Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

to stand on something vaguely sinister

Like, I imagine, any person that holds a degree in Art History, I go to museums when I travel. I've found that the larger the museum, the more alarmed people seem to be when they watch me walk across a Carl Andre. I've made a ritual of it. I search out the modern/contemporary wing and I walk across the tiles. I'm sure other people must do it (do you?), I've just never seen it.

Maybe one of these days, I'll curl up in a ball atop one.

Each time, this act produces a knot at the back of my throat. Each time, I end up crying later in the day. I think it has something to do with the tension between minimalism and post-minimalism. It has something to do with Ana Mendieta, whose work I love and who is conspicuously absent from many of these museums. (The week she died, protesters held banners demanding "Where is Ana Mendieta?") And it has something to do with museums, in general, those odd refactories of cultural memory.

The most recent time, I was in Chicago, at the Art Institute. I was listening, on repeat, to Westfall, by Okkervil River.


Friday, December 21, 2007

"more weight"

I still remember the first time I read The Crucible. I'm not sure exactly how old I was, but it was at some point before my sister Nora was born (which would make me younger than 10). I was in my new bedroom. The addition my parents had put on the house was unfinished. (It was only recently that they told me, frankly, that they had run out of money before the addition was completed. I, again, to be frank, have no idea how they had money for an addition in the first place, but there you have it.)

The room had that feeling of a space - the hollow of a rectangular prism - empty of experience. Ripe for potential - I suppose it could have been, but to me it felt just blank. And so, it isn't surprising, in retrospect, that I might carry books into such a room as a youngster.

On of the first nights I spent in that room my parents were still participating in the wine tasting group. I was young enough then to lurk about, crawling under the table and kyping dregs from everyone's glasses. Well, after that, I crept back to my new room at the cold end of the house. (My parents' house is heated, primarily, by a woodstove at the opposite end.) I turned on the lights, as yet uncovered by fixtures, I curled up on my mattress (on the floor, then), and I opened an old, musty copy of The Crucible.

And Giles Corey said "more weight." He died slow, that way, in order to preserve property. He could have died fast in the noose, but instead he died a Christian, slow and able to leave the farm to his sons. "More weight."

Pressed like grain.

Made meal of.

When I close my eyes and imagine myself, I still see (watch me measure my own body like some 19th century anthropometrist) the 5'8"/118-pound body I inhabited for so many years. And so, it is with complete alarm that I heard, tonight, my friend Anthony say, "Don't you dare ever - EVER - lose weight."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

GIFT: a handkerchief of my own sewing; my poison

The Real Art Ways holiday staff party was last night. It had been a very, very long day and it was with dread that I anticipated attending it. Regarless, I had baked an Italian Almond Cake for it the night before and picked and wrapped (quite well, I think) a little cadeau for the Yankee Swap.

My plan, intitially, was to attend for an hour or so, and then to duck out before the Yankee Swap, to which I was having an increasingly visceral reaction, occurred.


The etymology of gift is lengthy and overlapping. In several northern European languages the word means "poison." In others it means "that which is given," "dowry," and the like. But my favorite was the language that combined the two meanings: Faroese, in which gift means both "poison" and "married." I had to think about it a bit. The connection between "gift" and "married" is pretty clear: a woman's dowry was a donation of sorts to the man she would marry, therefore, metonymously, she was a gift.

But poison?

It took me some time to work this out, but here's what I've come up with:
In The Gift, Marcel Mauss characterizes gifts thus: "In short, [the exchange of gifts] represents an intermingling. Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together, and this is how, among persons and things so intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together. This is precisely what contract and exchange are." If we take Mauss at his word, then, the exchange of gifts is a corruption of the soul.

From here, a small jump. The more common etymological connotation for the word gift is "dowry." If we consider what it might mean for a woman to make a gift of herself, that is (drawing again on Mauss) intermingling her soul with her self-as-object, we can begin to see a light in which marriage is poison.

In the end, I stayed at the soirée for some time. I love the people with whom I work - they are talented and smart and viciously funny. And there was a very nice sparkling rosé. I gave the giftling for which I had swapped to Barbara after the game had finished. It made me feel better. (But was I, in a way, bribing myself to stay in so doing?)

[Mostly unrelated, but interesting tidbit...Best definition of "gift": a white speck on the finger nails, supposed to portend a gift.]

Saturday, December 15, 2007

things that repeat, things that reel, things that repeat

It could be that watching five hours worth of films in a day could make one regard her existential crisis with some degree of bemused dissociation.

My lovely brother Patrick and I watched two films today: No Country for Old Men and Control. At the first, we sat behind two middle-aged couples. The women sat next to each other and made little disgusted noises throughout and the men sat together occassionally giving such enlightening expository commentary as "buckshot" or "he's gonna throw the case over the fence" or (my favorite) "he's bleeding" (after the character was shot).

At the second we sat seperately.

At both, I did that thing where I continue watching through spread fingers.

There were a lot of things about which I was thinking but couldn't really articulate well at the end of Control. There's the difficulty/ies I have with artist biopics - that they use this medium to represent real people pretending to be other real people. There's the discomfort I feel when illnesses (and particularly, for some reason, epilepsy) are represented.

by John Waters

In the spirit of repetition, I've made a bullshit theory elsewhere that works of art can corral a viewer or reader in through flattery. Coetzee alludes to Kafka, you recognize it and you feel very clever. You know your Joy Division b-sides, they begin to play, you feel as though you have encyclopedic knowledge of indie rock (nb. tongue firmly stuck into cheek).

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POZA, at Real Art Ways

I've been thinking a lot lately of cycles - cycles onto which we try to impose meaning and cycles that we try to ignore. Wake up brush teeth exercise shower dress contacts in feed cat clean litter leave apartment lock door open car drive to work sit at desk put fingers on keyboard repeat. Birth, menstruation, pantoums. Remembering, recognition, representation. (I really ought to look back into sentences.)

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It's all going to be fine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

sustenance and cycles

This is life - and this is as meaningful as it gets.

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Last weekend, unable to sleep, I moved my furniture around. There's something satisfying about being a woman alone in a house with heavy furniture and deciding to heft it all about with my own weight and no one to help me. In the end I decided I liked it better how it was before, but that I should leave some small change in the arrangement to make all the effort worth it.

Since I've lived in this apartment, I have slept in the narrow, hard twin-sized bed of my childhood. It creaks under my weight. It threatens at every turn to fall apart. I wake up every morning with a sore back. Until last weekend I had the bed against the wall. At a certain point, I discovered that if I pushed a pillow up against the wall and nestled my back into it just so, it began to approximate the feeling of being held.

Well, I've pulled the bed away from the wall.

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This is a lengthy excerpt, but warranted. From HD's Trilogy:
"There is a spell, for instance, / in every sea-shell: // continuous, the sea-thrust / is powerless against coral, // bone, stone, marble / hewn from within by that craftsman, // the shell-fish: / oyster, clam, mollusc // is master-mason planning / the stone marvel: // yet that flabby, amorphous hermit / within, like the planet // senses the finite, / it limits its orbit // of being, its house, / temple, fane, shrine: // it unlocks the portals / at stated intervals: // prompted by hunger, / it opens to the tide-flow: // but infinity? no, / of nothing-too-much: // I sense my own limit, / my shell jaws snap shut // at invasion of the limitless, / ocean-weight; infinite water // can not crack me, egg in egg-shell; / closed in, complete, immortal // full-circle, I know the pull / of the tide, the lull // as well as the moon; / the octopus-darkness // is powerless against / her cold immortality; // so I in my own way know / that the whale // can not digest me: / be firm in your own small, static, limited // orbit and the shark-jaws / of outer circumstance // will spit you forth: // be indigestible, hard, ungiving. // so that, living within, / you beget, self-out-of-self, // selfless, / that pearl-of-great-price,"

Monday, December 3, 2007

Collected Visions

When I was teaching, one of my favorite essays to use was Marianne Hirsch on postmemory. I liked the difficulty students seemed to have with it—they would grasp to certain parts and seemingly refuse to understand others (the section that describes the film Hate, for instance, always seemed to generate trouble).

I asked my students, each semester, to contribute to Lorie Novak's formidable Collected Visions project. They could submit snapshots, if they liked, but the main thing I wanted was for them to utilize the database (of approximately 3,000 family photographs) to create essays. It was my hope that this project would help them suss out the concept of postmemory. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't.

So, I have two aims in posting this. One is to spread the word about Collected Visions. The other is to keep it here, next to other images, ideas, resources, etc., that will help me with the prosthetic memory project.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Book Binding

In Studies on Hysteria, Freud and Breuer discuss a mother who recorded her daughter's "fits" with supreme dedication. It made me wonder what kind of a book the mother would choose in which to write. Would the journal start on loose paper that she would then envelop between the pages of a book? I like the idea that, eventually, she would bind her own book, finding other people's creations inappropriate vessels in which to record the rants of her own creation. I've started a short series of poems within the Charcot manuscript that explore this.

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Books make things - words, objects, thoughts - precious. I opened my copy of Mrs. Dalloway to find a passage recently. Aaron had used the copy to study for his PhD exams. It is well-worn. We have both read it several times and it is bespeckled with lovely, combined marginalia. I turned to page 139 (something Aaron had marked with a post-it) and there he had layered in the single wing of a Luna Moth.

When I was a girl someone (my mother? my grand mother? Shandra and Michelle's mother? some book?) taught me to layer violets into the pages of books. I did so religiously. At that point though, really, all of the books were technically my parents'. There are still volumes I leaf through on visits to them - browned, flattened, dry former flowers flitting onto my lap. At a certain point, enamored with the local herb farm Caprilands, I began to layer in sprigs of herbs. The musty and earthy scents of those books are intoxicating.

Caprilands colored my imagination for some years. They had various gardens (one Shakespeare-themed!) surrounding the early 19th-century farmhouse in which they sold fresh and dried herbs, Victorian recipe books, flavored honeys. Cats and sheep and chickens wandered the grounds. We - I usually went with the twins - would end each visit with a cup of tea. I liked mine to have the petals of former flowers, some remnants of which would always drift free of the wire ball in which they steeped.

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I worry about what will happen when electronic devices become more popular than books. Will we lose what is intimate, what is precious, about reading and writing? There's a potentially bright side to this, though. As gadgets begin to replace paper, we will start to see people celebrating that filtered, flattened, and dried pulp. At the Paper/New England opening I had a quick chat with the lovely Michael Shortell about book art. They plan to exhibit some soon. I will be there. My heart will flutter a bit higher in my chest when I look at it.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I've been kicking around the concept of secrets this week. My thoughts range from the personal (wondering about the secrets my family keeps vs the stories we tell) to the social (considering the phenomenal Post Secret).

The OED tells me that a secret is used in decribing "feelings, passions, thoughts: not openly avowed or expressed; concealed, disguised; also, in stronger sense, known only to the subject, inward, inmost. Hence said of the heart, soul, etc." (It's got a ton of really fun entries and is worth looking up for those of you who are into definitions.) It strikes me here that, if it is indeed the case that secrets describe feelings, etc., we hold close to our hearts and souls, we might need secrets to construct our identities.

In the spirit of experimentation, here are a couple secrets:

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(Former) Secret 1: When I took this picture I was glad for the tears and the mascara and the tissue and my camera because I thought it made a good representation of the moment.

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(Former) Secret 2: I took this picture, focusing on the aesthetic pleasure the rows of cut grass might create, because I was spooked by my surroundings. I was about a mile from the cottage in Ballyshannon (where I was staying alone). Up the street from where I was standing to take this was a trailer. Its front lawn was bounded by rusty barbed wire and there were runs from each front corner of the structure. One held a scraggly cur, the other a scraggly horse. Despite the fact that I felt utterly foolish being so spooked, I took off quick as I could back to the cottage.

I admit it: both of these secrets are totally banal. Even so, for some reason, I was very reluctant to write about either of them in a public way (even in the very limited way that I have here). So, I wonder in what ways I can tease out this tension between telling and not telling in my poems. It seems to me, too, that secrets could find their way into the prosthetic memory project.

Thoughts, anyone? Guidance? Suggestions for further reading?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Some sparrow, some special gem

I saw it plastered (or stapled) all over Hyde Park on my last trip to Chicago.

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I was in the city for the wedding of the first friend I ever made. I was returning to a city which had held a degree of symbolic potential for me. I had constructed Chicago as a place to which I could go to be freed from tethers - all of the expectations I had established and crushed and resculpted into simulacra of their prior selves during all the years I had passed in Connecticut. Chicago was a place where suddenly it didn't seem to matter to me that I don't have a PhD. In Chicago it didn't matter how I acted in high school. Personal history seemed to fall away in the face of this city, nestled in the middle of the continent and away from the sea.

Still lost pet bird.

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When I was a teenager I thought I wanted to be an opera singer. My house was filled with the flutterings of vocalise. I would walk in the woods behind the house and sing arias off the edges of the cliffs.

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There was something terrifying and addictive about singing at that level. You are at once vulnerable and celebrated. You make a thousand exhibitions of your own unique self - of your voice and the ways it is beautiful and distinct.

These days, my voice has lost its flexibility and its range. It's no longer lithe enough to dance across runs, soft palate strong and arched. I rarely sing anymore ever. I reserve it for children (Brahms for Leah; Handel for Aidan; Fauré for Laura), or the car, or the empty woods.

I had been so scared that my voice wouldn't be exceptional that I forced it - deliberately - into dormancy.

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Still lost pet bird.

Friday, November 9, 2007


Until somewhat recently, Saltpeter was a smell-with-no-name to me, that part of the remnants of fireworks that seemed to singe the inside of my nose.

When I was a girl, it was my father on every July 4th who would position himself at the dampened Volleyball court where he and Bob would set off fireworks. I knew from early on that what they were doing - these men, one my father and one a father figure - was illegal. I can only assume that it was the general affability of Bob and Merrill that caused the Town fire department to turn its back on the display. And I knew it was dangerous, although I probably imagined it to be more risky than it actually was. I was a reader and I think that's part of the reason I was such a dramatically-inclined little person, always playing out the worst scenarios I could imagine for every situation in which I found myself.

After we had all sung the anthem (usually followed by John Prine and Phil Ochs), after we had oohed and ahed our way through the display (me with my fists balled, nails into palms), my father would find me and pick me up and his hands smelled of saltpeter.

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I've been meaning to write more about saltpeter (from which the Salpêtrière where Charcot worked took its name) for some time. The week of Guy Fawkes Day strikes me as the perfect time to do so. In 1999 on November 5, I was perched at the top of Primrose Hill with my mother and brother. We were drinking mulled wine and I was desperately hoping that none of the embers from the fireworks would fall into the Regent Park aviary.

I've had a poem milling about in the recesses of my mind that would weave together several quasi-histories of saltpeter. One is that administrators of places where lots of young men cohabitated (British public schools, naval ships, prisons) packed their meals with the stuff in the hopes to fend of excessive onanism and homosexuality. Another thread of this poem would link fireworks in Paris to the more martial history of the Salpêtrière (it was a gunpowder factory before it was a hospital). The final strand of the poem is saltpeter's use in hoodoo, which removes the substance from its typical aggressive context and uses it for self defense.

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by Renée Stout

I know. This sounds scattered, but I think there's a way of looking at each of the threads in relation to supression and sexuality.

Friday, November 2, 2007

In order to avoid knocking off people's hats...

It's hard to say with what frequency I become stir-crazy. I've alluded to it here before, but it's struck me again, now. It was yesterday, in fact, that it started. I can't fully explain how I made the leap from some vague kind of dissatisfactions to knowing - knowing - that I have to go off somewhere on my own.

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And almost as soon as I identified the feeling - not, in some ways, dissimilar to the fantods - I knew where I have to go.

Nauset beach. I haven't been to the Cape in at least a decade. And here I am, 28 years old, living by myself, working in the arts, writing - and above all, at this moment, longing to put my body into the freakish Atlantic. (It could have something to do with the talk on Sylvia Plath that I'll attend on Sunday...)

A kind of strange video. The soundtrack consists of SP reading "Daddy."

This morning I went with my mother to surprise my father at the 40th anniversary banquet for the Connecticut Association of Land Surveyors. Earlier in the week Kathy, who runs CALS, had called to say that Dad is receiving an award for distinguished achievement and service. CALS has only given this award to two other people in its 40 years.

My father is (to understate matters) a diligent worker. He has worked in that old Victorian on North Main in Manchester for my entire life - starting in the basement (which has twice caved in as the result of reckless drivers smashing into the foundation) moving up to the gloriously sunny second floor, where his current office is perched among the turning leaves of a sugar maple.

My memory of my childhood is episodic. (I'm sure, as I get further into this new book, I'll be writing a lot more about this.) I remember the first time someone crashed into the building's foundation, balancing my way down the stairs to my father's work space. They were uneven and shallow. Normally I had the aid of the brick wall to my left as I went down them, but the force of the impact had caused the wall to crumble in, leaving brick-dust and flakes of the brick-colored paint they used on the wall coating much of the stairwell - as though some wind storm from Georgia had blown through the place.

The office was lit by a set of long, humming fluorescent lights that cast a kind of industrial green pallor over the place. I was an easily distractible child and, at times, the hum of those lights would wash out my ability to conjure anything other than their presence to mind. Along the wall ran a long drafting table on which my father made maps. I ran an index finger tip across the surface of the table. I turned my hand over to regard the impression the dust had made on me, smelled it. It smelled like that room, but concentrated.

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I love the beach in fall, in winter, during a storm. That love, I suppose, comes from my father, who would (still does, I imagine) wake up in the dead of night to go to the shore to fish. He used it as a place for himself and, when we were there together, we were both able to be quiet about things.

It seems to happen in November that, for various reasons, I have found myself heading for the shore, certain that the thing to do - the primary thing to do - is to dip my skin (and all of my self in it) into the ocean. Just to see, I would tell myself. Just to see what it is my body would do. In prior years, I've been desperately sad on these occasions. This year, I feel melancholy.

It is this feeling that makes the beginning of Moby-Dick so hypnotic:
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

I wrote it years ago - "the sea was our apothecary" - I feel it in my marrow each year.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Histories and Prostheses

I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me yet. In the wee hours of yesterday morning, after the cat had started her autumn routine of waking me up at 5 am for food, I knew (with the certainty that one knows things in the early morning) what my next book of poems would be.

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Had I continued my graduate education, I would have written my dissertation on cultural representations of memory in contemporary African literature and art. I was interested in instances in which we need to represent—even construct from time to time—collective memories. It seemed to me that, at times, we focus these collective memories on the experiences of individuals, rather than groups. So, the memorializing that happens around, say, the horrors of Apartheid, gets represented in individual testimony (Sue Williamson's Can't Remember, Can't Forget), descriptions of torture (as in JM Coetzee's novels), etc.

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Sue Williamson. Can't Remember Can't Forget (installation view).

Perhaps it's not surprising, given my academic inclinations, that the poetry I tend to most enjoy reading is poetry that investigates individual histories. I'm thinking here of Natasha Trethewey, Marilyn Nelson, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney (at times), Elizabeth Alexander, et al.

When histories get reoriented to be primarily about an individual (rather than a group, or nation, or culture, for instance), they lose some of their facticity, they start treading close to that most unreliable of faculties, Memory. Histories, conventionally, are meant to be fairly solid claims about things and places and events and people. Again, conventionally, there's meant to be some degree of objectivity to it all. Memories, on the other hand, are radically subjective, shifting, fluid cognitive representations of things.

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Poetry is another one of those unreliably subjective things. When history, then, finds its way into poetry, the polar relationship between the subjective and objective begins to crumble. That kind of crisis of polarity interests me. As I was thinking about it, it occurred to me that poetry can serve as this prosthesis for memory, whether they're individual or collective memories (hence the abundance of memorializing poetry).

The new book will be a collection of poems that perform that function: poems that have a prosthetic relationship to memory, both collective and personal.

I'm really excited about it.

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Wall of prosthetic faces for injured veterans of World War I.

Friday, October 26, 2007


I'm clumsy. In this case I don't mean gauche (although it's a lovely word and I am certainly capable of gauche behavior or accessorizing or decorating from time to time). I also don't mean unwieldy (although some of my exes may disagree). No, what I mean is that I am, quite simply, ungainly.

A couple months ago, I started a sticky note that lists incidents of clumsiness.

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There was the time I burnt the inside of my left arm - this is embarrassing - while putting late night tater tots onto a plate.

There was the time I cut into the palm of my hand using, yes, a large kitchen knife to cut open an english muffin. (Sensible, wasn't that? I thought, at the time, that I was being very efficient, not dirtying another dish.)

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There was the time that I swung my knees into my desk drawers when rotating in my chair. (There is a tally of seven next to that item.)

There was the time, last week that I was peeling apples Pat and I had just picked at Crooke's Orchard to make applesauce. I got just about through the whole couple dozen before the knife slipped, with no insignificant force, into the tip of my middle finger. It's mostly healed at this point, only I seem to have played with ink when it was still an open wound, thereby inadvertently tattooing the tip of my finger.

But there's only so much one can fit on a sticky. And my desk has already become what Melissa calls "Pink Explosion" (see above).

I started the sticky because at a certain point my proclivity for accidental minor injury struck me as poetic. There's something inescapable about incidents of clumsiness. They scream "Be here!" when one would otherwise be going about one's life with a certain amount of disassociation. I think poetry can do the same thing (although it tends to leave less permanent marks on one's body).

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Caddis Fly Larvae

Periodically, during the past several months, I've returned to this video.

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I really have a hard time putting into words the way I react to this project by French artist Hubert Duprat. It's totally mystifying to me. Yes, there's a whole canon of theory on which I could draw to talk about these larvae. But I really don't like to respond to them with something as easy as theory. It ends up feeling very utilitarian.

The truth of the matter is that I really love the way certain things confound my intellect.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Painting it red...

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“Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were rowdies? Because…they both raised Cain.” — The St. Louis Pennent (May 2, 1840)

So, I don't think I would ever had guessed that "raising Cain" was first used in St. Louis. I certainly wouldn't have guessed it's as young a term as it is!

I have what I think has shaped up to be a really rather lovely poem about the phrase, about St. Louis, and about immigration. Let me know if you'd like to read it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Plant Porn!

Jonathon Keats is making porn for plants and I am writing a poem about it. The artist has recorded acts of "gross pollination" and plans to not only show the film in galleries and art houses, but to project the images onto lackadaisical plants to get them...going.

I drafted what, to me, was a very funny poem last night – it's cheeky and irreverent. But it's not a real poem yet; for the moment it's just fun word play.

I'm about to dive into plant "anatomy" research. I'm about to renew my familiarity with those Mapplethorpe tripychs. I'm about to revisit books on obscenity and art.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

looking for a new england

The years I spent with Aaron helped me understand exactly how much of a New Englander I am. Although I had lived abroad (and in New Jersey) before I had met Aaron, there was something about those years, about traveling to the Midwest, that solidified my understanding of exactly what it might mean to be a New Englander.

Aaron grew up in the exact center of Kansas, which, he is fond of saying, is the exact center of the continental United States. As a boy he was so sure of this that he imagined the President sent two planes careening across the country on the Fourth of July to cross paths over McPherson ("there's no fear in McPherson"), Kansas, their grey plumes superimposing on the map an X. McPherson, in some ways, is not unlike Storrs. It has a somewhat awkward combination of rural and suburban areas. It has a small college in the town and is nestled among Wichita, Topeka, Hutchinson, and some other Kansan cities. In other ways, of course, it is drastically different.

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Aaron was raised by, quite possibly, the only couple with leftist leanings in the entire town. Let us not forget, Kansas is a red state (a fact that caused me no small amount of anxiety upon my first trip there). Had I known, at the time, what I know now, I would not have been so anxious. The conservatives in McPherson are not nearly so confrontational as those who are members of my extended family. (Or, at least, I can't see the ways in which they're confrontational.) He was, although in many ways privileged—upper middle class, white, male, able bodied, intelligent—part of a minority. I wonder (I have not asked) to what degree he hid or tried to streamline his parents' beliefs while growing up. In some ways, he needn't have tried very hard: his father and grandfather and aunt were all part of the town's most prestigious law firm. His uncle was a very successful business man. There is a certain amount of prosperity and small town history associated with the Bremyers. That should have shielded some of the eccentricities of his nuclear family.

But let me put the easy difference of politics aside for a moment. The thing that surprised me most, that pricked me to attention, was the degree to which I was made uncomfortable by the friendly, familiar greetings of strangers. Aaron and I would be driving around town and the overweight man mowing his lawn would pause, wipe the sweat from his brow (depositing some grass clippings and, one imagines, some chiggers), squint his eyes, and wave. "Do you know him?" I asked, brow pursed, trying to hide, somewhat from the mowing man. No, he didn't. That's just what they do there. They say hello to people they don't even know. Even when they're all sweating and in the midst of less than pleasant chores.

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My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn't even look Aaron in the eye. What was going on? I looked down at my hands to see that I was madly clutching at the skin between my left index finger and thumb. I looked past my hands to see that my legs were pressed, firmly, together. Why was I having such a strong reaction to this small act? I let it pass.

But the greetings continued. Walking down Main Street, people he didn't know said hello (and he responded with apparent reciprocation of their enthusiasm). We went for a stroll around the park near his aunt and uncle's home. I looked up. About 100 feet away a person was walking in the opposite direction, toward us. I trained my eyes back down on my feet. "Come on, Megh. Say hello to the person," Aaron said to me. I was grinding my teeth and I had started to hold my breath. "I'll try," I muttered. I looked up, offered my most stoic and salty New England nod of the head acknowledgement, and mouthed the syllables "hello." I tried.

I thought about it, a lot, that night in bed. I tried to recall people who had said hello to me like that, who had waved. There was the old (octogenarian) blind man who used to sit on the stone wall in front of his house by the road and wave his cane at passing cars. There were the drunk men I would sometimes encounter in bars as a child, sipping on my Shirley Temples. There were the down and outs in Willimantic who would try to par out advice to little girls. There was the occasional very old person, who more often than not would say "God bless you," not hello. But I always thought they were up to something. There was the Viet Nam vet who had always struck me as shell shocked; he walked the streets around campus and would, shaking, wave his walking stick at passing cars. There were the letches.

But it isn't standard practice in New England to greet someone with whom you're not acquainted. Even with acquaintances, more often than not a nod of the head will do; no need to stop what you're doing and have a conversation. It seems to me that New Englanders tend to foster this illusion of isolation, of privacy. When someone threatens that illusion by being too forthcoming with unsolicited conversation, we tend to read the behavior as, well, crazy (or, at the very least, highly exceptional). We look on it as very suspect.

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I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I have a couple theories, though. (Aaron used to always be amused by the theories my family tends to come up for things, and then present as hard and fast beliefs. They rarely are the result of any kind of authority on a given topic. In other words, we're a family of hucksters, we're bullshitters.) A possibility: New Englanders, historically, are predisposed to a certain degree of austerity. Given our propensity for being alone and working or thinking (or, at times, glowering—a facial expression I perfected as a youngster), as New England becomes more densely populated, as our forests are carved into by developers, we need to pretend that we're more isolated than we are; we need to bolster up the illusion that we don't have all these neighbors swarming about.

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There's nothing really, fundamentally wrong with being friendly. I decided I would test out Midwestern behavior in Connecticut for practice. I go for a lot of walks. On my walks, I try, now, to say hello to everyone I encounter. The only people who seem to appreciate it are the residents of the assisted living homes on my block. They are expert porch-sitters, so I get the opportunity to say hello to each set several times per day. They are, almost without exception, enthusiastically friendly in return.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"You're a lawyer of Capitalism; I'm a lawyer of Communism. Let's kiss."

I am really rather fond of the poem I've written about the American Exposition that was on view in Moscow in 1963. I've sent it out for potential publication, but if you'd like to read a draft let me know.

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Monday, July 23, 2007


Lately, I've felt the need to tell people about animals. Here's a quick list of recent animal correspondences and communications:

1. In Northampton, eating pizza after Cat Power, I interrupted a perfectly normal conversation to point out a bird carcass:

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2. This year, for my annual Battle of the Boyne poem, The only thing I could think to write about were the Red Deer in Enniskillen. Usually, the poems have to do overtly with politics or familial history, but not this time. Nope, all I wanted to write about was staring down a captive deer in Enniskillen.

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3. Last night, I wrote a message to Martyn. All it said was "very loud owl outside."

4. Also last night, I interrupted Melissa's schemes to get me rich so that I could tell her about the white dog wolf thing that I nearly hit on the drive over. I stopped the car. The thing was unscathed. I rolled down my window to tell it to get out of the road and go home. It circled my car, approached the window, and then—paws on the window sill—stuck its face in, smelling my left temple and ear. It got down and sauntered off into the woods.

5. At the pet store the other day, I saw something quite alarming. Some of you know that I have a near-paralizing fear of dead fish. I opened my car door and was about to step out when I saw one of those little baggies in which they package sold fish. It was on the hot pavement. There was water in the bag, but there was no fish!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I am a really really bad person

So, Cat Power has a bit of a reputation. I'd had a dream about her a couple nights ago, so when, after quitting my job, I looked on my desk calendar and saw "Cat Power Pearl Street 8:30," I thought: "What could possibly be more cathartic than to see a pretty woman break down in public about her occupation?"

I went. It's lucky I'm an atheist; if not I would be concerned about the special corner of hell that is surely reserved for people who want to watch public break downs.

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Well, she was fantastic. She did an incredible cover of "The Dark End of the Street," and while it seemed a bit grandiose for her keyboardist to introduce her as "the best living soul singer," she was really breath-taking.

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There's part of me that will remain steadfastly dedicated to the Cat Power of What Would the Community Think. The early work negotiates the hysterical so deftly. And I have to appreciate any musician who, when a certain one of their songs is on repeat and blasting, makes my mother question my well-being.

But blusey Cat Power makes me swoon.