His Bedding of Flowers and Bones

Edward Burne-Jones, Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, 1861-2

Depictions of this sort do little to undo my unfounded and completely sentimental conviction that the Minotaur is somehow a child to whom appalling things happen because of his monstrous appearance and the somewhat psychotic conclusions it generates in the minds of those in charge of his person. He’s a bull, yet he’s a monster, so surely he will not subsist on grass alone; they decide his diet will therefore consist of nothing but virgins.

This week, associations between flowers and bones have been, if not scattered across my bedroom floor, at least at the forefront of my mind, so if nothing else this post is proof that I am capable of something resembling consistency, yay.

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Love each other less violently

And who are you? she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke.
Why, I’m fire, he replied,
And I love your solitude, I love your pride.
Then fire, make your body cold,
I’m going to give you mine to hold,
Saying this she climbed inside
To be his one, to be his only bride.

[…]

It was deep into his fiery heart
He took the dust of joan of arc,
And then she clearly understood
If he was fire, oh then she must be wood.

Leonard Cohen – Joan of Arc

The protagonist in horror is always a potential victim, even when she is the perpetrator, even when the killer’s and the narrator’s hands overlap. The protagonist can’t help but fall prey to the body she inhabits; the story has an endpoint, by which she will either be alive or dead. There is no uncertainty between those poles. In our flesh, we contain the potential for violence, not as an illness but as a characteristic. 

When Cronenberg shows the physical destruction of the body, it is not from an aesthetic fascination or in order to shock, but in order to make it real, to show the lastingness of the act, its irreversible consequence.

All of us are subject to our bodies, and when we succumb, we are gone.

Averroes gives us a mind on loan from the mass of universal spirit, but this chunk of the larger intellect is only activated within the animated body; once the body dies, the self with its specifics is erased from the intellect.

Feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently.

Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto p. 7

The beauty of us as Donna Haraway’s “mortal and fleshly knottings”. 

The body for David Cronenberg in all its uniqueness and fragility. This same body, depending on who perceives it, can be untouchably holy, pleasurable to defile, in need of protection, and also killable.

We have our ways, says Haraway, of making each other killable.

The idea of cannibalism, too, realises we are all potentially made killable, depending on the way we choose to see each other. In a sense, this is the problem underlying all desire; the Hegelian push-and-pull between wanting to devour (to think of as killable) and not wanting to lose (the regret of having made killable). To sustain while consuming is where the balance necessary for life and pleasure lies. Not to destroy the other fully, which would contribute only to self-destruction, but not to abstain either from the life-giving communion with the other; learning only to nibble at the other’s body before allowing the flesh to grow back, in a metaphorical sense.

This is part of the time we give to each other when we give. 

There is, of course, a narcissistic refusal to face what is other, choosing instead to live in the self-produced fantasy of the disembodied other, who exists at a safe distance within abstraction; the narcissistic attraction only to what is necessarily disembodied, unable to exert either refusal or acceptance of one’s desire.

Disembodied means: not desiring in itself, because desiring is to give in to the mortal flesh and its vulnerability, to give in to entropy, to what can be destroyed. It means reaching out to the other in full awareness the flesh’s necessarily time-bound arc, its temporariness. Sometimes, it’s not enough to want to burn each other up. Ash isn’t substantial enough to love.

Curdling

The sadness cannot be referred to as ‘missing’, it is impossible, it takes presence for a subsequent absence to register. The part of me that bites is running out of teeth, the part of me that holds is losing all her arms. My body’s radial arrangement curdles in a corner of my tank, flush against the glass. More often than not the sky seems to swell with thoughts of you, turning my body towards yours, although this is something I take on faith because all directions look about the same to me.

And here comes the orthodontist with his thoughts on realignment of the jaw, and he talks with a lisp, of course he does, and his hands tremble when he touches the sides of my face. He can see the holes there in the flesh, holes invisible to anyone without a medical degree, and he says, you need to do something about this grief, you look like cheese, and I tell him that I don’t blame him because this isn’t his area of expertise but that from a writerly perspective his metaphor is an imperfect one, because it all very much depends on the curdling process and the bacteria involved, and that some cheeses, if not most, are actually dense and smooth in texture, but he is an orthodontist and his hands are strong and he is holding my jaw in such a way that I can’t speak, or perhaps it’s just that his huge flat hands feel like a bed and my head is tired, looking to rest on something stable for a while. 

Terrible Things

Terrible things may happen after the sun goes down, but most terrible things don’t care what state the sun is in. Most terrible things aren’t much affected by the amount of light witnessing them. 

Think about the way looking at a candle in a dark room allows you to see you the fine drizzle of gold around the flame. This is how you make me feel.

The only time I want to see things happen more slowly is when your face produces words that matter to me. I want to draw you out, prolong you, see your muscles move more heavily so I can devour each moment of their journey. I want the words you say to crawl under my skin and press down on each nerve ending, I want them to bore into my muscle memory, the only true kind of memory. 

The only way to make words stay inside you is to roll their flat paper bodies into tubes and stick them into the muscle slots. Each muscle is perforated by a thousand holes to allow your words to settle there. These slots are accessed via every pore of the skin. 

It doesn’t matter if this makes sense: what matters is that I’m trying to describe what you make me feel, and the bad job I’m doing should prove my point that words are useless at making the most of what little time there is. 

Glass Teeth

I believed for a long time that the roof of the mouth resembled a ribcage, its doming shape with its display of spokes to either side of a central line; the ribcage, that crown of reaching hands protecting the left-leaning heart, the fat wings of the lung, the huddle of liver, stomach and kidneys. This is what I imagined when my tongue stroked (over and over to the point of making the area so sensitive my ear itched for days afterwards) the hard, silky roof of its cave.

But I’ve lately come to realise that it isn’t so much a ribcage the palate resembles, although the similarities are there, but the muscles in your lower back when you lean forward, when the bumps of your spine poke upward like a small mountain range under the skin, like the pads of a paw artificially aligned under pale sheets, the erector spinae doming on either side of your backbone.

This is what I see in the palate now, not the front of the body with its vital organs, not the side that opens up for an embrace, no, I see your back naked in the shower, reaching to wipe foam from the leaves of the spider plant.

*

I nearly lost you, but our teeth have been in each other’s skin, our arms have held like gums, like fleshy earth, what is savage and unyielding about both of us. 

*

The palate occurs only in vertebrates, so it makes sense that it should appear to have a spine. Don’t we like to replicate our patterns in smaller, fractal ways? This is how our bodies connect to one another, and to themselves, how we think of our embodies minds in the world. In German, vertebrae are called ‘Wirbel’, which brings to mind vortices and whirls, an implicit and continuous gyration, hidden there in the solid spine, in the bone.

I think of the transition where hard palate turns soft, where the bone stops and the tender part begins, that knot of nerve endings that I let you touch and it makes me heave for just a second. And after the softness comes the ravenous empty hole, where things (edible things, the glassy-hard ideas of things, your words and promises) disappear, never to return, and the gullet continues to lie open expectantly even when the sustenance it craves has ceased to come.

I think of the seam, which feels like a much more gradual transition than it perhaps is, but aren’t all transitions slow, even when, looking back, you can pinpoint the exact moment where it all went wrong, it takes so long for it all to sink in, for what was beautiful to stop seeming so, when you were so used to the awareness radiating between your bodies, it takes a long time to realise that you haven’t touched each other anywhere but in your thoughts for weeks.

*

You were there when I heard he died, torn from sleep by the only voice I would allow to do so. You were there with your hands pressing down on my feet when my body shook and lost access to its words.

*

Maybe feeding one another is what we suck at. Hinting at nourishment, and like certain flowers draw the matter of their growth from the air, feels easier. Not to need the sort of food that involves taking from another, that involves a dependence on something more substantial than air. Not to need each other for pleasure, not to require each other’s presence in order to brush from our skin the leaden residue of living, does this feel like freedom, finally?

*

A month or two after his death I looked into a basin of shimmering carp on my way to a restaurant bathroom and stayed there for a long time watching the silent bodies trace their way through the shallow translucence. Though differently coloured, each had in its scales a tinge calling to the hue of another’s body, each of them linked in some way to the tone of the others. I think of the way the colour of the veins in your feet is the same as the colour of my eyes; the colour of the lines between your teeth the same as the colour of my pubic hair.

*

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 12.19.37
https://hmnh.harvard.edu/glass-flowers

Bilateral symmetry in terrestrial mammals, in fish – in many of us – is a grand idea, but not one we can as individuals live up to. We like to think we can be sliced down the middle perfectly and still make sense because all we’ve lost in that missing half is the exact thing we still own in the other.

In so many ways we, who are our bodies, fall short.  We look at each other and even though we can’t see it happen yet we know we are falling apart, always shifting around in our decay, and we know that we weren’t made – we occurred, grew out of one another. Our fragility lies in our lack of teleological purpose: all we are is a step in an experiment that can never reach its apex, the perfection a more godly experiment might work towards. We are a step in the dark, a feature of not knowing what this all works to obtain.

*

The infuriating thing about seeing your father’s dead body stretched out in a coffin a few days after he passed is that people warn you of ‘that waxwork feeling’, when that doesn’t cover it. Waxwork replicas are based on living people, made so as to imitate their living face, but a dead face cannot be made alive again. The jaw hangs loose in the head, all wrong, his skin never this colour, his eyes never so brutally shut. If only he’d been a flower, someone could have blown his likeness out of glass, someone could have copied him into something willing to accommodate even his flaws and spots, the parts where his body had begun to die while it was still alive, all in a medium without smells, without the touch of what it is.

So that we don’t realise the Harvard flowers are made from glass, we keep them behind glass, where the temptation to touch and break the illusion doesn’t occur.

And why did a god so invested in permanence

choose so fragile a medium, the last material

he might expect to last?

(Mark Doty – The Ware Collection)

I read Mark Doty’s poem about glass flowers for the first time on the morning of the day whose evening claimed my father’s life. Before he collapsed on the kitchen floor, his hands had been, as they were every night, immersed in a sink of cold water, swirling between the delicate leaves of that evening’s salad, washing their flimsy green fabric. The softness of the edible plant, the hardness of the floor tiles against his skull. And then, when my mother found him, the seam was ruptured, and the words could no longer find their way from the brain to the mouth.

My father’s body wasn’t behind glass, and it wasn’t his body anyway, the way bad taxidermy doesn’t come close to evoking the liveliness of a fox. My mother’s hand lay on my father’s forehead, she spoke to this body she knew so well as though it were alive and could still hear her words, while I held my spine close to the wall, held the soft part of my torso which my ribs can’t protect, felt the nausea stir and come out through the eyes with the itch of tears.

The transition of life into death was abrupt, took, it seems, only an hour or two, and yet those who are left now spend their days looking for those moments that caused the transition to begin with, the moments which could have contributed to a sudden-seeming interruption of the living body, a flinging of life into non-life. Should he have moved more, eaten differently, was it his sadness that did it? Was it an accumulation of things? Unless death comes from the outside, it almost always is.

A disappearance is a lack, but like the lack of a body in Cardiff and Miller’s The Killing Machine it doesn’t mean we don’t suffer with and for the invisible body tortured in the chair, it doesn’t mean we don’t see the very thing whose outline is suggested, still burned into our retina from 30 years of exposure to its presence.

There is no way to say where the transition from living to dying began, from loving to indifference, except that it was always underway and rose to the surface in a unified manner like those vertebrae in your forward-bending back are made visible by a certain movement, despite the fact that they were always there, holding you upright, allowing you to look at me, the centre from which you spread your arms open to me and closed them only once I was safely in their midst.

*

Mark Doty 2
“The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum” by Mark Doty (in My Alexandria)

*

It is too soon for me to close these threads, tie them off one after the other. The mind in grief seems to be a place of holes, capable only of opening, not of bringing back into a knot. For now, I will leave things as they are, glimpses of unrelated images on a map, in hopes that they will, over time, merge into a coherent shape, perhaps only months down the line. All I can do now is arrange them in ways that leave enough space for the filaments to form.

To Dance

On the itchy chair I watch the orchestra as it lies prostrate on the stage like a giant animal scratching its ticks, and I remember that a conductor is not at all leading a vehicle but operates the way a sculptor does, smearing the sounds into shapes with his hands.

Being part of an orchestra always felt to me like being someone else’s paint, someone’s matter, a sensation I found twofold even then, perversely so, on the one side my desire to give life to my own mind in space, and on the other the delight of being only a small part of that living body, my instrument’s voice pushed around to make sense alongside the others, all of us melting into place under the hands of the person painting this deliberate, fleeting masterpiece with the colours we provide. 

Do I miss it now? No, I left it behind, like so many ways of being.

But my body remembers what it felt like, the rasp of resinous hair on strings, how the arm lifted and the breath changed when he raised his hand and closed his fist.

Radio

Podcasts are great, and there are so many of them. It is such convenient fun to listen in on the research and/or thought collection of another person, often some-one specialising in a field I am interested in but haven’t done much delving into of my own. Someone is talking into your ear as if telling you a bedtime (or any-time) story, except they are telling you about the connections drawn between the various sources of information they have found on a particular topic.

That said, not all of the podcasts I listen to are effectively non-fiction; some of my regulars are also artfully composed digests on literature or music. But the thing about podcasts that brings about a kind of fatigue, sometimes, is that they involve choice, specifically the choice to give oneself over to what is effectively another person’s realm, voice, and material. I have to be in the mood for the host’s voice, timbre, diction, and favoured topics.

You could argue that this is just as much the case with radio, but the nice thing about radio is that you tune in and things have just been streaming on without you, you dip into something that’s just going on already, and whatever host is there, whatever piece is playing, you settle in and listen to it: it’s the equivalent of sneaking into a performance room with the lights out, taking a seat at the back, and not having to explain yourself or introduce yourself to anyone. Things just unfold in front of you at their own pace, in their own time, and if you leave, they will continue even if you’re not there to listen to them.

Psychologically, there is something soothing to me in this, and radio, much more so than podcasts, is a medium I love. The fact that I can tune in and tune out and encounter a surprise, is so relaxing. I don’t have to choose whether I’m more in the mood for a podcast on the misuse of apostrophes or an interview with Damien Hirst, whether I’d rather listen to a woman’s take on contemporary slang, or a man’s; I can just tune in and see what’s there.

All this to say the following: my one true love, as far as radio goes, is a station [the Belgian classical station MUSIQ3] that has been in my life since I can remember grasping the concept of radio stations, and being able to differentiate one station from another. It plays in my parents’ house, and now it plays on my laptop whenever I want audio company but don’t want to let one of the usual podcast hosts or Youtubers* into my space. For some reasons, radio hosts (perhaps it’s just this particular station, though) seem less intrusive, simultaneously less rambling and less scripted, and they give more space to what I need: music I didn’t choose, but that someone else (smarter, with better taste, passionate and well-intentioned) chose for ‘me-the-audience’.

Radio is my permission to let someone else decide, to drift along with a programme that isn’t directed specifically towards me and my preferences (inferred from whatever links I may have clicked, or tastes I may have indicated on social media) but exists on its own merit. This all probably sounds too much like I’m asking for permission to like and listen to radio, when a lot of people around me seem to have time only for things that are specifically designed for them, things that will in some way improve them or boost their knowledge, but I like the drifting, leisurely quality of radio, the way it doesn’t want to do anything for me in particular. It lets me listen in, float along with the programme, without pretending to make my life any more productive.

______________________________________________

* Don’t get me wrong, the video essay is one of my favourite contemporary forms, and I love watching, and learning from, those – but sometimes I like tuning in to something for any other purpose than listening in on something.