Slant

PURGATORY

Mermaid, Goddess of the Sea, artist unknown, Historical Museum of Crete, Heraklion, Greece.

You didn’t ask, but since

You didn’t, my body’s a brick

Of longing & sorrow, pure red

Blood beaming stars down

Down down into the center of the Earth

I said it WAS a brick, not that it is

LIKE one.  This one calls me Miss

Shaves his legs, shows me his cock in sheer

Black stockings, explains his intuitive

Desire to capitalize You when addressing

Me.  I feel a growing desire to worship

The Feminine, he says.  I do too

I answer, with a ruefulness I know he

Won’t detect.  I know its immensity

But I also know the shit and blood

Through which my body teaches

Me the majesty of this burden

Which I wonder if this new man

Will ever understand.  Beauty

Is the wage of pain.  I wanted

To write, Beauty WAS pain’s

Wage, the dilation of your every

Cell into an ocean, the Atlantic,

That knows human action made

Of it a grave, and all the fishes

And creatures know what we did,

The souls carried across in chains,

The souls who could not return home

Without first dropping to the very bottom

Of the water.  What if I told you

That’s what I feel when I bleed?

With my ex I had the same fight

A few different ways, early in our

Love.  I said I felt I was perhaps

Clinging jealously to my own pain,

To the way it monthly beats

Out metronomically and metonymically

My responsibility to everything in my own

Bloodline, the blood I let, my shame

Mixed with relief that yet another

Month has passed I did not fill up with child,

And my sense of belonging in the order of things,

Tidal, a schedule for all grief.

I told them, and it made them weep, and hurt

Them very badly, that this was womanhood

To me, the very bottom of it, the deepmost

And that without this rhythm, I wasn’t

Sure a person could know, really know

What it is.  What it is to be

A woman.

$%^/! said he loved me.  I was certain

That the fact he said it proves

He didn’t mean it.  Then of course

His life fell apart.  I want

To protect you he said.  I was certain

He was only able to say so because he can’t.

Do you want me to tell you what I loved?

That he would even say that at all.

That he would feel it and say so

Even as I saw right through it

A couple of days later in a place

I was sure he would not see me, that no

One would, I allowed myself to grieve it.

Nobody protects me.  The ones who

Tried bored me, infuriated me

The ones I loved

Our need for one another grew complacent

It’s four years now since I fell in love.

I saw something in your face said $%^/!.

This is an impossibly beautiful face,

He said, this is a face you did not show

Me downstairs.  You don’t get to choose

Who sees your secret face.  I mean, I guess

You get to choose who gets a chance.

Some people will stare and stare

Never knowing what is before them

Others, mesmerized by graven images

Stand stock still, the head bent

Over the glowing screen,

Nape of the neck open and revealed

For demonic entities to come and sup

Upon the soul, and suck the soul of you out

Through straws and vile probosci

And other lurid means.  Because

$%^/! had the gall to declare his

Love and I the machismo to reply,

Don’t worry, that one doesn’t count,

You blurted that out way too early, while

My body, innocent and adoring,

Rushed to bleed.  My tits swelled

Under his hands and stayed

Hard for days and every cell

In me filled up with a sort of sea

Maternal, exquisite lamentation

I can hardly stand

A roundness I fear

A lushness, a goodness, a willingness even

To die for love that frightens me.

“Trying to hold back the tide”

Was how I felt in the presence

Of Juliana and Manuel.

Stendhal syndrome.  It did not

Matter that I had no idea

Whether they needed me at all

Or that when they said come

To our bed and I said no,

It would not happen again.

I wanted to disappear into them.

I wanted to give them me.

Please believe me

It is seldom I feel this totally

I still don’t understand why I resisted 

Mine own self so mightily

With a couple I guess there’s always the fear

They have each other and will be done

With you, will drop you once you’ve made

Them happy.  For a woman like me

Who could never make her parents happy

Who had to find life without ever

Knowing their love as anything but

A distant memory, there’s no deeper

Ocean of promise than two people

Like that.  And anyway

I have never met any two people

Like that, apart from them.  I bet

Everyone they meet falls for them

The way I did.  But no one more deeply

Than me.  And no one fought

Her own disappearance into

Them, or longed for it  more

Mightily than me.  The worst

Part of writing as I am now,

About $%^/! who claimed to

Love me, and &*{}@</  who

Writes me Miss and You, and Julian

To whom I was so desperately true

Though they’d never believe me

And I hurt them so badly

And poured into them my naked pain

Trusted them with it as I’ve never trusted anyone

But they could not trust me with theirs

And for that I am so sorry that I’m crying

And I think of a sound like wailing

Wind and human breath in the conches

And like human lungs forcing air

To spiral down the horn of the ram

And it sounds like my own blood descending

And it feels like the longing

Unspeakable, enormous, multiplying the cells

Of air like dancing devils on my untouched skin

The air itself is love

It whinnies and bucks, it eddies and pools

It harasses me, it mocks me, it covers me, it adores me

It knows what I feel and it feels it too

For years, years, letting bodies fall

Against me, offering souls safe harbor,

Not too many and not too few, practicing

This private, purgatorial art of

Loving secretly, of letting a tiny bit of love

Seep out into them, fall over them,

While simultaneously hiding from them in the dark,

Using my body to hide from them.

Leaving them and letting them come back,

Opening the door for her, opening the door for him,

For them, to hide in them and hide from them again.

I want to love so badly that I will cry.

The fact is I am crying

The only person I’m writing this for is me.

I wouldn’t expect you to care.  I’m past

Even wanting you to see.  I’m not the only

Lost soul in Purgatory.  I’m one

Only guileless enough to say it.

$%^/!’s silky body, giant hands

Huge black boots in the hall

Cock growing against me, exuberant heart,

Heart he hides behind his cock

And like anyone with a serious habit

He’s the only one who believes he can conceal it.

It’s hard for me to show vulnerability early in romance

I stammeringly say, and I almost manage

To explain I put it all only in one place

The only quote unquote safe space

For it I’ve found, and by safe what I really

Mean is spacious—it actually has

Nothing to do with safety—and everything

To do with space.  Space, a space

Where Truth can radiate in the just,

The genuine proportion to herself—

That is where I’m writing.  My arms

Are shimmering with the truth of this

My blood feels like a foaling

Mare.  It feels like Veuve Cliquot

I am trying to describe love to you

Because I am not in it—yet I am

Because I give a little to every lover

And each one exhausts me, because

Holding back exhausts me, but if I do not

Withstand the yearning, as Rilke’s bowstring

Quiveringly endures, I will be lost.

Or so I feel.  Or so I fear.

Or so I feel.  I wanted so badly to be a woman.

Only love could make me a woman.

I wanted so badly to speak.

 

A NOTE TO THE READER:

Normally I write these moon poems during the lunation in question. I make notes throughout the month, and sometimes try to intend what will come through, but it's always a surprise, and seldom what I hoped for or intended. Writing this way has been occasionally terrifying: it often pushes me into spaces of real risk: that I might violate or deform an intimate truth and thus do harm to very real and unfolding circumstances, that I might hurt someone I love, or someone I don’t know, that I might hurt myself by saying wrong what I scarcely know how to put into words. I think the whole attraction, for me, of poetry, is the idea of trying to say what can't be said.

This month’s poem actually came to me ten days early, shortly before the solstice. A lover had said things to me, things I did not believe, that seemed to stimulate my menstrual cycle. Ten days early, this poem flooded out of me right as I started to bleed. It was somewhat embarrassing, and also undeniable, as I wrote, to recognize that in me somehow the poetic impulse seems to have yoked itself to my moon cycle, and that writing monthly for Artforum over the years has actually played an important role in this fusion.

I am not the first artist to notice a link between creativity and sexuality, but I will say I have not had enough to read, or artwork to look at, that testifies to a queer, femme, bloody virility, a menstrual consciousness that is not necessarily—and perhaps even necessarily NOT—about bringing children into the world, but rather, is somehow married to a different kind of bringing-forth.

This puts me, and therefore you, dear reader, in the odd circumstance of reckoning, on this Full Moon in Cancer, with the ways that I might also have, over the years, identified my own grief cycle too closely with what I have understood as womanhood. Perhaps the most powerful and most important love of my life to date was a trans poet of genius, and this very problem of mine—this clinging to the grief of my menstrual cycle as though it were my only true prize—it caused them great pain. That I understood my own womanhood so narrowly, it hurt them. I write about this in the poem. And when I read the poem, you can hear how this has hurt me too.

The overidentification with grief is a mistake. The notion that one's deepmost pain defines one—it is a siren song I have been responding too, like a faithful dog, the whole length of my career. Readers of this column know that I write often of my mother and grandmother. Writing this poem made me realize that everything I’ve written up to now has been for them. My grandmother was a Cancer. The love of her life was gassed at Treblinka. My mother, whom many of you know has been mentally ill and often homeless since I was in my late teens, well, both women represent for me a kind of old-world femininity—a fertility made of yearning, death, delusion, tragedy, and the music of Chopin and Schumann.

Once my tears were dry, I realized that this pain I have for so long mistook for womanhood itself was actually the very specific grief of the women I happen to have come from.

I chose to share this poem with Artforum’s readers this month after sharing it with my friends first, and then with a slightly wider circle of colleagues and readers, because the fullness of its emotion, the sometimes overwhelming and shameful experience of femininity, the yearning to love and the failure to love, the ways the reproductive cycle remains a tricky, somewhat occult, and even taboo subject—all this falls within Cancer and the Moon’s domain.

I hope for a queerness that can affirm the Feminine in all its forms and vice versa. Writing is one of the ways I learn to love. If you've been reading me, you already know that I am a very bloody, short, femme, Jewish queer poet who often wants to be a better person than she, in fact, is. Writing this poem was cathartic for me. It says things I no longer feel, or believe. It was transformative. I hope that, in sharing this experience with you, you might feel encouraged that you too can evolve and transform, whether suddenly, or cyclically, or both.

A Pahari painting depicting Chhinnamasta, c. 1750.

ALL IMAGES