And now the museums are closed, and the book tours canceled. And it might be a while before three or five can safely crowd around those little white museum title cards that tell you what you’re looking at, and it might be a longer while before dozens of us can breathe together between bookshelves listening for the little catch that signals a tear in the writer’s heart, or lacrimal ducts, or guts. But there are still books, and there are still books with depth and space enough to feel almost museum-like, and if you could read their title cards, one of them might look like this:
The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic
Miah Jeffra (b. [1980s?] )
Ekphrastic Essays, 140 pages, Sibling Rivalry Press, Little Rock, Arkansas $18.00
(Paper, words, images, memories, essays, truth, lies, truth about lies, blood, tears, heart), binding courtesy of Sibling Rivalry Press, spine courtesy of the author.
The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic is a memoir in 27 essays about art, or an evolving portrait of a boy becoming a person learning to love as reflected through 27 artworks. It is also a discussion of art as lie and desire and of the problems of subjectivity. It is a memoir about art that argues that memoir is impossible given the unreliability of memory and perception, and the inadequacy of words to capture something like love, or gender, or truth. It reads like a long Sunday afternoon walk through a museum with your smart friend who tangents to stories and theory and pictures on their phone, all the while admitting that museums and stories are curations – imperfect, possibly violent, but somehow connected to our sense of belonging.
On view in the galleries of Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic are artworks and artists ranging from the expected (and beloved) queer canon (Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres), to cultural moments (My Own Private Idaho, Madonna), to Jeffra’s family pictures. In one essay, Jeffra writes to Chris Offili’s Holy Virgin Mary; in another, to a leg lamp received as a graduation gift. Pink Narcissus is one art subject, so is a picture of the author’s mother, so is former Calvin Klein underwear model-turned-Republican-nightmare Antonio Sabato Jr. The book makes you ask what art is and enlarges the question until you want to throw up your hands and ask what isn’t art, after all. Over the artworks, Jeffra layers theory, memories, past, present, lingering questions. In these essays, the ekphrastic phrase after [the art work] pivots in meaning, offering a response to the work, and also asking how we are different after we’ve encountered it, and how we change them just by looking at them and wanting them to be something we need. Jeffra writes:
Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum. I was running from someone at the end of the millennium. I was lost in the Brooklyn Museum of Art because it was big and it was full of things I had no control over … Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum.
At the heart of Ekphrastic Fantastic is a boy coming of age as a queer person in the context of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, navigating divorce and family, the lingering knell of HIV/AIDS, early hook ups and relationships, homophobia, art school, and finally learning to love and be loved. But this is also a memoir about lying, or fabricating, or, as Jeffra writes in some places “curating” the truth:
I would perform often these fabrications – these deceptions – throughout my youth. Stories of exotic travel, of chance encounters with love, stories of my body, perhaps all desires made manifest, tinges with a rolling language that drew people near. Which desire held me most? Their proximity, or mine?
Without dodging responsibility: Jeffra enlarges the question: what is art? What is perception? What is truth? It’s a clever trick; the memoir that argues against the logical possibility of memoir, but circles, labyrinthine, around the mechanism of perception and creation. How do you get out of the labyrinth? “The more you stare at something,” Jeffra writes, “the less real it seems to be … A photograph. This one tells me I’m allowed to feel exactly one thing. What would I choose? Is that a choice any of us can make?”
The minotaur of the book is the double loss of Jeffra’s sister Shenandoah, who goes from being a real person in their past to a fabrication: Jeffra realizes that Shenandoah was a story, a lie they told themself in order to live. Her disappearance from Jeffra’s life is just as heartbreaking as a real death, or possibly more: At the heart of the labyrinth is the knowledge that an artist/ writer can imagine a whole person into being simply because they were needed, but that person won’t necessarily stay, anymore than Frankenstein’s monster, or the monsters we create of and for one another. It reminds us that art/ make-believe can reach us and lift us and save us and make us less alone, but not always, not in the ways we’d like, and not permanently. And yet they live on.
Shenandoah appears in my dreams often. Her hair spills over my shoulder as we read a book together, or we run along the walls of my room that are probably smaller than I remember. She is not a memory, more a truth than true. Imagination made material. A fiction more real than most of my lived reality.
Those of us sheltering in place are familiar with this moment: the zoom meeting ends. Shenandoah disappears. The song ends. If we’re lucky, we remain, in the after. If we’re lucky, we get a glimmer of utopia, or belonging, or of a perfect love and we can spend the rest of the after wondering, like Jeffra, if the thing you saw was a spaceship or just something you didn’t have the words for yet, and may never. You can sometimes see it in the after – the way they write of a friend:
She took my arm in hers, and that sensation: the closest I would ever be to belonging. A fresh thing. A word that comes to mind. But I already forgot what it was.
What is lie, what is truth, what is art, what is perception? These questions circle, gently, and also bravely. Jeffra questions perception (To An Ex lover, After Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses), memory (The Treachery of Images) and the ability to let go of a memory, even when you know they are false. Some essays take on the forms of their question, like Denotation/ Connotation, a kind of pantoum about belonging. Some are letters, to Keith Haring, to David Bowie, to the Calvin Klein Model. They are kaleidoscopic in range, layering memory over art over theory over longing over questions. Some are truly, deeply, existentially laugh-out-loud funny. In “Miracle of Miracles, after Nova’s Miracle of Life,” Miah confronts their mother to ask the most important question of all, “Mom, did you poop?”
Miah Jeffra writes like a friend, a very very smart friend (they have spent time teaching art and humanities, and it shows), which is to say, kindly, vulnerably, and sometimes so deeply personally, so that you begin to believe in the memoir again, as a trust fall of vulnerability. In this curated artificial museum of one person’s coming-to-love, Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper hangs alongside a picture of the author’s mother. We are invited to share in a feeling, a moment:
I photograph my mother, because I want to know if the pain I see in her living can be glimpsed in that still life. I want to know if anyone else can see it. When you love something so much, you see your own truths mapped over theirs, and the contours don’t always align:
Meandering these essays now, these weeks that museums are closed, you could be forgiven for asking what is a museum? What belongs in these buildings and out of them? Why not a picture of the author holding a leg lamp? Why not Madonna’s Holiday? Why not a picture of the author’s mother, and of which they write: “I don’t know which truth this photograph demands, but for me, the demand is always beginning.” And more importantly, what’s next?
“Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum,” Jeffra writes. Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of the personal essay. Is it truth? What if there isn’t a truth? Or what if the truth is odd: the truth is that we look to art. The truth is that we’re lustful for belonging. The truth is that artists are real people.
This is all that I know, dear reader: no matter what the reality, there is a truth to this memory: joy. Love. May I keep this? For my own sake? Keepsake. Art is a lie that tells the truth. What is true? Love. In the photo? Love.
The truth is that art is fantastic means both fabulous and fabulated, and it might be hard to tell the difference. Ekphrastic Fantastic makes you want to ask: what are the artworks that raised me, what are the stories I made up to survive? If I were to tell you about my lovers, my mother, my childhood, what would the title card say? What works belong in your museum? Where were you the first time you saw a painting that made you cry? It makes you anticipate the unintentional 28th essay, the one might be silently added to every single art work now: After COVID. Someday the museums will open again. What will we look for there? Could it be that we never needed their walls to transform, or love, belong?
Carson Ash Beker (they/them) is a hybrid storyteller and experience creator, co-founder of The Escapery Pirate Art Collective and Queer Cat Productions Theater Company. Their stories are upcoming or found in Michigan Quarterly Review, Joyland, Fairy Tale Review, Spunk, Foglifter, Gigantic Sequins, and on ships and in cemeteries and on stages across the bay area. They are proud to be a Lambda writer, a graduate of Clarion West 2018, and an associate editor at Pseudopod. They can be found at CarsonBeker.com; QueerCatProductions.com and at www.Escapery.org.