MOCKINGBIRD–Final Girl

When I first saw the mockingbird at my feeders, I felt I had succeeded at making a home.

My yard was welcoming to a mockingbird.  I loved its colors: gray, white, and black.  I loved how it flew like a kamikaze plane.  I loved the pitched line of its tail, like a razor blade.

In the early mornings, it would perch outside my bedroom window and sing all the new songs it had—which were not, I would realize, anything.

***

Once I was a writer.

Early on, I was plagiarized.  A woman cannibalized chunks of my writing, which she had read online, passing them off as her own in her printed book.  I was shocked. I didn’t even have my own book published—and here she was, stealing mine.  I wanted her book to die, to disappear.  Instead, I almost did.

***

I became a graffiti writer.

I became a graffiti writer because I had something to say, something I couldn’t actually say, not with words.  There are some stories that must be seen.  Some you can only sing.

So I took a picture of my body.  I projected it onto a screen.  I traced the image onto cardboard, and cut the outline with a blade, then held the homemade stencil onto a wall, balancing it with my knees and hips.  I sprayed aerosol paint into the outline, holding my breath as the paint met brick, adhered, and became the black and blue shape of a woman holding a flashlight, illuminating the word rape.

***

Graffiti is ephemeral.  It’s defaced; it’s painted over. But my anti-rape piece seemed to shame a normally active scene into silence.  No one wrote anything.  No one tagged my work.  No one bombed or painted over my piece.

Until a group stole it as their own, painting a logo around my piece, purposefully using the same paint colors I had used, and claiming me as a collaborator on their website.  Then the image was picked up by other websites who gave all credit for my piece to the group—an organization whose aggressive and murky philosophy I disagreed with, and with whom I would never willingly work.

But they lied.

My artwork was appropriated to further an agenda.

My anti-rape art piece—a very personal and very difficult work for me to make—was turned into an ad by a thief.

***

My mockingbird sang the songs of other birds.  It sang the cries of babies.  It sang the blare of alarm clocks, and the robotic chirps of cell phones.  It sang everything it stole from both sides of the window screen.

It also attacked birds.  It claimed, not just the sounds of my house, but the seeds, dive bombing any bird who dared come near the feeders, chasing off finches, sparrows, wrens, chickadees.

***

When someone claims your work without claiming you, when someone wants your words without wanting you—only the product of your heart, but not the beating bloody muscle, not the lived-in body; just the image and not the imaginer; just the dreams and not the dreamer—when someone pretends she dreamed your dream herself… it’s hard not to shut down.

***

I took the seeds away.  Now I have no birds.

***

Someone took my words.  Someone took my body.  Someone took my story.  Once I was a writer.

***

You have to do it again, the street artist who trained me tells me.  You have to do your piece again—and then you have to do something else.

***

But plagiarism is not just a matter of stealing another’s voice; it’s a matter of not using your own.

Don’t you have your own lived experience?  Don’t you have your own memories?  Are you soulless?  Are you mindless?  Are you a shade?

I realize it makes me sad for the stealers, those who distrust their own dreams.

Because they came from somewhere—these stories, these images I made.  I made them; they are created from a brew of my past, my body, my brain filled with memories, heat, and hope.  They are me.  They would not have life without me.

I lived, so I sang.

***

I did a new graffiti piece the other day: another outline of my body, facing a wall on which I had written my name.  In the piece, my body is naked, seen from the back, seen the waist up, and in my hands I was holding a pencil.

Then I changed it to a knife.

Then I changed it to a can of paint.

I sprayed the piece up on the bottom step of a flight of cement stairs, a small piece, half-disguised by dead leaves. October: the leaves are almost all fallen now.  I stood, brushed the rot from my knees.

I looked at the blank trees and I wondered: Did no one teach you to live, mockingbird?  Did no one trust you to sing?

 

Final Girl a writer based in the Midwest.   You can see examples of her graffiti, including “I Believe You,” the piece described in this essay, at: http://www.finalgirlgraf.tumblr.com

 

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The Aisles Light Up –Amy Wright

1

When I was around seven years old and starting to formulate the tenuous boundaries of my own existence, I stopped in my tracks once in the hallway between my family’s bedrooms. It was carpeted then. The walls were angled such  that no one in the house could see me from that position. I stood there becoming aware of myself, slowly filling with a sense of prideful estrangement that no one knew precisely where I was at that moment. Later, it would dawn on me (so slowly), first-born and ajangle with love, the lastingness of that privacy. Once boundaries grow impermeable, the illusion of separation is what must be overcome.

 

2

My grandfather gave his larynx to the lord. A retired Pentecost Holiness preacher, he holds his voicebox like a stethoscope under his chin. Adjusting it to find that tiny muscle to sound it, he tells me “People think you prepare the soul for eternity, but eternity is something we live in.”

 

3

To prefer. To lean to, to collect. Walter Benjamin writes that the collector orders a “World of particular secret affinities: palm tree and feather duster, hairdryer and Venus de Milo, champagne bottles, prostheses…” A collection reveals its psychic system.

But thoughts too are material: one might study the patterns of herself, the idiosyncratic cycles and motivations, toward a manifestation and elucidation of what it is that collects, the collector as the sum sans cogito, sans ergo.

Like a clerk in a brain store, one grows receptive to what the collection is collecting, what individuates it. She lights a composition of compulsions in private devotion, like the passage Benjamin takes through the Paris arcades.

“Get an escort and a good cart,” Basil Bunting tells her, “Come.” 

 

4

The mind is a “husk of words,” Antonin Artaud reasons, bound of fibers. And the body, “one’s inner equilibrium,” is  mind. As such, his work manifests the volcanic thrust of what he calls his “monotonous crucifixion” and Susan Sontag calls the “event” of a single body straining perilously toward self-transcendence.

Artaud cannot be assimilated, she says, illustration that he is that individuality pushed to its conclusion is social madness. Madness, she adds, being a sliding-scale system of measurement that is culturally and politically defined.

I am not a lunatic but a fanatic, Artaud says. The singular body erupts—he writes in Art and Death—to encompass the whole extent of the living body. Breath unfurls, and one is all space: “And this is what it is, and it is this forever.”

He walked by feeling around his body for the head. “The star eats,” he says.

 

5

“But what target in its right mind wouldn’t move?” Lucy Lippard asks, an unintentional but perfect question of the mind itself.[i] One prods a lump of cake batter not to watch its slow dissolve, but to make the cake better. Airy as a dune.

 

6 

Kafka quotes Zeno on being asked whether anything is at rest, Yes, he says, “the flying arrow rests.”

 

7

In some way, when I read Antonin Artaud or Jean Genet I am thinking of the Jackson boys, the stringy, no-collar mountain boys whose stop was after mine on the schoolbus—the last one. I never wondered if they walked over a mile every day to get home, since our bus didn’t cross the creek. I didn’t cross the second creek for years. And then one day almost by accident, as alone as I’d ever been, did.

We have all known, Sartre says of Genet, the personal affront when one of those frank-eyed children whom everyone takes to be an angel steals. 

 

8

We are a biological urge who are ourselves the urging. Use your words, we tell children. The world is how you make yourself known.

Aloneness is part of the equation. Each finds herself reflected against other tracks to unmarked snow. Each tracks his final loneliness to the longing of that snow.

 

9

On my grandparents’ farm sat an old bus inside which a couple, two of its paid laborers, lived—at the boundary of human experience I call the Appalachian sublime.

On the side of what my brother and I referred to as Grandaddy Hill, daffodils have been coming up every springtime to line the walk of a house that has been gone for more than a hundred years. 

 

10

Paired with a tendency to stare swall-eyed  into clouds, Odilon Redon describes being yoked to a culture that works “obscurely but beneficially for the necessary duration” of the earth. In a letter to a good friend, he describes the influences attending his artistic evolution, including the French countryside of his youth—the skyclad arid plains, the villages where one meets the eyes of humanity on the verge of abandoning themselves to place.

 

11

 A healthy body will last you forever,” a fortune cookie says. 

 

12

If one could gather, Redon says, the “immense chain of materials” on which humankind has scrawled or hatched or hummed its living matter, it would be the Code—the confluence of consciousness it is our nature to fulfill.

It is painful that “the da Vinci code” bears the name of a Hollywood movie, because it implies we have been so close to knowing it without knowing it all along.

  

13

“That knife,” my mother tells me, drying dishes, “came from the bandsaw at the old knitting mill” where my grandparents worked. Lloyd Crigger made it by bolting that carve of steel to a hickory handle. He taught my father how to whet its edge by holding it to the light. “When it’s sharp enough,” he said, “you can’t see it at all.”

 

14

“Art is a representation of your insides in a different form.”[ii]  Kiki Smith says. Many people misinterpret the creative process, think it less grunt work than it is, she says, “But I never have a moment in my life where I don’t know what to do.” She adds that ninety percent of her job as a sculptor is “showing up, filing out mistakes. I always know there’s some filing to do.”

 The stark whiteness of her porcelain “Woman with Owl” (2004) http://www.paceprints.com/artist/779/779-188 in the Gund Gallery caught my eye, followed by the spread of wings, the woman’s nakedness, her bird merger. They seem about to lift off in flight, or land. Either way, they loom larger in partnership than either would alone.

 

15

Soft-paste porcelain, which can be cut with a file, was discovered by trial-and-effort by medieval European potters to imitate the fine translucent grain.

Bone china was produced c. 1800 when Josiah Spode II added calcined bones to the hard-paste formula.

 

16

I consider what the owl might represent in the figure, since symbolically owls conjure stealth, wisdom, enlightenment, night, femininity, and, according to one animal totem website, the “voice inside you” by which things are revealed.

But as I read it, the woman with her owl parachute and the owl fitting itself for stilts stand in for life and limb caught in delicate ceramic. One gives the other wings. The other, arms raised and heart spread, lends a place to touch down, legs in the shape of a mountain over which is sky. 

 

17

The grand opening of a new neighborhood grocery came with a manna of blood oranges, Tuscan figs, pomegranate preserves, and fresh pastas to which I am now accustomed. What still catches my notice, since I do not go to the frozen food aisle often, is the eco-friendly lighting that maintains a dim setting until someone approaches a cooler. A section blinks on, and I squint back, imagining the atomic world operating the same way though invisibly—electrons scurrying like amphetamine bedbugs underfoot, every cat Schrödinger’s collapsing possibility into reality, thoughts absorbing into matter.


[i]    Lippard, Lucy, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. The New Press: New York, 1995, 3.

[ii]   Smith, Kiki, PBS documentary “Kiki Smith.” 

Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery–Jacob Paul

I never went to a proper kindergarten. I was the first child. My father was an academic, a scientist at Columbia, just over 50. My mother was an idealist not yet 30. They enrolled me in a place called the free school, at which, in the socialist spirit of New York City’s upper west side intellectual elite of the late Seventies, parents took turns teaching, cooperative style. This led to poor discipline:

  1. There was a child with whom I fought. Omar. He kicked me hard with his little kid cowboy boot’s pointed toe, and my parent determined that cowboy boots were evil.
  2. One of the parent-teachers led a pizza-making session. We were given pepperoni to taste before choosing to make our pizzas: with or without. I chose with (pepperoni is delicious!), but when my mother came to pick me up, the pizzas about baked, and she hoped aloud that I hadn’t chosen the pepperoni as it was pork, which was unkosher, and it was mixing meat and milk, which was unkosher, I insisted that I’d chosen without.
  3. My father made an elaborate model using Fisher Price people to demonstrate the physics of pulleys to the first and second graders.  He insisted that it was not a toy, and that the children not play with it when he wasn’t there. It was a toy though, an irresistible toy; and the other parents let their children play with it when my father wasn’t around, pooh-poohing his concerns. This, I reported dutifully.

This last was proof of things amok. My parents walked me home though Columbia’s campus in the midday September glare, and explained that I’d just go to school the following year, for first grade.

I was a wimp, a liar, a cheat and a snitch and pulled out of kindergarten; I was not yet quite five.

Thus it was that October 13, 1980, was my sixth birthday and my first that fell while I was enrolled in school, at PS 75 on 95th Street at West End Avenue, to be exact. We lived on Riverside Drive at 118th Street in a classic six on the sixth floor of a Columbia-owned prewar building, the kind with parquet floors and ten-foot ceilings and painted over buzzers that once rang the suite past the kitchen designed with a maid in mind and a fireplace and a bench to store wood beneath a broad window overlooking Riverside Park and the Hudson below it.

My father would walk me the mile south through the park’s upper level to school most mornings. The park’s lower level, much like the elementary school in Harlem for which I was actually zoned, deemed unsafe. For my birthday, my father brought bagels and cream cheese enough for my entire class. This wasn’t an easy feat. Ms. Fruitkin’s was a combined 1st and 2nd grade, administered by aid of two teaching assistants, with over 40 students. No small measure of deliberation had transpired between my mother and father that preceding weekend about how many bagels this mandated, and what variety would best appeal, and whether they were really obligated to do anything in the classroom at all. Somehow, the notion of serving cake never came up.

We walked the unusually quiet morning through the park’s just falling leaves, my father weighted with shopping bags, his pinkie free for me to hang upon. And he insisted I hang upon it: my afternoon return in my mother’s charge often featured dalliances with leaves and twigs and trees and other children; not so the walk to. We were earlier than ordinary so that my father might have time to set up breakfast for all of the children, and perhaps it was to that he attributed the park’s extra-sleepy calm.

The school was gated, dark, abandoned. It wasn’t that we were that incredibly exceptionally early. PS 75 opened to feed children breakfast hours before classes began.  My father cast about for someone to flag, someone to ask. There weren’t many pedestrians on 95th street, and those few there were didn’t want flagging. We walked east to Broadway, me frantic about my birthday, my father frenetic with inexplicable school closure.

Broadway had better foot traffic, but my father was beyond impeding the peasants passing, preferring a vegetable stand beneath the scaffolding ubiquitous since a falling façade-stone brained a Columbia co-ed.  He dragged me past the stacked cucumbers and apples by my wrist, his shopping bags of bagels in his other hand before him like the swinging anchor on a warship’s prow in chop, and, as I would observe every time after that he accosted strangers for information, assumed a charm whose character I still can’t quite qualify but that it was completely out of keeping with his internal disorder, in order to petition man at the till. And thus we learned that it was Columbus Day: Schools were closed. Banks were closed. The post office was closed. The federal government was closed. Columbus Day!

Columbus Day!

He was supposed to walk to his office after dropping me off. He had all these bagels. Since when had schools closed on Columbus Day anyway? And, besides wasn’t Columbus Day the 12th?

To my father’s credit, Columbus Day, celebrated, had only been unpegged from October 12 and moved to the second Monday of October a decade earlier, in 1970; and, apparently the holiday didn’t impact my father’s research and teaching schedule.

October 13, by all rights, ought to be reserved for the commemoration of the formation of the US Navy, which prefigured my inception by 199 years.

My parents said that we could have the birthday party the next day, that we’d bring the bagels back. But we didn’t. I’m probably the only kid in the history of the world to have been bummed out about having his birthday off from school, but I wanted a birthday party damn it, and my birthday was replaced by Columbus Day.

My birthday had been replaced by Columbus Day because in 1970 fidelity to a 478-year antecedent was replaced by the utility of a guaranteed three-day-weekend roughly equidistant between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

 

*** I feel that failing to acknowledge the problematic nature of Columbus as ‘discoverer’ of the ‘New World’ threatens to derail my objecting, exclaiming, rightfully outraged readers – yes, I mean you, all three of you, though that you’ve bothered to engage this thus far requires that I pretend your act is one anyone would undertake, and that there are at least four readers; pretend that my diminutive quantification of your numbers, if any, is simply self-deprecatory humor – I expect this derailment especially much as this is an essay about replacement, and what replacement carries higher stakes than that of one people by another? And I do mean replacement, not displacement or repurposing or absorption or some other feeble word implying the persistence of a precursor original. Addressing the problematic nature of Columbus Day would also derail this writing, the construction of the essay itself, and I’m selfish enough to say that the theft of my sixth birthday is enough for me to suffer for Columbus Day, observed. If anything, this is an attempt to replace Columbus Day with the injustice of my purloined bagel party. I could have been…I don’t know what I could have been, had I only had that party: probably just the kid who distributed bagels instead of cake. ***

I’ve been struggling with theories of mimesis for the last several years. Mostly, I just like saying that at cocktail parties. Mostly, mostly, I just like qualifying topics and knowledge as cocktail party material, mostly to my students. Cocktail-parties, like singles-bars, is a fun-to-use term for a thing I at once imagine anachronistic; and yet these are also likely exactly the parties I go to and the bars I frequent. When I say “I struggle with mimesis, theories of,“ at bars or parties, one of two things happens:

  1. The rarer circumstance is that my fellow conversationalist has a theory of mimesis, into which said fellow immediately launches, no doubt as a merciful act meant to alleviate the suffering inevitably consequent to struggle.  He doesn’t struggle; I do; he can offer me his peace, his confidence, his reconciliation with mimesis, theorized, theoretical, whatever. It’s generous of him, damn it. It’s magnanimous.
  2. The more common response is that my fellows made captive nod and fiddle with their beverages. In this more common circumstance, I then begin explaining mimesis, and how it’s the theory of representation furthered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic in which everything exists first as an ideal form, the truth of which can never quite be matched by the manifestation of that ideal, and how this understanding is mostly useful when it comes to art and poetics. If I’m really on my hobby horse, I’ll explain how the chair a carpenter makes is a mimesis, and Socrates viewed the painting of that chair as the mimesis of a mimesis, or a representation of a manifestation, merely imitation, and thus really far from the truth, originality, genius, etcetera, embodied in the ideal. I suspect that the dutiful (trapped) audiences of these diatribes never quite abandon the notion that mimesis is some kind of recurrent venereal disease.

*** Mimesis, when theorized, and when that theorizing proves a source of moral unease to its practitioner, is almost certainly evidence of malvenereality. Malvenereality is a kind of new word for which I’ve coined the neologism, neomalopropogism.  The fourth syllable of neologism is no accident. ***

At stake in my struggle with mimesis is this: if, as the postmoderns seem to claim, mimesis is ultimately without agency to effect change, or, if anything, its agency was always contained in the subjectivity of its audience, if, really, nothing actually matters, then why do people get so freaking worked up about art? Why do they get worked up about art they find inadequate as well as art they find offensive? What could possibly be at stake in ‘selling out?’ If art is arbitrary, then why does it matter? If the big toe is the same as Rembrandt, why doesn’t Georges write about Rembrandt? Why does Kristeva’s privileging of the abject matter if everything is abject and nothing is abject?

In a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, the Glanton Gang is camped in sandstone desert surrounded by petroglyphs, thousands-years-old rock art etched by long-disappeared peoples native to the American Southwest’s canyons. The Judge carefully sketches the best of these in his notebook, and then scratches the originals off of the rock. The Kid asks The Judge what he’s doing, and The Judge tells him that now no one else can experience them, that he’s taken them for himself. But The Judge has also tremendously changed the mode and character of the experience of the etchings.

 

I think that throughout the book, by using the figurative language of poetics in his descriptions of violence, McCarthy is arguing for a theory of Mimesis organized not around representation, but replacement, and the Judge’s act is his baring of this claim. By this measure, the petroglyphs replace the long eradicated peoples and gods and harvests and game that they portray. The Judge’s sketches replace the petroglyphs. McCarthy’s book replaces the Judge and his sketches and the etches etched into and out of the stone. Certainly, the novel replaces the historical Glanton Gang, the unsettled interior west between Civil War and bison slaughter, the west of filibustering deployed and returned back above the border.

But this replacement, all replacement, mimesis wholesale, is not an equal mirroring. It is a substitution dependent upon erasure. It is appropriation. It is eradication in the interest of building something new. It’s pod people. It’s changelings cradled, children long spirited from their cribs.

 

*** So maybe Derrida’s idea of the “trace” is not completely different than what I’m saying, in that the mimetic act, as its own signified, carries the trace of any other signifier pointing back at it, so that replacement is not absolute, but contaminated by the original, and the original, even if able to overwhelm its would-be replacement, is tainted by it. ***

 

In her essay “No-Man’s-Land,” Eula Biss claims that the term pioneer embeds in it the greatest mistake we of the Americas ever made as a people: that of treating as uninhabited inhabited land. Perhaps experience is always an inhabited land; its discoverers always false pioneers. Perhaps every act of mimesis is a land grab, a willful refusal to acknowledge that the expanse of experience is a plain already subdivided, collaboratively opened, purposed, precious, potential.

Perhaps we ought to realize that every narration is a development that no matter how pure, noble, or necessary is also consuming, erasing, replacing, is the ravaging, would-be ubermenschen of a Nietzschean exertion of will.

It’s time we acknowledge that whatever our theory of mimesis, we must, as would Socrates, remember that it applies not only to how we represent the world in art, but what we make of the world with ourselves, that there really is no barrier between expression, representation, creation, culture and life, that every discovery is actually an appropriation, and every appropriation precludes a different usage, reserves for some what others might otherwise use.

If we had not made of Columbus Day a convenient midway recess in the fall season, something else might well have been done with that date. Perhaps we could cease to treat it as a celebration and instead commemorate the horrors wrought by that ‘discovery.’ Perhaps not. We can never now know anymore than I can assert what shift in the universe the provision of bagels to Ms. Fruitkin’s combined second and first grades might have made.  And I feel petty demanding that this writing replace my jilted sixth birthday, but I’d be lying if I denied I want that reparation, and that in the interest of that recompense, I’m willing to risk whatever else this essay might erase.

Self-Portrait; Questionnaire–Marcia Aldrich

What category do your dreams fall into?

  1. Car Troubles
  2. Faulty Machinery
  3. Trapped
  4. Being Chased
  5. Falling

If you chose being trapped, where were you trapped?

  1. In a closet in the library of your elementary school
  2. In a corn combine on your neighbor’s farm
  3. Under the weight of the neighbor boy
  4. The ice on the river above you
  5. Behind the doors of the yellow school bus that wouldn’t open

 What do you dislike about your current job?

  1. The pay
  2. The hours
  3. The people
  4. The workplace
  5. The work
  6. All of the above

 How do you cope?

  1. Dancing when the local football team loses
  2. Yelling at strangers in the car
  3. Going ten miles slower than the speed limit
  4. Reading about extinct species
  5. Putting chewing gum on walls and under seats
  6. All of the above

 What is your least favorite activity?

  1. Yard work
  2. Meetings
  3. Paying Bills
  4. Cleaning the gutters
  5. Overseeing children’s’ homework
  6. Filling out annual reports

 What word describes your view of mankind at this point in your life?

  1. Joyful
  2. Enlightened
  3. Robotic
  4. Bankrupt
  5. Whiney
  6. Trapped

 What issue most concerns you?

  1. Your children’s future
  2. The state of the economy
  3. Yard waste
  4. The local football franchise
  5. Hair loss
  6. The disappearance of bees

 If you had it to do over again, what describes your attitude about having children?

  1. I’d have more
  2. I’d have exactly what I have
  3. I wouldn’t have any
  4. I’d have some for others
  5. I’d adopt

 If you have a partner, what noun describes your current feelings for them?

  1. Admiration
  2. Resignation
  3. Indifference
  4. Hostility
  5. Suspicion
  6. All of the above

 At what point did your feelings change for your partner, if they did?

  1. Shortly after the start
  2. After the first child
  3. After the second child
  4. Recently
  5. Before you began
  6. All of the above

 For Christmas, which would you prefer to receive?

  1. Scrooge Mini-Nutcracker
  2. Bavarian Santa Nutcracker
  3. The Bob Cratchit Nutcracker
  4. An animated Musical Toy Chest playing Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

 Which of the following wouldn’t you like to receive?

  1. The Horticultural Institute’s Tiered Floral Display
  2. Handmade Kathe Kruse Margretchen Doll
  3. A policeman’s megaphone
  4. The Lorenzi Cigar Rest with Continuous Burning Wick

 Which of the following objects suggests your essence?

  1. Cordless insect vacuum
  2. Body fat analyzer
  3. Step-on garbage pail
  4. Long-reach bulb changer
  5. Stop mud in its tracks slippers
  6. Washable leather potholders
  7. Chinese rickshaw

 How would you describe your experience taking this questionnaire?

  1. Comfortable, like being reunited with the cherries in a Shirley Temple you drank at the bar as a girl
  2. Excited, like seeing a strange new butterfly
  3. Expectant, like when you see a kiss quivering inside your partner
  4. Bored, like picking up ticket stubs in an empty movie theater
  5. Angry, like seeing the plucked neck of a slaughtered hen
  6. Sad, like reading an obituary of someone you once loved