“Breathe In / Breathe Out / American Oxygen”
There are writers who you read / who you feel you’ve lived with / been born or gutted with. Where did I meet them? / Where do I meet them? In a dream. In a riot of mud. Natalie Eilbert once wrote to me and said something about trusting my writing / my poetry. I’m not writing that to bring myself into the conversation so much as to reveal the conversation exactly. Because that is also how I would describe my immediate reaction to reading Eilbert’s Swan Feast. This is bloodvelvet and a ferocity I trust. My friend, L, wrote to me not that long ago and wondered if it’s possible to trust anyone in the poetry world / in the creative world, what trust could even look like here. I look at the sprawl / the wound there is extraordinary suffering in / and agree, but then again, I read and here it feels. I don’t know what that small pulse means for our community or its ruins, which are not so different from the imaginary / real ruins Eilbert’s book opens with. “I am sick of drawing this connection: there is no document of civilization that isn’t also its ruins” – “The Life and Death of the Venus City.” America / Poetry in its current iterations is the collapsing / uprising Empire / the unnamed circulation that once existed where the centerpiece of Swan Feast, a sculpture named the Venus of Willendorf, was dug up / shorn from soil. Re-reading Eilbert’s poetry, letters we’ve exchanged, what’s been written, I’m always reminded that our writing continues (to breathe? to oscillate?) despite our changing distance / and our feeling to it. I forget how something came to be, what was once etched, and I glance again and am overcome but also am aware that the reminder / the recognition inflames change / layers of an infinite surrounding. Writing isn’t ours or is it? Dead and scattered beneath the earth, decently, decently.
“For Venus, I wish only our beautiful women / dead and scattered beneath the earth, decently, decently”
ddd–“The Death and Life of the Venus City”
Swan Feast is full of a poetry and a trajectory that moves between intense concentration and enumeration. The book swarms around the limestone body / sculpture of the Venus of Willendorf found in 1908 (“a leap year, the same year oil was found in the Middle East” –“The Death and Life of The Venus City”) by a conglomeration of male archeologists in Austria who named her for a comfortable Western / Abercrombie and Fitch ideal of ancient femininity the she infinitely predates / obliterates (28,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE). She is not Venus, the statue of the woman with her arms cut off. She is not Venus, the heart goddess who hid her cunt out of shame / “modesty.”
“The disgusting sun published my form, gave it culture, imagination”
ddd–“Conversation with a Stone Wife”
Where a Venus is a neat, easily (re)producible / easily translatable male fantasy, the Venus of Willendorf is a protrusion. I was going to use the word invasion here but that is incorrect in that it suggests that her presence is somehow too much / unwarranted. Though, of course, any space the female figure / the head-dressed figurine takes up / can be deemed too much / at any given time / in any (public) space. No, the Venus of Willendorf is a growth, a presence, a luminous ne(gate)ion. “N, I wanted to insulate and poison this body that made me to suck and taste and god there” –“[letter excavated from the willendorf tomb].” If the sculpture / the form is in conversation with anyone in Roman / Greek culture it is Baubo*, the oft excluded life / language who is described as bawdy, wise, loving, and cumbersome, who later serves as a model for the nurse character in Romeo and Juliet, who encounters Demeter wandering the earth mourning the loss / violent abduction of her daughter Persephone. Baubo lifts her skirts, exposing herself to Demeter, and it is this act that restores Demeter, it is this act that allows Demeter to act (to demand her daughter’s return) despite her grief. The cunt as revelation / as “vulva clown” / as compassionate exposure / as sharp, soft edge / as ward.
Baubo shares a body and a “disproportion” with the Venus of Willendorf, who cannot stand upright, though she is displayed in all the pictures I looked up online (but not on Eilbert’s cover) as doing exactly that / exactly what she is built to refuse.
“At what age does a woman’s body become the insult of a woman’s body,” asks Eilbert in “1. On the Confrontation with Men and History.” The I of the poem is a young thing staring at an old thing. She is the alive thing staring at the alive thing (of the past), the thing dug up from the ground. Her reaction to the old woman on the NYC subway, to the Venus of Willendorf, to her own body, is a tangling, engorged river. Eilbert’s question is marked with a period rather than a question mark because the answer is all age / any age. The woman’s body is always an insult to America / to Capitalism (Do you forget, too, that a “good” is also a fucking desirable product? “We are drawn to shit because we are imperfect in our uses of the good,” says Ted Berrigan.) / to those that gaze upon the space it can’t seem to stop taking up / to those that must continually acknowledge the malleable existence of the body when it would rather acknowledge its repetitive use / its static pleasure.
“HOW MANY TOUCHED YOU BEFORE YOU TOUCHED BACK”
ddd–“Peak Shift Effect”
To Eilbert, the Venus of Willendorf is a difficult mirror / a confidant / a comfort / a regret / a continual mystery / a realigning / a breath / a power / a wife. I suspect, that like me, Eilbert can’t physically see / experience her body because of the considerable scars of distortion that tube through her.
In love, my body diminishes beautifully. When my skin was a dead moth’s wing, / my hair fell out in chunks. The I became a joke to write about steeped as I was / in declension. I was sorry to be in love with a man made of silt. Back to my hands / they weren’t mine they looked aged, the sick skin of mule –“The Death and Life of Venus City”
An eating disorder, its dying workhorse lodged in you, shatters an ability to fathom / to see what the body looks like. It is a permanent blindness / a permanent dare to the world to try to fathom a (phantom of) bodily distribution. I cannot face my body / I can. I am this physicality / I never will be. “I’m just an animal / And cannot explain a life” –“At Last,” Neko Case. What if the formerly ill girl / the still ill girl (the disgusting / ratty elegance of the park swan, the Natalie Portman swan) writes because it is the only way to remind the brain not to continually terrorize the body / not to eliminate the body / in a paradoxical fight for a life? Maybe that is just my experience. Reading this book, I relate to both sides of Eilbert’s consciousness, its frayed proliferations. I want to be the disciplined girl who knows how to starve, who chooses her margins. “College Boyfriend #1 taped us fucking once and remarked / later of my terrible thinness. I loved him only then” –“Supplication with the Venus Figurine.” I want to be the recovered girl who makes people uncomfortable when she speaks about her own disappearance / when she speaks about studying herself so openly. “Hallelujah, / you’ve yet to get my magic” –Conversation with the Stone Wife.” I mourn both.
What is perhaps important about Eilbert’s treatment of the Venus of Willendorf is that she, in the second half of the book, literally weds herself / gets engaged to it, to a form that predates / obliterates / that cannot be her own / or America’s. I think it might be one thing to use the form brought up from the dirt just as a vehicle for soundly critiquing Western (exoticizing, eroticizing) treatments / reverences of history (though it’s extremely important that Eilbert does this and with such continual scope throughout the text). “A handsome particular / to fill with anthropological myth, another chance / for men to theorize those people” “1. On the Confrontation with Man and History.” I think it might be one thing to use the form just as a vehicle for reflection, for the pain of self-mirroring. “I will end up call the Venus of Willendorf / my queen and we will end up / fucking underneath the hood of her legendary cunt / until my skin disappears and she stays immortal” –“1. On the Confrontation with Man and History.” I think it might be one thing to use the form as a way to taunt our language’s condescending use of words like goddess and venus. “But V she’s an anti-city / no man can enter her” –“Dr. Szombathy Receives Our Letter.”
Eilbert collapses all of these things into a complex, ongoing relationship, which gives the Venus of Willendorf the ability to reveal as much of herself as she wants while continuing to maintain what is unknown about her. The Venus of Willendorf remains and is an “alien star ris[ing]” (Feng Sun Chen). For Eilbert, the task in this writing is to love / rather than to worship. The task is to find yourself inextricable from something (despite distance / despite whatever). To find yourself close to something that perhaps can’t have its own agency, but can certainly have its own action / its own force in your life / in the text. In Swan Feast, the narrator / Eilbert is togethered with the form who writes her own letters to N. “And did it occur to you in all these years that I could speak for myself” – “[letter excavated from the willendorf tomb].” While betrothed to the speaker of the poems, V pisses under roses bushes and vomits along corridor walls. She makes demands as she goes.
Her presence in the poems unravels / violates the quaint, compartmentalized portrayal of “excess” depicted in the textbook N inherited from her grandfather. Her presence unravels N, Eilbert.
…I could say I loved nothing, my form was a medicine I took at the edge / of a lake. Venus was my wife I stayed inside her and the towers / they were connubial steel, forms were the quiet shapes behind closed eyes / I dripped and bled to touch, a way to say I was part of this. / To Olson, art is borne out of love: what remains is the city’s function, / what can’t be displayed only lived inside: consumed and marveling / whatever pastries are left in the landscape of oblivion. I take the Venus / like a doomed man clasps an amulet. The skyscrapers write their odes / to a distant village. In their glint there are chains unmoving / where our beautiful dead women won’t return to her wilderness –“The Death and Life of The Venus City”
Closeness must unravel you or it can’t continue to be present in a radical way, which is why history (and modern life, really) often feels like such a remote smoldering to us. It must take up / inhabit space we are not supposed to. Eilbert isn’t supposed to implicate herself in history (and modern life) / incorporate herself into history (and modern life) / shudder + shoulder it. But, of course, she does. She does while weeping / exposing / touching her body / other bodies in the painful unknown. When Eilbert says, “I’m not sure if this body is mine,” she’s talking about her own body and the form of the Venus of Willendorf. What remains of the city, of history, of the rock queens, of the stone, is refusal / light and shadow falling all over each other. “The word no. / No” –“Chiaroscuro.” Eilbert dedicates herself completely to an enactment of history that is also an actual relationship to it / to herself / to a sick Anthropocene. Swan Feast is a violent autobiography, a girlface bleaching out of the headdress that adorns her / that feeds on her, a text that is both body / corpse, a speaking that acknowledges civilization / dissolves civilization into stone killing / into a stone that can kill the temple, a bursting / riot of mud / form / sculpture.
I trust / it utters I trust / N utterly.
* Thank you Elisabeth Workman for introducing me to Baubo. Additionally, the Gorgons were also said to have kept away enemies via communal skirt lifting / tongue wagging. There is a great inventory of skirt raising / vulva exposure in several cultures at http://www.raisingtheskirt.com/historical-accounts.html