“Gals and Gales”
Review of Zephyrian Spools (An Essay, A Wind) by Dalia Neis
“There exists a long-standing tradition of mystics, writers, and artists who were or are captivated by ways in which to represent the ineffable; their failed attempts shape the very urgency of their inquiry, often, in the process, crossing thresholds of expressive modes and aesthetic forms,” remarks Lydia, an independent filmmaker working on a piece about the wind, and the protagonist of Dalia Neis’ unusual and compelling Zephyrian Spools (An Essay, A Wind). It’s a rather meta statement about the work that contains it. Much as the wind is seen and felt by what it forcibly moves, Neis’ experimental work pursues the capture of something metaphysical, expressing its findings through several different forms, including poems, mystic visions, essays on early silent films (especially Victor Sjöström’s The Wind starring Lillian Gish), voiceover narrations for esoteric movies, and the shooting script for Lydia’s own film, which in the end isn’t so much made, as lived.
“My relationship with the wind began in early childhood,” Lydia recalls, surfacing memories of being pushed on an English park swing by her father. “I began to convince myself that while up there, mid-flight, swirling into the wind-blown autumnal leaves, that I had eyes at the back of my head, on the palms of my hands, on the soles of my feet, on the tip of my clitoris. The air had opened up the pores of my body to an awareness of sight beyond the ocular.”
Lydia is not the only person in her family open to other ways of seeing. We learn that her grandfather, “from a long lineage of Chassidic practice” that “encouraged solitary meditation in nature” and “a non-conformist practice of Judaism,” followed the teachings of seven scholars, all women, who “possessed singular strengths, attributes, and powers,” and who mysteriously disappeared in 1928. “They went away with the wind. They rode on its back to Prague,” Lydia’s grandfather tells her, and her curiosity is such that she moves there to study film. Despite feeling “overcome by a claustrophobic sense that Prague was stuck in the centre of Europe, and therefore prone to brutal winds from every direction,” it’s the place where Lydia experiences both her sexual and feminist awakenings (simultaneously in the case of her infatuation with guest lecturer Susan Sontag).
Later, Lydia is in Manchester “preparing to film a ‘loose’ adaptation of [The Wind,] this wind-swept [American] Southwest frontier vision in the North of England.” The source film is an obsession of hers she returns to several times in the book, and we get both her critical and personal responses as she wrestles with trying to give form to what she finds so compelling about it: “What makes … the film so unique is that even—and in spite of its depiction of the brutal force of wind in the barren lands of the Great Plains, and the female protagonist’s apparent ensuing mental disintegration—beyond the wind’s particular destructive qualities, its avenging force, its transcendental qualities, lies another direction to its power.”
Central to the puzzle of Lydia’s project (and to Zephyrian Spools) is the year 1928. Clues we are given: it’s the release year of the Lillian Gish picture (her “dark pupils reflecting the dust storm of the Great Plains”), the year of the disappearance of the mystical scholars whose teachings instructed Lydia’s grandfather, and the year that Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, a feminist manifesto arguing for women’s need for private space and public recognition, and one of the sources of inspiration for Lydia’s film. In the last piece of Zephyrian Spools, a poem Neis writes begins, “In 1928 the lid was lifted / the desert blue with burning witches.” In a sense, Lydia’s work adds to the tradition of women stirring the pot against the patriarchy.
Neis’ experimental work pursues the capture of something metaphysical, expressing its findings through several different forms, including the shooting script for Lydia’s own film, which in the end isn’t so much made, as lived.
Funding for Lydia’s film falls through, however. “‘It keeps changing form,’ whined the chief producer.” (And one can imagine more than one editor’s exasperation by what Neis is doing here; the avant-garde work transcends genre, although it’s classified by its publisher, the Knives Forks and Spoons Press, as “poetry.”) Lydia finds herself unable to abandon her film, though, continuing in what the producers call her “never-ending research phase,” finding inspiration in the work of Woolf, and especially in her mentored relationship with the lesbian Dr. Lizzie Zephyrah (“more of a polymath than a specialist in one, particular academic discipline”), who speaks in “an enigmatic, scholarly tone” and challenges Lydia by asking philosophically tinged rhetorical questions. She accuses Lydia of using her “filmmaker guard” as “a pretext for your curiosity … You don’t need to point your camera at me as your subject, nor the wind as your object. Artists often use their medium as a protective shield.”
Zephyrian Spools talks to itself in this wonderfully strange way. It’s intelligent without being inaccessible, and manages to speak to its deep spiritual concerns with surprising straightforwardness. Watching the Lillian Gish movie at an arthouse cinema on Valentine’s Day, Lydia “slowly sunk into the clarity of nocturnal vision.” The movies are where she sees clearly, but as with her childhood swinging, it’s a different kind of vision. Suddenly overcome by a need to sleep, Lydia never loses her awareness of the picture: “My eyelids were trembling to the rhythm of the spools turning in the projector.”
Zephyrian Spools is a wholly original book, a metaphysical mystery that touches on the way our private passions become both our albatrosses and our north stars. Just as the wind can change from a summer breeze to a hurricane, Zephyrian Spools changes form as it moves through its story’s different terrains. Both the subject and form speak to what it means to be a spiritual being. Together they invite us to reflect on the ways our own personal passions demand expression, and suggest how the pursuit of that which singularly stirs us might move us toward fulfillment of some larger purpose, guided as we are by that which we can only sometimes sense and feel, but never directly know, or see.
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL QUINN
Michael Quinn reviews books for trade publications (Publishers Weekly, IndieReader), literary journals (The Adroit Journal, Green Mountains Review), and newspapers (The Red Hook Star-Revue), as well as for his own website, mastermichaelquinn.com, under the heading “Book Report.” His reading list for the reviews he’s not assigned is determined by interest, whim, and chance—and by what’s available at the Brooklyn Public Library.