authority. Just when you think that Detroit is one particular thing, it gives you a steely opportunity to realize that it is everything all at once—a perfect heterotopia, full of such a tapestry of stories, both heartening and horrid.

Upon returning to Detroit after twenty years, I have patiently peeled my own onions of this place, trying not to cry—trying awkwardly to slide my feet along its new, shiny terrain.

Nowadays, the skin of the city is unfamiliar, and therefore requires a process. Here, a space is successful that has the translucency of an onion skin. What does that mean? Does Detroit seem like a city to you? An important question: what does a truly civic space look like on the surface of this particular moon? A beautiful, glossy airport hangar? The shiny black skin of a tough beetle? An old tv studio covered in carbon? What have we here? What is underneath?

Does this tough encrustation have underneath it Paula Regossy’s sensoriums? If we open the lid a tiny bit, what takes place inside? What are the things that occur out of view? If everything is covert, how do we trust that our burgees reach the intended crowds? My answer: one has to trust the psychic airwaves, completely.


I am listening to Crawford’s character Hoss, in Paula Regossy, who says, that it ‘ a shame about the interviews, because our staff tends to think like, and get along with, journalists, especially daring, ethical ones, but NRP (No Relationship Possible)’. Even though I did interview Lynn Crawford, I am fearful to transcribe it here. It was conducted in a wide open space, which I will describe below. Even though I did interview Jason Yates, I am fearful to transcribe it here. It was conducted via email between here and Los Angeles. The common ground is the energy of open space.

The new spaces of the city are so open. They are full of light coloured terrazzo and an abundance of air. They are accumulated with an interesting sort of hopefulness that is at once tentative and bright. There is a rising popularity of potted plants with large fronds, potted in lovely terracotta pots. They are a message of care, but also of a taming that I have not processed yet. I know it is important that they are flourishing here on Gratiot, there on Grand. The plants are thriving in expansive rooms, sparse and purposeful. They function as performance spaces, even if they are apartments or cafes, too.

While in Trinosophes the other day, I met a potter named Henry Crissman. He sends messages and pictograms to us via his plates and cups. This is real. I ate a nice egg breakfast off of bowls and plates made of code. My plate had this scrolled across its surface: ‘For a good time call (313) ***-****. I called for an opening.

The plates and bowls and cups are for sale, but also are in circulation in the space. They are bought and sold along a sliding scale. In these wide open spaces there is a new openness that operates as a frequency. It gathers in something fresh and possible. It tries in every way to be careful. Mindful. They are living as best as possible out of their mainstream. They are an experiment in code, in usurping the object’s prison on the market. Truth. My coffee mug is a fortune teller, predicting the future of my career. It says: ‘It might be too late, butt it never hurts to try.’ Am I in the know? Do I surrender to this path willingly?


In the Wasserman gallery there is a veranda. The façade of a house sports the face of a raggedy Anne doll. There is a rocking chair. The veranda is locatable. It is a place of sift. It is an allowance for the percolation of stories other than our own, alongside of or around our own world making. The piece is entitled Welcome Friends. I feel a bit unwelcome, but I sit down anyways. I am welcome, but only for a few minutes, until I ask to stay too long.

Martha Music takes to the porch. Her poem is a warning, gently spoken, telling us not to forget the ‘black dolls and their dollhouses’, not to be completely shitty guests here on the stoop of the city. The porch. Is it a place we can all share together? Can we respect each other’s turf? Here on this strange moon of a night, there is space and love between contemporaries, inter-generational love, inter-racial love. There is love—it can be felt. We can count on it for this one moment. Next, John Sinclair is invited to the porch. He sits on the rocker and sings us the blues with Jeff ‘Baby’ Grand, his compadre on guitar. He bursts through the surface of this strange terrain, sending another burgee up the pole.

Detroit has thousands of skins, forever shedding. Is that it? Or, is it that there are thousands of portals, forever shifting? Either way, upon arrival in the city, one’s footing might feel off. For those thronging here, a sort of loneliness might surface, as the media has perhaps painted a picture of a utopia of urban gardens and a kind of generic hope that is a little misleading and is quite often in sharp contrast to what you might find once you land and attempt to find your bearings. This acclimatization, might produce an ache, easily misunderstood as a rejection. The city is a piracy. Just try and remember that as you go. I recommend purchasing a thousand-year-old evil eye bead from Dabl, as they are powerful, and every penny of your purchase goes into the hands of an artist.

Are we throwing burgees up to the wind? We may not locate each other properly.

Tonight there is space here for the mess of what is happening. For the stories that hide deeper. I suddenly realize that we are all here, sitting on the stoop, trying to tear through. Trying to be heard. But we are together, fragile, often wondering if we are in the know, if we are welcome. Weathervanes. Heartbeats. Negotiators of the reality of Hoss and Paula’s world, which is sometimes harsh. We all know this already and participate willingly, or so Crawford’s characters say. We all want to be heard without revealing our position. Because our positions are so close by one another, this effort becomes collective.


I am sitting in the Bronx Bar on Second and Prentis in Detroit. A younger version of myself once sat in the same place at the end of the bar, reading books resuscitated from the damp collection, left unsupervised with a chronic roof leak, left behind in the location of a former bookstore. There was a time when the pheasants ran wild through this city, where it was wild and good and bad. Here, there is my forty-five-year-old body, perusing the fancy sandwiches chalked on the wall. The waitress is the same woman who presided over the bar back in the nineties. She is still gruff, but fair and kind. No nonsense, as the saying goes. The sign from Zoots Café is tucked in the back corner of the room, likely overlooked by most who enter the place. I am likely part of a small group who might see the semi-circular Doberman as a portal into a time and place that acts as the location of my own selfish ideas of what this city was before it was this.

This very bar stool was the first place that I read the poems of Phil Levine. After reading Belle Isle, I made my best friend come with me. We smoked weed on the expansive grass. We skinny dipped in the river. After, we watched the flashy cars make gyrating rings around the perimeter of the island.

I order a fancy sandwich from the menu and wonder if I will be remembered. The vibration of the city is tame and good and bad.

Field note, pertaining to the pheasants:

No one here wants to be found, necessarily. But they want to be remembered.