Seneca Review Essay by Noah Eli Gordon
An essay by Noah Eli Gordon "On Fame, Affliction, Nomenclature, and Theft." The Seneca Review, Fall 2011, Volume 41, No. 2.
On Fame, Affliction, Nomenclature, and Theft (an excerpt from Dysgraphia) Noah Eli Gordon Have you ever seen a match burn twice, he asks. No. No, that’s impossible. Just watch. He strikes it, blows it out, says: once. A small plume of smoke rising into the air around us quickly disappears. A few years from now, outside, cupping a cigarette against the rain, I’ll step onto a red anthill, think for a second that I must have ashed on myself, look down while the pain intensifies, spreads, seems to engulf both of my legs, and experience real terror — the terror of disconnect, an inability to link the visual field to my participation within it. “Does not the life of the fire,” writes Gaston Bachelard, “made up entirely of sparks and sudden flickerings, remind us of the life of the ant heap?” He’s holding the match directly in front of my face. It’s already gone out, but its bulbous, blackened tip is still smoldering. Twice, he says, pressing it to my cheek. ø Eric’s on the cusp of sleep, nodding off in the passenger seat. Check out that billboard, I say, pointing toward an unremarkable piece of oversized advertising. Oh, yeah, Eric says sheepishly, eyes halfopening, head cocked now up a little, now, falling forward. I wait a minute. Look at that bus, I say, pointing at what’s only an ordinary bus. Eric wakes, nods his head, mumbles something about seeing it before drifting off again. We’re driving from Minneapolis, where we read last night, to Iowa City, for our next reading. We’re on a poetry tour. The last time I toured was a month long stint as the merch man for my housemate Jeff’s grindcore band. Jeff brought along a copy of Ulysses, convinced he could tackle it in the van between shows. Every time he’d open the book, we’d attempt to convince him otherwise — poking, prodding, tossing things in his direction. I’m not sure how far he got, but it couldn’t have been more than a chapter or two. Eric didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m determined to keep it that way. Look at that tree. Look at those trucks. Check out that sign. Wow, did you see that guardrail. That green car. That license plate. That kid in the back window. That overpass. Those trailers. That parking lot. Those guys in that jeep there. Each 32 time, he nods, says something, and falls immediately into sleep. It’s all I can do to contain myself, to stop the laughter my entire body so wants to expel that it’s almost painful. I can think of nothing more egregiously ludicrous said about poets than the notion that we somehow see the world differently. Look at that gas station. Those shrubs. That field. So much depends upon how incredibly dull and innocuous it all is. Life, friends, is boring, wrote John Berryman. What he forgot to mention is that boredom can be utterly hilarious. ø There is a painting in my apartment of a young black girl, a portrait really, which my mother made nearly fifty years ago. She readily admits that there’s something off with the eyes; they’re too white — the only white in the painting, where everything else moves from a rich, deep green to brown to black. Because of this white, the irises and pupils look sunken, empty, emotionally absent, unlike the rich fluidity of the rest of the work. There was a bombing, a church bombing, in Alabama. My mother says she had a vision of one of the little girls who was killed. Kandinsky wrote that white acts like absolute silence, not something lifeless but something brimming with potential — what he called the nothingness of childhood happiness. I don’t fault my mother much for the eyes, although she’s quick to discount the success of the portrait because of them. After all, she too was just a girl when she made it. ø In Mexico City, the moment I step out of a cab, a woman the age of my mother glances at my arm, touches her breast in shock, then crosses herself, before spitting at the ground next to me. It takes me a minute or two to realize why, to remember the large eye tattooed on my forearm. For her, it was a bad omen, something evil. Oh Noah, what are you doing to yourself, my mother says, near tears the afternoon I came home with a new tattoo. I’ve had most of mine for almost twenty years already, long enough to forget they’re a part of me. What’s that a tattoo of, my wife asks, pointing to a series of lines on my arm. I answer as truthfully as I’m able to. An error, I tell her. ø 33 A wood chipper interrupts the famous biographer’s lecture on Robert Lowell. He points to the window where men feed branches into the mouth of the machine, and asks me to go out there and see if I can put a stop to it. There are four dozen undergrads in this class, but he’s picked me to offer the olive branch. It’s not an honor. I’m just the only one of us with a stocky build and tattoos — something he must think these men might respect. I go, stop the noise, return to a round of applause for not being in the English Club, not in the Honors Society, not one whose paper the famous biographer praises in class. I slump down in my seat, embarrassed. A few weeks later, after winning a prize for one of my poems, the famous biographer pulls a copy of his mammoth tome on Williams from an office bookshelf, signs it, and hands it over. On the bus ride home, I flip through the book, then shelve it, moving it from apartment to apartment, until ten year pass, and I decide finally to tackle the thing. This morning, sipping coffee, 600 pages into the book, the famous biographer tells me that Williams is reluctantly giving a reading at the Guggenheim, where he doesn’t care for the praise and applause he’s received because they wouldn’t give it so freely if it weren’t so cheap. ø This might be the biggest reading I’ve ever been to and I’m almost up front. There’s a blind man with a cane behind me, a woman next to him narrating the excitement in the room. Someone’s adjusting the podium. People are taking their seats. There’s a little kid running up and down the aisles. The lights dim, but she doesn’t tell him. The quick hush of the room is enough. I don’t remember the introduction, but there must have been one. What I do remember is the famous poet emerging from behind a curtain, a black mask over his eyes, tapping a white-and-red cane across the stage, stumbling here and there to the crowd’s rising laughter. What’s happening now, the blind man asks. He’s pretending to be blind, she answers. The famous poet strikes the podium a few times before easing up to it with further waves of laughter from the audience. He recites a poem from memory, and then tosses aside both mask and cane to a round of applause. ø 34 Before being fit for braces, the dentist has to make a cast of my teeth; this means he’ll need to insert a mixture of elastic silicone and polyvinyl into my mouth to take an impression of its interior. The dentist doesn’t do this; his assistant does, placing the concoction on a small tray designed to somehow clamp onto my chin and mouth simultaneously. I can think of no more menacing embodiment of pure, unadulterated evil than that of Dr. Christian Szell, the ex-Nazi played by Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, drilling into Dustin Hoffman’s character’s teeth while repeating like a sadistic mantra the question that now, and perhaps forevermore, echoes in everyone’s head while seated in the dentist’s chair — Is it safe? That this scene has done irreparable damage to the practice of dentistry in the American psyche is undeniably true. Also true is that I saw this film at an age that was far too young to do so. I have a terrible gag reflex. Even now, mornings when the toothbrush reaches those molars farthest back, I gag, have to pause, steady myself a little before continuing. The dental assistant puts on rubber gloves. He leans in. The tray fits. It fits into my mouth. But the rest of me is having none of it: I gag; at twelve I haven’t yet learned how, precisely, one steadies oneself, so this gagging leads to an audible retch, which ends in actual vomit, vomit I expel all over the dentist’s assistant, then the dentist, then myself, and, finally, the floor of the dentist’s office. ø Somehow, miraculously, it works. The impressions are salvaged, and a week later I’m saddled with braces, then tighter braces, then an odd, cumbersome headgear I’ve got to wear while sleeping. At night, the numbers on my clock radio give off an eerie green light, too much light. I cover it with a sock, a T-shirt, whatever’s around and convenient. Sometimes, I read by this light. Sometimes, I just stare at the numbers, waiting for them to change. ø Look, I say to the teller, here’s the deposit slip, here’s the amount and here’s my balance statement. The money’s not there. It’s been like a week now, and this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Okay, she says. Take a seat over by those chairs and I’ll have a banker look it over with you. I repeat my story to the banker. Then to a differ35 ent banker. Then to the branch manager, who orders a copy of the original deposit slip from some distant and secretive headquarters. There are nearly a dozen digits in the number for my account, one of which is a nine. Zeus produces the nine muses after nine nights of lovemaking. Demeter searches for Persephone over the course of nine days and nine nights, only to be given nine months of each year together. There are nine circles of Hell, nine steps to the Chinese imperial throne. When the copy arrives the manger calls to inform me that in my handwriting the look of a nine conspicuously resembles that of a four. There are nine parts of speech, but only four kinds of sentences. Four rivers flowing out of Eden. Four winds, four seasons, four elements. In Japanese the word for four (shi) is also the word for death. It turns out, he continues, that the money was going into someone’s account whose last name is also Gordon. That’s why we weren’t able to figure this out. The tellers were bringing up the other account and assuming it belonged to you. ø At recess in the sixth grade, I am a celebrity. I tell my classmates stories about myself, articulate the daring and exciting delinquency of my past. With each story, my celebrity grows. Soon, I’ve told them everything. I have no more stories. I am ignored on the playground, and so begin acting out again. This alienates me even more from my classmates, who come to resent my brutishness, to see it as a virus, which, fearful of infection, they avoid whenever possible. In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud begins with a lengthy analogy between the plague as a psychic entity whose contagion might be a matter of will and the theater as a sort of disease that carries a potential simultaneously destructive and redemptive. Because of my classmates’ preference for stories over the participation, even the passive, observational participation, required of witness — the theater of actual events, my celebrity was willfully deflated, cast aside, allowed to curdle into something dangerous, something unapproachable. Something adult. This something was itself a kind of theater, the kind which, as Artaud notes, “causes the mask to fall, reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world.” If, as Joan Didion famously wrote, “[w]e tell ourselves stories in order to live,” then what happens when we’ve told them all, when we run out of these stories, when we have to live in order to tell them? This is the point where the chatter and babble of the adult world suddenly becomes intelligible. 36 ø Alligators hiss. Bats screech. Camels grunt. Dogs bark. Elephants trumpet. For animals, the audible threat is a form of communication, a way to say stay away from me, stay away from that food, from this female, from our territory. It’s a display of potential physical prowess, an intimidation. A brochure called Living with Lions I picked up at one of Colorado’s state parks tells me to raise my arms and, in all caps, to YELL LOUDLY if I encounter a mountain lion that appears aggressive. If it’s not aggressive, if its eyes aren’t locked on me, its ears aren’t pointed forward, then speaking firmly is a better option. But what would I say to this animal? Deleuze and Guattari write, “the relationships between animals are the object not only of science but also of dreams, symbolism, art, and poetry, practice and practical use.” Poet Robert Grenier declared in an essay in the inaugural issue of the magazine This, in all caps, I HATE SPEECH. Grenier’s poetry would move further and further away from recognizable language, becoming instead poems that are hand drawn in multiple colors and often difficult to read in any conventional sense of the word. Actor Mel Gibson’s sequence of outrageous, abusive tirades, and drunken gaffes became an ironic prequel to his 2011 film, The Beaver, in which he plays a man who communicates solely through a beaver hand-puppet. ø I’m convinced there’s someone in the room, someone in the closet, or under the bed, someone somewhere close. A thief, maybe. Stuck in his hiding place now that I’ve come in to lie down, attached the headgear to my braces, covered the clock radio light. I’m sure he’s there and don’t want him to come out. What would I do, at twelve, against a grown man, against a man who’d sneak into a stranger’s house? Maybe I can scare him enough to stay put. I start speaking. I explain that the communication system I’ve just hooked up, the thing I’ve got around my mouth and face, is working pretty well. I talk as though I’m an anthropologist, as though I’m here to study humans, a much weaker species than my own. I talk for five minutes. Ten. Twenty. I talk out loud. I tell stories about the grossly inferior physical abilities of these humans. I’m a puffer fish. A gorilla 37 hooting and pounding its chest. The loudest lion in the world. Eventually, my fear of the intruder abates, disappears, is replaced by a fascination with the bravado of my own speech, which continues well into the night. ø The professor’s hearing has been on the fritz all semester. Someone coughs and he says: What was that? Someone unzips a purse and he says: What was that? Someone shuffles papers, drops a book, splits a pencil tip, sneezes, pops some gum, cracks a knuckle, and each time, cupping his ear in the direction of the offending noise, he says: What was that? What he doesn’t notice are the tiny spit bubbles he shoots from his mouth each time he reads a poem. But we do. Suddenly, the class is attentive, not to the poem, but to the passion and reverence with which this man is reading to us. Suddenly, the most important question is: What was that? ø I’m ten. I memorize the lyrics to a verse of Kurtis Blow’s “AJ Scratch,” replacing AJ with Noah G, my first foray into slant rhyme. I sing the verse to myself, to my stuffed animals, teachers, to schoolmates, to anyone who’ll listen. Up in the Bronx where the people are fresh There was one DJ who had to pass the test And now he’s down by law and he’s ready to play That’s right y’all his name is Noah G Never gets nervous when he cuts the beat He gives top-notch service in the clutch on the street I don’t know where the Bronx is, what clutch means, or how one becomes a DJ. All I know is the infectious, unadulterated pride that pours through my entire being when I’m praised for the ingenuity of my lyrics. ø The famous poet asks me if I know the less-famous poet. I do, I tell her. What do you think of him? To be totally candid, I think he’s kind of a tool. I mean I can’t speak about his poems; it’s been years 38 since I’ve read any. But he’s the sort of guy that’s quick to have an opinion about things when it’s pretty clear he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why do you ask? Well, she says, I’m thinking about having an affair with him. ø Bewildered. That’s the word, the word for this feeling; although it isn’t yet a part of my vocabulary. I’m five or eight or ten. This is a story so simple I could describe the events it covers in a single sentence. Something like this: On the 4th of July, I’m holding the thin stem of a lit sparkler, which I wave around briefly before being so overwhelmed by the responsibility required of the act that I grab the burning end of the thing with my left hand, scream out, and toss it to the ground. That’s it. That’s all. This is the only event the story covers. But I didn’t want to tell it to cover anything. I wanted to tell it to figure out why it’s still lodged in my head, why it’s such an important moment for me. I wanted to tell it to uncover something. The word responsibility wasn’t in the first version. Originally, I wrote that I was so overwhelmed by the act’s potential for danger. But this felt off, false, like I was allowing the consciousness of a writer to corrupt the agency of a child’s actions. It took a few tries before the word responsibility welled up from some deep, interior place, but I instantaneously knew it was the accurate word to account for my bewilderment. If I were to do nothing more than narrate the event, the story of a boy grabbing a sparkler and burning his own hand on the 4th of July might edge itself into metaphor. It might mean more than it was meant to. This is where the potential for danger fits in; not in the act, but in its authorship. ø I cut holes in the lining of a coat so without removing my hands from the pockets, without attracting attention, I can grab whatever’s within reach, wander a little around the store, and then walk out. I steal a cassette single by Metallica. I take piles of candy, a pack of lighters, lift a pen, a key chain, nail clippers, and a bottle of honey barbeque sauce. I put a foot-long flashlight in my sleeve, a pair of dice in my mouth, a paperback on the history of torture in my pants. I tell my stepfather I have no idea what happened to the money he kept in his dresser. I learn to attach strips of Scotch Tape 39 to a dollar bill, send it into the vending machine, then pull it back out; I drink lots of soda. Odd, unnatural bulges accompany me out of store after store. ø I want you to take this, fold it up, hide it in your wallet, and forget about it, my mother says, handing me a twenty dollar bill, which she then calls my only in an emergency money. I take, fold it, and two months from now have completely forgotten about it. After school, my friends and I drive to the mall, walk into a department store, where I take a shirt off the racks, tie it in the fitting room around my waist, attempt to leave, am abandoned by my friends, stopped by security, taken into a back room, photographed, scolded halfheartedly, handed off later to the police, who drive me to the station where I’m booked and told that bail comes to exactly twenty-five dollars. I open my wallet. There’s a five and two singles. My mother is furious when I call, furious when she picks me up at the station, furious during the long car ride home, when, suddenly, I remember the twenty dollar bill. ø Why is there someone else’s name on this poem, I say, handing my student a printout of the same poem she’d turned in last week as her own. I don’t know. Someone must have stolen it from me and put it up on the web. I think I had it on my blog, so anyone could have put it on their site. I mean — it’s mine; I wrote it; I mean, like a while ago — I wrote it a while ago, but it’s been online for a while, so someone could have put it somewhere else online. I think someone stole it from my site. It’s not a particularly remarkable poem, certainly not masterful, nor even glaringly dissimilar from the rest of the work done by those in this class. In fact, I’m certain that had I not received a tip via email from one of her classmates with a link to this poem online, I’d be none the wiser. The poem reads: Last night you left me and slept your own deep sleep. Tonight you turn and turn. I say, You and I will be together until the universe dissolves. You mumble back things you thought of when you were drunk. 40 This is a poem by Rumi, I tell my student. All you had to do was turn in a poem, a poem of your own. To be completely candid with you, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me if it were a horribly written poem, as long as you were the one who wrote it. I mean, I wrote the poem, like a long time ago. I know I was supposed to turn in something new, but it’s mine. It’s my poem. Maybe Rumi took it from my site and put it up somewhere else. This almost makes me want to forgive her. Almost. ø At some point, I construct an ethics, a code, a flimsy rationale: steal only from those whose actions amount to a theft of my own sense of self; anything corporate is fair game; anything privately held has to include some act of personal transgression. When my boss belittles me at work, I figure out how to recalibrate the cash register. When the eye doctor rushes me through an appointment, I search the drawers in his office while waiting for him to return. I’m not proud of this history, and I’ll admit, it isn’t exactly over. But the one thing I really want to steal, the thing I’ve all this time been working up to but can’t quite see through, the thing above all else that would make for the ultimate theft, is this, this sentence by Anne Carson: “No, it is not a mirage, this stupendous humming hulk of gold that stands as if run aground upon the plaza at the center of the city of Santiago.” It’s a perfect sentence, perfect in its scope and movement, its rhythmic music and transformative imagery. The problem is I wouldn’t know where to put it. ø Look at all these people. Now, I’m really nervous. Anxious. The crowd outside The New School is swelling. I push past women in bright green parkas, wedge my way through students, scrape against backpacks, am pressed between a middle-aged man and his doe-eyed daughter. I can’t believe how many people are here. I guess this is what happens at poetry readings in New York City. By the time I make it to the front door, my anxiety’s matured into belligerent pride. Don’t they know I’m one of the readers? I imagine the man I’ve just gently shoved aside watching me later tonight, remembering admiringly the conviction with which I made my en41 trance. The reading’s on the fourth floor. There’s the elevator. Why isn’t anyone waiting for it? Why are they all filing into that auditorium? I’m here to read for the launch party of the seventh issue of LIT Magazine. The crowd, it turns out, is here to watch Jennifer Lopez tape an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio. I guess this is what happens at poetry readings in New York City. ø We’re backstage, giddy, excited, waiting for our first show here, at the Foundation, the only club in West Palm worth the hour’s drive north. We’re backstage, although there isn’t much of one, nor is this room anywhere near it; it’s more like an office, with a few couches, cheap drop ceiling, drab carpet, flyers for past shows all over the place. Pete and Tim pull out their Sharpies. Today, twenty years after we play here, they both make a living as tattoo artists, but for now they’re just dabbling in graffiti, appropriate enough for a club that caters to the punk scene. There’s our band’s logo — BINGOMUT — in huge script on that wall, on this one, twice on the one over there. Finally, it feels like we’ve arrived. The show goes off without a hitch, and we head home, elated to have played in a town other than our own, a town where we sold T-shirts and demo tapes, handed out dozens of stickers, saw cars drive away with our name affixed to their bumpers, our songs blaring from their stereos. Any band from elsewhere carries the aura of one more important than they might be at home, and we were basking in it, certain that a record deal, video shoot, and world tour would soon follow. The next day there’s a message from the owner on our answering machine. He said it didn’t take a genius to figure out who drew all over the walls of his club, and if we ever want to play there again we had better get back right away with a bucket of white paint. ø I am at the top of a hill in Binghamton, New York, its downward slope extending farther than I can see. In a moment, I’ll push off the pavement on my skateboard, sending myself into an increasingly unsteady acceleration, until the parked cars and manicured lawns I’m passing begin to disassemble in the ever-quickening speed of what I’ve suddenly realized was a huge mistake, one that can end only in something much worse if I don’t immediately bail, allow 42 the pavement to tear open my flesh while tumbling a dozen feet before landing just in front of oncoming traffic; but for now, here on this hill, with huge clouds overhead, I’m enjoying the view, the uncertain thrill of possibility, and what I want to say will become the last time in my life that I knowingly give up my own agency. But to do so is tantamount to acting with purpose, control. Look at those clouds; they could be anything. Anything. ø It’s night. Snow’s falling. I’m staring up at a street lamp, the chaotic halo of flakes illuminated around it. One hits my glasses, melting immediately. The tiny speck of water, if I stand just so, reflects back the amplified image of my own eye, a thicket of blood vessels. I stare at the snow. I stare at myself staring at the snow. At once nauseous and intoxicated, I read the first eighty pages of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans on a green bench in a garden during a gorgeous spring day a decade ago. It was so perfect that I haven’t opened the book since. That day and this one are inextricably linked. I’m not sure how, but I am sure of it. ø Come here, I’ve got to tell you something, Solan says, motioning for me to follow him away from the porch where we’d spent the evening with a half dozen others chatting, drinking, and goofing off. It’s alarming — this sudden somber instruction, nearly enough to knock me into sobriety. Nearly. We walk down the street a ways. Solan’s holding a video camera, which he points at me. We’re going to have a dance contest, he says. I want you to take this seriously, to go all out; really move. I don’t know if it’s the solemnity with which he says this or the earnestness of the mock techno music he’s now mouthing, but everything in my body erupts. I am taking this seriously, very seriously, moving as fast and frantically as I can, whipping each limb into a breakneck rhythmic blur, the architecture of my body barely able to contain the ferocity of its own spasmodic, unbridled, earthquake. I shape the air around myself into a whirlwind, a tornado. A Tasmanian Devil. Godzilla decimating a city block. If dance is a kind of language, I’ve set the entire alphabet aflame. Words are burning all around me. There’s smoke everywhere. I can’t stop. Can’t go on. Finally, triumphant, breath43 less, leaning over, resting my hands on my knees, I tell Solan that it’s his turn. You win, he says, laughing, shutting down the camera, and running immediately away. ø Everyone in the sixth-grade class is required to come up with a science experiment. We’re learning about reliability, about observation and empirical data. I decide to study the effects of diet on mice, and buy three identical cages, three identical water bottles, three small white feeding dishes, one bag of wood shavings, and three white mice I’m unable to differentiate from one another; I already have the notebook I’ll need. Because I don’t want to form any attachment to my test subjects, they remain unnamed. The first, I feed what I think of as “regular” mouse food: lettuce. The second is given human junk food — one Cheeto a day. The third, nothing. The days pass, with each I diligently record their actions: normal, normal, and normal. Soon, my diligence wanes, deflates to complete indifference, then neglect, until I can empirically say that the effect of various diets on mice leads to the same end result: three identical cages, three empty water bottles, three small white feeding dishes free of any remnants of food, a pile of soiled wood shavings, and three dead mice. ø I have a photograph of the façade of an apartment building taken in Paris. It’s not a particularly remarkable photo. It was a typical, bright summer day. There’s a green curtain billowing out from an open third-story window, ivy covering its ornamental wrought iron frame. A man in a gray suit caught forever midstride on the street below. In Paris, I went up the Eiffel Tower, spent hours in the Louvre, wandered through the Jardin des Plantes, walked along the Seine, kicked thick dust from my shoes after coming out of the catacombs, but all of it, all of this tourist-laden, temporal blur of experience was eclipsed by the actions of this man. He saw me taking the picture, turned immediately to look up at the building, then quickly back at me, before shrugging his shoulders and muttering something inaudible, something meant, I assume, to convey the worthlessness of my chosen subject. It happened in just a few seconds, and he was off again down the street, his pace quickened by the annoyance of this interruption. Over a decade later, and al44 though, incredibly, this man’s disapproval still stings, I’m grateful for what he did. I’m grateful because it so imprinted itself upon my experience of the city that it now seems the only authentic memory of my trip — the only one unclouded by the expectations occasioned through the hundreds of photographs I’m sure I must have seen of Paris before ever stepping foot in the city. ø I’m watching a recent episode of That Metal Show online, cohosted by Eddie Trunk, Jim Florentine and Don Jamieson, who interview mostly forgotten heavy metal stars. That the show focuses on a genre that peaked in popularity two decades ago fills the whole production with an air of dejection. Every conversation here hinges on nostalgia; it’s all past tense. Tonight, one of their guests is Sebastian Bach, Skid Row’s original singer. In a segment called Stump the Trunk, where audience members ask Eddie Trunk obscure metal trivia questions, Bach suddenly skitters across the set to stand next to Jim Florentine, who is taking questions from the audience. The move seems unscripted, and although Florentine appears a little surprised, he offers Bach the mic. Okay, I have a question for Eddie. Eddie, you used to work at Atlantic Records, right? Megaforce, part of . . . they were distributed by Atlantic. Okay, so you signed Ace Frehley. Is that correct? Correct. I would like you to name the three songs that I sing on Ace’s record Trouble Walkin’. Eddie answers, but he can’t name all three, so according to the show’s rules, Bach gets to reach into what’s called Eddie Trunk’s Box of Junk and pull out a prize. These are mostly promo materials, new CDs, box sets, musical biographies. Bach reaches in, rejects the first few things he pulls out. Okay, Jim Norton’s Disciple, I’ll take this, he says, tapping the CD cover. Yeah, that’s a good one, Florentine interrupts, his new CD, Despicable. Disciple. Despicable. I feel an instant kinship and affection for Bach, who appeared not to have noticed his mistake. Ten years ago, on stage at a karaoke bar, surround by other grad students, I belted out as best I could Skid Row’s power ballad “18 and Life.” What I lacked in skill (any sense of melody and the ability to carry a tune) I more than made up for with gusto — throwing a fist in the air and swinging the mic stand as though each gesture were a giant, tactile exclamation point for the lyrics flashing from white to yellow across the monitors. I didn’t have to read the lyrics. I knew all the words by heart. I still do. Although I wouldn’t have 45 admitted as much when the song was first released in 1989, a year I was dead set on developing what I then thought of as taste — the ability to carry a dual-consciousness, projecting one set of values publicly, while cradling an often incommensurate, personal, and private stance on the very same things. In other words, if it’s popular, it’s obviously bad, so don’t let on that you’re among the unenlightened lumpenproletariat, no matter how much joy you get from singing along to Skid Row in your mother’s basement. Disciple. Despicable. Bach glanced at the cover of the CD in his hand for just a second, just long enough to read the text there, but he got it wrong, and with Florentine’s correction I felt something else, even if Bach didn’t — shame. Bach’s mistake is the same one I’ve made again and again. In the classroom. At meetings. Among friends. The mistake that’s led me to shy away from reading publicly anything I haven’t already gone over in private. At the bar, it didn’t matter what words were scrolling across the monitors. I’d already committed the song to memory. It’s all past tense. ø I’ve never actually seen this before, but yes it’s a thrombosed vein, the doctor tells me, a specialist with a schedule so booked that I was given only five minutes of his time for what to me was an absolute emergency. He tells me to take hot baths, that it will clear up on its own, not such a big deal, you’ll be fine, trust me. A few nights ago, Marcus thought it’d be funny to pull the chair out from under me before I sat down. Nearly two months later, having mastered the art of orgasming from stimulation to the single dime-sized bit of flesh on the underside my penis that wouldn’t immediately, and painfully, reject any sort of physical contact, I learn that the doctor was indeed correct; it did go away. But so too did my sense that a pure Cartesian split of mind and body is a viable mode within which one might operate. ø Watch this, my wife says, her head turned sideways, toward me, away from the board ten feet in front of us on the barroom wall, before letting fly the dart that now pins itself squarely to the smallest circle in the exact red center of the board. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. The drawing I’d done at ten years old of what my brother insisted was somehow, miraculously, not the cave I 46 imagined it to be but a stunningly accurate replication of Europe’s coastline wasn’t meant to be the map that upon him showing me an image from the atlas of the real thing I knew it most certainly was. One is a kind of muscle memory, the body working independently from the visual field; the other, an imagistic one, the absent visual taking over the body’s present movement. Between these two states, as between the raised banks bordering either side of a mountain stream, the act of conscious intention flows uninterrupted; no matter how often the mind would like to impose a bridge, the body refuses to cross it. But what I’m not telling you is that a half hour after my wife’s bull’s-eye, I did the exact same thing. This is to say if it’s the body imposing a bridge, sometimes the mind will cross it. ø I’m at a playground around the corner from a Chinese restaurant where my grandparents are finishing the dinner I’ve already abandoned. I’m here alone, moving from one wooden plank to another, climbing and descending, an exercise of the control that so fuels the imagination of one for whom this is a castle, remote lunar outpost, important archeological treasure. It slides from one to the other and so do I, until I lose hold on a stone jutting from the ramparts, on the moon rover’s control panel, on the tail spike of a stegosaurus skeleton, and fall, smashing my face on what is once again unmistakably a wooden plank. My braces puncture my upper lip, stapling it to my teeth like a . . . no, like a nothing. There are no metaphors without the imagination, and to impose one would discount the purity of what I as a boy alone on a playground with a face full of blood then felt: the forceful impact of panic and freedom, nothing. A huge nothing. ø I slide the small, die-cast letters onto a waxed, leather string, a tiny spacer between each, clamping down the clasps with pliers before handing the impatiently jittery man standing next to me the necklace. D-A-Z, here it is, I say. He passes me a twenty, far too much, tells me to keep the change, that he’ll be back soon with a big list of names. Okay, but I’m closing down in about an hour, I tell him. I’ve been working for Roger for nearly two years now. He owns five jewelry carts in Boston, all within a few blocks of one another. I spend the day moving from cart to cart, giving bathroom and lunch breaks, restocking our supplies, filling in for those too sick or just 47 too hung over to make a shift. I’ve made hundreds of these name necklaces, some innocuous — Jill, Carlos, Freddy, some inane: Yankees Suck. Once, unable to stop my hands shaking from last night’s damaging festivities, I tucked the pieces to a guy’s name into a tiny plastic bag, passed it to him with the admission that I couldn’t bring myself to put the thing together, that he could have the letters free of charge. “[E]very name is an indestructible knot,” writes Edmond Jabès, but tying it isn’t always so easy. Half an hour passes. The man hasn’t returned. A few years from now, sitting in a crowded dining hall on the UMass campus, reading Emerson’s essay, “The Poet,” I’ll think nostalgically about today when I come across the following passage, “the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence . . . ” ø I see one doctor. Then another. And another. Another. It’s no use. None of them can figure out what’s going on. There’s a joke that begins with a sick man, bedridden, hopeless, staring up at the observing physician who delivers the news that things look grim, that there’s not much time left. Is there anyone you want to see, the doctor asks. The sick man answers with a feeble and thin yes. Yes, there is. Okay, the doctor says, who is it? Another doctor, the man answers. I’ve been to four of them already. This is not at all what I want. What began as an island of small red dots on my shoulders has grown in a few short weeks into continental splotches covering my entire back, legs, arms, chest, creeping over my hands and face, collecting in my armpits, on my elbows, eyelids, ears. Everything looks raw — the reddish pink of newly formed flesh. It’s amazing how much skin we have, how much area it covers. I’m itching in places I didn’t know existed. I’m twenty-two. I don’t yet know the story of Job, scraping his skin with broken pottery, cursing the day he was born. I don’t even believe in God. But somehow, little by little, my frustration and uncertainty coupled with the lack of any definitive explanation from the doctors moves me to what must be prayer. What the fuck is happening to me? I say this out loud. I say this after waking, alone, halfway through the night. I say this after tearing myself from the bed, turning on the lights, looking in disgust at the state of my body. What the fuck is happening to me? ø 48 I’m seven, picking bits of gravel from the bloody patches that are my knees. Everything in me wants to cry out, but to whom? I’m hurt, in pain, and there’s no one around. I pick up my bike, ride the two blocks home in silence; blood running from my legs stains the white socks I’m wearing an unnaturally bright red. No, that’s not right, is it? It’s just an ordinary red, unexpectedly ordinary. I realize that my pain is intensified, made more acutely present by the lack of anyone to share it with, and knowing this — knowing that this condition exists, that it’s now and forevermore a possible state of being in which I might find myself an unwitting participant — moves the hurt I feel into a wholly metaphysical realm; this is the first autonomous idea I’ve ever had, and it pleases me unlike anything else I’ve yet experienced. ø When Rilke famously asked, Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders, it was an aesthetic cry, a workaday cry, a cry for the return of creative energies, a lament against the void of dailiness, against artistic drought, meaninglessness. I had all the meaning I could handle. There was nothing existential about the red blotches covering almost every inch of my body. I just didn’t know what they were called. I didn’t know the name for my condition, and without it, I felt a suffocating loneliness, one I imagine Rilke must have felt, pacing in the castle Duino, waiting for the poems to come to him, uncertain if they would. As an artist, things become serious once you’ve made a name for yourself. You have to live up to that name, to fill in the contours of its shape, which solidify into a thing distinct and separate from that of your own shadow, a counter-self, a brand, bodilessness. ø One of my housemates works at a liquor store from which he’s figured out how to liberate several bottles of high-end tequila that we’ve now emptied. This particular brand is marketed as a famous musician’s personal blend; there’s his name, plastered all over the bottle. It doesn’t matter much to us, what does is the music playing. I’m dancing in the kitchen. I’m dancing awkwardly, uncontrollably. I’m dancing with two sharp kitchen knives. I slice my finger, think 49 nothing of it, put on a Band-Aid, and go to a party down the street where I meet a woman who happens to work as a nurse, and who, after showing her my newly self-inflicted wound, suggests we go back to my place so that she can dress it properly: we do; she does. In the morning, I can’t move my finger. Maybe I couldn’t move it last night either. At the hospital, I’m told I’ll need surgery to reattach the tendon I’ve most certainly severed. A week later, sitting in the operating room, reading a tattered paperback of Hart Crane’s collected poems, the anesthesiologist tells me that his neighbor is a famous poet and asks if I know him. I do, not as a person, nor even as a poet, since I’ve never read any of his books, but I’ve heard of him; I know his name. Now, when I look at the scar running the length of the underside of my pinkie, it too feels like a brand. ø Because I’m compelled to prolong the joy of having seen a movie (Dogtown and Z-Boys) that launched me into so nostalgic an orbit that the gravity of adult life felt suddenly distant and unimportantly remote, I decide to go on a midnight run. I run along the street by my apartment, up the stone steps that lead to a main road, across it and over to a side street, past the pizza shop there, where two men are lingering in the doorway after having locked up, a little farther down the same street, then I hear it — a snap. A loud snap. It’s my ankle. I crumble, can’t get myself back up. The most difficult thing isn’t the pain, it’s that I know I have to cry out to the men down the street for help. ø Western medicine is more or less based on a sort of loss of the body, on the corpse, on what we’ve learned from centuries of cutting into the dead flesh of our own kin. Kristeva notes that the horror we experience when presented with an actual corpse, or anything that might traumatically remind us of the split between our selves and our bodies, the flesh and the intellect, can result in a breakdown of meaning, in the abject, the loss of distance between subject and object. ø If I turn my head this way, like this, to this exact point, this one here — there, right there, that point there, if I turn my head there, 50 to that angle, that one, if my head’s precisely like this — right here, exactly here, if I turn my head there, then I feel a sudden sharp pain run through my entire body. All day long I continue to test the correctness of this cause and effect; and all day long the results are the same. I’m enamored with this, so much so that I willingly subject myself again and again to the pain in order to experience the rare simplicity of a proposition so easily confirmed. ø Could it be that without a name what was happening to my skin wasn’t yet really happening to me? I needed something to call it, some way to corral it into a shape that I could envision not only living with but also living out of. Rilke’s poem calls to mind the space between terror and beauty; Kristeva’s idea, between subject and object. My own predicament was simply being adrift, unmoored, and anchorless at the intersection of these four states — the point of collision at the exact center of the nameless and open algebraic X: the illiterate’s signature. ø I’m thirteen, and given a Social Security Card, which I have to sign, a task I think of as invariably tied to the adult world, and thus importantly, and permanently, marking my own transition into it. I practice writing my name on a different piece of paper. I write it over and over, but something’s off; each instance is slightly different. It’s as though I’m guilty of self-forgery. How does one come up with a signature? How can I choose the iteration that’s going to represent me for the rest of my life? The more times I write my name the more burdensome the task becomes, and the less I feel like myself. I remember a scene from the opening of The Blues Brothers. Before being released from prison, John Belushi’s character Jake is given back his possessions: one black suit jacket; one pair of black suit pants; one hat, black; one pair of sunglasses; twenty three dollars and seven cents. They’re presented as the constituent components of cool. He’s told to sign for them, which he does with a simple X, as though it too is a mark of hipness. Finally, I give up trying to include my entire name. I write an N, then a G on top of it, which together also forms an E — NEG. Over twenty years later, the permanence with which I settled on this as my signature is unshaken. ø 51 ø A friend tells me a story. Brad and Aaron are two of four students in a graduate French seminar. The professor begins each class by circulating an attendance sheet, which Brad waits casually for the other students to sign, then slowly does so himself. He carries every possible color of pen in his bag, ensuring he’ll be able to match that of Aaron’s signature before returning to the professor the sheet on which he writes, in quotation marks, The Wizard. Brad writes this next to Aaron’s name. He writes this in an approximation of Aaron’s signature. He writes this with the same color ink as that of Aaron’s pen. He says nothing to Aaron about it. This continues for weeks. When Aaron is late to class, the professor stops her lecture to say, Nice of The Wizard to join us. Aaron looks perplexed, but says nothing. More weeks pass. In order to fulfill the foreign language requirement, each student must meet with the professor for a private consultation at the semester’s end. “The foreigner allows you to be yourself by making a foreigner of you,” writes Edmond Jabès. When Aaron arrives in her office, the professor says, Hello Aaron, or should I say, The Wizard. In its ability to allow a text to subvert authority, Barthes calls the gag “the logical future of metaphor.” It is an act of near magical proportions. Of course, the professor is wrong; it’s Brad who is a wizard. ø Look at this, I tell Josh, lifting up a copy of The Sword of Shannara. It’s a mammoth book, over 700 pages, and, with its release in 1977, the first fantasy paperback to appear on the New York Times best-seller list. I read this thing twenty years ago. It took me months — my 52 friends all made fun of me for it, I tell him, turning the tattered brick of a book over in my hands. We’re in Harvard Square, killing time before our reading, browsing through bins of free books. It was a real commitment, I admit, putting it back and continuing to finger the spines until I land on an uncorrected proof of Cixous’s The Third Body, a different sort of fantasy literature, which, in a few months, I’ll read half of, before satisfyingly misplacing it somewhere. The funny thing is, by the time I got to the end, I found the last two pages missing. My friends had torn them out. Josh’s eyes light up. Oh, nuh-uh, he says, not at my story but at the book he’s pulled from the dreck. Look, oh man, it’s one of yours. He’s holding up a copy of my conceptual memoir Inbox. Yes, it’s my book, but I only wrote two pages of it. ø The poet, known for wielding a blunt and cutting honesty often mistaken for callousness, is dining with, among others, a novelist known for being something of a foodie. When, after an apprehensive and petite sip, the novelist proclaims the wine unfit for consumption, relegating it dramatically to the center of the table, the poet takes up the glass, swallows, and says, Tastes fine to me. I’m certain that there’s some deep-seated allegorical significance to this public exchange, just as I’m certain that genre, too, is performative. ø A woman seats herself next to me on the bus. She glances at my hands, at the layer of droplike red sores covering them, then up at me, my face, which must seem normal enough, not the sort of face one would expect to house what can only be a body riddled with something ruinous, dangerous, infectious. A body best to stay away from. I can feel her worry all over me. It’s not compassion or concern. It’s the worry of self-preservation, an instinctual worry, a worry that makes itself tangible, filling the small gap between our two bodies with its wedge-like presence, pushing us farther apart. From my face, she looks back to my hands, before unseating herself, and walking toward the rear of the bus, where there is nowhere left to sit. ø 53 My brother gets Boba Fett and I get IG-88. He gets Obi-Wan and I get the Jawa. Darth Vader for him and R2-D2 for me. Chewbacca, my brother; Han Solo, me. We both get Stormtroopers. No one gets Leia, though no one wanted her. The next time my father returns with toys, there’s Luke and IG-88 again, which, unwanted, I get. It’s not fair. I already have IG-88. Now I have two. It’s not fair. This morning I type “IG-88” into a search engine and learn that I am wrong. A decade after my brother’s claim on the better toy lands me resentfully with a double, Bantam Spectra publishes Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, an anthology of stories edited by Kevin J. Anderson, which opens with his piece “Therefore I Am: The Tale of IG-88.” Anderson’s expansion of the bounty hunter droid’s brief appearance in the original Star Wars films includes four IG-88s, each identical to the other. My brother’s choice was not a breach of ethics; it was an introduction to alterity. ø A problem keeps me awake. There is a remote-controlled helicopter hovering in the center of a school bus. The bus is not moving. Its windows are closed. Now, the bus suddenly zooms to 60 mph. Does the helicopter remain in the center of the bus? ø The room is packed, electric, almost moving in unison with the dancing crowd — a collective sort of bounce, a bobbing, bodies so wired into the same response to the music that they seem a single organism. I think this is joy personified. Someone leaves, walks down the porch steps to a refrigerator oddly outdoors. He opens it, and the immediate collision of the cold air inside with that of the warm summer night spawns a cloud of frost swirling around a horrific giant honeycomb. No. It’s a stack of bottles, large 40 ounce bottles, layered to the roof of the fridge, their tops facing inward so that all I can see are the clear wide bottoms, the honeyed liquid inside. It’s a refrigerator full of malt liquor. It’s a sequence from the video for Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” in heavy rotation on MTV in 1993, the same year it reaches the number two spot on the Billboard charts, introducing Snoop Dogg to middle America, south Florida, and the world. The same year I walk into a liquor store in 54 Pompano Beach, nod to the man working a scratch-off ticket near the counter, and order a case of Olde English 800. ø Simone Weil writes: “There is not real affliction unless the event that has seized and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical. The social factor is essential. There is not really affliction unless there is social degradation or the fear of it in some form or another.” ø I receive a call from one of the doctors asking if I can come in today. At the hospital, he shows me images from a flipbook of glossy photos, images he found recently, images of bodies covered like mine in crusty, red blotches. It’s a kind of psoriasis, he says. It’s called guttate psoriasis, a little different than what I’ve seen before, and probably the reason it took us so long to figure it out. He sends me to a dermatologist, who gives me a pair of goggles, tells me to remove my clothing, to put a sock over my penis and testicles, to stand here, in this light chamber, this gigantic tanning machine, for just a minute today, for two minutes next week, for five twice a week for the next six weeks, until finally a woman I don’t know says to me that my newly golden-tanned skin looks so healthy, and did I just get back from vacation somewhere recently. ø Another twenty minutes goes by. I’m closing up, dismantling all the ridiculous dangling and protruding armature that allows us to display so many variants of junk jewelry on this cart. Yo, yo, the man says, jogging up to my side and passing off a small, folded paper. I open it. It’s a list of names. A long list. RBX, Tray Deee, Lil C-Style, Bad AZZ, Techniec, and a dozen more. Man, I’m heading home, I tell him. I don’t have time to make all these. He’s indignant. But you gonna get paid, he says, stretching the vowel sound in the final word until it almost snaps. I’ve got to close, I tell him, still working on the cart, which is now almost finished save for the huge tarp I’ve got to toss on top and then zip down at the corners. Well, just these ones then, just the first ones, he says, pointing at the paper I’ve handed back to him. No man, I’m sorry, I say. You 55 gonna get paid, he says again. A third time, a fourth. I’m zipping up the tarp, getting ready to haul the cart back to the warehouse down the street where it’s stored overnight. I’m talking bout Snoop, the guy says. Snoop gonna pay you. I don’t care who’ll pay me, I’m heading home. This seems unbelievable to him, as though I’ve shattered some deeply held assumption about how the world works, become an Emersonian antipoet in my refusal of the appearance and essence of things, in my unwillingness to name. In Genesis, God entrusts Adam with the task of naming all of the newly formed creatures of the world, making him not only the first human, but also the first poet. Man, Snoop was gonna pay you, he says a final time, as much in astonishment as in dejection, before backing away, turning around, and taking off in a quick stride. Ten minutes later, I pass the Orpheum Theatre on my way home, its marquee announcing tonight’s concert with Snoop Dogg. The Orpheum is named after Orpheus, the Ancient Greek poet and singer, about whom the oldest literary reference remaining is a short fragment that reads in translation, “Orpheus famous of name.” 56