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Travel Logged

The Kartlis Deda. Photo: Ariana Reines.

I WAS IN Gloucester, Massachusetts in June, finishing a book in the house where T.S. Eliot spent his childhood summers. I hadn’t been particularly in the mood to worship the dean of modernism, but rereading Four Quartets, especially after eating one or two psilocybin mushrooms, was arresting. You should try it.

I was researching the Yezidi religion for the penultimate section of my book. I kept circling around the 2014 massacre and mass enslavement of women by ISIS that took place on and around Mount Sinjar, because that was the time peacocks started showing up in my life, and because I’d met a random Army chemist in a bar in Albuquerque who had been there. Yezidi worship centers on the sun and a peacock angel, from what I understand. Even though the sun shows up in the world every day, its cultures & the forms under which it is and has been worshipped are surprisingly various. I’ve never been particularly attracted to peacocks, though David Rattray has a poem called “Mr. Peacock” that will give you shivers. Peacocks just started coming into my life, and because A SAND BOOK is as much about desertification as the idea of infinity, I just accepted that I’d follow those birds wherever they led me. Like the lurid rainbow slick on the surface of spilt oil, or the iridescent wings of a crow—there are infinities that hide in plain sight. I’ve been using this book to figure out out how to accept the impenetrable but also how to break it open.

In July I taught poetry in Tbilisi, a shimmering blonde city full of wine, casinos, flushed apricots, and handsome people with dark hair and red lips and high cheekbones. Georgia is a sovereign nation, but Georgians will tell you about a “creeping occupation” by Russian troops and Russian culture always there at the edge of their consciousness, their country. Stalin was a Georgian. The national epic is called The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. It was written by Shota Rustaveli in the twelfth century and it extols, among other things, the virtues of Georgia’s legendary female King Tamar. Yes, female king. High on a hill over Tbilisi stands the Kartlis Deda, a gigantic metal statue of a buxom crowned woman wielding a very big sword. I was told that the prehistoric Caucasus was matriarchal. “Caucasian” is very strange, a nauseating euphemism. Incidentally Jews have continuously inhabited Georgia for centuries. The country remains deeply multicultural and pluralistic, boasting many ethnic groups & a mosque, a synagogue, & Eastern Orthodox cathedral all in the same neighborhood.

Tbilisi is also home to a Yezidi temple, modeled on the sacred shrine at Lalish in Northern Iraq. It opened in 2014, on land gifted by the Georgian government. When I visited, I brought a gift of an oyster shell from the T.S. Eliot house back yard. I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere in my Yezidi books that the planet was created as a pearl that then broke into four pieces.

I didn’t sleep much in Tbilisi. My workshop was way overenrolled, I had a lot of astrology sessions booked, my lover was at a writing residency on Pacific Standard Time with a severe case of poison oak, and I was on 24-hour duty air traffic controlling my schizophrenic mom’s newfound homelessness. It was sunny and hot every day. They had me in the Boris Pasternak room. I slept every three days or so, took a lot of cold showers, did a lot of Kundalini yoga at dawn. The best catcall I got in Tblisi was from an MMA fighter: “I bet you do a lot of squats.” I don’t but I was tired enough to take it as a complement.

Next week I’m going to Norway for a festival and the Norwegian premiere of TELEPHONE, a play of mine from 2009. TELEPHONE was inspired by Avital Ronell’s masterpiece The Telephone Book. I resisted publishing the play for years because I was so focused on exploring durational performance and writing new books—it made me feel kind of superstitious even to think of putting out something I considered “finished.” But this fall the play will be published by Wonder and I’m actually excited about it. The Norwegian translation comes out this month too. It is so profoundly about audition—“spiritual audition,” to borrow Ronell’s phrase—and the entire third act takes place in near-darkness. I’ve always wanted to make opera, radio plays, and performances that happen in the dark. TELEPHONE let me do all of that.

While I was writing it I still had a flip phone. I only got my first Blackberry in 2009, from a boyfriend, and I couldn’t have managed the Guggenheim performance of a TELEPHONE spinoff without it. I loved writing poems with that Blackberry. Loved the buttons. The smooth surface of the iPhone used to freak me out. But now I know how much fun it is to fall in love over text—I think everyone does. The effortless interiority of it. I want to update the third act of TELEPHONE for our era, now that all the other technologies—video and still photography, the entire news media, all of social media, and of course old-fashioned, intimate text—have fully collapsed into it. It used to terrify me that I’ve probably touched my phone more than I’ve touched all the people in my life ever. I’m not sure why I’m no longer terrified by this fact.

Ariana Reines is a poet & playwright. She astrologizes at lazyeyehaver.com.

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