Slant

Lightning Rods

Truth or Consequences. All photos: Ariana Reines.

IT’S THE SEASON OF FIRE, but you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s the season of electric, abyssal love, but you know that too. Since the sun’s ingress into Scorpio hit the Promethean lightning of the New Moon opposite Uranus in Taurus, the pit has opened, and the yawning abyss of true democracy beckons like a confusing form of lust. You can feel it pulling on you, like gravity itself. As things collapse we will be able to right some things while others, like what has happened—for now—to the bright career of Katie Hill, will be temporarily, and apparently, very wrong.

Imagine yourself as Alice. You are Alice in Wonderland, or Alice Notley in Paris, or Ellen Burstyn as the Alice who forever Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and you are falling down the rabbit hole, and every person alive in the world is hurtling down and down with you. We are rocketing toward an end we cannot see and have been falling and falling for so long that eventually we have become so accustomed to our velocity we scarcely perceive we are moving at all.

But now is the season when, if we are lucky, we can feel it. I want you to feel it. The Fall is a really great band, an Edenic idea that haunts the Western mind, and something you can learn to do with grace. Fall with me. We might as well decide to do it together, since we are in fact already doing it together. All manner of collapses are in the offing, some welcome and some dismaying, but the massive undifferentiated energy they release can be used as a medium: it is to each of us to gather up and harness as much as we can carry. We can do this.

The conflagration of foliage and wildfires announcing the death of the year like a flaming ghat has a different pitch as 2019 surges toward the end—and now all the old poems of autumn, and all the suicidal Scorpio poets of yesteryear—seem to have something to tell us about more than just the death of a season. The prophets of apocalypse in the old books, the announcers of Kali Ma’s return—I seem to hear them all in a new light. Maybe autumn has always been a school for the end of the world.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.


“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Artist: Helen Keller.

2.

My father and I haven’t been able to talk for more than twenty years. We both made a bit of an effort when I was in my early twenties, but ever since I stopped talking to him in seventh grade, a reciprocal loathing and foreclosure has grown up between us.

My mom told me a few years ago that he raped her before they got married, and though my mom is paranoid-schizophrenic and says many things that aren’t true, my body kind of seized around this revelation. It just went all the way through me. I’ll never know if he really raped her or if the misery between them was more diffuse and social, but when she told me what she told me it shot through my body like lightning. It felt real, and here I’m quoting Sylvia. I remember feeling that if it were true it would explain why I was sometimes overwhelmed by grief and confusion when he tried to be kind to me, why in particular instances that he attempted specific kindness with me made me burst into tears, the way some kids cry at the sight of clowns.

If he really had done what my mother said he did, it could explain, I thought, why I was resistant even to let him make of me an object of praise. If I got an A on an essay, it hurt me to have him read it. I didn’t want him to hear me play the piano or see me dance. I don’t know why. Are all teenagers like this? It made me feel strange, and horrible. The thought of making him proud made me feel strange and horrible. 

Later, my feelings changed and I wondered what it would feel like to have a father who believed in me. I had pursued relationships with variously dangerous and doomed people, and it was not lost on me that this is something badly fathered women often do. I had moreover accustomed myself to an idea that all artists had had to defy their families, but the more successful people I met as I moved through the world, the more I realized that this simply wasn’t true. People who flourish with longevity tend to know something about how to maintain relationships. I’m not saying they don’t struggle with it—I’m not saying everybody doesn’t struggle with it—but most of the courageous and heroic people I know are the products of wholesome and relatively decent upbringings. 

By the time I sought to repair my relationship with my dad in earnest, at the end of college, it was too late. He couldn’t seem to bear to see me flourish; he took it as an insult, and so I grimly did away with any desire for his praise. I closed down the shop, repressed the instinct, and set about the pursuit of adulthood as though I were an orphan, and free. It has been many years since my father had any praise for me, and many years more since the seeking of such praise could be at all becoming on my part. 

Still, every autumn, something strange and somatic happens in my body. The only way I can describe it to you is: My body prepares itself to not be loved. It doesn’t matter who actually loves me or how close I feel to my lover. It is a matter of the people who made me, who don’t ask after me, or seem to care that I was ever born. My body prepares itself for a lack of witness and an absence of acclaim, and this is something it does physically, and something I only realized one year ago it has been doing these long years. It is like driving beside the ocean at night. You cannot see it, but it is there.

3.

I have to write you about the Pittsburgh massacre and what the year since it happened has taught me about the silence in my family, and about what Jews in general might have lost (and gained) in our assimilation into American whiteness. But I don’t know if I yet have the skill to write you these things. I wanted to talk about the silence and loathing in my family, and the perpetuation of trauma these grudges have ensured, which I recognized in horror a year ago, for the very first time, as perhaps a consequence of the horror and slaughter we have survived. I wanted to come out to you, in some sense, as a full Jew and not the one I burlesque inside myself and in my poems, even though the religion I practice probably has no name. I wanted to think about passing, and the psychoses of passing, and the consequences of it. And I wanted to wonder about New Age and other futures for old-time religion, and about what good it can possibly do to seek to live in reality even though another person’s unreality can always kill you.

Medicine stupa in Truth or Consequences, NM.

4.

I was born in Salem, Massachusetts, but am not here to tell you witchcraft is merely good. I practice astrology but I am not here to let that make even me feel safe. I am here to see if I can burn with you a little, I am here to see if I can burn for you, in the name of old-time religion. At new moon week the blood flows silently out of me and the only name for that is fury. Oh it happens quietly, but don’t let that fool you. The flow makes my heartbeat so strong it shakes my shirt. This is a Scorpionic experience, for it is a matter of immense subterranean force, which can withstand eons of silence and obfuscation, and which can endure any form of violence or disfigurement. It’s the force of creation itself, which beats out metronomically against the walls of the womb. What if autumn were the menses of the planet, the fire-colored and ferrous shedding of the uterine wall and the dizzying confrontation with what we can never wholly accustom ourselves to—that all things must pass? I can physically feel my dead ancestors at my back. I feel them in the form of heat and electricity. I feel them at the base of my brain, like the concupiscent curds in the Wallace Stevens poem. They almost itch like sperm trying to impregnate your belly or leg, and don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean: the nanoparticulate of my dead are furiouds goads; they hiss like germs and scream like banshees, it has taken years for me to get used to them and everything they want, and years to learn the skill to tell them that I am the one with a body, that I am the one who comes first.

5.

This time last year I was in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, finishing a book.

My birthday had come and gone with the usual parental silence. I had spent it with friends as I had wished to, was deep in the book I was finishing, and realized with some pride that I may have finally and fully vanquished even the most vestigial of my familial sorrows: my mother was too insane ever to really know who I was, my dad was just never going to care, and that was that. I drew exhilaration from leveling with these facts. I no longer felt any longing. I was free.

There are many things that could be said of New Mexico, its unique magic, its particular form of colonialism, the timeless presence of the sins and charms of Old Mexico and the Old West. One thing less frequently said about the place—one thing that is also true about it—is that women, all kinds of women who have never had enough space, mental or physical, have made their way there to figure out a different way of doing things. It is a place for the reversal of fortunes, rough wisdom, and abiding kindness.

I had found a cheap motel run by benevolent lesbians, down the street from the best hot springs in town, and around the corner from a medicine stupa. The healing waters were full of minerals, including a nice amount of lithium, making it an excellent solvent for grief and pain. And the young reincarnation of the great Buddhist sage Kalu Rinpoche, was coming to town. I was to have help in my difficult work.

I love writing in motels, walking thru ghost towns and talking to strangers. I love rolling up in a strange place with good clothes to wear and an absorbing secret in which to immerse myself. I was in a good mood.

I learned of the Pittsburgh massacre from a friend on the morning of October 28. I had unwittingly crashed a wedding afterparty; the celebrants were charismatic banjo-playing, guitar-picking botanists and ranchers; it was surreal. The fact of the massacre, which I had received from the human mouth of someone I know and trust and not via the usual channels in my device, took some time to thoroughly penetrate. I am as used to learning about massacres as you are. I am as inured to catastrophe as anyone. The news of this particular killing glanced off my carapace. But over the next few days it started to turn in me like a seed. I noticed I was mourning. All I had to give the news was time. I made an oblation of my time.

I had accepted that my family wasn’t going to call me on my birthday, but there was something about the fact that nobody in my pogrom-refugee and Holocaust survivor family called, not a single person, after the worst killing of Jews in this country, that really set my blood on edge.

As a leftist queer Jew with a large, charismatic, and disagreeable family, I had grown accustomed to certain cruel ironies. I had accepted, for example, that the state of Israel would remain a continual source of heartbreak and shame, into which would occasionally be mixed a certain jingoistic longing. I had moreover grown familiar with the shape of my particular career as a poet, and the fact that I probably would not be a poet at all had my family been a little happier, had we had any clue how to communicate. My Judaism was not Shabbat meals, Jdate, and principled activism. Mine was the Holocaust, the confinement of family members in mental hospitals and jails, and the outer limits of visionary speech. 

But when that killer murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life, he did something Jewish to me he cannot possibly have calculated.

Shalom Y’all.

6.

My father and I are not the only poles in my family between which silence reigns. I have an uncle who hasn’t spoken to my paternal grandmother in decades. On my mother’s side, my grandmother and her sister, both of whom survived the Holocaust in Poland, thoroughly loathed each other and seldom spoke for most of their adult lives. My mother does not speak to her brother and he likewise does not speak to her. I have many cousins and nieces and nephews whom I don’t know, because the mysterious and at this point almost mystical acrimony between me and my dad has made it awkward to know the other people in my family. When I left his house at seventeen for college, I also let go of contact with my half-sisters, who were under ten at the time. I did not want my disagreement with our dad to interfere with their love for him. What made me so scrupulous? What has made me so willing to tolerate, prepare for, and live through the experience of love rotting, neither given nor received? These many years I have taught myself that my family rejected me, never thinking of the silence on my side, of my complicity in the perpetuation of nothingness. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Bad things grow in malevolent emptiness.

7.

Robert Bowers murdered Joyce Feinberg and Richard Gottfried and Rose Mallinger and Jerry Rabinowitz and Cecil Rosenthal and David Rosenthal and Bernice Simon and Sylvan Simon and Daniel Stein and Melvin Wax and Irving Younger with an AR-15, the gun that always makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud, because it shares his initials and because Rimbaud was shot by Verlaine and later sold guns. What the AR-15 has come to stand for in my world is the danger of an adolescence that fails to find its poetry. That can only mature into the world as a bringer of death.

My family only exists in the United States because our grandparents got pogromed out of Lithuania and Holocausted out of Poland. I am the offspring of refugees. My grandmother’s husband and parents and siblings were murdered by the state in the country where they had been born. She never got over it, and neither did her daughter, my mother.

Some silences, wrote Avital Ronell, are rigorous. The wasteland grows, wrote Hölderlin. Why had I taught myself I did not need (but also did not deserve) my family’s love? And why had I taught myself not to give them mine? We had voluntarily abdicated decades of contact. No killer had forced us to do that, at least not directly. We did that ourselves.

Luckily for those of us among the living, we’re all going to be killed for it one way or another. Might as well find out who and what we really are. There’s a wisdom and a fierce love provoked by atrocity that the more privileged classes lack. Worse shofar blasts than the Tree of Life have gathered Jews back into the flame of the law. My father’s family taught themselves to be white, and silent, and enjoy their privilege, and they left my mother to rot, and blamed my brother and me for our maladaptive attachment to her. But there are so many ways, as much as I’ve rebelled, that I have fallen into this complicity too. There are deep reasons, and not just superficial anxieties, that make me feel alienated from what it would be to really be a Jew. I’d like to do better by my inheritance. It seems to me that one of the mysteries of old-time religion is the way it hurts. As the Aquarian age gets underway, I suspect the ancient ways will not so easily be brushed aside. Because part of who we are, we who live, is blood. I think this must necessarily remain uncomfortable: I know the fascist eugenics of blood, and that is not where I want to go. I want to say: It is good to know where you come from. I want to say: People who survive unimaginable things innovate strange ways to preserve the memory of horror. I want to say: In all our yearning to overcome and leave behind our hells, what new forms of blankness and deadness do we generate? I want to blame it all on my father, but it really isn’t all his fault.

Ariana Reines is a poet and astrologer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her newest book, A Sand Book, was longlisted for the National Book Award.

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