On lists

Leo Van Witsen. Costume list, 1948 Nov. 6. Lillian and Frederick Kiesler papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


At the library they are giving away old books and journals. The expurgated. That is what they call them. I pick up an inventory of the goods that belonged to the Muslim population of Granada in the 16th century after they were expelled. One of the entries lists “a piece of cloth.” It says: “a piece of cloth that was left in the loom by the Moors. They took other pieces of fabric but left this one. It was given to the same person that took the loom.” No names, just the Moors, just the same person that took the loom. The date is June 12th, 1562.

Another two objects grab my attention: a lute described as “a Morisco lute, old and dented,” and a book. It says that it was written in Arabic, but based on the description it is clearly just a registry listing the real estate of the village’s inhabitants. We do not know who took the loom, but we do know who bought the lute. They auctioned it off, and Gerónimo García paid one real for it.


Following the list of objects, the author includes 68 full documents. The documents contain descriptions of spaces that are now empty.

It usually starts with the sleeping elements: the mattress, the sheets, a blanket.

One example: a mattress owned by Miguel Chinchilla, who fled to Barbary. The record says that he slept on this mattress “with her.” I wonder if they are talking to the wife, who did not leave, and wonder where she is going to sleep now. Their house has a pen and a lemon tree in a patio. They also own land, and two olive trees, and more land with an orchard.


—the soft red hat
—a notebook with a rubber band
—tons of colored pencils in a case (a nice one)
—stylish clothes (my style)
—a watch-bracelet with little dangling figurines

This is a list my sister sent me today. Our letters have now been reduced to lists. She keeps sending me lists of things she wants. I keep them in a black box. It started out as a very practical thing after one of my visits.

“Did you bring me the skirt?”
“I can write you a list.”

I took the list with me that day. A very long list. Instructions. It turned into something else. Blurrier. Years ago I used to panic when I was unable to fulfill a desire from the list. Not anymore. Now it is a mechanism of something else, not instructions but a secret code.


I find the document about the owner of the lute. His name was Lope Caluca and he had a son named Sebastián Caluca. They both “went to the other side” (se pasaron allende). They also had land and orchards, half a vineyard and silk worms. They were raising silk worms and making silk in their house. After they left, a neighbor took care of the worms. He was also a Morisco but did not go over to “the other side.” His name was Diego Talha.


Other than lists she also sends me letters.
They contain many clippings, notes and stickers.
It takes me a while to sort out the information that they enclose. I cannot throw them away or transcribe them.

They are not conversational.
They do not include a list of questions to be answered. They don’t answer questions.

They belong to a family language, though. I understand everything they say. They are our secrets.


Huygens Jr. wrote in his diary very small fragments about his relationship to the King. Mainly about the moods of the King. For example, on the 19th of March of 1692, he wrote: “This evening I was with the King, who was friendly”.

That very same day, Huygens Jr. wrote that he had heard how the king was making fun of him for some reason in front of “a lot of people”. When confronted by Huygens, the king laughed and said: “Well, yes”.

I noticed that most of the sentences the king says start the same way, with the word well. I observe the same mannerism in my father. I used to think that it was his way of evading my questions but it may have to do with monarchy or even majesty. Well, said by my father, sounds to me like throwing a big bone to a dog or a pebble into a lake. I look at the word he throws with extreme attention, guessing where it will land, evaluating if I will be able to retrieve it from the dark.


The lists she sends me are in a way similar to the ones listing Morisco belongings.

Both of them negotiate absences.

Hers are linked to what is not present and needs to be present. They are invocations.

For a period of time, her life was exclusively defined by what was not present:

She didn’t call me
I don’t have their last album
He didn’t come
You weren’t here
I’m not happy
I don’t have a zombie doll
You’re not helpful
I don’t have white boots

These narratives created a vast tension. How I am going to fill in the holes? I wondered. I imagined myself as the character in Kafka’s story: carrying a bucket around on an icy night, looking for coal. Not finding coal, flying away.


I realize that I tend to read the lists she sends me as still lifes and collect them.

A watch
A hat
Bone necklace

I then think about a series of poems using those elements like verbal still lifes. I like the idea but it depresses me at the same time. What I don’t like is the expression verbal still life. It sounds cheesy.

Gertrude Stein seems to have taken this in the right direction. I find a paper by Janna Aver where two lists written by Stein are taken together: one is a shopping list and the other a list of objects for her book, Tender Buttons.They are both torn scraps of paper and they are almost identical.


Books by Seneca
Punk t-shirts
A perfume

These are the three categories I did fulfill on my last visit to my sister. The list was longer. In exchange, I got two notebooks with dialogues I asked her to transcribe for me. One of them is pink and has glitter all over the covers, the other one is coffin-shaped and its cover reads, Teenage Vampire Notes. They are both hardcover. These two, and a book entitled Curative Stones: 430 stones from A to Z, were my only reading materials as I traveled back by bus. This is what is left of that trip. That and a list that I wrote myself on my phone, because I did not have a pen or a computer with me. The list says:

Glazed glitter
My itinerary finishes here
Another driver will take you to your destination
Pink cloud