What the Body Told
Not long ago, I studied medicine.
It was terrible, what the body told.
I’d look inside another person’s mouth,
And see the desolation of the world.
I’d see his genitals and think of sin.
Because my body speaks the stranger’s language,
I’ve never understood those nods and stares.
My parents held me in their arms, and still
I think I’ve disappointed them; they care
And stare, they nod, they make their pilgrimage
To somewhere distant in my heart, they cry.
I look inside their other-person’s mouths
And see the wet interior of souls.
It’s warm and red in there—like love, with teeth.
I’ve studied medicine until I cried
All night. Through certain books, a truth unfolds.
Anatomy and physiology,
The tiny sensing organs of the tongue—
Each nameless cell contributing its needs.
It was fabulous, what the body told.
From Brief Lives, by John Aubrey, an English country gentleman, who in the words of editor Edmund Wilson "flourished between 1626 and 1697" and was "of lively intellectual interests but rather infirm character." Said character flaws included the disruption of his education at Oxford by the Civil Wars.
Sounds kind of like an Early Modern Perez Hilton (although evadne_fenn tells me I'm fundametnally misunderstanding Perez...). Aubrey "loved to compile gossip about famous men and to note their peculiarities, and in pursuit of this information he often went to considerable trouble. It was said of him by one of his friends that he expected to hear of Aubreys breaking his neck someday as hte result of dashing downstairs to get a story from departing guest." He was very bad at keeping records though, often recording stories told at parties the morning after in a hungover haze and his reliability in terms of actual facts is questionable at best. What he does provide though, is a sense of the gossip/reputations of various figures at the time. .
Andrew Marvell (196)
"He was of middling stature, pretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek't, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in his conversation very modest, and of very few words: and though he loved wine he would never drinke hard in company, and was wont to say that, he would not play the goodfellow in any man's company in howse hands he would not trust his life. He had not a generall acquaintance.
He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drinke liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits, and exalt his Muse."
John Milton (199-203)
"His harmonicall and ingeiose Soul did lodge in a beautifull and well proportioned body. He was a spare man. He was scarce so tall as I am (quaere, quot feet I am high: resp., of middle stature).
He had abroun hayre. His complexion exceeding faire--he was so faire that they called him the Lady of Christ's College. Ovall face. His eie darke gray."
"But this subtile old Earle did see that his faire and witty daughter-in-lawe would horne his sonne, and told him so, and advised him to keepe her in the Countrey and not to let her frequent the Court
"She was very salacious, and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of hte yeare, when the Stallion were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought before such a part of the house where she had viddette (a hole to peepe out at) to looke on them and please herselfe with their Sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with *her* stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back't Cecill, Earl of Salisbury.
"In her time, Wilton House was like a College, there wer so many learned and ingeniose persons. She was the greatest Patronesse of witt and learning of any Lady in her time. She was a great Chymist [by this, he seems to mean something more akin to scientist than anything else], and spent yearly a great deale in that study.
"This curious seate of Wilton and hte adjacent countrey is an Arcadian place and a PAradise. Sir Philip Sidney was much here, and there was so great love between him and his faire sister that I have heard old Gentlemen say that they lay together, and it was thought the first Philip Earle of Pembroke was begot by him, but he inherited not the witt of either brother or sister.
"This Countesse, after her Lord's death, maried to Sir Matthew Lister, Knight, one of hte colledge of Physitians, London. Jack Markham saies they were not married. He was, they say, a learned and handsome Gentleman." (Aubrey 139)
Part of what is frustrating to me in the coverage of this story, though, is that the dominant response seems to be “we were moral and civil once upon a time. It’s these kids, it’s this technology.” And that...is just a complete and utter erasure of underlying causes.
It isn’t technology that led to this. It’s the saturation of homophobia, lack of compassion, and fear of alterity. It’s not like people were magically nicer back in the “good old days” when, you know, it was a capital offense to be gay or when women had no rights or when people who weren’t white weren’t really considered people. We as humans are the same fucking pieces of shit we always have been.
Blame technology, blame the kids, but that’s just an excuse to wring our hands and keep going on with business as usual. A placebo in place of changing laws and policies and discourse and education in this country. Fuck this.
Dan Savage’s It Gets Better is beautiful and hopeful but it also is heartbreaking now. The fucked-up narrow-minded petty meanness isn’t left behind in highschool.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
I wondered, when I found it, where Tony Hoagland had been for my whole poetic life until now.
The Word -- Tony Hoagland
Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,
between "green thread"
and "broccoli" you find
that you have penciled "sunlight."
Resting on the page, the word
is as beautiful, it touches you
as if you had a friend
and sunlight were a present
he had sent you from some place distant
as this morning -- to cheer you up,
and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing,
that also needs accomplishing
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds
of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue
but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,
--to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.
I used to think this sort of thing only happened in song lyrics and not real voice mail: "Hello, this message is for Destiny. My name is Ziggy, we met at the gas-station. I wanted to know what you wanted to do tonight."
I couldn't stop thinking about this--it seemed too perfect, too fictive to be real and I kept wondering why, and then I realized, it gets at the most basic and simplistic distinction between fiction and reality: narrative. There's a brilliant, wonderfully closed coherent narrative to this message, like a a Kawabata palm of the hand story. Based on just these few words, you have the past, present and future. You know exactly what happened, what happens, and now what will never happen. Poor Ziggy. His Destiny is a fake name and number and now their gas-station romance will never be.
So to say what every one knows about fiction/narrative/story-telling, it's about making meaning, giving coherence to what by nature never has any of those things. I've just never come across it in such a perfect, representative anecdote.
Miniature -- Yiannis Ritsos
translated by Kimon Friar
The woman stood before the table. Her sad hands
cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
in a child’s fairy tale. The young officer across from her
is sunk deep in the old armchair. He does not look at her.
He lights his cigarette. His hand holding the match trembles,
lighting up his tender chin and the teacup’s handle. The clock
for a moment holds its heartbeat. Something has been postponed.
The moment has gone. It is now too late. Let’s drink our tea.
Well then, is it possible for death to come in such a carriage?
To pass by and disappear? Until only this carriage
remains with its little yellow wheels of lemon
halted for so many years on a side street with darkened lamps,
and then a small song, a bit of mist, and then nothing?
Mirror -- Sylvia Plath
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful---
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Each time I have this sort of intense grad school meltdown, I feel like I’ll never be able to read again. And sometimes, it’s true. Between my first and second years, I spent a whole summer not reading because I couldn’t bear to look at books. After orals, sci-fi saved me. It wasn’t reading, it was consumption. Inhaling books so quickly, I hardly remembered character names. I tore through a dreadful Asimov novel, am on my third book in
After signing in, I sat for five minutes, looking at the first page of Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. I didn’t know how to read it. My first impulse was to tear through words, trying to simply get to what happens as I had been doing for the past few weeks with sci-fi. But a novel like Ishiguro’s resists such treatment. Instead, I began on the first page with painstaking attention, the kind of focus that helps you remember practically every page, helps you hold all the characters and details in your head in the same moment. The kind of reading I did for orals. And it was exhausting. I wondered if I’d lost the ability to read. Not burn texts into my mind or consume them carelessly.
I wanted to set the book aside after a page, but fortunately, Ishiguro is so skilled, and sci-fi had soothed me enough, that after the first few pages (which I remember in far too much detail), I loosened up. I eased back into my chair, and remembered again that feeling that I feel like I hadn’t consciously engaged in for so long. Of losing myself entirely in a story not my own, without other thoughts running in my head, without wanting to take notes, without thinking to pause and consider the implications of things. I lost myself for a little while, i let myself go, and I liked it.
It is cheesy and awful and everyone says it. But I like reading because it is a type of role-playing, of shape-shifting and traveling, of going elsewhere, being elsewhere, of being someone else for a space before coming back to yourself.
Today I realized I want to pick up books again. I’m glad this part of me isn’t dead.