Entanglements

My hair
gets so knotted I snip off each little rat’s nest, in order
to drag a brush through it and make myself look presentable. I don’t
regret my expedient solution, the quick snip, though I do admonish
myself for my carelessness in letting my hair knot-up. See, I don’t
often brush my hair. Most of the time because I don’t think I look good
when I’m too tidy, but also because I don’t always own a brush. Well,
I own a brush, but I can’t often find it, or I don’t remember to look
for it, which is pretty much the same as not owning something. I know
a woman who brushes her hair throughout the day, who prefers to look
sleek, in a way I never could. I had a roommate in college who demanded
I brush my hair; she had been a ballerina and could not bear to look
at my messy head. I wonder what she would say if she knew I have begun
to snip away the knots instead of worrying them into submission.

My mother
worked Tame into my tangles as I lay back on the kitchen counter;
she preferred to deal with my squirms and screams without bending over.
I read lately that DNA knots very easily and there are scientists bent
over their microscopes all around the world trying to untangle strands
with minute tweezers. I suppose DNA always did this thing and I can’t
remember why this, like so many other experiments, is a useful discovery.
Unlike hair, DNA, after being snipped, can be reconnected by enzyme and this
discovery, I understand, can modify humanity, but not yet, because a strand
of DNA is so very tiny and the science is still so inexact, that it would
be a crime to cause a problem in our rush to solve a problem.

Trivially,
I know I would be shocked to find I had reached behind my head and snipped
the wrong section of hair. Still, I think of it as perverse progress:
instead of preserving my hair, I consider it expendable. I’m sure
there are women who guard each strand as though spun gold. And those
who despise their hair, battling course curls like razor wire. But
for me, it’s just expeditious to snip the knots free from my head. Most
of the time, the tangles were hidden anyway, so a shorter section isn’t
noticeable unless I tie my hair up and a small hank refuses to be bound.
Then I look like a mess, which I suppose, is how I prefer it. Maybe
I would simply look foreign to myself, like I was wearing some sham
wig of orderliness on my head after years of unruliness, just like
bodies adapt to a curvature of the spine or uneven breasts.

After all,
once you pass middle age, there isn’t much you can do about your deficits.
The trick is to find peace between what is and what can be. Sure,
I could shear off my hair, and never again deal with a single knot, but
that type of discomfiting exposure is best left for when chemotherapy demands
it. Breast cancer seems a looming threat for all women even when it isn’t.
Intrepidly, I search for knotty tumors with my fingertips like we were taught
and each time I am sad to think of how my breasts have become my enemy,
how what was sensual has become medical. I tell myself it won’t matter
if I lose my breasts, whether through disfigurement or mastectomy
or even skillful reconstruction (after all, they will no longer be mine),
because breasts have become expendable in an attempt to nip cancer in the bud,
or even beautify.

When I was younger,
I used to take a hunk of fat and skin from under my arm
or between my thighs and think, “If I could only have this cut off….”
I don’t know what the end of that sentence was, but I wasn’t concerned
about the scarring, the pain of a knifed assault. I simply wanted
some of myself gone, what I deemed the offending extra me. I know a woman
who powered through weight loss and had her excess skin tucked, trimmed.
It’s dangerous and uncomfortable to have fat-less flesh just hanging around.
While there is certainly more of me than I would like, it seems a crime
to wish to be less than I am. After all, it’s possible I will cease to exist
at all if I forget to look both ways when I cross the street, or if my own DNA
goes rogue and cancer moves through me fast and quick.

Maybe nothing
is expendable, because bodies, like memories, are slippery, and we should
be cautious when trying to shed ourselves willingly. I read about a woman
covered in tattoos, who refuted the usual admonitions that she would regret
having compromised her skin, saying she would not be alive forever,
so why preserve flesh that would eventually rot? It’s a knotty argument,
for sure, but I appreciate her banking on the possibility of regret
as less weighty than a willingness to tangle with it’s possibility.

Triptych

I

I brought a box of Crunch n Munch
to my mother’s hospital bedside,
like a match at a vigil,
like a knife to a gun fight.
I ate the whole box, and got
my first pimple the next day.

II

My mother did not live long
enough for me to tell her
about my first period. I
was nearly 13 and she
had been dead a year.
But once I’d pricked my finger
with a pin, and showed her
the faint smear of blood I wiped
on my underwear, so we had that.

III

My first kiss came years later
from a homely 25-year-old man
who later gave me a cheap name bracelet
for my 16th birthday.  He
was a deliberation, but she would
have known he was a sin.

Tidy

If you were to run your finger along the length
of my longest scar, you would journey hip to knee.
Nerves long dead, I would not feel the rasp
of your fingertip, dry from cold weather work
and nibbling at your nail. Still, the smooth
topography would mislead you. Beneath the knifed line,
years of scars were scalpeled and stitched
back into my thigh, hidden like the wrong body
in the right grave, like a letter read and refolded,
secrets slipped back into its tidy envelope, saved
for a day when the pain of revelation is less
than the thrill of remembering. I never said I wanted
a body absent of life lines and wrinkles, but I regret
that I cannot show you what you will never see.

Resonance

Tonight I trolled the internet for other words,
like a fisherman certain a raw hunk of steak
will hook the big one. But I too came up empty,
dangling words like worms from my fingertips:

uncertainty, loss, ambiguity

No poem or pithy quote could contain
within its words the violent mass of feeling
that tangles in my throat like filament, fine but tensile,
and unlikely to unravel in my drunk-fingered fiddling.

So I returned to the blank page and listened
into its cool pool of soundless sonic shush
for the thudding, budding beat of my own small life
surfacing, sharp as a fin flicks through water.

Why Obama and Amazon are Wrong: a Critique of Fates and Furies

I’m a pusher. I admit it. Every time Fates and Furies comes up in conversation, I push people to read it. I plead, “Please, won’t someone read the book so that I can argue with you about whether or not it’s as bad as I think it is?” My friends tell me this is not a very convincing argument. But really, I’m flummoxed. Perplexed. President Obama named Fates and Furies his favorite book of 2015. That just weirds me out. And Amazon, well. That company’s choices rarely make sense to me in the bigger business picture (brick-and-mortar in 2015, really?), but I would have bet they’d have chosen Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me since they have gone with more general fiction by women authors for the past several years. (2012: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, 2013: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) I’m not a prognosticator of any talent though. But generally speaking, I believe I’m a capable reader of text, and the greater context within which a book sits. And for that reason, I’m going to come out, despite feeling like a voice in the wilderness, and say it: I really disliked Fates and Furies.

When I have found someone to argue with about the book, I’ve often heard fandom of Ms. Groff herself used as the first line of defense. Arcadia, they say, was so good! I’ll admit that I have not read any of Ms. Groff’s previous books, so I had no expectations one way or another. I was just really excited to read it because the hype that preceded its release date put the book squarely in my scope: an investigation of two-sides of a marriage, while not all is as it seems. Sounded just about right. I generally prefer my fiction as introspective rather than gallivanting, academic versus overwrought. I put it on my wishlist.

Unfortunately, what I read was just another story about a woman assumed to be a Madonna, but exposed to be a Whore. More disappointingly because it was written by a woman. Yes, I’m bringing psychoanalysis and sexual politics into the discussion, but for a book that concerns itself with mythology and sex work and male and female stereotypes, it’s essential. I read a headline on NPR.org article about the book that explains Groff wanted to investigate “feminine rage” and that she wanted to create a character who was not done in by her anger, and certainly it’s important to respect an author’s intention, but I don’t see the through-line with the execution. The perplexing thing is, the character of Mathilde may not disintegrate in the face of her anger, but she is certainly gravely punished.  A tale as old as time, and a patriarchal one that only reveals Mathilde to be guilty rather than evolved.

(SPOILERS BELOW)


 

Part 1: Fates

And, for the most part, Groff had me as a willing passenger through the first half of the trip. Sure, Lotto was a bit of a preening cock, but not an empty-headed one. He loved his wife, he loved his life. So much in his life was accidental, or as Groff would categorize, fated. He rode each wave, using his physical stature and confidence and openness to protect his vulnerabilities. From the outside at least, he was the epitome of success, even after an accident hobbles him. Certainly some of his relationships went foul (his mother, his previous girlfriends) in the wake of his relationship with Mathilde and with his own fame (the two being intertwined) but in general he was unvexed by life up until the end of it, which comes early, and is darkened with a lie. He is told his wife has had an affair during their marriage; he dies believing that.

Part II: Furies

The novel is being celebrated for showing two perspectives of the same relationship, but that assessment seems like not much more than assimilated jacket-copy to me. The two sections could just as well have been two novels as the stories they tell are unsuccessfully integrated. (So much so that I doubted my own reading of the book, and had I liked it more, I’d challenge myself to read it again.) Likely there is context hidden within the retelling of Lotto’s plays, or his possible/potential bi-sexual relationship, that, if I were a closer reader, would hint at Mathilde’s true behavior or character (not always the same), but I saw the distinct separateness of the two stories are more stylistically empty than revealing.

More importantly, I believe the valid questioning that should be happening in regards to Mathilde’s character is ignored in favor of sensationalism. Readers seem titillatingly pleased that there is a complex, dark, and dirty woman behind a so-called great man. They liken Mathilde with the character of Amy in Gone Girl, though I think that’s likely only because we are unaccustomed to reading about darkly-complex women characters. But Mathilde isn’t some kind of feminist hero. Or avenging angel. Or even…a woman with her own story. She is the manifestation of the author’s, likely inadvertent, or I’d like to believe, adherence to the patriarchal Madonna/Whore vision of women.

So let me be clear: I’m not at all concerned about Mathilde’s choices. I’m not prudishly responding to her decision to pay for college with sex work. And I have no problem with her hiding that from a husband who willfully (I don’t doubt) chose to see Mathilde as his Madonna with a Mona Lisa smile. Nor do I fault her for searching out random fucks to deal with her grief. The issue I have is not with Mathilde–it’s with the consequences as Groff writes them.

Instead of a woman empowered, or even a secret, seedy life exposed, I see the story of a  woman who is punished for her choices, for what she does in pursuit of the progress of her self. Sure, it’s possible to just read her as a predator. After all, she may truly have killed her baby brother, competition for the affection of her parents. But that could the false story of an unreliable narrator. Hard to tell, though however you decide to interpret that early event in her life may determine how you process the rest of her story. If you believe she did that, then perhaps she deserves her comeuppance. But if so, then why even waste time with Lotto’s story? (Unless we are to believe she killed him? Again, perhaps there is something hidden in the myths that his plays are based on that would point me in the right direction if I did a second close reading.) Or maybe we see her as being unjustly blamed, and the adults in her life treating her as an inconvenience at best. Still, I don’t see how any of those interpretations change our understanding of her story as it progresses to its end.

Here is what we know of Mathilde. In order to save her own life, she used her body as collateral. To put herself through school, she accepted her part in a relationship in which she was made to crawl across the floor for the pleasure of a powerful man. In the traditional sense of the word, she “whores” herself out. It’s not like she was ‘just’ a happily kept woman. Though she did regain some power once he fell for her, and she left when she had fulfilled her contract, how was she repaid for completing this business relationship? The gallery owner gets his revenge in the end, telling Lotto a different version of the what’s and when’s of his relationship with Mathilde that crushes Lotto’s (our hero!) illusions about his Madonna wife. Lotto dies believing her to be a whore. Yet, his death is so insignificant we barely even pause for a moment of silence before we’re on to Mathilde’s rollicking response.

We learn that Mathilde has been sacrificing her own talents, or rather, rerouted them, to bolster Lotto’s successes and profile. She has revised his work. She has pulled strings. She has manipulated the world to better succor his fears and insecurities. She has used her talents for compartmentalizing her two selves to create a bubble of certainty for Lotto. And to what result? Yes, she gets to live, in effect, the high life. She is a success because he is a success. And when he dies? What is she left with? While mourning for her love (I don’t think it’s a question that she loved him and he loved her) she is also mourning for that part of herself that died with him. The part of herself that she had infused into his life. The loss causes her to launch herself on a pursuit of physical connection and assault to either embody the pain she feels in her heart or to fill the loss of her purpose. These pickups ultimately lead her into a brief incestuous consort with a mini-Lotto that ends with her being robbed of the one last thing she had left of the successful life she and Lotto had created together.


 

I’m not asking for Fates and Furies to be a different book. I’m not criticizing Groff for the decisions she made, because the tale, even if I’m unsatisfied with the undercurrent, is hers to tell. I can gripe about the feeling that the two parts of the story weren’t integrated enough (i.e., I wanted more hints to Mathilde’s true character in the first section, even if we were blind to them, so the reveal didn’t feel so unfounded in the second half.) But perhaps that was part of the point: Mathilde did such a good job of hiding her true self that no one could have known. I can also laud that which I think Groff did remarkably. While I found the writing to be somewhat stylistically deliberate, she is no doubt a great writer who was working with an extremely ambitious agenda. Just Lotto’s mother as mermaid/siren made flesh–selfless or dangerous?–lures me into thinking there is so much more to this book than can possibly be captured on first reading.

Unfortunately, I’ll likely never delve back into Fates and Furies because instead of being multi-faceted and intriguing, Lotto and Mathilde’s story is an anticlimactic one that disappoints rather than invigorates. And it troubles me as to why smart readers like Obama or the editors at Amazon willfully neglect  and instead celebrate the tired revelation of Mathilde’s character–both in suffering and in assertive self-reliance–as just another version of a patriarchal trope.

 

 

To Be Adored

We are told, all through our lives
that there is something else
to be attained. Our mothers say
we should be polite. Our fathers say
we should cut our bangs. Our friends say
we should be cool. Cool
like them, but not like them.
Our boyfriend tells us not
to tell anyone he is our boyfriend.
Our professor tells us to emulate,
not plagiarize. We tell ourselves
to wait for the day when we might be
the person we were always
meant to be. What would happen should we
be adored from that first moment,
like we are still babies with tender
cheeks and soothed cries, touched
like a wonder of nature, to be understood
like a mystery never to be solved?

This is Nothing New

I want so much to believe
there is someone else who feels
the feeling of wanting

to run full-bore into a brick wall
take an ear-ringing strike to the skull,
the sting into the skin.

I want so much to tell you
how it feels to be overrun, no, subsumed,
by the rabid emptiness

of feeling and also feeling nothing.