Saturday, December 15, 2018

Dec 15: Heather Wells Peterson on Brian Blanchfield's PROXIES

Brian Blanchfield uses the word illeity a few times in Proxies, his essay collection. From its Latin root, ille, a pronoun used to refer to something far away from oneself, I take illeity to mean “thatness”—the externalization of something, making it an object outside of ourselves. In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the estrangement that occurs when an object is removed from its context, the creepiness of seeing it separated and complete unto itself. Specifically, I believe in a footnote, he recalls from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a scene in which an ear is discovered, and it is no longer attached to a head. To see an ear by itself, unhearing, is to relearn what an ear is. This, to me, is illeity: the act of removing something so far from its home that it becomes something else, something to be re-known in a profound way.

Proxies begins from two constraints. The first is to write each essay without returning to any books mentioned or researching any assertions made—as Blanchfield says in the note at the book’s beginning, “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.”
     In an interview for David Naimon’s radio show and podcast, Between the Covers, Blanchfield says this project began when he was having difficulty writing, the constraint a “prompt into language in the morning, to have the internet off, and to write what I knew or estimated or remembered or misremembered about a topic at a time.” Words can have a frightening fixity, and using words can feel more like lepidoptery—catching, euthanizing, pinning into permanent position—than like observation of movement, of flight. I imagine Blanchfield’s prompt allowed him out of the lab and into the field, net in hand. To let the knowledge you hold, which is more like a story you’ve told yourself than a collection of facts, to be the single source of authority in a piece of writing seems both liberating and terrifying, and both sides of that, the freedom and the fear, come through in these essays. As Blanchfield notes beneath the title of each essay, they were written, must have been, “permitting shame, error and guilt,” with himself as the single source.
     Blanchfield, raised in North Carolina, left home at seventeen years old to earn his BA from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. He’s the author of two collections of poetry, Not Even Then (2004) and A Several World (2014). Proxies, published in 2016, earned a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Nonfiction and a PEN USA Literary Award in Nonfiction. He has worked in and out of academia, teaching creative writing at The Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design, Cal Arts, University of Montana, University of Arizona, and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, while in between working in arts admin, radio, and publishing. Though he expresses much ambivalence about academia in Proxies, he has returned to it, teaching creative writing and literature at The University of Idaho and the Bennington Writing Seminars. In his interview with Naimon, he identifies one motivation behind the writing of these essays as “a psychological integrative urge… to say what I knew not only as a ‘queer intellectual poet’… but as the son of a trucker and a Primitive Baptist from central Piedmont, NC, but also as a professor who has been on the margins of and absorbed by and expelled from academia over the years, I wanted to say what I knew in a number of different subject positions which many people or some readers might perceive as unlikely.” Blanchfield lists further subject positions in his introduction: “I have been stepson, house sitter, replacement faculty, liaison, trustee, interim director, secretary, adjunct, sub, temp, warm body, and for a short while acting editor of The Prostate.” 
     This miscellany of subject positions is reflected in the miscellany of subjects approached, removed from home, and estranged anew in Proxies, each title beginning with “On” in an echo of Montaigne’s “Of,” a man often noted as the originator of the modern essay who famously both said, “I am myself the matter of my book” and asked, “Que sais-je?” or, “What do I know?” Some of these titles include, “On Owls,” “On Sardines”—he means the hiding game, “On Propositionizing,” “On Tumbleweed,” “On Minutes”—he means those taken at a meeting, “On Dossiers,” and “On Frottage.”
     In the Naimon interview, Blanchfield says there was another urge behind the constraint to suppress all authoritative sources: “in my mid-thirties, going into my late thirties then, I wanted to say what I knew.” The full title of the collection is Proxies: a Reckoning. The moment of reckoning comes at the end of the night when the bartender brings the bill; meanwhile, in Christianity, the day of reckoning comes when the dead are called to final account by God for their actions in life. One also reckons when making an estimation or relying on memory. These essays, then, are less on their stated topics, and more about what Blanchfield reckons about them and what that reckoning can reveal about himself, what is significant to him, and what he has chosen to remember—that final tally at the end of the night, that moment when he answers for his life thus far.
     Blanchfield’s second stated constraint was to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” Vulnerability comes from the Latin for wound, and wounds recur in this book, both fresh and healed, however imperfectly. Each essay explores a surface until that wound, that vulnerability, that place of entry, can be found. We know the wound from the outside, its borders, its cause, the narrative—if one exists—of its healing, and we know the wound from the inside, climbing into it, feeling its dimensions and walls, and looking newly out onto the world from its depths.
     “On Footwashing,” an early essay in the collection, takes as its subject the practice of foot washing as a sacrament in some Protestant orders, including the Primitive Baptist tradition in which Blanchfield was raised. We begin wide, with a scene in which members of Blanchfield’s church process toward a row of basins and, in twos, take turns soaping and rinsing their partner’s feet. Blanchfield, at thirteen years old, is witnessing this ritual for the last time, singing hymns and watching his mother’s face “grimace and blush” as an old woman takes her feet in her hands. “A thirteen year old,” he writes, “knows his single mother’s foot. An 8 1/2 narrow: back when a Naturalizer salesman would bring his shoehorn and ramp-stool over to straddle his customer’s fitting,” Naturalizers being affordable, professional shoes known for comfort. We follow that psychological integrative urge, the plunge from the wide surface of the subject to the vulnerable depths of Blanchfield’s experience of it.
     Vulnerability is at the center of the ancient Greek concept of xenia, which comes from xenos, a word meaning, first, guest. The secondary meanings are stranger, foreigner, or refugee, from which we get the term xenophobia, which now means a fear of people perceived as “foreign,” usually immigrants, but started out, in the late 1800s, sharing a meaning with agoraphobia, a fear of entering the strange, foreign world outside the home. The concept of xenia is the inverse—the act of welcoming a stranger, rendered vulnerable by their removal from familiar territory, into one’s home. Meaning “guest-friendship,” it refers to the ancient Greeks’ principle of hospitality, which they believed should be extended to anyone seeking it. Jesus Christ, in this tradition, washed the feet of the apostles who would soon betray him, participating in what Blanchfield calls an “economy of hospitality.” Because most wore sandals, the feet would be the most unclean part of a traveler entering a home—the greatest, most humbling act of hospitality a host could perform, then, was to wash the feet of the arriving stranger. To deny hospitality was a grave sin in ancient Greece, and in literature and myth often resulted in dire consequences, particularly if the stranger turned out to be a god in disguise.
     Blanchfield relates this act to Philoctetes, a play by Sophocles about the eponymous man who, in competing for Helen, was then conscripted to sail to Troy to help return her to her husband. On the way to war, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake, and the wound, without killing him, causes him constant agony. He complains all the time, and his foot gives off a putrid smell. Soon, Odysseus, who is sharing his ship, can’t take it anymore, and he leaves Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos.
In Philoctetes’ wound, Blanchfield finds his own. His stepfather, Frank, has a “chronic wound on the sole of his right foot,” a result of advanced Type 2 Diabetes. Though nerve loss means Frank feels no pain, he is in constant danger of life-threatening infection. The wound changes size and quality, but never closes. “I have seen it three or four inches deep,” Blanchfield writes. “Even then, it was frightfully clean, like a throat.” Why is it so frightfully clean? Blanchfield’s mother, every night after making dinner and doing the dishes, sits down with her tools to clean it: “After twenty-five years of marriage she knows this part of his body best. He hasn’t ever really seen it.”
Frank often “humiliates [Blanchfield’s mother] in the company of family or friends… relentlessly, set off by her miscomprehension of something or an oversight he has discovered.” Yet, she continues to perform the sacrament of washing his feet, continues to practice the guest-friendship of welcoming these strangers, Frank’s anger and his wound, into her life, and caring for them both.

Blanchfield explores the peculiar dynamic of housesitter and house owner in “On Housesitting,” which deals, too, with an economy of hospitality—“commensalism,” he writes, “or mutual benefit, is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction.” The idea being, then, that even with no pets to feed and walk, no plants to water, it is better for the home’s permanent resident that someone is there, just as it is better for that someone to have this place to stay, to have, in leaving his own home, this “new life to try on,” with an “established normalcy to play at.” However, the ultimate obligation of the housesitter is to leave everything exactly as it was found, to take off the life tried on and put it back on the hanger, unwrinkled and unstained and still smelling like the person meant to be wearing it.
     In this relationship can be found the transience of queer existence, a “tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”—never being allowed to, perhaps never wanting to, fully own and occupy a space as one’s own, the way a heterosexual couple has (seemingly) always been able to marry, buy a house, live in it permanently together, without fear that that space might be legislated or otherwise violated or taken away. There is also the expectation that queerness will tidy up after itself when allowed to occupy that heteronormative space—the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that queerness can exist in the world as long as it isn’t immediately identifiable. Try on that life, it says, but don’t let your slip show, and certainly don’t tailor it to better fit you or leave any other sign that you’ve been inside it.
     Blanchfield recalls one friendship lost over a perceived unmet housesitting obligation. His friend’s husband came home a day earlier than he was supposed to, to find Blanchfield in bed with someone, the carpet rolled up and to the side, the table used as a desk, a plate used as an ashtray, breakfast dishes as-yet unwashed. The husband called his wife, Blanchfield’s friend, irate at what he’d seen. Later, the friend told Blanchfield she was deeply disappointed, and he had the “uneasy sense that the apology elicited and that I gave was for sleeping with a man in their bed.” We learn that the man was a friend who had recently tested positive for HIV, and that he had come all week to the house seeking Blanchfield’s support and comfort. As I read this I wondered if it would matter to Blanchfield’s friend that they hadn’t had sex in the bed, only slept. I would guess probably not.

In The Odyssey, when Odysseus first returns home after sixteen years away, presumed, by most, dead, he discovers that his wife’s suitors have taken over his home and made it unrecognizable, and that he, himself, has been rendered unrecognizable to all of them. Older, war- and sea-ravaged, dirty, his hair and beard too long, he presents himself as a beggar and his wife, son, and rivals can’t see through the disguise. In the traditional act of hospitality, Eurycleia, Odysseus’ wet nurse and, later, his son’s, bends to wash the stranger’s feet. She is the only person to recognize him without his telling her; she notices, just above his knee, a scar earned boar hunting as a young man. Because she essentially raised him, she knows the scar intimately, and through this knowledge, knows him.
     “On Containment” begins with Blanchfield’s own childhood scar. His father, a trucker who has been away a while, comes home, and nine-year-old Brian races the dog, Sam, to greet him at the backdoor. Like Odysseus’s Argos, whose skeleton waited on shore where he’d died still searching the horizon for his master’s ship, Sam was loyal first to Brian’s father, and “turned on his rival… in a single motion, prefaced by a low growl, seized and ripped the flesh off the right side of [his] face, cheek to jawbone.” As they drove to the hospital, Brian kept reaching for the visor, wanting to see the wound for himself in the mirror: “What was the damage was the question, yes, but also, What does it look like inside me? I could hardly contain myself.”
     Eventually, Blanchfield writes, “the wound became scar and for the next eight years tightened and traveled from my cheek to my chin as I grew into the face I have.” Recently, in reading work by and about Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of the 17th century, I learned that scar tissue is created by collagen, which the body must constantly produce to keep a wound closed. I had always thought of a scar as the remainder of a wound now-gone, but if there is still a scar, the skin is actively working to stay together—the natural state of a wound, in fact, is to be open. Samuel Pepys, forty-something years after surgery to have an enormous nest of bladder stones removed, developed scurvy, which affects collagen production and, though the surgical wound had been closed for decades, without collagen, it spontaneously reopened, as deep and painful as before. A scar, then, doesn’t replace a wound—it contains it.
     Though Blanchfield’s scar has shrunk and moved, it remains on his face. “There are a lot of nerve endings gathered in it,” he writes, “and it drives me a little crazy, distributes a sort of unsettling, illocable energy within, when a lover plays with that part of my face. I feel the same about my navel.” I know the sensation he’s describing—I have a scar on the tip of my left finger that is only a few years old, and touching it has the same effect. “Illocable” is such a perfect word for it that I can’t think of a second for explication. I can only say that, usually, a triggered pain has a clear source in the body—you stub your toe, your toe hurts, even if the surrounding area hurts as well. This nerve pain, though, has no single, determinable source, and because I cannot locate it to a single point, it achieves an unsettling illeity, as though it is occupying the air around me, rather than coming from within.
     Blanchfield recalls an idea in Adam Phillips’ book of Winnicottian essays—though he admits it may be simply his own theory, and not Phillips’: “beyond any fear is a broader, circumambient fear—a  terror—that one will be insufficiently able to hold that fear… In sustained tickling we know (we learned) there exists an outer lip or membrane between the simpler immediate excitement of fear and the shameful and complete loss of bodily control and mental composure.” When, after the bite, the other dogs in the neighborhood reacted violently to Brian’s presence, a boy told him they could smell his fear. “Early on you have a secret,” Blanchfield writes. “It is almost as though the secret is there before you. You are ever in relation to it; you are its container… How you feel is the secret. Or, it is not untrue to say, the secret is how you feel.” Brian was afraid of dogs, which the dogs could sense, which then made them more worthy of his fear. But he was containing something else, something he was more afraid would escape containment: “I couldn’t have said by what extroversion, but I knew eventually I was coming out.”
     We can see in this the writer’s dilemma. In writing, the writer must pass the brink of pleasure in tickling a subject to reach its point of disintegration. They must flip the mirror to view the wound’s full damage, to ask, “What does it look like inside me?” Yet, the finished essay also acts like a scar, locating the wound and containing it, working, like the body, to keep it closed and in one place.
Reading a personal essay is also like housesitting. We try on the writer’s life, see how it feels, walk through the rooms of the writer’s mind and pull open the curtains, roll up the rug, use its plate as an ashtray. We feel as though we know what it’s like to live there, but we don’t know, not really. Eventually we leave to go live somewhere else.
     This experience of a writer’s mind is a privilege, and we are given it because the writer practices xenia, guest-friendship. This is another economy of hospitality, the commensalism in which the writer allows us into their house, and we, in turn, do them the favor of living in that house respectfully, of observing it closely, appreciating what has been so carefully placed where and why.
     Of course, too, a personal essay is a wound at the bottom of the writer’s foot. A wound on one’s extremity achieves illeity because, unlike the flesh ripped from Brian’s face, that wound cannot be easily seen, the damage not easily reckoned. Only others can truly see into that clean throat, and only if the writer chooses to prop it up on the butcher block table to let us get a look inside. This is vulnerability—the writer, prone, showing us their wound.


At the end of Proxies waits what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote,” titled “Corrections,” where he corrects much of the things in these essays that, in suppressing authoritative second sources, he gets wrong.

In Levinas, the idea of illeity circles that phrase “there is,” an impersonal manner of being. I think of what we mean when we say “it is raining”—what is that it that is? Levinas calls this there, this it, “neither nothingness nor being.” Blanchfield writes in his beginning note that a proxy, in the sciences, “expresses a kind of concession to imprecision, a failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate[emphasis his] the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.”

In How Fiction Works, James Wood only spends a few words on the ear from Blue Velvet in a footnote. A clip of this moment from the film can be found easily on YouTube, in which Kyle MachLachlan, as Jeffrey Beaumont, pauses in a field while throwing rocks at empty bottles to part the grass and find, nestled there, an ear grown moldy, crawling with ants. This footnote elaborates on a concept Wood calls “The Awful and the Regular,” using Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education as an example. He notes that, in moments of shock or trauma, the awful details and the regular details will strike the viewer at the same time: “Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a gray overcoat.” The estrangement occurs here when, like the ear in the field, the hand is viewed as separate from the rest of the body, but that detail—a hand is not where it belongs, it is that of a dead man, body strewn underfoot—is given equal weight to the man’s rank and the color of his overcoat. Blanchfield’s essays achieve a similar effect. In an essay on owls, he writes of a raptor center outside Charlotte, NC, the second boy he ever slept with, giving a brick as a gift, a poem about taking ecstasy and not having sex, Little Professor—the children’s game, Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” the etymology of the word sarcophagus, boredom, a text from his mother, the wingspan of an owl. These details gain equality through their association in Blanchfield’s mind, and as he removes them from their home in his mind and puts them on the page, they serve as proxies for his imagination, and in that removal they achieve illeity by being neither the thing they represent, nor nothing, but something new entirely.

Heather Wells Peterson's fiction and essays have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, American Short Fiction, Subtropics, Lucky Peach, Literary Hub, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Dec 14: Hannah Ensor on Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line" (1979)

In the first few months of 2008, I was asked to read Denise Levertov’s essay “On the Function of the Line” in an undergraduate poetry class.
     I learned a lot about poetry and death in that class—a 300-level poetry workshop with Laura Kasischke, in the basement of the building where I work now. I learned how Frank O’Hara died, but not when. Vice versa for Heath Ledger [1]. At one point, Laura said that she writes poems because if a non-poet is walking down a street and a brick falls on her head, she’s just dead. Whereas if she’s walking down the street and a brick falls on her head, at least she’s written poems. I’m likely misremembering this; it’s been a decade. But I remember the death, and the camaraderie, and the excitement of liking other people’s poems, and of people liking my poems, and the time when someone asked me if I was wearing a bandana for religious reasons and I said, NO, FOR GAY REASONS, and also that Laura wore incredible boots.
     But I’m not here to talk about the brilliance that is Laura Kasischke or her boots. I’m here to talk about “On the Function of the Line” by Denise Levertov, an essay about poems (which, if you ask me, is a more appealing concept than a poem about essays).
     When I teach poetry to new or not-yet poets, I always teach “On the Function of the Line” because it’s a really good way of thinking about breaking lines. I know that I care too much about linebreaks, and it’s not because I consider myself particularly “lyric,” and/or interested in any way about sonorousness. (I’m underselling myself, but that’s in character, so I’ll keep going.) It’s because I like how weird our brains are. I think I think about the linebreak in the ways that I do because Denise Levertov’s essay HAPPENED TO ME. Look:
The most obvious function of the linebreak is rhythmic: it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word that are characteristic of the mind’s dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation. Regular punctuation is a part of regular sentence structure, that is, of the expression of completed thoughts; and this expression is typical of prose, even though prose is not at all times bound by its logic. But in poems one has the opportunity not only, as in expressive prose, to depart from the syntactic norm, but to make manifest, by an intrinsic structural means, the interplay or counterpoint of process and completion—in other words, to present the dynamics of perception along with its arrival at full expression. The line break is a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts. Linebreaks—together with intelligent use of indentation and other devices of scoring—represent a peculiarly poetic, alogical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation. [2] [Emphasis shared—bold is mine, italics are Denise’s.]

Now, let me say, first of all: I think essays can do (at least a lot of this) too. Probably fiction as well. I think it’s probably unlikely that too many essays in 1979 were doing this, and her point is a formal/structural one about how poems have a formal quality that does a thing, and that thing is poetic. But if you see footnote 2, you’ll see that I don’t think that all this talk about the linebreak is really, or only, about the linebreak. But for now, I’ll get back to the linebreak.

The linebreak is not arbitrary, but it is PERSONAL. That’s the whole thing. It’s where the POET’S BRAIN paused. Isn’t that cool?? It happens to me all the time when I’m writing poems, that the line will break where my brain paused, did a little flutter or stutter or wiggle or twist. That’s part of what makes editing poems confusing. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we can’t fake a flutter / stutter / wiggle / twist. [3] (For more on this, see But still sometimes we have to move where a line breaks to make a poem better. Then again, what is better? What is a poem? Of course, I’m kidding. Poems never get better, and we’ll never know what they are.

The funniest part of “On the Function of the Line” is when she approximates how long to pause at a linebreak: “roughly a half comma in duration.” I’m gonna be honest with you: I love shit like this. She goes on: “The intonation, the ups and downs of the voice…could be recorded in graph form by some instrument, as heartbeats or brain waves are graphed.”

The linebreak, if you read Denise’s essay carefully, is why we have poet voice, and for this we are sorry. But also not that sorry.

[1] One day I walked into the classroom to see, written in huge letters on the chalkboard, HEATH LEDGER IS DEAD—peak 2008. Last night I saw a tweet that said: “Peak 2018. This is how I found out Bush Sr died,” quoting another tweet that said “george bush really had to die tonight just to overshadow the release of the Thank U Next video? you were already president give someone else the spotlight” and that’s another great bridge across this past decade. 
[2] This is all also true for prose poems, which I look forward to telling you about in next year’s advent calendar. 
[3] Except when we’re dancers like my friend and poem life partner Audra is, Audra who I took that class with. Also, it’s not “faking,” it’s just that she can DECIDE to do it, which is maybe something we should learn from when editing poems.

Hannah Ensor's first book of poetry, Love Dream With Television, was recently published by Noemi Press. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dec 13: Jill Christman on Writing Sexual Trauma Under Title IX

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”:
Writing Sexual Trauma Under Title IX

In the spirit of advent, I want to talk about what has already begun, and what is coming, in the writing and teaching of personal essays under Title IX and in the era of #MeToo. Our contemporary #MeToo movement—the one that emerged with the hashtag in 2017 from the smoke of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of harassment and assault—is fueled by the individual and collective voices of survivors telling our own stories about rape culture and sexual violence. For the past year and a half, we’ve all been watching as men who’ve been abusing women with impunity inside the smug protection of the patriarchy have finally started to lose their jobs for their crimes. Some have even gone to prison.
     Already, of course, we see the push back in the headlines: “A Year Later, Americans Are Deeply Divided Over the #MeToo Movement” with 40 percent of surveyed Americans (aligned by party rather than gender) reporting their belief that the movement has “gone too far.” This, after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings during which we all got a good look at just what it takes to be believed—or not—and how the rape culture will rise up to punish those who tell their own stories of assault. (As of November 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her family were still hiding from harassment and death threats.) Why did she wait so long to tell? This question is leveled again and again as evidence of a false accusation, and if we look into our own corners of truth-telling in the writing classroom, I wonder if we find yet another answer to this dangerous question. Are we shutting the doors on the safe places where our students can figure out how to tell what can feel like an impossibly dangerous story?
     I’ve been writing the stories of my own childhood sexual abuse, college rape, and harassment since I submitted a collection of short stories I called Voices featuring a protagonist who looked and acted a lot like a young me as my honors thesis at the University of Oregon—where I was raped at a fraternity party in 1988 and earned my degree in 1992. As a writer who was (mostly) supported by my (feminist) teachers in the telling of my own stories at a crucial time in both my recovery and my development as a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between the work we do as teachers of nonfiction writing on college campuses and #MeToo.
     I’ve been thinking about the women I read when I myself was a student, the writers who cracked open the door and made the telling seem possible. I’ve been thinking about what I told, when I told, how I told, and why I told. I’ve been thinking about who helped me along the way in my telling, and all this has led me to think hard about my responsibilities as a writer and teacher in a country where the needle hasn’t moved on the alarmingly high rate at which our students are being sexually assaulted on the very campuses where we’ve been privileged with the charge of helping them develop the superpower that is writing. Recent statistics put the rate for rape or attempted rape for a woman during her four years in college at right around one in five. #MeToo is trying, but statistically speaking, nothing has changed since my rape thirty years ago. Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working, and we need to recognize this attack on our students as the emergency it is.
     So, as essayists and teachers of writing in higher education, what’s our part in all this? What’s unique about our position as educators specifically charged with teaching adult students how to shape stories out of the stuff of real life? We know the college years are a vulnerable time for all students, just as we know that the stakes and parameters of telling true stories can shift or rise or constrict for those students who are at a much greater risk of sexual assault—women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.
     I’ve been teaching the writing of personal essays and memoir for nearly two decades now, and I could tell you stories. Many of our students are arriving for the first time to a page where someone like me asks then to tell the truth about something they know; someone like me reminds them that there are no answers, not really, just better questions; someone like me helps them to sketch a frame and asks them to step in with their memories and language and fill the page:
  • Draw a map of your childhood bedroom. What did the comforter feel like? Were there books on the shelves? Fish Do the Strangest Things? Was there a bedside table? Anything in the top drawer? Be specific.
  • Write two pages about a time when someone wanted something that you didn’t want to give.
  • Choose an animal, vegetable, and mineral. Write each one. Now find the connections. What can we learn about the young woman eating the avocado by the Costa Rican volcano in the good company of a line of leaf-cutter ants?
     Semester after semester, the stories come. Semester after semester, we listen, we offer feedback, and we hold these stories safely as they navigate, word by word, slowly at first, into the light. As a writer, I confess I’ve never trusted the sanctity of a shadowy corner. In my life, I’ve never met a secret that did more good than harm. But as a teacher, I believe that the choice to tell—the how and the why and the when of the telling—rests firmly in the hands and the heart and the gut of the writer. This environment of agency and autonomy is the safe place I’ve always tried so hard to create in my classroom, and now, because of the way in which my own university interprets and enacts Title IX, and specifically, The Clery Act—which probably isn’t that different from your university—I can no longer guarantee a confidential writing place for my students. According to the “responsible employee” policy under which I work, if a student tells me about an assault, I am obligated to report—whether or not the student consents to that report.
     The issue is fraught. The goals of the policy seem well-meaning. Of course, we all want reporting that creates an accurate picture of the number of violations; we all want safer campuses; we want to be able to track and punish repeat offenders; and we want to be able to offer appropriate services to survivors—and then, of course, there’s the issue of protecting the university from legal liability. Worried about catching a student unaware, this fall, for the first time in my teaching life, I added a note in my course policies explaining the role of “mandatory reporters,” letting my students all know that as a faculty member, I am compelled by university policy to report any knowledge I have of sexual assault, harassment, or intimate partner violence—from any time in their lives in any location (not just current or recent incidents occurring on campus)—to the Title IX office. I wanted to ask my students directly how many of them were aware of this policy, how many of them knew the difference between the confidential resources on campus (the victim advocacy office, the health center, and the counseling center) and the non-confidential resources (everybody else—including all the faculty, the residence hall assistants, the campus police, and the Title IX office).
     How many of you knew before I told you? I asked on the first day of class. One person raised a hand. That person works as a residence hall assistant and therefore belongs to the large category of “responsible employees”—or mandatory reporters. The other students seemed shocked—both that they were subject to such a policy and that they hadn’t known about the policy (administrative tip: students don’t read email any more). Then we talked.
     Since my August decision to include the policy note, the leaves have changed color and dropped, sleet and snow have fallen from the sky, and I have confirmed what I suspected: including the policy is a tiny bit like the informed consent I feel obligated to provide and a lot more like the “don’t ask/don’t tell” silencing I despise, a layer of ice freezing over any survivor’s educational access to me as a teacher of essays and memoir, a betrayal of the writer-mentor relationship, and most certainly a detriment to the emergence of stories—and thus, reports. Write your true stories, my policy note warns in translation: say anything you need to say—except that very private thing about your sexual history. Don’t say that.
     I can’t do that again.
     So what’s to be done? Begin by reviewing the policies on your own campuses, which are shifting even as I write under changes proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to protect those accused of sexual harassment and assault; despite all the rhetoric, remember that our college meeting rooms are not courts of law. If you haven’t attended a Title IX training within the past couple of years, this might take some digging (start by searching “Title IX” or “Clery” or “Non-confidential resources” in your school’s browser)—and then think about the implications of these specific policies in the daily work that you do with your students. Imagine a Take Back the Night rally or a conversation overheard before class or a post-workshop conference or a thesis meeting with a memoir-writing graduate student or an essay that mentions inappropriate touching from an uncle when the writer was ten. Hear yourself tell the young writer that you’re required to report the incident with the uncle (who may or may not be paying the student’s tuition or be dead or have a gun or—you just don’t know the specifics) to the non-confidential Title IX Coordinator. Hear her ask you to not report. She isn’t ready yet, she says. Hear yourself explain again about policy and compelled reporting. Now, into your imagining, splice in what you know about sexual assault being a crime of power. Know that by taking away the survivor’s agency to tell her own story on her own terms you’ve also taken away her chance to wrest back some of the control she lost in the assault. Know that under the system you are now working, you cannot respect the student’s wishes. You cannot have a conversation about writing difficult material. Instead, you must reach for the phone.
     Let’s, for a moment, move away from creative writing and into the realm of psychology and victim advocacy. Dr. Jennifer Freyd is a psychologist at the University of Oregon, and an activist in the support of survivors of sexual violence. I worked in her lab in my early twenties when I was still trying to be something other than a writer, so I will disclose here that in addition to being a leading researcher in this field, Dr. Freyd is also my friend. She was instrumental in reshaping the UO’s implementation of Title IX/The Clery Act from the most common model of “mandatory reporting” to one of “mandatory supporting”: if you have time to read only one thing about compelled reporting on our campuses, stop right now, and click over to Dr. Freyd’s 2016 Huffington Post essay “The Problem with ‘Required Reporting’ Rules for Sexual Violence on Campus.”
     Here are some vital things Dr. Freyd tells us about social science research on trauma disclosure: first, disclosure is often delayed and a bad first response from the listener—say, skepticism or betrayal—“can cause profound harm”; further, she notes that most victims tell their story first not for practical help, but for deeper emotional reasons to someone they trust, such as a mentor or faculty member, and if this initial telling is appropriately received, “the victims are much more likely to later seek help, promote action, etc.”: this was certainly my own experience, and my good fortune as a student has guided my own practices from the other side of the desk over the past twenty years as I’ve mentored students through the difficult process of putting language to trauma.
     As a survivor and a teacher, I know I hurt my students if I take control of their stories before they’ve even figured out how to tell them. As a college student in my early twenties, a trusted teacher gave me the space and permission I needed to write the first story of my childhood abuse, a story that came out of memories of six years of repeated assault, a story about a little girl who was me, but not me, moving through dreams, flashbacks, and moments of profound disassociation. How did I write my way through all the trappings of something I can now name as post-traumatic stress disorder, but that was then beyond the reach of my comprehension and vocabulary? How did I do it? I was given the gift of literary models—and then I was given time, empathy, kindness, and the power of choice.
     I can remember the striped light coming into the classroom on the day we read the first rape scene. The book was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), and in class that day, I felt as if there was a kind of explosion in my head—not a bad explosion—but the kind that clears everything away. She said that. Are you all hearing this? She said the thing. I still own the same paperback Bantam edition, the one with the swish of green and blue across the cover, and the passage is marked vertically down the margin with the fine line of the pink highlighter I favored in college:

“Then there was the pain. A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can’t. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot” (65). This was 1990. After that, I kept reading: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, and in 2002, I published Darkroom: A Family Exposure. Knowing that other women could tell their stories gave me the permission I needed to tell my own—and so I did. And I never stopped.
     What if, when I wrote my first tentative lines about a young girl who was sexually abused on an island, my teacher had turned me in? That’s what it would have felt like—a turning in, not an assist. Would I have kept going? Would I ever have learned to tell my own story? What would have come of my report? Would I have done a service in helping to stop a man who may have been a serial offender? Doubtful. No one saw my rape. It would have been the typical he said/she said. He was a senior business major who belonged to a fraternity, came from money, drove a Porsche. I was in my first year of college by the grace of a full financial aid package. I wore flowy hippie skirts and rode a bicycle to class. How do you think that would have gone for me? Do you think I would have been aided by the system more than I was by the teachers who mentored my early work, listened without judgment, and in their patient way gave me the tools I needed to take control of my own story?
     I will never forget the moment when Dr. Blasey Ford described her specific memory of the two boys laughing during the assault. I get it. For me, after the pillow on my face, the indelible detail was the donuts my rapist offered to me from an oily bag the next morning. I suspected then as I know now that my testimony against his—even if I’d had the capacity to name the crime—would have meant nothing. Understanding the story of my rape took me years of writing, but I can see the assault clearly now, and that clarity translates into the responsibility to help my students do the same.
     Next fall, I’ll be teaching just one course: an intensive, immersive, interdisciplinary seminar that focuses on the continuing high rates of sexual violence on our campuses and the role storytelling might have to play in dismantling that culture. We’re going to assess what’s working for and against campus rape culture, produce a podcast, and take a stab at writing policy. I want justice and healing for survivors. I want freedom and opportunity for everyone else. I want the telling of our stories to lead to prevention. I want our kids to go to college full of ideas and ambition and to spend their four years pursuing wild and wonderful possibility. I want the limitless power of finding and owning our own stories to help move us toward permanent, real change.
     I welcome your stories and ideas.

“There is no greater agony than bearing the untold story inside of you.” —Maya Angelou

Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and True Story. “Slaughterhouse Island,” an essay about her own fraternity-party assault, appears in Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Visit her at and @jill_christman.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Dec 12: Ander Monson on Selah Saterstrom

Practical Directions for Ideal Suggestions

The region that I depict is a border on life, a no man’s land where one hovers between life and death. —Jean Cocteau
I am more than a little obsessed with the Christmas laser I bought on sale from Fry’s, my undistinguished local grocery store, and not just because I got it for half the price that it is at Home Depot (though the dad in me also half-thrills at this accomplishment, I am sorry to report). It blasts patterns in red and green: snowmen, Santas, Stars of Bethlehem, and randomly, maybe because the Chinese manufacturer didn’t get the memo about the color schemes of Halloween vs Christmas, ghosts and bats. They float through my living room and on the palms outside and on my fifteen-foot inflatable Rudolph and transform any surface into a screen. The best pattern that it makes, however, is this beautiful red and green dot expand-and-contract kaleidoscoping pattern that reminds me more than a little of fields of stars, exploding and imploding over and over again, the sort that you might find in the world’s shittiest planetarium accompanying Vangelis as played live by a one-man synthesizer band.

     As the laser illuminates the DVD shelf I’m reminded that the effect is also not that far from the unconvincing digital bug effects in the “Darkness Falls” episode (S01E20) of The X-Files, except I think this laser cost a whole lot less than their ineffective 90s CGI.
     I sit in front of it most nights during Advent after everyone else is sleeping, reading the essays in the calendar and contemplating the patterns or maybe just hoping for its repetitious quality to spirit me from the land of waking at least partway into sleep. I notice that the lights also play on my body since I’m on the edge of the laser field: green stars elongate and smear across my arm like they probably don’t in space, and they even flash occasionally in the corner of my eye which my parents taught me probably will sear my retina eventually.
     Watching their movement gives me that art feeling for a reason I can’t yet explain, and I want to write here about it, by which I mean the uncanny, or maybe I just mean the slippages I sense in moments like this between the perceived and what’s beyond perception. Because I don’t believe in the beyond maybe what I mean is the within: that which we think we see when the rational, expected contents of the world flicker and begin to resemble something else. We’re seeing something, but it may be just our own projections.

I was planning on writing about a super excellent Susan Neville essay tracking her visit to the doll factory: “The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Virginia Ehrlich Turner.” I’ve been getting more enamored of it with every new read and I have an itching to try and tell you about why I like it so much and how it works. But watching the field of laser dots move, I realize I’ll have to write about that later since they are pulling me in a different direction. So instead let's discuss divination.
     I’ve been reading Selah Saterstrom’s book of divinations: Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. It contains many fine essays, but the one I’m most taken with is “More Ideal Suggestions Through Mental Photography,” which is part of a longer essay called “On Other People’s Stories.”
     In part I’m thinking about this because I had a conversation with a writer I’ll call A who’s working on a nonfiction book about her time teaching post 9/11 in Pakistan. A had concerns about how she had composited a major character, N, from uncollected experiences with about 8 actual people she worked with but did not name. She’d composited the character in part for narrative convenience and in part to hide the identities of those women, since N embodied and articulated many things that were true—actual experiences or conversations with actual people—but that, in part because they were risky things to embody (drinking, taking a lover, being publicly critical of aspects of a patriarchal and repressive culture), didn’t all come from the same person. She wanted to know: How unethical was this? Would the literary police come to throw her in jail?
     Well no, obviously, at least not in America, but it’s also true that to operate always-on in defiance to the culture as a whole, single character rather than as occasional modes of defiance expressed from at least eight individual people changes the calculus of what it means to be defiant. To embody all that defiance was an act of existential bravery, one that no one actually embodied. I felt it was misleading, I told her, to pretend that she is a discrete character. And it seems like it’s more for narrative convenience than for the protection of the vulnerable. Better, I thought, to be clear about what you’re doing and why, at least in the chapter after she’s introduced for the first time. There are times for mystery in nonfiction but this did not seem like one of those times.

Just as I don’t believe in the religion behind the ritual but I love the ritual, I don’t really believe in the practice of augury but I do love the idea of it, that by chance (my personal preference for prognostication is randomly drawing cut-in-fourths scraps of card catalog cards that my primary library recycles for making notes or writing down call numbers when we consult the oracle of the digital catalog) some design presents itself to me. I recognize that what I’m probably doing is allowing chance to access some internally stored information or route, but either way I like the feeling of giving up control, and of bringing something hidden out of me that was not previously apparent. Isn’t that what we’re after in essays anyhow?
     In my day job I talk with my students about craft and research and material: the intentional part of writing. We discuss techniques and tactics for scene-making and revision, the usefulness of musical prose, how to amplify aspects of the voice, and, as Patricia Hampl puts it, the dark art of description which for some reason I seem to continue pronouncing in a bad Boston accent, though I don’t imagine Hampl does. I believe in all this stuff—the technical operability of language—but the harder thing to talk about with them is the essential mystery of art. I mean not in the sense that it’s a mystery that’s unravelable in the way that we want to unravel mysteries, but an essential, irreducible mystery, the sort that resists analysis, at least if you're smart and don't want to totally kill your process. The kind described in this scene in Melville’s Benito Cereno:
—What are you knotting there, my man?
—The knot.
Exactly. That's the only answer.
     You know that feeling where you throw something in an essay because you have a vague feeling that it’s somehow related? Maybe it’s just ambition believing that it has that relation, or maybe it has that vibrating feeling and you can’t resist splicing it in, knowing that if you learn to trust it, you figure out why it’s there later? (Or maybe you cut it if you don’t.)
     That X-Files “Darkness Falls” CGI effect is is one of those things: my Christmas laser lights do look like its swarming prehistoric alien bugs, but the other aspect of that episode that I forgot is that those bugs—trapped in rings of massive trees and only freed on account of illegal logging—are completely harmless in the day. And even at night they’re kept at bay by virtue of electric lights which, because this is an episode of the X-Files, keep being on the verge of sputtering out as the generators in the logging cabins run out of gas. Once the light goes out it’s their world now: the creatures are everywhere, on everything: we just can't see them until it's dark. And then they begin to swarm. I don’t want to completely spoilerize you, but let’s say it doesn’t go well for Mulder and Scully, refreshingly.

There is something about the night in which, perhaps just by virtue of our visual limitations, slippages occur. All the good monsters come out at night. Shit gets weird at night. That’s because unlike cats we’re biologically unprepared for it: we can’t see as well as we’re used to, or maybe we’re just worn down from long days of making sense of sensible things in our sensible jobs and explaining sensible things to mostly sensible students in our sensible lives in which we perceive stuff more or less rightly and act on it and don’t question our perceptions, because it would be too exhausting to do so. But night falls and the story changes.
     The movement of the laser lights is predictable: they begin as points, and when they expand, they become repeating grids of 40 or so red and green dots. They expand and expand and expand and overlap and interact, and at about this point in the routine it’s become so complicated-looking that I can’t track its many interactions—it feels like and might as well be complete chaos—it might as well be alive—and then they pull back to that signal, single point. Order returns, and the process repeats. I know there’s order under it even if I can’t see it but I’m damned if I can’t see it, and so all I’m left with is believing as the lights skitter across the ceiling.
     I mean, I know there is a difference between a truly unknowable thing and a thing that’s knowable if I only had the computing or observational power to be able to track all its moving parts, but to me functionally they’re the same.

So it’s with an open mind that I turn to Selah Saterstrom. This essay comes out of an act of synchronicity—a perceived connection between two relatively contemporaneous events. She is commissioned to write an essay “about the process of making poems through the transgenerational margin of this ancestral text,” Ideal Suggestions Through Mental Photography (1893), a book that she has a first edition of via a series of inheritances. She works on it for a while and finds herself, completely unprompted, writing “about [her step-father] Charles in the past tense even though he was very much present and, in fact, a cause of considerable stress. Then the phone rang [and] Charles was dead. He had laid down on the couch and shot himself in the face with a .357.” After dealing with the aftermath of the suicide, she goes “to the Arizona desert to heal.”
     This is my desert that she’s in, so she’s in my proximity as she’s healing, though I’ve never met her, I don’t think (hey, Selah!). “Meanwhile, in an attempt to finish the essay for the literary foundation that had commissioned it, I began asking friends for stories…I ended up submitting, as my essay, a bunch of other people’s stories.”
     The essay proper consists of found text from the Ideal Suggestions book and a series of apparently unconnected stories told to her by friends, edited a bit by her “by some admittedly bizarre and intuitively regulated process,” and presented as her work “only in so much as I made decisions in fields of existing language.” This is sounding more and more like an augury, I want to say, as she’s finding order in disorder, whether or not she’s conscious of it. She tells us that she is grateful for “the ways stories—seemingly innocuous stories and shattering stories, love stories, funny stories, horror stories, unfinished stories—how they can, at times, divine us back into our lives, which we sometimes lose.”
     That line stands out: that others' stories can divine us back into our lives, and that we sometimes lose them.
     The essay itself is made of these funny, bizarre, a little spectral, and domestic stories. I don’t know how much it matters, even, what the stories in the essay are in themselves. Each has its own integrity and they're largely told in serial, not interconnecting. There’s one notable exception, in which a story that was begun earlier comes back late in the essay, and that provides for a kind of movement and sense of pattern amidst apparent patternlessness. That little act of splicing in a late update on a story we were told earlier gives us that sense of perceived control, that bit of pattern recognition that’s enough to carry me through this art experience. Cool, I think, seeing that authorial presence assert itself in this small way. You got this, Selah. And thus she does.
     It’s ballsy to pretty much completely abdicate her authorial responsibility: did she even write it if it’s all other people’s stories, arranged?
     But then what are we doing when we're writing anyway? Haven't you at times felt like some kind of vessel, she who holds an open door and lets some aspect of an unknown entity or thought pattern come through? How much do you really want to think about it?
    I'll do a little of it for you, at risk of tarnishing whatever store of magic I feel like I'm sometimes tapping. Consider the little intuition of throwing this X-Files episode in this very essay: to what extent can I say that I even made that decision? Am I writing my memory or is it writing me? Is all I have to do perceive the patterns between things that show up on the edges of my vision? Even the card catalog cards I mentioned that I like to use as auguries: I noticed now in this revision that the most obvious thing my laser blasts its lightshow across in my living room is the old Western Michigan card catalog I acquired around 14 years ago. Is its inclusion another example of the subconscious working underneath the surface of my intention or just a happy accident? Does everything I notice register on some surface of my brain? Am I (and are you) the kind of person on which nothing is lost, even if we don't perceive it? Is that glorious or terrifying? Do even these tiny moving points of light somehow leave an infinitesimal mark on their canvas, scorching it microscopically?
     I look out the window and see the outside lasers (yeah I bought three: I wish now I'd bought even more) move across my two big palms that shiver in the wind. It’s cold out (by cold I mean Arizona cold, like 50 degrees, but with the sun down what seemed during the day like not all that cold feels pretty cold after all: is that me or it I'm measuring?). When the canvas moves unpredictably against the palms the pattern’s even harder to discern, and now that it looks even more like magic I can convince myself that it is. And then I’m not again. I’m not sure what of this writing is my intention or to what degree that even matters. A good reader, perhaps like you, will perceive patterns in the work or in the world that the writer may not even be smart enough to articulate. Who cares if they’re there or if they’re in here? I’m just glad you notice them. Go read some Selah Saterstrom.

Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site. Two new books are forthcoming from Graywolf in 2020.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Dec 11: Paul Lisicky on Joy Williams's "Hawk"

"Hawk” appears near the end of Joy Williams’s essay collection Ill Nature, subtitled “Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals.” In some ways it’s the outlier here, the one personal essay in a book concerned with hunting, overpopulation, pollution, development—all the ways we’ve failed the Earth and our nonhuman companions. The others aren’t afraid of pronouncement, provocation; they’re often hungry for a fight. Even a short meditation on autumn means to correct any expectations of sweetness or complacency: “There is no such thing as time going straight on to new things. This is an illusion. Okay?” And that’s just the opening. So much for mellow fruitfulness. Even Williams herself has described the voice of her essays as “un-elusive and strident and brashly one-sided.”
     But “Hawk” comes from another part of the woods, a remote cabin, far off the main path. It is rooted in scene. It expects its readers to infer and make connections on their own. In that way, it’s closer in form to Williams’s hypnotic, elliptical short fictions than it is her essays. At one point in “Hawk” the speaker says “Explanation is nothing. One can only experience and somehow describe—with, in Camus’ phrase, lucid indifference.” In that phrase Williams suggests how this animal differs from the other animals in the book.
   But Hawk. Hawk is a German shepherd. Hawk has a sense of humor, Hawk is stoic, watchful, patient. Hawk has a collection of toys, in the shapes of a “burglar, a cat, a shark, a snowman, and a hedgehog.” Hawk has presence. Hawk just wants to be where his human is, but she is suffering from an inexplicable malady. Her body has turned against her. It is “full of browsing, shifting pain” that goes wherever it wants to go. She doesn’t have a doctor, doesn’t have health insurance. Assumes she’s just going to die one day, until her friends make an appointment for her with their doctor in New York City. Hawk and his human are staying at their friends’ house in Nantucket, and a trip to New York City means that Hawk can’t come along. He must spend a few days and nights at a kennel.
   Is it even possible to summarize what happens in the front room of that kennel? The routine is familiar, Hawk has been to that kennel before, he knows its layout, its expectations. His human leans over him to say goodbye, and out of nowhere, Hawk turns on her, tearing her breast, biting into her hand, first the left than the right, which he grinds down upon, “shifting, getting a better grip, always getting a better grip with his jaws.” Fred, one of the workers at the kennel, subdues Hawk with a pole and a noose, the “rig used for dangerous dogs.” Hawk quiets down. Meanwhile, the speaker leaves the scene of attack. She flees to the car, sobbing, speechless, bleeding through the shirt that’s been ruined.
   The loss of the beloved is staggering, and that loss is manifold. It moves through consciousness like the pain in her body, with a mind of its own. Hawk’s loss is the loss of companionship, devotion, play, the belief that things should line up. The loss of any connection to the unsayable. The loss of the God she knew, too. Animals are always totems in Williams’s writing, even when they’re just hovering around the edges, barely there on the page. As she has said elsewhere, they should give their “blessing from within” the work.
   And maybe that’s why Glenn Gould, the feral Glenn Gould, moves in and out through the essay like an antiphon. It is impossible for the writer to summarize Glenn Gould, or to connect him to the body of the piece, any more than it is possible to describe how Hawk has turned on her, what Hawk has become. Or what the speaker says of her own decision, in the wake of the attack: “I was not going to pick him up. I was going to have him put down, put to sleep, euthanized, destroyed. My love would be murdered. I would murder my love.”


Explanation might be nothing, but that doesn’t mean “Hawk” doesn’t test and try, implying the gravest questions. How have we harmed dogs by domesticating and babying them, subjecting them to our whims and inconsistencies? Is the speaker all too easy on herself when she writes, "I felt it was good for him to endure the kennel occasionally. Life was not all good, I told him”? How is human illness connected to canine illness and to our poisoning of the planet? Is love corrupt without boundaries or distance? Why are we so afraid of wildness when we tell ourselves we cherish it? And more.
   But maybe I’m drawn again and again to “Hawk” for different reasons. Every so often there comes a piece that’s life or death, as simple as that. The writer has to submit to it, bend to its will. If she doesn’t write it, the project of language will be her undoing. How do we know that? We feel it in the piece’s authority, its urgency, the sense of rules being broken. I get the sense that Williams is breaking her own rules right and left throughout. The voice is more vulnerable than anything else she’s written; it does not rely on the safety nets of irony or comic distance. The essay requires her to let go, and in doing so she gives the work a life that’s separate from her. In form, the piece becomes Hawk; the writer honors him by releasing him. And what do your rules mean anyway when you’ve tried to hold onto what you’ve loved and what you’ve loved has turned on you? As a piece of writing “Hawk” is pure monster. It makes its own category, it tears and sews up all the old distinctions. It is both narrative and lyric, linear and fragmentary. It isn’t afraid of touching the ridiculous, and once it does so, it doesn’t pull its hand away. There’s unexpected comfort in such work, no matter how dark its turns. The writer gives us the possibility of escape, another way out, more light ahead than we thought existed.

Paul Lisicky is the author of five books, including The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, and Famous Builder. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, he is a 2018 Visiting Writer at the University of Texas at Austin. His next book, Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2020. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Dec 10: Matthew Gavin Frank's Stranded on Stromboli, Reading about Morality: A Conversation

(retired Nebrodi Black Swine farmer, as he gathers wild fennel at the base of the ever-erupting volcano that is the isle of Stromboli):

It is the liver of the pig that is the…uh, uh… more holy, the, uh, most holy part.  The most holy part of the body of the pig.

(the enchanted talking pig of Plutarch’s Moralia):

So what do you want to ask?

(staring up at the volcano’s crater, feeling its rumble beneath my feet, watching its smoke overtake the sky):

Would a farmer then take greater care when excising the liver as opposed to other parts, other organs?

(Ancient Greek historian, Brown University, loosening his tie’s Windsor knot, scratching at the razor burn):

Part of the fun depends on the fact that Gryllus is either pure pig… or else effectively a human being in the shape of a pig: there is no middle ground. This polarized conception is not, I think, an accident, something Plutarch has invented for the occasion, but a feature of Greek thinking in general concerning animal metamorphoses… Those of you who are fans of horror movies will recognize at once the reference to the werewolf or “wolfman” played by Lon Chaney Jr. in the original 1941 film produced by Universal Studios: the movie was directed by George Waggner and had an all-star cast including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, and Béla Lugosi (Chaney performed the same role in four sequels; a remake with a substantially altered plot was issued in 2010). The creature…is a hybrid.


I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice.


(sweeping green cursive, the ocean surging against it, no ferries here—no ferries scheduled to arrive for an undetermined number of days, as the winter weather is forecasted to be violent for at least a week, stranding me on this volcano, affording me the opportunity to become a regular at the island’s sole open restaurant, Da Giovanni, wherein I meet Calogero, who, daily, sits at the counter and slowly imbibes prosecco from sunup to sundown): 
I Mafiosi sono maiali—“The Mafia are pigs.”


(on YouTube video, “Mini Pig attacks PITBULL!!!!”): 
Hey, Pepper, man, are you gonna bite the camera too?  You gremlin…


Sure, yes, of course the pigs, uh, sometimes attack their farmers.  The biting.  Uh, the fingers come off…


But man in his pleasures is led astray by gluttony to everything edible; he tries and tastes everything as if he had not yet come to recognize what is suitable and proper for him.

(Hammer headline): 

Boss of Bosses— 1981 murder of Palermo mob boss signaled the beginning of a two-year killing spree known as “The Slaughter.”


Nevertheless the Sicilians put up with these things as necessary, although they were exasperated… Pyrrhus came into Sicily… and wheeling round in spite of his guards, he pushed his way through them— full of wrath, smeared with blood, and with a countenance terrible to look upon, and before the Barbarian could strike dealt him such a blow on his head with his sword that, what with the might of his arm and the excellent temper of his steel, it cleaved its way down through, so that at one instant the parts of the sundered body fell to either side. This checked the Barbarians from any further advance, for they were amazed and confounded at Pyrrhus, and thought him some superior being.


He also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.


(in upper right margin next to the three-tomato and octopus pizza option): 
la mafia è Dio—“The mafia is God.”

(in Taste: A Literary History): 

Lamb’s extensive identification with Pig…creature[s] medically and symbolically coded as melancholy…[resides in] the stomach, the chief organ of mourning and the alimentary system a materially realized site of psychic “wanting” and “craving.” This translates into an anatomy of melancholy… Gastric juices produce acid tears and “delicate relief” for what Freud would call “the internal work which is consuming his ego.”


The pig… uh, I don’t think the pig is sad, no.


To dream of a dirty pig— you lack purity in relationships…  Well-known proverbs say, ‘The pig dreams of acorns…’ There is indeed no proverb that tells us that the pig… dreams of being slaughtered.


Please note that cases of dullness and stupidity in some animals are demonstrated by the cleverness and sharpness of others— as when you compare an ass and a sheep with a fox or a wolf or a bee. It is like comparing Polyphemus to you or that dunce Coroebus to your grandfather Autolycus. I scarcely believe that there is such a spread between one animal and another as there is between man and man in the matter of judgment and reasoning and memory.

(to Gryllus): 

But consider, Gryllus: is it not a fearful piece of violence to grant reason to creatures that have no inherent knowledge of God?


Among events of divine ordering there was… after Caesar's murder… the obscuration of the sun's rays. For during all that year its orb rose pale and without radiance… and the fruits, imperfect and half ripe, withered away and shriveled up on account of the coldness of the atmosphere… The phenomenon… appears to have been of a volcanic character.


My claim, then, is that a metamorphosis of the “wolfman” type was unknown in classical antiquity. Either a human being became an animal, pure and simple, the way Lycaeon is turned into a wolf in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or else she or he fully retains a human identity, despite the physical transformation: Io is a case in point, again in Book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where she is even able to write by scratching her name in the ground, or again Lucius in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Although I obviously cannot back up this assertion here with a full review of ancient examples, I have so far not found any instance in which a person, as the result of such a transmutation, ends up partaking of both human and animal consciousness.


Originally, tomb or sepulcher meant “flesh-eater,” a connotation that Pope evokes in An Essay on Man when he describes the human carnivore as “the butcher and the tomb” of the animals he consumes. Like the supposedly flesh-eating stones used for ancient Greek burial purposes, Plutarch’s carnivore was “sarcophagus,” derived from sarco (flesh) and phagos (eater).  Sarcophagus (tomb) and sarcophagous (carnivorous) are phonetically equivalent in English, and a single letter of difference is all that stands between the man-eating stone (of Plutarch’s tomb) and the human flesh-eater.


Some misunderstand this and imagine [also for instance] that the ancients used ox-hair for their [fishing] lines, alleging that keras means “hair” and for this reason keirasthai means “to have one's hair cut” and koura is a “haircut” and the keroplastes in Archilochus is one who is fond of trimming and beautifying the hair. But this is not so: they use horse-hair which they take from males, for mares by wetting the hair with their urine make it weak.


I have heard of this, yes, but, uh, no, no, in my experience the pig is not, uh, very clean.

EXODUS: 20:4

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

EXODUS: 24:17

To the Israelites, the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.

(on YouTube video, “Was God a Volcano?”): 

[Moses] has a bunch of 'revelations from God' on the mountain. When he gets down, not only does this impress the hell out of the nomads, but he tells them that he spoke to 'God' in the fire and smoke. 

(infuriatingly handsome marine ecologist):

The total number of submarine volcanoes is estimated to be over 1 million, of which some 75,000 rise more than 1 km above the seabed.


I am not eloquent.

(from Sidewalks):

Prose is for those with a builder’s spirit.

(itinerant reverend of the 19th-century):

It is a land of idols! Idols, idols, everywhere!


So full of self-control was his body in every limb, and Reason, with all parts in perfect obedience and submission, ordered his eyes not to weep, his tongue not to utter a sound, his heart not to tremble or bark… Of such character were also most of his companions; for even when they were dragged about and dashed upon the ground by the Cyclops, they would not denounce Odysseus nor show that fire-sharpened instrument prepared against the monster's eye, but preferred to be eaten raw rather than to tell a single word of the secret— an example of self-control and loyalty which cannot be surpassed.

(to Gryllus): 

I have no need to lie; for though I love and cherish my native soil more, the other wins my approval and admiration.

(to Odysseus):  

Then this, we shall say, is the situation: the wisest of men thinks fit to commend and approve one thing while he loves and prefers another. Now I assume that your answer applies to the spiritual field also, for the situation is the same as with the land: that spiritual soil is better which produces a harvest of virtue as a spontaneous crop without toil.

 (to Gryllus): 

Go on.  Bless me, Gryllus… with your swinishness.

(to Odysseus): 

Yet you, you villain, are the man who by tricks and frauds have led astray men who knew only a straightforward, noble style of war and were unversed in deceit and lies; while on your freedom from scruple you confer the name of the virtue that is least compatible with such nefariousness. Wild beasts, however, you will observe, are guileless and artless in their struggles, whether against one another or against you…

(Mafia hitman): 

I stuck the drill in his chest and his legs, on the side of his head. I ripped his hair out.

(Sunday, 5 January 2003): 

Stromboli eruption unleashes tidal wave: Evacuated islanders told to stay away as more chunks of mountain look ready to fall.


After this, he began with the gods, which is the fairest of all beginnings, and showed the people that the recent disaster was due to the neglect and scorn with which their general had treated religious rites, and not to the cowardice of those who fought under him… [T]he dictator, in the presence of all the people, vowed to sacrifice to the gods an entire year's increase in goats, swine, sheep, and cattle, that is, all that Italy's mountains, plains, rivers, and meadows should breed in the coming spring… [T]he live flesh felt the flames, and the cattle, at the pain, shook and tossed their heads, and so covered one another with quantities of fire, then they kept no order in their going, but, in terror and anguish, went dashing down the mountains, their foreheads and tails ablaze, and setting fire also to much of the forest through which they fled.  It was, of course, a fearful spectacle…


It was a bad time. The pigs died.


(ringing the rainwater from my socks, having just returned from a hike across the volcano, to see the Sciara del Fuoco— the active rivers of lava that have been flowing down the northwestern side of the cone for the last 2,000 years): 

How long did you have to evacuate?  Where did you go?


Day and night for ever and ever… The lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are…

(beneath which lie the corpses of six amberjack in various stages of decay, the spines of two sea bream, and the disembodied beak of a Loligo vulgaris squid): 

La mafia è il diavolo—“The mafia is the devil.”


But after the libations and the customary prayers, the moon was eclipsed. [T]he divine powers indicated an eclipse of something that was now resplendent;  but nothing was more resplendent than the tyranny of Dionysius, and it was the radiance of this which they would extinguish as soon as they reached Sicily… and the bees were seen settling in swarms upon the swarms…

(rolling his eyes)

Evil has no being.


In many cases, when beasts are dying, their valour withdraws together with the fighting spirit to some point where it is concentrated in one member and resists the slayer with convulsive movements and fierce anger until, like a fire, it is completely extinguished and departs.

(2nd-century Roman doctor of Greek origin): 

All blood is difficult to concoct, especially when it is thick and full of black bile, like ox blood.  Hares’ blood has been highly regarded as being tastier, and it is customary for many people to cook it with the liver; but for some people with other entrails too. Some think the blood of young pigs is best, but others eat the blood of older pigs that have been castrated. They never attempt boars’ blood since it is both unpleasant and difficult to concoct… The similarity between the flesh of man and pig in taste and smell has been observed in cannibal cultures, or when certain people have eaten unawares human meat instead of the meat of a pig.


Inside the boats he does what must needs be done when men eat and drink, worms and maggots seethe up from the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, devouring his body, and eating their way into his vitals.

(15th-century guide to the medicinal uses of plants and animals): 

Beware the monstrous births of the pigs who lack snouts, who are conjoined with other pigs… pigs who have the ears of the lion, a wool covering like a sheep, talons in the place of hooves… the pig who is borne of the witches’ spells, and who leap and dance to mock vain women… Beware the pigfish and finned cows, livestock of the mermaids who birth monstrous human children from common green plants who live short lives and are eaten by their mothers when they die, and who taste of flesh of the pig.


The deformed and crooked Foetus ate haye and grasse, as Breade and Apples, with such other thinges as sheep and Swyne do feede on.


For my part I rather wonder both by what accident and in what state of soul or mind the first man who did so, touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips to the flesh of a dead creature, he who set forth tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call food and nourishment the parts that had a little before bellowed and cried, moved and lived. How could his eyes endure the slaughter when throats were slit and hides flayed and limbs torn from limb? How could his nose endure the stench? How was it that the pollution did not turn away his taste, which made contact with the sores of others and sucked juices and serums from mortal wounds?  Though this is an invention and a myth…


(wet, cold, and hungry, having returned alive from the streams of fire): 
Ha.  Maybe I should stop eating pig.


Well then, this would not be good for our business.

(Classics scholar, University of Kent at Canterbury, glasses slipping, eating applesauce from a plastic cup): 

But Plutarch’s whole value-system had little time for sophists [Ancient Greek teachers of rhetoric and philosophy who began the practice charging money for their services, thereby providing education only to the rich]. Neither, it has to be said, had that of the Platonist polymath and medical virtuoso Galen in the second century, though he clearly moved in elevated circles and mixed with sophists in his own right.

(amateur ancient historian who “like[s] ancient history for the same reason [he] like[s] Conan the Barbarian movies. It's entertaining”): 

The Eucharist or Holy Communion is clearly an act of symbolic cannibalism, so it's not too surprising that the Romans, acting on vague reports of Christian rituals, would have accused the new cult of practicing actual cannibalism.  The Romans would have associated the stories of how Christians ate the flesh and drank the blood of their god with sieges, barbaric eastern cults and legends from Greek mythology: the Thyestean Feast, for instance, in which Atreus killed Thyestes’ sons, cooked them and served them to their unknowing father… The truth is that the Eucharist is an act of theophagy—“feeding on a god”— with roots in very ancient, pre-Christian fertility ritual.


And now Aesop the tragedian: This Aesop, they tell us, was once acting in a theatre the part of Atreus planning to take vengeance on Thyestes, when one of the assistants suddenly ran across the scene, and the actor, losing control of himself in the intensity of his passion, smote him with his sceptre and laid him dead.

(overheard in my hypnogogic state in the middle of the night in a strange bed with too-crisp sheets, the earth rumbling and orangish, the whole of Stromboli vibrating with it, sulfur dioxide in the air; probably just an auditory hallucination, but still): 

Gli dei sono attori e noi siamo i loro oggetti di scena—“ The gods are actors and we are their props.”

(23 March 2012): 

Sadistic mafia bosses tortured and killed a treacherous gang member then turned him into a stew, police believe.  [They] beat him to death with a hammer, skinned and boned him with a sharp knife then put him through a meat grinder. They made a macabre face mask from his skin, cooked his flesh and ate him for lunch. Fellow gang member, nicknamed The Butcher, confessed to the crime.

(plagiarizing Greek mythology again): 

Therefore in your midst fathers will eat their children, and children will eat their fathers. I will inflict punishment on you and will scatter all your survivors to the winds.


In the first place his eating of flesh is caused by no lack of means or methods, for he can always in season harvest and garner and gather in such a succession of plants and grains as will all but tire him out with their abundance; but driven on by luxurious desires and satiety with merely essential nourishment, he pursues illicit food… and he does this in a much more cruel way than the most savage beasts of prey. Blood and gore and raw flesh are the proper diet of kite and wolf and snake; to man they are an appetizer.


Gryllus, you must once have been a very clever sophist.

(scratched into the iron as if with a chunk of fresh basalt, the ocean still surging; I’m eight days stranded on this volcano now…): 

Vaffanculo!—“Fuck you!”


By some divine good fortune, Plato came to Sicily… [H]e earnestly set to work and at last brought it to pass that the tyrant, in a leisure hours, should meet Plato and hear him discourse. At last [the tyrant] got exceedingly angry and asked the philosopher why he had come to Sicily. And when Plato said that he was come to seek a virtuous man, the tyrant answered and said: “Well, by the gods, it appears that you have not yet found such an one.” Plato, accordingly, as he tells us himself… would cure all Sicily of her distempers.


I sailed from home principally through a feeling of shame with regard to myself, lest I might some day appear to myself wholly and solely a mere man of words… What were the facts about this attachment? I must tell the truth. The time of my first visit to Sicily and my stay there was taken up with…incidents.

(on the 2003 eruption of Stromboli): 

Around 10 million cubic metres of volcanic rock and boiling lava slithered into the Mediterranean, producing a cloud of steam and ash, that wreathed the 3,000ft mountain, and a tidal wave that rocked ships in ports more than 100 miles away. The eruption sucked the sea from the beaches of the Eolian islands and then drove it back at them in a 20ft wave, wrecking houses and hurling small boats more than 50 yards inland.  Do not underestimate the risk.  Remember Krakatoa, [which swamped islands in the Indonesian archipelago under 60ft waves when it erupted in 1883. Some 36,000 people were drowned by tidal waves travelling at more than 600 miles an hour].


I don’t think I’m ever getting off this island.

(smiling, raising his flute of Prosecco): 

We hope they deliver enough food.


Dogs have occasionally eaten a man; and birds have tasted of human flesh.


Let him go back home with us.


Almost everyone knows nowadays that the portentous fancies or contrivances of stories concerning the Deities and the dead are accommodated to popular apprehensions—that the spectres and phantasms of burning rivers and horrid regions and terrible tortures expressed by frightful names are all mixed with fable and fiction, as poison with food; and that neither Homer nor Pindar nor Sophocles ever believed themselves when they wrote at this rate— The endless floods of shady darkness stream… There from th’ unfathomed gulf th’ infernal lake… There ghosts o’er the vast ocean waves did glide…


[V]olcanic ash clay is actually volcanic ash in a clay form with many beauty and health advantages.  Internal use of the clay is beneficial to hemorrhoids, anemia, diarrhea, stomach ulcers, mineral deficiency, dental health and overall health.  The clay also absorbs toxins and heavy metals, reduces body odor, helps oxidation, blood disinfection, and provoke bile secretion. The clay absorbs radiation, eliminates food poisoning, allergies, viral infections, stomach flu and parasites. It is used for detoxification and internal cleansing of the whole body.

(screaming, upon burning himself in the kitchen): 

Porco dio!—“God is a pig!”


Body of Christ…

(Sunday, 12 January 2003): 

The collapse of 10 million cubic metres of the Mediterranean island of Stromboli [caused] a ball of molten lava 300 yards in diameter [to] explode with devastating force, exposing the lava to a sudden rush of cold air and sea water.


But consider, Gryllus: it is not a fearful piece of violence to grant reason to creatures that have no inherent knowledge of God?


I marvel at those arguments.


Now, there is a little Persian bird which has no excrement, but is all full of fat inside; and the creature is thought to live upon air and dew.





(from Plot, breaking the silence):

Today I wake, tomorrow I wake, and still this assemblage, its assorted distortions, bewilders me.


We can only wait to see what will happen.

(twelve days stranded): 

Mafia = merda—“Mafia = shit.”


Furthermore, the water of the sea… was sweet and potable for a whole day, as all who tasted it could see. Again, pigs were littered for him which were perfect in their other parts, but had no ears. This the seers declared to be a sign of disobedience and rebellion, since, as they said, the citizens would no longer listen to the commands of the tyrant.

(to Gryllus): 

Go on. I should like to hear you.

(on YouTube video, “Mini Pig attacks PITBULL!!!!): 

We raise straight thugs around here… no matter the size.


Eat me.

(placing onto Da Giovanni’s bar a Parthenon magnet and a heart-shaped bar of Athenian soap, still in its paper wrapping): 

These are the souvenirs I tell you about. From 1970… (He begins to weep and I begin to weep, and the magnet and the soap go muddy and swim in our vision)… So beautiful.  The one time I leave Sicily.


His soul was speedily on fire…

(Sunday, 12 January 2003): 

Water piles up.


Well, I love it here.  Still, we have made…  And this is my home.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. His forthcoming nonfiction book, A Brief Atmospheric Future, is due out in 2020 from W.W. Norton: Liveright. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction / Hybrids Editor of Passages North.  He intends to persevere through this winter via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind.