On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

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Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

best

I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.