The Night in which All Cows are Black

An attempt at finding myself in the dark.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Do you know what it means...

I don’t know how to sing for you
the way other men have

Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans to miss it each night and day

and before you disappeared
I didn’t know I had a right to.

I was then
(September, 2005)
the prodigal child.
Returning home,
my mother had died behind my back -
and knowing
she did not need my help
to die
or to live

When the waters rolled back and uncovered the core of the city, I was not there.

There is only one freeway that leads out of New Orleans - the ten, heading East - and the signs that point curious tourists toward that freeway - the signs that are their ticket back into another, more stable world - went missing before I was born. Drivers who are told that the ten’s entrance is “somewhere about St. Charles” would never know they have to head a mile up St. Charles from the river, make a nominally illegal u-turn, and make a right into a back alleyway in order to actually reach their destination. Instead, they just keep driving down St. Charles until finally they can’t drive anymore and they have to stop at a gas station on the left-hand side of the street to ask where the freeway is... to which the gas station owner - an old man named George - replies, “Back the other way down St. Charles. And if you wanna know more, best put a quarter in the jar on the counter.” People always pay the quarter.

Ramshackle patches of iron and brick,
statues of angels
stained green with patches of mildew
(the Garden District) -
tattered pink and yellow
green and blue
wooden houses
(called Kenner, and the ninth district, when anyone calls them at all)

The water moved
the buildings sank
but promised, quietly
to rise again

And still I did not know what to say to you.

Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away...

There are the people who get lost on St. Charles, who come for the weekend and leave on a Monday - so desperate to go that they will pay a crooked man for directions. There are the people who know the city only for its business districts, who escape each day at 5 to the suburbs, where they close their blinds. All of them are always leaping, always eager to return to whatever is theirs and to leave behind the things that no one claims to own - the homeless men in the doorway of the Wendy’s wishing us all a good Judgment Day, the children who earn money dancing with tiny cymbals on their feet, the fortunetellers who are chased everyday from the lawn of the Cathedral.
And there are those like me, the city’s bastard children. We ran to her to teach us how to live - and then we took that living somewhere else, to celebrate.

We kept our axes
in the attic
for escape.
break the roofs if you must
just don’t stay
in this water-logged town
where nothing grows
oppressed by the heat
and the rain
keeps falling
and falling
and washing

Whatever I had - whatever I can remember...

the State Palace and the birds on Royal Street,
Miracle Man
who sang in front of my grandfather’s church -
sang and sang
then borded a trolley
for the parts of town
we couldn’t go-

there were always places we couldn’t go
and this I remember the most

Whatever I had with the city does not matter - is rewritten now because I was not there the day it washed away. Which is, I suppose, as it should be. In the last instance, a city and its memory should be built by the people who had faith in it -faith enough to stay

to go to the parts of town
we couldn’t go
to find out what You were
when we weren’t looking.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Le Pas De Deux: dance and the ownership of the body

[again, taken from a piece I worked on for a course. This is in part a critical piece about the question from a few posts ago - how does identifying with a work of art change the work and its meaning? and it relates closely to my quandries about weight and the body and what it can mean.]

you are arms and arms and moving
a leg that is lifted
a tilt of the head

Edgar Degas painted dancers. He brought them to his studio one by one and asked them to pose their performances - hours at a time

on toes not moving
a muscle
for a second for a minute for a breath
so that you can be

He controlled their movements, the precise arrangement of their stance. Although the dance was theirs, the painting was his.
you do not know
is what is standing
not moving

I read of his work, know that he painted the figures individually in the cold, cramped apartments of his studio standing on pedestals like music box figurines, white and smooth and porcelain. He sketched every girl separately, alone, then brought the sketches together on giant canvas, placing each and every body where he would have it in the arrangement of the dance.

I know all of these things. But this is not how I picture the scene.

look for the man in the boxes
he is there
or behind the curtains
he is there
so that you can be

In nearly all of Degas’ paintings there is a man - short and balding, holding a staff - who stands amdist the skirts and flying limbs that are the dancer’s decoration. He observes, he controls. And where he is not - where the painting is about the performance rather than the practice and the teacher - there is a different figure, hiding in the shadows. We rarely see more than his legs behind a curtain or his opera glasses emerging from a high-rise box. But he is always present, and that presence determines the borders of the painting. He rests at the edges, defining how far the dancers at the center can move.

I am standing
here in this line
of ten of girls of skirts and limbs
white aquiline noses
turned up,
and eyes turned out
but never

The eyes of the dancers in Degas’ portraits never see the man. They never hail him. In l’etoille (The Star) the girl faces out, eyes closed, towards an unseen (but presumably seeing) audience. The border man hides in a curtian behind her back. We assume he is watching, but we cannot see this watching - and neither can she. She dances unaware, dances all on her own, alone. His sight goes unacknowledged. The situation is the same for Le Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. A tiny girl, a statue, only fourteen; already she knows the dancer’s art of not seeing - of being watched but never watching.

One girl is
from the line of ten girlsandarmsandlegsandnecksandskirts that wraps the front of the stage
for looking -
staring the director in the eye

ne regarde
pas ne pas
ne regarde
pas ne pas ne pas ne don’t don’t don’t
you ever
let me catch you

we do not watch her leave

In fact, the eyes of most of Degas’ dancers are closed completely. L’etoile, le Quatorze Ans - all the girls who are shown performing (as opposed to those shown taking their lessons from the man with the staff) keep their eyes shut tight. It is as if they are in a frenzy of ecstasy gained from the dancing - a private frenzy witnessed by the man in the curtains, in the box - witnessed by Degas himself as he sat in the wings, watching. Degas will acknowledge that the dancers do not look at him, do not connect with him or the man in the wings. But according to his paintings their failure to connect with the viewer - to share with the viewer - is one of the joy of private - almost sexual - experience.
I did not look at you
out there, the first time
front porch,
for control

I did not close
my eyes
but I did not look

For him these dancers are warmth and movement, soft focus and pastels - what Jeanette Winterson calls “points of light”. The closing of the eyes is the difference between the warmth of passion and the chill of a stare that does not see.
I lose-
I lost
to you
my body
are not mine

The ballerina’s dance in practice is not one of ecstasy, but of tension, pain, control. It is the dance of a war fought over the body - a war that she wins not by closing her eyes but leaving them open and blank, by refusing to acknowledge that the body is anything but hers.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Weight

What good does a body do when it feels nothing but heavy - when it weighs on you so much that you wish it would simply fall away and let you run and run and run and run and run.

Some days I feel trapped by my own skin and all the things it can't do - trapped by horrible allergies and a tightness in my chest. Trapped by a bad ankle that swells and keeps me from dancing or running or jumping rope.

I am frustrated by the things that my body keeps me from doing - - - no, it's more than that. I am frustrated by the way my body keeps me.

It weighs too much, hurts too much.

I do not mind the look of it. The looking, in fact, helps me return to my body in new ways. If I look in a mirror, I know she is not a monster. She is boundaries, but good ones, ones I am willing to accept and work within. She helps to define me, when I look at her and understand that she is who I am.

Looking is not the problem. It's the feeling - the drag and the pull that it seems to have on me. When I feel my body she is more abstract, less concrete in her boundaries. She defines me this way not by her looks and glances, but by her gravitational pull. And this I cannot stand.

What does it mean to "see yourself" in a work of art? To look into a painting, or listen to the lyrics of a song, and feel that you have seen or listened to something of yourself?

Are you seeing something that you are? Or are you seeing something that you wish you were?

And if you see yourself, or read yourself into something, are you changing the course of the work forever? Making it something it was never intended to be?

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Woman, Stretching

[ author's note: this piece was written in response to Roland Barthes' book A Lover's Discourse, among other things... I choose to post it first because the ideas gathering momentum at the end serve as a jumping-off point for some of the ideas I want to consider in later posts, later stories...]

“As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation...”
- Kristeva

I read some words in a book that I have picked up, a book that says it is a book of love: “Amorous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves (Barthes 13).” I would like to ask you what it means to “stay” and what it means to “leave” and whether when you think you are controller, leaver, shadow you are not actually the one who stays, while the one you think is standing still is really always leaving... It is a difference between the body and the mind.

The first night after you had said “I cannot stay here anymore” she did not think much about you until she stepped into her bed. Plenty of men had said these words before, had stayed until they could bare the stillness no longer; then, inevitably, they would tell her they felt trapped, they felt claustrophobic, they must leave and get out in the world. She did not like to go out, except in her own mind.

The next words I read do not sit well with my morning coffee. I stand up in the hopes that this will help me understand, although I know it won’t. “Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman. Woman is sedentary...” I walk to the window and crane my neck to the left, to the right, slowly at angles until I have felt the sun on ever inch of it. Whatever he may say, whatever you may say, I am content . I am happy with my staying.

Being in bed was different. It was there that she had always liked to feel the extra weight pinning her down, the texture of the extra flesh, the pressure of the leg that would twist and turn with hers and keep her thighs from meeting. The extra weight of the body was different than the extra weight of the soul; in the day she wanted her own thoughts, the texture of the wanderings of her own mind. Now, alone in the dark without anything to hold her down, she was unsure what to do. She tried pajamas.

I have been so confused by his “lover’s discourse” that I replace his with one of my own. The shelves are lined with collections of my own desperate notes of a lover, there to remind me of where I was when he or she or they or you were not there. The first notebook says “You left today for Dallas. We took a walk in the rain to buy coffee; I drove you to the airport and you said that you love me even when you are gone. This is when I noticed the coffee had gone cold.”
The fabric of the pajamas she wore did not provide the weight that she desired. The legs of the other had always held her down gently; the body of the other had followed her lead, moved its muscles according to her minor shifts and curls. The green pants (even these a relic of the other, two sizes too large for her) fought her every twist and wrapped so tightly that she felt as if even so small a motion as the ins and outs of her breathing might rend the fabric rather than be caught by it. They felt more as you had in the day than in the night, always holding on but never moving with her.

I do not recall any of these things that I wrote down - the coffee, the rain, and the airport are long since gone. But I can read the memories hidden in the margins: we went walking, but I thought about the raindrops on my skin. I thought about the song playing on the radio in the car and how it gave me a promise you never could - the promise that things would get easier. I know you said you loved me because of course you must have said it. Everyone does. But I do not remember it because it was nothing notable - a verbal pause in a conversation to which I was only halfway listening. I do not remember it because I could not feel it in my body there in the concourse, breathing in the stale air conditioning and other people’s moments of goodbye.

In the middle of the night she awoke - although she hadn’t been very much asleep - and ripped the pants from her body. Her legs fell together before she had time to realize...

I put down the notebook and fill my lungs with the scents of my own apartment - the purple blossoms outside the window, the particular spices of my kitchen, the permanent presence of all the animals owned by the tenants before me. At a loss, I lie on my back and think of another’s discourse on love - one so buried in my everyday thinking that I do not have to lift her off the shelf. One of twelve dancing princesses sings to me “As your lover describes you, so you are.”

The feeling jars her back from a haze of trying to rest. The softness of the skin works so differently when it presses against itself. She had slept once, years before, in this bed with another woman. But even that could never represent the way her own skin worked against itself. The other girl’s thighs, so different from hers, had been just rock and bone, sharp edges there to highlight deep hollows and drops. The other’s skin had barely been noticeable when compared to the internal architecture it contained. It had fascinated her, been a mystery to her. But it had never been her. And in the morning, when the light shone in, she had wanted to push it away again - just as with anyone else.

The story of the princesses goes like this: there was a floating city, an outcast city, high above the world. It lived in splendor until one day a tiny child fell from its heights. They never heard the sound that came from the end of the fall. After that the city was abandoned by all its people - all but one, the lightest of twelve dancing princesses. She stayed, and learned a thing or two of herself: “She told me that for years she had lived in hope of being rescued; of belonging to someone else, of dancing together. And then she learned to dance on her own, for its sake and for hers.” (Winterson)

The space of her own thighs was a complex language of curves and dimples, pock marks and scarring that she could feel without seeing. It was no longer necessary to know the entwined swaying of another - you or any other - to know that she had the power of control in movement. Here, stretched to her full length and enwrapped in her own body, she could teach herself to move on her own.

“...even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light(Winterson).” We only know for sure the loyalty of the things that move with us when we leave, stay with us when we are standing still - the things that are lying in the dark and can be felt further than they can be seen. The man of discourse says “My body is a stubborn child, my language a very civilized adult (Barthes).” But the woman lying in the bed and the woman lying on the floor with her books or turning her neck to the sun know that it is the body’s power to move that opens the mind to love.

The man of discourse says: “I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (Barthes)...” Empty space and points of light. Unclassifiable, invisible, forever leaving/going/moving/gone.
The woman says: “You can’t be another person’s honesty, child. But you can be your own (Winterson).” Is it possible to be your own truth, then? Your own other? Embrace the feeling of missing something, of an empty space - I can learn to move on my own. And this is honest. This is loving.

In Which I Explain Myself

This is a blog about identities, but against identity politics.
It's a story, sometimes true and sometimes not.
It's something of a "rogue's gallery," a layout of various identities through different moments.

The blog was inspired by some writing I did in a grad course - but I was tempted not even to say that much, because so much of the way I define myself lately has to do with graduate work or other parts of a daily routine. And that isn't what I want to discuss here; that isn't it at all. Quite the opposite; this is intended to be a space for tracing out stories that trace out identity in new ways - often through the experiences and stories of others, rather than through experiences of "my" own.

The basic argument of the blog, if there can be an overarching argument, is that we cannot trace any identity for ourselves without using the materials laid out ahead of us by history, by our predecessors, and by the people and things that surround us everyday. We are not ourselves, but the space carved out between a million other things and people's stories.

I hope you can enjoy what you read in these pages - and perhaps, even, use it as material for some carving of your own.