There you are. Your skin’s impeccable smell, the beeswax whiff of it. The rustle of your limbs around my skull, like the turn of a page progressing along a two-voice tale. Your scent returns as a ripple. You who are my week, my gristle. Hop into the space I’ve opened between my hands, rest there in your figurative purrs. I have said before that I cannot hold these leaves open on my own, that the space I gave once deadened the brass in me, but your air still reverberates with the uncanny sensation of feathers dipped in gold.

Listen. Your whole body is a whisker. Love has caused these ribbons to tighten inside my skin, hold me upright in false and disconcerting ways, and your response was this: yes, I too am tired of running, running in this way that feels like falling between loosened sheets of earth. Yes, you said, my whole body is a whisker. Let me give you the water I’ve wrung from my hair, cup your ears and catch its languid syllable curd. Begin a benevolent trade between soil and atmosphere. Yes, I too am tired of the blackened wick, the missing glue between things. We have seen what your eyes can do; we have both been on the cusp of your fire.


You told me to go through the garden and find the thing that was most like myself, and so once I was alone I walked through the vegetation, looking. I walked through the high grasses and my feet folded their blades into more complicated shapes. I walked and the pebbles flicked out from under me. I walked close to the water, past reeds that gorged themselves on its pools, past driftwood with intricate reliefs, rocks intensely veined, birds rotund with song. I walked past exquisite lilies, past the structural devotion of pines, every part of me looking in this beauty for a resonance.

After a while, the rain fell hard into my hair and I hid in the undergrowth, crawling between streams of ivy, my hands smeared with lichen and wiped clean again by neon pads of moss, until a low clearing emerged and I leaned against the striated bark of a cherry tree. Its cauterised marks embossed themselves into my back and this damaged being seemed to me such an obvious mirror I decided this was it. Having completed my task, I closed my eyes until the rain let up. 

But when I crawled out after a while to hold my hand into the air and check for drops, I saw further down the path a cluster of dried grey twigs growing bare, clipped and idle from the earth, and the part of me that wishes I could just exist in my true and unadorned mediocrity felt understood. I weaved myself, with great cost to my personal boundaries, between the brittle twigs, making my body as boneless as it could be, and there I breathed the shallow breath of deferral until the day went dark and you returned to me. When you asked me what I had learned, I told you I would have to think about it deeply, and tell you once I understood.

Not like now

heaven is insufficient / you know too well it’s paradise

you want // where we are bodies, extemporised and full

of melting splinters /// fondness consumed

amidst animals and trees, our colours all coiled

in embrace //// you think the white light of love is a quiet

bath of bliss, so immaterial, the inscrutable

everlastingness of it ///// paradise is heaven

with lungs, but you say there is no return

to a place of breath and sublimity ////// our grunting cannot blend 

with the birds’ capacity for speech, not in the damp 

chill of the shade after our dying /////// you bit me, and I know

I bit you in turn, betraying pale matter below

the sun-reddened skin //////// not here, and not now

paradise is incarnate, but this ongoing heaven

is bland, a doorway of bodies / peeled off

and hung up like garb //////// that which we want

is deep / and bright / and unlikely

it already slipped once / and you

tore out your lungs / saying

////////// that was enough

Hieroglyphs for the Child

Before it was born, the child’s life was imagined in great detail, written out in many early drafts, then hammered into a final contract.

A number of categorical details were settled on from the beginning, chiselled into the walls of the sandstone nursery, painted with different tones of wax and clay, imperatives the child was expected to bring about.

Walk across the desert back in time to the nursery wall. Do you remember how to read the language that precedes the alphabet?

If you think you can, refer to the wall and remember your imperatives.

Follow the lines strung between the pictographs. 

You will be a girl. You will be beautiful. You will be a poet. You will study other people’s thoughts. You will not defile your body in any way. You will find someone worthy of you. Your eyes will be as ours are, one good one bad, but your hearing will be absolute, pitch-perfect, and whenever you raise your arms it will be to conduct the orchestra tethered to your fingertips. You will be funny but not silly. You will not disappoint anyone. You will speak many languages. You will cause other people to praise you. You will be tall, no, ok, well at least you won’t be short, ok, so you fucked up on that, but at the very least you won’t be overweight. Your body will be as we tell it to be. Your mind will not lapse. You will not disappear. You will be drawn to other countries. You will not disappoint. You won’t have sex on our sofa. You won’t have sex in our house. You won’t have sex with anyone unworthy. You will always be able to give a reason for your behaviour. You won’t take drugs, you won’t smoke, you won’t drink, you won’t damage the flesh you were given. You won’t have a single useless skill. Your skin will be soft and clear. Your body will be limber. You will sharpen your mind using the symbology we pass down to you. You will not hurt yourself. You will not hurt yourself. You will not hurt your violin, you will see the wooden stick of the soul in its hollow body and honour it as if it were a living being. You will not shout at your mother. You will not shout at your father. You will respect your teachers as if they were your parents. You will not shout or swear outside of the jesting context. You will go to circus school to hone your body as a theatrical object. You will learn to speak clearly without mumbling. You will not make mistakes. You will not make mistakes, there is no time. You will never forget that your parents are always about to die. You will never forget a thing we tell you. People will know your name, and through your name your father’s name, and his father’s name. You will be as useful as a boy. You will write and your words will be made visible. You will be lovable. You will not chew your own flesh. You will not be ashamed of your body. You will be a girl. You will be a girl. You will not grow hair in abject places. You will not be ill. You will look beautiful at all times. You will not destroy yourself in any way.

Before it was born, the child, half-formed in the womb, clamped its toothless mouth around the fractal growth of hands and sucked, pressed its gums down into the fragile mass of skin and bone; the child chewed the hands until the work of growth started to regress, the child chewed itself back into an abstract clump of thought, back into cells, back into egg and spermatozoa, back into the union that brought it forth. 

You will not pursue that which doesn’t yield results. You will not hang on to useless things. You will not have self-annihilating thoughts. You will like yourself at all times. You will find worth in the things you were given in your childhood. You will contemplate death and meaninglessness only from the ivory safety of philosophical abstraction. You will be utterly self-assured. 

Above all, you will be happy. 

Jimmy Ernst, Observation VII, 1965

Some Things You Didn’t Say Because You Thought You Had More Time

A week or so before you disappeared into that unreachable realm, I asked you, the way I often did, to tell me how to live a better life.

Clean your windows once a month, you said, and I said, No, seriously.

I suppose, you said, you could read Wittgenstein and ask him, and I said, No thanks, that’s not a path I wish to follow.

Or you could read Heidegger, you said, and in my mind I tasted the water someone once brought me back from Heidegger’s mountain cabin spring.

Or you could read Plato, you said, and I said, Enough, it’s you I’m asking. Tell me what you think. For once in your life, teach me something in a straightforward way.

Find someone, you said, speaking from experience, who will teach you to be better. Find someone who will see the mess of your outline and say “I care about everything you are.”

That’s not an option, I said. I’m too afraid of pain.

Then, you said, find an animal who evokes tenderness, so you can learn to give without fear.

My landlord’s a shrew, I said, I’m not sure he’ll allow any other rodents on the premises.

Then, you said, all I can say is, remember to love carefully everything you hold, no matter how briefly; to be open and giving even to that which runs away; to see each colour for what it is, and for the way it impacts the one next to it. Remember that cutting your own hair is an act of kindness, in a way. Remember that the room you live in is just a shell, the way you are just a crab. Remember that whatever you are is not your fault, nor does it last forever. Remember that loving cannot help but feel like stepping on an urchin, and that no matter how carefully you remove the spines, the sensation stays inside your flesh until you find another urchin to step on the same way, to fill the same deep and narrow holes. Remember that the flesh you have is always changing, but that its need to be held, to be part of the world it’s made from, will never disappear.

Kafka’s sirens

The siren speaks to Odysseus:

It hasn’t occurred to you that the reason why you haven’t drowned or crashed into rocks isn’t because you are immune to my song, but because, like Kafka’s sirens, I have not been singing to you.

My mouth was open, but I watched you sail past in silence; not because I don’t, in the silent inlet of my ribcage, carry unspoken words that chain together to express an excess of affection towards you, but because reaching out to you in song would cause a crash neither of us wants for you.

Like Kafka’s sirens, it could be enough to watch you sail past in blissful illusion of your own shrewdness, the conviction that you are stronger than most, with better self-control, and to witness, as your chained-up body passes by, the candle-light of your eyes pierced by the arrows of the sun.

Yes, sometimes it is enough to know how beautiful you are, to know you were once close, and that, by its absence, my song let your ship sail away from the jagged edges I serve.


Franz Kafka, Das Schweigen der Sirenen

I love this retelling of Odysseus sailing past the sirens. Kafka seems to make it about our capacity for delusion, the hardest thing to resist being the idea of one’s own resilience when facing temptation. However, this doesn’t apply to Odysseus alone, but also in part to the sirens themselves, perhaps even the Gods. It is possible, says Kafka, that Odysseus didn’t realise the sirens were silent, or maybe he did know and simply went through the motions his myth required of him. The siren is deluded into thinking she isn’t singing, and Odysseus is deluded into believing he hears a song when in reality all he hears is the rush of the sea around him, and the excitement of resisting temptation flowing through his skull. The Gods are deluded simply by virtue of being Gods.

Max Beckmann, Odysseus und Sirene, 1933


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.