thirsty for water

When I was young, I swam competitively, but gave it up after spinal surgery at age 12.  A long time out of the water would have meant a long time clawing my way back to form, and I really wasn’t passionate enough about it.  What I was ambivalent about, of course, was the training, not the water (or even the competition, to be honest).  The water was always a magical and transformative place, a place within this world that somehow also transcended it.  Swimming, I could leave my mundane and awkward embodiment behind, and completely enter into my body and its potential.

Last year, I went for a “Salamander” with artists and activists Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus, in Berkeley California.  I wholeheartedly recommend you reading Petra’s book “The Scar of Visibility“, the book they wrote together “Cripple Poetics: A Love Story“, as well as taking what opportunity you can to see their performances and videos (maybe start here, with Neil’s brilliant “Disabled Country“).  Anyway, the Salamander.  They describe it best on the site dedicated to documenting some of the outcomes of this project.

Salamander is a community performance project. We use underwater photography, dry performance workshops, creative writing, clay work and video to go under, to find our disabled beauty emerging from the deep, the wild aesthetic of water, deforming ourselves through sleek unhinged control.
Since May 2013, disabled people and their allies from around the world have climbed into pools and oceans with us, and we float together, enjoying complicated freedom, companionship and adventure. And we give ourselves to the pressures the waters exert on us.
There is little instruction in Salamander swims: the water is the director, the choreographer, as we twist freely in gravity, trusting each other, exploring the integrity of our bodies. We also chat while we are in the water, and explore the easy flow of communication in the fluid medium of supportive water. The emphasis is on play and process.

andyswims

andy joel neil and petra

Here’s the poem I wrote soon after the swim (with a little re-writing, as I can’t help myself…!).

~

Salamander

Berkeley, California

with Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus

Squint into this, I would have

said to myself, knowing the key

ingredients and their venom.

A public swimming pool.

A camera.  This body.  I don’t need

to spell it out.  Prose says it’s all there,

always fizzing in the marrow.

The enjambment between us proves

everything blue, all water.  This

is a series of dances

we invent as we go, each

the length of a full breath.

One body passes over me, another

winds around my torso, sinuous,

amphibious, tender, muscular,

substantial.  Deep animal

play, human mind turned

against itself and for the new human,

submerged in the way we move

together fluidly, or bump

against bone with apologies and

laughter, then dive down again

into the depths where thresholds

blur and the future

opens like lungs…

Clouds move in as I climb out

and become singular again,

rubbing the towel against my body,

but leaving a few drops behind.

I know two things –

it’s too cold to stay here all day

and the world is thirsty for water.

~

jan feb 2012 043

Life keeps hurtling forward.  Memories can feel distant.  But though we leave the water, we carry it always inside us.  I want to remember this.

~

poetry and flesh

Sometimes you may not want to know the poet behind the poem (let’s not go into that right now), but sometimes it’s unavoidable.  When I say “poem”, I think of a page – white A4, bound into a book, or some kind of virtual scroll.  Unavoidable and instant association.  And while I know there is a poet behind the page, culturally the page appears as some kind of mask.  The implied contract between reader and writer is to focus on the writing, and that the writing will involve a self or selves that both reader and writer readily identify with – but who is neither of them.  Reality is a metaphor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the body of the poet and the body of the reader.  A close friend loaned me their copy of “Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability”.  This anthology of poems and essays, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen, is a brilliantly provocative (though US-centric) introduction to the advancing maturity of the “disability poetry” community.  It’s thrilling and confounding.  Because bodies are foregrounded, because the real world is not a metaphor, but unavoidably seeps through the page onto the fingers of the reader.  And, as we all know, skin is porous.

I want to quote two poems.  The first is by Jillian Weise, and also appears in her book “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex”.

The Old Questions

When I asked you to turn off the lights,

you said, Will you show me your leg first?

 

I heard Rachmaninov through the wall,

a couple making love without prerequisites.

 

Do you sleep with it on? I forgot

there would be this conversation.

 

Do you bathe with it on?

I need to rehearse answers to these questions.

 

Will you take it off in front of me?

I once steeped into a peepshow in New Orleans.

 

Over the door, signs read: Hands off our girls.

Is it alright if I touch it?

 

I am thinking of a hot bath, a book.

The couple on the other side of the wall laughs.

 

She has found the backs of his knees.

What I love about this poem is its revelations and its withholdings, how it turns the usual mix of discomfort and furtive empathy that sex usually conjures into a productive and open encounter with another person.  I was going to write “encounter with the other”, but this poem proves such a phrase abstract and almost absurd.  We are reminded that sexuality is an encounter between particular bodies,  bodies that desire, but also can’t escape their history, politics and positions.  It begins with a moment of iconic intimacy, but its trajectory is interrupted – by the “old questions”.  She is pulled back into self-consciousness, memory and the allure of easier sensualities (a hot bath, a book).  The reader is taken, too, from this scene of intimacy into a peep-show, from the private to the (male) public, where broader questions of spectacle, exploitation, entitlement and ownership are opened.  And it is also no coincidence (I think) that Rachmaninov is the composer who seeps through the walls – a man who suffered depression and (arguably) Marfan Syndrome.  Bodies and their unerasable traces.

Weise is revelatory here.  She takes risks.  But while the poem ushers us into her private, bodily space, it also pushes us back out into the world, into ourselves and our own positions.  It re-presents us with the complicated, beautiful weight of our bodies.  Interestingly, “The Old Questions” is also an intensely visual poem that absorbs and refracts the gaze.

John Lee Clark’s poem “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain” engages with the visual and otherness in another way, both witty, mundane and sublime.

 

Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain

BARBARA WALTERS IS IN AWE

of a deaf- blind man

who cooks without burning himself!

Helen Keller is to blame.

Can’t I pick my nose

without it being a miracle?

 

AM I A NOBODY, TOO?

I am sorry to disappoint,

but I am.  But nobody

would let me be one,

not even when I catch

a bus stinking of Nobodies.

 

ONE AFTERNOON, I FOUND MYSELF

walking with my cane dragging

behind me but still knowing

the way.  There was nothing

to see.  Everything saw me

first and stayed in place.

Again, one of the things I love about this poem is that Clark has placed himself firmly in the center of the frame (and I do mean this visual metaphor deliberately), but uses this turn the reader’s gaze back on the broader society – on stereotype and othering – and finally on our own subjective sensory worlds.  Not only do we find ourselves in a bus “stinking” of Nobodies, but we’re also drawn empathically into the experience of negotiating city streets as a blind person.  Knowing most of his readers will not have had this experience (and that some certainly will), Clark writes with a lightness and vividness that brings the poem close to a sense of epiphany, while never allowing his experience to be anything but everyday.  His embodied life cannot be appropriated, but it can be appreciated.  Like Weise, Clark uses honesty, movement (both poetic and physical) and discomfort to open up some vital questions.  The answers, like our bodies, our lives, are always ultimately outside the poem.

I said earlier, I’d been thinking about the relationship between the body of the writer and of the reader.  But it’s broader than that – I’ve been thinking about how different art forms affect us differently, how bodily presence is sometimes viscerally communicated, while at other times the body is theoretical, abstract, conjured but not felt.  Recently, I visited ACCA to see “We are all flesh”, an exhibition of sculptures by Berlinde De Bruyckere.   In the cavernous main room, two huge bodies hang suspended from industrial structures – they are horses and yet not horses, corpse-like yet somehow they have the weight and presence of life.  In another room, a museum cabinet displays branches and blankets.  In another, a lump on the floor becomes as you approach it a human figure, curled in on itself, as if wanting to escape a world of grief or terror.  Sticks, bones, flesh, intenstines, hair, history, colonialism, war, animality and humanity.  What sounds on paper grotesque is in presence beautiful and sympathetic (while always remaining viscerally and philosophically challenging).

It’s not a cop-out on my part to say that it’s hard to communicate the power of these sculptures, but it’s at the heart of what I’m trying to get at here.  After going to the exhibition, my partner and I looked up more images of her work online.  In a short span of time, I found myself fatigued – the sense of empathy I had in the gallery had evacuated, leaving me with a sense of discomfort in the spectacle/spectacular, the freakish otherness of these bodies.

We have a visual culture, no doubt.  But there is a huge difference between the digital screen and the breathing body, between the reproduction and the original.  In the presence of a something or someone, you are in a relationship.

What’s that got to do with poetry?  I’m still unsure.  But I have an instinct that moves me towards readings – where poets take to the stage or microphone or just stand up and project their poems to an audience.  I don’t want to play that off against the page, like some contest.  I just know that when a poem is lifted off the page by a voice, pushed across the space between people, landing on bodies with skin, organs, hearts, histories and desires, the poem is changed and our relationships to each other are re-vital-ised.  Anyway, I have spent enough time now with this computer, thinking, typing, erasing, rewriting.  Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Staring: How We Look

An eye-snagging stare of intense attention opens a social relationship between two people.  The kind of visual scrutiny leveled by a stare is both impersonal and intimate…  Staring affords a spontaneous moment of interpersonal connection, however brief, during which two people have the opportunity to regard and be known to one another.  So while social rules script staring, individual improvisation can take the staring encounter in fruitful directions.

– Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Staring: How We Look”

It may appear almost common-sense in its analysis, but this book went against my grain.  Thomson is a engaging, erudite and humane writer, and she has written a non-fiction page-turner, but often I found it hard to read.  Why?  Was it because I disagreed with her?  No.  It was because I didn’t want to.  Staring: How We Look forced me to admit I had lived a lot  of my life focussing on only half of the dynamics of staring.

Staring: How We Look

Thomson’s premise is this – there are two sides to staring – not only the starer and staree, but the two competing impulses – the irresistable physical impulse that drags our attention onto an unfamiliar sight, and the cultural injunction, with all its immense strength, to grant each other “civil inattention”.  When staring happens, starer and staree make meaning together.

Of course, there are different kinds of stares – blank stares, staring as dominance behaviour, the intense “baroque staring” prompted by scenes of death or decay, affectionate curious staring, confused bewilderment staring, sexual predatory staring, and many more.  It’s complex terrain, but Thomson navigates it with intelligence and compassion – she never flinches from our conflicting, very human instincts for violence and for intimacy, for “othering” and for love.

She also emphasises that that meaning-making is never determined in advance but depends on the goodwill of the starer and the staree, the process they engage in, their ability to shift the interaction from staring at an extraordinary aspect of someone’s appearance towards an attention that recognises that person’s broader self.  Not that their difference disappears (that happens when people look away); in fact, it finds its proper place.

Staring: How We Look reminds me that the circumstance of staring holds great ethical responsibilities and opportunities.  Deep inside me, I do not want it to be inevitable – to find myself as staree or starer can be uncomfortable, even upsetting – but that’s precisely the point.  Our sense of what and who is normal or beautiful, or what lives fit into the recognisably human, can too easily become rigid and narrow.  We need surprises.  We need unusual sights to jolt us out of ourselves.

 

"Shayla" by Doug Auld, oil on canvas

Thomson uses the term “visual activists” to describe those people who have stareable bodies who make it their business not only to be seen, but to take charge of that encounter.  They are the people who broaden our humanity, who move us towards the hard work of attentiveness, of mutual recognition.

It’s hard work.  I’m rarely in the mood for it.  But it can be worth it.