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The Myth of Syphilis

Moonlight narrated my first attempt at a systematic response, cruising across the flat-top mountain and “the soft lines of these hills,” down into the structure of the city. They really want me to have ideas, but I haven’t had a single one. Except this one, about my diagnosis of syphilis, and how that might, when arranged on a page, answer all the questions they had about me. The absurdity of my task is touched by my innate rage about two things: the first involves a lie; the second is the question of my lifelong belief, picked out of my bones, in a theory of kindness. I take a scattergun approach to both. I used to envisage alchemy — absurdity to rage to kindness — as if their histories could become untouching, rather than inseparable.

Universities are called places of touching. Little universes, with all their starlit exclusive hubs: bodies, faces, feelings, ideas, styles, commitments, understandings, backgrounds, and the physical and imagined spaces where these hubs are clustered. Think of little groups of robed druids with their backs turned. A body puts its feelers out (three suicides in the first semester) just to see what place it could be in. Is this a kinship network? Is there a painted mirror image of a comfortable and comforting self? Is this magic? Is this what should be — like, every definition you ever hoped to dance around, right here for the taking? You feel like you’re about to trip into the “void” — it’s on one of your reading lists. Five more minutes, your dream will finish. We all might feel like we are about to fall victim to an undefined or undefinable term. Still, I had hoped to fall in love with every little universe I came across. Absolutely central to all of this is the man (the “source”) in the cluster of bushes, with an absolutely ravishing face, who looks like he absolutely loves me. Do you like it when I kiss you? ¡Sí! Lying is a shared remedy. Lying is relational, touching. These are the words of a liar, where the victim puts his mouth around a brand-new monster. “I must admit on some occasions I went out like a punk | and a chump or a sucker or something to that effect,” but it felt like a game. Blame: rolling it like a boulder up a hill only to see it tumble back down, over and again.

These loving myths. These little universes. High, tripping off something that makes me feel kind, he even resembles the man who had earlier become, after only a few months, my abuser — Neil. I roll that name up the page to test its weight, too, only for it to roll back down: we’ve all had something similar happen (a girlfriend); and your relationship with your father? (psychiatrist); let me finish (him); no (me). Comforted by kindness and love when under the influence, and blind to most else. Such lives are defined by the way clusters of affection make themselves available. I still loved him even then, my strategy has been to publish poem after poem about him. What gets published, too, is news about the millions of dollars, pounds and other caving-in currencies that might be spent on making clustered spaces a brilliant example of this strategy in action, with government, academia and industry collaborating to deliver future-focused training that will build on X’s growing reputation. This is the same kind of love — what looking forward, comfort, is all about. They tell us in strange but certain language that this is what touching should be. A family hub, our intimate collaboration. “The absurd enlightens me on this point: there is no future,” only the myth of the future-focused. Some pages down, the kids who kill themselves in the first semester hang from the small print.

They say: your work is unfit for purpose. I have taken a scattergun approach, in which Interpretation has been swept up by a Susan Sontag-shaped breeze (this is footnoted). I will not say what this thing means, in this cluster of chairs and tables, but I will say that it has a voice. It is my voice, my syphilis rotting in plain sight. I will call it an aesthetic, I will call it an errant way of thinking. I will call it a mad methodology. I will say that this hub has opened up some kind of portal: experience hurries out, ready to say something about the reason why I write, and the importance of its presence. Pain and physical proximity operate the machinery of any critique of this little universe. Two tight face-anvils and their uniforms of hair and skin hammer at the space in front of me. These are so close they are inside me, their nails clawing at my stomach-lining. They would not be doing this if they knew about my infection — although it’s cured, and by a doctor! But aren’t the filthy things about me so secret in this intimate inquisition that their most important place is in my mouth, then spilt onto the page? Instead, I say I’ve lost my confidence. I say I am not sure what you want of me. When experience is mythologised like this, and language fails, nothing is near the surface. Nonetheless, they absolutely can define the problem: I must write conservativelycleanly. Everything I write must be holistic and rigorous. They say don’t psychoanalyse it, get on with it. They say we’re concerned you look agitated — you’re speaking too loud. My professors — my family — won’t touch me anymore.

They apologise for cross posting, cross contaminating my e-mail feed with anything remotely kind or without political agenda. This experience makes me hate myself: my myth is so utterly convinced of itself, it covers my body like an ocean. You can forget about experiment, they say. You can find pastoral care on our website.

These faceless people: their myths are hidden to me — lacking in the same kind of rigour. But I can experiment. I can imagine. I can wish for them the thing behind their eyes, that must also glint on the faces of their books — where “there was something in the background, something that watched us.” Somewhere deep in the etymology of the verb to ‘hang’ is the Sanskrit word sankate — when something wavers. Three wavering bodies, undecided, still, about their own definitions, but nonetheless forming the hinges of a dark new cluster. Distant from the bright conservative world of the new institution, whose self-proclaimed valuable thinking watches us all. It watches us from the faces of books, pronouncing knowledge — a dangerous euphemism for violence. It is the language of dissembling and dissonance, the art of mind-ness. It is the world’s best wishes, its kind regards. It is protection, meaning damage. It is the father of every little suicide performed behind the backs of each cluster. Within these clusters, everything must have its own rules — their own drum-tight gatherings of understanding.

By scrying inside these ancient clusters, exclusion itself is revealed as a theory of kindness. They died so we can live — with a $300 million future-focused closed complex, and pastoral care on the website. “Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution. We call it life,” say the climate “realists.” We’re doing this to help you — we have been good intellectual mentors to you, and you must give something similar back to the institution. Neil has been a great friend to me over the years, inserted on social media by a machine-memory. Your realism is a late diagnosis, we’ll need to do some tests. We build the wall to keep us free.

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STRANGER

Perhaps when they said it, they meant it as a resolution to all things with us that seemed to go on without end. After five years and the assured quality of my body’s indentation on their mother’s couch, they told me that I performed so excellently as a stranger in love. I hung on their words for many years after, thinking of my body as a theater.

The goal was this: to commit oneself to an act so faithfully that feeling would adorn the body shell and eventually wear its way into the body. Of this devotion, director Wong Kar Wai was a master. It was said that in the making of Happy Together (1997), Wong was intent on having his actors Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, who portrayed two expatriate lovers, execute a closeness that required repeated takes. As two lovers in a new city where loneliness sits on every corner, it is not enough to love, but to really love with the fastidiousness of two bodies enclosing upon one another. Wong kept insisting that the two actors practiced the tango, a dance that weaves through the film as both the revival and turmoil of their on-again, off-again relationship. Two men pressed together and never quite close enough, Wong critiqued, and he would have them start over and over again. What does it mean to want? Wong seemed to be asking, in the sense that wanting as a part of queer love is a feral thing that we must learn through perpetual exercise of belief. It was not that the intimacy of this dance rehearsed in behind-the-scenes footage was any less convincing than the final scenes themselves, but that the process of getting there mattered too.

I watched the two men onscreen hold each other in a blue room and thought their bodies moved like a single boat across languid water, each one keeping the other afloat. Perhaps such acts of grace are reserved only for the mediated experiences of film, though I recall that once, I would fall asleep next to someone I loved to the sound of sirens. We slept in a room that was not a room but a small space partitioned off from the living room. Their mother’s snores fell on top of us from the next room. We were always reminded that we were being watched either by sight or sound. Sometimes I would bury my head into them, followed by hands and then feet in an imperfect act of submersion. “Why?” they would bemoan, and I would tell a scientific lie about how bodies in sleep transmogrified into gelatin, a substance that is a close cousin to bone glue, and it is exactly as it sounds. What would happen if this were true? Would they have stayed?

I woke up one day in a different city. There, the trees hung their heads, weighted with a history of loss. When it rained, the division between sky and ground would become a slate gray blur. Yet, people were rarely afraid. During a storm, I ran into the flooded road and fell down a five-foot hole filled with water after confusing it for ground. On a nearby porch, men chain-smoked and did not help. I flailed for several seconds before pulling myself out, bemused by the cartoonish quality of this accident. I recount this story often, much to the horror of my listeners, and it is always in response to their mouth agape that I assure them that in the moment, I believed myself to be with the water and please do not worry — I was not alone.

Then night arrives and I will myself into a new belief.

It is possible, it seems, to achieve such affinity for a bodily practice that the act becomes a part of everyday life. I hug the interior of my body house that has known so many names. I thank its weariness for its daily work, particularly for a writer’s work, which is always a labor in feeling. To that end, I wake up sometimes not crying but feeling the water well up in the cavities of my body. I dream of vehicles that propel forward without me, and in my nightmares, I am always still in the eye of every catastrophe. Even now, when asked about the cruelest word, I cannot even say it aloud, but would point to my chest as if it means something — the gesture — as an approximation of what was.

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10 Things Simone White Recommends Right Now

1. FUTURE/KANYE WEST/VINCE STAPLES/FRANK OCEAN

This is a yearlong sequence formed by Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06, Future’s DS2. Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, and Frank Ocean’s Blond.

Within Blond, the “Nikes/Ivy” sequence: for considering (con)sequence, sequencing, sequential.

To begin, “these bitches want Nike” lays down the basis of a writing for the present which is barely separate from the long silence [how long] and errant booth soundings that precede the release of the voice that is not natural or naturalistic but stretched out, flattened out by the vocabulary that expresses/frames out the original position to which we are to learn to listen and from which we assume, at the beginning, that we are to progress. One-two-three-four:

these
bitches
want
Nike

which is a prosody, counting, an accounting and a poetics of being in it and not in it. One …

When we think about sequence or think serially we are thinking, simultaneously, the drop as it drops, the instant before the drop (we are anticipating revelation or decloaking), anticipating the composition of the next ‘thought’ unit, composing roundly beyond the possibilities of gratification or resolution. In terms of composition, the sequence or serial is a modality of deep time, a modality of being unresolved.

  • Future DS2 on Spotify
  • Vince Staples Summertime 06
  • Kanye West Life of Pablo
  • Frank Ocean Blonde

2) JACE CLAYTON, Room 21 (at The Barnes Museum)

I couldn’t understand what Jace Clayton was talking about when he said he was working on a sound piece for The Barnes Foundation’s museum in Philadelphia. I understood independently all the words: “Philadelphia” “Barnes” “atrium” “performance” “response.” An ekphrastic? What Jace caused to occur in that space was unimaginable prior to its actual taking place. My favorite artwork of 2016.

3) ST. PAUL. Romans I:1-7

Paul slave of the Messiah Jesus called emissary separated unto the announcement of God, which he promised beforehand through the prophets of him in holy writings concerning the son of him the [one] having come from [the] seed of David according to the flesh, marked out as son of God in power according to [the] spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead, of Jesus Messiah the Lord of us, through whom we received grace and the mandate unto obedience of the faith among all the people for the name of him, among whom are also you called by Jesus Messiah, to all those being in Rome beloved of God, called saints; grace to you and peace from God the father of us and the Lord Jesus Messiah.

Obsessed with Giorgio Agamben’s The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, I have listened to the music of this passage from Romans many times this year. (See #1, above, Kanye West, The Life of Pablo), What is messianic time? What is “now”? What is a calling? What is fulfillment? What is a high calling, a spiritual calling that is not delusion or escapism? How to embody the message? What is gospel?

4) ARLO QUINT / THE POETRY PROJECT

Arlo Quint’s new book is Wires and Lights. Arlo is a great great poet whose lines never cease to lift me out of the mundane use of words. At the end of a section of the long poem “180,” he slides into quotation of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “whatsoever things are true, think on them,” like it’s the easiest thing in the world to pick up biblical diction without pretense or irony and drop it like a pin. I learn from him.

The Poetry Project is a place and an imaginary place that art comes from and goes out into the world from. It is where I met Arlo and many of the poets I know and admire. It is a joy matrix.

5) ANNE WALDMAN, “Fast Speaking Woman”

Anne Waldman recently read briefly from Fast Speaking Woman at a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series at The Poetry Project. I thought I knew and understood this work. (This is a theme, here, repeating.) But Anne’s performance instantly transformed my sense of that book and provided a model in sound and intensity for a poem of my own, MESSENGER, that needed to come from some other place. Anne has been to that place.

6) MARSHALL / HAMMONS / HUFFMAN

a. “Still-life with Wedding Portrait,” Kerry James Marshall, 2015.

b. “African American Flag,” David Hammons, 1990.

c. “Stanza,” Khalil Huffman, 2016.

Khalil talked to me a little about this work while it was in progress, and I felt its charge; that is, Khalil transferred in conversation something of the excitement of what “Stanza” might be. The broken windshield / as shattered lens / is a key figure in his work, and I love the recuperation of trash, generally…I love what he makes here, with a license plate, of the government name. But I couldn’t have anticipated the impact of this piece, once complete, on me as a viewer. Maybe this is a limitation of my own literalism or reluctance to enter into the imagination of another artist — the beauty of showing respect for the mystery of process; that which cannot be said about the idea or ideas.

7)   SANTI WHITE is my sister.

She is professionally known as Santigold. Having a sister is the center from which many other loving and encouraging relationships spread. My sister’s courage and ferocity as an artist make me feel part of something bigger than my own gifts or work; something bigger than time or the span of our lives. Santi doesn’t know this. I haven’t told her.

She is, incidentally, imho, one of the best pop songwriters working today. “…I’m on an island / Watching through a window, the flashing light on the bed / Neon sign goes red / ‘You are here’ it says / Well, at least someone knows where I am.”

8)  JERRY GAFIO WATTS, CLAUDIA RANKINE, FRED MOTEN and STEFANO HARNEY, IMANI PERRY, CHERYL JONES WALKER, HERMAN BENNETT, COLIN DAYAN and the many others I don’t know and may never know, SAIDIYA HARTMAN, HORTENSE SPILLERS, JARED SEXTON, FRANK WILDERSON, and others whose names I don’t know or can’t remember or will never come across…

Thank you.

9)   MICHEL FOUCAULT, “What is Critique?”

“There is something in critique which is akin to virtue.” This is one of the most giving lines of philosophy I know. In these remarks, Foucault asserts the centrality of the “decision-making will not to be governed”: “A question of attitude.” This is an incredibly thorny and radical claim in terms of thinking about the role of culture, of intellectuals, the role of works as political instruments and of our persons as political agents. It is a thing I return to.

10)  W.E.B. DU BOIS

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From Opposite of Home

An umbilical cord grew after it was cut
a swerving, a moving-on

*          *          *

The taste of childhood
no longer whole

That you kept disclosing it
did not mean your tongue could thicken

the phrase the unrest singing

*          *          *

The year Margaret Thatcher was elected, she was elected
The year Margaret Thatcher was elected, people began
panic buying oil
The year Margaret Thatcher was elected, history was tossed
That she was elected tussled with your city’s   umbilical chord

a swerving
The year Margaret Thatcher was elected, you were born

*          *          *

This is how I was captured: a crude silhouette, said your childhood

*          *          *

So much sense of achievement in giving
birth, as in delivered, peached, perpetuity

There was passivity in being a mother. Being yours
she paused, dreaded, as if she knew the rest
of your life would be spent
with insistence on the how rather than what with men

Those men

*          *          *

You decided breakage was a form
of re-knowing her, and her hand
thudded into a rhetoric repulsive
to your feet

Rush: never applicable to the action called coming home

*          *          *

From a cab, you watched a street sweeper make a living
Her fingers were looking for a surface to throw themselves
into chaos. Each sweep, each attempt in clearing the silt
and dry leaves, the hay of her broom split

*         *          *

Your boyfriend named his campaign
“Led by Her.” The phrase is in the public domain. Free for use

This was your longest relationship with women

*          *          *

When you were born
your mother rested her finger on your face, the lip-colored
leakage. Suspense –

Wasn’t giving birth also a kind of removal
a handing-down, a succumbing-to

*          *          *

A rhythm. You kept listening
to the broom of the street sweeper
It was more rhythmic

 

than your mother’s spatula clattering
the greasy wok. Corn
soup with eggs, burger steaks

The taste of childhood was no longer whole

*          *          *

The flaw of house chores was the reliance on tools with handles: brooms, woks, shields

*          *          *

You had problems sleeping. A kiss was not a way to focus

*          *          *

To re-know her, you could not avoid the connectedness
in the days that followed. The sunsets. The many things.

Hyphens were cuts, a hewing to thinking

A wave of annoyance. The many things

*          *          *

Her womb was not warm, did not hold you long
enough for a natal chart
that would land you beyond the reflection

of luck. Her uterus
clogged with blood, mucus. The fluids –
not a problem

The fragility of their tension was. Always transitory

to breakage, your face, a counter-surface

*          *          *

(Hyphens were cuts, a hewing to thinking)

*          *          *

Your chart said your biggest luck in life came
between age 0 and 10, during which you had the most
whimsical pencils, the least troubled school bags

*          *          *

Accuracy? Go on, then –

to write about the tragedy of this body

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Caldera

A few weeks ago I went to teach at a writing residency in Oregon. During my first bout of free time I decided to take a hike along the edge of an exploded volcano, which cradled an absurdly blue lake. I jogged for a while. I turned around in circles like Mary Tyler Moore and thought about how lucky I was to have come to the point in my life where my job was to be in the woods with rivers and lakes and to think up arty ways to play with writing and dirt.

The path turned off to the left away from the lake and I remembered what the groundskeeper had said about staying off of private property. A shot cracked the air open and I turned around and ran. Considering the possibility of a panic attack, I texted my colleagues: “Someone I am hiking and there are gunshots I am scared on trail aroun[sic] the lake”  but there was no signal. I could feel that I was both ridiculous and also not ridiculous because all signs told us we were deep in Trump territory and there had been videos online of people in militias “preparing for the election” in a location that looked, to this urban-born child, a lot like this one. My mind flashed to the character in the narrative of Frederick Douglass who runs into a creek to escape a lashing and somebody takes out a musket and “in an instant poor Demby was no more.”

I surrendered my hands and called out, “Help! Hello?” and scooted down the hill on my butt thinking maybe I could cross the lake to get back. I peeked over the crest of the hill and there was another shot. Eventually, I decided that it was time to move again. I began to pick my way back along the way I came. I felt foolish for thinking that I was allowed to be there and to feel safe. I thought about Camille Dungy’s anthology, Black Nature, and as I clasped my own hands together in a kind of prayer, I was also holding hands with those poets who spoke of hunting and hiking and blackness.

A hawk flew overhead and I felt very sure in that moment that he was keeping an eye out for me, though usually birds of prey make me worry because my hair has been plucked at from above more than once for what I assume are nesting purposes. The hunter whose gun I’d likely heard appeared with his family in the distance. I wanted to walk in another direction from them and I couldn’t. We intersected and I tried to make conversation about the dogs but the younger two generations of the group, men in their thirties and boys under ten, would not make eye contact with me. All but the dogs were white.

The eldest man was kind. “You’re perfect,” he said, as I explained that I hoped I hadn’t made a wrong turn and wandered onto his property. His words sounded strange to me in this context, like I was his daughter or a roasted turkey: “Perfect.” When I got back to my very Norwegian cabin I put on some music and wrote everything down and I noticed that Beyoncé was singing “Daddy Lessons,” which she had just sung at the Country Music Awards, and this had made a lot of people angry. As I listened I realized that I had no idea what her daddy meant when he said “shoot.”

At the beginning of my hike, before the gunshots, I had been thinking about how to create a writing prompt based on the Eileen Myles essay, “What I Saw.” In it, Myles describes the time she watched William Pope.L perform, A Negro Sleeps Beneath the Susquehanna at an artist’s residency. He keeps uttering the word “crab.” He keeps saying, “Wish could dream.” He straps a mirror to his back with jagged lines of tape stuck across it, wades down a river and disappears. Myles writes, “The mirror on William’s back sometimes felt like he was carrying the river, that he was the river himself that he was it. He seemed to vanish into everything there was, walking further and further away from us. The voice was gone but you still felt it. And the breathing too.”

I wondered if residencies are a bit of a thing for black people. Whenever I told a black author about what happened they chuckled and muttered under their breath, “Oregon.”

Months earlier, I had been driving to my job as an English composition instructor at a community college when I saw that the school was on lockdown. A police officer was hiding behind a giant sign with the school’s name on it holding an AK-47. As I contemplated whether or not to turn into the parking lot, I began counting pairs of red and blue flashing lights. I saw an image of myself crouching into something, falling inward on myself into an unyielding place, into a corner or a vortex or a classroom. The radio was not on because I had turned it off because they had been reporting about the student who killed his English teacher and fellow students at a community college in Oregon the week before. I kept driving.

One night, some days later, a friend had a few of us sit near the train tracks at the center of town. She handed us a book by Clarice Lispector and asked us to open to a random page. My passage, the one I read out loud, was about eating a cockroach. The point of the exercise was to use bibliomancy to “read our lives,” like tarot cards or a horoscope. So in this symbolic scene, was I the one eating the cockroach? Or was I the one being eaten? A little bit of both? When my dog hears me yelp in a certain way she will rush into the bathroom. I’ll point to the cockroach and say “Kill it,” and she will find it and tear it apart with her paws.

Another time, in a forest, I sat with a group of students on the day that forty people had been shot and killed at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. We were a technology-free environment, so the students had no way of knowing what was going on in the world. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell them but my boss began to play Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares” on the piano in the dining hall downstairs and his voice kept hitting those high notes and I told my students that we had to leave the building. I ran out like someone about to puke, and by the time we got outside I was sobbing. I could feel myself swerve from grief into melodrama as I told them about the shooting. And what it felt like was crowd surfing. Like they had hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me away.

The election happened while I was at the residency in Oregon and as the results were coming in, while our phones were off, the poet CA Conrad was telling us a story about listening to a mash-up of the sounds made by extinct animals. He spoke of swallowing the crystal worn by his murdered boyfriend and shitting it out and writing out the grief that the rock gave him. Those of us in the front few rows could tell what was happening to the country because CA’s eyes kept widening, trying to parse the commotion at the back of the room. Chairs moved. Screens reddened. Somebody wailed. I couldn’t stop throwing up bile in the sink the next morning. When I finally met with my students again for workshop we moaned and stomped our feet into the absurdly blue lake. “What zone are you in?” My father asked me on Skype.

Brigitte was wearing a buffalo around her neck so I told her about the video from Standing Rock where a man is talking and then all of the sudden he says, “Look, look at the buffalo,” and the video shows a herd of them appearing out of nowhere and my voice cracked when I reenacted it. She went off to watch the video on her phone, cupping it between her hands like water. Later, we decided that she had to scream something she had written while we listened from outside. Later, I walked in and she and Shannon were harmonizing about rivers­. Later, I found out that it was my little cousin who recorded a classroom full of children as they shouted “build a wall” to their schoolmates, to her, in a middle school cafeteria. Later, I found out that at Standing Rock, they built a wall around the buffalo.

On the plane home from Oregon, a man turned his head in the seat in front of me and he reminded me of a boy I went to elementary school with who would curl into himself like a bug if he heard the word Hitler. And I participated in the taunting. And his father was small and wore black and used crutches to walk. And in European history class during high school I would cross out Hitler’s name every time I wrote it, as if in penance. But there was nothing I could do to erase what I had done. And there was nothing I could do about the fact that the only way to get home on the day I was scared of getting shot was to cross paths with the hunter and his family.

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BONE SKY (Wyoming 2015)

In 2015 I spent some time in the vast grass plains of Wyoming. The spare tones of the landscape in early spring deeply impacted me, as did the sense of immense expanse. I believe I was transformed during my encounter with the landscape and atmosphere there. I found I breathed and felt differently, that I was filled with an infinite sense of light.

My interest in light began nearly a decade ago. Succinctly, it transmits so thoroughly — it’s an incredible messenger. Whether of stars’ ages, planetary compositions, or the chatter from our digital newsfeed — it pours languages that we are still learning to understand. I started to take seriously the query, what is light saying? And then I wanted this transmission to be a dialogue. How can I speak back into this agent which is always speaking into me? I trust I am already always speaking into the light, too. But now I’d like to with purpose.

While in these spare grasslands, I sought to bring aspects of this place — and its incredible sky — into myself by moving intentionally with long sheets of hanji (Korean mulberry paper), seeking to magnetize the paper and myself to the environment. I then made sculptural objects from this “charged” hanji coupled with found materials (bones, sage sprigs, bark, grass). At the end of my time there, I destroyed these objects by setting them on fire. I wrote down nothing. I took some images of the objects, how they evolved, and then their remnants. I thought of them collectively as Ash Poem. That title feels inadequate for that effort; those objects were collectively part of a gesture I was making slowly — over the course of several days.

Fire has become one of my best communicative aides for speaking with the sunlight. I first started working with fire when I had been in Norway to study the long days of the summer solstice. I fell into the practice of burning as a way to write my poems directly into the sky. Fire moves and dances in ways that I strive to discover inside myself — completely responsively, with quick flicker and spurts, or with a slow, seeping durational appetite. In Wyoming, its soft warm tongue licked at the air and the objects I had made, devouring the faint oily prints my hands had left on them. The hanji burned neatly, with hardly a trail of smoke and without leaving much behind. Whether the sky responded in turn wasn’t something I could mark or objectively register, but my body felt that the transmission was complete. A satisfaction.

My aim during this period was simply to open — to listen and develop a capacity to discern what I might hear. Whatever may have spoken into me did so quietly, but with purpose. To this day, I do not feel I can adequately transcribe what fell through me. Perhaps my drive to burn everything at the end was my best effort at speech — to write with the sky, to leave a receding gesture in the air.

I am still not certain how to describe the work that I engaged in during this period. The best I can do is offer these few images that captured moments from this process. As I reflected on how best to encapsulate this series of experiences — this cascade of subtle environmental encounters — the only words that sped through me: Bone. Sky.

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Sueyeun Juliette Lee

Sueyeun Juliette Lee grew up three miles from the CIA and currently lives in Denver, where she works as the Program Director for Chinook Fund. Her poetry books include Underground National (Factory School), Solar Maximum (Futurepoem), and a forthcoming collection titled No Comet, That Serpent in the Sky Means Noise (Kore). A former Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature, she has held international residencies for video art and poetry. Her published essays examine experimental poetry, race, and imaginations of the future. Find her at silentbroadcast.com.

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Kelly Akashi, FICTILIS, Margaret Killjoy, & Ann VanderMeer

Kelly Akashi lives and works in Los Angeles. She has exhibited internationally at institutions and galleries such as Sculpture Center, New York (2017); Gladstone Gallery, New York (2017); White Cube, London (2017); MOCA, Detroit (2017); Antenna Space, Shanghai (2017); Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (2017); Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles (2016); The Jewish Museum, New York (2016); David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2016); and Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); among many others. Her work is in the public collections of LACMA, Hammer Museum, and David Roberts Art Foundation, and has been written about in publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, New York Times Magazine, Kaleidoscope, and Mousse. She studied at Otis College of Art and Design (BFA 2006) before attending Staedelschule in Frankfurt am Main and later graduating from the Roski School of Fine Art at USC (MFA 2014). Akashi is currently guest faculty at ArtCenterCollege of Design. Her practice is represented by Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles.

FICTILIS is a curatorial collective whose collaborative work result in exhibitions, installations, and other public projects, with ongoing interests in language, collections, institutions, and the links between social and environmental issues. They have created works, curated exhibitions, organized events, and been visiting artists in a variety of contexts, from vacant buildings and public streets to venues like Headlands Center for the Arts, Princeton School of Architecture, Science Gallery Dublin, and the Santa Fe Art Institute. Recent projects have received grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Left Tilt Fund, and the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and have been nominated for the Human Impacts Institute’s Creative Climate Award, the COAL Art & Environment Prize. In 2015, FICTILIS founded the Museum of Capitalism, an institution dedicated to educating this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism, through exhibitions, research, publication, collecting and preserving material evidence, art, and artifacts of capitalism, and a variety of public programming.

Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author and editor currently living on a land project in the Appalachian Mountains. She is the author of the Danielle Cain series of novellas, published by Tor.com. The first book, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, was released in 2017, and its sequel The Barrow Will Send What it May will be released in April 2018. Her work primarily deals with themes of power and anarchism, as well as gender, social transformation, and people living itinerant or criminal lifestyles. Margaret spends her time crafting and complaining about authoritarian power structures and she blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.

Ann VanderMeer is an award-winning editor & anthologist. She currently serves as an acquiring editor for Tor.com and Weird Fiction Review and is the Editor-in-Residence for Shared Worlds, a Science Fiction and Fantasy writing camp for high school students. Her latest anthologies include The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Sisters of the Revolution, The Big Book of Science Fiction and the upcoming The Big Book of Classic Fantasy.

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Some Notes on a Fall in Los Angeles

It is a cold night in the end of October 2009. Los Angeles is nowhere in my mind, nor is it anywhere in the future of my possibilities. I funnel with my friend Simone, bulky in down jackets scarves hats, into a modest lecture hall on Washington Square. The Institute of African American Affairs at New York University is hosting a series of panel conversations dedicated to Édouard Glissant. This one is the first: on opacity.

I have followed Simone here, likely resisting being out, mostly to be with her, somewhat to see Glissant, and also our recent boss at a Bard summer teaching gig, the poet and scholar Joan Retallack. Joan blows it open that night: articulating a view of what she identifies as Glissant’s “ethics” — one not based on the Judeo-Christian metaphysical (colonial) notion of understanding (putting yourself in an other’s shoes) but instead configured around the radical notion that ethics must stem precisely from non-understanding, from not being able to reduce or render transparent the experience of others. It is from this place that I extend belonging and care to the beings I encounter: because I cannot know, because I cannot understand. This tears me open and the space that’s left in the torn up place feels like breath.

A number of other panelists speak after Retallack and it’s a long time before Glissant crosses the stage. The night is the darkest blue: his scarf, his jacket, the air, the cold. I bundle my body into our scarves, into Simone. He speaks in French when he arrives at the mic. He is tall, elegant, slow moving, but not with age, something more like ground. I understand nothing. And still, something about integrity and together-being enters into me that night. That was the first and only time I saw him speak, on an unexpected night in New York City less than two years before his death.

I have had the strange experience of being across the world and feeling more at home on streets where I cannot read the street signs — something about the foreignness I habitually feel inside me matching up with actually being foreign somewhere and so being treated that way, from the outside in. When I am here, I pass constantly as if I belong but, inside, I am far from belonging. This may be part of why Glissant’s opacity haunts me. There is something about not being assumed to be familiar, not being assumed to be understood, that offers space. The pressures of transparency, the violent legacies of “understanding” that are ubiquitous (and for the most part un-critiqued) here, hurt.

I return again and again to his words,

…perhaps we need to…Displace all reduction. Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components. For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures. There would be something great and noble about initiating such a movement, referring not to Humanity but to the exultant divergence of humanities. Thought of self and other here become obsolete in their duality. [i]

A together-being predicated on the right to opacity rather than the insistence on exposure, transparency, what we think of as “understanding.” I carry this around with me like an ember that waits to catch.

 

Seven years later, it is the Sunday after the election and I am at a yoga class in Hollywood. We come here every Sunday, the four of us: Jess and our two friends who also moved to L.A. from Brooklyn. We attend this class like church and marvel at how we have gotten used to a shiny, improbably bodied, clientele practicing in a space big enough for the teacher to have to wear a Madonna mic to be heard.

The week has been one of nightly street protests and extra office hours scheduled to accommodate the numbers of students who come to see me, afraid of deportation, or losing their DACA eligibility, or their loved ones. I have nothing of comfort to say to them so mostly I just listen. My email inbox is full of messages from former students and some friends hoping I can shed light on this week, these results, help them to understand something I am increasingly thinking “information” cannot hope to help us understand. I have nothing wise to write them either and so my inbox sits swollen with missives, untended.

It is on this rattled morning that the yoga teacher divides the room in half and asks us all to re-orient our mats so that each half of the class faces the other, a narrow space between. As the class quiets, she invites us all to keep our eyes open and look into the eyes of the person we see across the room, to look around and into the eyes of all the many people who flank us on each side. I am surprised how hard this is, how habitual it has become for me to erase the reality of the tens of people who come here every Sunday just like I do. Their faces are hard to look in.

The class is sweaty and deep and something steadies in me throughout its movements, muscles proving to be a more easeful space than mind. The invitation throughout is not to look away, to try and regard the other, to allow ourselves to be seen inside our seeing. I think of Glissant and practice extending care, respect, witness, not because I do understand where the face across the room is coming from as it cries but precisely because I cannot know. When we are finally on our backs and the lights go dim, the teacher invites us to place one hand on our bellies and one on our hearts.

I have done this so many times. But on this morning, the little being that has been growing in me for some twenty-odd weeks makes its movements known for the first time. Just at the place where my hand holds my belly, two clear thumps come through like fist bumps from some fluid other side. Tears come instantly and I try to remain quiet, hold myself on my mat rather than run to Jess who is some mats away to tell her what I’ve felt. The moment leaves me overwhelmed by the shockingly strange joy of making life, of coming to sense the other that is within. I have never felt anything like this before and I feel it first with my palm to my belly, knowing the feeling only because I feel it from the outside in.

I know this child’s entire genesis, know every detail of how it came to be in my belly and so in the world, and I can tell the story stretching back for decades. And yet when I commune with its being, I am profoundly aware of how little I know. We are often asked whether we know if we are having a boy or a girl. We fumble our way through answers, try and explain how, why we do not know. In the doctor’s office on that morning, left alone with the ultrasound machine beeping as it readied to see what usually we cannot see, it felt invasive to ask this little body to render itself transparent to us. Never mind that we know well that sex is not determinative of gender, that it doesn’t really tell us the answers to the questions people ask. The being in me has shared what feels like some key harmonies of its nature: we have heard the word friend come to us distinctly, as if from somewhere else. And in what has been revealed, there have been no details of body or gender or where this spirit will fall on the massively complex spectrum of human being.

And I am awed by the notion that we all begin this way: we all begin as the other within. While our parents may avidly seek information about our bodies, our health, in hopes that through this they might understand something of us as early as possible, there is a world of being that unfolds only in time and whose unfolding is in no way a revelation. And so the strange paradox: there is a plethora of information about each of us, our bodies, that is known and we also inhabit the uncanny space of beginning as the unknown other within. Sometimes I think we are borne of the opacity of which Glissant speaks: “…opacity that is…subsistence within an irreducible singularity.”

 

The night after the election I am drawn, along with tens of thousands of others, to L.A.’s City Hall. The throng is thick already and we enter the crowd near two men who wear Mexican flags as capes and wave flagpoles in the night air. Their faces are painted red and they chant in Spanish through a tinny, mechanized bullhorn: “¡A-anti-anti-capitalista! ¡A-anti-anti-capitalista!” The mood is serious and joyous at the same time as the plaza fills to brimming with people holding hand-made posters and masks, climbing bus stops to hold up their banners, scaling scaffolds to share their signs. There are babies in parents’ arms and children walking shyly near their families and it seems like every possible stripe of Angeleno has come together here this night. Out in the street I am aware of how much more affected by the election results so many of these bodies will likely be than my own. The crowd starts to move and a march begins. I see no police at all after passing the initial barricade and the mood is so unlike street protests where I’m from that I find myself fascinated, and quiet.

There are people as far as the eye can see both in front of us and behind, the street full of bodies, chanting, making their voices heard. We snake through streets downtown where restaurants have hired valets to park their patrons’ cars. Valet workers join in the chanting to gather with us, even if only for the time it takes for everyone to pass. Customers inside the restaurants get out of their seats and crowd in doorways or out onto the street to chant for a few minutes, smiling and with us, despite being mid-dinner. I have the feeling that I am out for a night walk with my whole city and for a purpose. I’m not sure I have ever felt so clearly the street as the commons as on this night when the momentum of thousands of protesting bodies and the gravity of this moment seems to pull people out of their evenings and unabashedly into the collective.

The march is long. We flow through countless streets downtown and into other neighborhoods. When the masses of people block cars at intersections, drivers and their passengers blare their stereos, climb onto the roofs of their vehicles and chant with us, fists in the air. When we turn through Little Tokyo, a group of sushi chefs on an upper floor comes to the window to cheer us on, knives held high above their heads. People in apartment buildings lean out their windows to join the chants against the incoming political swell that none of us is sure we can prevent. I keep thinking of Fred Moten and something he answered when an elderly man at a talk years ago asked him how we were going to “figure all this out.” He said increasingly he thought it was about what happens when we gather to figure things out — it’s the coming together that opens radical possibility, the nearing, the contact, the touching-upon that is the important act.

I am thinking of this and of what it means to walk together, chant together, come together to make the street the commons as we approach the place where many gathered will file onto the freeway. A few blocks before we reach the highway, the Metropolitan Detention Center, L.A.’s federal prison that is housed in an eerily pristine white spacecraft-like building, looms high into the reddish night sky. From several blocks away we all begin to notice something. Somehow through the inhuman slits this prison excuses for windows, all up and down one side of the building, lights are flickering on and off. The prison holds women and men as well as an untold number of non-criminal undocumented detainees who await deportation. No one around me knows whether the design of the prison has an open floor plan that might allow people on one floor to communicate with those on another. Somehow though, the entire building is flickering at once, people on every floor joining together to join with us.

Marchers quiet and stare upward, awed by the silent protest coming from inside the prison’s walls. We pool around the building. Someone starts a chant, “We see you! We see you!” and then “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” Thousands and thousands of bodies gather tightly around the building, surrounding it on all sides. And then there is drumming, loud and unmistakable: the people inside are banging rhythmically on the windows, keeping time with our chants. Because the building is deceptively designed to make the windows seem larger than they are by virtue of stone slats that surround them, it creates a natural amplification of whatever sound is generated on the surface of the windows themselves. The people inside are using one of the very things that limit their freedom — unforgivably tiny windows — to join in the protest they are forbidden to attend.

That building looming over the highway downtown, the meanness of its tiny windows, comes often to mind. I return again and again to the exercise of extending care, consciousness, belonging, to the unknown others within that space who managed to make action out of light. What would it take to remember ourselves always tied to one another, through walls and across borders — these boundary lines drawn so that power can separate us and hold fast? That night I go home thinking of this kind of border and also of permeability and of collectives, and of how strong it felt to be thousands of bodies together in the streets.

 

This has been a wordless time. I’ve written some entries in an otherwise much neglected journal but mostly because I feel like I should, like I should mark observations about this time or record things so that I remember, never once because I felt moved to write from some word-making inside place. This is the first time I’ve sat to write a more formal piece and it has been awkward, halting — each word fumbling and hard won. Close friends have asked me if I’m worried or if I miss the language I’m used to producing that mediates and describes my experience. The answer is an easy no. I have never felt more, never felt more synthesized idea-feelings than I do now. It’s like some kind of strange logic from the universe is suddenly available because of this prolonged period in a fundamentally transformational space where there is a being in my belly, forming, but not quite fully here — where my body is no longer quite my own, but not fully given over to the little other within.

I have no way of tying all this up into a bundle that could be of use to someone else; and I am still very much in the darkness of learning to feel my feet on the ground as a shared being, a host of sorts, to this other that is growing and will, soon, pass through me. Without clear words: I am still opening to how this condition of connectedness is always present, has always been there, long before this little being’s quickening.

And there is something there too about how forcefully this connectedness can be (has been) taught away. Over and over these days come the words of Audre Lorde: our feelings were not meant to survive. Our feelings were not meant to survive. I hear it again and again, keep it with me, return to it over and over. When I search back to find their context, I see:

For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare. [ii]

There will be no easy ways through.

And in this cosmology, amplifying feeling, pleasure, hope, possibility — these become radical acts, because our feelings were not meant to survive. The faster we learn to feel again the connectedness from whence we all began, the safer we will be. That interbeing, the fact that my life depends always already on others who are outside of me and who I do not choose, this fact must be repeated, remembered, shared, restored. My existence depends on you who are outside of me. I am praying that you treat me, with love, as the other that is within.

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Lida meet lorry

Her name was Lida. From the family of Rahm. Someone loved the baby and boarded her on a northbound lorry. ​They began their journey in Roszke. ​Revved the engine maybe, standing room only, undoubtedly. The man at the wheel, Mitko, I wonder where he keeps his own humanity. Tucked in a hull abut his neat steady breathing. Maybe a wallet photo of his own mother to remind him he’s still breathing. Shame he won’t extend outstretched to the 71 asphyxiating.

Imagine for a minute the calm sure that bade them. Slick near the edges but a near god to keep them. Mothers outstretched. Arms that cupped them. Teeth that made the pleading sound, reunion. Heavy tongue envelop them. Papers that name them. Maybe Aamir. Maybe Hassan. Maybe empire. Maybe break back. And some the red sun. And among them those who bade the quick waters. Lida speaking. Her toddler brother underwing. Lida clenching for small air, just enough for a baby. Just enough to claim victory.

Mitko, 29, behind the wheel. What did he ever think of his mother? His own unflailing breathing? Mitko, you think he knows of Lida’s failing ventricles? Of the shrift her father unfolds? ​Her name was Lida. From the family of Rahm. Someone loved the baby.

Now a container holds the bodies of the 71. They were all once breathing. Among them the able ventricles. Among them capacious atria. They were all named at birth. They were named on the day they were born. They were anticipated. Among them there were a likely many eyes. Some who loved the sun. Some the red earth. Some the green on which they cut their teeth. Some black forest. Each yearn their own yearn. Each mourn their own mourn. Each fought their own won. Everyone with some kin before them.

Didn’t they all know the world as it was named? Bits of clothes, 17 travel documents. 40 cell phones. In a meat truck. In which the cooling system had been shut. In which the air ducts were blocked. In which god sepulchers light? What kind of rancor? The derelict is how they die. What kind of god won’t see them? What kind of man drives a truck across the border forgetting his own mother? With each breath Mitko took could he not then name them? Name the diminished breaths of the 71? With each breath Mitko took could he not remember in his lorry some who loved the sun? Some like Lida who maybe yet to know the sun? Some like her toddler brother dying to show her the sun? Some like her mother who always seeks out the supple sun.

They began their journey in Roszke. Mitko, 29, behind the wheel. What did he ever think of his mother? His fissure of humanity? You think he knows of Lida’s ventricles and atria, newborn heart the size of ripe walnut? Postage stamp the ​size of a loved beating heart. Of contours. Of countries. Of lorries.

You can say their names. They were named. Some mother. Some father, pushed the baby into the waiting new world. Some mother gripped the yolk sack between her teeth. Some father held the baby just the length of his musculature. Eyes glisten for this one, alive. Make to see life. And then name them. Maybe in their likeness. Maybe in earnest. Maybe to capture the fold. Maybe as a reaching. Maybe to know the baby came. And now 71 asphyxiating. In the end they know somebody still loved them? In the end they know they walk slick near the edges? They know others came before them? They remember their mothers’ mouths gripped them? The disavowed. The vulgar. The sun moored. The failed marooned. The god come lately. The black sinister. The widow that grips tightlock the seal. The body in a state of repose. The body as it depreciates. The body at the end composed. Lida is a baby loved enough to bring on a lorry. From the family of Rahm. Someone loved the baby and boarded her on a northbound lorry.

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