Reshaping Each Other
We are differently shaped
with everyone we love,
sticking out here, receding
there, interlocking couples.
We grow roles as trees
extrude bark; perhaps
the real life is under
neath in the thin green sap.
I am the finder of things
in drawers; I make lists
and menus; I read maps.
You lift and haul and open.
I select; you reject.
You brood and I fuss.
You dream and I arrange.
You regret and I flee.
If we are yin and yang
it is in a crazy quilt
of push, pull and merge.
Strange as sphinxes,
common as goldfish, neither
alike nor different finally
but ratcheted together
in the gears of marriage.
February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).
The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.
It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).
And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:
*“Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.
“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”
*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана Денисовича – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.
Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:
“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)
“My only home is my throat.”
*Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.
Good – really good – but not great
“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”
“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”
*Sadness is a White Bird – Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.
“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”
“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”
Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.
“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”
A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.
*The Attack – Yasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.
*We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger about how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.
*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.
Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.
The first white hair coils in my hand,
more wire than down.
Out of the bathroom mirror it glittered at me.
I plucked it, feeling thirty creep in my joints,
and found it silver. It does not melt.
My twentieth birthday lean as glass
spring vacation I stayed in the college town
twanging misery’s electric banjo offkey.
I wanted to inject love right into the veins
of my thigh and wake up visible:
to vibrate color
like the minerals in stones under black light.
My best friend went home without loaning me money.
Hunger was all of the time the taste of my mouth.
Now I am ripened and sag a little from my spine.
More than most I have been the same ragged self
in all colors of luck dripping and dry,
yet love has nested in me and gradually eaten
those sense organs I used to feel with.
I have eaten my hunger soft and my ghost grows stronger.
Gradually, I am turning to chalk,
to humus, to pages and pages of paper,
to fine silver wire like something a violin
could be strung with, or somebody garroted,
or current run through: silver truly,
this hair, shiny and purposeful as forceps
if I knew how to use it.
The rush to exclaim “me too” on social media channels this past week, with the flood of Harvey Weinstein sexual assault/harassment claims, has exasperated me. Because I am so tired. I am tired of asking day after day, “Why are we here… still at this place?” I keep reading book after book, witnessing event after event, moment after moment, of both subtle and overt sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, gender-based undermining. I am guilty of trying to ignore it, as though it does not exist. And this cascade of voices – literally every woman (and many men) I know – claiming, “Me too” almost grows hollow through its very echo.
Being female in the world is a battle for survival in a way that it just isn’t for a man. Worse yet, even when we occasionally think we’ve got an ally in this man or that, he doesn’t really get it or thinks he is an exception. Or is actually one of the smug male masses who call themselves feminists but make snide remarks about things like a “me too” social media campaign, women who supposedly bring down ‘good guys’ with false or misremembered accusations or the ‘overblown’ nature of sexual harassment in general (i.e. “it doesn’t happen nearly as often as women claim it does”). Are you fucking kidding me?
And these are women’s lives in the best of circumstances. What about those who live in the worst?
“Out of necessity’s hard stones we suck
what water we can and so we have survived,
women born of women.”
The Moon is Always Female
The moon is always female and so
am I although often in this vale
of razorblades I have wished I could
put on and take off my sex like a dress
and why not? Do men always wear their sex
always? The priest, the doctor, the teacher
all tell us they come to their professions
neuter as clams and the truth is
when I work I am pure as an angel
tiger and clear is my eye and hot
my brain and silent all the whining
grunting piglets of the appetites.
For we were priests to the goddesses
to whom were fashioned the first altars
of clumsy stone on stone and leaping animal
in the wombdark caves, long before men
put on skirts and masks to scare babies.
For we were healers with herbs and poultices
with our milk and careful fingers
long before they began learning to cut up
the living by making jokes at corpses.
For we were making sounds from our throats
and lips to warn and encourage the helpless
young long before schools were built
to teach boys to obey and be bored and kill.
I wake in a strange slack empty bed
of a motel, shaking like dry leaves
the wind rips loose, and in my head
is bound a girl of twelve whose female
organs all but the numb womb are being
cut from her with a knife. Clitoridectomy,
whatever Latin name you call it, in a quarter
of the world girl children are so maimed
and I think of her and I cannot stop.
And I think of her and I cannot stop.
If you are a woman you feel the knife in the words.
If you are a man, then at age four or else
at twelve you are seized and held down
and your penis is cut off. You are left
your testicles but they are sewed to your
crotch. When your spouse buys you, you
are torn or cut open so that your precious
semen can be siphoned out, but of course
you feel nothing. But pain. But pain.
For the uses of men we have been butchered
and crippled and shut up and carved open
under the moon that swells and shines
and shrinks again into nothingness, pregnant
and then waning toward its little monthly
death. The moon is always female but the sun
is female only in lands where females
are let into the sun to run and climb.
A woman is screaming and I hear her.
A woman is bleeding and I see her
bleeding from the mouth, the womb, the breasts
in a fountain of dark blood of dismal
daily tedious sorrow quite palatable
to the taste of the mighty and taken for granted
that the bread of domesticity be baked
of our flesh, that the hearth be built
of our bones of animals kept for meat and milk,
that we open and lie under and weep.
I want to say over the names of my mothers
like the stones of a path I am climbing
rock by slippery rock into the mists.
Never even at knife point have I wanted
or been willing to be or become a man.
I want only to be myself and free.
I am waiting for the moon to rise. Here
I squat, the whole country with its steel
mills and its coal mines and its prisons
at my back and the continent tilting
up into mountains and torn by shining lakes
all behind me on this scythe of straw,
a sand bar cast on the ocean waves, and I
wait for the moon to rise red and heavy
in my eyes. Chilled, cranky, fearful
in the dark I wait and I am all the time
climbing slippery rocks in a mist while
far below the waves crash in the sea caves;
I am descending a stairway under the groaning
sea while the black waters buffet me
like rockweed to and fro.
I have swum the upper waters leaping
in dolphin’s skin for joy equally into the nec-
cessary air and the tumult of the powerful wave.
I am entering the chambers I have visited.
I have floated through them sleeping and sleep-
walking and waking, drowning in passion
festooned with green bladderwrack of misery.
I have wandered these chambers in the rock
where the moon freezes the air and all hair
is black or silver. Now I will tell you
what I have learned lying under the moon
naked as women do: now I will tell you
the changes of the high and lower moon.
Out of necessity’s hard stones we suck
what water we can and so we have survived,
women born of women. There is knowing
with the teeth as well as knowing with
the tongue and knowing with the fingertips
as well as knowing with words and with all
the fine flickering hungers of the brain.
So maybe, just maybe, you could make a version of a relationship contract – only make it about the relationship with yourself first. The writer of this article claims that codifying the terms of her relationship made her finally feel that there was room for her in her own relationship. I am sure we have all been there – so eager to please, or so eager to be loved, or just to preserve harmony (or whatever our multitudes of reasons) that we would “consent to give a finger and then an arm” (Marge Piercy) to let the relationship, or the lie of the relationship, persist.
The writer explains, “Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual; we’re just making the terms more explicit. It reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together. After all, this approach brought us together in the first place.”
She could be right. But perhaps she is jumping the gun. It is not really possible to define your needs or yourself within a relationship without first figuring out what your own must-haves are. Sure, maybe you can come to these conclusions (or whatever sliding-scale needs you have) in conversation with another, but it would not hurt to do some self-reflection first. Maybe even draft a little contract with yourself: after all, you will have must-haves and some things you cannot live with and should create thresholds, things that will trigger a built-in kill switch.
Perhaps this self-involved contract would become something like a dreaded wishlist, but certainly there must be must-haves and makes-or-breaks for many people who feel they are on a determined life path or have specific things they want to achieve. Figuring out what those things are and making a semi-flexible promise to yourself to consider these things when you find yourself flailing … it couldn’t hurt, and could help hone some of the instincts a bit better (so you wouldn’t necessarily need this contract later).
Sure, I didn’t like being on someone’s to-do list as an abstract concept once I realized I was a means to an end – who would? But that is why you communicate and try to determine that you are on the same life path or want the same things. It won’t always work, but it’s a start. This is basic relationship 101 stuff… and people in their 30s probably should have some basic experience with this.
We know that people often enter relationships and quietly hope that their perseverance will lead to change in the other person. Or will secretly hope that, despite all signs pointing to the contrary, the two are somehow on the same page. Not all people, not all relationships. But for example, if you get involved with someone of another religious faith, can you reasonably assume (but then as a person of no faith, I don’t see reason attached to faith and the people who believe in and practice religion, so this is a rhetorical, (oxy)moronic question) that you will fill their heart with the light of your truth (or, much more likely, wear them down to begrudgingly tolerate your faith – making for a half-lived life of resentment – for both of you)?
Why try to sand and sculpt a reluctant person into what s/he isn’t when there are probably more than a few people who already believe what you do or who want what you do? Of course this is oversimplifying the complexity and desperation and pigheadedness of our world, filled as it is with farkakte schmucks and putzes, brimming with hopeful romantics and determined would-be breeders, feeders, leaders and seeders. With older people especially, the pool is limited. Time is of the essence, but this urgency is also what leads to coupling up and projecting traits and hopes that are not and will never be there. We know this but proceed anyway, even though it’s almost inevitably headed nowhere good.
Resentment: Take poison, expect other person to die
And despite how hurt or embittered we are by this (temporary, usually), feeling we were misled or that our time was wasted, shouldn’t we take a dose of our own medicine? Personal responsibility for what we failed to see or admit, our failure to look at the big picture or to look at the situation through the other person’s eyes? After all, as cliched and half-baked as this sounds, the longer you cling to the resentment, the longer you are putting off getting on with it – and finding whatever traits in another that you included your personal contract with yourself.
“The teeth and back reject…” -Marge Piercy
For much of my life I’ve struggled with the teeth – and these last days have been hobbling along like an 85-year-old lady with a back ‘disturbance’, so the quotation feels apt. This is what happens when you push too hard.
Nerding out, as I do, as soon as I read a review of the book Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, I knew I had to read it immediately. God knows why. Weird things fascinate me, and maybe it’s not true to say that I “nerd out” sometimes. I am, let’s face it, a full-time nerd.
I get fired up about reading the most random of things – this time about teeth and the history of dental care and dentistry: everything from the obsession with the cosmetic aspects of teeth (which is treated at length in the book, but about which I choose not to focus here) to the pain, suffering and real, life-threatening medical emergencies that can occur when teeth are not cared for (and a system that isn’t designed to care for the majority of people and their teeth).
“In the way that they disfigure the face, bad teeth depersonalize the sufferer. They confer the stigma of economic and even moral failure. People are held personally accountable for the state of their teeth in ways that they are not held accountable for many other health conditions.“
“The teeth are made from stern stuff. They can withstand floods, fires, even centuries in the grave. But the teeth are no match for the slow-motion catastrophe that is a life of poverty: its burdens, distractions, diseases, privations, low expectations, transience, the addictive antidotes that offer temporary relief at usurious rates.“
What does it say that this book actually made me cry? That a child’s dental health (or any person’s really) is able to reach such a state of total breakdown that it is his final frontier. Once teeth are beyond all help, the body itself slips toward mortality – that’s too much for my emotional parts to process. The story of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, a Maryland boy who died of a systemic infection caused by one decaying tooth was heartbreaking and not at all unique.
Not to add that America, with its fragmented health or dental care systems, which are – as the book explores – completely separate, the idea of preventive care, while trotted out in marketing and ad efforts for toothpaste, isn’t taken very seriously. (“Parents need to teach their children: “Your teeth are pearls. You should keep them,” she said.“) And analyses of the total cost involved (not even looking at the tragic loss of life) balance an 80 USD tooth extraction against the estimated 250,000 USD that Driver’s emergent medical condition, surgical procedures and hospitalizations ended up costing. Driver might have been saved had the labyrinthine system, leading his mother around in circles but going nowhere but an unnecessary and excruciating death, had more transparency or advocates in it.
It’s complex. How did the human body and its (medical) treatment become completely disconnected from the treatment of the mouth and teeth, moving further away from any notion of “holistic treatment”? The book highlights, for example, the squeamishness that even seasoned combat and trauma physicians feel when it comes to extracting a rotten tooth from a patient who comes to the ER in the absence of some other form of treatment or pain relief. The theory behind this is that perhaps working with teeth is just too personal.
None of it is new. The teeth tell a story, both an evolutionary and individual history. And can erupt in the pressure of the kind of pain and suffering that can scarcely be put into words.
“At some moments, he said the pain was so deep it became like a partner. “Really the pain almost feels good after a while*. The medulla takes over and you waltz through it.” At other times, he said he was its slave. “I’m in a lot of pain but I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I don’t beg, borrow, or steal. Shoot me in the head, please. It would be a lot easier if you put me out of my misery.””
*As I always say, there is a poem or song for everything. PK Page writes in her poem “Suffering”:
suffering is sweeter yet.
That dark embrace – that birthmark,
ready to be conjured up –
tongue in the sore tooth, fingertip
pressed to the bandaged cut
and mind returning to it over and over.
Best friend, bestower of feeling
Something to suck at like a stone.
One’s own. One’s owner.
…One’s almost lover.”