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After Jamaica Kincaid
Enter the ministry through the main gate (not the women’s entrance), on Olaya Street:
Memorize the number on your ID card (#1072049285)
Vote in the municipal elections, so that the world may see you and celebrate the act
Wave a green flag during football matches and weep after inevitable defeat
“Wave your green flag.”
“Wave your green flag.”
“Wave a green flag.”
“Where’s your flag?”
I refrain from waving.
Refrain from seditious expressions
Buckle your seatbelt, unless you want to pay a fine
Read the sports page; support local teams when they play in Asian regional competitions
Memorize the male names in your lineage
“What man are you?”
he asked, repeating the oft-heard phrase.
“What man are you?”
“You are what man?”
“Are you man, what?”
“What man are you?”
Report a birth to Civil Affairs within thirty days
Pour coffee with your left hand and offer it to the guest with your right
Always wear the thobe, especially when visiting government institutions
Never wear shorts on airplanes; otherwise you will be barred from travel
At the border which separates the Kingdom from the neighboring Emirate, a young woman sat in her car—
“What makes it hers?”
“How did she come to possess it?”
the woman is not permitted to cross that imaginary line dividing two countries, but neither can she be refused entry outright. Authorities respond by shrugging at the impasse, leaving her stranded for days on a strip of asphalt between worlds.
“Why don’t you keep your mouth closed?”
“You are most beautiful when you’re silent, brother.”
When they announce the beginning of Ramadan, drive your mother or wife to the market to buy sambosa dough, barley and raspberry syrup
Express Pledge fealty to your superiors
Offer dates to guests
Acquire the required signatures in order to complete your transaction; follow the steps described on the ministry’s website, because, as you have been told, there can be no argument in the presence of the text
Refrain from saying the wrong thing so people don’t assume that you are the criminal you are intent on becoming
Identify your female relatives when called upon
This is how you address someone who matters; this is how you speak to a regular Saudi; this is how you speak to a South Asian; this is how you speak to a strange woman; this is how you speak to your own women in the presence of strange men, so as not to incur injury to your manhood; this is how you address someone whose importance you are unable to discern
Refrain from visiting suspicious websites
If a camera photographs your car while you are exceeding the speed limit, a violation will be sent to you via text
Avoid suspicious characters guilty
so why did she have to die?
“That’s not a question one should ask.”
“What business is it of yours?”
Express gratitude that you exist in a state that preserves your freedom
Squeeze rice into a ball and stick into your mouth; stand up before you feel full; spray cologne on your palm
Memorize the words to the anthem
Refrain from expressing the seditious word dancing insolently on the tip of your tongue
Walk by the wall
Appreciate an extra day’s vacation and an increase in wages
“I pledge my undying fealty.”
after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Riding with Death
They made me with bones,
white, yellow, brown & dusty bones,
heavy & hollow, broken & shuttered,
they made me with bones
no one has ever claimed,
bones no one will ever bury,
they blew through my hollow bones,
they hummed the saddest song
as they snapped bones
to make them fit into my skeleton,
they tied my clavicles with deer sinew
& whittled tree limbs to fix my legs,
they nailed sea shells on my skull
with heavy & black maguey thorns,
they plastered my rib cage with black clay,
they unwrapped my vertebrae
from a bundle of banana leaves
they baked over a layer of charcoal,
they assembled my crumbling bones
with their long, sluggish hands
like one assembles marimba bars,
they mixed dirt & crushed charcoal
to paint my bones, they woke me up
when they poured handfuls of desert
sand into my empty mouth,
I tasted the dirt,
coarse & rough,
against my jade teeth,
I felt hungry & thirsty,
I learned to cry,
I didn’t stop until they gave me
a bowl of corn mash
to ease my thirst & hunger;
Raining this morning & the foothills are dusted
with the gray light that comes with bad weather.
Even through the water’s falling sound
the train makes itself heard across the city
like church bells at midnight. What beautiful moaning
loudness becomes when it’s forced to stretch itself
across a distance. Like the way my lover’s song greets me
from upstairs, where he’s singing in my shower—
even across our short reach, his voice sounds truer
than when he sings & I am near him. Listening
to him croon through the water’s heavy moving,
I’m certain Eurydice was pleased
when Orpheus looked back too soon.
How happy it is to die twice
when your reward is your lover’s real voice
reaching you across wind & water & time.
How relieving to realize he is more himself
without you than when you are spread out
naked below him, your hair tangled in his palms
& his song diluted from your sating his longing.
What is constant across all love
is the inevitability of its end.
One of us will grow bored
or one of us will die, & knowing this it seems
Eurydice was best to leave love early.
Wait too long & he’ll stop
singing even from a distance. Go
now! Run from your love! May your absent
touch be the bells he hears clanging out from the steeple
into the gray night that slows into morning,
where the train will try to out-moan the wind,
where he will liken this moaning to the way
you sounded beneath him. He will pick up his lust
like a lyre & sing your name trying to reach you
wherever you are. & wherever you are
you will hear his song haunting the air like mist.
Listen to how entirely he loves you, for the first time.
After Dean Rader & Robert Frost
Another planet battle-scored & near-exterminated: we crave this cave-chase & escape plan,
our evacuation inevitable. We have always been outnumbered & every system is remote
from somewhere. Our future pendulums away from us, our small stars extinguish each other
in the heart’s dark sky. You are not afraid. An empire grows in my chest. Pistol me open,
let my rebellious ribs steam into the frost, feed on the warmth of me. We cannot destroy
all that threatens us & ice will not slake your salted tongue. Given flame, we choose to burn.
This is not an ode. February’s ice razor scalps
the gingko trees, their hair pulled skyward
like the ombre roots
of young women. March harrows
us mottled girls. Vernal equinox:
a hare harries the chicks, hurries
behind wet haystacks. Livestock.
Gnats. The glue-traps are gone.
March, ladies. March for your dignity.
March for your happiness. March, a muss
of lidless eyes. In the forest, a handsome man pisses,
puissant, luminary’s ink leaking on trees.
Penury I furl into the craven lens, in its mirror, a pulse:
webcam where I kiss my witnesses.
They watch and watch and watch the butcher
cut, the surgeon mend, they watch the glade
of crushed femora, they watch my dorsal fin,
they watch my scales dart across the cutting
board. They watch the way I open, flinch, bent
against the wind that beheads the nimbuses.
Or April’s turning toward ecstatic sob—departure.
Networks freeze, all sloe, all ice. Transmitters
falter. The cicatrix soaped, cilia & pus
rubbed raw. No machine. I dare
my witnesses to stick their pencils on me.
Do they marvel at a conquest—
blue flesh & gills. Do they think of me as soiled
or new soil. Do they take notes in their medical
journals. Am I their inspiration O Vesalius god
of anatomy is that why they ask so softly for my name.
This morning I peruse the dead girl’s live
photo feed. Two days ago, she uploaded
her confessions: I can’t bear the sorrow
captions her black eyes, gaps across a face
luminescent as scum. I can’t bear Ithaca snow—
how it falls, swells over the bridges,
under my clothes, yet I can’t be held
or beheld here, in this barren warren,
this din of ruined objects, peepholes into boring
scandals. Stockings roll high past hems
as I watch the videos of her boyfriend, cooing:
behave, darling, so I can make you my wife.
How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold,
eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on
and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes
all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.
Her windows overlook Shanghai, curtains drawn
to cast a shadow over the Huangpu river,
frozen this year into a dry, bloodless
stalk. Why does the light in the night
promise so much? She wiped her lens
before she died. The smudge still lives.
I saw it singe the edge of her bed.
grew legs and arms, sucked in air and named ourselves,
is who we are— bone and gut, God’s face before we invented it:
stone-like, wide mouth feeding on every element.
BAREBACK AUBADE WITH THE DOG
Thicker than its master’s thigh,
I saw that dog gnawing its leash—
and didn’t I know better? Knowing my fear
of dogs, I thought, “If I walk faster
and stay calm, then—”
That leash, thin as Yes, snapped. Of course
the dog snapped too and I
wasn’t fast enough—only two legs then
instead of four. I was afraid, yes,
but I didn’t run. With my eyes shut,
I braced for what comes to those afraid
of what they refuse to see. But
that time, the dog headed for the lake.
It passed me by and I watched
the water gulp it down—its paws and then
its legs and then its flanks and then gone
was the scruffy heart
of its head. Wasn’t I sure it would not resurface
when it did? What sunlight there was
caught in its mouth a small body—its
slim head bucked twice more
against the water’s vermillion ripple.
AND THE DOG COMES BACK
from the lake with nothing
but the bark
it left with—an unintelligible
agony. Isn’t that, me
being the two-legged kind,
assumption and projection? A bark
sounds like a bark. A call of danger is a call
of ecstasy. It sloughs
the lake off its flanks,
sniffs the spittle of its chewed leash—
dangling from a hand
which too doesn’t know any better.
Control yourself, the dog
is told. The impossible leash
stings its back. So this is restraint
—I think as the dog
in the dull salt
of a featherless palm. No,
you’ve caught me. I’m not there. I’m the animal
still fucking in a stranger’s bed.
His tongue licks my mouth. I whistle,
but I do not listen.
It’s my hand—so close
it could be bitten
clean off. Tonight
he is the dog—this bedded stranger
not using his words,
not responding to any name.
He lets me keep my hand—
returning it back cleaner
than it left. I haven’t learned my lesson
so I give him the other one.
No, not could be bitten. He bites my hand
and I howl like something
that should not howl
down his throat. We are both dogs
now, mouthing the dark until
we are not mouthing the dark.
We are sinking in the hold
of whatever is willing to hold us.
As if I can’t understand
my body is more than surreptitious pact
and the crime it loves,
they’ve cornered me. And in this light
my frame is haphazard and threatening,
but I can’t speak—their leather collar still cinched
around my neck, a silver
leash hook for each pair of eyes daring me
to attack. Each man armed
with a hot muzzle, a mouth
full of scripture and no to aim
onto my back—now bent
over a prayer they mistake
for a growl. In this place,
there is no common tongue,
I can’t understand them,
so I can’t follow the order
that follows each leash,
so they beat me
until skin becomes wound
then scab then hide.
TEN YEARS AFTER MY MOM DIES I DANCE
The second time I learned
I could take the pain
my six-year-old niece
—with five cavities
humming in her teeth—
led me by the finger
to the foyer and told her dad
to turn up the Pretenders
—Tattooed Love Boys—
so she could shimmy with me
to the same jam
eleven times in a row
in her princess pajamas.
When she’s old enough,
I’ll tell her how
I bargained once with God
because all I knew of grief
was to lean deep
into the gas pedal
to speed down a side road
not a quarter-mile long
after scouring my gut
and fogging my retinas
with half a bottle of cheap scotch.
To those dumb enough
to take the odds against
time, the infinite always says
You lose. If you’re lucky,
time grants you a second chance,
as I was lucky
when I got to hold
the hand of my mother,
how I got to kiss that hand
before I sprawled out
on the tiles of the hallway
in the North Ward
so that the nurses
had to step over me
while I wept. Then again,
I have lived long enough
to turn on all the lights
in someone else’s kitchen
and move my hips in lovers’ time
to the same shameless
Amen sung throughout
the church our bodies
build in sway. And then
there were times all I could do
was point to the facts:
for one, we move
through the universe
at six hundred seventy
million miles per hour
even when we are lying
Oh magic, I’ve got a broken
guitar and I’m a sucker
for ruin and every night
there’s a barback
who wants to go home
early to bachata
with his favorite girl.
I can’t blame him or the children
who use spoons for drums.
And by the way, that was me
at the Metropolitan stop
on the G. I was the one
who let loose half my anguish
with an old school toprock
despite the fifty-some
strangers all around me
on the platform
waiting for the train
about to trudge again
through the city’s winter
muck. Sure, I set it off
in my zipped up three-quarter
coat when that big girl
opened the thunder in her lungs
and let out her badass
banjo version of the Jackson Five,
all of which is to say, thank you
for making me the saddest man
on a planet teeming with sadness.
The night, for example,
I twirled a mostly deaf woman
in a late-night lounge
on the Lower East Side
and listened to her whisper
a melody she was making up
to a rhythm she told me
she could feel through her chest,
how we held each other there
on a crowded floor
until the lights came up
as if we were never dancing
to the same sorrows
or even singing
a different song.
UPTOWN ODE THAT ENDS ON AN ODE TO THE MACHETE
What happens when me and Willie
run into each other on a Wednesday night
in Brooklyn? He asks, “Where we going?”
And that’s not really a question.
That’s an ancestral imperative: to hail
any yellow or gypsy that’ll stop on Franklin
and Lincoln to fly us over the bridge then
zip up the East Side where the walls
are knocking to Esther Williams or Lavoe.
And you know Willie daps up Orlando
and I say What’s good! and it don’t take
three minutes for me and Will to jump
on the dance floor or post up at the bar
sipping on Barrilito or to tap on my glass
a corny cáscara with a butterknife
like I’m Tito Puente but I have no clue
I really sound like a ’78 Gremlin
dragging its tailpipe the length of 119th,
which is to say, it don’t take long
for Willie and me to be all in. And that’s when
out of nowhere in the middle of the room’s boom-
braddah macumba candombe bámbula
this Puerto Rican leans over and says to me
real slow, “Everybody is trying to get
home.” And I’m like, “Aw fuck.” because
I’m on 1st Ave between 115th and 116th
not even invested in the full swerve yet.
It’s not even five past midnight and Will
is dropping science like that. Allow me
to translate: There are neighborhoods in America
where a man says one simple sentence
and out flow the first seventeen discrete meanings
of home. If you haven’t been broken by the ocean,
if your own weeping doesn’t split you down
into equal weathers: monsoon, say, and gossip,
if you can’t stand at the front door
of an ancestral house and see a black saint
staring down at you, no name, no judgment,
if you haven’t listened to the town drunks
laughing underneath a tree they planted
so they wouldn’t forget your pain, then your story
must have a whole other set of secrets.
You must know what it’s like to expect
an invitation. You might not know what it’s like
to wonder if someone is even waiting
for you to return. Your idea of home
might not contain ways to call blood cousins
from another time zone or just shout
from the middle of the road. There are those of us
descended from peasants who never had to travel
too far to visit the smiths who craft knives
from hilt to tip, who cook blades
that split the wood or carve the rind
from flesh. I once went to visit the men
who make the machetes of the Philippines.
There was a time, I didn’t care where
those knives came from, how the men and women
stoked the embers and dropped their mallets
with a millimeter’s precision. When I was young,
I thought hard was the mad-dog you could send
across a crowded bar. I thought hard
was how deep you roll or how nasty the steel
you bring. In some neighborhoods of America,
hard is turning down the fire just enough,
so you could kiss the knife and make it ring.
27 Wayfarer Circle
Lafayette, CO 80540
Professor Benjamin Schneider
Comparative Literature Department
New York University
13-19 University Place
New York, NY 10003
I wonder how your life is. Are you happy sometimes? Are you well? Do you have a companion, and in your work do you still try to articulate the impossibility of articulating outside the Law of the Father? Really, I don’t know the first thing about you—I was going to say “anymore,” but I’ve been thinking lately that I never did. Me, I continue to tilt at the impossibilities, which is why, I suppose, I write memoir-inflected literary criticism that only rarely gets into print and why I have been thwarted in nearly every material ambition.
Do you remember once, riding home from school in the carpool—must have been eighth or ninth grade?—we were talking about the evils of car culture, and someone said, Well, when you’re adults you’ll want to have a car.
I’m going to have a horse, I said. (I didn’t even like horses.)
You were silent until someone prodded: What’s Ben going to have? And you said, uncomfortably, I’d like to have a small car.
But none of that is why I’m writing. You’ve been figuring in my dreams, Ben, bad dreams that at long intervals over these twenty years have erupted, like some dormant virus, in rashes. Sometimes David will sense my mood and ask what’s wrong, and I’ll say: I had a Ben Schneider dream. It’s a known phenomenon, a Ben Schneider dream, a shorthand between us. Oh no, he’ll say, what did he do this time? David teases when he’s at a loss, and he can neither understand nor alleviate the black restlessness that seizes me in the wake of a Ben Schneider dream. For days I go about sick at what my life has not been, suffering more dreams, until I tell myself this can’t go on and zip myself up.
My conscious mind is in fact perennially naïve and forgetful—I wonder if you remember that about me?—and for a long time I couldn’t fathom why my dreams should cast you, rather than, say, my mother as my persecutor. My clearest memories of you dated from the best years of friendship, from our late teens and early twenties, from long talks on early summer evenings, and yes, you did most of the talking and I did most of the listening, but the air was soft and I thought I had the worst of my life behind me and a flowering before me, and if you sometimes flaunted a financial magic carpet I would never share, and if you talked compulsively of jet-setting with celebrity intellectuals I would never meet—the heart of your life always elsewhere—still, I thought you knew my worth.
I wonder if you know how far I have wandered. I’m speaking of my professional life and of this parched town where I’ve now lived longer than anywhere else, although there have been other traumas. But maybe you don’t know. It seems likely that you don’t know. It seems likely that, having dispensed with Wendy Kochman, having jumped the hurdle that in some way she once represented, you forgot that such a person ever was.
And rightly. Of course such a person never was.
Nevertheless, something happened—not a vague drifting apart, but some thing. You did something to Wendy Kochman, which I am only now remembering, because nothing happened to me, because I was not really Wendy Kochman. Another way of saying this: You killed Wendy Kochman, but at the time you did me no harm. In retrospect, though, it burns; it burns because it is of a piece with exile.
Maybe I’m fooling myself, but it seems to me that the exile would not have been so total if my oldest friend had continued to know my worth.
Now, I do recognize that Wendy Kochman—and I—played a role in what happened. Wendy Kochman’s role, I believe, predated mine. You came to me. Perhaps I should say: “Ben Schneider” came to me, because surely the person who accosted me no longer exists. I imagine you dispatched him too, the eleven-year-old with his black Jewfro, his baby-Buddha build, and his precocious gastrointestinal tract—ulcers being seen at the time as proof of genius—who stood up from his assembly seat on the first day of junior high to ask the principal an uninvited question of unprovoked hostility. Who soon began to bring me gifts. Seriously, Ben, you startled me. I sat across the aisle and several rows behind you; at the time we were in different carpools. Why did you pursue me, how could you even see me? He likes you, people suggested. Even then I knew that could not be. I was an unmothered, self-loathing adolescent girl who wanted with a passion to disappear: just leave me alone and let me numb out. I did not like you. Was it that you needed an ear and a mirror?—and you sensed I could be picked off the back of the pack? Was it that our grandparents had immigrated from the same bloody corner of Eastern Europe? Or that your father had heard that my father played in the Buffalo Philharmonic? Assistant concertmaster, not bad. Was it rivalry? Or was it fellowship—one untouchable to another? But it seemed you never noticed your pariah status. The tanned offspring of the Buffalo business class had no power to make you feel ugly. In this, your self-certainty, you were decades ahead of me. I believe, though, that you were spared the context in which pariah status was most intimately enforced, namely, gym class. See ulcers, above.
Out of nowhere, you laid at the feet of Wendy Kochman your passion for Rachmaninoff, which she mocked, not kindly. Sometime later, you placed in her hands an LP of Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie, to which she said, not graciously, Yeah, it’s good music, but why are you giving me this? I barely know you. Next you gave her the Brahms double, and later, on returning from France, you brought her a poster of Impression, Sunrise that still hangs in my living room (silhouettes in a boat, orange light on blue-gray water). You evolved fast and on your own toward that quiet dawn. Your parents were not artists; you came from shrinks and MDs, a recipe, it seemed to me, for bombast. And yet you did not bring me Monet’s glittering lily pads. You brought me the subtle nostalgia of one random moment suspended, a phenomenon that I have often encountered since but at the time was new to me. I began to feel myself standing upon an unearned authority, which I nevertheless had no intention of relinquishing.
Outside of school and carpool, we never saw each other. So you startled me again by erupting when you learned I was going to graduate early. Your mother was driving the car that day, and you, sitting in the front seat, began to shout at her. I’m just as advanced as she is, you cried, more advanced. But Ben, I tried to say, you already skipped a grade. You were too stung to hear. I even tried to tell you that it was only because that old French teacher had told my parents: You need to get her out of here. He was trying to save me, Ben. I never even had a class with him. If he knew I was a good student, it was by reputation only. What he more likely had in mind was the epithets I’d been fielding in the hallways and the soccer fields for four years (dirty lezzie), the jocks shouldering me into walls, the head of student council—son of a state senator—accidentally on purpose grabbing my breasts. Maybe he suspected an unloving home, but that’s probably wishful thinking. I don’t know that he made the right call. If I’d had another year on the viola before venturing into Eastman, I might have stuck with the music. My life might look different now.
And so you hastened to get yourself early into Harvard. Mentally, I shrugged: rivalry after all. A little deeper down, I was flabbergasted: Really? You would rearrange your life because of me?
We did not stay in touch while we were away. My first semester, I had a peak experience playing late Beethoven in a hotshot quartet, and I fell in love with the cellist, a prodigy who was so at one with his instrument that it seemed to speak words and who slept with me once and told me I was “deep” and bowed out of the group. You were, frankly, the last thing on my mind. But again you startled me; you began calling me when we were home between semesters: Do you want to go for a walk? Do you want to come over? The first time, my family was finishing dinner, and they all looked at me: Why is he calling you? I joined you—warily, later willingly. It got me out of the house; I began, finally, to think of you as a friend. You were majoring in philosophy, and American philosophy departments, you told me, were disgustingly dominated by the Anglo-American school, which was an exercise in superficiality, complacently erecting syllogisms with no notion that language was an arbitrary system of signs; that one could appeal neither to personal experience nor to empirical evidence without committing a basic ontological error; that certainly one could not talk about negative capability, as I was wont to do, because that presupposed an opposition between interior and exterior that was always already collapsed; that, in fact, one could never say anything, because the notion that there was anywhere outside of language to speak from was retrograde romantic individualism. It was a series of infuriating can’ts, and we argued, and it was as if we were pushing a piece of clay back and forth. You never told me I was “deep.” In truth you came close to naming the way it felt to be me, which was that the world attenuated upon approach, always—that I was myself a soap bubble, aleatory and hollow, across whose surface the five senses chased in iridescent colors. I loved our play. (I still miss that heady play.) Even your self-absorption became attractive, because it was not my parents’ self-absorption and was therefore something of mine. The logic was not impeccable.
Did you notice that I never called you? You must have noticed. Here is what I vaguely noticed: During all those hours of walks and talks, you never tried to touch me, though something about me seemed to feed you. Maybe you liked my mind. I wanted to think that. Simultaneously, I told myself you just needed someone to occupy you when you were stuck in Buffalo. A witness, a Penelope.
Or was it something darker? I have been forming a queasy theory about your father, which I cannot (or will not) articulate outside of narrative.
So let’s cling for now to the easy insights. In graduate school, our away-from-Buffalo worlds began to overlap. You had migrated to Comp Lit at Yale; I had abandoned the viola and got myself into the English Department at Cornell, which I chose not because it was a battlefield in the theory wars, but because it provided every graduate student a full scholarship plus stipend. So. Was the problem that I was no longer a musician? Was it that we now shared a circle of acquaintance?—and Wendy Kochman was no star: at best of no use, at worst a liability. You see that I am getting stuck in a rather tedious pedestal story: You put Wendy Kochman on a pedestal, later you knocked her down. Seeing her roll at your feet, how could you not kick her?—though maybe I fell of my own accord. By the time I visited you in New Haven, the site of the kicking, I was impatient with the field of English. The price of admission seemed to be immersion in—surrender to—the not-interesting, the not-significant. Almost certainly, I dissented from too many things. What I could not see, though maybe you could, was that as a result academia was going to shed me and that I did not take myself seriously, I did not consider my life and future livelihood cause enough to fight for. Les non-dupes errent, indeed. I was having dreams then, too, dreams that I now consider premonitory, of shrouds, of flat black clouds, of stingrays settling over my face.
Your apartment in New Haven made me wistful. It had hardwood floors and white walls. I, to stay within my stipend, had settled in Ithaca for acoustic ceiling, wood paneling, and wine-stained carpet at the battered end of Farm Street. From the moment I set foot in your territory, I felt tentative, wrong-footed. You had asked me to come, and now, every time I opened my mouth you were impatient and contemptuous, as if I were an aspect of yourself, or a family member, that you were ashamed of. For my part, I was not equipped to defend myself. When I am attacked, guilt is my first reaction: I must have done something wrong to make Mommy so mad. That fogs, to say the least, my perception of the stimulus. The spears went in, and before I knew what they were, I had forgotten what they were. So I cannot enumerate the errors you charged me with. I only know that you seemed to be convincing yourself I was stupid. One occasion has stuck with me. Sitting on your futon in that bright apartment, I asked you what you thought of something you were reading, and instead of answering, you accused me of needing “pure voice.” It’s infantile, you said. Emotionally immature and politically retrograde. You had Wendy Kochman, of all people, longing to hitch herself to the authority of univocal truth.
My question frightened you, perhaps, because you had nothing to say?
Finally I did rouse to anger. I wasn’t going to stick around for this, I said, and I started whacking through the onionskin pages of the phone book, looking for the Greyhound number. That, I believe, is when you tried to hand me a pill: Here, take this.
What is it? I said.
Instead of answering, you told me I had a problem with oral receptivity. A reaction-formation, you said.
I felt bad for your roommate, who was witnessing this squabble. I felt bad—guilty, even—about the phone book in my lap: melodrama. But mostly I was squatting very still inside myself, watching myself lose, yet again, a love object. I had learned, belatedly, to love you, and post hoc ergo propter hoc, here you were, un-becoming. The person who would shove that pill on me was not a person I trusted. It was an ancient loss; I knew how to take care of it. I just needed to go away and tend to myself.
Greyhound never got called, because the phone rang first: your father. He asked you how the visit was going. I know this, because I heard you say, We’ve been fighting, but we’re working it out. Then he asked you to put me on the phone. What? What did he want to talk to me for?—as if I too were a child of his, when in truth I barely knew him. He asked me how I thought the visit was going, and I don’t know if you remember this about me either, but when I’m bewildered, words drain from me; I have to chase them down, and in the struggle I sometimes get them by a leg or foot—upside down or inside out. This time I grabbed hold of bang-up, which I meant literally but which he chose to take figuratively: Good, good, a tiff can bring people closer.
When I got off the phone, you pleaded, Don’t go, Wendy. Things will be better. Your voice was different—beaten. So I stayed.
Come to think of it, your father had startled me once before. We’d been in your kitchen talking, and he appeared with a camera and wanted us to go outside for a picture. What? Well okay. We stood on the grass. Stood like manikins, side by side. Hold hands or something, he said. I remember thinking, Oh, he’s got the wrong end of the stick. As I write this, I wonder: what else didn’t come from you? Was calling me all those times even your idea? Once—this is coming back to me, now; I’d forgotten this episode—you invited me to spend the night with you. I was surprised: Really? With your parents in the house? They were cool with that? Well, okay, but I couldn’t stay all night; that wouldn’t be okay with my parents. Ugh, you said. Wendy, you’re so afraid of your parents. We went up to your room—the only time I saw it—and lay down and held each other. When you got an erection, I reached under your clothes and wrapped my hand around it, and you said: I can’t. We talked instead; I was nothing if not flexible. Pretty soon you said, Wendy, I’m fading, and then truly I did not want to be there anymore.
How could I not see? Well, naïveté. But honestly, I can count on one hand the times I saw your father, and those sometimes years apart. You of course said nothing—until finally, having come out to yourself and then to your family, you told me your father had accused your mother of failing to consummate their marriage since she had not given him a real son. I was appalled for you, Ben. If I remember correctly, that happened before I came to New Haven. How terrible that your father was still hoping to make a match between us.
These days I also feel for my younger self. The it in the middle.
For all intents and purposes, our friendship ended during that weekend in New Haven. We had a couple of encounters in Ithaca. I don’t remember why you came. It wasn’t to see me, I don’t think, but you stopped by. Once you spent an hour or so on the window seat of my new apartment, a studio in a rambling Queen Anne on the corner of Titus and Albany. My boyfriend from Farm Street had broken up with me, and I had found this beautiful, tiny place for myself, hardwood floors and twelve-foot ceilings, oak woodwork and bay windows, and then my new boyfriend had moved in with me, not altogether in accordance with my preferences. You and I were almost strangers by now. So you sat politely while Keith and I discussed the enneagram. In a spirit of mischief and inclusion—I knew you didn’t know the enneagram, too middle brow—I pointed out the personality type I thought fit you and handed you the book. You said, But this is mostly positive. Your surprise betrayed your underlying contempt, as did your silence about the retrograde politics of typing people, as did your reference to a potpourri burner as “that thing in the bathroom” and your attempt to make conversation with Keith, who was black: “Are you religious?” Oh, Ben, if you had not been my friend, I would not have believed you were real.
I remember another incident from that visit. We were at an English Department function. You were my guest, but of course you were a Yale theory guy who knew Derrida personally, which meant that after all the room was more your room than mine, and you and I were standing together, and Julie Somebody—I seem to have permanently suppressed her last name, but she was one of those acolytes who had imbibed enough Lacan and Foucault to convince herself she could acquire an aura by committing ostentatious social cruelties and not enough to understand that her dutiful Peter Pan collars were always going to make people feel sorry for her—that person invited you and noticeably did not invite me to “a little party” at her place.
You hesitated. You wanted to go. You so wanted to go.
I said: Ben, if you go to that party, I will never speak to you again.
Well. You didn’t go. For a long time, I felt cynical about that. He might as well have gone since we never did speak again, not really. Now I’m less sure. I could have dismissed you outright, if you had gone. And then you never could have returned, you never could have haunted my dreams.
I saw you once more, at the MLA. It was the last morning of the conference, my last year on the market, in every way an epilogue. I had finished my dissertation and had failed for more than a year to get any piece of it published, and I just had finished the one interview I’d landed, and I knew I was not going to get the job, and I was sitting on a couch in a hotel lobby with Keith, and you passed by. You didn’t so much speak to me as vaguely address yourself to two distant acquaintances: I’m not going to get anything, you said, and I had two reactions, the first of which I was ashamed of: schadenfreude. Next came skepticism. Really, Ben Schneider will get nothing? You did not think to ask about my situation.
Sometimes, in my dreams, you walk by me and fail to see me, and if I call out you fail to recognize me and then, looking guilty, you pretend to know who I am.
They’d asked me in the interview what I’d been doing since I’d finished my dissertation. Working, I said, at the reference desk in the graduate library at Cornell. Even as I said it, I knew I was self-sabotaging; I tried to recoup by adding: I consider it an extension of my education. The room froze, they in embarrassment, I in fury at myself. And in disgust. Why should my answer have sounded flip? In any reasonable interview, it would have been an honorable answer. Only in our profession did needing to work disqualify you from working.
I was going to sketch a narrative of the dark years that followed, but I find that I can’t. It was the end of dignity. There’s no place to tell it from. I just can’t.
I lived with a man who drank. I left him. For a time I temped in Washington, DC. Once they sent me to an international law firm, to proofread lists of chemical names in Danish. No matter that I didn’t know Danish; this was letter-by-letter comparison proofing. Mindless, mechanical work that nevertheless required your full attention. They put me at a little table facing a wall in the office of a smug German lawyer who spent the afternoon calling his friends in Frankfurt to brag about his salary. He had no idea—never did learn—that I understood every word. That he was distracting me. Can’t afford a McMansion, he kept saying, but I’m not complaining. Ich beklage mich nicht.
“When you are up,” Barbara Stanwyck is said to have said, “you are accepted; when you are down, it is as though you do not exist.” She was talking, of course, about Hollywood.
And let’s be honest: If you had looked for me I would have hidden. David I met at the National Academy of Sciences, where he was researching mercury pollution and I’d been hired to do some photocopying. Three months later he got invited to rescue fragile ecosystems in this land of magpies and tumbleweed—a dream of his: to work outdoors. To live in the shadow of a mountain. He brought me a Cracker Jack ring and held out an orange gazania, which, when I laughed, he stuck in his buttonhole, and he said, Um, um, um, would you marry me? I was six months pregnant with twins, not by him—by Keith, who didn’t know. That’s the kind of man David is: nothing like you.
When the kids were little, I pulled the viola out. I had not touched it in twenty years. Do you know what desert air does to wood? My poor old Czech viola. When I opened the case, the strings lay on the belly of the instrument, flabby as twine. The sound post clinked, and the bridge slid between the bouts. It was in the shop for months; in the interim they sold me two quarter-sized violins for my babies. Benjy—named after David’s father, in case you were wondering—prefers mountain biking, but Emily took to music. I taught her myself until she played with a grace I’d never had and I could teach her nothing more. When she was ten, I took her to the violin professor at the university. For the next seven years, I listened from the living room, often in tears, silent ones, so as not to unnerve her.
Last year they started college. This year David got cut to halftime, and I found myself some adjunct work at community colleges and night schools, literature and composition. I even have library privileges. So, following your latest eruption in my dreams, I have been catching up on your publications, all those articles in the nineties, culminating in a book whose title stabbed me in the solar plexus—Eruptions in the Future Perfect: The Return of Theory. Apparently it was widely reviewed when it came out. In Diacritics I found this, from one of my Cornell classmates: “Nobody does the uncanny better than Schneider.”
Well. How entirely true. But that was nine years ago. And silence since. I wonder what is happening in your life. I wonder how that silence feels.
Last night you glided past, conversing with a beaky, bespectacled woman in a broomstick skirt. She was inviting you to co-edit an anthology on shadow selves. Hey, I tried to shout, but I could only croak, and you looked at me blankly, bleakly, and the woman turned on me, impatiently reiterating the ground rules: You are nothing, Wendy Kochman. Stop making trouble.
The “good years” of our friendship seem in retrospect to have been a crossroads. I allowed myself to be pulled out of my own terrain; I was always the one who didn’t know. Often I vanished myself, telling myself I didn’t need to prove anything to you, making myself in my mind bigger than you. “Ben Schneider” became my name for everything I forbade myself to be: snobbish and grandiose, massively defended. Possibly that disrespect seeped through my gentle leading questions and silent dissents, though perhaps you didn’t see; I counted on you not to see.
I remember the first time you fell for a man who wouldn’t have you. You swallowed twenty of those pills of yours and promptly called 911.
Later you called me. You proffered the story like a gift.
Oh, the drama, I snorted, not kindly, not graciously.
But “Ben Schneider” is a gift, isn’t he? All these years, it’s been the same damn gift. Belatedly, I accept.
Take this letter, ten weeks in the writing. Mischief. Drama. I am trying to decide whether to send it. I would need to be clear in my mind that I need nothing from you—not affirmation, not any response at all; I do not even need you not to respond. If you receive these pages, it just means that I have chosen not to disappear—or rather, given the decades that have passed: I choose not to have disappeared. How this eruption might strike you, I’ll refrain from speculating. Time folded while I was writing. It seemed we were in the carpool just the other day, side by side and bickering, with our lives before us, unknown and impossible. Now you are receding.
Farewell, my basherter—
Meditation frequently asks its practitioners to ground themselves in their bodies through a series of structured “noticings.” You are gently urged to press yourself into your chair, press your feet into the floor, press your fingertips together, press your lungs out into their little cage of ribs.
It is easiest, it turns out, to notice your body when it meets with a measure of resistance. The floor is a fact your feet cannot change. To live in a body, we are told and retold, is to forget about this all the time.
When I solicited poems for this issue, I asked for work that “enacts or inscribes the feminine in fresh, unusual, or surprising ways.” Noting that gender is both inscribed upon the body and enacted by the body, I wanted to see how gender could visit the text, or the site of inscription. It is, in fact, near-impossible for many of us to forget about our bodies. This is not a failure to live within them, but a ricochet from resistance to resistance, reminder to reminder – “You do not inhabit this body. To the world’s eyes you are this body. Here is what that means.”
I’m delighted by the poems in this issue, in no small way because they make the original phrasing of my solicitation seem deeply small and beside the point. They embrace the mystic and the vulgar. They are funny, heartbroken, and kind. They dig deep for inner voice and reassemble the voices around them in a gorgeous echolalia. With plums. And hoofprints. And Kim Kardashian. I hope you like them.
Assistant Poetry Editor
DRAG NOTES – FROM A CONVERSATION WITH KINGA
by Justin Engles
by Danielle Mitchell
by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
PRAYER TO ST. MARTHA
by Leah Silvieus
Artwork by Lexi Braun
The idea of voice has been hot on my mind lately. I think the ongoing work of folks like Amanda Johnston (one of the founders of Black Poets Speak Out), has made me think closely about how I move through the world, speak for myself, for and with others. Voice is subjective, relative. It’s also incredibly relational. Although I’m not a thousand percent behind Naomi Wolf’s talk of vocal fry, I know well the phenomenon of adapting one’s voice to suit one’s audience. The question is, then, from which conventions and collectives does one draw? And why? A writer performs on the page for a hypothetical audience, introducing herself to strangers again and again. Whatever voice that writer inhabits at any given time should be considered and relevant, and it should always feel true.
Since this is my first monthly curation of Four Way Review, the theme feels apt. As editors, we think about our own voices, our voices in conjunction with other editors’, and how the pieces we celebrate reflect upon us. Last month, Ken Chen, Executive Director of the phenomenal Asian American Writers Workshop, wrote an article excoriating certain white artists whose so-called transgressive work does little more than parrot the language of violence, racism, and patriarchy. Another recent editorial at Apogee raises the idea that it is as impossible – and unethical – to “read blind” as an editor as it is to be colorblind in the way we engage with each other in the flesh.
Here’s my secret: I was a little tempted to name this issue The Anti-Rachel Dolezal Life & Times, for the sake of those of us who have worked very hard to be ourselves, to own where we come from, and to make art from that space. The aforementioned – now-infamous – identity thief, who has worked with visual media in the past, was, unsurprisingly, once accused of plagiarizing a landscape by another painter. The appropriation of style, voice, and culture all converge so neatly in her story, it’s remarkable.
With all of this roiling in my head, I found myself, more than anything, wanting to read gorgeous, powerful voice. Just that. Inventive, not necessarily confessional, but representative of the artist in an elemental, charged way. When I started feeling tired of tired voices, avery r. young and Juliana Delgado Lopera came to my mind immediately, as the balm I wanted and needed most.
I bet you’re going to like reading these folks. Their styles are very different: young’s work boasts spareness and abbreviation, often using the architecture of parentheses to slow the reader, to encourage and reward re-reading. Lopera’s narrator, on the other hand, has fluidity and grace that’s enviable. Both are immediate. Neither backs down.
It wasn’t planned, but I don’t find it at all surprising that, in young’s suite of poems and Lopera’s excerpt, both use Christianity as a springboard for their characters’ voices. Owning one’s voice often comes from looking directly at structures of power, the stories we as a culture swear by. I think it’s important to reclaim power this way. And maybe it seems naïve, but I feel the connection between the art we make and support and the way we engage each other in the world is very real. These two artists are doing the good work.
~ Laura Swearingen-Steadwell
excerpt from FIEBRE TROPICAL
by Juliana Delgado Lopera
by avery r. young
For this installment of our new monthly “mini-issues,” I wanted to present a small folio on a genre which seems to gain more and more attention, particularly among poets — the “photo-essay.” Because so much of our daily life has gone digital, it becomes harder not to primarily encounter the world through our sense of sight. And “seeing” isn’t easy. For the photographer, when a photo essay is being built, he or she must whittle down, sometimes from hundreds of photos, until the image is found; then he or she must find other images that create tension with that original image. This month’s Monthly will present you with two poet/photographers, Chris Abani and Rachel Eliza Griffiths, both of whom I believe are doing fascinating and challenging work through photography. And please read the interview I conducted with Rachel! Such wonderful answers. That said, have a look-see (ha, see what I did there), and thank you for reading.
~ Nathan McClain
ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: AN INTERVIEW
with Rachel Eliza Griffiths