From Issue 18: "Accumulations" by Garrett Bliss (Nonfiction)


Garrett Bliss

Reading Time: ~6 minutes

"Accumulations" originally appeared in Issue 18 of Tahoma Literary Review. I selected the piece for its masterful braiding of disparate elements, wherein each element is fascinating by itself, and mind-altering when juxtaposed. The work was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2020, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2021.

What disparate subjects might you braid as Bliss has, connecting beehives, Jasper Johns' Numbers in Color, and Prisoner #5's walk around the world? We'd love to hear from you over at our Facebook page, or reach out to us on Twitter. Thanks so much for reading.

Ann Beman
Nonfiction editor


For Prisoner #5, walking preceded The Walk. It began as nothing more than exercise.  

What ultimately became a triumph of imagination and endurance grew from the mundane act of counting. With each trip around the prison yard, he moved a dried pea from one pocket to the other. 

In this way, Prisoner #5 never lost track of how many times he circled the yard.  Putting old skills to use, he converted laps to meters, and the accumulation of laps to kilometers. 


In terms of wax and labor required, the hexagon is the most efficient shape for storing honey.  

A healthy, robust hive of domesticated bees can fully build out a frame of comb in a day or two. The finished product is an ideal expression of opposites: organic and geometric; fragile and strong; ephemeral and enduring.


Numbers in Color [1] by Jasper Johns is a collection of systems, each with its own rules and logic, layered on top of each other. Stencils. Grid. Numeric order. Brush strokes. A limited, tonally muted, color palette. 

It is, as Jasper Johns famously said, “something the mind already knows,” and, at the same time, in its finished state, it is something never seen before. 

It is a work defined by rules and therefore, in theory, reproducible. 

But it is, in the end, unique.   

It could be reenacted but not reproduced. 


Beekeepers give the colony a structure on which to start—a wooden frame holding a thin sheet of wax, reinforced with wires, stamped with a honeycomb pattern. 

Bees begin building comb on new frames immediately. Like everything in the hive, this is a collective activity. Bees consume honey, secreting the sugar through glands on their abdomens as clear flakes. The worker bees chew the flakes, adding saliva, which softens the wax and changes it from clear to pure white. 


The Walk began as an imaginary trek from Berlin to Heidelberg, from prison to home. 

This journey completed, Prisoner #5 expanded his imaginary horizons, moving south through the Balkans, across what is today Iran, and onward. By the time his twenty-year sentence in Spandau was completed, he had “made it” to Mexico. 


Bees consume six to eight pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. A single pound of honey requires, on average, flights covering nearly 50,000 miles to roughly two million flowers. 


At the right distance, the image is clear: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 and on. 

Step closer, and individual brushstrokes—countless dashes of orange, red, yellow, blue, white—overwhelm the image they construct.  

The finished product is subsumed in the evidence of its own creation.


When he moved into unfamiliar territory, the former Reichsminister fur Bewaftung und Munition ordered books from the library—travel guides, natural history—to help him conjure a richly detailed virtual landscape. 

So thoroughly did Albert Speer invest himself in this endeavor, his spirits dropped during uphill climbs that lasted days. In warm regions, he greeted each day’s walk with an enthusiasm he could not muster; in, for example, Siberia where he would pretend to hold his overcoat closed through imaginary wind and drifting snow.


Most beekeepers use a Langstroth Hive, named after Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, of Philadelphia, who patented his invention in 1852. 

This hive is, in many ways, like a filing cabinet. Boxes are stacked one on top of the other.  Inside, hanging down like file folders, are frames of stamped wax. The cells filled with pollen—protein, to balance the sugar of the honey—vary in color depending on the plants visited by the worker bees. 

In this way, the hive is a physical record of the activity of the bees. It is a catalog, accumulated over thousands of flights, of the flora for the surrounding terrain. 


The final product is, at once, a field of numbers in order, repeating over and over; and also, due to the way Johns applied paint, a document of its own creation. The individual physicality of each brushstroke is one of this painting’s most striking features. Lacking any expressionistic intent, there is a clinical precision to them.  

The viewer, trying to extract meaning from a simple series of numbers, is ultimately directed by the work itself to find meaning in the act of creation itself. 

In the end, these are not numbers. It is a painting of numbers.


Speer was the highest-ranking member of the Third Reich to avoid execution. He denied direct knowledge of the worst crimes of the Nazis. He did, however, accept “collective responsibility” for all that happened. “But this collective responsibility,” Speer said at Nuremburg, “can only apply to fundamental matters and not to details.” [2]

He was sentenced to twenty years in Spandau Prison, 1946 to 1966.


Trace levels of lead, iron, zinc and other substances have been detected in the honey from beehives near the port of Vancouver. The molecular make-up of these elements did not match what is found in the natural environment. They are the result of human activity in the area. Because of this, scientists believe testing honey could prove to be an inexpensive way to monitor air quality around the world. Through data captured by foraging bees, in turn passed on to honey, it is “possible to paint a picture of a world that appears ever more connected.” [3]


The grid is almost perfect. 

Eleven units across. Eleven units down. The final numeral, in the last spot in the lower right corner, is a 9. The numerals descending the right side of the canvas, and those on the left, proceed in order. 

To achieve this coherence, the first unit is blank.   


In the introduction to Spandau: The Secret Diaries, Speer wrote: 

[T]hese thousands of notes are one concentrated effort to survive, an endeavor not only to endure life in a cell physically and intellectually, but also to arrive at some sort of moral reckoning with what lay behind it . . .

[This journal] is an attempt to give form to the time that seemed to be pouring away so meaninglessly, to give substance to years empty of content.” [4]


Did Johns consider starting with a 9, as if this canvas were not self-contained and complete, but rather a fragment of something continuous?

How would that change our experience of the painting?

Looked at in isolation, that first unit is the single purely abstract painting of Johns’s career, an anomaly. The chalky blue is employed throughout the painting, but never does it dominate as it does here in the first rectangle. 


Freshly built comb, not yet filled with nectar, pollen, or honey, is a stunning site. There is an other-worldly quality to its pristine whiteness. The emptiness of freshly made comb has the unsettling feel of abandoned spaces. 

This is not its proper state. Comb is built for a purpose.   


Speer’s neo-classical buildings were designed to survive as picturesque ruins. He believed the modernist, poured concrete designs of Mies and LeCorbusier were destined to be dust—gone, forgotten.

There is a special irony in the fact Speer’s one enduring creation, his single masterpiece, was one with no actual structure to it. A Cathedral of Light. An architectural one-night stand. 


In 1964, ten years after his first flag painting, Johns wrote the following in a notebook:

Take an object. 

Do something to it. 

Do something else to it.



The Canadian artist Aganetha Dyck places porcelain figurines inside active hives. The bees layer comb over these figures. Dyck removes the pieces long before they are completely subsumed in wax. Milk maids, shepherdesses, ballerinas, girls curtseying in ruffled dresses—clichéd notions of prettiness—are transformed into monstrous, nearly alien beings. 


Writing in his diary in 1948, Speer observed: “Spandau is the bureaucratic equivalent to the invention of perpetual motion. Will it continue to run when we are no longer in Spandau?” [5]

For two months in 1971, while the final prisoner was away in a British military hospital, twenty guards carried on their daily routine. On the first of December, the French and Russian soldiers exchanged guard duty. 

There was no one to guard.  


In his seminal essay on Johns’s work, the critic Leo Steinberg asked, “Does it mean anything?” [6]

This question is directed at a monochrome painting imprinted with the word LIAR.


“Diaries,” Speer wrote, “are usually the accompaniment of a lived life. This one stands in place of a life.” [7]


Johns was attracted to the idea of painting “things which are seen and not looked at—examined.” [8]


“If I didn’t see it, then it was because I didn’t want to see it.” –Albert Speer. [9]



[2] Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 4

[3] “Honey as a Pollution Detector? It’s a Sweet Idea,” Veronique Greenwood, New York Times 3/18/19

[4] Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. xiv

[5] Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 97

[6] Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art,” Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[7] Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. xiv

[8] Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3 (March 1965), p. 34 

[9] Eric Norden, “An Interview with Albert Speer,” Playboy (June 1971)

Reprinted with permission of the author

Bliss had this to say about his piece:

“Accumulations” was inspired by Don DeLillo’s essay “Counterpoint,” which leads the reader to make intuitive connections between “three movies, a book, and an old photograph.” This form allowed me to explore three subjects that fascinate me, digging into connections I saw and discovering new relationships I did not anticipate. I benefitted from the insight and support of two talented teacher-writers—for the first drafts, Victor Wildman, and then Jodie Noel Vinson, who helped me refine this to its current state.

Garrett Bliss (he/him), whose work has appeared in The Blue Lake Review and Typishly, lives in Rhode Island with two humans, one cat, and about 40,000 bees.