HOW TO SLEEP JACKKNIFE
Most of Goethe's brothers and sisters died at an early age. He was one of the only ones to survive. He was born in a house with five rows of windows all evenly spaced in ascending tiers where the number of windows diminishes with each story; the floor at the top of the house has only one window. Goethe's real house burned during the war.
Like me, Goethe was obsessed with bone, with the blue at the end of light.
I can count twenty-seven windows in the house Goethe was born in. His house was more window than wood. So many openings I wonder how the light shifted across the rooms; if you could see in at night, what kind of blue fell across his sleep, was this house where he was ill for so long?
The philosopher Schopenhauer said to Goethe that if we are deprived of the sense of sight, light would not exist. Goethe said that there is light in everything.
He understood that what we do in darkness has no shadow, no color, while at the same time knowing that there is light in everything.
Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley's heart didn't burn.
Eventually, the heart was given to Mary Shelley. Some say she slept with it under her pillow, or kept it in her traveling writing desk wrapped in silk or linen; others say she carried it with her until she died.
Say what you will, but I know she carried it with her in her pocket so she could stroke the braille of it sometimes, its rippled skin like the waves Shelley disappeared under, frozen and dark as volcanic glass.
July, 2001, New Jersey
There will come a time when I will have to put the burnt bone of my heart in the ground, but it is not yet that time.
We first spoke when you came up after class as I was walking and asked me if our professor Joseph Lopez was gay:
That was the summer you lived on Walnut Street in the room you painted Rustic Drama, a glaring nauseating yellow that you immediately regretted.
We would go get ice cream with Jan, another girl in our class, and I told her I liked her hair—it was short and red, like I'd always wanted. I never managed to get my hair the right red, though in high school I dyed it many times, bleaching it and then dying it again.
I once came across my mother's wigs when looking for something. I had been feeling through boxes and touched one by accident. It felt like a dead animal. I snapped my hand back.
After summer classes you kept your distance. In the beginning, it was always like this. When I saw you sing on the street outside that store, I bought a necklace of a face carved from yellow bone. Not a real face, but more like a face you would imagine the moon to have.
It is common knowledge that the moon has faces it shows no one.
June 18, 1994
It is possible to survive anything. After my mother died, no one touched me. This is a lie: people touched me, but not how I needed or, sometimes, wanted. They touched me in fleeting, noncommittal, perfunctory ways. Or: in ways that still open me in sleep, where I have hidden pockets of nightmares.
I liked the rooms on the top floor of my house full of windows and lofts. I imagined I would be safer there, high above the ground.
As I said before, it is possible to survive anything.
As a child, she said her name was actually William, that she was named after her uncle, and not her father's sister who died as a child. She changed her name in the family bible. Everyone in her family called her Willie anyhow.
When my mother was ill before she died, no one combed my six-year-old sister's hair, and a knot grew large enough for us to call it a bird's nest. Later, I would shave my head in college when my father said my long hair looked like my mother's, because that was the only kind thing he had said to me in years.
Willa also liked her hair short, and kept it that way for many years, in a shingle when she went to college, combed away from her face. She must have known her eyes were beautiful.
She followed the town doctors around, helped give chloroform to a boy whose leg would be amputated. She liked to open animals, see how they worked, what parts were still moving after death, where the blood went.
As a child, a little boy threatened to cut off her hand. It terrified her. Did she run from him, into tall grass, the hush of prairie rising under her feet? If she ran from him, she ran to the river where she touched the flickering fish with her fingers.
At fifteen, she answered questions in a friend's album as Wm. Cather M.D.
At seventeen, she often went to college dressed as a boy. People sometimes thought she was he. When they realized she wasn't, they laughed at her.
In her mid-twenties, Willa met Isabelle McClung in her dressing room for the play she was in; Willa was a reviewer then. Was Isabelle still in costume when they met? Maybe Willa was wearing a hat, did she turn her head if Isabelle wasn't fully dressed, or did she meet her fully with her gaze, pale eye to pale eye?
Eventually, they lived together, sharing a room in the McClung house with Isabelle's family. They went to Paris.
When Willa went to New York, she wanted Isabelle to come live her, but she would not go. In the now-burnt letters what did she say? She wasn't fond of women using overly descriptive adverbs, but did she allow herself even one desperately?
Years later, in middle age, when she got blood poisoning in her head, and they had to partially shave her hair, she would remember the boy who threatened to cut off her hand. She knew that bone could be split from itself, and one's hand could be buried in earth as you stood above it with a fist of wildflowers pinned to your waist.
February, 2004, Long Branch, NJ
I had decided that in order to ask for something the pain had to outweigh the shame of asking.
I asked you to hold me.
You didn't ask why. We were sitting on your bed. You wrapped your arms around me. You were gentle. You let me come closer. I was surprised at how warm, how soft. Human beings all looked hard to me. I saw them mostly as edges against the world, lines drawn. No one touched me. I did not dare touch. I did not cross lines. I swallowed, felt your jaw against my neck. You breathed, slowly. I felt safe. I was afraid you'd let go too soon. I thought I should let go first, but I couldn't. I needed it too badly. I took a breath and the air shook through the center of my lungs. We were both surprised. You made a sound low in your throat, pulled me closer. You rested a palm on the small of my back, where I imagined the bruises had hemmed my waist shut.
April, 2004, Long Branch, New Jersey
I turned the pages of Carson's book about wanting his foreskin back for Christmas. It was written in rhyme and designed from cut construction paper—it looked like a children's storybook. He was a bit obsessed with the loss, but I understood: this bit of skin, that edge, gone.
In Sea Bright we drove past a tall wood wall built around the beach, which kept the flooding at bay. It looked like the hull of an enormous ship that stretched for miles.
January, 2005, Boston, Mass
After you moved to Jamaica Plains, you got a job working as a security guard for a gay bar on the weekends. You were supposed to watch for guys having sex or doing drugs in the bathrooms. Once, I saw two guys go into the single bathroom together, but I didn't say anything because I think people having sex in the bathroom is kind of hot.
Ian's apartment was small and consumed with large red faux leather couches, and made me think of a too-large tongue choked in a mouth. We sat down, squeaking.
On the way home I drove slowly because driving over the tram car tracks always made the wheels slip a little.
When he was a boy it is said he almost drowned in Knob Creek, but another boy saved him with a sycamore branch. They had been chasing birds. He didn't know that the ancient Egyptians believed that the sycamore tree stood on a threshold, connecting the worlds of life and death with its branches. Plutarch wrote of Isis hiding the body of her beloved Osiris in a sycamore's trunk. He had been torn to pieces; she had gathered him.
When Lincoln lived in a cabin, he didn't have paper, so he carved the quotes he liked into wooden boards. When the words darkened with age, with dirt, he peeled the wood, and wrote the words again. He must have burned the scraps, used those words for warmth.
In what was called the winter of the deep snow, melted snow became water, became a flood, and when he took his boat down the Sangamon River, hoping to find somewhere different, the flood brought him to New Salem. When Billy Graham first saw Abe on his flatbed boat he said that his thighs were as perfect as a human being Could be. He didn't say how they were perfect, but they must have been muscular. He did say Abe was wearing mixed blue jeans pants, a hickory shirt. Were the jeans a deep blue, like melted snow that became water, that became a flood?
Water only seems blue because when the light breaks on water, blue is the color most reflected. However, if it is true that Lincoln was colorblind, it might have looked like another color to him.
They say also that he had gray eyes, but I don't believe it because gray eyes always have another color swirled in them if you look close enough. Usually blue. Maybe he never saw it there, even though it was. In the only photograph in which Lincoln is clean shaven, someone noted that his eyes look too small.
Billy Graham would teach Abe about grammar, about adverbs, adjectives, pronunciation, word usage; Abe used to say fruit was spilled, as opposed to spoiled, and sometimes, even later he would slip into his old language, the one that came from forests, from what one of his biographers calls "gnarled bones and gaunt hours," words not carved into wood, but melting instead into clouds of breath in the cool of those mornings.
The teacher who taught the class where we first met once told me that sleeping next to someone was more intimate than sleeping with him. The only person I've managed to sleep well next to was you. You slept diagonally because you were as tall as Lincoln, and I am short. I slept curled next to you, in a position Lincoln's biographer calls jackknife. He said that Lincoln and Billy must have slept closely jackknifed because they were similar heights. Either that, or Lincoln's feet would have been hanging off the narrow bed.
At twenty-eight, Abe leaves New Salem, travels twenty miles to Springfield, and meets Joshua Speed, asks him where he can find a place to sleep, and Speed invites him to share his bed.
In the portrait of Joshua Speed as a young man, one of his eyes is painted as larger and darker than the other, and it looks like a mistake of shading, but maybe his left eye seemed larger to the painter. He has a long thin face. His hair covers his ears. In this early picture his lips are ever so slightly smiled, and full. His jaw is a severe edge. I would be curious to touch a jaw that long, as I never have.
They all slept like that then, and used the word intimate. All beds were narrow. But Lincoln would never sign his letter yours forever to anyone else but Joshua.
I once sent a woman I loved a bleeding heart, which is a kind of pink flower that looks like a vulva and a valentine, an erect stamen blooming from its base. They grow hanging in rows like cherries on a branch, and the hearts get bigger as they grow. If you tear them open you can separate the heart directly in half. I had crushed the bleeding heart in a dictionary, glued it to an ivory colored piece of stationary shot through with tiny blue and green threads and left in her mailbox. I still hope her lover found it first.
Eventually Joshua and Abe stopped writing to each other.
When Lincoln was shot, the bullet entered through his left ear and lodged behind his right eye. It must have shattered the lachrymal bone there, the most fragile bone in the body, which cradles the place where tears gather before they spill, while they are still only an idea of sorrow.
March, 2002, Montclair, New Jersey
My car wouldn't start in the parking lot because I had run out of gas, and outside an ice storm shattered against the windshield, against the buildings on the hill of our college. It was not the first time my car had run out of gas; I hate to stop driving, and gas stations make me nervous.
We drove your car to the gas station, to get gas, and then we filled my tank as the ice slicked us. "I can do it myself," I said. "get back in the car." But you wouldn't.
"Let me put your pants in the drier," you said. "You can wear a pair of my pants."
That night I dream that I have somehow ended up with my maroon underwear balled in my fist over my head, but I don't know how it happened, and I'm not sure if I'm naked.
2005, Long Branch, New Jersey
Before you moved to Boston you saw a psychic. This was not like you. A friend of yours swore by it. You said the psychic had hair so long you thought she had never cut it, and it was woven into a mahogany braid you lost track of in the shadows behind her velvet chair, the kind of clawed armchair that seemed obligatory for that profession. It was maroon of course.
"She knew about you," you said.
Henry David Thoreau
I have a vial of water from Walden pond, but over the years I have noticed that it is slowly evaporating.
As Thoreau dove as far as he could into Walden pond, he must have thought, as I have, that breaking a body of water's surface with your body is like forgetting.
It has been so long since I have dove into something I couldn't touch the bottom of.
If I were to write you a letter by dipping an edge in a pool of black ink, I would stain my fingers—it was hard to avoid staining your fingers during the time when Thoreau was writing, and my hands shake—you would see every swirl, every line printed on my fingers since I have hyper-linear palms, which I used to say meant I had many life-lines, and therefore a long life, but I know I got my hands from my mother, who died young.
If I wrote you a letter, it would say, Why haven't you written me a letter?
You wrote me a letter once and after that I walked the streets for hours. You asked that I not make you my enemy.
Thoreau on watching ants he had trapped in a tumbler fighting: the ant was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had...
Thoreau swam naked, I am sure of it, and the water pushed against his body as he went deeper, fish flashing along his thighs.
From the Hank Williams song you stole lyrics from for your own song: I'm going down in it three times, but oh Lord, I'm only coming up twice. You left out the oh Lord.
We got lost in the woods that time, we never found the pond, but you have forgotten.
Boston, Mass, 2005
Right before Christmas two years ago, I allowed myself to get lost in Copley Square. I wore my blueberry coat with the ripped pockets and plum buttons. I was waiting for you to get off work. I bought a necklace made of wood as a gift.
When you find me, you take me to a record store where we finger the worn covers. Beautiful, I think, that inside the cardboard vinyl records hide; they are etched with rings like those exposed in a tree cut down, and I count the songs like years.
If this were the case, the first song on Joni Mitchell's album Blue, "All I Want," would be the last year in the life of a tree, and my favorite song at the time.
I'm singing it all the way home, I hate you some, I love you some.
"I didn't know," you say on the train.
"Isn't it obvious now that you know?" I lean against your shoulder.
July 6, 2006, New York City
You have moved back here, one borough away. But, you disappear.
I'm not out to hurt you, you say. I love you.
I'll see you tomorrow, you say to me.
Silence happens, because sound travels in waves like water, and when two waves of sound that are exactly equal pass each other in opposite directions, their highest points align perfectly, creating silence.
I realize that I will never love anyone like this again, the wires will not be braided so tight so that no current escapes. It is almost a relief to know this.
In the morning of the day when I cannot even remember how long it has been since we spoke, I accidentally cut just the tip of my finger, so it hurts to touch everything.
The children in the apartment below me swim in a small blow up pool. The sound of the water is larger than it seems. When I fall asleep the room seems to fill with it.
When you were here last and you slept beside me against the wall, I dreamt of dishes stacked next to each other; of stillness.
We have many times had the same dreams, but I don't remember what you dreamt that night.
I know you haven't actually gone, that somewhere in Queens you are sleeping with your back to the empty of your room. Either that or you are singing your songs, recording backup vocals of yourself. You, alone, singing with a chorus of you.
When it rains the next day I wear my blue shoes instead of sandals, but they cut open my heels until I can hardly walk home.
How long has it been since you dreamt of losing your shoes?
We used to have that dream all the time.
In a letter to Walt Whitman he writes that he is enclosing a letter he had written four years prior; it has been on his desk, unsent. Of this letter he says:
It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light.
In this new letter he writes:
I will not tell you, the one who I loved desperately what I write here. How I loved you. How that love shifted my desire.
August, 2006, Harlem, New York
A woman once wrote a letter to her fiancé fighting in the Civil War. She said that because he was in a nearby battle, the absence of him was harder to bear. She wrote that if she could not be near him, then she would rather him be as far away as possible. Now that you moved back here, I understand what she meant.
There is a woman on the bus sitting in front of me; I watch her reflection. She is rocking and laughing, alternately making faces where she pretends to be angry and shows her teeth and faces where she smiles and talks. I can't hear any of her words because she's only whispering them. I see her mouth move. I think she is talking to someone she loves who is no longer there. She turns to me through the gap between seats, and points to the Hudson, towards Manhattan, asks if I know how to get that ferry we can both see across the river. I say that I'm sorry; I don't know; I had wondered the same thing. When we pass under the tunnel I see the painted line between New Jersey and New York. I'd never seen it before. I never knew there was one; I thought the line in between was indistinguishable, because who could draw a line through the water?
I drew a line:
Even though were never lovers, but I miss your body, the weight of your hands, how you exhaled right when you fell asleep.
Can you fall in love with someone and not want sleep with them? I didn't want to sleep with you; it was like we were in some ways shaped from the same bone. In another life we were brothers I would say.
You wrote: If you feel the need for such an official breakup, then so be it.
That night in Boston when my air mattress deflated, I went down to sleep on the couch until you found me. You said you found a puddle of air mattress. Said it looked like I drowned.
In the aquarium, the jellyfish I saw were glowing, but the light was coming from the tank. In the ocean, they'd be impossible to see, especially if I were drowning.
At first I think the water moves them, but they ripple so much like the water I can see how hard it would be to tell them apart.
It rained and I abandoned my blue umbrella on St.Nicholas Ave. Its iron ribs did not collapse. The top wobbled on its burst spring. I turned it upside down, a depression for water to fill. But it was gone when I came home.
My hair was wet, and a woman sang out tamales, tamales.
I looked for socks.
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
In the picture of Isabelle and Willa in a garden, their faces are shadowed, their hands not visible. You can't tell them apart. Behind them is an ancient tree and light blurring through the leaves. A streak of blue ribbons through at the edge, in the darkening trees, an accident of film. The white from the sky, their dresses, starches the image. A thin fog covers the whole image, like a brown-out.
There are many pictures of Isabelle, some from Willa's album:
In the twenties, Isabelle's throat and neck exposed, she wears a long beaded necklace that drips into her clasped fingers at her waist, a small nosegay gathered above her hip, pinned to her dress.
When Willa realized Isabelle would never come to New York, she decided to live with Edith Lewis in the west village, first in Washington Place, then at Bank Street. They filled the Bank Street apartment with flowers, kept the noise out. They were together forty years.
Willa still visited Isabelle; they traveled together. But when Isabelle married, Willa said things would never be the same.
Edith went with Willa to the southwest when Isabelle could not. They went to the desert together, and their guide got lost in Cliff Canyon. He left them alone together for hours. It got dark, they were quiet during moonrise as they watched for snakes in the rocks. Back to the wall of rock, did Willa think of Isabelle, wearing her costume from that play? Did she imagine the canyon as a stage of stone, the curtain of night drawn all around her?
Willa and Edith burned some letters one by one, some in bundles. Edith promised to burn the rest—asking them back from friends—when Willa was dead.
Which were more painful to burn? The ones in bundles? Or the ones lit alone, held close enough to see the words curl into themselves and fall away?
When I touched the dried ash on my forehead, it flaked into my eyes. It always burned.
That you could sacrifice something, and it could be unacceptable.
2007, New York City
When I stop looking for you in the streets, I start listening to my footsteps. Then I start to feel as if the street comes up to mark the soles of my feet as much as I press down on it, it rises up under me, to give me a new name each time.
I don't dream of you, but of Halloween costumes that button in the back, along the spine.
I've stopped thinking about running into you, so I know I'll probably run into you soon.
Everyday I pass a store that sells jackets with ribcages printed on them, hearts bleeding through. Some of the bones printed in gold, but never the hearts. They're always red.
Every day I notice the yellow leaves. Today, I also notice the light revealing where the rain dried on my windows, and that my coat pockets seem more fragile than my other pockets.
All I Want
Heart of glass, like a wheel, on fire, carved stone, full of weeds, sallow and bright, shelled and full of tap water, red and blue, insistent, a crumpled photograph of itself, it's so hard to imagine. Valentines folded in half, turned to leaves, single wings, faded, fallow, glued together.
To regain courage, eat the heart of your enemy, split as a pomegranate.
If you cannot bear this, then split your tongue with a shard of obsidian and push a strip of paper through the hole until soaked. Then, burn the paper.
At seventeen, she went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a religious school for girls, for one year. No one knows why only one year. Her job there was to wash the knives at night; return them to the tables. Sometimes she looked into a knife's narrow mirror; saw her eyes there.
All incoming students were listed by hope: hope to be saved or not, and she was listed as without hope.
When does a poem become a letter, a letter a poem?
Housecleaning: the ritual of destroying the letters written to someone who has just died, usually by burning. (In other words: all letters that you write come back to you, your words spoken back as if to say: she swallowed your words, now she is buried in the earth, which has swallowed her. What was said is said; what is done is done. Letters to ashes, ashes to dust. It is said that reputations of dead women are to be protected.)
They found all those fascicles, but they say she may have not used that word.
You said once that Paul Simon wrote "Bridge over Troubled Water" in a note just high enough to make Garfunkel uncomfortable because he was angry with him.
"But he could still hit it," you said. "He knew he would still be able to hit it."
I hear these songs in my head, and in my sleep as you once said you always hear singing voices right before you fall asleep, whisperings, not words.
When I hear these songs, I hear only the words, and there is only this pain in my body that has burst like a cloud of blood underwater. And I am wearing a heavy dress; all my clothes in layers like a Pilgrim, who has to wear as many as possible for the journey across water.
They sink me.
If I get out of the water, I can take off all my clothes, everything I have carried with me, better to be left with nothing, then to drown. But there are so many buttons.
The blueberry coat with the plum lining that I wore when I was crossing the bridge in Boston, wind rising off the water, was that right before Christmas?
Beneath everything is still the back brace I wore when I was eleven, which covered my body from mid-chest to hip. It bent me to the right, to compensate for the S of my spine, which was growing too far left, and then compensated by moving too far to the right, so much that I make holes in the soles of my right shoes. I wore the brace while I slept and I was supposed to tighten it gradually. I was taught how to breathe in brief shallow waves;
No one knows how it started, or which parts of the story are true.
Some say that his first female role was at ten, others say he was getting cakewalk lessons, and imitating the way a girl danced, and the teacher who noticed his talent taught him how to become a female impersonator.
It must have started with a single ribbon of pale silk, and that round blunt tip of lipstick rising so red, a red that seemed to ask if it could be nearer the words rising inside his mouth that could not be spoken, only painted.
My first lover looked most female lying on her side with her naked back to me.
Unlike other male performers in Vaudeville who dressed as women in their acts, Julian Eltinge performed under his last name, so his audience didn't know he was male until he took his wig off, as he did in the play the "the Samson Girl," to reveal at the end that he wasn't what they thought.
Everyone knows the story of Samson and what cutting hair can mean.
When I cut my own hair, I always keep it.
Everyone thought he was gay, so he dressed in suits, smoked cigars, orchestrated barfights and engagements with women. It seemed no one quite bought it: people called him ambisextrous.
I like pearls because they used to be something else, but they changed, a grain of sand inside a mouth, unbearable against the body of a creature that looks like a tongue, that when this creature is eaten, it becomes an aphrodisiac.
In a photograph advertising Julian as The Fascinating Widow, his face as a man and his face as a woman have been merged, doctored to make it appear as if he was a single head with two faces: one male, one female. The man's face is a side profile, the woman's face is smaller, upturned, her expression sad, her eyebrows raised slightly, lids drooping, head tilted to the side as if she is begging an apology. The woman's face looks at you, the viewer, while the man's face looks to the left at something you cannot see. His stare is blank. He looks neither happy, nor sad. He simply looks. The skin shaded between the two faces is gray. The hair piled Victorian style on the woman's head changes into the man's hair; where her hair ends, the man's hairline begins. In some way, from afar it looks as if the woman's face grew out of the cameo of the man's face, that if the picture were in motion, her head would suddenly break free, separate from the man's face, she would shake herself off, smoothing the waves of her hair quietly.
You can see her face in the AMC theatre in Times Square, which used to be Julian's theatre before AMC bought it. Only the mural of him as three muses remains, and they dance on the ceiling against a dome of blue sky.
June 18, 2007
I pay too much at the Hell's Kitchen flea market for a painting of a kneeling woman wearing a blindfold. When I get home, I find out that the name of the painting is "hope."
I don't have enough paintings, instead I have too many clocks, more than I need.
I keep the red wax candle of the cat on my windowsill now; its long neck tilts in a slight question. The tips of its ears have begun to fade.
In many ways, you were the one who started calling me Kat, but I still think of it as a name I gave myself.
If you want to know me, know that I like to leave my throat always exposed, that the veins in my chest are violet with blood, that as a child I swallowed a ribbon of mercury and lived. After I wear flowers in my hair, I keep them forever.
I make copies of my keys, despite their teeth.
And even if it means destroying his face, I won't be afraid to light the wick of this candle when I need the flame.
Because Goethe's last words were to let in more light.
In this piece—as with all of my writing—I explore what I am obsessed with: death, love, gender, sexuality, religion, history, and survival. These themes often manifest in things like burned letters, portraits, photographs, artifacts, bones, tattoos, light theories, Shelley's—burnt, but not destroyed—heart.