“The Shortest Alphabet is the Steepest”: Objects, Action and Memory



at his wedding

to recall his people’s suffering

during his greatest joy. The stepping 

is shorthand: the shortest alphabet

is steepest. A car horn

to tell his ancestors, “I see you,

may my tongue cleave

to the roof of my mouth

should I forget.” He sounds out the glass

because, as truckers say

in the office, “If you can’t see them,

they can’t see you.”




Davis’ poem briefly and vividly describes the connections between objects, memory, and the actions objects compel us towards: “the stepping is the shorthand/the shortest alphabet is the steepest”. Humans are like magpies, hoarders of objects, memories and pain. We remember the things that are especially shiny–perhaps especially painful. Sontag writes of the tremendous human appetite for images of bodies in pain, from gruesome war photographs to the twisted marble flesh of Lacoon and his sons. The images are a shorthand: they invite the viewer to “commiserate with the sufferer’s pain”, to pursue destinies “beyond deploring or contesting”. Representations of the tormented body are at once a shorthand to empathy and to voyeurism; interaction with the object–to look, touch, step, weep, pray–encourages a life with the object, a provocation towards devotion, reparation, desire. Images ask you: “can you look at this?”, but also–”what is the next letter in this shorthand alphabet? Who are you trying to see, and who sees you looking?”. Augustine fears an incorrect kind of looking: see too much, don’t see enough. Watch pain and enjoy it, feel the shadow of empathy, not the true viscerality. You hear the glass break, but don’t feel it crunch under your foot. This is the difference between the gladiator dead and the martyrs: when you’re looking at them, they look back. 

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