The stalwart demeanour. Mute. Immutable. The doors like twin sentries locked in durable defence. Whether it is an iron reliquary, a sumptuous Louis Quinze, or a modern unadorned cherry wood, the essential effect is the same.
I am a shy looker, I perceive with the side of my head, and what I feel is fortress. I focus on the marquetry, the fine geometric lines, the floral design, I note the stunning symmetry. The insignia of the maker is often placed discreetly somewhere on the surface. I apply myself to finding it. The structure and its obscure intent loom like a storm.
There are tracks in the design, but a design is not a map and a track is not a journey. I am not a designer. I see it beautiful but can’t tell why. The name is cognate with 'aumbry', a storage place, particularly a closed recess in the wall of a church where sacred vessels and vestments are stored. It derives from Old French armarie from Latin armarium a closet or chest, from arma utensils. Latin arma is also the source for arm the limb, arm the action, and arms the utensils of war.
Its original function was to store things wielded by arms—weapons or tools. Evolution brought inner modifications for the purposes of storing other objects and clothing. Subspecies include the armoires basses, longer than they are high, often with bulldog’s cabriole legs, and the knock-down varieties designed for ease of relocation. Also the small chests of drawers called ‘handkerchief dressers’ that could be dismantled and transported, as, for example, by girls going into service in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A dresser could be reassembled and the drawers locked in the tiny bedroom of an enormous house of employment. A small securable patch of the earth that was visibly one's own but distinct from one's body. A moveable fortress.
...it seems very difficult to propose an intrinsic difference between weapons and tools. The types of percussion, as defined by André Leroi-Gourhan, are found on both sides. "For ages on end agricultural implements and weapons of war must have remained identical."
– Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1)
In eighteenth century Denmark, some were designed with low-ceilinged cottages in mind—6 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and would fit well in the back of farm wagons. Six feet—the measure of a man and the depth of his grave. Later, when evolving into the wardrobe, the measure is said to have been the holding capacity of eight small men. How small is small?
How large is large? I flounder in the scrolling foliage of the marquetry, float in small tortoiseshell ponds, stumble over the ormolu mounting. I arrive at a face—the personification of a wind, maybe? Whoever made this got lost in it too, like his insignia. Buried in it. Or reborn in it.
It's normal, I suppose, logical, to express what we have gained in an outward form. Me and my trappings. Me and the objective concomitant of my abilities. This is what I can afford. These are my possessions; this is the possession that preserves them. Dolls upon dolls, until in the end, what?
One with the epithet 'le fer' was an iron cabinet hidden behind wooden panelling in Louis XVI's Tuileries Palace, where he kept sensitive correspondence with ministers, financiers and other European monarchs following the revolution. It was opened with the help of a locksmith and precipitated the king's headfall.
There's an abundance of modern re-imaginings. One whose doors imitate the humped back of a beetle, one cloned in plastic colours with geometric designs, its hawker saying it's a statement, but of what? Sometimes silence is more cogent. Until what I think is the ultimate—one in the shape of a female torso, made of Dalbergia wood and opening to pressure on an unmarked panel of veneer. Inside, the central compartment reveals itself by another hidden mechanism, leading to eleven drawers held by concealed locks, three further drawers still hidden.
The purpose of secrecy is obvious. The purpose of protection is obvious. What will be our forbidding, our allowed, container in this age of revelation and expectation, the age of transparency, if not our own bodies?
The apparel proclaims the man; the container proclaims the apparel. The container is a surrogate and does one live in it? I am still nomadic in the design that overlays the overlay, and wonder now why I should find the insignia of the maker. It would hardly undo the mystery of this encounter, this paradox of elation and doom. But I search for the sake of searching, and when I find the insignia, I realise the core of my unease. I haven't even considered what might be inside. The façade is all too attractive, and the structure too much like a body one would have to syringe oneself into. One needs weapons to storm a fortress. I only have naked arms—no container full of percussive extensions—and shy eyes. The insignia is a broken key.
A conversation begins
with a lie. And each
speaker of the so-called common language feels
the ice-flow split, the drift apart
as if powerless, as if up against
a force of nature
– Adrienne Rich (2)
Look, says Parvit, don’tlook. I am just one, norace,
nobody. Noseless, geneless, wealthless, skilless, mute.
In my dark niche I am noglow and below your sweep,
will preserve all that I am unabscessed, if unformed.
– Máighréad Medbh (3)
(1) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Scizophrenia, transl. Brian Massumi, London, New York: Continuum, 1999, p. 435/6. (The embedded quote is from J. F. C. Fuller, Armament and History, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945, p. 5.)
(2) 'Cartographies of Silence', The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1993 (reissue), p.16.
(3) 'Hide' from new, unpublished verse fantasy.