This Awful Silence

4 Mar

O Alibi of Chronology, in what script
in your ledger will this narrative be lost?

This week I published an essay that was sparked into premature life by the JNU protests. Umar Khalid gave his speech on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder—the two links showed up nearly simultaneously on my TL—and I remembered, instantaneously, Malcolm X’s prophecy, made two days before he was assassinated: “it is a time for martyrs now.” No, my brain revolted, we have had enough martyrs. Pondering that on the subway, I looked up, and the six train’s “Heaven” caught my eye. It will be the past. We’ll all go back together.  That reminded me, as ever, of my very favorite poem in motion, Mary Ruefle’s “Voyager.” Memory, what can I make of it now that might please you—this life, already wasted and still strewn with miracles? 

From that constellation of strange associations was this essay made.

star-of-the-hero-1932-1

Roerich, Star of the Hero.

A Map of Lost Longings was argued on the basis of an intuition that I’ve nurtured for a long while—that the crisis on the left is primarily epistemological. The ways in which we produce knowledge in the western academy make it incredibly difficult to theorize a politics of solidarity. That intuition is why I resigned myself to graduate school, and I haven’t gotten very far in thinking through what I want to say or how to say it. This brief essay was my first attempt to begin a public conversation, and the proposal I make for transversal history both terrifies and exhilarates me. The potential for violent erasure and cheap homologies inherent to the method I suggest is almost limitless; there is a reason fascism is so fond of mythology. Can I, with my big brahmin brain, rescue myth-making? Almost certainly not. Can I try? I certainly intend to, because there is also a reason that fascism so often wins. Is it contradictory to deploy failure and demand success? It is, but no more so than turning a theory of abstract labour against political economy. The paradox of good theory worked then, and fuck, it might again. (I know, I know, I’m not Marx, but Marx wasn’t Marx either, you know, until he was. He was just a broke bro in exile.)

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Defeated Despair

1 Mar

A few weeks ago Caravan published After the Last Sky, my first paid publication in almost three years. I wrote it for Caravan because I’m a completist, and I wanted to close a circle that opened three years ago with Darkness Visible.

After the Last Sky was written just as I was transitioning from one of the darkest periods of my life into the sort of smack-dab happiness that is impossible to channel into language. It’s odd how that happens, this chiaroscuro of emotion, but without that joy, or the pain that came before, this would have been a very different essay and perhaps a feebler one. This was an essay written, as John Berger once said in “Undefeated Despair” from a familiarity with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words. It is an essay about ruin.

Here is a simpler formulation: I wrote an essay about women who learned to live without love even as I was falling in love. If that makes me a hypocrite, all I can say is it makes an excellent change from an earnest despair. But there is despair in that essay, of course there is, it’s all over the place. Despair with prescriptive, idealized feminisms; despair with structures that exalt and oppress women; despair with explanations that remain trapped in clichés, despair with myself, with the smallness and uselessness of my words in the face of totalizing narratives. Perhaps, then, all that my tiny satisfaction offered me was a way out of defeat, and with that I must move on. And so I will.

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Return to Hebdomad.

27 Feb

In the fall, as you know, I stalked several bands as part of my folk beat. PigPen, described below, was the one I chose for my finals essay.

It was the night Bette Midler came to see  The Old Man and the Old Moon. An hour before the house opened, the only visibly excited people were the stage managers, David and Allyson. Allyson was constantly bursting into “The Rose” during warm ups, while David pirouetted across the tiered stage as he set up. The seven performers that write, sing, play, act, and direct themselves as PigPen Theatre Company were remarkably impassive, their apprehension only betrayed by occasional fumbles whilst tuning their instruments. The mood was convivial, as it is each night they perform, but this saturday night was special: not only was Bette Midler coming, but the house was full, a luxury for performers in theatre-saturated New York City.

 “You’ll love tonight” PigPen’s understudy Nick whispered to me “In a full house, there’s space to laugh… the audience gives each other permission to enjoy themselves. Smaller houses are intimate… but you can’t rely on adrenaline to carry the technical stuff, like timing or scene breaks. In a full house you can just tune into the audience and it’s a high like no drug I’ve never done.”  True to his prediction, that night the show was mesmeric, even after Bette Midler left at intermission.

Everyone who sees PigPen’s play The Old Man and the Old Moon leaves the theatre with a different memory. It is not a tale, the narrator tells the audience as it begins, that you can carry away with both hands.  The story itself is simple and fabulist:  an old man sails across the world following a melody and searching for his wife. Across eternity his job has been to fill the leaking moon, and once he abandons his duty the world comes apart at the seams. The moon and the oceans disappear; the stars fall out of the sky. The Old Man finds himself in paradise, in the belly of a fish, on a dirigible, in a sunken city made of light. He travels with adventurers, sailors, ghosts, milk-bottle dogs and talking planks. Ultimately, as in the way of any fable, he finds himself back at home, surprised to find that the world keeps going round and round and round. Their barebones story is told, the New Yorker’s critic said, with  a “perfect combination of original bluegrass-style music, stunning shadow puppetry, and vigorous physical comedy.”

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The Dying of a Light.

27 Jan

On 27th January 2010 I had just finished setting up my first apartment. I was 23, I was in love, the world awaited my storm. I had an independent study in which to be an Intellectual. I had a boyfriend who did the dishes. Nothing could stop me now, this was It. It was perhaps the last time in my life I would be incorrigibly optimistic.

That was the day Howard Zinn died. That was the day when, though I didn’t know it then, I set out to be a writer. Was that a fair trade on the universal balance? Probably not. But this is how I began. I restrained myself from tinkering too much with this elegy, and not only because I’d end up rewriting it entirely. It might be verbose and a little pompous, but it was written for love, and that is rare in this writing life. Besides, as it turns out, I did spend 2010 researching the Reformation and (in)direct democracy, and there is a lot to be said for beginning a new life with an act of mourning. In the darkest part of this silent Sunday morning, as Barthes might have said (but did not quite), I was vigilant. And all of him leaped before my eyes.

Zinn

An Encomium

Professor Howard Zinn died on 27th January 2010, a fortnight ago at the time of writing. Apart from the resigned rage one feels about the mortality of one’s heroes, my primary emotion was anticipation. I had recently procured, with some difficulty, a copy of Zinn’s Passionate Declarations. I now had good reason to ignore boring daily life and work my way through Zinn’s legacy, a project as inviting as it is daunting. After a month spent separated from my library, the prospect of a reading list soothed me.

In the fortnight since his death was announced, I have spent many nights listening to his lectures, mining his books, locating his prolific journalism. I spent even more time tracking Zinn within a maze of historiography: all great scholars spin a web around them that can prove as revelatory as dissecting the shape of the beast itself. I gave myself a week to “get a grip” on Zinn, and have never underestimated a task more.

It was not the sheer profligacy of his work, as I never expected to read all of it, but the amazing variety of subjects that his writing suggested that ultimately did me in. It’s difficult to chart matters in an organized fashion when a single book (Passionate Declarations) can make you want to research everything from the Reformation to direct democracy. When one ventures into the vast terrain of work inspired by or transformed by Zinn’s historiography the project looses all moorings in rationality. It becomes epic, spawning academic cottage industries.

I have no doubt such a fate lies in store for the late, great Professor Zinn. I suspect he would be amused by all the posthumous interest, considering he spent his lifetime languishing in academia’s back closet, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Genius is historically betrayed by the grave.

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Tabernacle or Tomb?

19 Jan

One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.

The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?

 Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***

 *Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.

** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.

***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.

Dickinson

Dickinson

All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse.  Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.

 What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes.  In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst. She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich, a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily.  2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader, “Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why. What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality, she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that? 

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