MARCH 29, 2018
THE FOLLOWING IS one of six pieces by former Emerging Poets fellows at Poets House in New York City. Each of the pieces engages with the Poetry Coalition’s 2018 initiative, “Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body.” Poets House invited the fellows to select five items from the House’s 70,000-volume library that address the theme of the body, and to write a paragraph or two on each of these items.
After “A Letter to William Kinter of Muhlenberg” in The Jacob’s Ladder (1958) by Denise Levertov
I dreamed a name disappearing like the tail of a large rodent turning a corner. I have nothing but its diminishing line and a warning to not go through the motions (motion sickness). I wake up and think that perhaps knowing the name is less important than the experience of the space in between. The space in between having known a name I no longer know and the disappearance of a rodent’s tail. Aisha Sasha John writes that, “Knowing is a consequence of believing.” I’m starting with what I know. To build a piece of writing might imply that the piece already exists and needs to be assembled. I believe this is true but not the only truth. About me writing. I trust this will have to be good enough because the other option is to stall. If I stall long enough, I stop believing. In myself and other things. In my 20s I discovered that the phrase γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It was an impossible invitation.
After “Parts of an Autobiography” in Milk & Filth (2013) by Carmen Giménez Smith
As a child I would jump from my hiding place during games of hide-and-seek because I could not stand the anticipation of being found. “I’m here!” I’d volunteer and desperately untangle myself from the dresses in my mother’s closet. My family did not discuss feelings but my mom definitely asked me about pooping. “How are your bowels?” she’d ask casually. Last month I sent my mom an image of an “I POOPED TODAY” T-shirt and she texted back Gross!!!!!!!!! Then I texted her this tidbit about constipation, since my condition is hereditary: In truly serious cases, constipation can be a symptom of an impacted bowel caused by a large, dry lump of feces that’s stuck in your colon. In very rare cases, straining to push it out can kill you. On Valentine’s Day in 1997 I purchased anal beads for my college boyfriend. He refused to participate saying something along the lines of, “I will not put those in my butt.” I can’t remember anything else from that night or the rest of that semester actually. I’m still not sure what my condition is. Not doing great today. To counter the onset of a sinking mood, I consider making a list of 10 things in which I have faith. I know for sure that pooping every day won’t be on my list.
The scripture says that the kingdom of heaven is within. Joseph Bradshaw, the author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, writes that “[t]oxic shame looks to the outside for happiness and for validation, since the inside is flawed and defective.” I’m thinking of the binding power of flax mucilage. The constipation, while having loosened its total grip on my colon, is still in charge and I’m really worried about my large intestine. I mean, if it isn’t able to absorb nutrients due to a layer of shellac from years of not pooping, then who am I? I’m in the bath with my brother Brendan. Small brown turds begin to float to the surface of the tub. Someone shrieks as if there are turd sharks emerging. If depression is my slow landslide into darkness, lightness is my large intestine dutifully performing its undulation of peristalsis as a joyful muscular tunnel. I meditate on the relationship between constipation and courage. Constipation and fear of a lover’s fear of anal. Constipation and the mother. Constipation and dying intestines. And I wonder if the light from my large intestine is a thousand years old.
After “From 1928 to Whenever: A Conversation with Anne Sexton” in American Poets in 1976
I write to hold something together or I write to break it apart. I dream about how hard it is to get off the ground as a bird. I have a poor memory. This alone tests belief. I read books and cannot retell or synthesize what I’ve read a month later. Facts that I take in through the reading process might as well be dreams from a past life. When I am tired I experience what my mom calls the “heebie jeebies” — restlessness in the muscles as if my body is complaining about its lack of options. I sit on a couch-like chair at Poets House and recall my dreams, massage my calf muscles, and think about the previous evening at the Union Theological Seminary, where Michelle Alexander asked Naomi Klein if she considers herself a revolutionary. Klein responded: “Can you have a revolutionary without a revolution?” She added that she hopes she’d show up if there was a revolution. If I accept Klein’s logic that perhaps there cannot be a revolutionary without a revolution, I wonder can there be a poet without a ________? I hope too that if _________happens, I will show up. Perhaps I am already showing up by continuing to live in the spaces between failing at everything.
My sentences are often too heavy on the subject. I write sentences while standing up because I have sprayed dissolved magnesium all over my body to relieve my constipation, the side effects of which include “emotional stagnation” and a tendency to produce incomplete ideas. This results in sentences that are incredibly insufficient in their ability to create meaning. The word sentence from the Latin sentire, to feel. How are you feeling. My thighs are burning. The fastest way to absorb magnesium into the body is through the skin if you can handle the sting. Handling this is crucial especially if there is a chance that your large intestine has stopped absorbing nutrients. In the ’80s my dad called me a commie pinko for putting ketchup on my scrambled eggs. The magnesium is working but there are still abstractions I cannot absorb into the skin. I blow-dry the hair on my labia then my armpits then my bangs for 30 seconds a piece in that order until everything on my body is more or less dry.
On History of Whiteness
After Admit One: An American Scrapbook (2016) by Martha Collins
I think I’m not alone, as a white American who went to public high school in the ’90s, when I say that my knowledge of history is meager. What I did learn were reductive hero narratives filtered through the red-white-and-blue smoking lens of patriotic, racist history textbooks. So when I started reading history in my mid-30s, I was super late to the game in having my head pulled up from a smoggy sleep. The more I learn, the more I am able to see and challenge my own internalized racial superiority, the belief that white is better, an ideology by which my very logic and sense of reasoning have been trained. History reveals how white supremacy reproduces itself and shape-shifts adapting to the contemporary, seeping into each aspect of my relationship to people, institutions, places, stories, and beliefs. The aporia of whiteness is its pervasive invisibility to white people. An invisible centrifuge sucking everything up and spitting it out dead.
After Go Find Your Father / A Famous Blues (2014) by Harmony Holiday
My father arrives in my dreams and my writing. In dreams he is often helpless or ineffectual and sometimes drunk. Sometimes he is near death. Sometimes he is dead. In one dream he died of natural causes. I was devastated. In another, he died of a broken back and then surprised me by waking up. I was indifferent. He evokes both tender affection and dull anger. In my poetry my father is often an analogue for intergenerational shame or an aspect of patriarchy such as sexual violence, failed masculinity, or that shadowy threat of anxiety. He’s both the angel in the choir and the bat in the basement. I dreamed my family at a wedding in an unknown city. My dad pulled a fat roll of bills out of his gray suit jacket. I knew the roll was made up of singles covered with a hundred-dollar bill which he peeled off cautiously when my siblings and I needed cab fare. I felt my dad’s self-consciousness in front of the other suited men though they didn’t seem to notice anything. After paying the cab driver, I held tightly to the change from the hundred- dollar bill so I could give it to my dad. I think we were in a Scandinavian city though I’ve never been so I can’t say for sure. You know how dreams work, not everything mirrors real life. But the shame, there was no mistaking the shame. How everyone has to bear the weight of the fragile fathers.
From an Aerial View the Family Unit Is Made Up of Individuals Corresponding to Their Environments
My family spent the nineties climbing over furniture. My siblings and I tried to stay out of the way because my parents believed in the Eternal Law, which promises wretched lives to evil men. We assumed that this law applied to evil children as well. My parents lived in the moment but not like zen masters — they didn’t know they were living in the moment, they couldn’t understand the present and canceled the future out with the past. Or at least that’s how I see it now, looking back, a line-drive sort of existence, a difficulty, not in adhering to beliefs, but in remembering what they are. We held our breath and prayed for the best, making exterior a shared fear of loving. And living happened under anaerobic conditions. This might’ve fucked me up if I hadn’t had a few of my own beliefs, mainly in things that I could see, like difference between a man-made lake and a bathtub, like frozen waffles. I learned difference early on and when I could see it, I made it real. The color of a maraschino cherry was not the color of a real cherry and the order in which siblings were born—first middle second fifth second to last—I knew that too. I knew that warm-blooded vertebrates provided with wings are sometimes birds, but I couldn’t conceive of flying bodies as non-bat objects. I thought of anything that flew outside my window as a nocturnal mammal with webbed wings. At the time my father lived in a den filled with green wicker furniture. The den fell under jurisdiction of Temporal Law which protects the things a man can lose: an 18-inch TV, a portrait of Duke Snider, framed and signed. A sagging green chair legislated my father. He turned his will over to the bats living in the basement. The basement fell under jurisdiction of the Night, and of the Bats. In the Old Norse sense of the word husband, my mother was my father’s husband. She held distress at bay with lilacs. She tried to protect us from the power of the den but her silence couldn’t will it away. The room raged with freewill and acid reflux. In ’88 my parents put the chain lock on the basement door before I’d reached the top of the stairs. My change in scenery read as resignation. I coveted the potential violence of baking soda and vinegar. I doubted windows. I mixed drinks. I mounted chairs. I made pinpricks. I snapped doors. I bent flukes. I said yes to what was still alive. I did not murder someone with a colander of pinto beans. I did not recline into a spread eagle on the cold floor. I stood still and let a few pieces of grass fall between my fingers. In ’98 the house burned to the ground. No one died but everyone was hurt.
Alex Cuff is a poet and public school teacher living in Brooklyn. She’s a 2016 Poets House fellow, co-founding editor of No, Dear magazine, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a graduate of the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College. Her chapbook FAMILY, A NATURAL WONDER is forthcoming from Reality Beach in 2018.