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Chaosbogey

Curator of Snippets

People I know have been dying for a long time. But it’s only recently their deaths have accumulated urgency, like the end of their vitality was mine to share. Past a certain age, the death of each person you knew creates a void that you know will never fill, that you will never even seek to fill. Past that age, the death of a person you knew, even fleetingly, can feel, for a while, like the death of someone you loved. I met Matthew Power only thrice, and I communicated with him off-and-on for a few months. I can hardly imagine the loss that the people who shared his life have to endure. But to all mourning there is a public aspect, and to that I will add my respects. I owe his grace and his generosity that much. I will remember the hours we spent chatting amiably about sea turtles, and the kindness and encouragement he showed my writing. I will read his words, over and over, until I am numb. And I will hope that, in his final moments, he found peace. 

The Inevitable Lightness. 

The roads and everything on them fly up and dissolve
a net rises from the world
the cobweb in which it was dying
and the earth breathes naked with its new scars
and sky everywhere.

— W.S. Merwin. 

 

The Fates of Sugar Hill.

This weekend, reading Subashini’s masterful return-post, I started thinking about what it means to disrespect a blog. It struck me, for the first time, that perhaps it isn’t bogey who refused me, but that I spurned her when I began questioning the value of the work we did together. Then the Doniger thing happened, and while I’m not quite ready to return to the Big Blog yet, this is my peace-offering. Of sorts. 

In my time in the North East (gods I have grown to hate that imperial shorthand) only two memories became wholly, privately mine. One is the perfect day spent scrambling through Sohra. The other is the afternoon described below in what I called “a critical fairytale” in class.

It is, of course, nothing of the kind. 

image

Once upon a time, in a faraway country, a woman went walking in a sacred forest. It was forbidden to tame the forest or to leave with anything—memories made here belong to the forest. Not a leaf nor a twig could be disturbed, on pain of enduring a dreary, loveless life chased by the sceptres of dread and lost things. In this country, love was not sought, like a river or a mountain, it was an ent within a vast wood. It would find you, if you left the paths of the civilised and ventured, bold and steadfast, into the heart of the forest. If you entered, and agreed to leave transformed and empty. As she ambled, the woman thought about all the things solitary people contemplate when they escape society: the approaching death of her ancient, wise dog; the three-hour drive through hillside that had been destroyed for coal and limestone; the fairytales and myths that this small patch of wild wood had inspired, the fairytale, indeed, of love itself. But mostly she thought about Harlem, to which she would return in a few weeks. Harlem, where she would have to find another refuge, because love, which had found her so lately, had abandoned her again. 

Harlem is where Manhattan grows crooked. Some might argue Manhattan is born that way, the maze that is the city creeping out of the ocean like a splayed cephalopod, twisting this way and that, but the insular villages of the south make sense, if only to themselves. They inhabit their own logic: Chelsea is glitzy; Chinatown is kitschy; Alphabet City is schmaltzy. Harlem is a forest, trackless and depthless, a forest embroiled in a perennial argument with itself. So contested is the idea of Harlem that even its boundaries aren’t defined, in a borough otherwise devoted to borders. Is Spanish Harlem truly Harlem? Is Manhattanville? Harlem’s avenues sprout and tangle and disappear—St Nicholas Avenue, for instance, starts at Lennox Avenue, on 111h Street and swerves hesitantly west, until it finally blends into Broadway at 169h Street. Unlike the measured and predictable tread of New York’s more famous diagonal, St Nicholas rambles. 

At 135th Street, in the heart of Harlem’s Renaissance district, St Nicholas stretches along a park. To the west of this steep, ridged park is the City College of New York, the oldest public university in the United States. To the east is Strivers’ Row, where the woman was hoping to find a temporary home, away from the hostile memories of Sugar Hill. Finding your bearings in the neighbourhood around Strivers’ Row can be like orienting yourself in a gothic spaceship—a doughty dilapidated worlds-spanning vessel that witnessed a million generations of humanity, until a nostalgic fairy fond of bizarre buildings lost herself within it. It is a brooding, hulking space made light by pixie-dust. 

Yes, the woman wheezed as she climbed the steep cliffs of Mawphlang grove in Meghalaya, that was where a home might be found. There she might walk again, and, beneath the filigree arches across minuscule Convent Avenue, she would find her rhythm, her eye, and herself. In that place, which has always welcomed people who arrive with nothing but the little money they’ve saved, a little money they trade for a dream: a dream of belonging, or security, or, in this case, a dream of renewal. 

Bilgewater

It has been a tempestuous few months. Heck, it has been a tempestuous year. For only the second time ever, emotional turbulence has utterly ruined my work life—and it is the first time it has done so in a manner I am wholly aware of. I watched my whole life whirl into chaos, and it was, in a perverse way, quite interesting. I saw it happen, and yet I couldn’t stop it, not for love nor sanity. The only explanation I have is congruence.  It happened because it had to happen. It happened not to teach me something (for life is not an illustration of principle) but to demonstrate something. 

I am a solitary person, and it takes many leaps, short and long, for me to contemplate the considerable implications of being lonely. And I have been lonely. Is it my fault? Likely. Will I do anything about it, besides learn to live with it? Unlikely. For I am a profoundly lazy person, especially about exploring the deeper trenches of my humanity. I prefer to pretend they don’t exist, and for the most part that works well. I have what my mother once called emotional inertia. It takes ages for me to make decisions, and even longer to realise I have a decision to make, but once I do it is resolved speedily. I drift, I strike, I retreat, I close. Din the oyster monster. Sometimes, however, events outpace my ability to process them, and that happened a lot this year. It wrecked me. 

But I finally find myself in the eye of the storm (quite literally, it is splash and flash and booming thunder outside as I write this). I will pay a price for it, of course, one always does, but it’s not a price I can foresee, and that’s not nothing. 

And so I reread Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater, as I often do when I find myself at the crossroads of destiny. The first time I read it I was fourteen, and a far mathsier person than I am now. The revelation that fiction is truth, magnified and magnificent, gobsmacked me as it does her. The vagaries and cruelties of fate were, for me as they are for Bilgewater, an equation. That faith—that one’s emotions can be logically assembled (or dissembled)—has never left me, despite life’s many attempts to convince me otherwise. I am blinder than she is, but then I try harder. 

Some of this has to do with intuition; when you perceive others’ emotions almost as strongly as your own, it is easier to abstract them than to endure them. Or, if you have that bent, to manipulate them. Envy, for instance—I notice it, but I don’t have the gene—which makes it laughably easy to engineer, given enough time and patience. Time and patience that I mercifully lack. Or rage, an emotion with which I am so intimate that we have domesticated each other. Oh, it would amazingly helpful to use people, but I’d need to be a great deal less interested in them to do so. And thus they become points on a graph. With my own emotions this is sometimes not the most efficient approach, and that’s when I turn to books like Bilgewater, which is funny and wise and barmy and has paragraphs like this one: 

The next day was the general paper and I chose an essay called Coincidence. I wrote steadily, easily, fluently, unhesitatingly. I wrote of chess, relating it to mathematics, of the final appropriateness of events, of Shakespeare with reference to Hamlet, of the The Tempest with reference to Sycorax, of the Eumenides, the “Kindly Ones” with reference (veiled) to father, Mrs. Deering, and the Reverend Boakes. I wrote of truth, and the necessity of it not to be manipulated and veiled in white samite, veiled in black sables, of Terrapin, of Terrapin’s versatile father—in philosophical terms of course. I ended with a dissertation on the mathematical peace experienced in the realms of chess, in the pathways beyond accident, coincidence, or desire.  

There is lot a person can do with Bilgewater, critically speaking. It is beautifully structured, so that the ending feels ordained without being in the least inevitable. The plot accelerates into such velocity towards the close that each sentence feels momentous. And the people, so subtly evoked. But analysing a book eventually ruins it, and I will need Bilgewater for many years to come. So, well, read it yourself. 

Blind

I have been having headaches. Horrid, blinding ones, which can be rather paranoid making in the eaves of a cold afternoon. And so, as one does, I read Borges compulsively, until I see his words etched into my mind.  

I. 

The skull within, the secret, shuttered heart,
the byways of the blood I never see,
the underworld of dreaming, that Proteus,
the nape, the viscera, the skeleton.
I am all those things. Amazingly,
I am too the memory of a sword
and of a solitary, falling sun,
turning itself to gold, then gray, the nothing. 
I am the one who sees the approaching ships
from harbour. And I am the dwindled books, 
the rare engravings worn away by time;
the one who envies those already dead.
Stranger to be the man who interlaces
such words as these, in some room in a house. 

A Blind Man

I do not know what face is looking back
whenever I look at the face in the mirror;
I do not know what old face seeks its image
in silent and already weary anger.
Slow in my blindness, with my hand I feel
the contours of my face. A flash of light
gets through to me. I have made out your hair,
the colour of ash and at the same time, gold. 
I say again that I have lost no more
than the inconsequential skin of things. 
These wise words come from Milton, and are noble,
but then I think of letters and of roses. 
I think, too, that if I could see my features,
I would know who I am, this precious afternoon. 

Also it was comforting to be rescued from the practical perils of metaphor today. 

On saturday night I sat in a bar and wrote my first poem in a decade. 

My first one… since. There has always been a safety in your gaze. 

I look for uncomplicated hymns
but love has none.

Anne Sexton, from “A Little Uncomplicated Hymn,” in Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)

(Source: hiddenshores, via apoetreflects)

Blue Moon.

This last week I have been searching for words to describe my year in New York. I arrived on 25th August, and the first night I spent alone was the blue moon, August 31st. In the year that has passed, I lived many lives and none at all. The only epiphany I have had during that time was on a boat near Boston, when someone asked me what I do in New York, and I replied: “uh, I wait,” and I knew it was true. This year I have held myself into a stillness. I have bided my time, inching my way to the knowledge that sometimes even a profound, witless faith is just not enough.

And still I wait. 

I carried two books to Boston, in a flash of brilliant prescience: China Mieville’s The Scar and Sinan Antoon’s translation of Darwish’s The Presence of Absence. While there, I went to Grolier’s poetry bookshop, had a long conversation about silence* (heh) and acquired the collected poems of Yang Mu (No Trace of the Gardener, trans. Lawrence R. Smith and Michelle Yeh) as well as several chapbooks I haven’t read yet. Here, then, is the first poem from that book:

The Woman in Black

Drifting here and there between my eyelashes
standing outside the door, remembering the ocean tides
the woman in black is a cloud. Before the storm

I wipe the rainy landscape from my window
wipe the shadow off the wutong tree
wipe you off 

*I also heard a lot of thrilling poetry goss I promised not to tell. 

oakttree:

sillygrrrl:

octopuscunt:

minorfallandthemajorlift:

Kiki Smith - Lilith, 1994 - Bronze, silicon, and glass.

“In medieval Jewish lore, Lilith was Adam’s first wife.  When she demanded to be Adam’s equal, she was evicted from the Garden of Eden.  Lilith flew away to the demon world, replaced by the more submissive Eve.  Smith catches us off guard with Lilith’s pose and placement.  Most sculptures receive our gaze passively, but Lilith stares back with piercing brown eyes, ready to pounce.”

(via spoliamag)

I want from love only the beginning. and that was all (mashallah!) I got. 

the rest of the story - feat. amongst others dumpy the humpback, peridot the finn, and slinky the minky - will require many drinks. 

Failing and Flying.

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was 
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars 
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say 
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

— Jack Gilbert

I am writing writing the kind of writing I am allegedly decent at, and all that is keeping me sane is repeat writing “but anything worth doing is worth doing badly” like some kind of talisman. 

the only thing to do with days as surreal as today is to bop them out. plus hot fuss is a glorious album and do these guys put on the best show ever or what? I have never danced as hard. 

(hey there, history: back the fuck off. not this, not ever again) 

every night I search for you among the spires. 

every night I search for you among the spires. 

I want to rip off your logic
and make passionate sense to you.

I want to ride in the swing of your hips.

My fingers will dig in you like quotation marks,
blazing your limbs into parts of speech.

Jeffrey McDaniel, The Jerk (via pigmenting)

editing, one pull quote at a time. 

(Source: blue-voids, via contramonte)

I like, on principle, all songs called “someone like you.” This is sometimes a hard principle to sustain. But it was my first Van Morrison song, and it remains one of my favourites. (by the by, I was recently attempting to explain why bogey posts turn up at such peculiar times and failing miserably until I played them Ballerina and they were all like oh we get it now and well)  

This post to say that tomorrow I am going to see pigpen one last time before they leave for Chicago and I am excited to hear how they sound when I am not analysing every movement AND scanning the audience AND bopping while I balance a notebook AND trying to imitate calm collected reporter AND sick to death of every fucking song. Last fall seems an impossibly long time ago, but it did confirm my theory that there is a story everywhere, even in the least edgy places. I am usually drawn to messy stories that I still have little clue how to report, and though it was rather unsatisfying, my foray into genteel pleasures was very instructive.

On Blocks.

Summer Reading will happen (maybe) in September. I have been reading; at last count I was actively reading 22 books and episodically reading another dozen, but all of them are for essays I’m (ostensibly) writing and I’m not ready to talk about them yet. My present bibliographies are, moreover, almost pure instinct, and there is no surer way to destroy hunches than to systematise them too early. Of course, I’ll probably have like a 10,000 word post by September, so let’s see. Maybe I’ll write an actual fucking essay!

The one book I read in the last..three months for no reason other than happiness was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I was fact-checking an essay about it and finished half the book one morning in office. Oh, and I read Darcey Frey’s The Last Shot to prepare for a class I’m taking in the fall. It is so utterly fabulous that I, as clueless about basketball as a person ever was, read the whole thing in two days. If you are a sports fan, it must be a radiant book, as indeed it is if you’re a New York person. The only other book I’m reading for joy is The Mirror of Beauty, which beloved Fubu brought from home last week. I might end up reviewing it, because my life works like that, sigh. All anyone need do is ask me to.

That’s that. Let us talk about me now, because this is my bogey.

One of the smartest professors to teach us in law school said that my crippling flaw as a thinker is that I’m fuzzy around the edges. Or, as she put it, “you can’t think if you can’t define.” She wasn’t very fond of me (you wouldn’t have been either if you met fourth year din) but this was during a second, private viva she was kind enough to offer me after I flailed around spectacularly in the first one. I am not a confident speaker: people make me nervous, and the best way to ensure my brain blanks out is to ask me a direct question in front of an audience. I, am, however, a decent conversationalist, and I think she realised that, cos in the second viva we just.. talked. That afternoon is one of my happiest academic memories from law school, and her advice has been engraved in my brain ever since. Four years later, the best editor I know told me something very similar: that while it is wise to believe your audience is cleverer than you, it is folly to believe they know more than you do. Research makes you blind, it makes you think obscure things are perfectly obvious.

Thinking through this has shaped me in ways I can’t begin to define (heh). It affects my research questions, my note-taking, my editing process. It’s hard to take the long slow way when there’s a conclusion glimmering on the horizon, but I think I am getting better at it. My soul remains reckless, but my brain is trying not to be. I once thought that it is my timidity as a speaker that makes me such an arrogant writer. But now I know I hold my opinions so tenaciously because they are all I possess instinctively: I don’t retain information. If all knowledge is an equation between analysis and data, one must compensate for the lack of the other. I like to think that my brain deploys data strategically, which is a fancy way of saying I keep a lot of notebooks and don’t remember a damn thing once I’ve written it down.

This summer I’m thinking about this a lot, because I’m doing two things I never have before: editing the wilfully obscure and taking a class with a cohort as unlike me as I can imagine (for one thing, they’re all dudes.) As an editor I experience, daily, the frustration of people assuming they’re writing to their own perfected selves. Writing might be thinking, but it’s not thinking aloud, and for the first time I realise just how solipsistic that impulse is. Editing has also meant that I am even more desperately blocked in my own work—I have been for months now—but this last year has taught me more about writing than the previous 25, so perhaps putting one sensible sentence after the next is overrated, right? RIGHT?

(I sometimes think that the reason I’m not writing is terror: that once I settle into an essay all my intangible insight will fly out the window. Other, more despairing times, I think it’s because I genuinely have nothing of relevance to say.)

As for the class, I decided to take it because living without deadlines was driving me insane. It hasn’t helped on that count: turns out if you’re a workaholic you need work, not exotic substitutes. But it has helped with my clarity issues, i.e., it showed me they persist, vivid as ever. All the classes I have taken in my over-educated existence have been with clever people clever in the same ways that I am clever. This has advantages for people who hate attention: I can always count on someone to jump in with exposition every time the teacher looks around expectantly before I make my own ingenious observations. It also means enduring a lot of people repeating each other, but that gives one time to ponder one’s next unexpected observation. Passive listening can be extremely soothing, and I recommend reading seminars to anyone with ulcers.

This class is exhausting, partly because it entails participating with a sort of wistful ignorance and partly because I am constantly calculating the gap between my own knowledge and understanding. Mostly, though, it is because there is no room for my ingenious observations: I have to focus on the building blocks and figure out exactly where mine crumble. Researching a critical essay (for ten years all I have written are critical essays of varying competence) is the foundation of a very specific knowledge, at all times tainted by voice and audience, and it is heady to do this free of those shackles. It is thrilling to serve no intelligence but one’s own, to be consciously limiting one’s knowledge rather than haphazardly bloating it ever further. It gives me joy, basically, to have found a safe space for rampant error other than the privacy of my diaries. At first I thought, because I’m often a foolish snob, that it would be dull. But it’s liberating to quit thinking of the classroom as a gladiatorial ring, to be allowed to learn by observing people unpack things I thought I knew. It feels like first year without the anguish of my first year. It feels like being seventeen again, and it smells like summer.

(In summary, Ma: don’t worry, I’m ok)