[ToC]

 

EXCERPTS FROM GRAVITY AND GRACE, THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG, OR: HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING VEGETARIAN (A NOVEL)

Claire Donato

 

 

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Before the abject fiddleheads came into the world, the former fiddleheads existed in a blue and white bowl handmade in Japan. Prior to being blanched, they encountered water in the ground, then in a pot of boiling water. Soon, they were poured over ice. Like a field of grass, the former fiddleheads are bright green, free from marks or stains. Conversely, the abject fiddleheads are covered in soot and ooze soot and invoke death via their soot, which is composed of amorphous carbon: the chemical element of atomic number six that occurs in impure form and blocks a person's energy. [Where, then, are we to put the evil?] Because they are soot-stained and oozing poison, she transfers the abject fiddleheads—abject, from the Latin abjection, invoking a literal throwing away—from the strainer to the trash. As the fiddleheads continue to soot—any noun can be verbed, just as any verb can be objectified, stabilized, made into something that can be inspected, viewed from all sides, and analyzed—her mind turns toward infected fruits, the image of waste spreading in a wet spring environment, whereby the abject fiddleheads become rendered into the doers of their own actions, just as she will one day become freed from herself, no matter what suffering. Freedom can only be attained by one who is detached, and there is only one way to die.

 

 

 

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There are unpeeled red potatoes she slices into circles she cuts twice: once through the y-axis, once through the x. So too is there a pound of green beans whose fragile tails she breaks. A window is open. The air is poisoned. Time is moving: her hair is grey and black.
     As she slices the freshly broken beans in half, she thinks about the playwright who emailed her a ticket to that evening's concert by the low voice. Consider it a gift, he typed. It's a good coincidence, he typed. You're welcome, he typed. Framed by fake plastic trees, the low voice sat on a chair in front of a dark wall of sparkling lights. "We are constantly on trial / it's a way to be free," he sang. Simone Weil: "The cross as a balance, a lever." As she slices each potato twice, she thinks about Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene gently on her lips, expressing the desire to be lifted to a higher plane. She wants to interpret these fragments as signs, to find meaning in this assemblage of disconnected symbols and events. There exist too many coincidences in patterns, too much synchronicity between people. What is the hidden message?
     Red potatoes boil; green beans steam. Outside, the world is crumbling. In conversations, friends repeat this: the world is crumbling. Indeed, there are undeniable signs that indicate she is living in an alternative novel universe, such as the fact that she has fallen in love with a mediated object on the Internet, or that a 27-year old former model with no political experience is serving as the press manager for a corrupt media mogul's presidential campaign. The year is 2016. Did anyone predict this? 
     From the rectangle she uses to navigate the world, she downloads instructions for preparing a slick coat for the green beans and potatoes: 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil mixed with two tablespoons of sherry vinegar mixed with one tablespoon of dijon mustard mixed with one tablespoon fresh lemon juice mixed with one clove of minced garlic mixed with salt and pepper to taste. One may add purple onion; she opts for an amethyst scallion. Fold or stir. Serve warm or chilled. Plate with finely minced chives. Sprinkle with cumin. Then open the corporately owned social networking application designed to help friends and strangers see what friends and strangers see. Post and repeat. So what if she finds some fullness of joy in this gesture? Reality is flooded with fields of meaning; at times, it is difficult to distinguish what to perceive. A meadow bound by a palisade is not labeled restricted, but its stakes form a defensive enclosure around her eyes reminiscent of a virtual heart, which is outlined with what—barbed wire? Wood? An iron railing? When she clicks the heart, it turns the color of paprika: this shade of meaning is clear to her. At other moments, her mind's order of protection is so overwhelming—so vast and so bold—that she cannot even begin to perceive its color.

 

 

 

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Last night, she dreamt she was a ghost. She was walking on her street and couldn't find her home. Then she awoke in the world to drink a mug filled with lukewarm water and the juice of one lemon. She does not feel the same [she takes a sip], nor does she feel undead [she takes another]. Rather, she experiences this daily ritual as a minute change from one color (streetlights and vintage gas lamps illuminating houses) to the next (a series of successive changes meant to set the stage for stepping away from life's plateau). In the midst, she floats on her back in acidic water [watching the wind rip the leaves off the trees], defying death. It is a bright summer day. She is not yet awake. The sky—a revolutionary surface whose upper and lower portions resemble two halves—is scattered in all directions. As she takes the last sip [amen], there is a period of inertia: . Then the graceless caesura arrives near the end of the line, indicating a pause—||—yet it's too late to share breath. The story is over. Nothing is left.

 

 

 

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In a pot over a blue flame, she melts coconut oil with cacao powder and six tablespoons of honey produced in the poet's New Hampshire backyard. 1/16 of a tablespoon of honey represents one bee's life, the poet's partner explained. Outside, the bees made love, which was neither right nor wrong. She stirs, and the mixture becomes warm, one criterion of the real. Of course, there are other, less noticeable, changes. She pours the mixture into twelve individual cupcake wrappers, whereupon entering the freezer, it takes on the consistency and shape of actual chocolate, albeit raw. As such, it transcends its classification as simulacra, thereby becoming hyperreal—of a sleek and flawless body—which never exists in reality but, rather, in the dimension that sustains it.

 

 

 

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Flowers are yellow and edible and grow in a vertical assemblage reminiscent of a bouquet. Holding a knife, she recites to herself the name of the varietal—hon tsai tsai—and slices through stems, trying to imagine them extending underground in a gesture that invokes apana, a Sanskrit term denoting an exhalation that energetically descends through the astral spine. It is in tandem with prana—rising energy—that apana helps the lungs breathe. In the rectangle she uses to navigate the world, she performs a cursory search to confirm this.
     Clarice Lispector: "The egg would not become rectangular and anyone struggling to make it rectangular would be in danger of losing his own life."
     On descending movement, Simone Weil writes that while gravity makes things come down, wings make them rise. Here, gravity is the force that causes a person to draw back from another the moment the other makes it clear she needs him—though to need anyone is, from the Old Norse mistaka, to 'take in error,' as lungs take in oxygen or one takes in a solar eclipse through glasses that allow safe viewing of the sun.
     At once, she recalls assuming the posture of a horse in an empty barn, practicing kapalabhati breath: short, sharp inhalations in and out, out and in; short, sharp breaths in honor of the short, sharp life. This breathing is as much a cleansing exercise as it is an invocation of death. As she cuts flowers—the seed-bearing part of a plant that removes oxygen from the air—she breathes in and out, out and in, and thinks of a plant she loved that did not love her. It was clear she needed him, but he would not receive her. All he did was take and take and take.
     She composes a sentence where she acknowledges her historically unhealthy relationship to food. This relationship is not unique to her; rather, it is largely specific to her gender and less-than-average beauty. As a teenager, she was frequently cut from productions for which she auditioned—plays, choruses, and pageants—because she was the opposite of pretty. How does a fish feel when it's hungry? She composes a sentence consisting of a memory of genetically modified salmon she pushed toward her mother while weeping; she composes a sentence consisting of a memory of trying on a midnight blue gown while feeling over-spacious; she composes a sentence consisting of a memory of eating fried potatoes in the shapes of telephone wire with a teenage beloved. They were both becoming hideous as the world burst out in laughter.
     The short, sharp life—as defined by the short, sharp breath—is punctuated by short, sharp memories that are ingested as plant matter. As she thinks this, she slices through a cluster of edible flowers the color of a yellow highlighter that, upon making contact with the knife, scatter across the surface of her mind like tumbleweeds. [If truth be told, inner life is all she possesses.] Upon their release, the flowers dissipate into component parts: the style, stamen, ovary, and stigma. The former is a manner of doing; the latter marks a feeling of shame. And the entire assemblage occupies the space between desire and perception, where memory is ultimately configured as a series of structural aboveground anatomies that detach themselves from the brain before sunflower seeds fall from its rafters and scatter across the stage.

 

 

 

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On the acupuncture table, she enters her body's processional city, where she suspends the image of a bright yellow flower—lets it resonate—while her eyes trace the sentence and tear. Stuck some needles in my feelings at acupuncture this afternoon, she types on the corporately owned social network where users share ephemeral photographs and messages with one another. This network's ephemerality is designed to mirror how it is to interact with others in real time: one minute, you are with someone; the next minute, they are gone. Life goes on this way—as a series of fractured minutes that transform into memories punctuated by specters. It is fitting, therefore, that the corporately owned social network's logo is a ghost.
     Standing next to a ghost, she slices ornaments for salad: an avocado (green butter), an heirloom tomato (red and black), a black fig (sliced in half), a peach (imported from South Carolina). The blue and white plate in front of her contains a field of leaves in its center. She opens a can of chickpeas (organic, canned, non-BPA lined), spreads them across the field, and adds a handful of blueberries (the color of dark water). The ghost chops parsley.
     Now she is eating her feelings. They look like everything she loves: an avocado, an heirloom tomato, a black fig, a peach. "Who would dream of being against love?" the cultural critic asks. "No one." On love, Simone Weil writes that the phrase "I love you" can take on varying degrees of significance depending on "the depth of the region in a man's being from which they proceed without the will being able to do anything." She takes a moment to lick fig juice from her fingers, then transcribes the entirety of this quote into a second corporate network, the space in the computer where one's thoughts are shaped by a 140-character constraint.
     There are so many generic sentiments she loathes yet desires to hear: I love you; I'm sorry; I do. She thinks: what programs do these commands execute in their speakers? What commands do these programs incite in their listeners? Then she thinks about centuries worth of cultural baggage that has been checked on airplanes for the sake of reinforcing the privatization of love with regard to the couple container.
     I love you; I'm sorry; I do: imagine a hollow body looking in on itself!
     Atop the blue and white plate, the field's shape increasingly resembles an ecosystem: the green leaves are dependent on the avocado as the avocado is dependent on the black fig as the black fig is dependent on the heirloom tomato, and so on until the ecosystem seems to proceed this way, on its own, as a lyrical circle. In the same way, the generic sentiments she problematizes but desires to recite—I love you; I'm sorry; I do—rely on one another's repeated scripts in order to carry on through time and space cyclically, in a circular fashion. But what happens when I love you meets I love you, I'm sorry meets I'm sorry, I do meets I do? "It's good you came in," the acupuncturist said in quotation marks at the end of her appointment, wherein quotation marks call attention to the artificiality of the acupuncturist's statement as it is transcribed from the physical world to the page. Upon reciting this phrase, he elaborated no further, nor did she inquire as to what the status of her body as narrated by quartz wands might imply for her future condition, her severe depression: her programmatic response to life's changing condition, which is both inevitable and that against which she fights by taking a photograph, altering its size, uploading it to the cloud, and returning to bed.

 

 

 

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Gravity and Grace, The Chicken and the Egg, or: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a novel about a female protagonist who gets serious about vegetarian cooking while meditating on love, death, evil, and the cloud. The book—which braids together language from Simone Weil's thinking text Gravity and Grace, Clarice Lispector's short story "The Egg and the Chicken," MFK Fisher's Great Depression-era book of food essays How to Cook a Wolf, and Mark Bittman's 21st century cookbook How to Cook Everything Vegetarian—consists of interconnected prose shorts, each focused on a different meal. The book trades plot for ambience and imbues pataphysical recipes—e.g., a recipe for a lychee that leaves a person either pregnant or barren, and a recipe that acts as a cure for imaginary love. Here is [a link] to vegan video art that occupies space adjacent to this book.