Photo Credit: Benjamin M. Johnson
This is not a meditation on cannibalism or its function as “last taboo” but a direct translation of my kidneys, which are the shape of a woman made into the contours of countries, of earth dwellings, from ocean bed to desert, from grotto to swamps. We cannot see until the line is drawn. The empty shape fills with seawater. The animal heart begins to rot. The child that did not incite light, love, or befuddled attention but a question.
I came here with a question, motherfuckers.
On November 9th 2016, I listen to Jewish survivors reflect on Kristallnacht’s 78th anniversary, somewhere in a hot desert morning. A woman next to me weeps. We made it to the Belarusian border. My mother’s breast milk had dried up. On the evening before, election night, I drove the car and listened to the radio. The highway empty. None of my students had showed up. We made it to the Volga river. The Germans bombed the train and except for one car, we traveled on. I would not go to the poet’s lecture two days later. On the way, we saw the gallows, and closer to the prison, not far from the back entrance, we came upon a mound of dead bodies on which dogs were running. The wind lambasted the garden. And when I was sick and helpless, I prayed to my God.
Sunset at 5:15.
My middle school students, the next day, some of whom just arrived in this country, tell me about their dreams. They hold onto their placid folders, bright colors, lying closed on the little round tables at which my students live, think, and are afraid. And I, too, see my house, the landscaped garden, the growing chiltepin and colorful shack as something I will lose.
My Congolese student recounts his nightmare. He is in a vast jungle. A young girl appears, all black. She calls his name several times. He wakes up, drinks some water. When he goes back to sleep, the girl is there again, in the jungle, and she is dead.
Others speak of nuns holding knives, of great grandparents, black snakes, soldiers holding them down while they cry: “I am dying, I am dying.” Some dream of angels. Some of a sea made of chocolate, where the chocolate chips are rocks.
The child that got hit by a car sits at a table, he doesn’t want to write about the elements, doesn’t even want to look at me.
In groundswell all our eyes go under.
The historical destination of humans is unclear to themselves, says Alan Badiou. His advice: “Go beyond the world as it is.”
Faces are stitched together in darkness, their course or intention mysterious, caught in a room between layers of air. The sleepless talk in such incoherent fragments. Their sentences go mute half way; some words occasionally light up in full urgency, then die off. Time zooms through the mind of the sleepless, like muskrats through water. What jarring mouths. Helicopters come and go. At night, when sleepless, I detect mistakes in the book, the desire to lounge around like the woman in the movie, on old moth-ridden furniture, smoking a cigarette over and over again.
In the heat of this November, the 14th, the desert sounds on. People who live here begin to look like ancient desert roses. Their skin taut and eyes clear, crystalline, embedded in deep lying holes. The human skin peeled toward an ancient seabed. The narrative is one of endurance, of making do, of staying close to the ground. Clocks melt; their hands and numbers vanish. White cramped shells whirl about the night. In my dreams now fractures of other places, shabby apartment viewings in Berlin.
Was there water, a rowboat, last night?
How to land in perfect poise on the back of a bull, on your hands standing up?
In my blood, the memory of the worst possible outcome. In my skin, the tender coil of a human will gone violent. The curve of my spine indicates the many hundreds of years of my kind listening up late at night for mortal threat.
Phil has written a letter.
Turns out all the main roads north of the camps are blocked off as of when we were there. Across the Cannonball River the police have set up concrete barricades and razorwire and have massed to protect the pipeline workers. From what, it’s unclear since each day a group of people go the barricades and pray, and are arrested. Each day a new group of people go to the barricades, pray, and are arrested. All on a public road, mind you. Tactics have changed over time but this is what the scene was last week and weekend.
The actual work on the pipeline is happening on a ridge north of the camps, largely out of sight, but for the lights up on the ridge looking down on the river and camps all night, the noise of generators also all night, and the constant row of white pickups on the road north of the barricades. It is more of an occupation than a protest in the manner I’ve known or expected. The camp is the protest and the life there is powerful and eloquent. We found an amazing level of organization within a decentralized system.
At the center of the camp (figuratively, it is growing and shifting in size and shape daily) there is a fire and a group of elders who are the spiritual and moral leaders of the camp, and have managed to shape the protests, keep peace in the camp and at the front lines. There’s a PA system and for the few days we were there the MC of the day was actually hilarious, teasing passersby and his extended family. In between chants and dances and prayers, they guy talks all day long, and his sense of humor cut through the pious seriousness of the undertaking in a needed way. The population of the camp is so inspiringly varied, from all over this country and Canada, Native and nonnative, babies and children, elders, young anarchists, unemployed middle-aged white dudes, all colors and religions represented, a monk of some Christian persuasion and a Buddhist monk we saw.
Snow was predicted for today, and much harder weather to come, but more permanent, or at least more solid structures are being built. The donated supplies are staffed by an intake person, sorted and distributed by others to labeled tents, dozens of stoves and composting toilets are being constructed, there are a couple of hydraulic log splitters, many axes and a few chainsaws working all day to process wood.
We simply dropped off what we’d brought and spent a day chopping vegetables in the kitchen, chopping and stacking firewood, sorting books for a proposed library, picking up any stray bits of trash we found (the place is impeccably free of litter!), and praying and walking at the river, but ALL THOSE SIMPLE ACTS were by the community and guidance of the people of Standing Rock transformed definitively and powerfully into ACTS OF RESISTANCE. I wish for this spirit to animate our daily lives and yours.
At the reading, a few days later, we listen to Daniel Borzutzky’s carcass economy, its last days, to immigrants who died in a truck in Arizona. We listen to our own exhaustion. The magpies picking at our clothes. We feel temporarily safe, though raw as fuck, and whatever I said about wakefulness came back to haunt me; now I am wakeful all the time, can no longer fall away from the world, not day or night. Lie and watch the fan move my curtains and scarves during hours of darkness and wonder:
What does your hand represent? Viscosity? Alchemy? The Colorado River? We planted beans and amaranth. Others began us. Opulent and tide. The ongoing work of separating the grain from the husk. Corinthian riddles at the bedside. Can we meet again at the place that has never been touched? That has never been handed over to the world?
Saturday. The birds flap their wings to defend their grain. I dream of three beautiful stones, blue and aquamarine, which begin to talk as I pick them up: “We had an emergency, that’s why we lost the election.” Then an airplane crashes and we are all told to rub an antibacterial cream over our bodies, as we sit on the lopsided plane and drift along the ocean.
There are two ways to change the spin of a planet. One is to a change the planet’s obliquity, where the spin axis of the planet is reorienting with respect to the rest of the solar system. The second way is through true polar wander, where the spin axis remains fixed with respect to the rest of the solar system, but the planet reorients beneath it.
Opal Walker sends me her dream:
I come into a place as dark as an old growth forest with some of the place forested and some of the place composed of meadows and fields. In the sky thick, agitated clouds announce the coming storm. Some people take refuge in the forest, but most wait in the open. They’re supremely anxious, the turmoil of the clouds reflected in their ceaseless movements and panicked outbursts. Something is about to happen. The people want it to happen, but also fear that it will. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be a part of it and so I simply turn the corner (the forest has corners) and find myself in another place. An interior. I ask the people there: What’s going on back there? In my mind it has to do with the Apocalypse, but the around-the-corner people say: What’s going on is one of the forms of enlightenment and you know how painful that can be. I do. I can recall many difficult experiences of enlightenment and how scary, humiliating, and physically painful they can be. The people-around-the-corner then discuss how the other people may have missed the enlightenment opportunity because of the amount of fear that has been generated. There’s a discussion about kindness as a possible alternative. Later I look up the word “apocalypse” finding that it means: to uncover.
The night before Thanksgiving, a Wednesday, Robert performs Internal. An adaption of Lejb Goldin’s “Chronicle of a Single Day” composed, buried, then exhumed in the Warsaw Ghetto. A performance dedicated to Bea and Standing Rock.
He reads from lose sheets of paper:
Tired, pale fingers are setting type somewhere in Cracow “Tik tak, tik taktak. Rome the Duce has announced . . . Tokyo the newspaper Asahi Shimbun . . . Tik tik tik ta . . . Stockholm . . . Tik tik . . . Washington Secretary Knox has announced . . . Tik tik tik tak . . . And I am hungry.”
Robert sways in a large tub surrounded by golden brown grass. In wide woolen pants, the text between his hands, while the audience in a circle is tied to his movements, his single body, his single voice, sometimes coughing, yelling, high pitched, a child’s mockery that all evolves around a dialogue with his crumbling stomach: Because I, your stomach, am hungry. Do you realize that by now?
The Oyneg Shabbes Archive sought to document and archive life in the ghetto and the razed Jewish villages the imprisoned had come from. Despite knowing radical erasure would soon meet them, these writers, in an underground collective sense, held the innate belief that “nothing was unimportant.”
Here there is no sunrise. The day comes to the door like a beggar. The days are already shorter. But I . . . I like the autumnal foggy dawns. Everything becomes so dreamy, lost in thought, longing, concentrated in itself. Everything draws away somewhere, people, world, cloud prepares for something that connects everything. The grey patch standing in the corner of the room with open arms, that’s the new day.
The opposite table is already in a state of grace. Peaceful quietness, they are already eating. And it somehow seems to you that the people at that table feel superior to you, worthier. And it hasn’t reached your table yet. And you are only imagining it: somehow the people sitting here have such long faces, not having eaten faces, with swollen ghetto spots under their eyes, which give the face a look.
—Warsaw Ghetto, August 1941
December 1. Below freezing. I went to the ER again, hoping for some kind of result, a fix to an inexplicable shoulder pain and chest burden. When asked if I had been to the ER in the last 2 years, I have to admit that I did, though under different circumstances, drive myself to the ER assuming heart attack or stroke about 18 months ago. And similarly, the EKG showed no abnormality. The doctor explained the sensation as symptoms of a panic attack. At the ER yesterday, I am told, I was probably suffering from inflammation. I waited for 2-hours hooked to an IV for some more results and a big dose of painkillers, which made me feel good again within 15-minutes. Walked home, made some aubergine dish, signed petitions.
Sometimes I just want to have a bank account that takes care of itself, a nice house by the sea, a good glass of wine at moonrise, new false adjectives and old sources of play.
Then I hear and hoar and here and have and hiss and huddle, a times’ beckoning.
Made up of spatial figures, of folds and pockets, participation without belonging, the internalization of the outside, suspension and immersion, borderlines, walls and bridges, negotiations and sometimes splitting of the self, dislocation and disorientation.
Decidedly Mathias says: “There are no good or bad people. There are acts and decisions. I mean, I am sure Idi Amin was good to his family.”
Susan asks: “Remember Sesame Street? Since then, I have been banging my head against the wall of the ‘we are all equal’ idea, until bloody.
Also, why does civil war sound like a good idea?”
Keep asking all winter.
The rich are sad as are the poor, and the horse is sad as is the bog, and the child is sad as is the teacher, and the neighbor is sad as is the arctic.
But as Mathias reminds me: “You can’t build bridges if they are going to shoot at you from the other side of that bridge.”
All I know is that my body feels differently about the future than my mind and it does not care about the rights and vetoes of presidents.
What was the hottest summer will soon become the coldest winter.
“It’s history in the making,” said Kenny Nagy, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, dragging four duffel bags down a long corridor in Union Station before boarding the bus for North Dakota on Friday. “We’re going to be actually helping out people of the United States instead of corporations. I am so ready. The whole world is watching.”
By mouth 4-times a day for 3-days as needed for pain with food or milk. And remember, it’s your turn to take it on. Your turn to turn in lungs, land, and life inflamed.
I perceive this as an enduring exile. The inability to charge and the expectation to be charged.
And what magical acts will we be able to generate for ourselves, for others?
Good mother, all I know is how to light a candle when the light turns.
Joy Harjo sings a song to us and then says: “We had a bit of a shock recently. Lots of us have lost pieces of themselves. You need to call them back gently. You might need to sleep awhile after these pieces have returned.”
To count yourself of the blessed, means to count against. Means I do not wish you well.
The spoils gravitate along the riverbed. Each morning waking to an inexplicable task. I am running down the nail, the fluorescent baggy sunset in my crystalline low-lying desert. The moon waning. From the heart of the scorpion to the eye of the bull, what forms are you raising? How are you spending your time? What are you trying to decipher?
The dog, a huge white ghost, runs toward me. We both lost our voice, our memory of the alphabets. Even after so many years, the spelling is off. I cannot explain why it has to be written this way. Inside the lights are bright, and once in a while they can be seen tossed in a flat palm. Once in a while they appear from the roots, levitating upward. They signal a pause. To look and observe, for example, the empty tortoise shells. There are also photographs of mass burial pits, the dead horse in contaminated desert soil. The lights will, at some point, notice each other and you can participate in their play.
The play, Internal, co-directed by Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman and Perin McNelis, is based on a translation of Goldin’s text, found in The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe ed. By David Roskies.
Excerpts from the Kristallnacht testimonies were taken from To Tell Our Stories: Holocaust Survivors of Southern Arizona ed. by Raiza Moroz and Richard Fenwick.
Yanara Friedland is a German-American writer, translator, and teacher. Her first book, Uncountry: A Mythology was the winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Fiction award. She is the recipient of research grants from the DAAD and Arizona Commission on the Arts, supporting her current book project Groundswell, a chorography of the German-Polish and Sonoran borderlands. The director of MyLife Tucson, a community archive, hosted by the Jewish History Museum in Tucson, she teaches at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.