THE WB’S SUPERSTAR USA

Superstar USA was a television show that ran 
for less than one month (May 17–June 14) 
the year that I graduated high school

It was a spoof of the show American Idol, still at the height 
of its popularity (its first year, the day after the penultimate episode 
when Kelly Clarkson sang the song that would give her victory
a girl on my bus explained to us with a kind of solemn shock, 
that she still had goosebumps that next early morning
from the night before)

Superstar USA ran on the television network the WB, at a low point
in that network’s history (which is saying something).
They were throwing all kinds of pasta on the wall hoping it would stick.
Particular low points: Joe Millionaire, and that bachelorette-style show 
called Beauty and the Beast (I think), one glamorous woman in a house of nerds

But of this I remember very little—in May and June of 2004 
I was regularly drinking until I puked, which somehow sounds
better than it ever was. One weekend a Scottish rugby team we billeted 
(repaying the favour they had done for us) was getting naked outside the strange 
and lonely backwoods mansions of some of the players on the team. 
I was sleeping it off on couch cushions placed on hardwood
or being scolded by my mother that one time she came to collect us
and I hadn’t sobered up

No one ever carded me before I turned nineteen
I don’t understand this, always attribute it to some mean tension
or anxiety I must have carried in my face, once even 
buying mickeys and a twenty-sixer wearing my graduation t-shirt
from that year. Now I know they simply didn’t ever care

But back to the show—Wikipedia says “Superstar USA told contestants 
they were looking for the best singer when they were 
actually looking for the worst.” Something in this inversion reminds 
me of the party the night after the one where I’d been picked up by my mom—
an older player hearing the story of what I had done the night before
saw me crack the gentle tongue of a tall boy I had been handed
(so I could save my mickey) and told me “Still drinking? Good man” 

Reading the Wikipedia article it strikes me that some inversions
and some cruelties are more honest than their counterparts, hearing how the winner,
Jamie Foss, was told on stage the truth in front of the audience she had just sung for—
for all its shocking violence it still reminds us 
some truths are longer and harder to learn 

Every so often he would go into the woods and take off his clothes, carefully choosing a location to hide them. He transformed into a wolf and ran through the trees and over the hills, coming back sometimes days or weeks later. His wife begged to know where he had gone but for a long time he refused to tell her. Finally he relented and horrified after he demonstrates his transformation she steals the clothes and hides them so he cannot return to his human form. This is the story of Bisclavret, betrayed by his intimacy, and unable to leave the state that he enters after the betrayal.

In other tales of the werewolf it is a skin that is put on. A suit that allows the wearer to perform horrible crimes undetected, sometimes a gift from a god or a demon as a reward for the bearer’s devotion. Putting on the new skin—to transform one’s inner being one need only alter the exterior. 

Bisclavret had no choice in the matter. His wife took up with another man and he was trapped in his animal form. Eventually he is rescued by the king, who discovers he is a rational being. In time the wife and her new lover are punished—unfortunately and brutally the wife’s nose is torn off by Bisclavret while in his animal form. (He is otherwise noted for his gentleness.) From then on, we learn in the postscript, all of her descendants are similarly noseless. The exterior becomes a representation of the interior, and the interior is altered in turn. Of course this not how genetics work, and perhaps that is something even Marie de France knew herself, though she was writing only in the twelfth century. 

One werewolf is courteous, the other violent, depraved. One takes something off and the other puts something on. Both lose and gain by this process. Both are reduced and magnified. Often like Actaeon (who of course transforms into a deer) they are torn to shreds by dogs. Often they become symbols for their hungers—their mouths elongated, their snouts, ravenous and forced to hunt and prowl. 

I would like to take off this skin or this clothing that I have been wearing for too long. Last night I laid on the couch and listened to a reading that had been done for me November of last year. I hadn’t known then that it would be for the last few months of 2020, 2021, and even beyond that. Some of what was predicted has come to pass—much still remains for the future. 

It was heartening to listen to this little message, to hear my hesitant voice which I did not realize was so hesitant then and to understand that already so much has changed. I would like to live according to the other voice and the life that it laid out for me, to live in something alive to the promise of the future. For that certain things need to be left behind, for they harm both onlooker and bearer. 

Now it is spring and the trees are in bloom. In Toronto everywhere there are flowers. This is an exterior that is working in me, that feels part of this change. 

Convenience is not class. Past a certain level no matter how high you rise life will never get easier for you. Living is difficult. I mean being with yourself. Existing alongside imperfection, your own and in what is around you, what always will be. Accepting that you do not have the power to change and influence. Accepting that the world doesn’t bend at your whim. 

Now we think of labour as moral—a protestant ethic. If you do not work hard you do not deserve to live. That is bullshit. But work is important. The medievals talked about this. A life without labour is hard to live. A life lived in convenience and luxury unmoors you, setting you free in the worst way. 

There are different forms of labour. Different forms of difficulty. Living alone, working from home, materially comfortable. This is its own kind of frictionless environment. This is depraved and languishing luxury.

POEM FROM SOMEONE ELSE

those were blank months
I stayed inside, walked my roommate’s dog
made puzzles on the coffee table
washed my hands every two minutes

I knew you’d gone up north
heard that though I wished I hadn’t
tried not to think of the minute
I’d known you and what that had meant to me

on the street alone I stepped off the curb
to give strangers wide berths
kept my head down or turned to exhale
when traffic made that impossible

I rode my bicycle as far as it would take me
out over the bridge and back
to feel like I was doing something
knowing I would pass your empty house along the way

I imagined all kinds of scenarios
but in the end I thought it best I didn’t know
knowing eats you, whoever you are
best to keep things empty

coming back over the bridge
the river and its tailings, its dip, its drama
I was suspicious—
I didn’t want any part of it to enter in

Saw a woman fall in the park. Took her a long while to get up again. Where I was sitting a little dog in a vest was doing the rounds, yapping at intruders. When his owner called him back he turned to her, skeptically. “He thinks this is his territory,” she explained. 

You said you thought we didn’t work. But first you made such a big deal out of it being something you thought I could work out. Said you were hopeful for the change, wondered what things might be like—even for us, a year from the end. “You’ll move on quickly,” you said. “For me, it will be a while.” 

The walls that you put up—telling me that I had to accept that I hadn’t been hurt in the way that I had been hurt. Months of knowing you were dating someone else. All the little ways you mingled us together, the things you told me that I wish I could forget, even when you knew I was working for you and no one else. 

Maybe you knew you were coming back—that there was something lacking in him, at least then.

But I wasn’t where you were.

Anger grew over me, like briars over fallen trees. And we couldn’t cut it away.

I know you were angry, too. That’s why you thought my bringing it up, in any way, was an attack on you. But it was something that had happened to me, that you wanted to pretend hadn’t happened.

I sometimes wonder how much of that resistance was your guilt speaking back.

We will never know.

Now you’d rather hold me like a sweet dream that turned bad. A distant one.

Coming back across Bloor. Waiting at the light to cross into residential streets. What strange heaviness, what strange dreams. Endless wandering—masks and no masks. We keep leaving them behind, in cramped rooms—we’re in the nearly abandoned lowest floor of some large commercial space, where there is a bar and a coffee shop. Beds on tables. Someone who didn’t want to speak to me—they felt vulnerable because of how things left off. “You have been changed by this.” “It’s opened me up.” Confessions of love. Scrambling in the basement. I can think of many interpretations, contradictory ones. I don’t know what any of it means. Nothing means anything. 

ODE TO EAR WAX

Imagined always as a golden current
incompletely smeared round the rim of the external
auditory canal, a rich brown paste impeding
entrance of foreign objects—but as with human blood
which I was surprised long ago to learn may be of many different hues
until it hits the air, it is impossible to say with 
any confidence what happens in that dark place
where we can’t see inside. When I was in high school 
my brother and my father had theirs candled—someone lit a wick
and in time the wax ran hot and wet, puddling out. 
Saw this wick always as a generous cone, running evenly down
to their patient match heads, wedged in the ear’s entrance, though I never 
looked it up. I know of course that there are cameras
and instruments, external bodies that might be introduced
to chart the course of the canal up close, view
the golden river’s progress. But I don’t count any of that—
how do we not know that when something is inserted it is not changed? 
The body and its hidden circuitry is ever
more mystical than we can ever see. When the results of the ear candling
were poured out in front of them, both my father and brother
reported finding one long-dead insect drowned in the ear’s sticky honey,
a lady bug in one and in the other something
I now forget—perhaps another lady bug, as one year
they flooded us, animated an entire exterior wall, indoors buzzed from 
lamp to lamp as we watched TV—or maybe 
nothing, just more wax, enough of it poured out 
to be its own insect, its own impediment, a foreign object
the body made for itself and no one else

SPRING

morning the sidewalks still slick with ice
thin as cellophane

by noon pitted concrete waxes with tulips
each year opening more of its pebbled surface

shocked by the way the world is bare
wearing mask on mask on mask

don’t mind the rain, what an intimacy
cracking the umbrella’s delicate arms 

finally something happens

the king descends the stairs
“today that would be impossible”
a market without a head

house prices on Degrassi St
rivers sealed with concrete
without knowing the language

fluent and non-fluent aphasia
pinched nerve from sleepless nights
cracked shutters and peeling paint

Canada kills ambition:
how many ways can you intimidate
awake at dawn with stress

WINTER WAS HARD

snow up my shin, slow 
through the mile of the forest 

come to where I had cut
branches heavy with leaves

they always used to bother us
on the ends of our walks

dipping and kissing our heads
as we crossed the bridge

something alert near the edge
in a crop of brown weeds

machete stuck handle-first 
buried in the earth

flew out of my hands 
cutting too recklessly

thought I lost it last August
trimming the tree ends

couldn’t hold on—
I was thinking of you

searched through the muck
kneeling in the creekbed

swishing my stick
disturbing the glass

nothing—nothing—
tangle of rotting leaves