For the Pennance that Man Taketh of Himselfe Was Not Shewid Me—
To Calais, I thought, to Calais where I will eat chicken fricaseed So much in France that if I died my effects to the king and no one else— From the bedroom to the kitchen to the office and up stairs and down And the doorframe of the bathroom and in the tall ship from Dover… Oh how little I wanted to be there! Dover, Calais, a chicken waiting Fricaseed in the little parlour facing the king’s portrait, the king With his chickens, his tall men with chicken legs, they call this Calais, Calais, Calais, this feeling, these men, this steaming dinner If only I could turn this ship around scorn this scowling shore, forget Calais Forget this feeling, if I could bow before some one other than the king The king and myself and his portrait—
Whenever I travel I draft an entire book, in pencil, in the back of whatever I’m reading. On Sunday it was a series of short stories based of A.L. Snijders’s “zkv’s,” or very short stories, ninety-nine of which have recently been translated into English by Lydia Davis. I want to document the whole trip, the flight to Fredericton and the return, in Snijders’s gnomic style (which doesn’t not share a resemblance, at least superficially, with what I sometimes try to write here). In the air I can see the drama of the trip, and of my life, in a way that interests me less on the ground. As you can see, I’m already giving them up. Maybe if I had started writing them then (we only had an hour and fifty minutes on the entire flight) I would have kept working once we returned home. But instead, for the last part of our trip I put on a basketball podcast and held F’s hand (she’s terrified of flying) while I looked out the window, watching the earth change below. I knew it would be more difficult than it seems on its surface to write an entire piece in fragments that maintain a duty to themselves even as they also build toward a larger narrative.
When I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, the author of one of the books we had read that year came to visit the class. He spoke a little bit about writing, answered a few questions, and afterwards sat at the front of the class and signed our books. When it was my turn I told him that I thought the book was “perfectly constructed,” a compliment he took gracefully though I had meant it as an insult (I was an anxious little shit who couldn’t quite get it off). I didn’t like the TA for the course, who I thought wore herself as if her own body was a suit of armour, in a permanent defensive posture. She confirmed my dislike when she stood up and asked a question which seemed only to demonstrate that she’d paid attention, reading up on the author outside of the class. It was something like “How do you feel, now that you’ve been named one of Knopf Canada’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’?” Though I’ve heard very little about the book, or about the writer, in the almost two decades since the visit, at the time he was doing well, and he mentioned using the money from the book to buy a house on the Danforth. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Thinking about all of this now I have the sudden urge to ring him up, and ask him if he remembers the visit, as if we are old friends, though his author visit remains the only time I’ve ever spoken to him.
Lydia Davis writes that the project of Michel Leiris’s long autobiographical essay collection The Rules of the Game is to “write himself into existence,” and that in doing so he is following Michel Foucault, who said in an interview that a writer is “not simply creating his work in his books, in what he publishes… his principal work is in the end himself writing his books.” (Essays II, 392.) I remember sitting across from the extremely cramped little card table in M’s apartment, where we worked on our laptops and ate mostly silent meals, and her saying, in response to some story I had told about growing up or about the years of writing and loneliness immediately preceding that it was like I had written myself into existence, which was true at the time especially because there was very little of me outside of that writing. One of us—I forget who—imagined it as pulling myself out of the muck. I thought of Fernando Pessoa and The Book of Disquiet, which I imagined as a similiar project, working so hard to build form out of what seemed impossibly various.In many ways this blog (over so many years) has been the most obvious example of that long effort, and my hiatuses—or times when I have substituted more confessional writing for something more difficult to parse—are examples of times where I have, for various reasons, put that project on hold. Or at least publicly done so.
Similarly, in Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint the speaker (who we can safely assume is Thomas) complains about what it is like to return to society after suffering a long mental illness, with few believing that he has regained his sound mind. He looks in a mirror, practicing appearing in control, and imagines that if people just saw him like that they would believe that he was alright again. In his poem Dialogue, which follows immediately afterwards, a friend—who may or may not be fictional—arrives and Thomas tells him about his desire to cleanse his body (of its “guilt… foul and unclene”) through translation of the consolatory Latin treatise Lerne for to Die. The friend is worried about this project, since he believes Hoccleve’s mental illness already to be the result of “overstudy” (which may be true). Perhaps the job of the writer is balancing the need for rest with the desire to transform oneself. Writing is magic, in that its concerted practice can effect change not only on the world which receives it (as in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) but also on the body and the mind of the writer. (I have my own translation project that I imagined clarifying or cleansing me.)
Every so often—when I feel at my worst—I imagine that I don’t have time for the writing that I like to do, or that in order to do it I have to wait for circumstances to be perfect. This is never correct—more often I write myself back into sanity. Therefore I am writing this post in the middle of the night, on the eve of a short trip. Soon I will go to bed. I am nurturing the most urgent part of myself, one sentence at a time.
POEM FOR PUPPETS AND STRAY DOGS translation from nowhere
when they forget their lines we go down to the street stray dogs move in and out of the crowd tear-gassed canines rushing at the police I am a forgotten part of myself. I am biting the cop’s neck they don’t know how to keep us from speaking like that until we can taste the blood—until it runs from their throats— on TV a good puppet plays the part of a leader until the strings come into view. until they try to sweep us away there’s nowhere you could put us all. nowhere we would go without biting
If I’m going to be irresponsible I might as well be that way with writing. I make lots of room for interruption—not only because I am burnt out, as I tell myself daily, but because I am cultivating feeling interrupted, something I’ve worked on for a long while.
Would it be possible to go back to who I was before the pandemic? Sure, I still felt lost in things from time to time, but I was never very far from me. Or at least that’s how it often feels, looking back now. I must remind myself that I have felt this numerous times in my life, and even then. Thinking that there was something I could go back to, when I was more thoughtful and intelligent. It is dangerous to feel so consumed by nostalgia for something that never really was.
Remember Sam Lipsyte’s words: writing is a competition, not a race. Was writing here for one reason: to scrape out the inside of my brain. To turn it out, read my own insides for clues.
If I’m going to put anything off, it should be to read. Even if I don’t do it carefully. Why am I alive if not to read, and write, and love?
Reading is its own end. Reading brings me closer. Last night I approached the agitation necessary for writing. The agitation and passion that is the beginning of anything and which I have not felt in a long time, not like that.
Like a boil rising on my skin but something impossible comes out, a horn perhaps, or music. Like I’m firing a gun into the night without a target. Scattershot—like in high school, watching a TV or reading science fiction or going outside and looking at the trees, feeling a vague buzzing that I want to capture but don’t quite know how.
The body in pain. The pain of the body and its torture. Distending, distorting, rending, and tearing. In the thirteenth century The Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Margarete, Olibrius the wicked demands that Saint Margaret’s living body be torn to pieces so thoroughly that he might count all her sinews, producing a bloody stream that disgusts onlookers, so horrible that even the governor himself can’t make himself look at it. This text isn’t for undergraduates, or at least not without context, as it has been placed here, thrown in between Beowulf and Bisclavret on the syllabus and uncommented on in lecture. An evil little piece of pornography, meant to stimulate faith in God by overwhelming the senses, The Passion of the Christ as produced by the director of Hostel, the opposite of Augustine’s friend Alypius being excited by the sound of the Roman games and opening his shut eyes to revel in the carnage taking place in the stadium below.
Olibrius orders his executioners to cast her in prison “on the pain of death,” as if there would be resistance on any grounds to halting her mutilation (it could only conceivably be compassion, or a desire to end her suffering). The pain of death is the pain of the body, the pain of want and need unsatisfied on earth. No body is ever fully satisfied, no body ever gets what it wants, even if what it wants is right there in front of it, food or love or anything else entering into its emptiness but never passing behind that final veil. Two earthly lovers entertwined still peer out at each other from windows in locked towers, taking in as much as can be taken in but left wanting more. A teeter-totter tipping back and forth. Hell is the body personified: fleshy, corrupted, demanding, stinking, and violent—everything awful about the body is exaggerated and magnified, like in the kingdom of Brobdignag, the suppurating cancer in the giant breast of a beggar that Gulliver cannot tear his eyes away from. What’s Olibrius after? He wants Saint Margaret to be his wife, and when she says no he enacts the pain that somewhere his body must feel: his empty, stinking, rotting body, the desire of flesh that will, one way or another, itself lose its sinews, a loss and a violence that through Margaret he enacts on himself, putrefying any hope of ever entering into its absence.