To read Elizabeth Schmuhl’s Presto Agitato: A Dictionary of Modern Movement is to be drawn into a realm we are all more or less familiar with but maybe not always aware of. Echoing the aesthetic of prose poetry but resisting a traditional genre classifiation, the text itself mirrors the fluidity it celebrates. This is a study of the secrets that pulse inside us, around us, between us, the vibration of energies that keep us here.
I am not always okay with being kept here, in this body, on this earth, but reading Schmuhl’s dictionary (and I did so while listening to Beethoven’s “Moonlight,” as the book instructs), reminded me of all the ways in which I don’t have to stay, how I am actually not kept anywhere, that stillness is an illusion. She writes,
If all the mushrooms are flat in the forest and you find yourself unable to move any further, close your eyes and concentrate on the understated rhythm of things. You’ll hear the path you are supposed to take.
Presto Agitato is as much therapy, then, as it is a study of movement – maybe that’s because movement is therapy, to be reminded of the roots from which we grow, to be shown the magic we are. This reminder feels especially important today, in a partriachal capitalist society that insists on capital growth over personal growth, on capital growth at the expense of personal growth. I want to weep now, thinking of the gap between human potential and what we’ve deemed as reality, as normal – this gap is an abyss I often fall into. Presto Agitato says No. She says Keep moving. She says
Maximum velocity should be your continual goal. It’s the only way to avoid the crystallization of your bones.
Schmuhl’s insistence on movement is an insistence on life – a radical act in the face of so much death. Presto Agitato is a return to the feminine energy that, for thousands of years pre-patriarchy, is the energy that was widely known to heal people, the energy that came from the gut of the earth and up through our bodies, out through the fingertips, the fingertips pulling energy down from the stars and back into the earth. This is intuition, a cyclical energy, a dance between the elements, traditionally symbolized by the moon. Of course, then, we are supposed to read these words while listening to Beethoven’s “Moonlight.” Did Schmuhl know this? I don’t know. Why did she choose this particular piece of music? I ask this question and the answer comes: she knows. If she doesn’t know in her mind she knows in her body, in her movement, the particles that make her:
Don’t forget about the electrons involved – they are tiny and they matter.
This book is as much science as it is art: a study of movement is a study of quantum physics is a study of light is a study of love. Schmuhl effortlessly weaves these fibers of reality together into a lanscape of multi-dimensional possibility. And not only are we invited to step into this landscape – we are reminded that we are it. It is here that we can dream without having to close our eyes.
–reviewed by Sarah Xerta