But your great sadness will join the stars,
a new star to wound and outshine the skies.
Frederico García Lorca, Elegy
Look at this, at this, my heart. Wherever and however you are now just look – such a terrible tangle of thorns. The skin has been split into shivering parts: hips wrapped in rosebuds and ribs in barbed wire, the blood thins again, the white wrists fold like paper. The forlorn shores, salient grey, I walked hand in hand with my father. Feet bare and coated with nascent brine, the snarling waves and salt-bitten wind-shrieks. My mind is still an open grave. But this is not about me. It was never about me. On that, there is little left to write.
Yearnings tighten like a noose, a flood of flesh, a scalding choice. Another thread wrenched from the fabric. No time to think, not even to mourn– I catch a glimpse of you at the station. Younger, like I remember. My hands are trowels, for what good it’s done, shoveling back the rock and bone. I claw at the earth, break my knuckles on its surface. I want to get back, back, back to you.
What’s left to know when the body turns cold? We immerse once more in the madness that comes, like a bloodlust, with the winter. I stand by what I said–oh, yes. I do not believe death is mere tragedy. I do not believe that life ends before its time.
But your absence feels more lucid, more real, than the blood that dries between teeth or thighs, the knotted nightmare of scars that sing, the fibers of flesh that ink could not purge. Why am I standing, and not you? Those soul-numbing numbers that turn and burn, devouring raw life like locusts. How many have I loved and seen buried? How many more are to come?
In some ways, it hardly matters. The grief is expressionless, solipsistic, consuming. My vision silenced, I listen: the world crashes towards verse.
Oh yes, I knew. I’ve always known.
I knew and I didn’t.
I didn’t, but I knew.
My challenge and my subject has often been myself. But lately my mind has been devoured by the fact, by the question of loathing: a narcissistic curiosity for acclimatization, a specific relation to the ones who close off.
I withdrew and watched, bit my tongue until it bled. But each new misery rises like a scream. How could it come to this? How could the body break so fast, like a vow? How could we lose you, a wrist over glass–is your life even yours to take? Did you know peace at last, or simply find that there was nowhere left to go?
Once I dug a grave and prayed that in its loss my body would decay and asphodel grow in rivers from the skin. I remember the macabre seduction of it all. But rainwater carved strange patterns in the soil. The paths of sensation were elusive but inexorable. I had to live. I had to live. I owed someone something: not life, but an absence of suffering. I kept on, and on, and on.
But still, I understand. I do. Because sometimes I wish to be down there, beside you: sleeping as soft as the new-fallen snow.
That is not what it feels like, but it comes so much closer to what I really mean. Your death was a dream on the underside of my soul. The train will stop at no station at all. Nothing is real now but us.
You, my brother, have done your part. You two are two, and one, at once. Recoiling in your Janus-jaw the sacred scripture of a twin silence resounds. My words are formless, grief-infused. But by my own principle, how am I to mourn? You lived, and lived well, for so long. You are where nothing can hurt you much longer.
Your resistance was so realized, unearthly, adored. How can I not find some solace in that? Yes, I miss you. I miss all of you, who are lost now in this way. I want to believe in some other time, some holy spectacle, some place left to find you. But in truth, my hopes are scarcely sound. This is the last life we all had to live. I do not think that we will meet again.
But we live in one another still: in brightly burning echoes of the future’s living forms. Rest now: do not burn any longer. We carry this on, this purpose informed by the triumph of life, by your efforts to remain attached, as it were, to the world that failed you time and again.
Sleep well beneath the silent stars. In my own time, I will join you there. We all will. We must.
You are every sleepless hour: you are the desolate craft. But the trajectory is a singular, incendiary thrust. We move towards closures of triumph and tragedy. We yearn towards a world where our gods are the right ones.
When they told me you were gone, I could not get a foot through the door. And then I saw them, those patterns of thought: the sixes and skulls and the liturgy of nonbeing. James, those walls were breathing.
And if it happens that you cannotgo on or turn backand you find yourselfwhere you will be at the end,tell yourselfin that final flowing of cold through your limbsthat you love what you are.
i am afraid that
if i open myself
i will not stop pouring. (why do i fear
becoming a river. what mountain
gave me such shame.)
Jamie Oliveira, Erosion
Glass panes frosted with splintering shapes, crystals that gleam in each lingering phrase. A silence unfurls, dark and sweet. This room spins a chrysalis, glistening emergence: timeless, unknowable, I am my own result. Prisms brush soft against sun-dappled drapes; cold winter light on my shivering skin; iridescent wind-songs, lavender and lemongrass; spires that stretch toward (and dream with) the dawn.
Only I know. Only I see. These are my hands, my dark yearnings, my need. Fingertips tinder and knuckle like flint, each muscle bent towards a strange, lovely scene. Cries, barbed and blissful, mark wants cinder-sweet–a flush of blood summers me, sacraments, sighs–I slacken, then winter with sleep.
I am a flesh that the world tempers raw; the words I once wrote now write me.
When outside I step, pressed in carmine or rust, a pyrokinesis of yearning subsumes. Crushed velvet, ermine fur, self-kindled flames licking soft in my throat: blasphemy blossoms, bursts warmly forth–I am the last of that faltering lust. The janus-faced pleasures of soft lips, strange nights: I move with the burning, my lingering thought.
But I withdraw with the morning light, and shelter my heart like a fledgling thing; insatiable, devouring itself. As a child, I used to pretend I was cursed. I dreamt that my madness was a symptom to cure. But now I know that it’s really just me: sometimes ugly, often inane.
So this is it, isn’t it? I am all of the things that happened to me. I am all of the things I have done. I am the wounds in my own genealogy; the knotted scars and cobwebs of vein. I am the brine that breaks and then fades, the sordid solace, the locked embrace–I am the thing that bleeds.
The one who remembers, who knows even now, must taste the raw ceaseless rains of November. I carry her with me, every moment, all the time: not just my hatred, but that low, steady sadness that throbs against my sanity, floods my ruptured psyche like a pulse. When windswept constellations allow their light to ache across me, I lapse into nothing but the echo of my bones.
In the absence of my accuser, am I absolved at last?
Yes. I am alone, I am always alone. But her body is as broken as her vows, her prognosis more empty than a grave. When I cleanse those stygian shores, she will feel my absence in the corners of her soul. Her form will taste the prisms of that horror–the traumas she wrought when her mind flashed towards mine–and may she taste the blood then that cruentates her palms. She will remember what she did to a thing that adored her, and that knowledge will torment her like strange starvation. She will remember that she was always broken, that savaging me could not have saved her. In this blaze of knowledge, my crucifixion is complete.
If I can endure the months to come, then I will at last be free. These are the rites of the still-slipping seasons; I relish them now, and I dream.
But I do adore you–every part of you from heel to hair. Never will you shake me off, try as you may.
Virginia Woolf, Letters to Vita Sackville-West
Dragging nails through close-shorn skin, I am disconsolate, deeply mad; subsumed beneath wordless loss, the disembodied howl. Those oaths now shattered, fingers which clipped my ashen wings: you were my best thing, my nothing, and so I know now that you were made for me. All Icarus and sun-splintered lips, the wax-kissed blistering scourge of the flesh, we are Daedalus, iridescent, unsmiling, unseated by failures of our own design: our blistering topography that snarls like a past.
And so I swim again, so near, always soon to slipping under, disappearing, breathing less. I will meet you beneath the waters, find you where we cannot speak, and your dark hair and damp skin soaking through your clothes, fabrics gathering dust in a corner of my wardrobe–my lover, what have you made of me?
The furious, half-enamored leprosy: like stars or the sea, I wept and then froze over. Every gentle sigh that clung with heady talons to my gasping chest, untangled its intaglios of ingratitude and held, vertiginous, to each length of skin I sought to burn or cut away. Declarations of your affections, unretractable, you lied: Medea’s child, nobody thinks of you now. But Oxford garlands hang heavy with your name, gasp with rainwater and pour across the cobblestone loss. The strange old streets unspooling like reels of thread–I knew them so well until they crawled, and shuddered back, held beneath the shadow of your absent redemancy and spectre of your sickening doubt.
But I have made my decisions. I have chosen to nullify our history, that life we used to love. Where veins meet whispers of bone, I recall that you are not yet gone. I wish you were, or that I could not see. Can’t you just go off, and die without me?
I dreamed and dreamed of someday going there. I worked my fingers to the bone for years, just to gain a glimpse into some world I had never seen before, with no friends and no certainties and no knowledge of its culture, hoping to learn what I could become if my past and my plans and my home were stripped away from me. I found what I was looking for. What happened afterward is anybody’s guess.
It was hopeful and it was hellish and it was a prolonged, holy spectacle. I do not know if it will feel worth it, in the end. But some things were worth learning. I realized that I will never really be happy or at peace in this insincere reality. And stranger still, I learned that this knowledge does not hurt me; no more than do these spectres of feeling empty or alone. I am no longer afraid of such notions. I have grown into them: I wear them like a skin. Adjusted, at last, to this world that seldom wants me, I am as strong now as I can ever remember being.
Even so, even now, how many times has my mind flirted willingly with the edges of its own undoing? Some nights I cannot rest and I begin to think of every bad thing that has ever happened to me, or been done to me. It starts slow at first, comments someone made, a memory from grade school. Then it floods in, everything at once, things that happened when I was too young to understand; things my father said and that I thought I had earned; people that let me down, or took advantage of me at my weakest; what happened last summer; what happened in November; the lingering mutilation of my ability to trust; how I have to live with those people this year, the ones who watched it kill me and just did not care; every unanswered message on my phone; every promise someone made but could not keep; all the beautiful things I let go of because I thought I did not deserve them. Now I am beyond recognition or belief, alone sometimes with the sleepless spells and the panic attacks and the violent cycles of thought, and on those nights, yes, it still feels worse than dying.
I know that I am not allowed to have these feelings, because they make everyone uncomfortable, and devour me from the outside in. But still, I live, and so I feel them anyways. And I wonder if it really was so bad, or if I just retained it differently. But I know that I never fought back until it was too late, and the consequence is that now, for the rest of my life, there will be a pantomime, an extended act of pretending that much did not happen or did not matter, and that I never loved or hurt or felt or cared as deeply as I so often did. Because I cannot fix the past, and I cannot look back–and even if I tried, I might be too ashamed to speak honestly of what I found there.
What a life I have fallen into. I never meant for it to happen. Sometimes I am a narcissist, enamored of the world, enraptured by my own existence. Other times, I can scarcely live with what I am. I want to feel good about myself. But even if people were to let me, even if the whole world let me, what if I didn’t? What if I can’t? What if I just don’t have it in me, to be at peace with what I am, have always been? Would that not be enough to make anyone jaded and angry at the world?
But it cannot be too late for me. Because I still know moments of stolen conviction, and their beauty and their chaos takes root and unfurls like a stillness in the soil. And so I am altered, but never really change. I still speak. I still desire. I still feel a lack. Each turbulent night is still swollen with rainwater or falling stars: those sensations that linger on undersides of memories scarcely retained. I forget what I am until I have no choice but to remember. Then I slip into that strange invaluable melancholy, that current of wordless sensation that means I am still alive. I cannot write what I feel then because I am notes on a twelve-bar staff: I deal in music and memory, in clefts of endurance, in harmonious grief and blistering arpeggios of the most exquisite longing.
Is this it? Will this be the year when I finally revive, when I wrench each past misery like a new shard of glass from my skin? If I do, will it heal me? Will it hurt? Will I still know the difference then?
It does not matter. I have time.
It does not matter what was done to me. It does not matter that I have been like this, at such a cost and for so long. None of it matters, because this history has not ended yet. There is still time, there is still time.
It cannot be too late for me.
She carries the coastal wind in her teeth
and the furious sun in her mane.
Annie Finch, Rhiannon
It was twenty hours on that open road. Petrol rain, torn muscles, sharp grit and silver dusk. The engine gasped to a halt and I paused at the edge of a neon skyline. I met a girl in a bar with pale hair and eyes like jade. A girl with an old guitar and a voice like running water. She played her songs, on that city stage, with a handle of whiskey and the strange lust of summer. I never caught her name. When she asked me home, with no mention of morning, I said yes. I always do. I like knowing that I still can.
In a depilated motel room we shared a cigarette, an evening, a lifetime or less. Then I climbed into my car and set Nashville behind me in the rearview mirror. I hurtled towards an amber dawn and left her there alone, with a tobacco tin, an ashtray filled with matches, and all of the faded scriptures of my longing. When I met her, I was already gone.
And what of you? I loved you so briefly but somehow never stopped. I know you could never believe that. You must think that I remember you differently; because I hated you, for so long, and so sincerely. Some nights I still do.
I adored you, I despised you, I lost you and I left you. But I never felt nothing for you. Not ever.
Is that not strange, miraculous, and terrible all at once? After all of this time, after everything that has happened, after all of the hurt you caused–I am lost, I am etherised, I am dead to the world. But when I think of you, I still feel. I always feel.
Are you the love of my lifetime? In truth, I have my doubts. We were kids when I first met you, first kissed you, first let you in. But the love of this time in my life–I think so. The love of this moment, of the person I am now. Yes, of this lifetime—of this three-year, nine-term, two-summer nightmare of a lifetime—you are the last and most clairvoyant thing.
Do you remember watching Once, that movie I always sang from, and both of my arms were wrapped around you on an ash-stained bedroom floor? I know you do. You must. I loved you then. I don’t know what you felt, I never did, but I loved you. And now that memory slips far from my medicated mind: like every other godforsaken recollection, it is lost. But still, I see a single night–yes that night, the one when I began to lose my mind–and I was alone, I was crying, everyone was acting like nothing was wrong, but I heard your voice behind the bedroom door. You were singing. You were playing my guitar. And as I listened, as every note fell soft like rain across my bare skin, for the swiftest and most shining instant, I was close to whole.
Our terrible, thankless past–you are its keeper. All of its pain and its promise and its prophesy belongs to you now. You took it on when you cast off me. And I am sorry for that; just as I am sorry that I left my bones bare and my troubles unconcealed. Just as I am sorry that I did not lie when I should have, and that you might have liked me better if I had. But you must never doubt how I felt about you. Whatever else you may think or believe or become, you do not get to do that. You do not get to shed all that I lived for like a skin.
I am waiting for this chapter of my life to slow and splinter to its close, so that I can start again somewhere new. I want to be a stranger. I want to stop knowing you. When I try to sleep at night (and I can’t, I still can’t–you know how I never could) it is your name that burns on the underside of my eyes. Darling, I want this to be over now.
I could love you until the day that I die, but that will never make you good for me. Nor I for you. So fuck it. Let’s both forget, and disappear, and start again.
In the bitter end of our lesser days, it stopped being easy to tell where the cycle ended and my life began. Because when people keep leaving you, you start to anticipate their failures indiscriminately. And you prove yourself right–that part is crucial. You dig your nails in so deep that people pull away and they never look back. This is how and why what beauty I find in my life always fades.
You know a life has lost its meaning when victory and surrender begin to feel the same. But I spread my palms and let this body bridge the distance. After all, there is nothing left of us to save.
I was a writer before I lost you. Now I just bleed, and let the words fall where they will.
I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way.
Vita Sackville West, Letters to Virginia Woolf
Lines for Litha
How my flesh summers,
how my mind shadows,
meshed in this brightness
Eavan Boland, In Her Own Image
Blunt iron cast of your eyes, flushed with bare facets of life: sundown glints, bronzes the lashes. Crystal cyan, gleaming bright; then flashing, storm-dark—an iris contracts beneath the pupil as it spreads like ink in still water. You are a self-contained chiaroscuro: inviting, irreverent. Tendrils of hair fall back across the earth: flurried comets’ tails that tumble soft and fast against a fading sky, darker and sweeter than carmine or rust. Your shoulders are clean and bare, unmarred by the wine-and-vermillion conflagration, the blistering dreamscape, the triumph.
Across hollow blades of of grass, shadows chase reams of lingering sun: the rose dusk, the clandestine haze. A prosaic symmetry—conversation, indication—murmurs across us with the fading light. Calypsonian rhythms and sparks of meaning; the hushed, sweet ache of an untold yearning; the lilting verse; the strange edges of your mind whereupon my words falter, catch, cease to be. Violets breathe dimly in the luster of our silence.
Lips damp with Corona, bitten raw to a willing blossom, their softness crusted with flecks of glittering ruby. Bodies meet and passions swell with the rites of midsummer, the wild fruits of its harvest: elder, cedar, silver birch. Flesh, taut and yielding, wrought with rosemary and a warm blush beneath my hands, freckles like a lilac spray, golden in the last light. A tongue caresses the wandering teeth, soothes the caustic edges of speech—honey fair drips from each unconscious word.
This night becomes us, a festival of fire and light. Idolatrous nocturne, the edges of untold wildness: a fertile darkness which the world leaves un-exalted, unexplored.
So you dance, and I drink you in. Firelight spits from your outstretched fingertips, tangles in the tresses of your hair. Makeup running like graffiti and a gaze that rifts the darkness, inexorable. The natural language of each new motion draws back the gossamer layers of my vanity, seeks what I am as it bleeds through what I was and will be: what I fear, what I think, what I hope to become. Chains leave impressions on a trembling wrist—the want that tyrannizes, entices, bursts forth—I dive as though into coils of earth. Roses wrapped between white thighs, sinews of vine pierce flesh—currents of copper, the shower of deep rich red you inspire, I am flooded in crimson. Breathless, I take you in.
This blind knowledge, this incendiary craft of tongues, uttering phrases like promises, muscles taut, knuckles clenching sweet and cinder-edged, I am burning at my core. Moonlight still more real than these lips against your neck, the soft bites and fractures of light, pale across vertebral ridges, feathered cicatrices, silver-tinged skin—I fathom the gleam against bare, intricate bones.
You are more than woman now. You are a moment, a memory, a goddess enfleshed. Primitive, sacred, in the scarcity of stolen hours, we eschew belonging, decry obligation. Accidents, shadows, illusions all cease. Finally, mercifully, I am lost to myself. Those voices in your head—they are in mine now, too.
Your silhouette beside me, graceful in the in the morning light. My eyes search, sigh, slip on dew-dappled skin. As you bloom, then scatter, like petals of hyacinth, I feel the warm sweat, the salt-wave miracle that drenched and now dries upon my bare chest.
I want to say that we clash like things heavenly, like the grinding jaw of celestial bodies, absolute, inevitable. But ichor moves like a birthright in your veins, and I am, at best, a prophetess, fit only to worship or recount. When you blossom with ripe, rich rhapsodies, a bliss maddens my heretic soul, this admiration licks, flame-like, across the earth. Tongues of longing curl in its wake. Still, like to us, the scene entwines.
Drinking from dawn-drenched hues, you awaken me. You enliven me. You are what the last one was not. Child of the harvest, life incarnate under solstice skies—not a wayward echo of best-forgotten winter, her thin voice and sharp-edged bones and badly broken oaths—you are the warm twilight of my body, its heather fields.
Your flesh haunts mine. In loving it, I fear you. In fearing you, I ache to love.
I feel my soul lapse into silence. Language-less at last, I dream.
Why are you so in love with
In my dresser drawer today, tucked beneath stubs of charcoal and reams of paper and packs of stale Marlboros, I found a small pile of photographs. They are the last remaining relics of a living nightmare: some languishing artifacts I haven’t yet found strength to burn. Only one seems real. It is a dimly lit, faded polaroid. A date is marked on its back in smeared lipstick. It shows what is, what could only be called, a most peculiar bedroom scene.
Two women sprawled atop a bare mattress. It is stained with ash and something darker, dryer, more deadly. Books and pencils are strewn across the floor. The curtains are drawn, but hints of dying light filter through them, dappling our bruised white skin. I am younger and stranger, more ragged and more radiant: so awake and yet so dreadfully thin. She is slighter still, with dark hair and half-closed eyes. Her face is thrown into shadow, the outline sharp and fine against the window: as if someone had taken a blade to the sky beyond the fabric, and carved blissful darkness into its pallor. We are a mass of undone sheets and tangled limbs, our two faces and four hands, our legs, our teeth, our entwined fingertips. My lips are pressed against her cheek. Yes, I remember that night. I remember it all.
Gnawing away always at the cartilage of my life, is the etherizing question, the opiate, the scourge. What did I become when my words no longer mattered? I was nineteen years old and I was resolute, reckless, cruel to myself. I was also (for whatever it may be worth) singularly, indomitably, unfathomably alive. I miss that with every bone in my body. And I loathe it as well. Because I am the only one who really knows how it ended. And if it had not come to this, if I were treated differently, would I still be as driven, as damaged? And if I wasn’t–would I ever have gotten out?
I cannot be sure. But the saddest, sickest part of it all is knowing that either way, it was not worth it. Not the clandestine joys. Not the terrible moments. Not the poetry or promises. Not any of it. Looking back entails the nauseating realization that I would not have done anything differently. I only wish that none of it had happened in the first place. This was not a once-beautiful thing, not a thing that died or changed or went went wrong. It was simply a waste from start to finish, a self-immolating era, a cannibalizing year.
They say that even bad experiences teach you something. But what did I learn? That I am deficient in my own ways, that sycophants are more dangerous than narcissists or narcotics, that honestly kills swiftly, that non-normative mentalities are a cancer that no one will support you through, that cliff-edges are just things you get cast off of eventually, and people can lie and then leave with impunity. But I already knew all of these things. I learned them in childhood. I learned them in hospitals. I learned them on my father’s knee and on the undersides of my wrists. Why, you might wonder, did I choose to live them through again?
I believe that I made the same mistake twice because the second time around, I was actively choosing to do so. It was six months’ willful suspension of disbelief with a lifetime’s worth of possibility on the line. I had to believe that people could be better, despite all evidence to the contrary. I had some vague, unrealized hope that things could be different. That I could be known and loved, at the same time, indiscriminately. I don’t have that anymore. The hypothesis is tested, disproved, and I have next to nothing now. Not suffering. Not sadness. Just knowledge, some blood, and a sense of weariness I can never quite place.
People behave in the strangest ways if you tell them this. They feel sorry for you, or try to change your mind. They say don’t give up. They say it gets better. They say you have plenty of things to stick around for. You have drive, you have purpose, you have ambition, you have a future. The very generous might even say you have talent. But what does that matter? These terms are irrelevant. They are all things that I can tell myself. Hell, I like hearing them better when they’re coming from me. So why do people think I need my own self reaffirmed? After all, it is not me that’s wanting.
I wanted to keep clinging to the last shred of naïveté I had left: that some people stayed, or if they didn’t stay, they said goodbye properly–even if no one had ever done that for me before. But I knew better. I have always known better. And why can’t someone else have this terrible knowledge, so I can just be vacant and vapid, swollen with the comfortable notion that I will not end up crying in a locked room, chewing on words that disavow my humanity and my worth as surely as they affirm what I have always known? Why can’t somebody else have my ambition and my convictions and all of my fucking medication, and I can just have that?
In the end, it was not the transience that undid me; nor was it the oaths or ultimatums. As far as I’m concerned, love should be conditional. But you don’t tell someone you love them and then just leave. The retroactive sapping of meaning, the amputated limb, the loss that tore backwards through my past and left us all with nothing to show for it–that was it. That was the worst sin. That they caused all of this pain for nothing, and that I took the bait and the blame because I wanted to keep loving them anyways.
So I wasted a year of my life in violent stasis. I tasted blood and bliss and the beginnings of a memory I thought I’d never take a match to. I flirted with death and a dream of something better. I went to hell and halfway back on a rough-edged hope for human decency. Now I do not write anymore–at least, not the way I used to. Just like I do not feel in any of the same ways that I used to. The passion, the consistency, the urgency, is all gone. It is scarcely worth the effort anymore. This lacking language is hardly fit for regurgitation. It is barren, disconsolate, an absence more than an art. Is this the unnameable tragedy of which White once wrote –that difference between planetary light, and the combustion of stars?
But what did I expect, having fashioned myself an existence of such profound isolation? No one waits out the long nights with me anymore. They cannot, because I will not let them. I resolved to be something different, and swore to myself that no would ever again see what I might really look like, if I were to fling my bare heart against the skin of the world. I chose this because I had to. That has not changed.
So here I am. It’s been a while now. So long, in fact, that it feels like a lifetime. It must not really matter anymore, in the trajectory of regained sanity wherein those scenes were framed. But perhaps I learned something from them after all. Because now, for better or worse, I do not turn to face my past. I do not try to know the loss. Instead, I try to live out what I have witnessed in all of them. I eschew my promises, I swallow my tongue–and when my history comes howling, I lock the fucking door.
Can anyone deny that we are haunted?
What is it that crouches under the myths we have made?
Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries
Sunrise, cold sweat, chemical haze. Bare branches caress a chrome-smooth underside of sky. I am restless, trembling, iridescent, obscure: I am dreaming in the morning light. Has this garden been rendered obsolete or desirous, violent or sublime? How long has it been since I left it untended? Ivy garnishes crystal-shards of feigned remorse, found, shared, scattered, lost: hidden scores of half-gnawed bone that underpin what has been sought and then forsaken. I forget what you have done to me, how very much I still hate you. My mind is tangled in holy catastrophe, whatever lingers of your skin. And of course it is not real, but it does not matter, it does not matter—I am down in your arms again.
So I wake up, I draw back, raw sensation limps away again. It is the only way for me. Because I am dead tired, you know, of mourning these mistakes. It is terrible to be the one who remembers, who grieves. It is mortifying to admit that this still matters, to know that I still linger here even though all the rest has gone. Rinse, repeat, I scrawl. If they act like they care, they’re humoring you. If they ignore you, they’re being honest. Close your eyes and pretend it isn’t real.
One last evening breathing this in, especially that one that I might have loved—though he was never one to understand, to recognize the implacable desire that snarled beneath my topography of skin. I said goodnight and stumbled to bed, my tongue still swollen with words I have long forgotten how to say. My final night was lovely, sanguine, but there was something unsettling, even disturbing, in my farewell. I was laboring on the cusp of that deep, lost tenderness when I realized how long it has been since I have properly felt anything at all.
We, all of us, live within a glance. People look, and see themselves, see what they want or fear or expect to, see only a relation to themselves. But a self in a mirror is organic, pure: the only unadulterated gaze. When I try it myself, I see an almost-girl, all ruined makeup and exhausted, myopic eyes: she glances back, almost smiles, and it is plain that she will never be right again. I look at myself and every time, as if for the first time, I see the damage that was done to me: first in my childhood, and then again in this past year. I see the shell of the self that I could never truly be—not if I want to survive in this world. I understand that the reality of my past is that I can endure it, perhaps, but I will not recover from it. Not ever. Not really.
These weeks have been brief, drunken, avid, beautiful. I regret that they are over, and I regret that people in a distant past have left me so damaged, so deadened, that I mistrusted so many clandestine moments of now. But the truth is that I did not believe that I would make it this far. And now I have to find out what to do with myself, this improbable body, this could-have-been corpse. The wounds open with arbitrary impulse, the ichor drains, but I am not empty. I am never empty. I am alive and alight with confused sensation.
If I flooded my past with kerosene, took a match to the manuscript, would I be able to feel again? And if so, could I survive it? I cannot be sure. Before, I only wanted this, the oblivion of immolation, a somnambulist’s darkness tinged by tongues of crimson, a fire by which to erase my own name. And, after all, I had a talent for the craft. Now, I want the opposite. I want to remember everything, I want to be known. My skin is spidery with scar tissue, the rhythm beneath it is strong, but the sensation is lacking. What could possibly have changed since, but that apathy replaced my self-appointed amnesia? Is it worse to feel everything, or nothing at all?
Sometimes I think that faith is a symptom of those who are weak in their minds or hearts—but other times, I wonder if maybe everything that has happened to me was leading me here. Because at least I know now that the most authentic, effective form of survival is remembering that what you love will always eventually leave. Because I would rather be sardonic, impervious, then suffer again as I have. Because I am not much, but at least I am alive. I am more and less than a miracle: I am a result.
And already, the new recollection dawns. All I can do is rise to meet it.
I am spacious, singing flesh, on which is grafted no one knows which I, more or less human, but alive because of transformation.
Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
Trigger warnings for mentions of ableism, suicidality, self harm, abuse
Your disbelief cures nothing.
Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis
Nowadays, we are all more or less familiar with the trope of the crazy woman. I have written about it before, and will undoubtedly do so again. “Crazy” is a cultural phenomenon that linguistically fuses the erasure of abuse narratives, the infantilization of women, the latent anxieties and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, and a whole host of similarly unpleasant tenets of Western thought. “Crazy” is a word that exonerates its user. Call a woman crazy, and you do not have to explain your treatment of her. You do not have to give a reason for why a once-meaningful relationship fell apart. You do not even have to acknowledge her account of the hundreds of ways in which you treated her like shit.
But the communities with the largest penchant for formulating trenchant (if occasionally slightly self-righteous) critiques of the ableism and misogyny inherent within the use of the word “crazy” are also, more often than not, precipitating their own form of this rhetoric. We tend to perceive ourselves as subversive, radical, and painstakingly careful in our applications of language, but in my communities–feminist communities, queer communities, trans communities, disabled communities, academic communities, and so forth–when we do not say that a person is “crazy,” we say instead that he, she, they are “toxic.” And that really is not much better.
I will try to make this unmistakably plain: I am not arguing, would never argue, that toxicity does not exist, or that anyone is under any obligation to accommodate toxic or abusive people. Toxicity is everywhere, all of the time. This is something that I understand far better than I would like to–believe me. I knew someone who routinely left unmistakable evidence of their self harm on my bedding and on the floor of my room. I had a girlfriend who routinely threatened suicide. I had a childhood that I still cannot fully remember or talk about. I know how bad toxicity can get. I know how agonizing–indeed, traumatizing–it is to lay down boundaries and enact separation from people you love because their behavior has gone so far beyond what you are capable of coping with. Time and again, I have been there. I know how important it is to be able to get out, to save yourself. I am not criticizing that. How could I?
What I am criticizing, though, is the strategic and contrived use of “toxic” as a modern analogy for “crazy”; that is, as a short-hand term used for deflecting awkward questions. Colloquially, “toxic” almost always implies a kind of mutual trauma, which makes people less likely to criticize your actions. This can be extraordinarily helpful if the person(s) in question really is/are toxic, and their actions really have resulted in traumatic experience. But if you use accuse someone of being toxic as an easier way of saying, “I had been worried about us for a while, but was too afraid to confront him about it”; or, “I was unable to cope with her mental illness in addition to my own and thought we could both benefit from distance”; or, “They asked for support and I didn’t feel willing or capable of giving that to them”–then things start to become difficult.
First, and perhaps most obviously, this casual application of the word “toxic” makes it nearly impossible for survivors of abusive or mutually destructive relationships to adequately describe their experiences or identify their abusers without becoming lost in translation. And when you bring questions of preceding traumas and (dis)abilities into the picture, the term can become violent. Because if you slap the label of “toxic” on a human being, and fail to properly address their status as disabled, traumatized, or a survivor of abuse, then you become complicit in the incredibly harmful social practice of construing certain trauma or disability based behaviors as ‘choices’ or indicators of our failing health, when they are in fact permanent symptoms of conditions or traumas, and need to be recognized as such.
It is absolutely possible to reproduce patterns of oppression even as we seek to eschew them—oftentimes we share the very facets of identity that we reject or marginalize in others. A persons’ pre-existing disabilities must never be subsumed by a projection/displacement narrative in which trauma and disability related behaviors are only considered in their cultural reframing as ‘trigger points’ for other people (yes, even if said other people are themselves coping with traumas or disabilities).
For instance: if dissociative or spectrum-based behaviors make you inherently uncomfortable—so uncomfortable that you endorse, defend, or participate in acts of alienation and aggression towards an individual on the basis of their having demonstrated dissociative behaviors–then even if you suffer from similar issues, and even if these behaviors upset you, you still need to critically consider your own attitude towards people on the autistic spectrum, people with post traumatic stress disorder, people with dissociative identity disorder, and so forth. You need to hold yourself accountable. You need to take a long, hard look at the impact you are having, and the priorities you hold.
If you have ever considered, even for an instant, using someone’s own disability or mental illness against them in order to make your treatment of them seem more credible, then you are a part of the problem.
The thing about radical, empathetic communities is that they do not work properly without humility, mutual respect, and basic compassion. Having your own history or trauma or disability does not give anyone a free pass to weaponize ableist structures for the purpose of treating other disabled people like shit when it seems more convenient. That goes double for anyone who claims the label of ‘ally’ in a marginalized community. Because whatever effect someone’s disability may have on the people around them, the one who suffers the most from being disabled is always the person experiencing it.
To pretend as though certain conditions associated with trauma and (dis)ability are somehow innately toxic is reductive, violent, and inhumane. That kind of thinking prioritizes certain forms of trauma over others, and comes dangerously close to suggesting that certain kinds of people (or people with certain disabilities) are inherently unhealthy, and our marginalization justified.
If you ever find yourself in a community where exclusionary, abusive or ableist practices are considered defensible because your disabilities are visible, or the effects of your own conditions are somehow only significant insofar as they affect someone other than yourself, then the best thing you can do is recognize this for exactly what it is: vicious, toxic thinking that you do not need to put up with. Cut it out of your life. Protect the people you love from it. Do whatever you can to avoid replicating it yourself.
I have had the immense privilege, over the past two terms, of finding myself in communities where I am surrounded every day by extraordinary people who work their asses off to fight internalized forms of discrimination, and do everything in their power to protect me from the people who have attempted to use my disabilities against me in the past. But not everyone is so lucky: it honestly makes me sick, and sad, to consider what it must feel like to have to face this world, or this culture, or this university, alone as a disabled or traumatized person.
At the end of the day, there are a million and one appropriate ways to use the word “toxic,” and one decidedly inappropriate way of using it. So the next time you find yourself excusing your treatment (or someone else’s treatment) of a disabled person by labelling the latter as ‘toxic,’ just take a moment to check with yourself that you really do mean toxic. Double check that you are not just using toxic as a broad, deflective, misleading buzzword, to avoid saying “he/she/they are living with a disability and/or mental illness, which I don’t want to properly acknowledge in this conversation because that’s more effort than I am willing to expend: so instead I’ll rely upon known evidence of his/her/their disabilities, and the internalized cultural view of disabled people as sub-human, and leave the rest unacknowledged, because my own convenience takes priority.”
If the answer is ‘no,’ and you really mean toxic, then by all means speak on. If the answer is ‘yes,’ or ‘maybe,’ or ‘a little,’ or ‘I’m not sure,’ then pick a new goddamn word.
Things Our Bodies Used to Know
Rupi Kaur, milk and honey
I will never learn to love that way again, so reckless, so irrepressible that I lost all demarcation, found sinews of my soul enmeshed in the form of another. Caressing that calamity of famished flesh, of tongue to skin, sketching half-shadows in the syntax of her gaze: what remained of our gutted life trickled from between her teeth, dripped down my chin, until my chest was all soaked with her screaming, salt-crest genesis. I removed my sodden shirt, unpeeled her fawning hands. I left her alone on the wine-drenched mattress: her frailty repelled me, made me wonder, made me doubt.
It stopped mattering that she left me. It stopped mattering that she was my best thing, then my nothing. For six months, I suffered and dreamed. But then I bled her, like ink, from the bedsheets. I burned every letter. I pawned borrowed clothing. I tore pages from books. I withdrew into my rage, my words, my inexpressible solitude: I emerged victorious and alive. So our long strange history died, unrealized. Will she ever find liberation from this sin? Or must she always live with this, the knowledge that she tore into another’s life unbidden, wasted my time and then destroyed it all for nothing?
I am still this, I am still me. But the wound that I was has been cauterized now, and the new skin spreads unrepentant, beguiling. Stained shades of corrosive liquor and glass-panelled bones, strains of battery acid and the battered neck of my guitar, every new, nebulous bruise where the knuckles wound their way around my throat: I seek comfort where I still can. Crouching, like an animal astride the four-wall shoreline, still seeing dimly that seraphic face beneath the waters, feeling the whiskey-tinged howl of the currents, clawing up across the muddy banks into knife-shards of moonlight: I salvage solace where it has not yet died out.
You can still see her impact in the edges of my eyes, but only rarely, in the half-light we used to share. I was so much younger then, enraptured by the ocher dusk, as poems and promises met like bodies, and every note of Calvary seemed sweet. She was an orator, an oracle, an evening in early summer. She was jasmine and hyacinth, sweet wines and badly rolled cigarettes–those heady, rose-damp offerings for false idols or docile gods. But I was the real thing. I required blood.
Did she think that, because I loved her, she was safe? That I would not tear her apart with my pen: that I needed her tongue between my teeth? Perhaps I will always be abhorred and estranged, when the glamor fades or the passion wanes. But at least I am an experience. At least they will remember me. At least they will talk about me after I have gone. I will not fade away like some sycophant, prostituting my own inadequacy. I know now, with certainty, that what she called my madness was only the slew of her own sensations, the life she was too frightened to face.
Whatever else I may be, at least I never asked another to climb the cross in my stead.
Dispossession, hunger, alienation, hurled abuses–I have learned to see and feel my way through the dark waters of a world that is so much more dangerous than my own mind could be. And there are others like me, others who have managed to survive and yet still feel keenly, feel utterly, feel indiscriminately. The strength we practice, we who face the world unflinchingly, is enthralling, anointed, instantly recognizable. We are a fragment worth exalting, a contrapuntal clashing of flesh and fractured light. We have no use for weakness or denial. We know no patience for the faint of heart.
Without warning, she was gone from my arms, a broken-winged dagger in desperate flight. But she left me with some sanity, and the promise of the springtime. I know the earth again and I recall the language of the mind that is half-mine. I am messy and monstrous and I am myself: I do not exist for your pleasure. Every night that I endure, I grow stronger. My self-sustenance is all the more formidable because it is denoted by a joy that predates those lost days.
I stand apart from my own grief, burning like something still lost: reckless and restless, insubordinate, sublime. Twisted well beyond near-recognition, I am history, trauma, possibility enfleshed. I am every oppurtunity that you were too afraid take.
And so, I am satisfied. Can you blame me? My survival is prodigious, improbable, stunning. Covered in scars, I am still on my feet.