Here is a page, taken from a Russian Encyclopedia, that I’ve kept for a long time in a file of curiosities.
My friend Steve had the whole encyclopedia and he gave me some of the pages from it: one with space-age vacuum cleaners, one with ornate teapots, one with slices of salami. All of them rendered in saturated color and floating in a field of aqua. All those other pages have found their way into letters to friends, or a collage or gift tag, but I never quite found a way to employ this one, though it still seems to have some potential. I’ve always been a little afraid of it, and maybe that’s why I’ve never looked at it closely enough in ten years to notice what I finally today noticed.
But I think there’s something more to it than those off-putting feather remnants, and it has something to do with how language actually helps us see. So often language is cited for being a pale stand-in for actually looking at something, but today I had the sensation of actually seeing this strange array more clearly when my friend Olga told me that the title, in Russian, reads, “Classification of Carcasses of Poultry by Plumpness.” As many times as I’d looked at this picture, I’d never noticed that there were four pairs, one scrawny and one plump. I think there was something about knowing I couldn’t read the caption that brought on in me a subtle expectation that the whole thing was in a code I didn’t know. I hadn’t noticed this until today when whatever that was that suspended my expectation of legibility lifted. When Olga told me what the caption said, suddenly I could see the pattern of the image. Before I think I just had some vague sense that there were 8 different kinds of fowl, and that maybe some were game and some were domestic was about as far as I’d gotten in trying to figure it out.