[poetry month] #134 by Elizabeth Schmuhl

#134

The tomatoes look just like me
swollen and holey
ants crawling in and out of every
crevice, taking what they need.

I am looking at the sun waiting
as my insides feed hundreds of mouths.

This skin, sun stained, perfuming. Will the birds
come for what’s left of me and how far from here
will they take me?

Let it be far and let it be soon.

— Elizabeth Schmuhl, from Premonitions, Wayne State University Press, 2018.

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[poetry month] "Son" by Forrest Gander


SON

It’s not the mirror that is draped, but
what remains unspoken between us. Why

say anything about death, inevitability, how
the body comes to deploy the myriad worm

as if it were a manageable concept not
searing exquisite singularity. To serve it up like

a eulogy or a tale of my or your own
suffering. Some kind of self-abasement.

And so we continue waking to a decapitated sun and trees
continue to irk me. The heart of charity

bears its own set of genomes. You lug a bacterial swarm
in the crook of your knee, and through my guts

writhe helminth parasites. Who was ever only themselves?
At Leptis Magna, when your mother & I were young, we came across

statues of gods with their faces and feet cracked off by vandals. But
for the row of guardian Medusa heads. No one so brave to deface those.

When she spoke, when your mother spoke, even the leashed
greyhound stood transfixed. I stood transfixed.

I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love.
Her one arterial child. It is just in you her blood runs.

— Forrest Gander, from Be With, New Directions, 2018.

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[poetry month] "You Know Something Wrong By Its Difference From Something Right" by Kate Schapira


YOU KNOW SOMETHING WRONG BY ITS DIFFERENCE FROM SOMETHING RIGHT

In this portrait, I failed and it fit
me like a hollow twin.
In that stale apartment
I deflated.
In reduced circumstances
less and less happens.


Scissors on the table.
What do they do there?
Where is their strong word? In


a settle of disrepair. Anything caught
in creases stays there.


Having made others do it
I didn’t even invent being old.
Objects ranged at hand
from tissues to the phone


in the wrong order.
A big-lensed wait. A lax chin.
The skin fit. I nailed it up.

— Kate Schapira, from Handbook for Hands that Alter As We Hold Them Out, Horse Less Press, 2016.

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[poetry month] "A Refrain, Sung Once, to Herself" by Carrie Oeding

A REFRAIN, SUNG ONCE, TO HERSELF

One day, I worry, you will tell me
everything I’ve told you.

What do you have to say for yourself?

Nothing.

Did you think I wouldn’t be listening?

I don’t know.

There is a moon born every time I say alone
and tonight its light has left me sore.
I can see my breath, and I wonder about everything —
how I’m going to get home,
how to answer What’s your story?
how to ask you to walk with me.

“Listen, listen,” the moon, my polished child, says, “On your knees.”
I put my ear to the road.
I cut my hand on street glass.
I hear a sigh, I hear a step, I see you
ignoring the shadows, walking toward me.
I couldn’t say just anything.

— Carrie Oeding, from Our List of Solutions, 42 Miles Press, 2011.

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[poetry month] "Poem to Remind My Heart to Beat" by Lynn Melnick

POEM TO REMIND MY HEART TO BEAT

No matter the upright life I’ve been trying to lead
I keep looking for new ways to bluff myself

so hard I’m always pleading for relief, frantically
trying to locate whatever blunt object would sock me

into unconsciousness, I know what it’s like
to be powerless

on a shag rug. When I tell you — come closer,
closer, look how pretty I am, come closer, close —

I will bury you there
in this petri dish of what-went-wrong

growing in its dozens of gruesome sequences.
It’s October, slowly

the webs arch iron railings, the pumpkins appear
like cautions, vigilant but motionless.

I would like that, my mood stabbed into me,
triangle eyes blinking only the fire

behind them. Come closer, close: look how pretty
I died on the shag rug, but you still

remember me. Autumn never did to me
what it did to others, a beauty to admire

right before the end.
I’ve been wrinkling, slowly, closer,

I need you to cuff me to whatever
apparatus will pump the blood into

and out of my heart. Cut me open with chill-
in-the-air, carve into me a face that can over-

take this unreasonable face. Closer, take me
apart in your arms, I am not any brilliant color but

the dried brown leaf of the season folded over
and stepped on by whatever step rushes

where any step is rushing to in all these crumbled pieces
and in all these pieces I am sending myself

into the air to see where I land.

— Lynn Melnick, from Landscape with Sex and Violence, Yes Yes Books, 2017.

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[poetry month] "Yours Truly" by Kate Colby

YOURS TRULY

I can’t see light at the end
of this blinding tunnel

until I cover my hand with
my eyes. A slack tide’s

brown leaves pack against
the breachway. Some plastic

trash is in it. Two wind-
bent men watch a severed

red-and-white fishing bob
bobbing away. If/when

“over” means “forever,”
I need you to possess me,

not like “occupy,”
but “empty.”

— Kate Colby, from The Arrangements, Four Way Books, 2018.

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[poetry month] "Your Mouth Is Full of Birds" by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

YOUR MOUTH IS FULL OF BIRDS

You asked me once at dawn about forgiveness and I said
I didn’t think you had any need to be forgiven and you said

nothing, pointing instead to the tangerine branches
heavy with five-petaled flowers and a rookery of crows branded

like oiled umber in the sunlight. How grave the silences tucked
in each wing and beneath your tongue, silences you later tucked

into my suitcase when I wasn’t looking, letters written in memory
whose creases I smoothed over and over until I could remember

the gray trunks of the tangerine orchards, how each flower smelled,
each fruit peeled and quartered, full of tongues that still swell

in my dreams and burst into a hundred miles of telephone wires,
the silhouettes of birds still attached. Now, after all this while,

when you come to me at night with your mouth full of birds,
I think that you meant your forgave me for the rookery,

because they left their wings on my window, not yours. Oh how they follow
me still through this city, crying for you with every red-throated swallow.

— Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, from Hour of the Ox, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.

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[poetry month] "Stay" by Lee Herrick


STAY

I am not what you thought
an ocean would look like,
but once a fire starts in you,
there will always be ash.
There are long walks, thank
goodness, there are woods
to be small in, there are
anchors to the world so
you will not fly away before
it is time. The miracle of grass,
even though you may forget it,
the fact that you are loved,
even though you may forget it,
and what a miracle that is —
being loved — or more so,
that you are a wide blue ocean
capable of loving, you churning
body of sea life who survived
the oil spills, the broken glass,
the dead birds floating in the bay.

— Lee Herrick, from Scar and Flower, Word Poetry, 2019.

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[poetry month] "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" by Sally Wen Mao

RIDING ALONE FOR THOUSANDS OF MILES

In Lijiang, the sign outside your hostel
glares: Ride alone, ride alone, ride
alone — it taunts you for the mileage
of your solitude, must be past

thousands, for you rode this plane
alone, this train alone, you’ll ride
this bus alone well into the summer night,
well into the next hamlet, town,

city, the next century, as the trees twitch
and the clouds wane and the tides
quiver and the galaxies tilt and the sun
spins us another lonely cycle, you’ll

wonder if this compass will ever change.
The sun doesn’t need more heat,
so why should you? The trees don’t need
to be close, so why should you?

The sea is full of jetsam tonight. A thousand
miles away, you think of shores,
arriving at the KTV bar in Lijiang, listening,
A song comes up: Jay-Z with Rihanna,
umbrella-ella-ella-eh, strangers singing
into the strange night, and it’s like home to you,
this cocktail of ashes dusting your knees.
This city is famous for yak meat, rhododendron,
and one-night stands. You wait for yours
to show up. He works at the bar, looks like Takeshi
Kaneshiro. He clutches your waist as you ask
for more songs, more wine, more fruit.
Another: Teresa Teng, whose voice is the song
you have in common. “The Moon Represents
My Heart” — but tonight the moon represents
your sorrow in the Old Town Square.
Later as you lie in the cheap hotel in the electric
New City, Takeshi tells you he has never
left this province his whole life.
His family grows a peach orchard, and the fattest
peaches ripen in September. Where can I mail
you a peach?
he asks. Tell him you’re flying
to Indonesia. He asks why you’re going
somewhere so far away. Say: in Manhattan,
there are thousands of gargoyles
that travel around the world
as everyone sleeps.
Say: in Brooklyn, there is a chance
to rebuild a life from trash —
long-stemmed roses blooming
in the dumpsters, bodegas spilling purple
dragonfruit still good to eat.
Say: one morning outside Bryant Park,
you stood watching a garbage
fire destroy a basket of rotten mangoes.
Within five minutes, firefighters
came to extinguish it. You peered inside
afterward, and the nothing you saw
was wet and dark and smoldering.
Above you, a crane lifted a tiny man higher
and higher, until light stretched
his limbs into a sheaf of minerals.
He was dust before the wrecking
ball swung.

This land promises snowfall. This land promises windfall.
This land promises the return of brief days. May this land
promise you a body, some muscle, some organ, a brain.

Some ribs made of dark tinder, their insides lit, all vesicle,
atrium. May this kindling promise you a hearth and last

past your dread, October’s sleet, past scarred trees, then winter,
then mend and on and onward and orbit so you are blank
as memory, turn into paper — crinkle, burn, and finally open.

— Sally Wen Mao, from Oculus, Graywolf Press, 2019.

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[poetry month] "Waiting Room" by Carolina Ebeid

WAITING ROOM

You can’t carry around on your back the corpse
of your father
— Apollinaire

The sun is hoisted already. A flag. An awful bell.
Then the blue form asks me to assemble my medical family tree.

There are diseases whose syllables
on the tongue sit tart & dulcet
as a slice of pear chilled by the morning.

Then all the prescriptive grammarians wake up, one after
another, mimicking sidewalk birds dashing to safer heights.

Reader, can we have a meaningful exchange without
you knowing how I assemble heaven? The air’s
poignant with male peacocks. The air’s stony

& clean as altitudes above which no trees will grow.
All my father’s sadnesses begin to stomp & huff

as a line of bridled Central Park horses.
He brushes them. He feeds them seaweed.
It’s good for the teeth & the heart.

I have my father’s hair, which was once a lion’s-hide-
vermillion. You can’t carry around the corpse of a lion.

Looking at slides of a CT scan,
you may hold an idea of the body
as a junky steel contraption that can

be fixed. A figment of propellers here & at the center
an heirloom engine, oiled & intricate.

— Carolina Ebeid, from You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, Noemi Press, 2016.

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[poetry month] "The Facility Finder" by Jordan Davis

THE FACILITY FINDER

I was pleased to discover America.
It cheered me up to hear everybody else fighting.
When I finally gave my hostility a name
I started cleaning up after it like a proper pet.
It felt great to make a fuzzy electrical sound.
Holding my place on line with the book
of my one thousand doodles gave me
inordinate feelings of pride. Or ordinate, maybe.
The sun making wavy lines on the roofs
of the parking lot, the waves making
a glint-covered sunset on the roof of my heart,
the roofs keeping me my accustomed level
of damp, it all meant one thing: tautology
is the energy source of the future, and you
are the one I want beside me in the vehicle,
our hands on each other’s knees,
shouting our heads off to the music
recorded on this obsolete medium
as a low-cost way to express our earliest vibes.

— Jordan Davis, from Shell Game, Edge Books, 2018.

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[poetry month] "Midnight Sun" by Kim Hyesoon

MIDNIGHT SUN
Day Five

A letter arrives from a place where your reply can’t be sent

That you’re already here
That you’ve already left you

A shimmering letter arrives from the hole that knows everything

Like the brain that sees all too clearly after death, a bright letter arrives
Like the days before you were born, a widely wide letter without yesterday
or tomorrow arrives

Soft chiming of bells from a carriage made of light
Giggles of a girl in pants made of light, knocking on the nightless world

The last train runs above ground
the world where all the trains on the platform light up at once and silently
forget about you

You can’t go, for you are footless, but the children of your childhood are
already there
A letter arrives from that bright hole where not even a reply in black can be
sent

where your children age in front of you
from that place where you departed to, to be reincarnated

A letter arrives, written in ink of brightly bright light

from that place where you’ve never encountered darkness
an enormously enormous letter arrives
a brilliant light a newborn greets for the first time

—Kim Hyesoon, from Autobiography of Death, New Directions, 2018, translated by Don Mee Choi

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wobble a bit

Arrived late last night in Portland for the annual chaos of AWP. Happy to be here, among the anxious throngs. Grateful for the time I had to read, think, imagine a little. One of the highlights of my reading, this interview with Carl Phillips.

From “The Art of Poetry, No. 103, Carl Phillips,” The Paris Review:

On narrative context:

I tell people, especially if I’m giving a reading, it’s okay to let the words wash over them, the way one experiences abstract art. I’m not trained in visual art. I often see things in a museum and don’t know what to make of them, but I still have an experience, a response to what I can see. Likewise, I don’t think poems have to have easy translation. I believe strongly in emotional and psychological narratives. I think of many of my poems as emotional gestures. Context isn’t always essential — or maybe it’s that I resist context as an absolute. I like what happens when context begins to wobble a bit.

On closure:

Many poems are the psychological, emotional by-products not of a single experience but of an amalgamation of experiences. At the end of the day, I come back to something Ellen Bryant Voigt once told me, that poetry is not the transcription of experience but the transformation of it. 

I want readers to feel at the end of a poem as if something has been consolidated, if only briefly. But then to realize, Oh, and… To hover there. I think that kind of closure is more faithful to the idea of an ongoing quest. 

On unconventionality:

I’ve always thought that’s what poetry was for, a space for unconventionality, risk, disruption. I really resist what seems a human impulse toward what everyone has agreed on as normal. I don’t understand that in life, and I truly don’t get it in poetry. 

On poetry as a radical thing:

I think it is. And a dangerous, because almost holy, thing, and therefore not to be dealt with lightly. Poetry’s not a box for storing unexamined experience, but a space instead — a field, really — within which to examine experience and to find that the more we examine it the more we’re surprised or disturbed by what we see, things that don’t go away. I think that’s the resonant part. 

On unraveling:

My newest poems are very invested in storytelling as a kind of unraveling, poems that proceed by and often end in loose ends, rather than anything even vaguely like resolution. Unraveling seems maybe more true to how our lives are. We like to think they’re compartmentalized and neat, but it seems to me that life’s actually about a lot of spillage that we’re trying to hide from ourselves and from other people. 

meanwhile

It’s hard to read. Hard to stay focused. I’m thinking about utility. I’m tired, moving slowly, but want everything to go faster. 

One milestone to the next. I drove back from Northampton in time to teach my morning class and felt like a hero. After, walking down Angell Street to my car, I deflated. 

The book I hadn’t planned on writing is getting in my way. Perhaps it is not useful to think of it this way. But here we are, nearly spring. There are moments in it I love, but what is it, as a whole? 

Anyway, present company: two episodes of David Naimon’s excellent “Between the Covers:” R.O. Kwon and Tommy Pico. An interview with Anne Carson in the Paris Review. Don Mee Choi’s translation of Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death. Finished the review of Sally Wen Mao’s Oculus

Next week, there is much to do. An open heart brings many gifts but there are costs to porousness. I let a lot in. 

Meanwhile, papers piling up. Meanwhile, rain today. 

if you have to be sure

I drove to Maine this week to spend an afternoon and evening as a visiting writer — spoke informally with classes, dinner with some faculty and students, a public reading, drinks. Not an entirely unfamiliar experience, but gradually, I’m acclimating to a different way of being — from the 10-minute reading in a line-up of three or four to a more sustained attention, expanded expectations. To have this larger “platform” and its attendant expectations requires, I am starting to realize, a different kind of preparation — not only of the material, but a kind of mental and emotional preparation. More simply, as my son would put it, “leveling up.”

After the book came out, I was of course asked to speak about it. When a book comes out, one is supposed to want attention for it. Interview requests, the speaking invitations, reviews — it seems obvious, but in some ways I did not feel prepared for it. I very much wanted attention, but it was also true that I very much wanted to hide and never have to speak publicly about it, or anything, ever.  Anyone who is close to me, who has had to live with or near me this past year, knows how much I simultaneously hate and love this book. Each time I read from it, I encounter things I would change — words, phrases. Delete whole sections. And yet this book — this messy, flawed, human book — has brought me so many gifts, how can I feel anything but gratitude and love? 

I had a writer visit my class recently, someone who has likely been asked to speak about her book hundreds, if not thousands of times. What struck me is how unhesitatingly she spoke of it — walking us through a close reading of a short passage, diagramming its structure on the whiteboard. As a listener, I felt a kind of relief. Her expertise, her certainty about her own work was reassuring. 

I feel vulnerable in more ways than I anticipated. Not only that the book itself is explicitly about my life, but that the aspects of the personal are generally what people want to know more about. Did I ever find any more information about my birth family, do I feel a sense of resolution having written the book, and even, someone asked me after a reading once, Do I forgive my mother? I don’t know how to answer these questions. I find myself bristling slightly when I am referred to — as I have been on occasion — as a “memoirist.” I am no expert on adoption, or on memoir, or even on my own life. I didn’t set out to write about my own life in this way, and yet, now that I have — now that I have entered the public conversation with this book — what responsibility do I have to speak with certainty, with authority? How different the role of the writer is from the role of the Writer? Perhaps I have not appreciated this distinction well enough. Not only in what it might require — the public presentation of the private role — but also the ways in which I need to prepare myself for the swirl of emotions that flood me after such a public display. 

Despite the warmth and generosity of the faculty and students, despite the conviviality over dinner and drinks, despite the kind and effusive remarks of the students, I drove back home yesterday feeling deflated. I re-played every answer I gave in class, every line I read aloud that felt flat. Imagined audience members on their way home, shaking their heads in disappointment and shock at how bad the whole thing was. Was I the worst Visiting Writer in the history of the college? Quite possibly so. 

This doesn’t seem a very helpful way to proceed in one’s life as a writer. (I am always charmed when someone asks, “Do you ever feel doubt about your work? How do you deal with doubt?”)

I arrived home in the afternoon, tired, depleted, a little sad. I read the news of W.S. Merwin’s passing and among the many poems and quotes and tributes posted, someone had excerpted these lines from “Berryman:”

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

What can I tell you that you don’t already know?

Some mornings, I awake with a line or a phrase. In this case, prompted I think, by reading about syllabics. (Four stressed syllables above).

Among the lectures and notes that comprise Compendium: A Collection of Thoughts on Prosody, Donald Justice quotes John Cage:

“Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing. Anything, therefore, is a delight.”

And

“the idea of relations being absent, anything may happen.”

As for the rest of the notes on metrical types and syllabics, I will admit: I want to be more interested than I am. But let us keep this between us. I fear this makes me a Very Bad Poet.

--

Yesterday in class, one student, when I observed that he looked like he wanted to speak, said “I have ideas but I don’t think they’re very intelligent,” and proceeded to express them. He made a lovely connection between two things we had read, it doesn’t matter much what they were, but that he made it. And it made me so happy that he did, and that then, as a class, we could talk it through together. A few other students added to and expanded on his initial thought and it all felt like a very wonderful moment indeed. This is what I want: a shared experience of intellectual curiosity in an environment that feels safe enough to speak before one is fully ready to.

Later, I went to hear Sawako Nakayasu and Laird Hunt read. Sawako read from new work that was lively and exuberant and Laird read what he referred to as “autofiction,” about time spent in London and Paris with his family. For a section, he read with photographs from the trip projected on the screen behind him. I felt very much at home, in that room, among those writers, many whose work I have known for a long time. My teachers were there: Carole Maso, Bob Coover. Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, with whom I did not study, but who are like the patron saints of the program. What I mean to say is: I felt fortunate to be in such company.

Before the reading started, Bob waved me over. It was the first time I had seen him since I had given him my book at the end of last year. He thanked me, said it was beautiful and told me, “I read it all the way to the end,” which I take as high praise.

He said, “I have some notes, I’ll get them to you,” and I laughed, recalling his careful red script on all my early stories. Then just as the event was about to begin, he said, “I want to know what’s next.”  

some news

Honored and grateful to be one of the recipients of this year’s MacColl Johnson Fellowship. Thanks to the Providence Journal for the profile.

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artificial clarity

My dreams have been vivid, but I don’t remember them. Only wake with the feeling of having been engaged in some high drama. The impressions I’m left with are washes of color – red to magenta. Intense, pulsing blue.

This year, even in February’s depths, I anticipate spring. Last night, an orange band low across the horizon cheered me. A bright sheen across every layer of ice.

--

It’s a busy time. I’m meeting with students. They tell me their plans, their anxieties. If there was a time I envied their youth, I no longer do. Frenetic desires no longer hold appeal. I am no longer interested in the sharp edges of wholly untested ambition.

My ambitions now: the work is the work. It is not as though I am untouched by desire. The surprise and seductiveness of recognition. I am not above it. The pleasures of it are uneasy, though. Complicated. I am not yet sure what I am trying to say.

--

Kate says that she wrote most of I Mean while driving. She was teaching at URI then, spending hours on the road. She kept a notepad near her. I keep a notepad in my car, too. Scribble things to myself, but never much of value, and frequently illegible.

Here is a note I wrote to myself recently while driving:

was no god who at the conference table said “good girl” fed me scraps of the banquet
I had myself prepared

It was a reference to an incident years ago. A work dinner I was hosting for out-of-town investors of one sort or another. After we ate, I rose to bring the platter of desserts to the table. A tray of small things – petit fours, macarons. The man seated at the head of the table, as I placed it down in front of him said, “Ah yes. Good girl.”

I was so shaken and enraged, I had to excuse myself. I don’t remember what happened next. Did they leave? Did we speak again? Surely someone stepped in to account for my absence. Why, after all this time, am I remembering it now?

--

As for the work: A nearly complete first draft of a new collection. The outline for the next project proposal: something sprawling and risky that I can’t yet get my head around, but grant deadlines require clarity, even if somewhat artificial. And the ever-present shape-shifting novel. (For a photograph last week, I trudged through the wet snow back to Nine Men’s Misery. How will this all come together? How am I ever going to make this work? “The work is the work” in all its triteness running in a constant, oddly reassuring loop.)

I am, for the most part, exhilarated by it all. At least today.

Cersei, in mid-life

Each morning, as I open my laptop, I’m confronted by the fleeting shame of the prior night’s guilty pleasures – the final frame of the Game of Thrones episode we had watched in bed hours before. Rising early in the dark, coming to my desk while the world around me is quiet feels virtuous. Remembering that I fell asleep watching men argue over who would be “warden of the north,” with the clanging of their swords following me into my dreams: well the sheen of virtue does tarnish a bit.

I am reading Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches, and am reminded of how sustaining it is to have friends whose work you admire. The book is composed of two parts: one long lyric essay, and then a series of tiny (150-word) ones. Kate’s concerns are mid-life, motherhood, writing, reading, knowing and unknowing, the way a life seems at times to collapse in on itself. She observes and interrogates language with such relentless precision.

From “Driving to Margaret’s Mother’s Memorial Service:”

The smell of rain on hot pavement connects this moment to so many others, none of which I can remember.

Is every moment more a sequel of or serial with the one before?

A conundrum’s a semantic impasse, not an actual condition of the world.

And later:

When you start habitually narrating yourself it begins to feel as though a thing hasn’t happened if you can’t adequately describe it. But description and narration are bound by a temporal standard that communication necessitates. So you become dependent on description for experience, and then the description compromises the experience with its falsifying strictures. Sometimes I wonder if I actually preempt some of my experiences by narrating them or as even before they happen, replacing them with their own anticipatory representations.

None of my closest friends watch Game of Thrones for reasons I cannot argue against: “Too sexist, too violent, too many dragons.” “I just can’t bear all the blood sounds.” I can’t say why, entirely, that I enjoy something that I would normally not expect I would. There is spectacle. I find the actors quite riveting. There is something too about character development that M and I will often talk about over breakfast, which makes it all feel a little bit like “research.” But perhaps there’s no need to try to defend it or suggest it is more than it is. A shared, fully-rendered fantasy we can escape to, where we can experience the relief and satisfaction of recognizable desires and ambitions resolved without personal consequence.

Loving Game of Thrones is also one of my very few experiences of being a “fan” of something. I don’t follow sports of any kind, can’t tell you much about popular music, don’t know what’s really going on most of the time when my twitter stream goes full-on Oscars. But Game of Thrones! I can mention it at a party or extended family gathering and people actually know what I’m talking about. There is pleasure in that too.

Leaving this off where I must for now, I feel as though I should offer some sort of meditation linking the character of Cersei Lannister in her own mid-life to Kate’s ontological inquiries. That essay will have to wait.

artist unknown, Korean

Last summer, I read Wayne Koestenbaum’s Notes on Glaze, mostly in short bursts, poolside, while my son splashed and wrinkled in the over-chlorinated water.

Beyond the photographs and their accompanying short essays, what has remained with me is the inquiry. Koestenbaum was sent photographs, without any identifying or contextual information, and asked to write extended captions on them for on ongoing column at Cabinet Magazine. In the introduction to the book that was later composed of these text and image pairings, he says:

The column began with cheekiness, but quickly accommodated itself to more serious violations, even if I treated trauma whimsically. Language, when worked, is a wounding business, and these columns gave me a chance to measure the wound of being wrongly seen, the wound of assembling a self, and the wound of any form of duress, whether mild or mortifying.

Later that year, I heard Teju Cole discuss his desire, in Blind Spot, his photograph and text collection, to bring objects together in visual space – objects that have “an organic but unacknowledged relationship to each other.”

What struck me in these comments about both projects was the importance of the space between – the as yet inarticulate silence between the photographs Koestenbaum was given and the text that might be brought into space with them, the about-to-be-identified linkages between Cole’s objects. The attempt to make meaning from and in those gaps.

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Upon request, I was generously given a list of the hundreds of items labeled “Korean” in the RISD Museum’s East Asian Art collection. (As an aside, the document was charmingly titled “Korean for Mary-Kim.”) Most of the objects, the earliest of which is identified as “3rd century CE,” are credited: “Artist unknown, Korean.” This anonymity persists until, of course, the 20th century. Scrolling through the 86-page document, photograph after photograph, object after object, the phrase “Artist unknown, Korean,” asserts itself becomes a kind of poetic refrain, anaphora:

Artist unknown, Korean
Spoon, 3rd century CE
bronze
length: 21 cm (8 1/4 inches)
Gift of Mrs. William C. Baker  12.163

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s-600s
bronze
Diameter: 17.8 cm (7 inches)
Gift of Mrs. Gustav Radeke  15.017

Artist unknown, Korean
Mirror, 300s - 600s
bronze
22.2 cm (8 13/16 inches) (diameter)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.304

Artist unknown, Korean
Ornament,
bronze; gilding
3.8 cm (1 1/2 inches) (height)
Museum Appropriation Fund  18.373A

 … and so on.

In an exhibition catalog from the Seattle Art Museum in 1992, I first encountered this preamble in the relatively brief discussion of Korean lacquer art:

In Korea, all arts have suffered badly from centuries of invasion and warfare. Perishable arts, including lacquer, are almost nonexistent for many periods. Most extant lacquers have been excavated from tombs or other archaeological sites and have been damaged during burial. In addition, most pieces from the period between the eleventh century and the Japanese invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late sixteenth century are in Japan, removed from their cultural context….

How to address incomplete or unknowable provenance? One approach is perhaps through imaginative response. A series of texts around missing objects, gaps, the ruptures in the collection. An attempt to explain those absences, to raise questions around the “centuries of invasion” referred to above.

In a recent interview, Regine Basha of Pioneer Works observed that “decentralizing the art object and emphasizing the process over the product is one way to stimulate more critical engagement and debate,” and I am thinking about how this might be applicable, through multiple points of view, or interweaving multiple, even conflicting interpretations or sources.