- Samuel Ace
- Vidhu Aggarwal
- Will Alexander
- Kay Ulanday Barrett
- Anselm Berrigan
- Anne Boyer
- Zoe Brezsny
- Anne Carson
- Angel Dominguez
- Abou Farman
Samuel Ace Samuel Ace is a poet and sound artist. His most recent books are Our Weather Our Sea (Black Radish) and Meet Me There: Normal Sex & Home in three days. Don’t wash. (Belladonna*). He currently teaches at Mt. Holyoke College and lives in Tucson, AZ and western MA.
Why do they treat the dying for the dead?
Vidhu Aggarwal’s poetry and multimedia practices engage with world-building, video, and graphic media, drawing mythic schemas from popular culture, science, and ancient texts. Her poetry book Daughter Isotope will be coming out with the Operating System in 2021.
URANIUM PELLET SUTRA
(after Allen Ginsberg)
I slinked along the Mississippi River and dissolved into an electrified fence surrounding a secure facility, passing through errant vines and industrial hazard signs.
My father was beside me, practically transparent, and when I looked through him I saw blueprints, with neat diagrams and measurements sketched onto the scene.
The rusty waters of the Mississippi, occupied by barges and fishing boats, were represented by several wavy lines indicating a water supply for the steam turbines and the cooling system.
Everywhere trees, heavy with Spanish moss, were represented by nothing, and swayed seemingly without purpose through my father’s torso like some wandering arterial system concealing vital organs.
My father moved in front of the nuclear plant, an old domed concrete structure, abrupt and featureless. His body made visible the interior plans, various layers of steel and concrete, channels for water and coolant, encasing the vessel around the reactor core, where uranium fuel rods performed volatile work.
I wanted to see the power center, the altar of fire, the fuel rods in action: the primal energies of the universe going berserk.
My father’s eyes, mere outlines, flicked toward the trees and the river. He had never been responsible for the fuel, the power, only its containment—never the spark.
Indeed, the schematics for the fuel rods, looked less complex than the guts of a car engine, though they held greater force, necessitating the many reinforced protective borders, represented by detailed etchings and computations undulating in my father’s shirt.
The fuel, composed of uranium pellets, was processed elsewhere, fabricated from mined ingots to ensure fissionable nuclear material; and the facility, where we stood, was temporarily shut down, a battered thing, awaiting repairs and upgrades to the ballasts, the protective hoods.
The fuel rods looked like little teeth in a comb, but it wasn’t clear if any actually remained in the dome. Even spent rods, no longer in use, were unstable and hazardous. Cooled for a decade, they would have been removed to more permanent storage, where, still cooking, they could not be touched for thousands of years.
My father, sensing my disappointment, moved toward the trees, where his careful schemata disappeared; his eyes, full of leaves, indicated that nuclei—both stable and unstable—were everywhere, without a need for containment, already out of control.
I asked him to return to the facility. I was uninterested in the trees. Though they needed protection. Holy the live oak, the bald cypress, the magnolia, and the maple with its whizzing helicopter seeds—my first vision of a swirling turbine.
When my father came back and stood at the dome, his body thinned further, making the diagrams glow, lighting up the action of the fuel rods, the near unstoppable flow of unstable uranium, splitting and whirling in the moderator, the nuclei-rich heavy water.
I could see no sign of my father, not even a spare outline, only the contours of lumpy nuclei writhing inside the controlled innards of ingenious design. I crawled into the scrawling altar, a wriggling abstraction, a shadow farther and farther from home.
Will Alexander– Approaching 40 volumes of work in various genres that includes poetry, essays, plays, aphorisms, visual work, improvised piano. His latest volume (The Combustion Cycle) has just arisen from semi-exile. He is poet-in-residence at Beyond Barouque Literary Arts Center in Venice California. He lives in Los Angeles.
Death, a perpetual realm that remains trans-human. It is the experience that ranges from the unmeasured microbe to vast array of suns we experience as their light perpetually spills from the heavens. It is the common threading of creation. Yet we have sired by a culture that denies its ubiquity. An adolescent understanding deniability shielded by products and noise from those products. In my view a cacophony of cogni.tive riddles incessantly deployed so that the nd is anesthetized on a school night at by second basis. Thus the mind becomes drunk from the vapour of products. Yet to experience the highest yield from being one needs embrace the totalic wonders it organically presents to us. If like the original Egyptians our national identity were concerned with transmuting its power dying itself as transformative not as a dark irrational conclave of monsters. Let me Ignite at this moment the reality of dream yoga. Because our daily experience is sealed off by products we never experience the warm that issues from physical transition. Instead everything is shrouded in alien yield via strange and foreboding example. Thus our psychic blisters always grapple with themselves thereby extolling infection as it yields the unknown. A basic immaturity is always configured so the experience is always studded by material architecture from the past. At the most basic level Occidental experience denies motion and can only condone the motion of machinery and human motion as ancillary aspect of that machinery. Thus our human equation remains stifled with all our experience as classification via detritus. To our great detraction our present collective has been swayed by the architecture of the Greek mind with its hylic concoctions. And this leaning has been brought to an hyper-inflated bizarreness where an individual can only render meaning according to what has been owned. Thus the inner life remains mute and can only be made partially manifest by commercialized ministers and guides. In this sense there exists little guidance. Since the indigenous mind has been systemically dissolved over the past 5 to 7 centuries we have been left as hulls of ourselves; a shorn humanity if you will, inwardly blistered and frightened accentuated by the current pandemic. Not unlike the original Egyptians Sri Aurobindo took on the forces of surcease not to tame them but to transmute them so that a less fearful psycho-physical state could emerge thereby embracing the natural power we as humans have been invested with.
Kay Ulanday Barrett aka @Brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. Their recent book, More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) received a 2021 Stonewall Honor Book Award by the American Library Association and is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Their contributions are found in The New York Times, Bitch Media, BuzzFeed, them., Asian American Literary Review, Al Jazeera English, NYLON, Vogue, PBS News Hour, The Rumpus, and more. For more info: kaybarrett.net
Eat Good for Me: An Essay on Your Late Mother’s Birthday
Cue that time you remember your mother is dead and it’s her birthday weekend, and you’re in a city where you don’t belong and you realize you did this on purpose and decide to take dead ma out to a brunch buffet like she used to take you. You think, I’ll write her a letter and sip iced tea. You know, really, you’ll eat too many appetizers, leaving behind some crumbs that you’ll find on your shirt hours later.
In the restaurant-slash-greenhouse, the LA sun rays make it impossible for your transplanted east coast spirit to believe December is just a week away. You did this on purpose. Left the cold weather for a climate that could let you be sleeveless, let you dangle your toes in some pool to help you not break out into tears, sniffling around every corner when you realize you are still here and she is not. You are seated at the hipster communal table under hanging plants, and a full plate of salmon gravlax is soon to arrive because that’s the American dream. Plants dangle above the swirled Italian marble tabletop with cloth napkins folded upright in attention: String of Pearls, Scindapsus Pictus, Marble Pothos. You can’t tell if they are looming or guarding you, their leaves outstretched like some movie you’ve seen where the smooth green spades ruffle a passerby’s hair.
You notice you’re crying over your first plate of seafood as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” plays, and it doesn’t seem to stop. You shiver over the towering bowl of shrimp cocktail because you truly are your mama’s child, and she taught you to eat the expensive stuff first. You recall how she would’ve stayed until close, waitstaff clearing her clanking, empty plates like trophies, her once spotless cutlery smeared in unctuous sauces and parsley butter. How a pile of chicken bones or crab leg shells would look crestfallen and defeated as she took a toothpick to the shells not to miss a morsel. You clumsily smile at the thought of her eating of all the things, proudly not cooking or cleaning up after anybody. There are rushed men of Color with your uncle’s faces bussing tables, smiling at your determination: “Take this away? How was it? Ready for more?” Beads of sweat silk their temples. They know your mission, you’re convinced. They’re rooting for you.
You recall other times when we had almost nothing to eat. You, a 10-year-old child, wiped up the table, put shriveled meat in Saran Wrap to be re-purposed like magic, and rocked your ma—over a hundred pounds heavier than you—in your arms. Now in your thirties, you’re long decades somewhere else with spider plants and philodendrons cascading overhead. In a place where wispy ladies wear pearls, you’re wearing cowry shells and your best denim collared shirt. There’s a prime rib carving station, which is basically prime eating real estate, and honestly, fuck the dessert station: you’re a man of protein. When you collect yourself, you think, you’ll eat all of it, you’ll eat all that she couldn’t. Eat radish. Eat eggs. Order extra for her. You rampage, PacMan style, chomping away. Your jaws, unstoppable. Still in tears, you chew morsels that she could never afford after paying winter rent and buying high tops for school, or giving money to somebody else—scared and uncertain—who’d just migrated to this country.
You have matured into a hard-to-please creature. You ignore your fork and knife now, eating with your hands: bacon in one, heirloom tomatoes in the other, the kind you used to steal for her when you went to the fancy university in the rich neighborhood you never even toured with family until after you got that scholarship. You can see your ma squish the fruit between her thumb & forefinger. Their pluck and pop were like candy, she told you once.
As your ma did, you talk to the brown waitstaff as if they’re cousins from the same province, even though you’re strangers and it’s confusing for everybody. When you first began working on the road, one thing was consistent: your ma’s check-ins. Before every out-of-state guest lecture or keynote you traveled for, your ma would call and say, “Eat good for me, OK?” Naturally, you promised you would take her with you when she stopped working so hard. That day never came. So here you are, talking to a ghost, full speed on your third plate. Now you eat all the shrimp cocktail and prime rib they can muster, though it’s only 10 a.m. and you’re only one human. A promise is sacred, and there are teeny pastries that look like the ones she’d pack for you from working long shifts at the hotel after big events. She and her friends would split the food nobody wanted, raising their children (you included) on other people’s leftovers. How you loved their flaky half croissants. How you devoured their thin, wrinkled cheese rinds with round crackers and bruised grapes during Saturday morning cartoons.
By this point, you’ve taken off your glasses not to make room for the tears (added bonus!) but to make sure there isn’t an obstacle on your face between you and your goal. A skinny white woman with an even skinnier ponytail side-eyes you and sneers, but to the bartender she smizes and says, “I’ll get a green juice.” You say, in between crunches, “More bacon for me!” because that’s what your ma would’ve wanted, and you ask Jeff the bartender to take a photo of you. As Jeff holds a phone, counts to three, you crookedly smile and overshare by saying, “It’s for my mom.” And of course, Jeff smiles politely, not getting she’s dead, which makes the gesture a half-truth, which is how you’ve been feeling lately, but what’s the point of saying that aloud.
Here’s your American dream: consuming everything in public and sobbing, holding the butt of a roasted carrot to prove some point that doesn’t really matter because dead people are still dead and you can’t eat with them anymore. The waitstaff whisper and brush past you as though you’re a spill no one knows how to clean up. So, you eat food in every city trying to find recipes as good as hers, but they all basically fail, and you never stop being hungry. By the end, you’re taking small bites as if to say, For you, for you.
Nobody told you when you faxed over her death certificate that you’d xeroxed while chewing carabao, that from then on, nothing you ate would be good enough. Her miswa? Supple pieces of pork stirred with herbed flecks of green, translucent crescent moon onions floating in a lavish swirl of shrimp broth. You’ll never have that again. Her pancit palabok? Pork again, but this time with ripples of crumpled, crunchy skin over thick strands of rice noodles. That’s extinct now. You find out you’ll never be as full as the times your mama fed you, not even with anything made by your own hands. The restaurants, the buffets, the waiters all feel like crude substitutes because by “full” what you mean isn’t actually related to food at all. You’ve left tables in havoc, emptied plates, and stained napkins in zip codes you don’t remember, and the only thing that takes up space in your belly is grief.
Anselm Berrigan is the author of Pregrets, a book of poems forthcoming from Black Square Editions.
Proof (“everything you are gone slightly mad…”)
“….find a way of living with the illustration that Johns breaks down into formal elements & scruffs up with paint…”
— Marjorie Welish
biking east by the former Boys Brotherhood Republic sign on 6th between
avenue D and the FDR, I remember the facade of that brick brown building
being the last ever place leaning in I saw my father & wonder can I prove it?
Curious commissioned question covering for the intensity of a repeated feeling
jacking out from a defunct sign who asks where you are all the time
intention loves the back seat, the bent interstices & karnal bunts of who’s looking
will be the deciders of a little, my name misspelled in Free Cell, caveat
of an early-aughts underground, I’m 47, my daughters 8 & 11, I don’t have
no I do have a ticket stub for Nelson Mandela’s powerful measured speaking
at Yankee Stadium in 1990, I never really think, I say at times, to myself, the cat’s three
surgeries cost as much as one or two of my three adjunct jobs generally pay per semester, I
forget which ones, when I wrote, privately, one cannot control an army of imaginations, I
believed I was referring to protestors in 2010 in Tahrir Square, I was 10 & my brother 8,
almost 11 & 9, when our father, close to 49, died in 1983, I live four blocks & one avenue
away from the apartment that we lived & he died within
I demand change from myself in writing & not in living, I am told, I voted
for Nader in 2000 to raise money for the Green Party, knew New York
would go Gore, I’m really typing this in order to get go gore into the poem
coming out of proofs I had two expired driver’s licenses from one Rick Pytlik
in Buffalo before I turned 21 the bouncer at The Continental mystistymied &
amused let me in but I do not know English because I didn’t respond when
a stranger told me not to look so serious the day after my sister Kate
was killed on Houston Street by a motorcycle & its driver, four years
after her arrest in the crown of the Statue of Liberty with a few friends
for refusing to leave one night in protest of the United States invasion
of Grenada in 1983, I thought I’d be spending more of these words on feeling
slightly ahead, slightly behind, all the time, in a voice, on tape, on a wall, in a blind
turning at night to keep you awake & followed, you enter the party & are accused
of not being dead, there’s no joy in what I like in that mid-life crisis of a rhyme, I can’t
prove my father wasn’t crazy at the end of his life unknown as an end
if that’s what you heard, & assumed I a watchful arriver in the late 90s
had too, was Bobby Doerr a good player, you better believe it
look him up & down, shake your head, & walk away, just know where
the trashcan lids are, I never hit anybody for real, though I volunteered
for a punch in the face once, to get some tension out of the way, I try
not to make lists, but Doug knew I was the world’s most reluctant
phone caller, California: better than Frank O’Hara, not as good
as Jim Brodey, all the painter bios get slack when the money kicks in
he was just trying to see how many opinions he had, how many onions
a skater might need to melt the underice & maintain the tilted aplomb
of a neurologically fucked up cat, my sixth grade teacher said didn’t
your father let himself die, wasn’t that a dumb thing for a smart man
to do, but she’d only heard he didn’t want to go to the hospital
not that he wanted to die in his bed having said his last words
it will be alright, I know no one believes me in my head when I defend
the way we lived, trust but verify, skunked but very fly, study the avid
picture plane diva smoked out in the mob’s balcony, two kids, two cats
two therapists, five part-time jobs, two credit cards, one passport, no
driver’s license, two degrees, two umbilical hernia surgeries, one genetic
deficiency, two bank accounts (one joint, one empty)
then Robert Reich tweets that Jeff Bezos’ D.C. mansion will have 25
bathrooms & 1,006 light fixtures, then the defining characteristic of Gen
X is wanting everyone to shut the fuck up, damn, I messed up, with all
the numbers, & can another force, I didn’t do it, be released, I did it perfectly
into the non-transcript, I did it but incompetently, & be the disembodied
detour we seek to go away, I used to be a stable genius but now I am
getting fucking killed every day, looking at shit from shit’s perspective
may not be the way our forceful histories must loom & you miss the little
things recordings say I do, I am sitting in a plum, similar to the one you are
in now, impeach a dirty filthy disgusting word, that anything might be
installed on the instruct I cannot say, I can no longer say where, I cannot
say how long, I no longer remember, I do not know what to make of, I could
hardly have said how, I have only an indistinct notion, nor can I properly
describe, do not know how I got through, and yet whatever idea one has is
always susceptible to doubt’s recreation, it’s true I painted a Rauschenberg
creep the verb your redux inflames, hiding around perimeters, I mean my
today I got told how oddly, sonic nearness, I’ll get paid for a few months next year
Blade Runner now takes place in the present, no, it takes place in absolute time
nowness as projection of a future, we like to bypass relative time in order
to fake the front, the surface, the hard soft face we can’t only cover with streams
of sounds affecting shapes that might be words, right about now I should prove
I can betray, fuck, acknowledge, ignore, assault, berate, love, abhor, obey, and die
– please imagine the appearance of a dozen lines in which you can respond
to the merits & absences these choices of descriptor represent, I will go to
therapy tomorrow, couples therapy, become stricken ground, & to the other
therapist to weigh need’s possibility the next day: ask me later if these things
happened, I did it, I did the correct version of it the record of its demands
the record’s my particular friend, unlike this faceless pressure next door
informing my very brink of a sound by sound shape making life
The New School is competitive with CUNY & Pratt in terms of adjunct
wages for writing teachers, the city surrendered itself to me, I survive
only because I live within this reversal, a baby roachie approaches &
I know it is time to, or begin again, on the outskirts of cents & dollars
the cat’s fourth surgery in four years has taken place since I started
& the cave reading beckons, the cave of suicession, Doug’s cave, the cave-in
of walk-ins that don’t kill yr dreams of post-rent surplus to pop off with
for five unsurveilled seconds, the camera’s in your pants & memory’s the dealer
we’ve replaced memory with the future still, having agreed to be seen & scenes
once in a cave I just took a picture of this page which you are not
experiencing as page, page boy, or page mead, & posted it & a few
pages prior as pictures of poetry in process to prove or maybe just show
I can open the sketch in public but you’ll have to break out yr x-ray
magnifying zoom-in super bouncy eyeball to read this horrible hand
writing, moving around a blank-faced drawing I’m betraying as image
to keep free of mess & message, though I’m a photograph of bad at cleaning
a failure at the controlled touch, & a private admirer of the eternally ruined
waves of jaywalking clamor dolled up as squalor, I believe only in the public
budless self-talkers, amongst all these destructive concessions to respectability
the last dude who hired me could not only not tell me how much the job paid
but wasn’t authorized to know, that’s life in American education for you
twisted in the taillights to maintain flakefulness, I think I better have one more
& go, go pick up the kids & get them uptown to the cave, to Jimbo’s chili, which they
won’t eat, and the promise of unrecorded voices spiking the 21st century’s script
of a derailed collective nervous system, I hope to make it to 49, to have these pangs
and pangs of pangs adopt a less rote psychological dread zone, I have always
felt some sense of deficit as strength in relation to poetry and living, & looked
for ways to close the gaps in advance of their less sophisticated replacements
hovering externally as forms of blunt knowledge & tethering voices performing
negation as a fantasy of withdrawal from life, we know the surfaces are poisoned
but I believe underground in a yes where these forces of inevitability must be shed
Anne Boyer is a poet and essayist whose book The Undying won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize. She was the inaugural winner of the 2018 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and winner of the 2018 Whiting Award in nonfiction/poetry. Her books include A Handbook of Disappointed Fate as well as several books of poetry, including the 2016 CLMP Firecracker Award–winning Garments Against Women.
THE LITTLE DOG DEATH
We could die of ambivalence. I don’t like that sentence, but I begin with it to illustrate the consequence of living with so much death. That everyone around me kept dying made the struggle of existing hardly seem worth it, that after all those tough times called life, you just die like that and leave the still-living so much work. In the waves of my own grief came the virus, too.
By the week the first Columbus statue fell, at least 408,000 people were dead already, seven million had been infected. All this death – uncle, aunt, uncle, colleague, cousin, uncle, mother, uncle, friend, father, aunt – that had been my own lately was now everyone else’s. 408,000 estates, where to take the socks, what was his cellphone password, who do we need to call, did she have life insurance. Even those who only leave their bodies behind leave the living days of work – washing the corpses, zipping body bags, wrapping shrouds, building coffins, setting fires, carving monuments, throwing ashes, digging holes, trying to move forward with that heavy weight of sorrow in one’s chest.
When my father died, the repo people took his car, the one I was driving, from its parking spot on the street without giving me a warning. I’d never even known the bill was overdue. I’d gone to dinner, come out an hour later, and it was gone, disappeared, the place I’d once parked now an empty crazy-making testimony to life’s fleetingness. They’d taken his sunglasses, pocket change, baseball cap, with it. Gone, just like that, as he was, too, yanked away by a stealthy tow truck without the slightest warning, leaving me to wander around looking for his car, confused. I got a ride, wrote a poem:
Death always shows up
no matter what
the invitation says
I hadn’t recognized my mother in the hospital room, sunken into herself, asleep in a wheelchair. My parents’ house where I slept each night alone then was haunted by my father. This was in the months between his death and hers, and his ghost was restless, worried, stuck in the territory near where he died, moving from the bathroom to the laundry room to hovering around the back door, trying to turn on the tv in the den, anxious to mow the lawn, needing to check the oil, wanting to get the checkbook balanced, unable to open the door or go out of it.
My mother – the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter — had always taken care of the dead. I’d thought she was being figurative when she told me that my dead father was about to walk into the room. I didn’t know she meant that the house was haunted. I didn’t know a person could become a ghost who died like a philosopher. I had thought ghosts only appeared when someone met a traumatic end. It was when my father became a ghost that I began to consider that even dying like a philosopher is a traumatic end.
Now the dead are mine, or I am theirs, or the dead and I are clasped in mutual, semi-interesting embrace. No one else remains to be haunted by them. I am the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter, which means I have a home in the dead’s small house. There are dozens of them in each room. They inhabit eyeglasses, lawn chairs, checkbook carbons, forty-year-old Scrabble scores, falling down fences. The dead are in iron bedframes and newspaper lined steamer trunks. They linger in the calico stuffed in the cracks near the windows, in the fur lined gloves, in the shredded quilts, also in the yellow rose bushes at the back of the yard.
I don’t judge the dead: I take care of them. It’s like how I can’t remember the names of those who have been cruel to me. Their faces, too, are like words on a page when I’ve taken off my glasses. I am aware that a would-be-enemy is in front of me, but I can’t tell you their details, not the first letter of their last name or the thickness of their hair. I’d be a safer or at least more cunning person if I could remember the people who dislike me, but inside me are the soft prohibitive edges of defensive forgiveness like a satin-wrapped fence repelling the more difficult facts. The dead, too, no matter how unpleasant they might have been while living, now appear to me wearing a halo of better qualities. Judge not, the dead say to me, lest you be a judge, living vulture-like in a black robe, desperately banging a gavel, believing you can bring order to an order-less court.
This is why when my aunts and uncles gathered at this little house of the dead — cousins, too, my mother, father, grandparents, all of them dead — I wanted to take a photo. Because we were all together in the warm light of the afternoon so rarely since their deaths it seemed the ideal moment, but as soon as I got out my camera the flood waters began to creep toward us from the creek across the road. The waters were murky, and though I tried to warn the dead to stay out of the flood, as it reached their feet they began to fade and disappear from me. I also lost my little dog in the flood, the one I called Wolf. Unable to preserve or retrieve my family or my dog, I was forlorn and alone. I then saw a group of young people, all with small dogs, playing near the water. I thought I should call out to them to tell them I’d lost my dog, to please help me find him again. We inspected every dog in every field, but we could not find my little dog called Wolf. I tried to show these kind young people the family photo I took, but the living could see nothing in the frame but its emptiness. I apologized: I am so sorry that everyone in my family is a ghost.
The little dog called Wolf, when I finally looked him up on a dream interpretation website, was supposed to be an evil omen, a tiny barking sigil of death. Evil omens are, to me, fortunate ones. I have always been called a witch by those who would prefer to burn them, so rather than fight the verdict pronounced upon me from the moment I opened my eyes and revealed the wrong look, I learned solidarity with cracked mirrors, the number thirteen, and every crystal of spilled salt. I still go out of my way to walk under ladders and to open umbrellas indoors. If that little dog was death, as www.indisputabledreamfacts.org said, he was not bad luck, but its deeper iteration called fate. This is what the website should have said: death is a tiny wildness never to be kept on a leash. Who knows how long it will be until he scratches at the door again, but as it was my enemy, I have already forgotten how the floodwater looked.
From death’s small house, I texted someone a photo of the stain that marked where Cousin Randy puked, drunk, on the carpeted floor. He had once dated John Wayne’s daughter. The stain remained, but Randy was dead, John Wayne was dead, maybe John Wayne’s daughter, too. I know I can’t stay here forever with Randy’s puke stain, or at least not only here, but to leave the dead and re-join the living requires an incantation to summon florescent realness: “Ghosts don’t exist, the future can’t be foretold, dreams are a trashy effluence of consciousness, etc.”
Let’s say I am in love with a nasturtium seedling — that is the kind of thing the dead want to be told but that the so-called living cringe to hear. I don’t want to repeat those marketplace inanities I was led to believe would give me full admission into the land of the living: money is real, practice gratitude, let us always speak of presidents. Life can be difficult in a way that is mostly banal until it becomes difficult in a way that is terrifying, but it isn’t only that. And death isn’t some better alternative– there is no platitude in a corpse rotting under the earth or in a ghost pacing above it.
But my father, who died like a philosopher yet paced like a ghost, said that anyone who gives you an either/or choice is telling you a lie. The choice isn’t between death’s crowded house or the evaporative façade of what passes for life, exhausting, shallow, and pre-defined. Neither life nor death can or ever has existed in exclusion of each other, and though we might live among those who love to deal death and love to ignore those who death was dealt to, the death-dealers are not the only people who live among the living. Neither are the death-deniers. There are so many of the rest of us, too, who dream of little dogs, who grieve, who empty drawers of socks with worn elastics, who are history’s youngest daughters of every gender, who know it is matter-of-fact to see ghosts.
We could die of ambivalence, or we could finally live, deepened by the profound mixedness of life and death. Maybe this is why even after all this work of surviving and knowing what comes next, feeling exhausted from it and not knowing how to do what’s next, some of us stay alive. We have two eyes so that one may see a storm and the other, a seedling, and we have two hands, so one might feel the puke stain on the carpet while the other writes a poem. And in two things at once there is always a limitless, uncountable category called “third,” the unmeasurable inches of world that come from an awareness that each thing carries an indwelling antecedent of its end. Life or death can feel like too much, but together they are an instruction manual in “and yet” and “never enough” – eternities radiate from lost dogs, towed cars, the murky water as it rises, then recedes.
Zoe Brezsny is a poet from the Bay Area living in New York. She is the author of Earthworks and DJs a weekly radio show on WFMU of poetry and music. She is currently working on a book called The Source Unlimited.
They Flow Just Like Water Molecules but as One
Brian’s hand, waving at me from the car. I was wearing a big Celtic cross necklace, iridescent blue eyeshadow, dogpile jeans. He knew that incarnation of me. Brian in his paisley shirt, soft spoken voice and long blonde hair.
Shy, highlight of the day. The wave. The glitter. The contact.
The closest we got physically was watching The Man Who Fell to Earth sitting on my twin sized bed. But we knew each other intimately. We were bolder versions of ourselves in the subliminal zone, talking hours online.
The phone call from his dad. You were the last person he texted. Where would he have gone? Where would he like to go?
I think of those I’ve lost in the physical plane as part of the core of who I am; bright fiber strings enmeshed with my DNA.
I see them in meditation and dreams where they glow and are radiant and happy.
I try not to let the pain of their deaths cloud my vision but instead help carry out their dreams.
I read an interview with musician and underground legend Macy Rodman, in which Rodman is asked what her Real Housewives tagline would be.
“I may be dead, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still alive.”
Glimmers of my friends appear, walking alone under a freeway overpass. I take a flash photo of a tree with pale orb seed pods hanging low on the other side, a secret ecstatic blur of gold.
Or lying in bed, transcending the discomfort of heat, stomachache, worry, those crowding delusions of night fear. Horror of things that have happened. Dread of things that have yet not happened.
I pull up an old Facebook message conversation with Brian that I revisit frequently. I was recommending he use coconut butter as a skin salve.
[July 2011 3:45am]
You know when I was a kid I used to always have this really weird fantasy at the monterey bay aquarium. The butter thing just reminded me. I used to want to jump into the big schools of thousands of little silver fish. It wasn’t sexual as much as wanting to seek out incredible calmness.
Brian passed at age 25, he’d be 32 now. Taylor passed in the summer of 2019, the same summer as two other friends. I reread Taylor’s poem ‘Ode to my Skateboard Wheel,’ eternally preserved online. I listen to his playlists, eternally preserved online:
~The Way I Walk ~ Always See ~ Is this Real? ~Rose Lady ~Mary of Mourning~
The Dils – Class War/I Hate the Rich
Saccharine Trust – A Human Certainty
Social Unrest – Making Room for Youth
Annihilation Time – Imaginary Mirror
Milk Music – Illegal and Free
Dead Moon – Kicked Out Kicked In
Poison Idea – It’s an Action
Peligro Social – El Comienzo
What would Taylor want me to do? He was always helping out his friends. When he was a bartender at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, when I didn’t know anyone in the city, he gave me the contact of their event coordinator. He wanted me to host poetry readings there, blast the palace with creativity.
I’m inside of the scene I go to when I’m at peace, or trying to conjure peace. What’s yours?
Mine is an ocean shore where violet-centered ice plants with their juicy leaves line the pathway to the water, and the wind is still and warm in a peach sky
(Flowers that can grow in the sand: fire spinners, stonecrop, butterfly weed, creeping phlox.)
My deceased loved ones are there, fully clothed. They are a tangible luminescence. Neither sitting or floating but being. We’re comfortable in being, loving being there. A friendly universe.
A favorite Philip Lamantia line drifts across the landscape: “Love is dawn visible throughout the day, and kicks over the halo at the pit of ocean…”
No pressure to be anything other than who we really are. No fear keychain. Sending pulses of encouragement and protection.
Reconnecting to threads I knew at birth. I dissolve the hardness of my body into the peach sky, allow myself the gift of living softly. The lap of waves and brilliant purple fire petal centers.
Email from Brian in 2012 titled: hey not sure what happened..
“This is how I like you—I’m a pool of atoms on the floor / shedding light / from every synapse / as I evolve and swarm.”
I think of my guardians when facing a challenging situation, or when I’m possessed by social anxiety, the kind that stops you in your psychological tracks. I visualize them beside me and in me, the cavity of my chest, warm and sweet as nectar, and enter the room.
[July 2011 3:48am]
Zoe: yes, a desire for calmness. I want that.
schools of silvery fish
have a great peacefulness to them
Brian: yeah they flow just like water molecules
but as one
Anne Carson is an aspiring artist now expatriated to Iceland.
Angel Dominguez is a Latinx poet and artist of Yucatec Maya descent, born in Hollywood and raised in Van Nuys, CA by their immigrant family. They’re the author of ROSESUNWATER (The Operating System, 2021) and Black Lavender Milk (Timeless, Infinite Light 2015). Angel earned a BA from the University of California Santa Cruz and an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado. You can find Angel’s work online and in print in various publications. You can find Angel in the redwoods or ocean. Their third book, DESGRACIADO (the collected letters) is forthcoming with Nightboat Books in 2022.
//Dying to Live//
I woke up thinking about death, as I often do. This morning, I typed “Dying to Live” into my phone and then got up to make coffee. I think about all the ways in which I’ve almost died. Hydroplaning on the mountain where I live and being saved by a tree, stopping the car from falling into a ravine. Running into a bear in Yosemite. Fleeing a series of lightning complex fires suddenly and driving for hours until safety. It’s quiet here in the morning as the Stellar’s Jays converse with the woodpeckers. The crows play games by the quail.
There is too much to say about death and perhaps that’s where all the silence surrounding death comes from. How does one adorn a language upon the vast ineffable unknowablility of death?
I listen closely to my dreams.
Shortly after my grandfather Xix died, I had a dream in which he showed me neon-colored mirror-orb spiders that were in the backyard of a house that no longer exists. They were like tiny black widows made entirely of spectral pigments of lights, neon sunrise, electric pink sunset; the bluest blue, almost Topaz. Years later, while living in Boulder, CO, Xix would return to me in a dream on the night of a full moon, where he showed me a stack of books in the pink room he occupied before the hospital, the funeral home; the grave. The spine of each book had the name of a different stone. Old clothbound covers with letters of pale gold imprinted. There was one in particular that stood out to me, it read “GOETHITE” which I was not familiar with. Upon waking I immediately looked it up and wrote down the following:
“GOETHITE – (Earth Element)
1st, 2nd, 6th Chakras
Found in Pikes Peak, CO
Grounding + Connection to the earth.
Goethite is the stone of death and rebirth.”
I listen closely to my dreams because I’ve come to understand this astral/spirit space as a place in which many energies might meet and exchange energy/information. I listen to my dreams because they tell me things about death, or rather, they invite the dead to come speak through image and energy, sometimes sound. I think of my dear dead best friend Alex who came to me in a dream last year. He had grown older than he’d ever be, smiling at me and offering a white bandana, on his way to the next thing. A language of light and energy. No sound.
I don’t know that death is anything other than a redistribution of energy.
My grandmother wrote a poem about becoming a bird and spreading love across the planet. I responded to this poem in the form of a book, where I attempt to do many things, but the one thing I really hoped to do was write a kind of continuation of her poem. A lot of my thoughts and feelings about death are bound up in that writing. Writing, which itself is another form of dreaming (out loud).
For me, death is something that stays with me every day, not in any morbid way. I try and remind myself of the ways in which this life, this living, is so special, despite the surrounding apocalypse-chaos. Every flower you make eye contact with is a kind of once in a lifetime moment. That’s a once in a lifetime flower; the sky will never look like it does right now, ever again. And we are alive to see it. To bear witness. To write poems. To adorn the infinite and ineffable with language; with our living. So much of me believes that we carry the dead with us wherever we go. We keep their energy alive, offering refuge in the ways we continue on without their physical presence. Some days are harder than others. Some days are also filled with more light. Reminders of those who have gone on cropping up in spontaneous matters. Alex, alive in the 40,000 bees that attack the Los Angeles Police Department; Alex, alive in the fire that consumed a cop car off Fairfax; Alex, alive in the way he used to say “Mariposa,” or “Taco,” a soft energy I can still feel to this day when seeing those words written on a map or sign. The Living take part in the redistribution of these energies. Death asks us to remember and honor those who become new ancestors.
We keep the dead alive in our rituals.
Writing is my most precious ritual. I try to keep the dead alive in my writing. Memories, dreams, visions, all made material through language. Always attempting to articulate something that has already dissipated, or dispersed. Activating the ritual(s) of writing to shape a territory of energy inviting that spirit, that living, to exist again. To roam free.
After my near-fatal car accident, I began to think of everything much differently, especially in regard to my writing and the ways I approach and think about writing. Somehow, that which was already so precious became even more precious. The ritual (I wrote “writual”) of writing became more focused, knowing that I could become nothing (/everything, again) so suddenly.
Death has always asked me to commit my living to my writing.
I began to hinge my life upon my language and began to think of everything in terms of: what is the last piece of writing I leave? What is the energy or sensation I wish to communicate in these autonomous zones of language and thought? How to give a body of language to the disembodied memories and energies that mean so much to me?
When I think of death. I think of life. I think of love. I think of all joy and hope that has existed in my own life. I hope I’ll know how to transmit all that energy back out into the universe again. I hope to become the bird in my grandmother’s poem. I hope to remember those most luminous moments of living. Maybe they’ll become a cloud of rain, nourishing the microclimate where I live now. Maybe it’ll rain where you are now, and you’ll feel something like a warm, familiar light radiating from your sternum, something that makes you smile, reminding you that there is nothing to fear.
An anthropologist, writer and artist, Abou Farman is the author of the books On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience (2020, Minneapolis: Univ. Minn. Press) and Clerks of the Passage (2012, Montreal: Linda Leith Press). He is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research and founder of Art Space Sanctuary as well as the Shipibo Conibo Center of NY. As part of the artist duo caraballo-farman, he has exhibited internationally. He is producer and co-writer on several feature films most recently Icaros: A Vision.
By their damning presence
Thanks to the Freudians and secular humanists of the 20th century, both of whom had some good reasons for thinking as they thought, we have gotten into the habit of repeating that this is a death-fearing, death-denying society.
There is a kernel of truth to this assertion. It is true that westerners have ended up dying in exile, banished to hospitals and nursing homes, even as the vast majority say they would rather die at home. They have ended up dying mechanically and bureaucratically, through medical forms and legal wills and ethics boards and respirators and bladder drains and insurance bills. But that’s not just about the relation to death; it’s also a reflection of a society that organizes living around capital, technology and law. You die as you live.
The humanist response to the cold, medicalized, afterlifeless death has been to say, “We must not deny death, as heroic medicine does, trying to intubate till the last minute to save a bit of life from the infinite expanse of death; we must accept death’s finality courageously, like grown ups and move on without tarrying with ghosts and souls and such.” It digs its feet in the existential ground of death, the individual facing his mortality here and now, confronting alone a terrifying or absurd metaphysics of death.
Both these positions – the abstract metaphysics of death, like the mechanical bureaucracy of dying – repress killing as a crucial part of any confrontation with death. When people speak of death and our relationship to death, they are mostly not speaking of killing. So many who invoke Socrates’ equanimity in the face of death and Antigone’s insistence on proper burial as part of the European humanist canon too often neglect to mention that both are protests against state killings. In the form of killing, death is all around us, in our films and news casts, in the streets and institutions and profits and comforts and inequalities, in this society that is also organized around killings. Killings immediate, like George Floyd’s, and killings slow and structural, as in the way a pandemic takes black and brown lives so disproportionately.
Perhaps the problem is not a fear of death but a fear of the dead, who, no longer afraid of the consequences, can both upend the secular finality of death and make claims on society; that is, from their socially transcendent positions, they can disrupt the dominant psychological, epistemic and moral regimes. The dead hold the living accountable, they come to reveal the killings. They can start protests and uprisings, as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor did this year, as Mike Brown did in 2014, as they have over the past 4 centuries. Say their names.
The body politic is made up of the bodies of the dead as well as the living. It is made up of the contest over the dead. And their survival. White supremacy, like other imperial regimes built on violence and inequality, immortalizes itself through monuments, through the celebration of the dead in quarried stone and mined metal. It immortalizes itself not by denying death (after all the monuments are explicitly acknowledging someone’s death) but by denying the killings. It has invested more value in that sculpted material than in the lived lives of black people. It has told stories and built identities and wealth and power via the repression of its own killings. The monuments embody the terrible contradictions we are asked to bear, and deny, every day. We are asked to deny, not defy, a history of violence and inequality, and instead to participate in a glorious democratic civilization. We are asked everyday to legitimize the order of things by walking in peace through spaces dotted with violent symbols and attitudes, protected by badges and weapons. We are forced into a daily struggle against socially induce cognitive dissonance, fragmentation, psychological break down. The destruction of the monuments is not just the removal of the representation of an undeserving person. It is an act that eliminates the dissonance, rearranges the fragmentation of experience and socially legitimized reality, and challenges the normalized distribution of deaths. It reassembles the world and that is part of the work of mourning.
We need more extended and collective forms of political mourning that acknowledge how we break down into our deaths, not just as a result of the biology and psychology of dying, but as a result of on-going, sometimes slow social violence. By pathologizing extended mourning and individualizing grief, western psychology protected the social conditions of psychosis in the guise of resolving them. It was a move the Argentine mothers of the Plaza refused. They refused to close the wound of state killings by refusing to accept the remains of their disappeared. The wound they said should not, cannot, properly close until the social conditions of inequality and violence are changed. And so for decades they mourned daily in their white kerchiefs in front of the state house in Buenos Aires. They kept the names of the disappeared and the murdered alive too, and every time anyone said their names, others would shout presente. To mourn is to charge the present, it is to forge new relationships with destruction, loss, death and future lives.
I go to the cemetery as I go to the protests. The cemetery is one of the places I go to be with my dead partner Leo, whom I continue to work with in art and life. When I go there now, years on, I go there to scream and cry and to charge the present. I go there for a different sense of communion, of value, a different way of knowing life and the world, a difference authorized by the remove of the dead. By their damning presence and their moral claims on me. The work of mourning is not to detach and get over a death. The work of mourning is to relate to the dead and remake the world. It should not stop.